Archive | June, 2010

The Rock’n’Roll Tuk Tuk

25 Jun

The best way to see Angkor Wat is from the backseat of Siem Reap’s only Rock’n’Roll Tuk Tuk!

We found Borei, the creator and driver of the Rock’n’Roll Tuk Tuk, chilling on Siem Reap’s famous Pub Street as the soulful sounds of Bob Marley rang out from his sexed-up vehicle. Lots of tuk tuk drivers work this street trying to sell their services to tourists visiting the Angkor complex, but Borei shined amongst them.

We got chatting to the Rock’n’Roll Tuk Tuk driver. He was very keen to show us the complete sound system in the back of his machine. He demonstrated that the system was hooked up to an MP3 player that riders are free to control from the backseat, which also reclines. If you don’t like Borei’s eclectic collection of English and Khmer music, you arevery welcome to plug in your own ipod and listen to whatever you feel like. The Rock’n’Roll Tuk Tuk was also equipped with a DVD player in the back so that riders could watch short documentaries on the history of Angkor Wat and the Khmer Rouge.

We were impressed by the Tuk Tuk and even more so by the creative effort that had gone in to making it unique. We quickly agreed for Borei to be our driver for the three days we spent at Angkor.

The ruins are amazing, but it was Borei who made our visit special. Over the three days we spent exploring the ruins Borei told us about his life and his impressions of Cambodia and its people. I was surprised to learn that, like many naughty Cambodian boys, Borei was sent to live in the temple for a time when he was a teenager. In this country the temple is something of a reform school for some young men. Living with his family nowadays, Borei maintains his Bhuddist beliefs and sets aside a small portion of food at each meal as an offering to God.

The Rock’n’Roll Tuk Tuk driver is well known in the Ankor complex amongst the hundreds of people who live and work there. When we returned to the Tuk Tuk after climbing up one pyramid or around the collapsed walls of another, we would find a number of small smiling children gathered to watch movies in the back of the Tuk Tuk. Borei preferred to show them the animated Life of Bhudda and the kids loved it. He also played music and ran kareoke competitions which were also popular with the adults and children working in the temples. We had the chance to watch this film too – Borei gave an English commentary to the Khmer-language program so we could follow the story.

Rock'n'Roll Tuk Tuk driver Borei with a family of hawkers working at Angkor Wat

Ironically at the end of this presentation Borei told us that he also had some porn on file as some of his customers liked to draw the curtains around the Rock’n’Roll Tuk Tuk and indulge in some X-Rated action! I guess with Borei you will never get bored?!

Borei will go to great lengths keep his customers happy. The Rock’n’Roll Tuk Tuk and its charming driver come highly recommended. Look for him on Pub Street.

Like everything in Cambodia, the cost of Borei’s tour service is negotiable. We agreed to pay the first price that Borei named, which meant that we could have asked for a lower price. The cost to us was very low by Western standards.

Please consider that your Cambodian Tuk Tuk driver’s daily fee will include him picking you up from your hotel (at 5am if you want to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat) and driving you around the huge Ankgor complex for as many hours as you like, before taking you back to your accommodation. Agree to a price that is fair and allows for some income on top of his payments for vehicle rental and petrol.

*** Update ***

Borei now has a website! http://boreytuktuk.com/html/index.php?p_lang=en

Australian Union Aid Abroad Creates Bright Futures in Vietnam

17 Jun

In 2009 Alex and I were active members of the Canberra and Region Union Aid Abroad Activist Group. We are proud of the great work we did to raise funds to support APHEDA projects and to increase awareness about the struggles overseas workers face in our region.

In May this year we had the privilege of visiting APHEDA Projects in Vietnam that we raised money to support. We were both blown away by the great work that APHEDA is doing to support workers, including women workers, in Vietnam and inspired to continue our efforts to support APHEDA projects.

The Bright Future Club that we visited in Hai Duong Province has been functioning since April 2006. The Club aims to provide a range of support to sufferers of HIV / AIDS and their families.

Monthly meetings held at the Terri Daktyl Club House answer questions Club members, which include suffers and their families, have about the disease. This helps to reduce the stigma attached to the HIV / AIDS sufferers in Vietnam and helps sufferers to be accepted by their families and communities. The Club also provides advice to members about how they can limit further infection, including specific training for women about avoiding the infection of their children.

We were lucky to have the chance to talk to the Director of this Club and two Club members newly-diagnosed as HIV Positive. They told us that the friendship and emotional support the Club provides them with is very important to them. The Club also provides HIV / AIDS sufferers with information about medicines that will increase their quality of life and life expectancy, which is currently on average only two years after diagnosis.

There are 500 of these Clubs in Vietnam, of which APHEDA supports three in Hai Duong Province and five in the Bac Kan Province. International aid organisations are also partners in this projec t.

In addition to this grass roots level work, the Project also produces propaganda about HIV / AIDS to address the misconceptions about the disease that exist in Vietnam and reduce its transmission. Alex and I both thought that the materials we saw, with its bright colours and cartoons, were very accessible to young people.

We asked the Club Director and APHEDA Project Officers what they would do if they had additional resources available. They told us that even small amounts of additional funding could be used to by petrol to transport members to meetings at the Club and provide them with lunch to increase access to this service. Additional funding would also make it possible for representatives from the Club to conduct community outreach work.

We also visited the Hai Duong Women’s Union’s March 8 Employment Centre, which has hosted other Australian friends of APHEDA in recent years. The Centre is named for International Women’s Day and administers a number of projects to help women workers through its Women’s Union networks which extend right down to the village level. One such Project rehabilitates local women who were trafficed to China into sex work and forced marriages. The Centre helps these women in a number of ways, including providing them with vocational training so they find work and be able to support themselves and their children.

We had the pleasure of meeting the President of the Womens Union, who was surprised that we don’t have a women’s union in Australia! We discussed the Unions work to increase the participation of Women in the Political system, which incorporates supporting women candidates in Provincial and National Government elections and encouraging women to vote for these women candidates. This work reminded me of the valuable efforts of Emily’s List in Australia. The Union’s pursuit of equality for women and the grass roots level and at the level of government is sure to improve the rights enjoyed by women workers in Vietnam. I think that we feminists in Australia have a lot to learn from their great work.

We were humbled by the hospitality that our hosts showed us. The APHEDA Hanoi staff provided us with a lovely lunch when we first visited the office, and the March 8 Centre also invited us to a very tasty meal at a local restaurant. I hope that we can show you our hosts the same hospitality if you ever visit Australia.

Shanghai World Expo 2010

14 Jun

One couldn’t possibly write about visiting Shanghai in June 2010 and not mention the World Expo being hosted by the City for six months this year. China has gone all out to turn Expo into a big event that will renew Shanghai’s status as a global city. A new five hectare park was custom developed as the Expo site along the Huangpu River. It has been reported 18,000 families and hundreds of factories had to be relocated to make this possible. A whopping six new metro lines were also rapidly constructed in 2008-10 to facilitate mass access to Expo.

In total 190 countries accepted invitations to be part of Shanghai’s World Expo. Many of these agreed to design and build unique pavilions at the Expo site, where mainly Chinese visitors may learn something about the geography, history, contemporary society and cultural institutions that exist within their borders.

Expo is in your face in Shanghai. While the event continues almost every business in Shanghai is flaunting images, including huge inflatable 3D versions, the Expo Mascot Haibo. I’m not exactly sure what Haibo is supposed to represent. My immediate impression of this character is that he/she resembles either or both of a tooth or glob of toothpaste and therefore belongs in a Colgate commercial. Anyhow, as the entire city seemed on board with Expo, Alex and I forked out the 160 yuan each for tickets and went along to see what all the fuss was about.

My first impressions of Expo was that it was ridiculously crowded. On average 300,0 00 people visit the site daily. Numbers are expected to surge in China’s summer when students are on holidays from school. The crowds are so big that the majority of visitors must endure long hours waiting in queues to enter the country pavilions. I know I have a tendency to speak in hyperbole, but I am not exaggerating when I tell you that the queues to the largest and most popular pavilions, including the USA, Spain, and Japan buildings to name but a few, are more than three hours long at any point in the day. The queue into the Saudi Arabian Pavilion, which boasts the world’s largest IMAX screen, was an estimated eight hours long at the day we were at Expo. It is almost impossible to get into the China Pavilion – separate entry tickets are rationed and must be secured early in the morning of or days before your visit. I liked walking around the site and gazing at the buildings from the outside. And I enjoyed the festival atmosphere of Expo, which conjured fond memories of the Sydney Royal Easter Show and the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. Though I am not convinced that what you can see or experience in any of the pavilions is worth waiting in a line for three+ hours to see.

We were very lucky to be admitted into the USA Pavilion without having to queue; a friend of a friend was able to get us inside the building without any fuss. This huge Pavilion featured three large theatres that huge groups of visitors were shuffled through in groups to watch three short American films. Each movie was fun and we enjoyed watching the happy reactions of Chinese tourists to the films as much as we enjoyed the movies themselves. The first short film was my favourite, featuring a sample of citizens of the USA attempting to say a few phrases in Chinese, something like ‘Hello, Welcome to the USA Pavilion at Expo 2010’. The audience loved it and laughter filled the grand hall. The second film featured messages from Clinton and Obama and a dozen children representing a number of ethnic communities in the USA about a sustainable future. The third film was a Sesame Street-esq story about a sweet 10 year old guerrilla gardener making green spaces in her city block. Overall a positive exercise in soft diplomacy.

While we didn’t have any friends or even friends of friends working in the Russian Pavilion, Alex successfully talked his way to the front of the queue – in Russian of course! We didn’t think the ‘I’m Russian, let me in’ line would work, but agreed it was worth a shot. The Chinese security guards didn’t initially believe that Alex was Russian, but after he proudly produced a passport stating he was born in St Petersberg, we were escorted to the entry by a policeman. The inside of the Russian Pavilion was designed to resemble a magical garden. The fairy lights, giant flowers and toadstools were very pretty and complimented the Pavilion’s theme nice theme of working towards a sustainable future. Though I don’t think the displays told us much about Russia – the country or its people.

Late in the evening we were able to visit another handful of other pavilions. We saw the Czech, Sweedish, Greek, Turkish, and Iranian buildings. These were pleasant but not exciting enough to warrant further comments about. We had fun visiting the pavilions of smaller countries. At the Syrian stall Alex was identified by staff as a brother Arab and we were invited for a chat over baklava in the staff office. Not surprisingly the Pavilion of the DPK was depressing; on display was some old footage of citizens playing golf and bowling, presented alongside a replica of a local fountain. Old Russian books printed in the immediate post-Korean war period were also for sale in DPK Pavilion the souvenir store.

The Future of Expo

At the end of the day I can’t see Expo surviving into the future in its current form. In short, the internet makes Expo redundant. If someone living in Australia for example wanted to know about another country at a basic superficial level, he or she will find it much quicker and cheaper to go to Wikipedia then wait for hours in a queue to discover the same information at Expo.

This event can only be popular in a country like China whose population is wealthy enough to travel to Expo and pay entrance fees high enough to cover the cost of such a grand event, and unable to easily access he same information online because of, say, tough internet censorship. I can’t think of any other country in the world that meets both criteria for Expo success.

Background

You may not know that the Shanghai World Expo 2010 is part of a long international tradition that started with London’s Great Exhibition in 1851. In its early years Expo established a reputation for teaching the citizens of host nations about other alien and exotic countries and their peoples, and introducing global audiences to the world’s latest technologies and scientific discoveries (such as electricity!). Over the past century and a half the the event has also become known for leaving its host cities with architectural landmarks. The most well known of these is indisputably the Eiffel Tower, erected at the Paris World Fair site in 1889. Closer to home, the beautiful Exhibition Building was constructed in Melbourne when the then British Colony of Victorian hosted the Melbourne Exhibition in 1854. The China Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo has been touted by many as a future national landmark. I don’t know much about buildings but the China Pavilion certainly suitably humongous and unique enough to become a national icon.

The Magnificent Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin

2 Jun

In 1974 the peasant farmer Zhifa stumbled upon an army of life-size terracotta warriors buried under the earth as he dug a well on his family’s land located on the outskirts of Xian. Upon this discovery the hero farmer did what any good Chinese citizen would do and reported his findings to local Government officials. The Bureaucracy quickly mobilised historians and archaeologists who had a field day digging up and piecing together the broken statues and the marvelous mysteries of their origins. These experts concluded that the 8000-strong terracotta army was created under the orders of China’s first Emperor Qin and entombed in his mauseleum when he died in 209BC to afford him protection in the afterlife.

In the early 1980s Emperor Qin’s magnificent army of terracotta warriors went on display to foreign dignitaries and paying members of the public at the site where they were originally found. Xian has appeared on every tourist’s ‘must see in China’ list ever since.

To see the Terracotta Warriors was the main reason that Alex and I visited Xian. Although the City is apparently one of China’s best connected by air, it is a long way from anywhere by train. Feeling a little bit grumpy on the sixteen-hour long rail journey to Xian from Chengdu I thought to myself that this bit of history better be worth the bloody effort. I was particularly sceptical of the Warriors’ ability to impress after a traveler I met in Chengdu told me that he was disappointed by these relics. He explained that entry tickets were expensive and actually seeing the ancient army with his own eyes didn’t prove to be any more exciting than looking at their photographs in glossy coffee-table books.

It was cold and raining on the day we set off to see the Warriors with our new Irish friends Dermit and Aedemar, which further dampened my spirits (get the pun?). Although we got lost on the way to Xian’s huge North Train Station, it was very easy to find the public tourist bus that leaves from here every twenty minutes to the Terracotta Warriors.

When we arrived we found a theme-park like atmosphere which seems to characterise the majority of China’s historical and environmental attractions. For no clear reason most vendors sold dog and cat furs in addition to miniature terracotta armies at the hundreds of stalls that lined the walkway from the main bus stop / car-park to the entry of the Warrior site. We were certain that one of the pelts had belonged to an Alsatian. These bizarre souvenirs were so awful that I would have liked to buy a couple as funny presents for my animal-loving friends. However in addition to the impracticalities of carting-around such gifts, I noted that said friends may not share my sense of humour in this instance and refrained from purchase on this occasion.

Three pits full of Terracotta Warriors are open to tourists at the site. On the advice of Dermit we saw the smallest pit (No. 3) first, and saved the biggest and most impressive pit (No. 1) last.

Fortunately the first thought that jumped into my head when I entered pit No.3 was ‘Wow! How could anyone be unimpressed by this?’ I stood staring with my mouth wide open at this truly awesome sight, absorbing what was before me. On one side of the pit, the Terracotta Warriors lay broken in partially-buried pieces, as damaged as they were when re-discovered in the 20th Century. You see, in his lifetime Emperor Qing was an effective but fierce and inhumane ruler. Soon after his death peasants rebelled against the Emperor’s successors and broke into his tomb with the intention of destroying it. After stealing valuables and smashing the Terracotta Warriors in a symbolic ‘screw you’, the peasants set fire to the mauseleum. On the other side of the Pit, the Terracotta Warriors stood pieced together by archaeologists, standing as proudly as they had when initially interred. Our guide Jao Ping, whom we we contracted at the entry to the park, told us that the soldiers in this Pit captains in this Pit were Officers, and were standing opposite each other as if engaged in a war strategy conference.

At Pit No. 2 we were able to get close to four warriors encased in glass. It was amazing to see the detail of each. When I finally stood at Pit No.1 I stopped myself from making the mistake of so many of the tourists that surrounded me; that is seeing the magnificent army only through the lens (or LCD screen) of a camera. Surely one of the most widely known facts about the Terracotta Warriors is that each individual statue is unique. With this in mind I tried to focus on the hairstyles, facial features, dress, armor, height and pose that distinguished each figure.

I was surprised to learn that over thirty years after they were first discovered, archeologists still continue the painstakingly tedious work of recovering the Terracotta Warriors today. To put it in Donald Rumsfeld’s worlds, as far as the pits go “there are known unknowns and unknown unknowns”; an unknown number of Warriors are still to be removed from large sections of Pits No. 2 and 3 that are slowly being dug up. Who knows how many other Pits full of treasure remain buried in the fields surrounding the identified pits. Looking on the bright side, if we return to Xian in 20 years there may be more to see.

I found it entertaining that Dermit (Irish) was incredibly excited about the merchandise on sale at the tourist site. He seemed to be intrigued by the true to size replicas of the Warriors were on sale for 18,000 yuan, not including postage which would surely cost a fortune. Earlier Dermit had bought three 50cm tall warriors for 100 yuan and interrogated our guide about whether this was a good purchase. Jao Ping explained that the cheap replicas were of dubious quality and that Dermit should have bought an official replica made at the tourist site. These cost a small fortune but come with a certificate of authenticity. Dermit persisted – was it a good price? The guide used a metaphor of buying Nike shoes to get his point across; one may purchase fake Nikes at a market for a very good price, but their quality is not so good. A pair of Nikes bought at a genuine retailer, on the other hand, last for ages, but they are expensive. He then conceded that yes, 100 yuan for three little statues was a good price. Dermit was also keen to buy a photoshopped image of his head on the shoulders of a terracotta warrior. Alex and I conspired with his girlfriend to talk him out of wasting his money. It would have been an amusing, if ridiculous, souvenir. I hope he doesn’t hate us forever for denying it to him.

As one of China’s four ancient cities Xian is home to a number of other important historical buildings inside the Ming City walls. The Bell Tower and the Drum Tower in the middle of the old City are impressive structures. It is great to hear the ancient heart of Xian continue to beat as the sound of the old drums echo through the bustling modern City centre.

The Big Goose Pagoda in the South of Xian is definitely worth visiting. The main attraction here is one of the largest musical fountains in Asia. What is a musical fountain I hear you ask? Imagine a huge public square, filled with a great number of water jets. Huge speakers surrounding the square blast out deafening tunes including Beethoven’s 9th and Chinese symphonies. Jets of water spurt out of the ground at an astounding variety of angles and twist and turn as though they were dancing to the music. More entertaining than the fountain itself are the crowds that flock to watch it. An ideal spot to people-watch if that is your thing.

While in Xian we couchsurfed with Amy Edwards, a VSO volunteer from London. Amy was a very generous host, giving us her second bedroom for two nights and trusting us with a key to her nice apartment. Amy thankfully has an adventurous attitude towards food and was able to make great suggestions for eating in this part of China. She highly recommended we visit the Muslim Quarter for dinner and we eagerly agreed.

The Muslim Quarter was certainly a highlight of Xian. The Great Mosque at the heart of the community is one of the oldest in China. To avoid persecution Xian’s Muslims designed the building to conform with local Chinese architecture so it would be less conspicuous so the building itself isn’t very exciting. Besides selling the biggest range of souveniers in Xian at the best prices, the Muslim Quarter is the place to find the best street food in town. On one glorious evening Alex and I tasted tasty Xian lamb kebabs called ‘Ro Ja Mo’. This translates directly to ‘meet between bread’ and we were told to remember ‘Roger Moore’ as not to forget the name of this local speciality. ‘Pa Mo’, a thick soup eaten with huge chunks of bread soaked into the bowl, is one of the most famous dishes in Xian which we also tried in the Muslim Quarter. Luckily we only ordered one bowl between us because the meal was quite filling. Finally we tried a kind of ‘plof’ / pilaf, a rice meat dish cooked like a risotto. The woman we bought it from was very amused that we came to her stall at the back of the Muslim Quarter.

After dinner we set out to find tasty deserts. First we tried little glutinous rice cakes served dipped in sweet jam and nuts, which gave them a lolly flavour. We tried a small slice of a yellow cake that was being sold and eaten everywhere, but it didn’t live up to expectations. The main part of the cake, which was pudding-like in texture, tasted strongly of rice, and the chunks of what I thought were fruit in the cake had no flavour. Amy later reassured me that this was an accurate account of Persimon cakes famous in Xian, and she couldn’t understand either why people liked them. Lastly we bought a selection of sweets for 10 yuan, mainly different types of nutty brittle and sesame snaps. Luckily we had someone (Amy) to share these with as a late night snack, and what was left over we finished on the train to Nanjing.

The last meal of note in our Xian eating adventures was a breakfast we enjoyed at stalls outside Amy’s apartment away from the tourist part of the City. We really enjoyed what I will call the Shaanxi crunchy omlette. This consisted of a large round eggy pancake cooked in front of us, covered in a chili paste with traces of meat and a handful of fresh coriander. The omlette is then rolled up around some broken pieces of crispy-fried bread sticks. The contrast between the textures and flavours is maximised when you take a big bite of the hot omlette wrapped up like kebab. When we sat down to eat these a lady at the next stall brought us over two big bowls of soft tofu and mushroom soup. These were only 2 yuan each, and tasted great.

TIPS

Bus 306 from North Railway station to Terracotta warriors costs 7 yuan each way. The ride takes about 45 minutes.

Entry into the site costs 90 yuan for adults or 45 yuan with a valid student card. Make sure you buy your tickets when you get off the bus in the carpark, before you walk all the way to the entrance gates.

Tours to the site are a rip-off coting 200 yuan upwards including entry, transport and guide. The main disadvantage of tours is that you are rushed through the site and not able to visit at your own pace.

If you do want a guide, their services are available at entrance to the site. We paid 50 yuan for a few hours of a guide’s time and were not at all rushed.

It is hard getting onward train tickets from Xian, especially to Shanghai and Beijing. Book these as soon as you arrive to avoid missing out on sleeper seats or having to hang around the city for longer than you planned.

Chengdu, Home of Giant Pandas and Sichuan Hot Pot

2 Jun

Pandas

At the Lazybones Hotel in Chengdu we met Samantha, a twenty-three year old American from a small town in Ohio, who traveled all the way to the Capital of Sichuan Province for the chance to see, and maybe even hug, a giant panda. This rare Chinese mammal happened to be Samantha’s favourite animal. She loved pandas so dearly that she even had a picture of a panda bear tattooed on her lower back. While most tourists are unlikely to be as passionate about pandas as Samantha is, they still flock to Chengdu for the same reason that she did.

Neither Alex nor I had ever seen a panda bear in the flesh before coming to China. [ had seen a pair of red pandas at Taronga Zoo a few years back, but I don’t think this fox-like animal really counts as a panda. In fact I am sure clever conservationists decided to name this species the ‘Red Panda’ instead of the ‘Chinese Red Tree Fox’ to capitalise on the panda brand. I assume this was a clever marketing strategy conjured by those who cared about the animal’s fate. Few would pay to see and save from extinction the ‘Chinese Red Tree Fox’; call it a panda and everyone wants to support its cause. Anyhow, Chengdu was the way from Lijiang to Xian, and we thought why not stop by and see the pandas.

We booked a tour to the Giant Panda Research Base (GPR) through our Hostel. We paid 100 Yuan each for the tour which included transport to and from the GPRB, entry, and an English-speaking guide. In the course of our three hour visit we saw dozens of pandas, including baby pandas, go about their morning activities which consisted of eating bamboo and playing. Mornings are the best time to visit the pandas as they spend the rest of the day sleeping. At the GPR tourists are able to have their photos taken holding baby pandas. This popular add-on costs about $100 USD per person, which we thought was a little steep for a very quick cuddle. Even without this additional experience Alex and I felt panda-ed out by the end of our visit.

You can see our photos HERE.

Hotpot

Chengdu was famous for its picante cuisine long before it was home to the Giant Panda Research Base. Sichuan Hotpot is probably the most well known of the many local dishes renowned across China for their mouth-tingling spiciness. One evening we visited a hotpot restaurant recommended by our hostel along with Samantha and Oliver, a Londoner who was also staying at the Lazybones. Because we couldn’t read the Chinese menu, a waitress escorted us into the kitchen when we arrived at the restaurant so we could point to what we wanted in our hotpot four. We chose two catfish, which were still swimming in a large bucket of water when they were selected, and a large plate of thin slices of fatty beef. To us this seemed like plenty of food for four people, but the restaurant staff seemed confused as to why we weren’t ordering more meat.

Soon a huge steaming hot bowl of sichuan hotpot arrived at our table. The fish had been poached in this peppery-broth and was deliciously tender and fragrantly spiced. Each of us were given a small bowl of a thicker and stronger chilli, peper and coriander dipping sauce to give the fish an even stronger flavour. The pepers in the hotpot gave me the unique sensation of tingling lips. The feeling reminded me of that induced by the ‘snap crackle pop’ sherbet that I used to eat as a kid; the kind that audibly popped away in your mouth after coming into contact with saliva.

After we finished the fish, the waitress lit the gas jet under the hotpot and added the plate of beef to to this mixture. We ordered some small plates of sliced potato, lotus root and garlic chives to balance out the meat we were eating. The beef absorbed the complex flavours of the hotpot as cooked quickly in boiling communal bowl, as did the vegetables. What a feast! Thankfully we had plenty of cold beer on hand to calm our hot mouths and complete the meal.

I was happy to be informed by a colleague who was also recently in Chengdu that she had discovered a bottle of spicy Sichuan hotpot sauce for sale at Woolies in Canberra, and that it has the same tingling effect as the real deal. I look forward to reliving this great food adventure upon my return to Australia.

Opera

We were lucky to see a performance of the Sichuan Opera in Chengdu. Our hostel organised tickets to this performance at a discounted rate and also provided transport to and from the venue. The Opera was in the format of a serious variety show and included a number of song and dance routines by performers dressed in elaborate costume, a hand-puppet act, pieces by the traditional orchestra, a comedy skit, and last but not least, the famous fire-breathing and face-changing act. We were lucky that a screen at the bottom of the stage displayed English translations for the performance so we could understand the plots and jokes presented on stage.

The face-changing was really impressive. A number of masked actors on stage repeatedly changed their masks so skilfully and with such speed that the audience was not able to see how the transformation occured. Some actors changed their entire costume, from blue to red, and red to green, as a cape swished over their bodies. I left the Opera perplexed as to the mechanics of these magic tricks. Surely Wikipedia could tell me the face-changers’ secrets, but this would only ruin of mystery of their art that I find so intriguing.

Football

Chengdu was hosting the Asian Football (Soccer) Confederation’s Women’s Championship when we were in town. We decided to go to a game as matches were held at the Huge Sports Stadium almost direclty across the road from our hostel. I thought it would be fun to see Myanmar v the Democratic Republic of Korea. Sadly we missed this round but it still fuelled days of jokes about the Asian Dictatorship Cup. Instead we decided to be patriotic and bought $5 tickets to support the Matilda’s in their game against China. It is tough playing against the home team and the Australians lost the match 0 – 1. We were surprised to see a complete Police Band in the grandstand which churned out Chinese tunes in addition to upbeat versions of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and ‘Clip Go the Shears’, a very welcoming touch. Our girls played well and we were glad to hear that the Matildas’ subsequently won the Championship.

“Sir, clean your ear?”

I have already blogged about China’s beautiful public parks. Chengdu’s People’s Park upheld the Country’s reputation for wonderful green spaces. A plaque at the main entrance to the People’s Park tells of its interesting history; before the rebellion in XX, the People’s Park was a private space restricted to officers…

In addition to its special origins, Chengdu’s People’s Park is unique for being populated by men willing to clean ears, for a price. As we wandered through the gardens and then paused to have tea at an old tea house, a number of men approached us with requests to clean our ears. I am not an expert on this practice, but I gathered that it was as much about experiencing the sensation of the small metal rod inserted into the ear being tapped by another to produce vibrations, as it was about hygiene. Although the ear-cleaners could not have been more persistant, neither of us relented and accepted their services. I doubted the practice was safe; since I was a child my mother has always told me ‘never put anything bigger then your elbow in your ear’. I also lacked evidence that the ear-cleaning devices were themselves cleaned after use, and even if they were I didn’t like the idea of a stranger poking around my ears. Very odd.