Democracy Won

Every single party in the United Kingdom General Election of 2017 lost. And lost catastrophically. Except one. And it’s not Labour.

The Conservatives called an election for a party political motivation – who can blame them – and they have lost their fragile but vital parliamentary majority after a disastrous campaign.

The Labour Party joined in on the election act – who can blame them – and despite their strongest showing at the polls in years, still flounder some 50 seats behind their right-wing rivals.

The Scottish National Party fought on a progressive, anti-austerity platform – who can blame them – and were punished for pushing a reluctant Scotland towards another independence referendum.

The Liberal Democrats were hoping to scrape up the Remain vote on an anti-Brexit platform – who can blame them – and made little progress.

The UK Independence Party presented themselves as the staunch protectors of Brexit – who can blame them – and were deserted in droves.

The Green Party got lost in the left-wing quagmire.

The Northern Irish Republicans, Sinn Féin, made important gains but only to have inadvertently shot their own cause in the foot by continuing to run on an abstentionist ticket, effectively reducing the threshold needed by the Tories to form a majority government or, as has now transpired, a minority government propped up by Sinn Féin’s rivals, the Democratic Unionist Party.

The DUP, although winning only 10 seats, won this election. They have won the sway of the House of Commons by just about tipping the number of right-wing MPs across the big 326 line. They have now become the most influential party in British politics by being able to command the ear of the UK leadership to secure what they want for Northern Ireland and the UK. Otherwise, the UK minority government will have defeat after humiliating defeat in the House of Commons.

But influential does by no means mean omnipotent.

The Right’s collective majority will be vulnerable to only a handful of left-leaning Tory MPs unafraid to push back against a so-called “Hard Brexit”, further austerity and some less-than-tasteful social policies. For the new government to last the next 5 years will take a very delicate balancing act between all factions involved on the right of British politics.

Labour is not the greatest threat to the Conservatives. The greatest threat to the Conservative Party is the Conservative Party itself.

A resurgent, rejuvenated and enthusiastic Labour Party, buoyed by a considerable surge in the youth vote will look to keep up the pressure on the Conservative Party safe in the knowledge that, in elections to come, the Blue Team will have to attract the once disengaged and disinterested young if it wants to have much hope of forming a majority government.

And with such a strong showing in the polls, Jeremy Corbyn’s style and politics, once the source of much consternation within the Parliamentary Labour Party, has been vindicated, bolstered and emboldened.

But this was no victory for Corbyn and his allies. Far from it. To think otherwise is a fallacy.

Labour lies quite a way behind the Tories, and were they to team up with a bruised SNP they would still fall short of the Tory tally. Let’s not even begin to think about the inevitable barrage of negative press from working with a party whose raison d’être is to bring about an end to the United Kingdom. Even with the Liberal Democrats involved, they will struggle to bring about too much policy change in opposition if a cohesion between the Tories and DUP is presumed.

Aside from a surprise jump to the forefront of British politics of the DUP, no party won this election. It was a disaster for all.

The real winner of this General Election 2017 was democracy, was the people, the people’s right to effective government.

As a Tory voter, I will not hide the fact that I find Theresa May’s “defeat” very disappointing.

To have, however, a Conservative government with a landslide majority hell-bent on pursuing Brexit, a budget surplus and a burgeoning economy no matter what, but to the detriment of oversight, scrutiny and healthy opposition is no democracy I would want to live in.

What a hung parliament and a divided country will now bring is exactly the opposite of what Mrs May wanted, but exactly what the country and its citizens needed.

A spirit of “enough now, let’s get on with it” is definitely the overriding feeling from around the country. But this arrangement will morph from a dogmatic democratic dictatorship into, I hope, a government and indeed a parliament buzzing with meaningful and helpful debate where all cross-sections of society must be listened to if laws are to be passed.

When I say all, I mean exactly that.

I don’t mean that the poor should be listened to at the expense of the rich.

I don’t mean that the rich should be listened to at the expense of the poor.

I don’t mean that Brexiteers should be listened to at the expense of Remainers.

I don’t mean that Remainers should be listened to at the expense of Brexiteers.

The young and the old; public services and private business, and so on.

What our democracy has offered is the chance for every part of society to be heard, and our democracy has listened. We now entrust our democracy to deliver, lest our politicians feel the wrath of the fickle fingers of democracy once more when the UK next goes to the polls.

Dividing and conquering can’t work.

Divide and compromise is the order of the day, of the next weeks, months, and years.

It’s going to be interesting.

Patrick

First published: 9th June 2017

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The Trans-Siberian Railway

Beijing, China – Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

At 11:22 on 10th May 2017, the K3 train glided silently and without fanfare out of Beijing, China, bound for the Russian capital city, Moscow, on the infamous Trans-Siberian Railway.

There are in fact multiple “Trans-Siberian Railways” (TSR) that divide into different lines after Ulan-Ude in Russia, heading east.

The traditional TSR takes you from Moscow to Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East near the Chinese and North Korean borders.

The second Russia-only line takes you into the middle of nowhere a couple of thousand kilometres north of Vladivostok. This one is called the Baikal-Amur Mainline, or BAM, for short.

There are also two that end (or start) in Beijing: the Trans-Manchurian Railway which crosses the border straight from Russia into China; and finally the most popular and most interesting route, the Trans-Mongolian Railway which, unsurprisingly, cuts through the expansive wilderness of the 19th biggest country in the world before hitting Beijing some 24 hours later.

As I’m now reaching the end of my travels in the Far East, Moscow would be the terminus of my Trans-Siberian adventure, and my first stop would be Ulaanbaatar.

I’m pretty sure you don’t want to hear me droning on about the beauty of the mountains of northern China basking in golden afternoon sun, and then sunrise over the awesome expanse of nothing that is the Gobi Desert. So instead I attach pictures pertaining to the above.


Below, I continue my tale from Ulaanbaatar.

The face of Mongolia’s biggest city looks tired, rugged and brow-beaten, though not at all surprising given that it has the dubious title of being the coldest capital city on Planet Earth.

While rolling into the train station, I first noticed Ulaanbaatar’s outskirts and their innocent, colourful image. From a distance all the orange and blue rooves spread up the side of a dull green mountain made me think of Arctic exploration stations set up solely to house the brave few who venture to those parts in the harshest months of the year.

Up close though, the poverty quickly becomes apparent. And this is only in the relatively wealthy capital. One can imagine that in Mongolia’s rural, dusty, windswept, tumbleweed ghost towns, some of which you briefly stop at on the railway, life takes on an even simpler, even harsher, even more depressing guise.

Alcoholism is a big problem here.

Back in Ulaanbaatar, the grey, sullen, flaking concrete apartment blocks remind you that democracy only arrived in this unique nation in the 90s; Mongolia was a satellite state subservient to Moscow during the Soviet era, and its uninspiring architure, as is the case with many ex-USSR states, is symptomatic of this.

The fact that its buildings have to withstand winter temperatures as low as -30, and summer temperatures of 30 degrees celcius only adds to Ulaanbaatar’s depressing, heartless exterior.

The roads are good though. They have to be. Otherwise the stresses and strains of such extreme weather would render the roads useless in no time at all. That is if you can actually leave Ulaanbaatar in the first place, however.

Aside from maybe rush hour in Yangon, Myanmar, Ulaanbaatar has some of the worst traffic jams I have ever seen.

Due in part to a shockingly bad city design, where four-lane wide roads will filter down into two lanes after a roundabout being controlled by a policeman with a whistle standing on a glorified soapbox, Ulaanbaatar’s status as being the place with the highest rate of urbanisation in the world also plays a part in this mayhem.

Brand new glass skyscrapers, hotels and offices are cropping up everywhere adding an interesting and much needed extra dimension to the city. People, money, and indeed ever more cars, are flocking here as Mongolia cashes in on a booming economy founded on highly lucrative mining and tourist industries.

Ulaanbaatar is slowly but surely moving away from a legacy of Soviet  rule, Soviet architecture, and presumably a very Soviet way of life. It is creating an image for itself as being the next big economic hub in Asia, located in the romantically isolated middle of nowhere.

It is becoming an attractive, international oasis complete with international hotels, international businesses, international restaurants, international pubs and clubs, brimming with opportunity and endeavour.

I did not stay long, however.

One tends to visit Mongolia for its stunning scenery rather than its mildly despressing but simultaneously optimistic capital.

A full account of this you can find here.

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia – Irkutsk, Russia

At 15:22 on 18th May 2017, the K3 train, having originated in Beijing one day before, glided silently and without fanfare out of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, bound for the de facto capital of eastern Siberia, Irkutsk, on the infamous Trans-Siberian Railway.

On this slightly shorter second leg, only some 24 hours, the landscape turned from open and dusty steppe with no real vegetation worthy of a mention, to trees. 

Lots and lots of trees. And the deepest lake in the world, which was pretty cool, in more ways than one, about which I shall write presently. But mostly trees. And little wooden “dachas”, or cottages in amongst the trees.

And then some more trees.

Below I attach pictures of this journey north into Russia.


The majority of tourists taking the Trans-Siberian Railway take a break in Irkutsk, a small city with a distinctly Scandinavian vibe where the streets are quiet, the houses ornate and wooden, and the people softly spoken.

Perhaps the only thing very un-Scandinavian about Irkutsk is that the whole road and pavement shakes when a tram older than that orthodox church across the street rolls by.

That is not to say it is devoid of atmosphere, or appeal, however.

On an afternoon stroll around the city I visited a Fine Art Gallery and walked in on a cellist and pianist rehearsing for a concert later that day (the powerful images of 18th Century Russian aristocratic opulence filled my mind and soul as I gazed around the gallery admiring authentic works of Shishkin and others of whom I had never heard before in my life); I bumped into a group of all-singing, all-dancing Hare Krishnas while walking down the Angara River; and stumbled across a kids’ performing arts show, complete with more singing and dancing, but this time of a more traditional Russian bent.

But this hushed, laid-back European atmosphere, despite still being nearly 4 days of train journey away from Moscow, is not why people stop here.

One hour down the road, through yet more forest and past more very Scandinavian houses, lies Listvyanka on the shores of Lake Baikal.

At its widest, 80km, and its longest, over 600km, Lake Baikal is the seventh largest lake in the world by area, but is the largest freshwater lake in the world by volume with a greater volume than all of the North American Great Lakes combined. It’s also roughly the same size as Belgium.

It is among the clearest, and is also the deepest lake in the world at some 1600m.

And being in the middle of Siberia, it is also frozen for six months of the year, from December through to May, which makes swimming in it any time of year the preserve of the brave or stupid.

This being the case, I took a very quick dip, and ran straight into the sauna afterwards.

Afterwards my lips were as blue as the water in the lake and the air in the sky. And dividing the two, snow-capped mountains lay on the horizon, its mirage reflected on the surface of the crystal clear water.

I have been told that if you take a boat out on the lake, it sometimes feels as if you are flying because the water really is so clear that you can see right to the bottom.

This presumably makes life particularly difficult for the omul’, a local fish speciality, smoked and very delicious; I say, the clarity of the water may be a problem for the poor fish because the fishermen might spot them so easily.

I don’t know how true this may be. It’s probably nonsense, but I hope it’s like that anyway.

Below I attach pictures from Lake Baikal, and move on to the very last leg of my journey.


Irkutsk, Russia (Asia) – Moscow, Russia (Europe)

At 17:18 on 23rd May 2017, the 069 train, having originated in Chita some 18 hours before, glided silently and without fanfare out of Irkutsk, bound for the capital city of Russia, Moscow, on the infamous Trans-Siberian Railway.

This journey of over 5000km took 3 days, 15 hours and, by my calculations, 53 minutes, for I arrived in Moscow, bang on schedule, at 04:11 on 27th May 2017.

Russian trains are super-punctual.

Feel free to correct me if I’ve got it wrong. I’m easily contactable via various social media.

What was the landscape like for three days?

Yup. Trees.

These three days were less about looking out the window, as was the case heading to Ulaanbaatar and Irkutsk, and more about looking around the train to see what you can do.

During these days, I undertook the following: 

  • I read the final 100-odd pages of Robinson Crusoe; 
  • I slept, had something to eat, often bread, an apple or instant noodles, and slept some more;
  • Listened to much music, including Tchaikovsky’s 4th, 5th (this I listened to three times), and 6th symphonies; Borodin’s 2nd symphony, Prokofiev’s 5th symphony, Shostakovich’s 5th symphony, though I found this somewhat whimsical compared to the above; Myaskovsky’s symphony no.24, and various other Russian works for a Symphony Orchestra; and Ed Sheeran’s new album.
  • I also befriended Vitaly, a Russian working for the Communist Party, and spoke much English with him to help him improve, and in return he helped me start my learning of his language; I also had some borsch (beetroot soup) and beer with him the night before arriving in Moscow.
  • And I looked out the window onto the endless forest and field and more forest.

And with that, the journey flew by.

Within 17 days after having left Beijing, I lived in a yurt in Mongolia, dipped in Lake Baikal in Russia, and ate borsch with a communist on a train.

And as we glided silently and without fanfare into Moscow, my journey of 7300km on the Trans-Siberian Railway came to an end.

And as we glided silently and without fanfare into Moscow, my journey of over 30,000km, 4 months, 8 countries, 1 motorbike crash, and many new friends and memories made, came to an end.

Patrick

First published: 27th May 2017

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A Nomad’s Life

Despite being sandwiched between the two titanic global powers of Russia and China, Mongolia has retained a very unique culture.

It is the only country in the world with a truly nomadic culture in which 40% of its meagre 3 million inhabitants still eke out a simple existence in Mongolia’s brutal, barren but biblically beautiful wilderness.

But once you’re out in the countryside, you begin to wonder where the 1.2 million nomads all are.

A ger (or a yurt to you and me) every now and again, the odd herd of sheep or cattle, and a cloud of dust being kicked up by a horse and horseman galloping across the steppe, is about as much as you will see while cruising the arrow straight roads in your grey, go-anywhere Soviet jeep.

And then you remember that Mongolia, although with a population only a third of London, is the 19th biggest country in the world and has the lowest population density out of every sovereign state on Planet Earth: 2 people per square kilometre.

And then take out the population of the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, and the population density almost halves to only 1 person per square kilometre.

And then remember that a nomadic family will tend to have anything between four to six or seven members, and that tiny population density becomes smaller and smaller and smaller.

And then you realise that despite a very significant proportion of the population having, quite literally, no fixed abode, coming across only one ger every couple of kilometres makes sense.

As much as I generally dislike going on organised tours (for I always feel like a cow, being herded from place to place), doing so is really the only way for silly wannabe part-time nomads like me to see Mongolia in all its natural glory.

And sleep in a yurt, of course.

The first thing you realise while driving off into the countryside is how big, in a literal rather than poetic and soppy sense, Mongolia is.

Four hours of smooth motorway, built to weather 30 degrees in the summer and -30 in the winter followed by an hour of being pummelled and shaken by barely existent off-piste roads should have taken us a fair distance across the country of the infamous Mongol Empire.

Not so.

300km from Ulaanbaatar translated to about 15cm on an enormous wall map some 2m long.

At least there’s lots to explore beyond the cosy, sheltered circle of your hosts’ yurt/ger.

All gers follow a pretty uniform design: circular, some five or six metres in diameter, with a low ceiling some two and a half metres high, sloping down to a door so small even I (who is somewhat vertically challenged by going western standards) had to duck to get under.

Naturally I was constantly misjudging and bashing my head on the frame.

But I’m clumsy anyway, so not really that surprising.

Nomads tend to “move ger” three times a year: once for the winter, once for the spring, and once for the summer.

When “moving ger”, everything must be parcelled up, put on your removal camels, and transported a few kilometres away.
When walking around your ger, don’t break up the husband and wife. This is the name given to two beautifully painted wooden columns in the middle facing each other holding up the roof.

We were told that to not walk in between these two columns, or not pass anything between them, is one of 3000 different rules regarding how to behave. Though I think how stringently this is applied varies family to family, given how liberal one family with whom we stayed the night were in “breaking up the husband and wife.”

Other rules include:

Always accept things i.e. food, drink, money with your right hand. If your feet accidentally touch another’s, shake their hand. Don’t bother asking how long a journey will take, because you won’t get an answer; it’s bad luck in Mongolia to say driving from A to B will take X hours.

And to be honest even if it weren’t bad luck, to do so is a totally pointless task anyway because the reality will never ever match the expectation.

Around the edge are normally a couple of beds, cabinets, often a Buddhist shrine, and that’s about it.

Oh, and a TV connected to a satellite dish outside.

Each ger is heated by an ancient metal oven also used for cooking, with a chimney attached going up and out through the roof.

In English when an endeavour is going well we often say, “Now we’re cooking on gas!”

In Mongolia they say, “Now we’re cooking on shit!”

There is so much horse shit, cow shit, bull shit, yak shit, goat shit, sheep shit everywhere you look. Nomads waste nothing, so they collect their herd’s shit and use it as fuel to heat and cook.

A message to all you vegetarians and vegans out there who do not feel able to adapt their diet to that of a nomad:

Don’t come to Mongolia to stay with local families.

You will be plied with milk tea, coming from either goats or yaks, which it would be rude to refuse.

You will have chunks of beef, yak, or goat floating in your noodle soup. Of course you could pick them out and leave them on the side (although I understand this is in no way ideal) but remember how that may be interpreted by the family who cooked the food for you.

You might even be offered a pan full of goat bones to gnaw meat off. But I reckon this is refusable without causing too much offence.

When living out in the sticks where nothing will grow and “popping to the shops” isn’t possible, where by far the easiest and cheapest way of obtaining protein is to slaughter one of your flock, you understand why lentils or baked beans or tofu don’t make much of an appearance.

I’m sure there must be a vegan/vegetarian-friendly Mongolia tour somewhere, but this may be rather hard to find.

Once your food has been processed, you also need to get rid of it.

If you’re lucky there might be a barely-shack with no door and no roof with a festering pit of piss and shit below.

Otherwise, it’s short walk over a small hill so no-one can see you simultaneously squatting and admiring the stunning Mongolian wilderness.

At the end of the day, everyone needs some downtime.

If playing games with real-life animal bones, namely sheep and goat ankle bones, doesn’t appeal to you, then you may find yourself without company in the evening.

Families collect the aforementioned bones, clean them and paint them, and use them as dice, counters, pretend horses, anything.

A good game of “sheep”, or “horse” is sure to while away the hours when it is -30 degrees outside.

“Camel” or “goat” are probably a good laugh as well, though I didn’t learn how to play these.

As you may have worked out by now, a nomad’s flock is a nomad’s work and a nomad’s life.

Every single evening, the flock must be brought back, sorted, counted, monitored (though I confess I am clueless as to what the actual procedure is), and then allowed to roam free once more and spend all night and day munching on horrible, short, wispy grass.

Back in your ger, wrap up warm, stoke the fire, have a couple of vodka shots to drop you off to sleep, and get ready to cook three square meals, milk and herd the animals, and get by in the vast expanse of barren, desolate nothingness of Mongolia.

Such is the life of a nomad.

Patrick

First published: 19th May 2017

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The Great Wall of China

I hadn’t given visiting the Great Wall much of a thought while on my travels. Of course it’s an absolute must when in Beijing, but on my “to-do list” it hadn’t featured above Sunrise at Bagan in Myanmar, Boat on the Mekong in Laos or exploring Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

There are three popular places on the Great Wall to visit, not too far from Beijing: Badaling, which is newly restored and hence fairly artificial, and being the closest to the centre of Beijing also the most crowded, probably with those not keen on going a little further out and only want to tick off having seen the Great Wall; next is about an hour and half out of the city, Mutianyu, with fewer people and both restored and unrestored sections; and finally Jinshanling, some three hours out of Beijing with pretty much only unrestored and wild sections.

The second option, Mutianyu, seemed like a happy medium between the new and old, the artificial and wild.

This section of the Wall was built in the 14th Century during the Ming Dynasty and the rule of Emporer Zhu Yuanzhang, and, as is the same with the entire length of the wall, some 6,000km long stretching from high in the deserts of western China into the sea east of the modern nation’s capital, was built to protect ancient China from invaders coming from the north. If you spy the towers, those iconic lookout posts built periodically along the wall’s length to divide up proper wall, you can soon make one great big snaking dot-to-dot line.

They, being easily the most advanced civilisation on Earth back then, did a pretty good job of it.

Maybe Donald Trump could come here for inspiration. Only I can’t imagine his wall will be as outstanding beautiful and impressive as this one.

I had picked the perfect day for it at the perfect time of year, although completely inadvertently: Spring in Beijing is when each day gets warmer, though not yet humid, and the winds pick up thereby blowing much of the pollution away leaving behind blue virgin sky as far as your eyes will take you.

But my trip up the Wall did not start well.

I got out the bus and a bird shat on my sleeve.

A small complaint, I know. At least things could only pick up.

And boy did they pick up.

A quick gondola ride, with smartly dressed staff at either end showing you into and out of your little sky cocoon, took me up to the wall and I was free to walk as far along as I humanly could.

Or rather until I had to turn back so I can get lunch at the restaurant at 1pm. When you’re on a Chinese tour, be punctual. Or else.

The Wall is enormous. Some 10m high, you can trace its path for miles and miles into the distance as it rides the many mountain ridges through the lush green forest. If you spy the towers, those iconic lookout posts built periodically along the wall’s length, you can soon string together one great big snaking dot-to-dot line still commanding the landscape.

In Spring, the trees all around and physically growing up through the unrestored section, bloom with new flowers.

In Summer, babbling brooks dribble down from the wall; in Autumn all the greens fade to browns and oranges and quickly usher in Winter when the snow falls and the frost bites.

I continued following the rise and fall and rise again of the restored part of the wall until I could go no further…and carried on anyway.

Here I am!

Technically you’re not really supposed to walk on the unrestored section, but everyone does it anyway. Climb over a few rocks and a small ledge, and away you go once more.

Here it is plain to see how quickly and mercilessly Mother Nature has ruined this ancient relic. Trees and grasses and shrubs have grown up through the stone as their roots grow down and slowly prise the wall apart, creating a mini jungle actually on top of the wall itself.

Loose rocks on some uphill stretches would always pose an issue to those climbing here, but I was only in flip-flops, so had to be extra careful.

My choice of footwear did cause a remarkable amount of annoyance to one man however.

We passed each other on the rocky and slightly perilous unrestored section, and he took immediate issue with my flip-flops. I can only presume he started castigating me for it (for I am not blessed with the ability to speak Chinese) as he pointed to my feet, shook his head, made cuckoo-crazy gestures with his hands, and then marched off in a huff.

I think he was just bitter. I had come just as far along the wall as him, only he had clearly forked out a lot of money on proper trekking gear, namely fancy walking boots, walking poles, a rucksack with an inbuilt camelback, and reflective sunglasses to boot. Ha. Ha ha ha.

But once the wall got really steep, perhaps thirty degrees, maybe as much as forty or forty-five, a pair of grubby rubber sandals would do more damage than good. While trying to take yet another picture of this amazing showcase of human genius and endeavour, only too easily would I slip or trip, and suffer the same fate as Humpty-Dumpty. So  I headed back, and took my time, to walk along the Great Wall of China.

Patrick

First published: 11th May 2017

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Chinese Myths

China isn’t really a country that has been plied to pieces by the never-ending gaggle of western backpackers in this part of the world. One tends to flock instead to the pubs, clubs and beaches of Thailand et al.

This is, perhaps, for a number of reasons.

China is huge: too much to see, too much to do, too little time.

China is expensive: food is dearer, as are drinks and transport is pricey as well.

China is dirty: the greatest Asian power is renowned for its abominable air quality, particularly in its sprawling capital city, Beijing.

China is Chinese: No-one, that being no-one, speaks a word of English.

China is home of the Chinese: they are rude, unhelpful, hostile, and can’t hold a candle to the open arms and generosity of the South-East Asian nations.

China doesn’t have a ‘gringo trail’: there’s no real fixed route that the few backpackers who come here take; this couldn’t be more different to South-East Asia or South America, where you learn very quickly, far too quickly, that everyone goes to the same places, does the same things, and invariably bumps into the same people in different places.

We’re fed many a scare story or theory about the country, its people and the quality of life there.

The above list, while containing some truths, is largely misleading.

This four-month-long journey from Myanmar to Moscow being my first ‘proper’ backpacking trip abroad, I definitely still see myself as a novice backpacker, but nevertheless I will attempt to debunk the Chinese myths listed above in an effort to improve the understanding of this, in my opinion, much maligned country, particularly by western powers who have had their time in the sun, and must now accept and embrace the new kid on the block.

1. China is huge.

A country is only as big as its transport network is inadequate, and, despite being geographically enormous, with 1.3 billion people to ferry from place to place, China must have a world-class transport network in place so that China, and indeed the rest of the world, doesn’t grind to a halt.

The upshot is a spider’s web thousands of kilometres wide and thousands of kilometres long of railway, with train stations as big as airports and potentially handling more people per day than some major European hubs.

They’re good trains as well. The bullet trains (God I could go on and on and on about them – I’m in love with them) are indescribably fantastic, but even the slower trains stopping at the smaller, regional stations, are clean and mostly quiet.

Except for the toilets. They are foul.

And locals answering phone calls by yelling “WEI?!” down the line, and yelling the entire conversation, does get tiresome.

Yes, and sixteen hours on a hard seat with locals coughing and spluttering and hawking up phlegm could only be described as purgatory on steroids, but I arrived in Xi’an from Zhangjiajie in one piece after a hassle-free journey.

Exploit the train network, or indeed the wide choice of domestic flights though I have not done so on this visit, and China’s expanse turns into a simple journey.

2. China is expensive.

Granted, food and alcohol are more expensive, but accommodation costs are similar to that of South-East Asia, at around $6-8 per night, but is considerably cheaper than in Myanmar.

Transport is also more expensive, but that comes with the distances involved. However if, like me, you’re as miserly as they come, sixteen hours on a hard seat in a cramped carriage is a small price to pay for only around $20.

It’s a touch more expensive than in South-East Asia, but not hideously so. Make sacrifices, and you can save yourself a lot.

Bullet trains are expensive. But they’re very, very cool. So I didn’t mind paying the money to get from Xi’an to Beijing in 4 and a half hours.


What about seeing things?

University and college-goers, you’re in luck! Many attractions, though not all, have discounts for students, which can save you quite literally a fortune.

Obviously visiting every attraction in every city will cost you, but be selective, and it won’t cost too much more than in Bangkok, and definitely less than the eye-watering $62 three-day ticket to Angkor Wat.

And if you’re happy to just amble around with neither direction nor purpose, then no matter where you are in the world, that is free, until the time comes when you have to refuel.

Food-wise, eating out and drinking at basic eateries is more expensive than other countries I have visited since 1st February. But again, not hideously so.

Street food on the other hand is cheap and full of choice and flavour.

Muslim Quarter in Xi’an, I’m thinking of you.

And if you don’t mind giving bars a miss, get a big bottle of Chinese beer for around 50 cents from a corner shop, and find somewhere to sit down.

Or smuggle it back to the hostel. Shhh. Don’t tell anyone.

Souvenir-wise, this depends entirely on what you buy. Cheap crap will be cheap and crap. Expensive goods will be expensive but good. Simple.

3. China is dirty

This is perhaps what has shocked me the most about coming to China.

I was expecting to see cooling tower after cooling tower, factory after factory belching out enormous plumes of toxic gas.

I was expecting to see piles of rubbish in fields and on streets because no-one can be bothered to take pride in, and clean up the enviroment.

I was expecting to not see blue skies for 23 days.

Only, and only then, once I neared the notoriously polluted Beijing did the power stations and cooling towers start making an appearance. Other than then, I saw perhaps only one or two between landing in Guangzhou and leaving Xi’an some two weeks later.

The only litter on the roads in Guilin was the odd black bin bag filled with rubbish. The centre of Xi’an on the other hand was totally devoid of any rubbish, any dust, any dirt, any imperfection, any noticeable pollution, and this is in one of China’s biggest cities.

Teams of four in high-viz orange overalls would sweep every few minutes down the main road in Xi’an’s famous Muslim Quarter with one at the front holding a megaphone blaring an alarm to get people out the way, and then three others walking behind with makeshift brooms.

Litter bins, with separate compartments for recyclable and non-recyclable, stood every 50m or so down the main roads of the city centre.

Xi’an was cleaner, quieter, more cosmopolitan than Paris, than London, than Stockholm, than Washington DC, than, dare I even say it, Germany?

I enjoyed day after day of glorious sunshine and clear blue sky in Guilin, Zhangjiajie (except for two days of rain), and Xi’an.


Beijing was grey, hazy and polluted, however, but this is well-documented. The morning after I visited Tiananmen Square (amid very high security) and the Forbidden City, I woke up with a headache, sore throat and itchy nose. The air quality in Beijing is appalling. It was particularly bad that day as a dust storm was lingering over the whole city. Cars were coated in fine, sandy particles. And so were my lungs.

To walk around Beijing and see human beings going about their everyday lives with a mask on their face like some post-apocalyptic film, was distressing.

It was above all just plain sad. This is not how we should live.

I have been told under good authority of a South African who has lived in China for nine years that during a red alert in winter, the pollution would be so thick that you couldn’t see more than 10-15m in front of you.


Having said that, if the wind picks up and the sun is shining, Beijing is blessed with clear blue sky. It isn’t always as I describe above.

Blue sky does happen in Beijing. I wonder if my ex-form tutor is reading. He told me the opposite.

Sorry Sir, you’re wrong!

Thankfully the Chinese government is being pro-active in tackling the destruction of the environment, recognising that if remaining unchecked, China may pass the point of no return as far pollution is concerned.

Two-stroke motorcycles, the most polluting of all vehicles, have been banned. 95% of bikes you see on the road are electric and silent. This causes its own problems when you try and cross a road and can’t hear any traffic coming.
More and more electric cars are also taking to the streets. Again, these bloody brilliant bullet trains, are electric, clean and quiet.

And where do they get the electricity from?

Naturally, as with many western nations, this is where the fossil fuels come in. However, even here things are changing.

Wind-turbines are cropping up here and there. The rivers flowing down from way up high on the Tibetan Plateau provide China with awesome hydroelectric potential.

And we wonder why China is so ruthless in making sure Tibet stays Chinese?

That is a big part of the reason why.

The notion espoused back home that everywhere in China east of the Himalayas is choking under the blanket of its own exhaust fumes is simply not true.

But Beijing is bad.

4. China is Chinese

Well obviously it is. But there is a more serious point.

You can still get around China without speaking a word of Chinese; they have bilingual signs in big train stations and airports.

Metro systems also cater for non-Chinese speakers in the same way, as do ATMs.

The problems start to arise when conversing with locals, who more often than not have a very limited grasp of English, if any.

Preempt asking for prices, and get the calculator app ready on your phone so they can type in how much they want; preempt taxi-rides, and get the address of hostels in Chinese; preempt buying train tickets, and ask the receptionist at your hostel to write on a scrap of paper what you need in Chinese to give to the clerk at the station; or do your own research and write your own little note, making sure any person working in any train station in the world could decipher it.

Or, a radical idea, learn Chinese.

This is by no means a serious suggestion. But whatever country I am in I make a point of at the very least learning how to say “Hello”, and “Thank You” in the local tongue.

And the more words you know, the easier communication becomes.

You are visiting their country, their city, their shop, their restaurant. I strongly believe you should have the common courtesy and decency to spend the one minute learning how to say the most basic phrases in the language of the country you are in. To not do so would be ignorant and downright rude.

Communication, especially when the only common language is gesticulation, is a two-way street: the local should not abuse the language barrier by quoting higher prices because the tourist doesn’t understand; and the tourist should be courteous and graceful by showing the slightest effort to adapt to a foreign culture, system and tongue.

If you do that, then the language barrier shouldn’t be much of a barrier at all.

5. China is home to the Chinese.

Again, this should be obvious.

The stereotype is that the Chinese are rude and unhelpful.

As mentioned already, the spitting, phlegm-hawking, coughing, burping, slurping, yelling, pushing and shoving is annoying and unpleasant. And also pretty revolting.

Learn to ignore it, put it in the “experience book” and get over yourself. It’s what they do here. Deal with it.

I should tell myself that more often.

With regards to being unhelpful and hostile, I have experienced this only once: I dropped my money clip in Zhangjiajie train station and couldn’t bend down to pick it up for reasons that aren’t important. I gestured to a man to my left if he could pick it up and hand it to me, despite him having seen I had dropped it and couldn’t pick it up. He kicked it in my rough direction and went back to being a prick.

Thankfully another person then helped instead.

All other locals I have conversed with, be it a Chinese family at the same hostel as I in Hanoi who offered to get me tea or coffee when I still couldn’t walk well after my motorbike crash; students from a language school at a barbecue; hostel receptionists who couldn’t speak a word of English giving me a gadget to help get my walking boots dry; or just an old man in Guangzhou South train station who wanted to practise his English, and in return gave me tea leaves, biscuits and an egg, have been just as warm and open as in South-East Asia, perhaps even more so?

I get the impression that some locals in South-East Asia wish that we’d just go away, and have tired of tourism, particularly those who work in that industry.

Not so in China. Absolutely no way.

6. Backpackers don’t go there.

Why should this stop you?

Have an adventure.

Do something different.

I hope I’ve cleared up some of the stereotypes and preconceptions that I certainly had, perhaps also you had, of China.

I hope I’ve convinced you to consider China as a new, exciting, different and developing backpacker nation.

Go and visit. It’s not what you would expect.

Patrick

Escalator to Heaven

It is no secret that China has been, is, and will continue developing rapidly, perhaps more so than any other country on this planet.

Look no further than China’s expansive and expensive network of extraordinarily impressive bullet trains, gliding silently through the sky on enormous concrete pillars at speeds that even some of the very best supercars would struggle to reach for evidence of this.

It is worth mentioning, however, that while you’re in your warm, brightly lit carriage with ample leg room and squashy seats travelling at over 300 kilometres per hour, the view out the window is of uninspiring grey concrete blocks of flats under an uninspiring grey sky in an unspiring Chinese city that foreigners have never heard of and probably never will.

Mind-bogglingly rapid economic development has hit the major cities, namely Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Guangzhou and the like; but also places where you would least expect it, namely going up a mountain.

Note my above choice of words: going up a mountain. Remember it.

Tianmen Mountain, or “Heaven’s Gate”, in China’s central Hunan Province, towers over the city of Zhangjiajie. It’s huge.

I don’t know exactly how far you’d fall to the Earth were you to get tipped over the railings by a Chinese person shoving past you just so they can take yet another selfie with those infernal selfie sticks, only to spend more time posting it on their version of WhatsApp than actually admiring the view, but it’s a long, long, long way down.

A long way down…

 

When from the top of this colossus you can count one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, and eight layers of hazy green mountains, soaking up the April sun, you know you’re pretty high up.

My brother, bless him, didn’t like it. He doesn’t like heights.

As for the rest of the mountain, it felt like a theme park.

There were restaurants, cafés, souvenir shops, glass-bottomed skywalks hanging over the cliff-edge for the either brave or those with too much money to know what to do with, and even a chairlift taking people who couldn’t be arsed to walk the one hour or so from an absolutely gorgeous mountain-top temple which was bizarrely largely bereft of visitors, to the summit of the mountain where there was another temple, almost certainly with more shops than genuine religious significance.

Before I start sounding like I didn’t enjoy Tianmen Mountain, I did. Absolutely I did. Nowhere I had been on this trip before Tianmen Mountain, apart from perhaps Côn Dào in Vietnam, was as awesome and awe-inspiring as the views from the summit of this place.

And now that I could walk properly after a motorbike crash some two weeks prior without too much discomfort, it made me once more appreciate the sheer joy of being able to put one foot in front of the other. And what better place to roam around and soak up the shimmering sunlight through lush green trees and endless sky from cliff top viewpoints than Tianmen Mountain.

As to ascending the mountain, this wasn’t as simple as following a footpath to the top. That would have taken ages.

No. This is China. This is the land of bullet trains. They have something much cooler. Much more efficient.

A cable car, that being the longest cable car in the world, was not it.

They had a bus up the mountain swerving around 99 hairpin bends, or so it is said, followed by quite literally an ‘Escalator to Heaven’.

You don’t walk up Tianmen Mountain. You ‘go’ up it.

Cleaner, much cleaner, shinier, much shinier, but with considerably less order than the escalators of the London Underground, this seemingly endless series of fourteen escalators bored its way for well over half an hour deep inside and up through the once untouched heart of the mountain until delivering my brother and me into the sunshine at the top, having just travelled hundreds of metres up through solid rock.

One of the fourteen ‘Escalators to Heaven’

Just like the London Underground, they even had advertising boards on the walls for people to blankly ogle as they floated by.

It was quite literally ‘an Escalator to Heaven’.

As bizarre as it felt, to be climbing a mountain by taking no physical steps at all other than the few metres between each escalator, what is even more impressive is how they must have constructed such a complex in the first place.

First the road up, with hairpins that made look the Monaco Grand Prix circuit look pathetic, had to be built; then they had to get all the dynamite and metal and wiring and other materials needed to make fourteen brand new escalators boring through solid rock; then they actually had to build the things, all hundreds of metres up a mountain, don’t forget; and then to complete the mountain-top theme park they had to somehow construct kilometre after kilometre of concrete path overhanging the sheer cliffs that now miraculously wrap around the circumference of ‘Heaven’s Gate’.

Certainly peering over the edge as you gingerly walk the cliff path, makes you feel like you’re walking in the air, walking in heaven.

The days following our trip up Tianmen Mountain, spent in the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, home to over 3000 otherworldly sandstone fingers up to nearly 400m tall, also gave visitors the same sensation of trekking through the sky, trekking through the clouds.

Whether it’s trains, escalators, skyscrapers or footpaths hundreds of metres above the random restrictions of Planet Earth’s floor, for China’s rapid modernisation and development the sky is quite literally the limit.

And with 1,300,000,000 people, only a fool would place a bet on the limits of Chinese technological endeavour.

Watch this space.

Patrick

Eurovision – Celebrating Diversity?

Four days ago I had a reasonably nasty motorbike crash 25km south of Hué, Vietnam.

Despite not having any broken bones, now that my numerous wounds down my right leg have scabbed over and started to heal, walking is not an ability I possess. 

I can hop though.

My left leg came out largely unscathed.

But I have a lot of time on my hands.

Anyway, with all this time with which I have been endowed, my mind is free to wander wherever it chooses, chiefly because my legs can’t take me there.

This morning my mind wandered to Eurovision, now only a month or so away, this year being hosted in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.

Long has Eurovision been the unashamed bastion for tolerance and acceptance, diversity and inclusion. With cheesy, liberal, and totally meaningless mottos such as “We are One” and “Building Bridges”, it becomes clear that Eurovision markets itself as what the viewer views it to be: inclusive, open-minded, and diverse.

However listening to this year’s entries and watching the videos, it is clear that Eurovision has become largely musically, linguistically, and racially homogenous with little “deliberate” diversity at all. 

Ironic that this year’s motto is “Celebrating Diversity.”

Firstly, the music.

This has always been a criticism of Eurovision, and will always continue to be one, and for good reason.

Songs can generally be classified into three groups: a power ballad or tinny pop-song about how either love conquers all, or something equally as noble but even more clichéd; an upbeat little ditty about how great life is with guitars and camp fires and woolly jumpers and the like; or a completely bewildering gimmick with strobe lights, gymnasts and ridiculous costumes after which you are blind and have tinnitus.

Very rarely do we see a genuine, heartfelt, honest, well-written and, most importantly, interesting song that is actually worth voting for.

And if one does come around, take Portugal’s entry this year, people reject it because it’s different, and opt for the same old English power ballad sung by a very pretty woman from Serbia.

Taking the example of Portugal’s entry this year, despite being supremely heart-warming, there are two reasons why it is destined to fail.

The first is that it is slow and heart-warming, which I admit, can be a good thing. The Netherlands nearly won in 2014 with their slow, poetic number, “Calm after the Storm”, but this is a rare occurrence. The main clue as to why it did so well is in the title.

It’s in English. Portugal’s entry is in Portuguese, and so it should be.

*14th May 2017 – Well now I look fairly stupid. Anyway, not the first time in recent history when journalists have been completely wrong!

This is the second problem with Eurovision’s self-proclaimed but deluded notion of diversity.

The last time a non-English song won Eurovision was in 2007. Before that it was in 1998. Only really before 1991 did countries sing in their own language, but it has now become largely English-ified, much to the detriment of artistic value and interest of the biggest music competition in the world.

There are, thankfully, still a handful of countries who insist on singing in their own language.

Italy and France are the ones that spring straight to mind, but joining them is also Spain and indeed Portugal, who take pride in showcasing their language to the rest of Europe and the world.

Why do some distainfully look down on them for being patriotic, as if being proud of the country you live in and the language you speak is something taboo?

There is a big, big difference between patriotism and nationalism, I must add. We would be wise to not use them interchangeably.

A diverse Eurovision would be one where every single language of Europe is represented in one way or another; a tolerant Eurovision would be one where we don’t make snidey remarks about the French singing in French because “they’re just being French.”

Sadly this year Spain and even France have buckled under market forces, and have their choruses sung in…yes…English.

Italy has managed to sneak in seven words of English.

That leaves only six countries out of forty-three who are singing entirely in an official language of their country, and half of them are in English: the United Kingdom, Republic of Ireland and Australia; then Belarus in Belarusian; Hungary in Hungarian; and Portugal in Portuguese.

Not much diversity to celebrate there.

This is one time when restricting personal freedom, namely forcing entries to sing in a language of their country, will lead to greater diversity and hence greater enjoyment of the contest as a whole.

There is something satisfyingly poetic and magical listening to a song, of which you can understand absolutely nothing, until you find a translation of the lyrics. Maybe Eurovision could have live subtitles for those who really can’t take listening to a song and not understanding what it’s about.

And if you’re lucky Switzerland and have four official languages to choose from, then flaunt it. Be patriotic. Don’t go and sing in English when you have four others to choose from.

My final gripe is that Eurovision is racially homogenous too. Now, of course fans and followers of this colourful array of mediocre music and questionable clothes come from all different backgrounds, religions, and any other demographic group you can prescribe to the human race. 

The performers, the lead singers in particular, are largely all your classic European stereotypes, however.

Invariably it is either a very pretty young, white woman with shiny, flowing hair, be it black, brown or blonde; or a creepily well-dressed white man with nice hair, often black and spiky, with a “trendy” beard to match.

This year, again out of forty-three acts, zero are black. Zero are of North-African origin. Zero are of Asian origin, except for the Slovenian entry, whose father comes from Jordan.

Musicians tend to be very proud of where their family comes from, and how this has influenced their music today. The people closest to you are frequently a source of inspiration for many a musician.

But after having read the biographies of each act and having discovered no racial diversity at all among them, despite coming from such a racially diverse continent, it is without doubt that Eurovision has failed to create a racially diverse contest, as well as a musically and linguistically diverse one.

Or is this the fault of the individual nations?

After all, Eurovision doesn’t pick the acts. A country picks their own act.

So perhaps such a monotone and predictable contest boils down to each country’s own desire to field an act that is stereotypically French, or Italian, or Russian, so as to try and garner as many votes as possible. Who can blame them? It’s a contest. They want to win.

But this contest isn’t really about diversity and tolerance and inclusion at all. We may like to think that, but I hope I have made my point arguing the opposite.

Eurovision is about politics. Nothing more, nothing less.

You can have your soft politics, that being a country fielding an act which the rest of Europe will enjoy simply because that act speaks to Europe’s pre-conceived idea of what that country’s people are like. 

Part of the French being “stubborn” and point-blank refusing to sing in English is part of this political appeal, for example.

Part of the more English-friendly countries’ active enthusiasm to sing in English is the opposite side of the same coin.

And you have your hard politics, that being that Scandinavian countries scratch each other’s backs; all the ex-Soviet countries scratch each other’s backs; Greece and Cyprus always give each other points, but woe betide anyone who votes for Turkey; and no-one gives points to the UK because everyone knows we don’t want to be there anyway.

Even Austria’s 2014 drag queen winner, Conchita Wurst, was a hugely overt, hard political statement about the changing role of the LGBTQ+ community in Europe. 

Diversity second, but politics definitely came first. 

It takes proper, deliberate diversity to sing an original song, in your own language, with someone at least with an interesting story behind them rather than the same old run-off-the-mill semi-famous popstar.

But that’s being picky. 

An original song in a language other than English will do just fine.

Will all of these personal gripes stop me from watching Eurovision?

Of course not. That would be absurd. I’m not one of those who boycotts and bans everything I don’t agree with because, ultimately, it achieves nothing and often shows the hypocrisy of both your own argument and the actions you take as a result.

And besides. I love Eurovision. It’s one of the highlights of my year.

Why would I be writing about it if I didn’t love it?

What’s my favourite song?

Most are terrible. There is but one I actively like. I’ll be voting for Belarus. It’s a great song. Have a listen.

#Minsk2018

Patrick

First published: 12th April 2017

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Côn Dào, according to Robinson Crusoe

I arrived on 27th March 2017, in the city of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, and did immediately, once I had checked in to my accommodation and paid the appropriate fee, ask the most amenable lady at reception going by the name of Sophie, who assisted me in completing the aforementioned task, how I might reach Côn Dào.

Her reaction filled me with a dread, nay, a concern that this voyage would not be destined to be one of comfort. Ne’ertheless, Sophie gave me wise and excellent counsel regarding my travelling to Côn Dào, an isolated archipelago some fifty leagues due south of the mainland, used as a penitentiary during the French colonial era and shortly following their relinquishing of colonial rule, the American War in Vietnam. Many a poor wretch falsely suspected of committing the most mundane of crimes was most brutally incarcerated here, and hence remained in this God-forsaken establishment until the Lord took pity and let them die.

The islands were liberated in the year 1975 when, once the poor wretches on this island penitentiary learned of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong’s noble and steely performance in the field of battle, they themselves rose up against their enemy and were, as a result of their brave and honourable push for freedom, offered an unconditional surrender. These islands, adorned with a fascinating yet tempestuous history, have regained and retained a reputation as an isolated tropical idyll, but it has hitherto found itself unable to shake the depressing cloak of the past which dominates the conscience of the inhabitants.

To reach these islands, as the amenable Sophie had foretold, was by no means as pleasant as a delightful late afternoon stroll through the botanical gardens of Ho Chi Minh City; nay, for my four-score and five thousand Vietnamese Dong, that being the equivalent of three pounds sterling, I was granted a voyage of thirteen hours on malevolent seas which did make even the locals succumb to the high waves viz., that they vomited throughout the night.

I myself found that to stay below deck was most disagreeable, for not only after a matter of fleeting seconds did I begin to feel uneasy, so, once having retrieved suitable clothing from my luggage, I resolved to spend the night on the deck, wholly exposed to the torments of rough seas.

I lay down in the gangway leading to the Captain’s Quarters on the starboard side of the vessel, so that I would not be showered with salt water every time a wave would crash athwart our hull. As we sailed due south, the wind was blowing from the east, and to lie where I did spared me of a cold night. Ne’ertheless the tempest was base and my night miserable.

My voyage was, I find it only proper to add to this tale, not all ill. I was honoured to make the acquaintance of two local Vietnamese, both gentle and generous in their natures, who went by the names of Duc and Chi. Among the many topics of conversation, we established that all parties had in their minds the same accommodation viz., Uyen’s House in Con Son, the only settlement worthy of mention on these islands.

We resolved to share onward transport from the pier, which was surrounded by a landscape both astounding and belittling in equal measure. The heavy silhouetted peaks rose with such a majesty out of the sea in the navy blue light of a new morning that I did quite feel I had arrived in a New World, that of the great sea-faring pioneer Leif Eriksson or Christopher Columbus.

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On with the tale.

Con Son is a queer town. It is tranquil, but in a way that agitates my mind, unnervingly so. Its wide streets on the northern side are expectantly deserted, as if a pack of savages were to spring out from behind the shrubs having spied foreign prey.

On the seafront south of town there stood but one man: this was the man who writes this work and affords it to you, my dear reader.

“There are no people here, but wherefore?” I mused.

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I strolled nonchalantly down the beach, for the tide was out and there blew no fresh wind, hoping to find some information pertaining to what life is like in this dreadfully isolated place, and did then spy but one other man taking his modest boat out towards the water.

“Maybe they are all at sea?”

I resolved to walk back whence I came viz., towards Con Son town to procure some food that I recognised.

This task did not endure, for there was only food which I did not recognise. Such is a common occurrence in Vietnam.

While I am on my adventures, there is but one task which I must undertake, wherever I set foot for the first time; a task impossible in Côn Dào were it not for the kind actions of a German whose acquaintance I had the pleasure of making while I found myself on this island.

To send a postcard home to myself in every new country I visit, having written on the blank side whence and when I posted it, affords me great pleasure, for to be reunited with it after both the card and I have taken many long journeys to reach home, is like stumbling across an old friend with whom you parted thanks to the hand of fate and passage of time.

There lay but one obstacle in my way viz., that the few shop owners, selling the typical odds-and-ends to the few tourists that venture to these parts, had no clue what a postcard was.

The language barrier was, of course, an irritation to all, but by no means of anyone’s deliberate doing, however when upon my drawing of a postcard, that the shop owners were still none the wiser as to what I was requesting, I resolved to head back to my accommodation without having achieved my objective.

I told the story of my afternoon endeavours to my new German friend, Alex, to which he replied, “You can have one of mine if you like. They won’t match the scenery if you send it from here because I got them in Ha Long Bay, but if you want one then you can have one.”

So strong was my will to send one from the point on my travels farthest from the council of my parents and the warm, humming timbre of my beloved bassoon that I accepted his offer and, for a modest fee, sent it home to Watford on 1st April 2017, exactly halfway through my journeys in the Far East.

This following day, that being 1st April 2017, I resolved to hire local transport viz., an automatic scooter, to reveal the southern coastal road and all that lies on it.

To say that these views of towering limestone cliffs and clean tropical beaches, stretching more than a league toward the horizon, did take away my breath and replace it with a shattering appreciation of the insignifance of a hopeless wanderer as I, in the face of such colossal unspoiled natural beauty, would not do it justice.

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And so it continued for some 20-odd miles from one end of the road to the other.

Being some fifty leagues into open seas, one might expect the weather to be somewhat changeable, and exactly so it proved to be.

Mother Nature, despite showers before breakfast, which appears to be a normality here, had looked upon my adventures with kindness that morning; alas just after noon this changed most dramatically, the effects of which I experienced to my physical detriment, but to my mental benefit.

There came out of the blue a malevolent storm, a strong rain and a very fresh wind, of which I was caught in the middle with no mackintosh or any other appropriate shield between myself and the elements. Between my location at that time and the warm shelter of my accommodation, there lay a journey over 10 miles of exposed coastal road through punishing and lashing rain so strong that it would pierce my skin were I to command my motorcycle at a speed greater than 25 miles per hour.

I called a council in my head, that being of my thoughts, as to whether it would be wise to continue through such frightful weather.

I resolved to take refuge in a small crag in a rock face, inside which I perched on a large stone hoping that the storm would soon abate, allowing me to continue my journey back to Con Son town.

Storms often end as quickly as they begin in the tropics, and largely without giving prior notification to the poor people on Earth below of its intention to rain so strongly.

This storm did not end, however, and, still stubbornly perched on my rock I too began to become wet as water trickled down the rock face, and then down my back, down my legs and then to my feet.

After approximately five minutes, the storm had neither abated nor worsened, and was showing no signs of doing either, so I called yet another council of my thoughts, and this time resolved to, at all adventures, journey back along the coast road and accepted that, whatever decision I made, the sum result would be the same: I would become wet and cold.

As abject as this short journey was, with heavy raindrops almost puncturing my skin and blinding my vision, it was at the time and, indeed in hindsight, rather amusing; to my physical detriment for I was rendered so soaked that only my soul remained unscathed, but to my mental benefit for this little escapade is, and will always be, a source of great amusement to me and I hope also to you, my dear reader.

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I shall end here my account of Côn Dào, as the weather for the rest of that day and the following day put a stop to any substantive plans of mine, other than to visit a number of old vestiges of interest pertaining to the lives lived and lives lost during the years of frightful occupation of these islands by ruthless imperial powers viz., the French and then Americans.

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I journeyed back to the mainland on the evening of 2nd April 2017, this time having acquired medication to relieve myself of any ills brought about by the nauseating rocking of the ship during the crossing, and once landed, continued on my journey north through Vietnam.

Patrick

This article was written in the style of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, first published in the year 1719.

First published: 11th April 2017

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S-21

On 17th April 1975, communist revolutionaries led by Pol Pot known as the “Khmer Rouge” marched into the Cambodian capital city, Phnom Penh, and booted out the corrupt government against whom they had been fighting a bloody civil war since 1967.

Having installed their own government in the newly named “Democratic Kampuchea”, the Khmer Rouge set about destroying a country already ravaged by war and ruthlessly massacring its own people in what has now become known as the Cambodian Genocide.

Between the date of the Khmer Rouge’s victory on 17th April 1975 and the eventual collapse of its barbaric and despotic regime on 6th January 1979 when Democratic Kampuchea was invaded by the Vietnamese, 1 in 4 Cambodians had been killed.

That’s 25% of the population of a country of then only 8 million people.

Imagine this. 

You live in a family of four. During the Genocide, either your mother, father, sibling or you, died. 

As I will tell later, the reality of such mindless slaughter was in fact much, much more harrowing.

Shortly after winning the civil war, the Khmer Rouge set about constructing “Security Prisons”, denoted by the letter “S” and followed by a number.

There were at least 150 of such atrocious places of incarceration and torture, and S-21 in the heart of Phnom Penh is the most infamous.

Upon gaining power, the Khmer Rouge divided society into two groups: the “Old” people, those who lived on the land as farmers and labourers; and the “New” people, those who lived in the city, were into the arts and culture, and the intelligent and educated.

The “New” People were those with whom Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, took issue.

Many were rounded up and taken to S-21 where they were tortured in all manner of horrific ways until they gave false confessions, often accusing others of being agents of the CIA or KGB simply to get the catastrophic pain to stop.

Kerry Hamill, a New Zealander who strayed into Cambodian waters while the Khmer Rouge were in power, was arrested and taken to S-21 along with his British friend John Dewhirst.

When testifying at the ECCC, the body responsible for the trial and sentencing of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge, Kerry’s brother, Rob, told of how Kerry used names from western popular culture in his false confessions. He cited Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Sergeant Pepper of the Beatles, as agents of the CIA working against Pol Pot’s regime.

“He never lost his sense of humour,” Rob Kerry said.

Both Dewhirst and Kerry are only 2 of as many as 20,000 who were “smashed”, according to official Khmer Rouge vocabulary, at S-21.

Methods of torture under the Khmer Rouge were as varied as they were disgusting.

Water-boarding. Lashings. Chopping off fingers. Electrification.

Sleeping in tiny cells with no ventilation as the S-21 commander, known as Duch, had ordered that the ventilation holes in this former school be boarded up. 

Cold showers, naked, devoid of all dignity. 

And then being forced to mop up the water with your shorts, and then having to sleep in your soaking wet shorts.

And that is just the start.

Burrowing insects, such as millipedes, were inserted into open wounds and genitalia.

Prisoners were hung upside down from an old school climbing frame known as “the gallows” until they fell unconscious. They would then be lowered head-first into a vat of water normally used as fertiliser,  so foul, so putrid, that they would suddenly wake up only for the ordeal to begin all over again.

The set of 10 regulations that prisoners had to live by were as follows:

  1. You must answer accordingly to my questions – don’t turn them away.
  2. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that. You are strictly prohibited to contest me.
  3. Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare thwart the revolution.
  4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
  5. Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
  6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
  7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.
  8. Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.
  9. If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.
  10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.

If an interrogator had gone so far as to nearly kill a prisoner, a medic would be called in not to help the prisoner recover, but rather to keep the prisoner just about alive so that, once strong enough, the senseless torture could begin all over again.

Any prisoners that were meant to be put to death had to be signed off by the S-21 commander, Duch. But if an interrogator had indeed accidentally killed a prisoner, this would be classed as an “unsanctioned death.” As punishment, the interrogator would often become the interrogated and suffer the same abject misery that he was inflicting on others only days, hours before.

Before the days of the Khmer Rouge, S-21 was a school full of kids learning, chatting, playing.

Today it is an eerie skeleton of soulless and delapidated concrete buildings filled with harrowing pictures of bloodied bodies and emaciated faces. It feels as though the only thing keeping this house off horrors alive was the bright sunshine and the small but peaceful green gardens in the middle of the prison. 

But nothing can mask what happened here.

Engraved into brick above one cell at what is now known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is one example of Khmer Rouge propaganda: “Don’t be too free.”

Just outside of Phnom Penh is another place where the utter cruelty and perversity that resides deep down in every human is laid bare.

“The Killing Fields” is where those who were unlucky enough to survive S-21 were taken, in the dead of night, to be executed by whatever the Khmer Rouge could find.

This included axes, hoes, cleaning rods, bamboo rods, knives and crowbars.

The soundtrack of crackling revolutionary songs playing through a poor speaker mixed with the unbearable din of a whirring generator masked the screams as innocent men, women and children were blugeoned and hacked to death by fellow Cambodians.

Another revolutionary saying was the following: “to dig up the grass, you must remove the roots.”

In other words, if you kill a father, you must then kill his entire family to prevent them from seeking revenge in the future.

Babies, totally innocent and with no knowledge or comprehension of what was happening to their family and their country, were held by the ankles and had their heads smashed in on a treetrunk. 

They were then lobbed into a mass grave.

Today that tree, also with no knowledge of what horrors it was involved in by sheer luck of being a tree, is known as “The Killing Tree.”

Still 40 years later clothes and bone fragments belonging to the executed continue to rise to the topsoil after heavy rain.

Caretakers walk around a couple of times each year to remove and preserve the bones, clothes and blankets.

Even being there in the warm spring sunshine with birds tweeting in the trees felt apocalyptic. You really can only imagine, and then cast it from your mind because it’s too horrific to even consider, what it was like to be put to death like vermin in such an appalling and inhuman way.

The Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror ended on 6th January 1979, but astonishingly it took much longer for the Earth to be rid of their barbarism.

Only in the past decade have Duch and his associates been charged with War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity.

Pol Pot died well before he could stare down the barrell of justice.

Genocides have happened in Armenia, Nazi Germany, in Cambodia, in the Balkans, and in Rwanda, all within the past century.

When did we develop the capability to commit such abhorrent acts of hatred towards one another?

Or has it always been there, deep down?

Could it happen again? 

When will it happen again?

I hope that in writing this short history, I have taught you something. I hope that you will always remember and reflect upon the 2 million killed at the hands of the Khmer Rouge whenever the absolute worst side of the human condition, that overrun by a sadistic obsession for power and control, rears its head.

Please tell this story to friends and family. Those who were slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge deserve better than for their story of immense suffering to go untold, to have their legacy forgotten and to hence die in vain.

Patrick

First published: 27th March 2017

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The Jewel of Laos

You would do very well indeed to visit South East Asia and not, somewhere along the way, stumble across the beating heart of millions and millions of people’s lives.

Beginning high up in the Chinese Himalayas and flowing through 6 countries for over 4000 kilometres before fragmenting into the sea south of Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh city, the Mekong River is the stuff of legend, the stuff of mystery and intrigue.

Its name conjures up images of sweeping meanders through stunning karst mountains, sleepy towns and cities feeding off its idly flowing waters, and thousands of tropical islands trapped in time lying right in the middle of the river. 

It is for this reason that the Mekong is known as “the Jewel of Laos”, perhaps the country with which the river is most synonymous.

My short but absolutely awesome two weeks in Laos hugged the mighty Mekong pretty much all the way, right from the northern border with Thailand in Huay Xai, then past the old capital Luang Prabang, down to the present capital Vientiane, and ending at “4000 islands” in the deep south of the former French colony before hitting the Kingdom of Cambodia.

After crossing the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge and completing all the formalities, that being endless Visa on Arrival forms, arrival cards and the like, a tuk-tuk ride afforded us our first proper glimpse of Laos, albeit as the sun was going down and people were heading back into their ramshackle homes. 

The roads up in the isolated north-west are uneven, potholed and dusty. The bridges are nothing more than planks of wood resting on metal girders, not even nailed down, that made a rather unnerving clacking sound as we rumbled over it. “A haunted house”, as my friend described it (I believe it was a little manor house built by the French) stood totally abandoned and disintegrating by the side of road. No windows, but plenty of plants were climbing up its crumbling walls and slowly eroding its already delapidated shell.

To add to the culture shock on this short tuk-tuk ride from the border into Huay Xai, something caught my eye which I knew I would see everywhere in Laos, but was unsure how it would make me feel.

A yellow Hammer and Sickle super-imposed on a blood red background is supposed to arrouse strong feelings in the eyes and hearts of any beholder, whether it be a loving or loathing of the ideas it espouses.

The two flags of Laos

I saw it as a bizarre mix of openly declaring your country to be home to an oppressed people with few life chances and even less money in their pocket; but on the other side that of hope and optimism of a “better future”, which is an admirable national trait to have whatever your political affiliation.
But if there’s little wealth to spread around then your communist revolution becomes a completely lost cause.

Ironically, communism relies on the one thing which it ultimately rejects: wealth.

And for this reason, when I see the Hammer and Sickle flying next to the Lao flag, representing the moon rise over, yes you guessed it, the Mekong, my final emotion is sadness.

To see it flying so blatantly was certainly striking, and in a slightly perverse way very exciting, but the oppression for which it stood and the arbitrary limitations it places on its own people, in my liberal western eyes, was my overarching feeling.

Early on our first day in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic we headed down to the pier on the Mekong, with Thailand serenely sitting on the other side, ready to board a two-day slowboat past some of the most breathtaking scenery that South-East Asia has to offer.

After a while you get used to the punishingly loud dug-a-dug-a-dug-a-dug of the completely exposed engine, ready to mince anyone who falls in, and you can sit back and glide through lush jungle valleys and past minuscule riverside villages.

A note on South-East Asian culture: people and goods are exactly the same. People need to get from A to B, but so do these baskets of maize, or that enormous fence panel. So why not just randomly pull up on the side of the street, or the river, or at a random train station, and save money, time and resources and transport what you grew on your farm along with the people who will eat it? 

To be honest I think it makes perfect sense. It’s genius. But imagine the consternation on other passengers’ faces if, while on your nightbus from London to Edinburgh, someone gets on halfway through carrying three bundles of rope and a bag of potatoes, slips the driver a tenner, and stands hanging out of the door while barrelling down the M1 at 80mph.

I don’t think it would work in the UK.

The overnight stop was in a village called Pak Beng. Clinging to the steep northern valley side, it is effectively kept alive by tourists staying for a night, drinking, “spliffing” (a new word we have invented, meaning “to have a spliff”) and watching the sun disappear behind the Jewel of Laos before getting back on the river the next day.

The second day’s scenery was less about thick green untouched jungle, but more about colossal cliffs with orange-grey limestone rock exploding out of the now flatter land immediately on the shores of the Mekong.

Given that these cliffs are the same type of rock as Mount Roraima in Venezuela it is not surprising that, once I had my geology hat on, I was making comparisons between the two. They looked startlingly similar.

The second day’s journey wasn’t as pleasant as the scenery, however. Not to begin with at any rate.

On the first day, there were two separate boats which took about 150 tourists between them down to Pak Beng. On the second day, we all got crammed into this one enormous boat, rubbing heads, shoulders, knees, but thankfully not toes, with whomever we were sitting next to.

Important cargo

Rather, this was the case until a guy sitting next to me took his ukulele and went to sit at the back of the boat. For the next four hours I sat on the edge of the boat, wind in my hair, sun on my face, heat on my skin, and watched the Mekong mosey on by until we hit Luang Prabang.

Luang Prabang is perhaps Laos’s best known city, although it has population of only about 60,000 odd.

Its fabled peninsula, one kilometre wide and three kilometres long, sits on the confluence of the mighty Mekong and the much smaller Nam Song.

Luang Prabang is a charming, gorgeous mix of temple-lined boulevards, little French cafés selling delicious sandwiches and baguettes, and slowly crumbling colonial houses with striking bougainvillea flowing over their balconies and terraces. 

Unlike other cities in South-East Asia, you can walk around Luang Prabang and not feel like a bag of money. You will not be hassled to buy cheap t-shirts. You will not be hassled to buy paintings of monks in their bright oranges robes, however beautiful they may be. You can stroll down the night market and simply look at what is on offer. 

I’m glad I tuk-tuk this photo…sorry

Naturally if you show an interest in something, then the conversation and bartering starts. That’s the same wherever you go. But if you walk on by and keep yourself to yourself, you will not be pressured. I hope it stays that way. I really hope it stays that way.

Having said that, tuk-tuk drivers never change. When I’m back home I will not miss hearing “tuk-tuk sir? To airport? Bus station?” every time I set foot out the front door.

That personal annoyance aside, if I had to buy a house anywhere in South-East Asia, and live there permanently, Luang Prabang is where I will be found. 

At the end of the peninsula, right at the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Song, is a contender for the wonkiest footbridge ever to be constructed by humankind, but after clambering across the rocks on the other side it was well worth the view. I’ll let the pictures do the talking. 

The world’s wonkiest bridge…

…and the view from the other side

 

For the next three days we took a break from tracing the Mekong as it passes through a very remote corner of Laos filled with totally impenetrable jungle, and so instead we followed the Nam Song River to Vang Vieng.

This rather grubby town has reached an almost mythical status in the backpacker circles.

If you time it right in the evenings, you can go to three separate bars and get three hours of free Lao whiskey plus your choice of mixer. Unlimited. 

Yes I know. I didn’t believe it either when I first heard about it. But it’s true.

Another backpacker activity synonymous with Vang Vieng is tubing. This involves floating down a river, which in the dry season is very shallow and totally benign, on a rubber tyre to a bar. There you have “some” drinks, and once you’re done get back on the river and float to the next bar.

And repeat.

And repeat again.

Nowadays only three bars out of many are open each day, and they open on different days to make sure each bar gets a share of the tourist dollars (communism in action?) but a few years ago, many more bars were open each day and sadly totally drunk tourists were dying with startling regularity. 

The government then toned things down and tubing is now what it is today, and so long as you’re not stupid, it’s fairly harmless.

The tubing route down the Nam Song river

Down the road from Vang Vieng is Vientiane, the nation’s capital, which sits on the Mekong. By now all the mountains have faded away to leave vast flood plains on either side of the river.

I shan’t beat about the bush. Vientiane has little to offer other than Laos’s attempt at an Arc de Triomphe and women on bicycles who, if you sit down in a park, will ambush you from out of nowhere almost demanding that they give you a massage or a manicure or whatever. Or else.

If you have time to kill, you could always take a walk down to the river

Once the night bus to Pakse and then a further three hours in a minivan had been negotiated, we arrived at 4000 islands.

This is where the Mekong widens to being over 10km wide, but lying in the middle is a tropical archipelago of tens of bigger islands and thousands of smaller ones giving the extreme far south of Laos its name.

Lying slap bang in the middle of an enormous body of water, it is no surprise that these palm-tree islands dotted with little bungalows raised on stilts, naturally complete with locals and tourists alike lazing the day away in a hammock, are easily navigable on two wheels. But be careful: the sandy path around the perimeter of Don Det can be treacherous and the “road” down the middle of the island is so bone-shattering that my chain fell off…twice. Putting the chain back on in scorching heat with no shade and no more water is just as fun as it sounds.

Been there…

…Don Det

 

A short bike ride to its sister island, Don Khon, will take you to the Li Phi waterfalls. These cascading torrents of water, even more of a force of nature in the wet season, are a deafening spectacle of white water rapids and jagged rocks. Everywhere you look will be walls of spray churned up and unceremoniously spat out the other end. Nature’s one and only washing machine.

The Li Phi Waterfalls

And so my Lao journey comes to end, rather poetically, right at the end of Laos itself: pretty much the most southerly point in the country. Here, the Mekong, which I first set eyes on 12 days ago and 700km north of here on the border with Thailand, bursts out into a proud and glorious panorama of islands and water with chugging boats and shimmering sunlight as the Mekong hits Cambodia.

And just how I began my time in Laos on a boat skirting the northern border with Thailand, I ended my time in Laos skirting the southern border with Cambodia searching for the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin, of which there are only a handful in the waters where we were.

Dolphin-spotting on the Mekong


I had my David Attenborough moment. It was like witnessing Planet Earth II in action. Magical.
Gazing across the ripples, expecting to see nothing.

And then the rise and fall of a hunchback and a little pink-grey fin. 

And repeat.

And repeat again.

Thank you Laos. 

Thank you so, so much.

Patrick



First published: 24th March 2017

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