Tag Archives: thoughts

Leaving Beijing, but will be back soon

The weather has changed to cool, but muggy with occasional down bursts which evaporate pretty quickly. Cooler and sticky still. The day of the parade approaches and there seems to be a holiday as places are closed for a change and the trains are full of people getting out of town. Miraculously I negotiated Beijing west station successfully and I didn’t spend so long in the seething crowded hot waiting room for it to be unbearable. I’ve never seen so many people waiting to go to the same place. I can tell the ride to pingyao won’t be too chilled out with people around me. Already shouting into their phones.

Yesterday was the Great Wall adventure. The lonely planet info wasn’t quite accurate in. Terms of time, distance and effort involved to get to the jinshanlin wall. In fact I did need a ride from the persistent local taxi driver to get. Me from the the highway to the east entrance, which was staffed by one sleepy non- verbal woman, who looked like she hadn’t seen a soul all day. After a slog up some windy steps through a forest populated by bright green and black and orange striped catapillars, as well as beautiful long tailed blue. And white birds I emerge at the longest man made structure on the planet. The mountains rise and fall in a windy ridge as far as I can see and beyond, dotted with watch towers. Mongolia to the north, China to the south. It’s a bit misty and wet. There is silence. I would like to say I was a lone but out of the watch tower appears a wizened leather skinned old man who asks to see my ticket the scampers down the sloping wall to catch up with the peaches that fall from my bag. My original plan had been to walk from gubeikou to jinshanlin, and I still wasn’t sure whether I had made the right decision to abort that plan. However on heading east to the next tower where the restored wall gave way to wild wall I quickly realised the clambering up into the towers is very difficult, and that doing a wild wall trek would have been really too challenging. In fact the walk along the restored jinshanlin section was at times tough enough with steep climbs and descents. I think I saw enough of the wall in any case, and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

I guess the strangest thing was what I encountered in the general tower, which is halfway along a spur wall which extends out into a pass from the main wall, with a beacon tower on the cliffs East and west. On clambering through the tower there is a mirage. The semi-ruined Qing dynasty tower, open to the sky has been turned into a fairytale dining space, with rose petals strewn on the ground a large round table elegantly set for dinner and fine wine. What was happening? Some kind of romantic reception, but all who was there was a black guy in a polo shirt and a slim blonde woma in large sun glasses. I don’t know who was more embarrassed and surprised, me or them? This is my wife he told me, when I asked what was going on. Congratulations, I replied. Perhaps this was their honeymoon. Too Bad it had started to rain. Looking back I realised that this guy was probably a footballer. Only they have the money and the delusions of “taste” to do something this tacky…or maybe an athlete. Perhaps from the world championships happening in Beijing.

Coming down from the wall after 4 hours walking I mean Israeli couple who I go back into town with. They are a bit naive and got fleeced by a taxi driver. I take them to the vegetarian restaurant (they are also veggie) near the lama temple. We have a great meal, but the woman begins to fret about hygiene and hairs on food etc…

What else to report? Well 972 art district was a big surprise: a vast former industrial area, with the factories now used as galleries and workshops. Communist slogans adorning the wall. Some of the plant has been left in situ like some massive art installations. Saw some art by xu bing which made me ponder more on written language. There seems to be much more around you in China than in UK. And of course it is all rather abstract to me, who can’t understand it, just recognise fragments. Oliver was unable to read the xu bing scrolls, and it led me down a line of questioning about why he didn’t understand it. Could it be that these are characters that he hadn’t seen before? If that is the case then what does being able to read mean? Can you ever say you can read everything? At what point can you say “I can read”? Can I read because I recognise a number of Chinese characters? It seems knowledge is encoded in written form, so our ability to know is restricted by our ability to read. Here, in China, I know virtually nothing. I know, from studying xu bin that he plays with the written word, and indeed uses characters that are “correct” in form, but have no intrinsic meaning. But, from the little I understand from Chinese writing, should it not be the case that a literate Chinese could make a stab at deriving some meaning from a “nonsense” or unfamiliar character? Why couldn’t Oliver do that? I think my philosophising over language is above his level!

I often think I have some awareness or sensibility to other cultures, but there is so much I will never get my head around, and inevitably I will make comparisons and use what is familiar as my reference points. I’ve been reading “the narrow road to the deep North” by Richard Flanagan, and some of it has really struck me. The central story is one of pow slave labourers working on the Death Valley railway in Thailand, which not exactly coincidentally, I visited last Christmas. The narrative voice rotates between several of the characters and you get a disturbing insight into the Japanese soldier’s take on the slave labour and their sense of ethics. To them honour and duty are central. They see the allied pow’s as sub-human as they have degraded themselves by surrendering: suicide would be the honourable thing for a Japanese to do. As for slave driving, torture, punishments, the Japanese major believes that he cannot be considered a war criminal as he was merely fulfilling his duty of carrying out his emperor’s wishes. These are very weird standpoints, and it makes you feel, though without empathising, that the Japanese guards were also victims of war. This Japanese thread is quite topical with the approaching Beijing parade. All around the city are posters of glorious soldiers and the number 70. This seems to be a celebration of winning a war, rather than a remembrance of losses, and a marking of peace. This is all rather explicitly anti-Japanese.


Nakhon si Thammarat day 3

Ning and co come and pick me up at 7.45 to take me to the class at the uni. It's raining.

They tell me the students will be so surprised, and excited. The uni is about 8 miles out of the city, at the foot of a mountain (which freshers climb, believing conquering it will enable them to graduate). At the far end of the entrance driveway is a massive seated Buddha.

This is the university of communication studies. I meet the vice dean, who is a northerner and an ex-well-known radio dj. She also shows gratitude for my coming and wishes her students to swell the size of the group to over 50.

We have to remove shoes, both teachers and students. The classroom is quite formal in layout and has a raised wooden stage and a framed portrait of the king at the teacher's end. Students are in uniform, though rather scruffily, of white shirt and black trousers/skirt. They are a rag-tag bunch. Pretty little girls, some with powdered white faces and finely plucked eyebrows. Callow boys with moustaches and open top buttons. Some Muslim girls with head scarves, a rather ballsy loud girl with a top knot, brimming with personality and playing to the teachers and crowd. The teacher uses a microphone, which seems somehow to create a distance between her and the class. She greets them in English and is replied by a clumsy chorus. It's difficult and slow to manage the class into small groups, and I don't think they, or the teacher are used to this more dynamic and interactive pattern. The vision was that the students would ask me questions… I get involved in setting up how this could work. Smaller groups. Time to prepare….

Their English is mostly quite poor. They have trouble constructing questions. In the end most manage to ask me my name. The girls want to know if I'm married. The boys get energised when we talk about football. Their are some odd questions: ” do you think x is a hermaphrodite?” !!! ” what is your motto?” (I have to think, but end up with some cliche that they might understand : life is short, so enjoy it..). Anyway I have a lot of fun chatting to them,but I'm not convinced they learnt very much. At. The end there was a surprise. One of the girls stood up and made a speech she had written, expressing the class's appreciation for my coming. Then 3 girls, one with a ukulele, sandy a song in English..something like ” we hope you enjoyed the show”. This was followed by 3 more girls (never the boys) singing and doing a little dance in thai, led by the flamboyant girl. Later I Learn that in her interview for the uni, she stated that her ambition was to be a star!

After lunch we visit the teacher' s house. Very impressive. Just build, airy, spacious. Contains a shrine. Ning says I should drive her car to trang, rather than her. Well, my first time driving a car in Thailand, first time diving an automatic…not a big deal, but the weather is dreadful. Heavy rain, pools of water on the road. By the time we get to tang the rain is easing, but I'm still unsure of what to do. Go to libong, another island, stay in tang City, go elsewhere….amazingly, although I've only been ther once, I'm able to easily navigate us to the centre and the place where I can get some concert info about the weather and the availability of accommodation and of transfers to the islands. I make up my mind to go back to ko muk. We get some fruit and set off, then down comes the rain. I sense Ning thinks this is a bad idea, though she won't actually say so. She mentions getting a train somewhere. I pull over and check my train timetable. There's a train going north in an hour. I have to make a decision, now or never. We go back to the station and I get a sleeper to hua hin, basically because anywhere else would mean arriving in the middle of the night, or be too close to bkk.

I get an Indian meal to eat on the train, and Ning and I finally say goodbye. She drives back to hat Yai,and I settle into a peaceful ride and a sleep, I hope. However the guy in the next seat strikes up a conversation. He is a flabby, stinky American called mike. Turns out he is a psychology professor at a bkk uni. He. Smells of booze, and eventually he lets on that the clear liquid in his bottle is whisky, and it smells quite surgical. He offers me a nip. It's strong, and I can see now he is a bit pissed. Later he tells me he enjoyed talking with me, thinks I'm a smart guy. It's funny how so many people seem to latch onto me and want to tell me their life story, which he does. It's full of conspiracy, hardship, fighting court cases, being branded a terrorist by his family for expunging anti- American views. He feels in-American, despises the place and the people,and has lived in Cambodia and now thai land for 20 years or so. Something he tells me is quite creepy. It's about the murde of the. British tourists. He says he knows who e killer was, and that this person is high up and connected to the royals. This person is a student at his uni,. Nothing will be proven against him. Conspiracy, cover-up, scapegoating of the burmese workers. Hearsay….

I sleep until 3.30. Get off at hua hin at 4.20.


People you meet

Rod is Australian. An ex police marksman, has a ranch, has a thai wife who lived in Sweden before. Here for a school reunion. Some People just talk and assume you accept their points of view. Well he has some rather extreme comments about Muslims and how Australians are arming themselves to protect themselves. He tells me how he ans sam,the owner of my guest house are good friends. Sam turns out to be a Mr big. He has a string of guesthouses, considerable land and breeds cattle. Rod tells me that he also has a number of guns and wears body armour when he's on his land as there is a lot of rustling.

When you travel you come across and spend time with people who wouldn't even give you the time of day back home. I guess being away and in Asia is a leveller. This is one of the things I like the most about travelling. I learn a lot about the world from who I meet.


Sai Yok national park

Filing in time while I'm sitting at the mouth of the bat cave in sai Yok national park waiting for dusk and the assumed swarms of bats that are going to emerge. I've already claimed in and poked around. It's a little bit scary with the floor of the cave being slippery and the only light I have being from my phone. So, better to sit outside. I'm still sweaty from 3 hours of walking through the jungle, not a soul in sight. Unfortunately no wildlife visible, but I can hear bird song, some kind of frog, perhaps, the buzzing of bugs. No human sounds. I had fun staring into tunnel spider webs, getting lost in the details of tree trunks and admiring the grace of the foliage. Crunching across dead bamboo trunks and their peeled away curled husked barks.


A long motorbike ride getting here. The only interesting thing was seeing a number of saffron swathed monks bare foot walking the highway, some making camp in the woodland by the road.

The park includes a section of the death railway, the remains of one of its bridges. Eerie to think that there were many hundreds of British men here before me toiling, getting bitten by bugs, beaten by Japanese, building something that has long since disappeared once more back into nature.

This is my third day in kanchanaburi province.

Day 2 got off to a slow start and once more began in On's restaurant, where once more I met Jo. On made him cook his own meal on the wok in front of the shop. I watched her make my rice soup. She's good at what she does, but to be honest I think with the same availability of ingredients I make a pretty good fist of authentic thai food too.

After lunch I cycle around and visit the jeath war museum. It's on the grounds of a temple, pretty scruffy and in a reconstruction of a pow hut. The place was founded by a Japanese man who was sent to thailand to act as translator at the end of the war. He was so shocked by what he saw that he converted to Buddhism and founded the museum. Anyway it was poignant and saddening.

On the bank of the Kwai at this end of town are scores of floating restaurants. Later I see one being towed up and down the river for a private karaoke party. At the end of these places there is a modern road bridge, under which I spend a while nosing around some dilapaded old floating bar and watching some poor local guys trying to fish for their supper.

I spend a long evening with an Austrian woman who I meet in on's. She has cycled down from chiang mai via mae sot. She is very interesting and has had a full life. Lived 20 years in India, worked with mother Theresa, caring for the dying, which sounds gruelling. Teaching massage and yoga wherever she goes. She tells me about how the prayers broadcast from the Hindu temples every morning pissed her off so much that she ended up cutting the cables to the tannoy speakers one day. We switch to Italian when she learns I lived in Italy. I would like to say my Italian came flooding back, but it didn't. Enough to talk about my experiences in Bologna and Sicily. The she tells me she lived on a beach in Sicily, and of the strange protection rackets and organised crime. We have a drink at her guest house which has a nice vibe apart from the ubiquitous karaoke on this stretch of the river.


So where are these bats??

I can't wait any longer. Back to the waterfall that empties into the Kwai river. Lots of floating houseboats. Kind of tranquil twilight. I don't enjoy the ride back 100km in darkness. The thought of getting a warming curry at on's spurs me on.




Leaving mae sod

Up at dawn,and I can hear the dripping residual rainwater ticking onto the roof below. Morning has that fresh glow of promise. A silent hour when the URL almost dreamlike sweeps the fallen leaves from the yard. I sit in the soft fuzzy light, all foliage in the garden seems a dense green blur. I eat yesterday’s fritters and sip a tea. I’m in no rush, though do have an appointment for a change. T catch the chiang mai bus. My plan had been to walk the mile and more along the road, but logic, desire and the need to take things easy persuade me toget a tuk tim. I wai and thank the owner who is manicuring in her window, and the housekeeper waves me off. The road is sleepy. It’s Sunday. Two young novices of around 12 are pacing dozen the road. Orange saffron robes, one with a green sash beneath, the other a yellow one. Hey are not together, maybe 20 yards apart. Each carries himself with he nobble detachedd dignity of something other. Erect perfectly balanced, slight figures but with an air of confidence, modesty, humility. Shaved fuzzy heads, pale yellow tan skin. smooth facesthat carry no expression. They are barefoot, each cradles a silver coloured bowl which they prefer no doubt to the same selected households, and into which is donated a quantity of food. Could be fruit, a ball of rice. This is to be eaten by midday. Monks fast until the next morning. These kids are not lolloping around, not listening to their smart phones. I wonder what goes through their mind. How they feel when they wake, and prepare themselves for this un changing ritual of centuries. They are ageless. They are ancient. They are somehow infused with the spirit of what makes this place so exotic, so intangible at times. Inscrutable, sublime.

It feels like a dream, a trance. Like a memory from deep in the past, like a vision of a. Future. A permanence. It’s something I. All never understand.

At sukhothai all those centuries before the same rituals were enacted. I am going to chiang mai where I will see the same once again. I will meet men who have lived these lives, played these roles. A duty. T bring merit to their family. I will meet boys who will become novices. I will go places where such temples and monasteries where they carry out the day in day out identical regimes of waking praying collecting food, eating, sweeping, learning, and playing have stood for centuries. Ones which are still being built, being painted. Ones which people go to for medical purposes, steam saunas, ones in which the town comes to buy and sell food. Ones which are thoroughfares, kids going to school, tuk tuks passing through. A short cut from one gate to another. Ones where all the stray dogs from the town come to rest in the shade of the prayer halls. Ones which were built on the tops of mountains and were abandoned 600 years ago.the forest. Reclaiming hem, the locals reusing the collapsing stonework to build houses and roads. Where the gilded buddhashave been stolen, yet where nowadays people still light candles, burn joss sticks, leave offerings of fruit, coca cola, whatever they feel the Buddha would like.

Yet what does it mean? This is a country with underlying tensions that often manifest he selves violently. The red shirts stand offs in bkk being a good example. The terrorism in the south,the. Muslims fighting for independence. A country which deliberately avoids any involvemnt in international conflicts, preferring only to adopt positions that are beneficial to trade. Take the Burma refugee. Sitaution. Compare with how reluctant he Thais were to shelter the many hundreds of thousands who fled the terror of the Khmer Rouge and the displaced of vietnam. They were often sent back, sometimes robbed, sometimes raped or murdered. Een the local Red Cross workers being reproachable.