Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Looking through Guido's Eyes - Part 2


A Tropical Paradise Gone Wrong - February 2016

That was Guido’s description of a 7kilometre white sandy beach but I am getting ahead of myself.

 Hainan is a truly tropical Island that is the most southerly part of China. It is a small province – about the size of Belgium.

 It was largely ignored by the mainland government until about 250 years ago when they began sending exiles there to die of the various nasty things that can happen in such a climate. Even 80 years ago the majority of native inhabitants were subsistence farmers.

 Things have moved on quite a bit since then but it is still a poor province – although you would never guess if you judge by mechanised transport. This is predominantly electric motor scooters and three-wheeler petrol driven tuk-tuks but nobody (except us) appears to travel more than 30 or 40 metres by foot. Myanmar is piss poor where bullock carts are the normal form of transport, in Hainan we only saw two.

 Sanya is the city at the south end of the island. This is the destination for the majority of mainland visitors (and quite a few Russians apparently although there did not appear to be lots to us). It is the only genuinely warm place in China during winter - mid twenties Celsius or 70s to the Yanks. It is certainly considerably richer than anywhere else on the island that I have been to

 We flew there and had a night there – a four-star hotel cost 35 euros. We sat on the beach, having been driven the 400 metres from the hotel in a golf buggy where the driver,  of course,  went the wrong way round a roundabout, bought coconuts to drink the milk but kept adding rum and thus we got drunk. For Guido the highlight was lunch in the first real locals’ restaurant he had been in. There was no English menu – the pictures helped – but my Chinese had to come into play – a worrying thought.

 We got a bus towards our destination – a National Forest Park. We did the last 35 kilometres on/in a tuk-tuk that was leaking petrol. The guy stopped occasionally so we could look at sites, buy honey etc. but, more importantly, fix his petrol leak and let his 100c.c. engine cool down on the thousand metre climb. Tipping is unknown in China but he did such a good job that we gave him 50% more than the agreed fee – it cost three pounds sterling. He declined the bonus initially but was persuaded to accept it.

The reason we had come to this place was – can you guess - rats. My friend is interested in many things to do with the natural world but one of them is rodents. Hainan has a species of rat that is unique to the island. Guido was hoping to see them or, more likely, catch sight of them on the 4 night-vision cameras that he had brought with him.

We had been brought to a hotel which cost 30 euros but had little to eat and Guido needs to scoff lots and often. This time there was a Chinese menu and no pictures. With a bit of pointing my Chinese was holding up remarkably well. This delay to eat meant that we only had 1 ½ hours to get the cameras and bait set up. To capture images of small animals at night you need to restrict the cameras’ field of vision considerably so choosing suitable areas and then sites within the areas then lining up the camera with the “jiggler” all take time so we only got three set up before dark. I am sure that you all know what a jiggler is with one exception so I will explain. It is simply a device that is a few centimetres above ground that holds the bait and will attract animals.  

More scoff and the odd beer followed by a rest and we were ready for the first half of the night’s little trip. Chinese national parks – particularly forest parks – tend to have well laid out wooden walkways. Surprisingly this one is made of wood – many have a large concrete component. G. had also brought very powerful lights with him. These were great – at highlighting the dust blowing about in the atmosphere. We would sit and listen with lights off from time to time (it was so dark I couldn’t see G-man sitting less than a metre from me) but the forest was remarkably quiet – no grasshoppers or cicadas and very few frogs to be heard. We did hear a few owls but the only thing that was sighted was a flash of a bat by Guido – he is a vastly better spotter than me.

Our three-hour walk finished at 12.30 with the thought of getting up four hours later to go again and see the sunrise towards the end. I woke at 4.30 decided I preferred the bed and didn’t wake Guido. He was up at 7.30 and off to collect the cameras before anybody else might come across them. One of them showed a rat but not the one he was looking for.

We then repeated our night walk in daylight and this time we weren’t alone. Chinese tourists have no idea about shutting their gobs in the hope of seeing some animals. What became apparent is that this park is for looking at plants – particularly trees. There is a vast variety, of which I know very little, but some were huge at over 100 metres and with girths of over 10 metres. I have seen the odd strangler fig before in Australia but here they were common as muck. The way it works is that a fig (i.e. the fruit of a fig tree) gets on a branch of a growing tree. It is a true parasite and takes food from the tree whist growing round it and lowering roots to the ground. Once the fig has roots in the ground the host tree is doomed. The strangler develops its own support roots and devours all the nourishment from the tree (as well as getting things from the ground and photosynthesing food) which then rots away leaving the strangler fig with a hole up the middle where you might expect a trunk to be.

The guide books for Hainan are truly dreadful and we swapped to choosing destinations by using the A4 map of the island we had obtained in the hotel in Sanya. Thus, by a trip down the mountain by car (also costing £3), a bus and another tuk-tuk we arrived in Guangcun. This village/town is a real out of the way place and my Chinese was really tested. I think we ended up at the only hotel in town. I don’t think that they have seen any guailos (white ghosts) in months or years. It is the most I have been stared at since I travelled in some other real backwaters of China a dozen or fifteen years ago.

The hotel has modest sized rooms but they are en suite with hot water for – wait for it – 8 euros a night. Food is dirt cheap – even fruit – and beer made in Guangzhou is barely half the price that it is in my home city.

Time for a stroll, after a five o’clock lunch naturally, where the lady in charge seemed to understand that I am not a meat eater. We were looking for mangrove swamps and a beach. We saw both but couldn’t get to either because of walls and fences everywhere but we saw quite a few birds and bats and lots of plants that Guido didn’t know so not too bad. I suspect the highlight of the day for G was the truck so overloaded with bamboo to the extent that it couldn’t get under the powerlines. I should perhaps explain that powerlines are only four or five metres above the ground with a low point when they cross a street. We watched as the driver climbed on to his loads to free things up and, when we passed by again fifteen metres later, he was still beating the bamboo into shape with a particularly thick specimen of that type.

The following day, today as I write, we worked out from our trusty map that the best chance of getting to the beach was taking a different route out of town.  With a little help from three 13- year old boys, who wanted a light for their one battered cigarette, on their electric scooter we got to the beach. The boys had followed us all four kilometres but did not follow us up the beach – although we later saw tracks which suggested that they had on their scooter presumably after we were long gone. As I mentioned, here people don’t walk.

This was the white sandy beach that was on our trusty map. It is at least seven kilometres long and we only saw a total of eight other people on it when we walked nearly the length of it both ways.  Where we had arrived at was an abandoned hotel or maybe something that had been for party hacks. Clearly it had been abandoned many years ago but looked it like it had been a good idea because the beach was superb. If Hainan ever gets going as a true international holiday destination I can see this location becoming a very high-class place to go.

But, and it is a very, very, very big but, the beach gave rise to Guido’s comment that is the title of this piece. I have never, ever seen a beach with so much shit on it. You expect plastic bottles, plastic sheets and the like but there were lamps, computer bags, backpacks, glass bottles, barbecuing tool. shoes, pill containers, polystyrene packaging, gloves etc. etc. by the thousands. About the only thing we didn’t see was condoms. Clearly so few people visit the place that the vast majority of this crap (excluding the barbecuing tools) must have come from the sea – what disgusting people humans are. I think it is even worse than the desert in Jordan – and that is truly saying something. G finds that looking through this detritus can be quite interesting. I do not.

We saw quite a few birds, G found lots of shells that interested him and we could not identify quite a lot of things – which also interests us. My highlight was a pool on the beach that was made of sand but behaved more like a rock pool – it was teeming with life. We thought it would be very difficult to count just the number of tiny hermit crabs but an estimate would be around 100 per square metre.

 As we passed a fishing village we realised that there was some recycling. Or, more accurately re-use. The fishermen had tied lumps of expanded polystyrene together to make rafts to pole out to their boats. Guido was quite keen on “borrowing” one for when we got to the mangrove swamps. When I pointed out that we did not know where they – the mangrove swamps - were (our map is rather large scale) and it was certainly a few kilometres his enthusiasm for the project waned but did not disappear – there was so much shit around we could make one ourselves.

 We stopped at the next fishing village hoping for a little sustenance but there were no restaurants so we settled for a couple of beers each and crossed the peninsular we were on. Sure enough a few hundred metres down the beach the mangrove swamps started. The G-man had never been in one and the last time I had been in one properly was forty years ago chasing a thief – I didn’t catch him.

 Unlike forty years ago, the tide was out so we could walk along the sand on the seaside of the mangroves – easy. If you are not familiar with mangroves (and even if you are) these are the basic ideas.  They like brackish water at the edge of the sea but in mud not sand. They propagate in two ways – seeds and underground roots that pop up. The thing that really makes them stand out though is the branches drop down stems that become roots so one tree can become a tangle to get through that is only two or three metres tall but can also be as wide as that. One is easy but a morass of them dropping roots of branches and new growth popping up from roots can be a bit tricky. On the seaward side they were not too many.





Having progressed only three or four hundred metres down the beach we realised that the fir trees that were growing on solid ground were now 50 metres from us so we decided to go through the mangroves. Tricky.

I think our polystyrene raft would not have been a great deal of use! We beat a retreat back up the beach and found an “easy way through”





The peninsular we were on had only a gap of a hundred metres or two to the far shore at the mouth of a bay that is a couple of kilometres long – thus providing excellent shelter for fishing boats and…. There were thousands of birds so we looked at a few before we re-crossed the peninsular through a graveyard made of sand hills! If everything is made of sand where do you bury your dead? Only later did I wonder if the bodies rot but I decided that they must – Hainan has a humid climate unlike the desert in Egypt.

A fast retreat down the beach and walk into town on the road in the dark with bats, a nightjar and stars to accompany us. (This reference is for friends I have done a lot of walking with who think that all my walks end up with us walking on the road in the dark. Well you want to use a day fully don’t you?) A truly splendid day.

There had been a cockup at breakfast when my Chinese let me down. We had had a good omelette and asked for more eggs. Chicken in Chinese is Jie, Eggs are Jiedan. When asked for more eggs, our hostess rushed off to shop and produced another dish. She had obviously thought that we couldn’t want more eggs and had bought chicken.

My hair is longer than usual and Guido’s is always a mess. We had been by the sea in strong winds. At dinner mine hostess gave us two combs. A nice touch that redeemed the morning mistake in my eyes. She approved of the improvement when I combed my hair. Guido is Dutch with shoulder length hair, claims he hasn’t combed his mop in twenty years and is proud of that fact. I seem to recall it looking considerably smarter at his wedding so doubt his claim.

Pigs. Not a subject that I often write about but they have been roaming around loose everywhere in the last few days. Almost all are mothers with their piglets in tow - when the little ones are not rushing off playing like kittens. Lovely animals who ferret around for things to eat – Guido gave one a ball of rice enclosed meat – and not at all dirty. The expression “Like a pig in shit” is a reflection of the way that they are treated or, more accurately, mistreated by humans, not a reflection on their natural habitat. Of course, 99% of the males and a good proportion of the female piglets are destined for the pot in a few months. Pig is by far the favourite meat in China.

So what next?

Guido decided that we needed to go to White Shell Beach. Only two buses (although the first one left fifty minutes later than we were led to believe) and we were in Jaitou. A much more fertile area even though it is only a few dozen kilometres along the coast.

We had a little difficulty finding a hotel until the one we got to the one we are in. The price is up to 12 euros but a much bigger room. The only problem is that the toilet is a squatter. This is the first one of the trip and I suddenly realised that, in Guangcun, they are prepared for westerners – at least in one hotel room.

Our host is very affable wanting photos with us and insisting on showing us round and organising our trip to a nearby headland village. This was a short tuk-tuk ride away. What was odd about it was the vast amounts of stuff packaged up for recycling – cement bags, polystyrene, glass bottles but no plastic bottles (we had seen an overloaded truckfull of them in Guangcun). The trouble was that most of it looked like it had been there for weeks, months or years and the village and the beach were still full of shit. I have come to realise that Hainan reminds me strongly of India in respect of rubbish. The streets where there are markets are swept at the end of the day but pretty much nothing else is done to keep the place clean. A good example I saw today was somebody riding along on his motor scooter who did not even slow down as he slung his bag of rubbish off the bridge into the river. We have seen a lot of Guido’s rodent friends in the streets.

We are quite good at finding places to relax and have a beer.






Another trip out to a superb beach – actually with better sand than yesterday. Not quite as filthy as yesterday but far worse than most of you will ever have seen. In twenty years time when China has become a normal holiday destination most trips will have a component to a place like this – huge sandy beaches (cleaned up every tide) trips out to go snorkeling and diving on the reefs, bird watching from beginners to real twitchers plus whale watching obviously. Once the hotels are in place they will attract lots of retail opportunities whether it is food, clothes or tourist tat.  

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Looking through Guido’s Eyes - Part 1

Looking through Guido’s Eyes

Guido is a friend of twenty years who is twenty years younger than me. He is well travelled in Europe and English-speaking parts of the world but has never been to Asia and has never been to the tropics so his reactions to what he sees in my part of the world should be interesting. He is also a very curious naturalist.

So where to go?

Obviously start with the store of, now, nine storeys of shit that nobody could possibly want to buy. There must be about 500 shops in this one arcade. I underestimated the man. Within ten minutes he wanted to buy two sparkly (and I mean sparkly) purses shaped like a hare and a goldfish – costing about 50 euros each.   Fortunately his wife, his mother and his sister are not entirely devoid of taste so he had no-one to buy them for.

Fifteen minutes and three floors later he decided that he must have a lamp shaped like pak choi (Chinese cabbage) being towed by a horse. He won’t dare take it home so I have a suspicion that he will go back and buy it and it will end up in my apartment.

The fungus shops were a bit of an eye-opener. Basically these are for any variety of dried mushroom-like things in huge bags. Essentially it a wholesale market targeting restaurants and hotels but if you want a lesson in the variety of stuff that Chinese eat people go this is the place.

We had imbibed a small amount of alcohol so the next day began with lunch with Jennifer and Qin Gang. Lunch was excellent. Most of you won’t believe me but the mushroom and tofu dishes were generally agreed to be the best.

This turned into an afternoon visit to an “old village”. Most of this old village was, of course, built last week. When G & I suggested it we hadn’t known that Jennifer and Qin had been many times before so J & Q G wandered off and left Guido and I to wander round.

WTF is this? A bloody theme park with illuminated fairy grottos. But we started going into a building or two or three or four and in fact there was lots of old stuff – mainly bronze ware going back 3,500 years ago but also porcelain, wood carvings, paintings, calligraphy and jade ornaments. Actually rather good. Guido was rather taken by a Bodhisattva with a Jesus like halo.

Guido was taken with the balance. Keep the kids happy with fish feeding and silly things to do whilst having a chance to look at a lot of interesting stuff. And you were paying for this balanced mixture.

We stopped for dinner in the middle of nowhere. G & I were probably the first “white” people in there for a year or few. The food wasn’t spectacular but it was the highlight of G’s day. He should get out more.

To Hong Kong.

7 million people in quite a small area – the most densely populated part of the world they claim. But there are some areas that are not developed. At all. So off we went looking for this. Fog on the mountain, roads not paths and that sort of stuff conspired against us. But Guido is a naturalist and an ace spotter so we saw lots of birdies – excellent. It is an indication of Guido’s travels that he had never seen black kites – which I have seen in several parts of the world.

Finally we escaped the urban sprawl and got out in the country. Guido is at his best at this time pointing out things I don’t notice and spotting things about a week before I would. We saw lots of stuff. At some later date I may update this blog after two events. We go back to Guangzhou to look up the bird book and when I am next outside mainland China so I can post to this blog.

We bussed around quite a lot in the afternoon/evening. G was not impressed by Stanley (a real HK tourist spot) but was impressed by the mountainous nature of the Island. I kept thinking “What happens if the brakes fail on this double-decker bus on these incredibly tight and twisty steep roads?”

We took the tram up to “The Peak.” This is 428 metres high so you look down on all the sky –scrappers. Well most of them. The IFC – 2 tower in Hong Kong is about level and there is a building in Kowloon (the name of which is unknown to me) that is higher than the peak. I thought about how much effort it took to create all the skyscrapers and roads in Hong Kong and it would all be gone in a few hundred years at most. Guido thought about geological time and how tiny all this stuff was. Such is the way that minds work.

Next was go to see the lady to get rid of our demons. The high spot of this was that she hit a piece of paper that with a slipper until it was knocked to pieces and then burnt it. There were other bits that were burnt, various incantations etc. Guido was fine but I am possessed by an evil spirit and it would cost 300 dollars to get rid of it. I like my spirit and declined.

Guido is really taken with all the food here. I truly live in the food capital of the world with Hong Kong as a small satellite.


We are off mammal hunting in the mainland but I can’t post from there so you will only get the next instalment in a few months.

Southern California is Hell

Southern California is Hell

Matt is left behind. I have never been to Washington State or Oregon. OK. Matt was in Seattle.

In fact he was jealous of the next journey. Seattle to Los Angeles. By train.

He needn’t have been. Train is by far the most civilized way to travel. You can walk around, chat to who you like, doze or sleep when you want, get fed and do a fair number of kilometres.

Ah!  Amtrak does not exactly rocket along. A journey of 1,377 miles was scheduled to take 35 hours and 40 minutes. That is about 62 kph. Compare that to TGV or even the good old Great Eastern London to Edinburgh. Can you imagine that in modern times that is acceptable? Perhaps that explains why there is only one train a day on that route. The USA is crying out for high speed trains but they won’t get them. The car lobby and Boeing will stop it.

 If you do not live in the USA (and even if you do) you do not understand the power of propaganda here. No other country in the world has so much propaganda. It starts at the highest level. The flag waving above half the houses. (Ian got threatened by some guys who said that the Irish flag was not sufficiently beneath the “Stars & Stripes”)  The land of the hope and the brave. Hmm. A slightly more accurate portrayal would be the home of the coward and the drone. In the USA everybody who has ever served in the armed forces is a “veteran”.  The most likely cause of death in the armed forces of the USA is murder by a fellow member of the said “brave.” It is difficult to imagine a country less accurately described than that it is “the home of the brave.”

Propaganda goes on at every level.  For most Americans the concept that there are things worth seeing outside the USA is anathema. The slaughter rate on the roads and by guns is assumed to be normal.

Local TV is dominated by “Man bit dog” type stories. National news only occurs 2/3rds of the way through a broadcast and international news is Israel or somewhere else in the Middle East where the USA is supporting fascists or bombing the fuck out of somebody.

It is a deeply uncivilized country.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many places that I have been in the USA and many people that I like but the weight of evidence suggests that, on the whole, the USA is an uncivilized country that is so conceited that it refuses to learn from others. Its downfall will occur in the first half of this century.

Having said that I have just thoroughly enjoyed two wonderful and contrasting visits in Southern California.

Tom met me in Los Angeles at 9.00 p.m.  Well he would have done if the train had been on time. Amtrak is so crap that he could not check. So he listened to the radio for 1 ¾ hours until I arrived.  The two best bits of the Seattle-LA trip are the mountains half way (at night) and the coastal bit near the end (in the dark because the train was so late.)

Tom is a very good host. He gave me his bed, which I rather graceless sly accepted.    

Tom is also diabetic. This means, in the state of California, that he has a licence to legally buy marijuana. No apologies to the Captain Kirk fans for the split infinitive.

As would any reasonable citizen would do, he exerts his rights. Normally that means he only smokes at weekends but when a fully qualified tester arrives in town what is he supposed to do?

Inbibe and we did. The first day after the pick-up consisted of a three hour drive round parts of LA. We were out of the car for a good ten minutes in that time.

What followed was a visit to his folks who live in nearby Orange County. Lovely people, good food, get your washing done etc. One small problem. 3,200 bottles of wine. What is one to do when invited to sample? And after that bottle? And the next? And.... A rather pleasant evening.

Next day up before the noonday sun? The Getty museum? Universal studios? Disneyland?

Er. No. Hack round a 9 hole golf course. Twice. A spot more parent-paid for food and a splash of wine that sets you up for the following day.

The following day consists of another 9 holes of golf – stoned. This was a new experience for me. If you are going to hit a drive a long way in golf you must grip the club firmly.  If you are stoned you think that you grip everything firmly. This is true – I have got callouses gripping motorbike handles in the past. So I gripped the club hard and hoped. It went a long way. I wonder where. During the next five holes Tom was even more shit than me.

Off to Newport Beach to meet his lady acquaintance. A spot of dinner then off to a superb bar.

Think Hemmingway. Seedy does not get near. Western film swing doors, pool tables but not enough real cowboy hats. Men who weighed more in kilos than their age smoking and playing better pool than I have ever been capable of. A quiet blonde who sat at a table for an hour and a half (not that I noticed) suddenly became the classic blousy pool player – and she could play.

Tom is a decent pool player so we survived a couple of rounds but the beer had done its damage so we stayed at the acquaintance’s. Unfortunately she was teaching ice-skating in the morning so we got kicked out at 6.30 a.m.

True Californian fog back to his folk’s for a three hour kip then true Californian traffic for a journey of an hour and a quarter or so to deliver me to Ian.  Naturally on a six lane highway (that is six lanes each side) it took 4 hours.

The USA transport systems are as ridiculous as their healthcare systems.  OK, I won’t go on about the shit transportation system any more but consider the USA spends 16% of GDP on healthcare (only Cuba has a higher percentage and they send doctors as aid workers all over the world) whereas in Europe it is about 8-9%. No prizes for guessing who lives longer by a margin of two years.
Ian’s – a real different experience. Unlike me, Ian can manage a decent relationship with the opposite sex.  This time he has stumbled on one that involves a family. She also appears to be rather nice. There are two great difficulties with this situation but we will come to those later.
Ian moved to the USA 17 years ago – the fool. To make it worse he was in upstate New York. The populace of small towns there are like the Midwest – narrow-minded, ignorant in the extreme and completely confident in their knowledge. Arseholes. Of course Ian managed to find a few reasonable people but none he called real friends until he had been there many years.
Anyway he has moved to Southern California and lives with the aforementioned attractive woman a dozen years younger than him. She has two daughters. Ian is not used to family life but, in his rather gentle way, seems to cope OK and I have not noticed any problem at all. But, as many of you know, I may not possibly be the best judge.
Anyway, Tom drops me off in this sober household near San Diego. We sit in the garden and drink tea. TEA.  Hardly my beverage of choice but Ian developed Parkinson’s three years ago and he has found alcohol a bit of a no-no and he lives in a tea-total household.  PANIC! I am a man of infinite resource and manage to contain myself for the next three hours until we find ourselves in an establishment for the sale of Maguritas. (Sod the spelling.)

Sitting with Ian in the garden is a delight. Reminiscing isn’t really my thing but I haven’t seen much of him in the last seventeen years (we used to go walking together about thirty days a year in those days). Oriels are small birds and hummingbirds are smaller – having them buzzing around is great. Mel (Ian’s partner) liked some of our stories about misdemeanours twenty or thirty years ago. In mid February it reached 31 degrees (or 87 to the yanks) – what is not to like in Southern California?

Well a bit.

CARS

CARS

CARS

The concept of walking is abhorrent, unless you are taking your dog out.

Naturally I have done some. A little warm for lots of walking but T-shorts and shorts in February under a clear blue sky is good enough for me.

Melissa’s mother offered to get her granddaughter (they are both in the house) to drive me less than a kilometre to the shops so I could shop and granddaughter would come back later to collect me. They are both pretty nice people. The ridiculousness of the suggestion appeared to be beyond Pam – who, despite her political views - is a perfectly acceptable member of the human race. Morgan –granddaughter - was not consulted. This is America – children are expected to do as they are told and even (although not in California) call you “Sir. “ Pam thought it was over a mile because, naturally, she had never walked it. Obviously it took me an hour to cover the kilometre by the direct route because of my navigational difficulties. Even though it is mid February the temperature was 84 (29) so a couple of revivers were required.

I mentioned the problem of traffic. There is another.

Ian became friends with an Irish priest in Jamestown, New York before he moved West. Nothing wrong with that if you don’t take it seriously. Get pissed with an Irishman and fed by his wife is OK in my book. Except Ian carried on going to church when he moved West.

Frederick the Great of Prussia in the eighteenth century said something like ”Christianity was a lot of legends invented by orientals and given to our Europe where some charlatans used it for there own purposes and some fools believed it.”

Melissa appears to belong in the last class. We held hands round the table while she prayed. For fuck sake what have I shrunk too to be so “nice.” I am losing my character. These days I class myself as a militant atheist. Even if there were such a thing as God why should she be interested in one of seven billion of a particularly destructive species on a small planet around a very insignificant sun on the outer arm of a perfectly ordinary galaxy? Christians (and other nutters – Jews and Moslems) are so arrogant. I have heard all the rubbish about spirituality faith, can’t believe in finality etc. many times with no shred of evidence offered to support such ideas. Can it just be they are so stupid? Do the monotheists not understand that they are unnecessarily divisive; they all worship the same God by different names? A bit of a bugger that, individually they tend to be nice people – whether Christian, Jewish or Moslem. I truly believe that they do not understand how evil their petty beliefs are in the way that they manifest themselves collectively against other groups who believe in the same things.


Anyway. Blue skies, sitting in the sun in February, flowers in bloom, lovely birds around you, decent food and good wine. Yes Southern California is truly hell.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Vancouver is full of weirdos and Seattle is full of dossers.

Vancouver is full of weirdos and Seattle is full of dossers.

Having said that some of Seattle’s dossers are pretty weird.

Perhaps I had better start from the beginning. Mat and I live eight time zones apart. So the obvious meeting place is for us both to fly eight time zones. Yep – me from China, Matt from London to meet in British Columbia.

So Vancouver it is. Matt has never been to Canada, I have never been to B.C. What are a few time zones between friends? I arrive Tuesday morning, Matt Tuesday evening. Naturally by the time Matt arrives I am suitably ensconced in a bar which, with a few instructions, Matt duly arrives at.  Nothing worth remarking on so far. Except that, due to a bit of time zone prevarications Matt had, allegedly left at 9 a.m., I had left at 2 p.m. on the same day but I had arrived in Vancouver 10 hours before Matt. Naturally, it didn’t stop us having a few pints.

So WTF were we doing in Vancouver? Obviously we were on the way to Whistler. For the non-cognescenti, Whistler is one of the world’s premier ski resorts and, as you can imagine, I am one of the world’s premier skiers.

But there would be a bit of jetlag, neither of us had been there so why not three days in Vancouver?

Well three days is certainly enough. It is a spectacularly uninteresting place. Yep, Stanley Park is good for a few hours bike ride if you are bored and like being told which direction to ride, there are a few beer shops/local breweries although the beer all tastes the same, everything is orderly – the cars stop at red lights and people wait for the walking sign at junctions – but is it exciting?

Well there is a clock driven by the steam from the thermal underground system that is quite interesting. We did find some decent seafood chowder but...

There are a lot of wierdos. They would come in all shapes and sizes, although being hirsute helped to get the job – foot long beards were a requirement. Some of the women had quite long hair to. These people were all dressed oddly or behaved oddly – lots of them talking to themselves, of course. Who could possibly employ them? A small example – we were walking by a construction site which was surrounded by corrugated iron sheeting when, suddenly the sheeting opened and out stepped a girl, who clearly did not work on a construction site, closely followed by the smell of marijuana. Our guess was that there was a very select party going on inside the corrugated iron.  We suspected that some of the wierdos rather enjoyed a spot of heroin.
Actually Matt quite liked it, thought he could live there.
For me - too quiet.
And.
I am sure it didn’t rain all the time it just felt like it.

 So to Whistler to meet Bill and Tina. They had only had a five hour flight across three time zones so no sweat. Except... Matt, Bill and I all have knee issues. Tina came out in sympathy on the second run of the first day by falling over and buggering her right knee. Matt is easily the best skier amongst us and often went off on his own. Bill and I poodled around. Until the penultimate day. Bill and I had done three excellent runs before a break. Then B, M & I went high in the thick swirling snowy mist. It was horrible. We decided to take a green run (the easiest grade) to escape. I fell off it. It is easy so you can’t fall far. I fell all of two metres. I couldn’t get up with skis on so I took my skis off.  My feet went into the snow over my knees. It took me more than ten minutes just to get back to the piste – a distance of about five metres.


Tina did come out for one run on the last day but it was horrible. Fortunately she had arranged bobsleighing in the afternoon.   Fantastic. Try doing 125 kph with your bum 5 cms off the ground at 3 or 4 g when the ground is also about 30 cms from your shoulder because you are effectively riding the “Wall of death”. Brilliant. I had the best seat just behind the driver. You slam from turn to turn incredibly fast. I would have my left shoulder about 30cms above the ice and what felt like half a second later my right shoulder would be 30cms above the ice.

Whistler is small by the standards of European ski resorts – only 37 lifts, although many are long. The Green runs are true French Greens – very long roads. These are not pleasant and distinctly unpleasant when you are skiing latterally across a steep slope. The blue runs are like French blues – steep in places but always wide enough. There are no red runs. The blacks are divided into single diamond and double diamond. They are all so horrible that not even Matt tried any of them. The other thing about Whistler is that it is west coast so we only had one day of sunshine – the others had rain, snow, wind or a combination of them. And we had a good week. The week before had been all rain and the week after we were there it was forecast to be too hot.

Seattle is a very rich city. Home of Boeing, Microsoft, Starfucks and Amazon.  I don’t think it has a million people. If you like dossers on every street corner and half way along each block on major roads it is the place for you. If you like over-priced crap bars full of loud mouth tossers come on in.

Yep, it is typical USA but worse. On the bus south from Canada as soon as we crossed the border it was trailer-trash. How can a country that is so rich be so mean? The worst health care in any half-civilized country, cops that shoot hundreds of people dead every year, 10,000 people a year are murdered and three times that killed on the roads. It is a dreadful country. I hope that I escape it alive after seeing my friends here.


In Seattle we went up the Space Needle which, despite being built in 1962 for the “Worlds Fair”, was surprisingly good. 


We also did a tour of “Underground Seattle” After a major fire the whole level of the city was raised so there are still some old shop fronts below ground. What it really was was a history of the city. The high point of the very funny commentary was the role of “seamstresses” in a city where the men outnumbered women ten to one. The city elders decided not to throw out the seamstresses – have an “entertainment” tax – a brilliant solution. One “madam” only employed well educated seamstresses so that the clothing of the richer men in the city would be well cared for. She had no heir when she died and left a fortune to the Public School system. This was the largest pre-Gates donation in the city but, because of her profession, no school is named after her. Our guide did not like this and thought that there should be one with a school icon of a thimble to encourage safe sewing. 

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Getting around cities in China

Getting around cities in China
11.       Don’t drive.

China has excellent public transport.

In cities you don’t bother looking at the timetable. If you know your route and you are in the right place a bus will be along shortly. On popular routes this will be more a matter of seconds rather than minutes. On odder routes there can be waiting time. I know of two services in Guangzhou that only operate three services an hour but that is very unusual. Although there are night services on quite a few routes the daytime schedule finishes around 10.00 at night and restarts about 6.00. Some cities, including Guangzhou, operate a system with truly dedicated bus lanes through the middle of the city so if you are heading that way this is usually quicker than the metro.

After a slow start, many cities are now building big metro systems in true Chinese style i.e. at one hell of a lick. Guangzhou hosted the Asian Games in 2010 and, to coincide with that event, 5 new lines were opened a week before the opening ceremony. The city government announced metro travel would be free until after the the Games -with no notice but the announcement took effect the following day. The result – chaos. All and sundry, especially the elderly, decided to ride all the lines from end to end. Two days later the free travel was abolished. In China governments can do these things – suddenly grant free travel and then take it away again with no notice in either case. It is a good example of expect the unexpected – it all adds to the fun of living in China. However, there has been a major long-term impact – the system had reached critical mass and some people have started using the Metro instead of the buses so the system is very busy during rush hour. The trains are frequent (but not as frequent as Madrid) and big – there are few seats, the system is designed for standing. However, the vast majority of people still travel by bus – there are vastly more routes than any metro system is capable of emulating. Although Chinese manners leave something to be desired in western eyes it is certainly not politeness on public transport. Everybody gives up their seat for pregnant women, mother and child and the elderly. Rather to my embarrassment I get offered a seat sometimes. After a knackering day stood up in the classroom I have been known to accept on occasion. The West could learn a lesson about such manners. However, it is rather annoying to see some horrible noisy brat standing or jumping around in a seat whilst granny diligently stands so the delight can disturb his neighbours on the bench seat.

2.                   Taxis.


These are cheap in China.The price varies from city to city but flagdrop in Guangzhou is 10 RMB ( $ 1.50, £1) and that gets you the first 2.3 kilometres. Another 10 RMB will get you more than the next three kilometres and that is the standard rate thereafter. In Guangzhou I rarely use them, because I walk and know the bus and metro routes I need, except to get me home late at night. Because the Middle Class has grown a lot faster than the number of taxi licences, at rush hour it can take a while to get one – a taxi not a Middle Class. This is a big change from ten or fifteen years ago. If it is raining, forget it.

The taxi drivers are, of course, the worst drivers in the city. You can be the only person half way across a pedestrian crossing when the approaching taxi driver decides that there is room between you and the pavement (sorry sidewalk to the yanks) so he will accelerate and go barrelling through – even without a passenger. It never occurs to them to lift off for a fraction of a second and go behind you. The idea of stopping because it is the pedestrian's right of way is completely ludicrous. I do take a certain delight in bashing their wing mirrors but I haven't yet got to the stage of walking round with a club hammer in my hand. Naturally taxi drivers don't think it is necessary to pull into the side of the road to pick up or drop off passengers – if they get within two metres of the curb you have had an attentive driver.

If you are travelling around it is often viable to hire a taxi for the day to go and see some sites a few dozens of kilometres away. A taxi can be as little as 500RMB for the day although if you get a hotel to arrange it you are more likely to pay double that but if there are three or four of you and you want to visit several sites in one day it can make sense. Wear the seat belts and look out of the side windows – not at the road. If you look at the road you are more likely to die of a heart attack than in an accident.

3.            Rules of the road.

This has improved. Drivers will stop at red lights, obviously after a couple of seconds delay – five if it is a taxi. There is also the USA rule of allowing vehicles to turn right on red. (In China they drive on the wrong side of the road and, foolishly, tend to walk on the same side.) So you have to have your wits about you. The biggest change though is the behaviour of the pedestrians. When I first came to China and wanted to cross a busy road I would find a little old lady attempting to do the same and get on the “safe” side of her. She would edge out into the traffic with me to her left, say, she would cross one lane and pause, cross another lane and pause and, after crossing the third lane on a six lane highway, I would then swap sides of her to her right and we would proceed lane by lane.  Now everybody waits at traffic light controlled crossings. They even wait when no cars are coming – I don't.

The biggest problem as a pedestrian is the fact that the rules of the road only apply to vehicles with four or more wheels. Motor bikes were banned in the middle of the city more than ten years ago. It was much better to get rid of fuel efficient two wheel vehicles that don't take up much room to make way for the gas-guzzling battle-tanks that are extremely popular here so that they can clog up the roads. (Remember that it is part of the Chinese culture to demonstrate that you are wealthy.) In some of the outer districts motor bikes still operate as cheap taxis. What happened in the middle of the city when motorbikes were banned was that the number of disabled people rose significantly! So you will see a lot of three wheeled orange open vehicles with one seat for the driver at the front and two seats for the passengers behind in this cheap unofficial taxi. A pair of crutches are normally carried to enhance the appearance.

In the city the real problem is cyclists. They will ride on any side of the road (or the pavement/sidewalk) in any direction at any time. There are now more electric bikes and three wheelers than ordinary push bikes so these are all silent but can and do do 20 kph and more. Sounding your horn is illegal in Guangzhou (although a lot of car drivers do it) but the electric bikes just ride anywhere (although more often on the pavement/sidewalk than in the road) with their weedy horns tooting. Of course everybody ignores them, quite rightly. But they can get you at pedestrian crossings, any and all exits and entrances and, most frequently for me, when you step off a bus that is 70 cms from the kerb you can be sure that there will be a bike coming through that gap – you just don't know from which direction.

Driving standards have improved but there a couple of things that are just plain stupid. In the days when I used to drive 40,000 miles a year I would probably use my horn two or three times a year. Many drivers here use them two or three times a minute. I would use the horn if I thought that somebody was not noticing me. Here they use the horn to mean “Get out of my way you asshole”. The real assholes are the ones sitting in a traffic jam blowing their horns.  These people are a minority but make a lot of noise. They are in their air-conditioned car with the windows wound up so it doesn't sound too loud to them. The car they are honking at is in a similar position so the horn is usually ignored. The process of horn blowing is then repeated. The people who get their ears bashed are the pedestrians, but they don't matter because they are not in a car.

If a driver flashes his headlights when you indicate to change lanes it does not mean that they have seen you and acknowledge your right to change lanes it means “Get out of my way I am coming through.” Perhaps the oddest thing is that, despite all the bad manners and aggression, you never see road rage. If somebody pushes in front of you, so be it. The downside is that if there is an accident in the middle of the highway the vehicles involved don't pull over. They stay where they are until the insurance companies arrive. Naturally this leads to traffic jams.  Occasionally even the police might take an interest. 

4.            Walking.

All major cities are basically quite small in the centre so you can get to many places with a walk of half an hour or forty minutes. By the time you have got to the bus stop or the platform on the metro, waited, got your transport and walked at the other end you normally take that sort of time anyway. I live in the middle of Guangzhou so many of my journeys are by foot. Obviously this is good exercise. Guangzhou does have some air pollution from the gas-guzzling battle-tanks but the city took action to reduce pollution and moved industry out of the city more than ten years ago so the city is not normally as bad as many of the other cities in China. In summer it is very hot and, particularly, humid but walking is a viable option most of the time. Pavements are often quite wide although they can disappear to nothing on occasion. There are a few difficulties. Wide pavements mean that these become car parks (sorry yanks, parking lots) and this can leave no room to walk – except in the road. The cops here are extremely lazy and do nothing.

A few years ago Guangzhou went to considerable trouble to create bike lanes – there are over 2,000 kilometres of them in the city. Unfortunately they did this on many occasions by taking a chunk of the pavement. The bike lane continues at a bus stop, where there is always a shelter, so there is often nowhere left to walk – in theory. This does not really matter because, in many cases, they relaid part of the pavement to clearly show that it is a bike lane. Unfortunately many of the pavements in Guangzhou are made from bricks and the authorities made the bike lanes out of tarmac. Which is harder on your feet when you are walking? Yep, you have guessed it, the tarmac is much smoother so most people prefer to walk in the bike lane.

Chinese people walk very slowly and there are a lot of them so chopimg your way through the horde can be a little tricky and does delay me somewhat.

The one thing that you have to get used to is people minding their own business. They don't look to see what anybody else is doing, they just do their own thing. And they expect you to do the same. I understand the logic but it can still be irritating. You are walking down the pavement in a straight line with not too many people around when some arsehole comes out of a shop, looking at his phone obviously, and walks straight in front of you causing you to chop your stride and change direction. He is minding his own business – what I am doing is my business.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

On a wet January Tuesday in Taipei what do students do?

On a wet January Tuesday in Taipei what do students do?

They go to the National Concert Hall and throw the girls in the air, of course.

There is a large covered veranda, the students spread a few mats out and a couple of girls standby to help catch in case of a cock-up. There are three lads – one is the lifter off the ground and the other two hold her feet. She has to remain rigidly unmoving and showing no emotion in a vertical position (or horizontal as the case may be) whilst she is tossed about. There were six groups and all I can say is that they are very brave girls. The lads looked so weak that even I wouldn’t be worried about meeting three of them down the proverbial dark alley at night.

So what am I doing in Taipei. Well it is there. My terms work finished ten days ago but I am never sure whether I can escape straight away a week before the actual end of term and have to leave it to the last minute.  My main winter trip starts two weeks after the end of my term’s work.  I got confirmation that I didn’t need to do anything in the last official week and am off to Sri Lanka.

Ah!

To visit that allegedly lovely country of Sri Lanka you have to fill in an ETA form. I believe that ETA stands for Excruciatingly Terminal Autism. The form, of course, takes a little time to load.

Once loaded, I tried several times to fill in the form and each time it comes back with "No valid Capcha code" (the exact non-word spelling eludes me because you are rapidly told to try again). I assumed it meant to refer to entering a few letters and numbers that ensure that my application is not computer generated. 


That would be fair enough but I was never been asked to enter said code.


So trying again means filling in the whole tedious form again. It tends to be a little frustrating. The result is the same.


One of my techie friends in Guangzhou investigated and it seems to be the Google-China relationship. They do not get on and you cannot use anything Google on the mainland. What appears to happen is that many organizations call Google to use their Capcha code program, rather than write one themselves. So when Google gets called the thing fails. This must cost Sri Lanka a lot of tourist yuan and meant that I couldn’t go.


Yes, I know that I could have filled in the form and done a screen dump and got somebody outside of China to do the job for me. Hindsight is usually perfect.


So I had to spend three days in the pub watching England thrash South Africa at cricket. Or more accurately watch two very even days followed by a day of absolute slaughter.


After that I needed to detox in a country where I didn’t need a visa or some other damn form. This was the nearest.


Is Taiwan a country? Technically the locals call it The Republic of China. Not surprisingly, this name is none too popular on the mainland where Taiwan is regarded as a province of China. In sporting events it is referred to as Chinese Taipei. The Hong Kong Rugby 7s normally has three “national” teams in it - China, Hong Kong and Chinese Taipei. Hong Kong has been part of China now for nearly twenty years and the government let the people of Hong Kong do their own thing – just so long as they say they are Chinese. I don’t need a visa for Hong Kong (or Macao or Taiwan), Hong Kong has its own currency (as do Taiwan and Macao) and in Hong Kong they even drive on the correct side of the road (as they do in Macao!) but not in Taiwan or the mainland. Taiwan has a population of 23 million – less than treble that of Hong Kong. It has not been under the control of the mainland Chinese government in any form for 120 years of Japanese occupation or ROC rule. Eventually there will be a relationship of one country two systems as it applies in Hong Kong and Macao.


None of my cards worked at the ATM at the airport so I changed $500 US cash. At a bank in town later last night a card worked so I took the maximum. I know how far too many of the local spondoolicks. I am confident that I won’t get ripped off when I change some back!


I like most of what I have seen so far.


First proper port of call was the memorial hall for Jiang Jeshi. Most of you will probably know him as Chang Kai-shek – the first leader of Taiwan after they Nationalists ran for it after losing the civil war to the communists in 1949. This tries to look like the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Well – hmm. It has a similar roof but rather horrible whitewashed sides. The Zongshan Memorial Hall in Guangzhou had similar ideas but did the job much better. Who the hell is Zhongshan I hear you ask. Well most of you probably know him as Sun Yat Sen, the leader of the revolution at the beginning of the twentieth century that got rid of the last emperor. Of course, some of you have never heard of him. Many people in China have more than one name – it can be a little confusing. Good old Lizzie has two birthdays but not two names (if you ignore Saxe-Coburg-Gotha). You will see many streets in cities in China called Zhongshan after the great man, streets named Jiang Jeshi are curiously absent – I wonder why.


Speaking of street names. Here has some characteristics similar to the mainland including shops grouping together on one street. In Guangzhou I can take you to” picture framing street” or “get your crap trophies for your darts contest alley” although they are not called that. Today I walked down pet bird street. I also went one better and found myself on a street called “Wedding Dress Street” which sold.... 

I seem to have digressed. The old todger is not buried in his memorial hall but there is a 21 tonne statue of him. They do an elaborate changing of the guard routine every hour – quite entertaining. Nothing about old traditional costumes and that sort of thing. Goose steps, stainless steel helmets, AK47s (or whatever they use now) – you get the idea. Five minutes after it is all over the place is pretty well cleared out. One is left wondering what they are guarding against. I didn’t see them shooting at any birds who came to shit on his head. Are they worried about somebody stealing the statue?


Speaking of birds in the park around the area the rain had brought up quite a few worms and this fellow ignored me completely whilst he got stuck into a good lunch.



Next was a “traditional” craft centre – rather good. Signage in English is, in general, either quite good or non-existent. The best exhibits were on a floor where the only English sign was “Chullery” This is rather untypical – the standard of English is quite good although I did wonder later what “A locomotive builder’s lunch” could be. All the food here is meaty so I didn’t risk it.

The National History Museum is just down the road – well worth a visit. Lots of stuff, some pottery going back to 2500 BCE. Pottery is the one area where the ancient Chinese were always a long way in front of The West.  An excellent exhibition of Tang dynasty (618 to 903 CE) pottery as well. This is on loan from a museum on the mainland and tends to illustrate that the bit of water separating Taiwan from the mainland is only really a political barrier. Visas still apply but that is true for everyone going to or from the mainland who intends to stay more than three days. Playing Bob Marley in the forecourt did rather undermine the historical gravitas.

Typically Chinese though. More than half the visitors in both places were in the noshing shop.

The Botanical Gardens. Compact with lots in there but not at its best on a wet January day. (Extract from the pamphlet “About 4,500 years ago the lake became habitable...”)

On to a temple. Why do I do it? I have seen so many temples in China. Lots of people there but small and definitely nothing special. Best thing about it was the ornaments on the outside of the roof.

This photo is from a different place but it seems like a good place to add it. I especially like the "traditional" information sign.

Food is odd. The odd McShit and Substandard plus quite a few Starfucks but no Bugger Kings, Kill the Fucking Chicken, Done-in Donuts etc. But also few proper restaurants. There are lots of small shops and street vendors and I have to use Chinese to make sure that I don’t get ANY meat - and that is not my most notable skill.

Many 7/11s call themselves cafes and there is a 7/11 for every 450 people in Taiwan plus lots and lots of Family Marts which are similar. In seven hours walking today I haven’t seen one proper supermarket. 7/11s are often a bit bigger than normal but nothing like a proper supermarket.

AND only one bar. They wanted more than $20US for a small flask of saki so I declined and left. The price had gone up by 40% between what the man said and what he wrote down.

Yep, I have had to resort to the 7/11 and am writing this in my hotel. Hotels are not cheap here but this is OK – if you like your room Hong Kong size. There isn’t even a chair so I am writing this on a table in reception.

The people are pretty nice with a lot of English and they come up to talk to you and offer help. I was surprised by the fact that many people of my age speak good English but I realised that American soldiers were based in the country until forty years ago.

Another day another few hours of pounding the street. I am a believer in the Bill Bryson theory – if you want to get to know a city you must walk. Am I Brysonite? Taipei is a small city. When I first came to China one of my friends described Ningbo as a small city – only 3 million. I wondered how many cities in Europe and North America are that size or bigger and got stuck at ten. However, I have now been in China a long time and think that 3 million is, indeed, a small city. On the mainland only cities over ten million are regarded as big cities – there are at least seven – and perhaps twenty or thirty that are in the 3 to 10 million bracket.  

After a salutary half an hour queueing for a train ticket for the morrow I was off due north to my main destination for the day. Taipei has a pretty much a gridiron sort of layout with the American mentality of traffic lights at every junction. That means that the pedestrian crossings at the junctions are traffic light controlled. This slows your progress considerably but I got the idea fairly quickly and was the only person who ignored lots of the red lights.

I had deliberately started late for two reasons. I was knackered. Yesterday I had had one stretch of street/ museum/botanical garden etc. pounding of five hours during which I had not sat down once and I had also done some more pounding later looking for bars. You are also warned that the Museum gets very crowded so you go for early doors or late afternoon. No prizes for guessing which one I went for.

 So I rock up about 3.30. It all seems a bit odd. Lots of stupid Dineyesque type characters, I appear to be the only non-Chinese around. I pay my $3 and go in thinking that was cheap. Naturally I was in the wrong place. This was the good old boys place where he lived for 26 years after leaving the mainland. I was desperately searching the guide book on my kindle for something about this joint (there was nothing) when I got accosted because they thought I am taking photographs with my electronic device. This got me a personal guide about my age. I know more about Madame Chiang than she did. Maybe because I read her (Madame C's, not the guide's) biography a few years ago. The thing they seemed most proud of was that the old boy got a visit from Tricky Dicky when he was Vice-President in 1953.

I made my excuses and left. The biggest tourist attraction in the whole of Taiwan is the National Palace Museum. A bit of a bugger that it is not on the tourist map of Taipei. A bit of study and I knew I was close and set off in the general direction. Big signs saying “National Palace Museum” did help a bit. It closes at 6.30 and I get there at 4.15. Perfect. Well not quite. The girl at the desk pointed out that if I waited 15 minutes there was 40% discount for late entrants. Just time for a reviver. Unfortunately the cafe only served coffee.

The Museum is absolutely splendid. Very well laid out with lots of room and good lighting.  In 1949 when the Nationalist realised that they had lost the civil war and legged it to Taiwan they took everything from The Forbidden City that wasn’t nailed down. In 1965 they decided that they weren’t going back any time soon and opened the crates of the stuff that they had “liberated.” The contents are now in the National Palace Museum.

Chinese people are fascinated by “Jade.” There is no such thing. There are two different rocks, called Jadeite and Nephrite, that have very similar characteristics but are formed in completely different ways. Both are called Jade. There are a couple of small items on display that go back to the 4th millennium BCE but these are of no interest to the Chinese tour groups. The two jade rooms were absolutely rammed with people.

Some of the tour groups took some interest in the old pottery but none in the stuff that is undoubtedly the star of the museum. (Can stuff be a star or should they be stars?) Shanghai is a dump and just about the only thing I like there is the museum and especially the ground floor where they have bronze work going back 5,500 years. Truly impressive stuff. BUT. In the museum in Taipei they have stuff going back equally far but much more ornate – there is nothing to compare with it from any part of the world. You may gather I was impressed.

Some of the pottery stuff is also pretty good. The slight problem is that the best stuff, not surprisingly, is from the last five hundred years and you can see very similar items in many shops all over China.

Two hours of that and I really did need a reviver. I found one and it worked so up went my energy level and off back the way I had come to the best night market in the city near the wrong palace.

Night markets exist because it is too hot in the day.  Well that is the theory. It was only 14 or 15 degrees so hardly roasting in January but the markets are institutionalised. They sell lots of the usual shit – cheap jeans, nasty T shirts, glass jewellery etc. But the reason that you go to these places is the food. You stop at a stall and buy something small and eat it.  You are talking a euro or two at each place. So I had quails eggs, followed by three different flavoured egg tarts then pawpaw and pineapple followed by spicy cuttlefish - yummy. Actually that is the buying order – I saved the fruit to the end for when I was publishing earlier – I am a traditionalist. On the mainland there are bins every 50metres and an army of street sweepers who are needed. In this market there were lots of skewers and plastic bags & boxes being given out, but no public bins that I saw until I left but the streets were clean. Not quite Singapore clean – there was the odd skewer – but much cleaner than London.

I really was tired so got the metro back to the hotel. Yes – wimp I know. Two small points. On the display inside the metro carriage signs would say “Be considerate. Fold your newspaper and hold your backpack in your hand.” I especially like the second part. Anybody who is stupid enough to both read this and work for Transport for London please take note.   I got off at the main railway station. Now here’s the thing. These are underground retail opportunities and there are shops everywhere. Find the exit? I found a list which told me the exit number I needed but tell me where that exit is? You must be joking – why would they want me to leave without spending money? It took me about fifteen minutes to escape. My advice is that, should you be unfortunate enough to be caught in one of these versions of hell, just get out of the nearest exit and worry about where you are once you have escaped to above ground.

Another day another city. I have come to Tainan. This used to be the capital and if your idea of a holiday is visiting fifteen temples a day for a week with no repetition this is the place for you. OK it is not Bagan in Myanmar where there is nothing between temples but this is a proper old city (one tenth the size of Taipei) and still they are round every corner. As you will have gathered by now this is not really my thing.

I had elected to take the slow train – taking 4 ½ hours rather that the quick one that does it 1/3rd of the time and not just because of price. It is called the “Mountain Route” and I wanted to enjoy the views. Every time I woke up (which wasn’t often) and looked out of the window I would see just badly constructed buildings or fields with nobody working in them. Taiwan is supposed to be no. 17 in the world GDP per capita list and classed as a developed country. Even assuming that Euroland is regarded as one economy that is one list and one categorization that I don’t believe.

Or didn’t. When I looked at that extract again it is no. 17 based upon PPP (Purchasing Power Parity).  If you use the exchange rate of the day to make comparisons the values are severely distorted by a currency (like the pound or US dollar) being overvalued or being undervalued (like the euro and RMB). To compensate for this, different measures are used to make more realistic evaluations. For instance how many pints of 4% beer can the average person’s monthly salary buy? That particular measure is my own and rigorously tested all over the world. Unfortunately “economists” use other measures e.g. how many Big McShits does a week’s pay get. Economists are not real people.

I have wandered again haven’t I?  Mainland China is no longer cheap cheap but it is still half the price, or less, of anywhere else outside East Asia. Taiwan is a bit more than the mainland but not a lot. It is nothing compared to Japan, Hong Kong or Singapore. A couple of examples here. Admission to sites. Many are free, most are a quid. My dinner on the street last night (excluding two beers which added 60%) was three euros. When you realise that it makes the claim above seem reasonable – higher up the list, incidentally, than Japan!

Comparing Taiwan to the mainland there is gross underemployment in the retail sector for both – there are masses of people standing around doing nothing. Like the US, in mainland China the car is king. You can drive how you like, park where you like, pedestrian crossings are meaningless etc. In Taiwan the motor scooter is king. I think this is a good thing. Cars are filthy, carcinogenic, carbon emitting things that take up ridiculous amounts of road space for one person and on the mainland, like the USA, gas-guzzling SUVs are the vehicle of choice. In the cities on the mainland most two and three wheel powered vehicles are now electrically powered. In Taiwan the scooters all have piddly little motors which must be less carbon intensive than electrically powered vehicles. So far so good for Taiwan. However, everybody has a scooter. They are everywhere – pavements are just scooter parks, the most likely cause of death for a tourist is a scooter accident, cars (and even taxis) wait at pedestrian crossings, scooters go round you.

There are very few motorbikes and certainly nothing of the thirteen hundred cc monstrosities that people of my age buy in Europe or the USA. But anybody who is working in a (to me) semi-developed country can easily afford a scooter.

One oddity here is the ownership of the pavement (sidewalk to the yanks). You have a shop front that is two metres wide, you want to make it easy for the handcarts to get from the delivery vehicle into your shop. So you make a ramp and tile it with the same tiles as you use in your shop. Job done.

Except that the ramp you have made is different from the ramp next door – a different angle, different start or end points etc. Taipei and Tainan are both fairly flat with nice even roads. Walking on the pavement is awful. You are glancing around, looking for a shop or something to eat and suddenly you foot hits a steep ramp and over you go. Useful to have ramps not steps, of course, to help the scooters drive on the pavement. It is especially difficult if you are feeling a little uncertain of the location of your hotel after an unpaid brief visit to do some unrewarded quality testing at an establishment for the purveyance of alcohol – of which I am happy to say Tainan appears to have a significant number including one twenty metres from my hotel. I even found a wine bar selling – wait for it – decent Italian wine. I was the only customer.

Planning laws are clearly very weak or not enforced.

I don’t tend to go to an awful lot of sites but how could I resist a visit to the Eternal Golden Castle. Well I think I would find it easier to defend the revolting four storey block of flats I passed near the entrance. Clearly grey is the new gold. Doomsday must be imminent.

It was built in 1874-76 and has a moat that is, in turn defended, by hibiscus shrubs. It was armed by the latest British muzzle loading cannons. Amazing. Breech loading guns had been around for 400 years by then but the latest technology was still muzzle loading.

Finally, on my fifth day in Taiwan I spotted a supermarket! What a sad life I lead. My fears about which one were also realised - Carrefour. Why the French? Even the yanks are preferable. Well no actually, but it is damn close.

The fort was built because the Japanese had landed just prior to this to cause a spot of bother near what was then Taiwan’s capital. Twenty years later the Japanese took over the island and, forty years after it was built, the castle was a ruin. A couple of bouts of restoration have revealed new places. I find it amazing that no plans exist from such a big jobbie built less than 150 years ago.  It is quite pleasant for a gentle stroll although I was glad I wasn’t wearing sandals and shorts because there were “Beware of the snakes” signs around.

I also visited the Tree House. Not quite what you might expect. Tainan was the main port for the Island but the harbour silted up and the Japanese moves the capital to Taipei so the trading houses declined. The last warehouse was abandoned seventy years ago. Banyan tress will grow pretty well anywhere and are very adaptable (they are a relative of the strangler fig that I have seen in Australia). One thing they are fond of is calcium carbonate. This is used in cement so when the warehouse was deserted the trees moved in – big time.


One other bit of Chinglish is a “shopping shop.” One wonders what the alternatives might be. I could only come up with two but I have no imagination. A shoplifting shop? A dieing shop – commonly called an undertaker. This one would take a good deal of planning, unless you are Dignitas. You would have had to have the call from him upstairs (or downstairs in my case), gone to the shop, asked for a doctor to be called to sign the death certificate and then keel over just as the quack arrives.

My final stop on this trip is Kaohsuiung – Taiwan’s second city. I have tired of street pounding hence have been writing. However, I have instructions to go and get pissed with a brother of a sort of friend. I have run out of beer so it is time to go for four hours pounding before following my instructions.

New experiences are less frequent with age of course. I am staying in a “Business Hotel.” The room is quite large but bare of any decorations or interest. However, it does have a first for me – the bed is wider than it is long. One is left wondering how many “guests” a “businessman” is expected to entertain.


Just done the obligatory pounding. This is a boring characterless city. The lady in the Tourist Information suggested that I visited the station where the two metro lines crossed. I arrived to the usual shopping hell but changed my mind. This was the roof.



The fact that it is cool, wet and windy, of course, has no impact upon my view. Nor is the fact that I was stood up by somebody who invited me to his restaurant, specified the time and his name is not even Goodland. Hang on a minute he is the half-brother of a very old female friend of Dr G.s and we have all seen “Chinatown.” Could Henry be a love child? No. Even MCG would have phoned within an hour to say that he was delayed by sending a particularly unimportant email that he could have sent hours before.


Visit Taiwan? No, not as a destination by itself. If you have had a decent look around China – not just Beijing, Shanghai, Guilin and Lijiang – yes. You will see some interesting contrasts.