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All 193 Posts in the Category: Travel

18
Nov 13
Mon

Getting back to Sydney the really long way

It’s really expensive to fly back to Sydney these days, especially around the Christmas/New Year’s holiday period.

United holds a monopoly on the non-stop SFO-SYD route, which it flies using a really old Boeing 747. On the dates I wanted to fly, almost 15 hours of pain without a seat-back TV in economy would set me back more than $2,400.

After that, it’s really slim pickings. Transiting through LAX with Virgin Australia is still almost $2,200. That’s the last credible option.

Apart from that, you can pick up a ticket on China Eastern Air for around $1,500, but then you commit to a 50-hour odyssey (one way), routing through Shanghai and Nanjing before you get to Sydney. No thanks.

So I decided instead to buy a much cheaper ticket to London and redeem a few airline miles to get me the rest of the way on a couple airline products I’ve wanted to try out for a while. This is the route I ended up booking:

map

That’s SFO-LAX-LHR on American’s new 777-300, LHR-CAI-DXB on Egyptair, AUH-SYD on Etihad, SYD-DXB-LHR on a Qantas A380, and LHR-LAX-SFO on the same American 777-300.

The outbound journey is going to take up a whole weekend, but I do get to spend half a day in London, half a day in the UAE, and the rest of the time vegging out reading, watching TV, and getting fed.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

  10:37pm  •  Travel  •  Tweet This  •  Add a comment  • 
14
Jul 13
Sun

Jubba Airways

Somalia barely has a government, but it has what is a de facto national airline, currently running at an impressive 85% passenger load:

“Road insecurity is bad for Somalia, but it’s good for airlines,” says Abirahman Aden Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister. Ibrahim estimated that at least 60 planes owned or leased by Somali carriers are currently flying.

Jubba Airways may be the most ambitious, and fastest-growing, of those carriers. Since its beginnings in 1998, Jubba has served as a lifeline for Somali businessmen with interests abroad, pilgrims on the hajj in Saudi Arabia and — increasingly — returning members of the Somali diaspora. The airline flies to some of the world’s most unstable destinations, including Galkayo, a town that straddles the self-declared independent republics of Puntland and Galmudug, both notorious sanctuaries for pirates. …

Jubba also has a team of Ukrainian and other Russian-speaking pilots who fly its Antonovs on domestic runs inside Somalia. Although the capital has been relatively calm for the past year and a half, Jubba still offers incentives and imposes rules on its pilots. “Whenever we fly to Mogadishu, we give them combat pay,” Warsame said. “And they never stay. They land and leave as fast as they can.” Jubba pays the captain, co-pilot and flight attendants “around $100 extra” for each landing they make in Mogadishu; the bonus goes up after they make the trip several dozen times.

  4:57pm  •  Travel  •  Tweet This  •  Add a comment  • 
8
Jul 13
Mon

A Shower in the Sky

This post originally appeared on Medium.

There are some things in life I have resigned myself to never experiencing. Except perhaps if one day I am retired and, in a fit of spite, I decide to fritter away my heirs’ inheritance. Among these things are staying in a presidential suite at a five star hotel, going into space, and taking a shower on an aircraft.

The only commercial airline in the world with showers on board is Emirates. Emirates runs a fleet of Airbus 380s which each pack two spacious shower rooms aboard its first class cabin. A one-way, seven hour flight from Dubai to London will set you back around US$5,000. This is a very tough discretionary expense to justify, unless you’re one of those people who works out of desire and not need.

Even the old trick of using frequent flyer miles is difficult with Emirates, if you’re based in America. Emirates is not a member of any airline alliances, nor is it a transfer partner of any credit card points programs. While it has a bilateral partnership with Alaska Airlines, redeeming a one-way flight would cost about 90,000 miles — if you can find availability (Emirates has been rumored to have been clamping down on partner airline redemptions lately).

Nonetheless, a group of people in a corner of the internet have known for some time of a special airfare that existed for the better part of two years. The airfare consists of a first class ticket that permits you to fly a circuitous route of about 25,000 kilometers, make day trips into three different cities, and include two or three first class segments on Emirates. The thing that makes the airfare special is that it is offered at a dramatically discounted price. The catch is that the first flight must depart from Colombo, Sri Lanka. Colombo is not the most accessible place in the world when you live in San Francisco. In fact, it’s literally half-way around the world and it makes little difference whether you travel east or west to get there.

The fare came to be known as the “ex-CMB” fare in the online community, CMB being the IATA code for Colombo International Airport. By using an online tool called Matrix and typing in a particular routing code, “CMB :: CX HKG EK DXB EK LHR AA”, you could retrieve this rather implausible itinerary.

I filed this fact away in the back of mind until I was invited to attend a friend’s wedding in Bangalore in May. Since I was going to be practically in the same neighborhood, I figured it would be worth a booking a short “positioning flight” to Colombo from Bangalore and going on a once in a lifetime flying extravaganza.

The itinerary I pieced together took me from Colombo to Hong Kong via Singapore on a Cathay Pacific flight (in business class, since that route doesn’t have a first class cabin), then from Hong Kong to Dubai and Dubai to London on Emirates, and finally London to San Francisco on British Airways. I would have a 12 hour layover in Hong Kong, a 23 hour layover in Dubai, and an eight hour layover in London. Each flight would be a red-eye, so I didn’t need to book any hotels in those cities. While I had been to each of those cities before, the trip would make for a great opportunity to catch up with some friends.

This itinerary is impossible to book online. I needed to find a travel agent — something which, in this day and age, was difficult to do. Luckily, I found one a couple blocks away from work — a branch of STA Travel, which ironically specializes in budget student travel. My timing was particularly good because that branch closed down several weeks later due to lack of business, and the nearest one was in Davis, a hundred miles away.

I printed out the itinerary and brought it into the travel agency.

“This is a crazy itinerary. I don’t think it’s valid,” the branch manager said immediately. He began to type it into the computer anyway. About ten minutes of typing and muttering to himself, he finally spoke. “Huh. It actually priced.”

The price, including taxes and a $75 booking fee, was almost exactly US$2,500.

No one is quite sure whether the anomalous airfare was a pricing mistake, or some kind of longstanding but misguided effort to boost tourism in Sri Lanka, but the opportunity closed up a couple months after I booked, in March 2013. Today, the same flight itinerary prices at over US$22,000.

For a period afterwards, it was still possible to book a similar itinerary, except that you couldn’t technically book an Emirates flight as part of it. The airfare was offered by American Airlines and required crossing the Atlantic Ocean with an AA flight (or codeshare) as part of its routing.This meant you could have a routing that went from Colombo to Kuala Lumpur, then Kuala Lumpur to London (on Malaysia Airlines), then London to Los Angeles (on American or an American codeshare). Interestingly, it was also still possible to have a segment on an Emirates plane because the DXB-LHR segment codeshares with Qantas. So, if you booked using the Qantas flight number, you could still end up on an Emirates A380 plane. However, this loophole also appeared to close up several months later.

If you really want to try the Emirates shower, there is a “budget” option. Emirates flies a fifth freedom route between Hong Kong and Bangkok. The flight is only three hours long, but it’s flown by an A380. Just enough time for you to take that $800 shower.

The Trip

Emirates offers business and first class passengers a free chauffeur service as part of their ticket in most major cities, so the experience starts before you get on the plane. You have to call ahead to book, but they offer pickup at your point of origin, and dropoff at your destination, subject to generous distance limitations that vary depending on the city.

Each city has a different fleet of vehicles. In Hong Kong, I was picked up by a Mercedes minivan. He drove strictly by the rules, setting the cruise control at 80 km/h on the highway to the airport, while taxi cabs sped past us like machine gun bullets.

My first Emirates flight was on a Boeing 777. It was almost the same as their flagship Airbus 380, but without showers and a slightly older interior. It was still opulent.

First and business class boarded through the front door and the suites in the first class cabin make an immediate impact. The seats look exactly like the promotional photos. Each is actually an enclosed suite, lined with leather, wood paneling, and slightly gaudy gold trim. A door can be electronically closed to provide some privacy, although the top of the suite is not enclosed so that flight attendants can check up on you by standing tall and peering over the wall.

The seat can recline into a fully horizontal bed, and there is ample legroom, even if you’re seven feet tall. To the side, there is stowage space for blankets and pillows, and a small cabinet for personal effects. A small handheld controller and a small LCD touchscreen which can be detached from its holder provide two ways to control the TV. The touchscreen controller also can be used to control everything else in the suite, including lighting, the three window shades, seat positioning, and the massage rollers in the seat.

Also to the side is a minibar stocked with pineapple juice, Perrier, Voss and a variety of canned soft drinks. Next to the minibar is a release for a large tray table that is used for meals and can be used for work.

To the front is a very large TV screen with a fresh orchid next to it and a small basket of snacks on a ledge in front. A vanity mirror and box of skin care products is built into the ledge, as is a writing kit (all of which can be taken off the plane with you). Carry-on luggage can be stowed in the space underneath the TV.

The first class cabin was almost full. I felt like a complete fraud sitting there, watching the business class passengers stream past, but I was still loving it.

Across the aisle was an Italian man with a thick gold chain and a shirt that had been unbuttoned one button too many. He didn’t speak English, so they borrowed a flight attendant from another cabin to translate. Emirates’ crews are the most multi-cultural that I’ve seen, and when the captain introduced the crew while we were taxiing to the runway, he must have rattled off at least a dozen languages that the crew spoke between themselves.

Before we took off, I asked the flight attendant to take a photo of me in the seat for posterity. She happily obliged, and then asked a question to which the answer was obvious. “First time flying with us in this cabin, Mr. Loh?”

As is customary, the flight attendant also offered me a pre-take off drink, a cup of Arabic coffee, and a date.

Shortly afterwards, the attendant was back, handing out the meal service menu, an amenities kit, some pajamas, and slippers. Meals are ordered à la carte, and can be eaten whenever you want to. You can also order as much food as you want, subject to availability.

The food is decent, but at the end of the day it’s still airplane food and they’re heating up pre-prepared food in a tiny oven. The setting in which the meal occurs is what makes it memorable — from the white tablecloth, to the metal cutlery and other meticulously laid out eating accoutrements.

The amenities kit was manufactured by Bulgari and contained an array of stuff that I thought would surely get confiscated the next time I went through airport security, including a shaving kit with a razor, an aerosol can filled with shaving cream, and a large stick of deodorant. (Strangely enough, it passed through security without any problems.)

I was feeling tired after running around a humid Hong Kong, so I had a snack and went to the lavatory to brush my teeth and change into some shorts. By the time I came out, my bed had been made for me and I fell asleep almost instantly.

After too short a sleep, I was prodded awake for breakfast. I opted for an unorthodox mix of dim sum, pastries, fruit, and a can of coke. The Italian man across the aisle had already finished eating and was now inspecting the skin care products kit with what I can only describe as a look of intense conflict. His face was that of a man unsure about whether the little bottles of lotion and snuff boxes were something he was actually allowed to steal. He put the kit back on the table and took a long sip from his wine glass (it’s never too early for alcohol when you’re flying). He picked it up again and pawed at it some more. And then he surreptitiously shoved the whole thing into his bag. I did the same thing, but was much less surreptitious about it.

We landed in Dubai one hour early, at 4.00am. I stepped off the plane into a deserted terminal, just as the dawn adhan was being piped through the airport PA system.

 

Dubai has fascinated me for a long time. I had visited twice before,once in 2005 and again in 2007. A lot had changed in the intervening six years, and I was keen to revisit and also catch up with an old friend from uni.

Since 2007, Dubai had endured the financial crisis — almost becoming bankrupt in the process until its big brother, Abu Dhabi, came to bail it out — before rebounding and going back to its old habits of rabidly constructing improbable buildings in the middle of the desert. (In 2010, Dubai opened the world’s tallest building. At over 800 metres high, it was supposed to have been named the Burj Dubai. At the last minute, it was renamed to the Burj Khalifa to honor its benefactor, the Emir of Abu Dhabi, whose deep pockets contributed to the financial bailout.)

The friend I was meeting was with had an eclectic background. A Bangladeshi by heritage, he had grown up in Papua New Guinea, studied in Sydney, worked as a technology consultant in Singapore, and finally ended up in Dubai working in the hospitality industry. He was multilingual but still spoke with a solid Australian accent. After attending the same undergraduate program for four years, we kept in touch periodically until work took him abroad. I had not seen him since he moved to Dubai, which was about six years ago.

We almost missed each other in Dubai. I was going to be there for less than 24 hours, and he was flying out to London that same morning to meet up with his wife, who was attending a course in Cambridge. After exchanging a few messages on Facebook and Whatsapp, we eventually established that we were going to overlap for a few hours in the early morning — just enough time to catch up somewhere in the city.

So it was at 5.00am that he turned up, somewhat bleary eyed, to pick me up from the airport. It turned out that he had decided to pull an all-nighter. At least in that respect, he was exactly as I remembered him from our undergrad days.

As we drove into the city, we caught up with the usual obligatory gossip about classmates and eventually moved on to the topic of Dubai itself.

Things definitely felt a lot better than a few years ago, he remarked. The construction boom was back with a vengeance, and unemployed expatriates had stopped ditching cars they could no longer afford at the airport in a bid to escape debtors’ prison (in exchange for never being able to set foot in the country again).

“The locals really know how to do business,” my friend said. “Any one of them will be involved in two or three businesses at the same time.” He was referring to the local Emratis, who were actually a distinct minority in Dubai. In a city of 2 million, less than 20% were locals. The rest were expats. There were the usual westerners — professional services industry types taking advantage of the zero percent income tax rate and the glitzy expat lifestyle — but the mainstay of the population and, some would say the Dubai economy, were the expats from the subcontinent — Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis — and Filipinos.

Two local brands have really put Dubai on the world map: Emirates and Jumeirah. Jumeirah runs a chain of luxury hotels, including the famous Burj al Arab — a so-called 7-star hotel whose sail-like structure has become almost synonymous with the image of Dubai.

We arrived at the Emirates Towers (a Jumeirah property, naturally) and ate breakfast there. With technology being not just a tool anymore, but being an enabler of all things, my friend explained that he saw his job not so much as technology consulting, but as hospitality consulting. He used technology to determine things from how to price rooms, how to optimize occupancy rates, where to situate guests from different countries within the building, and how to lay out the floor plans of their restaurants. “I love my job,” he said. “Our company treats its staff well, even though the salaries in Dubai are not what they used to be during the boom times.” He said that without any trace of irony, despite the fact that a few minutes ago he was driving me in what in any part of the world would be considered a very nice car.

“Oh yeah, there are a lot of nice cars in Dubai. When I went to Italy last year for a holiday, I was surprised because it turns out that all the nice cars the Italians make aren’t there. They’re here. My neighbor bought an Enzo last year. And this year he bought a Maserati. Even our police force has an Aventador and an Aston-Martin. I think that’s ridiculous. You’ll see their SLK cruising around our neighborhood on a Friday night.” I guess things are all relative.

My friend was clearly enjoying the expat life, and in general, it was a good one — at least if you were not an expat laborer working on one of the skyscrapers springing up around the place. (While building the Burj Khalifa, the contractors decided it was taking too long to send workers up and down the building at the start and end of each workday, so they built sleeping quarters on one of the upper unfinished floors to shorten workers’ daily “commutes.”)

A lot of expats were still leveraging their credit cards to maintain the expat lifestyle that everyone was outwardly displaying, but there was a bit more restraint than there was four years ago. They worked hard, but also set aside time for leisure, including on weekend nights. From a cultural perspective, neither my friend nor his wife felt that local laws or customs had curtailed any aspect of the lifestyle they had enjoyed in Sydney. Yet, his time in Dubai would be limited. “I’m going to move back to Sydney at some point. I want to retire there.”

Dubai was clearly still a city of excesses. I bid my friend farewell and continued my visit. I visited the Burj Khalifa, which was a beautiful monolith standing head and shoulders above an already bustling skyline. I had a Friday brunch at Spectrum on One, a multi-hour affair with a sumptuous buffet and an all-you-can-drink alcohol offering. I relaxed at the Ritz-Carlton’s private beach, where a friend happened to be staying. I rode the Metro — a new, gleaming transit system that was initially feared to be a white elephant but turned out to be quite well used, even if it was mainly by tourists and expats who looked like they provided household help. I walked through Dubai’s gigantic shopping malls, filled with international brands, restaurants, an ice bar, and an indoor ski slope (complete with chair lifts). The air conditioning bill for the city must have been massive. It was not yet the peak of summer, but already the heat and humidity was stifling as soon as you walked outside.

In fact, it gets so hot during the summer, that most Emratis clear out of the city in July. Some even take their cars with them, so you might see a Veyron being driven around the streets of Mayfair with Dubai license plates.

The affluence was jarring to me. Back home in Silicon Valley, there’s some serious wealth there, but it’s rarely flaunted. It’s hidden behind the high walls of Atherton and secluded in the forested ranches of Woodside. Despite a large number of Porsches and Teslas, you’ll only catch the occasional glimpse of a supercar. I also knew in the back of my mind that the Dubai economy was being powered by the darker side of laborers working under harsh and inhumane conditions, as several journalists have reported upon in the past.

We had dinner at a Lebanese restaurant at the Dubai Marina with a Swiss couple, Aliando and Vera. Aliando worked for Emirates. He described how Dubai was building an even bigger airport to replace its current one — which is already better than most international airports in the world. He mentioned how Emirates planned to order and maintain a fleet of over a hundred Airbus 380s. We asked Aliando and Vera whether they thought Dubai was doing too much, too fast, and whether things were just a little too excessive to be sustainable. After an honest moment of contemplation, they just shrugged and said that they didn’t know the answer. I suspect no one really does.

After dinner, an Emirates driver came to give me a ride to the airport.

 

The first class lounge in Dubai International Airport is unique. It’s not really a lounge as it is the entire fourth level of the terminal.

The lounge is quiet and sparsely populated. It’s almost like having a whole terminal to yourself. When it’s time to board, you don’t need to leave the lounge — you simply board through private gates that let first class passengers board separately. Places to relax, work, eat, and have a drink are liberally distributed throughout the lounge. Workers greet you as you walk past, and offer you a drink or a snack as soon as you sit down. A sleeping room is filled with recliners and beds with pillows and blankets. In one corner there were four different brands of bottled water available. The wifi is quick. You could spend a very long layover there in complete comfort.

There is also a spa that’s attached to the lounge. Passengers get a free 15 minute massage, and I took full advantage of that offering. Despite it being midnight, the spa was staffed, and I got an extraordinary back massage, during which I momentarily fell asleep.

Emirates’ first class experience seemed to be emblematic of the reputation its home city had: ambitiously striving to become world beating by being just a tad outrageous.

 

My flight to London was delayed by an hour, and by the time we boarded I was dying. I had been awake for over 24 hours, after two consecutive nights where I averaged three hours of sleep. I was running on fumes and wanted nothing more than to sleep, which I would have done but for the fact that the highlight of the trip was still to come.

Not only did I want to try the shower, I desperately needed one. After wandering around in the Dubai sun for a whole day, I’m sure I wasn’t smelling like a rose.

As soon as I boarded, I asked a flight attendant whether I could book the shower. She asked, “When would you like to take it?”

“As soon as possible.”

I fell asleep during the take off roll and was awoken a few minutes later by the flight attendant who nudged me. “Your shower is ready, Mr. Loh.”

Trying to shake off the wooziness, I grabbed my bag and she led me over to the bathroom to give me a tour of the facilities. I knew how it all worked already. I had read about it online and watched the numerous YouTube videos. But now I was physically there and I patiently let her explain away while I soaked it in.

The bathroom is large. On one wall, there is a full length mirror and an amenities cabinet with a hairdryer inside. A TV screen shows where the plane is over the world. Next to the toilet, there’s a large padded bench, on which a box of shampoos, conditioners, and lotions is placed. The sink is large and has two mirrors — a normal one and a magnifying one. And then there’s the shower compartment. It’s large enough to bend over in to wash your toes, and it comes with a bench (in case of turbulence) and a removable shower head. The cubicle door needs to be closed before the water will flow.

I would get exactly five minutes of water. A knob controls the water temperature and a button toggles the water flow. A row of lights shows how much time I had remaining. The water automatically shuts off at the four minute mark as a warning, and I would need to press the button to get the last minute’s worth of water. I would then step out of the shower onto a mat which they’ve placed on the floor, and dry myself off with a towel they supply. By the time I got back to my seat, flight attendants would have made up my bed and provided me with a plate of fruit and a cup of tea. I would grab a few hours of solid sleep, land in Heathrow, and then be whisked off into the city by another Emirates chauffeur in a black Mercedes.

The flight attendant finished her spiel and closed the door behind her. The TV showed we were somewhere over the Persian Gulf, about ten kilometers high. I undressed, entered the cubicle, set the water temperature, and hit the start button. I tested the water with my hand. Perfect temperature. Impressive water pressure. I stepped under.

It was glorious.

  10:53pm  •  Travel  •  Tweet This  •  Add a comment  • 
24
Feb 13
Sun

Dreamliners on the ground

This is one reason why all the Dreamliners are now grounded:

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28
Jan 13
Mon

The Chicago Seminars – a report

Regular readers may recall that at the start of 2012, I flew to Chicago and back ten times over the course of a handful of weekends. I got two different types of reactions to that escapade. “You’re crazy” was the first. “Tell me more” was the second. Regardless of which type you are, this post ought to be interesting.*

In October 2012 (it’s taken me a long time to write this post), I made my 11th trip to Chicago that year (12th, if you count a transit through there on the way to Shanghai) to attend a two-day seminar. It’s a little hard to describe the seminar, other than to characterize it as a convention for people who are passionate – perhaps a little obsessively so – about earning and spending points. Mainly airline frequent flyer program points (or miles), but also hotel program and other types of points. Most of the seminar’s attendees were generating hundreds of thousands, or even millions of points, each year. Most attendees were ordinary people who were just applying a few well-known techniques to generate points they couldn’t hope to earn in the usual way (that is, actually paying for flights and staying in hotels). While my job doesn’t allow me enough time to get as involved as some people do in this hobby, there is a lot of low hanging fruit out there which doesn’t require a lot of time, and which yields value in excess of what the implied hourly wage of my day job is.

The first reason I wanted to attend the seminar was to see if I could pick up a few nuggets of wisdom which I could then go home and implement. A large amount of this is blogged about openly online, but there’s a lot of content out there to sort through. Listening to people present in a lecture format and listening to people ask questions to presenters seemed like a good way to get the lay of the land.

The second reason was that I was curious to see what kind of crowd showed up. During my January Chicago flights, I had come across a dozen or so of these types of people cloistered in the Admiral’s Lounge at SFO. They struck me as intelligent, but somewhat single-minded and cliquey, in the same way you’d regard the stereotypical participant at a sci-fi or comic convention (I’ve been to both, so this is hardly a dig at the points and miles people).

At eight on a Saturday morning, about 300 people from around the country descended upon a nondescript Holiday Inn near Chicago O’Hare International. The first day had about 9 solid hours’ worth of talks, split into two streams by topic. After factoring in lunch and a few coffee breaks, the day ran from 8.30am to 7.30pm. The second day had about 5 hours of talks, with a couple of plenary sessions thrown in. It wasn’t unlike any other conference I’ve been to, except that it was a non-profit event, organized and run by volunteers. Leftover money from ticket sales and raffles was donated to charity.

It was certainly an interesting crowd. Eyeballing the room, I would say it was dominated by the middle-aged people in their 40s and 50s. However, there were still a fair amount of retirees and people in their 20s and early 30s. Maybe three-quarters were men.

Most of the presenters were basically community leaders – bloggers who devoted a large part of their time (some of them full-time) writing posts which attract thousands of loyal readers. The other presenters were people from industry (like representatives from ITA Software, a Google subsidiary, and the legendary pilot for United Airlines, Denny Flanagan).

Each presenter, almost without exception, was quite articulate, intelligent, humorous and engaging. They were patient and rarely patronizing. In hindsight, this shouldn’t have been surprising. As I’ll describe later, the points game requires intelligence, organization, an innate ability to think (and act) outside the box, and an appetite for taking on calculated risks. And of course the points are used to travel, which, by its very nature, I’ve always believed is horizon-expanding.

Expert Flyer

The first presentation I saw was given by a representative from ExpertFlyer, a website that helps you find seat and flight availability. The presentation was mostly a tutorial, and peripherally a sales pitch. ExpertFlyer is a freemium, subscription based SaaS product that has long been a mainstay for people trying to ascertain whether a particular flight has “inventory”. Airline inventory management is a hugely complicated area – airlines don’t simply bucket fares into economy, business, and first class. Instead, there are normally dozens of different fare classes for each flight, each used in a different context. For an economy class ticket, there are various fare classes which reflect various price points – everything from full-fare tickets, to deeply discounted tickets, to tickets people for people redeeming points (i.e. award redemptions). ExpertFlyer has agreements with an array of airlines which allow it to tap into their reservations database for more granular data about a flight that traditionally would only be available to travel agents. By figuring out how many tickets in each fare class is available, you can get more insight into whether a flight is overbooked, or whether there’s any upgrade inventory available.

ITA Matrix

The second presentation was given by an executive and an engineer from ITA Software. ITA is essentially a software engineering house founded by a bunch of people from MIT. The travel industry is probably one of the original “big data” fields, so designing systems to cope with all that data was an interesting, practical engineering problem. The product they were presenting was called Matrix. Matrix is an airfare search engine that provides a level of customization you can’t get with mainstream fare searching site like Kayak or Hipmunk (for example, you can search for very particular routings and also view an entire month of airfares on one screen).

Elite Status

The third presentation I attended was given by Summer Hull, proprietor of the Mommy Points blog. Summer is a young Texan mother who uses points as a cost-effective way to stay connected with the rest of her family, which is spread out across the States. She spoke about attaining elite status on airlines, and offered a more grounded view on things given that she wasn’t one of those people who held top-tier status with multiple airlines, and that she had family responsibilities to attend to.

A few interesting notes from her talk:

  • Some status levels let you change the time of your ticket without charge, as long as it’s within 24 hours of your original booking time. This means you can book your ticket at the cheapest timeslot, and then change to another time closer to the day without paying extra (but subject to availability).
  • You can essentially buy top-tier status on US Airways by earning at least one mile and spending $3000.
  • If you have top-tier status on any airline, Turkish Airways will do a status match to their mid-tier status. Their mid-tier status happens to be at a Star Alliance Gold level, so you can get some real benefits from there, like extra luggage allowance, priority boarding and lounge access. I’ve tried this myself (using my AA Exec Plat status) and it works.
  • If you’re a management consultant who’s always on the road, there’s no reason why you can’t get top-tier status in all the different hotel chains if you hotel hop (stay in a different hotel each night).

Mileage Running

Ben Schlappig, aka Lucky, impressively gave two back-to-back 2-hour talks followed by sitting on a 90 minute panel. Ben’s in his early 20s, a recent college grad, and works full time on helping people to make award redemptions, traveling, and travel writing. He physically flies about 300,000 miles a year – most of it in premium cabins – and stays in hotels for most of it. He’s arguably one of the leading figures in the community and runs One Mile at a Time.

Ben’s first talk was about mileage running (MR). One of the ways to generate points is to fly. Most people fly because they have to go somewhere, in which case MR techniques can be used to “optimize” your route. Some people actually fly because they just want to generate points (“the destination is unimportant,” as some in the community snidely remark). In either case, the goal is to find flights which offer the best bang for your buck. The standard metric used to judge this is “cpm” (cents per mile), or the cost of earning a frequent flier mile. Obviously, the lower the number, the better.

There are basically three steps involved with sourcing MRs.

1. Identify a cheap route (if you don’t already have a destination in mind). This is where tools like Matrix come in. Ben walked us through an example on Matrix where he found a cheap fare from Las Vegas (LAS) to Pittsburgh (PIT), assuming you lived in Vegas. If you live in San Francisco, you could ask Matrix to search for all flights leaving from SFO to a major airport on the east coast (e.g. PIT, PHL, EWR, JFK, LGA, MCO, TPA, BOS, PVD, BWI, IAD, MHT, DCA) on United during the month of December. Matrix would then display the cheapest flight for each day in December.

2. Optimize the route. In this context, optimization means lengthening the route without materially increasing the price. There’s a concept called “maximum permitted mileage” which determines how much you can elongate a route without “breaking the fare”. Fares are issued based on a complicated set of routing rules, and it’s often possible add one or more stops on your journey without increasing the cost of the fare. The goal here is to add additional out-of-the-way stops which will increase your mileage. Ben continued with the LAS-PIT example and determined it was possible to fly LAS-SFO-EWR-PIT, and by transiting at San Francisco and Newark, earn an extra thousand miles each way. Of course, most people want to get from point A to point B in the least time possible, but mileage runners are a special breed. As a rule of thumb, flights which price at under 4cpm are good value, and flights for under 3.5cpm are very good value. Anything under 3cpm is increasingly rare and pretty exceptional. International flights do not have cpms as low as domestic flights, but international flights allow you to accrue more miles in one go, instead of having to hop on and off planes every couple of hours. Status bonuses and promotions can sometimes double or triple the miles you earn on a trip.

3. Book the ticket. Matrix doesn’t book tickets, so converting an identified route into a ticket may take a bit of legwork. Sometimes you can enter the route in as a multi-leg itinerary on an airline’s website or with an online travel agent like Travelocity, but sometimes you have to call in to an airline’s reservation hotline and book it manually. Particularly complicated multi-airline itineraries may need a traditional travel agent.

Award Redemption

Ben’s second presentation was on award redemption. The usual raison d’être of the points game. He runs a business on the side where he helps people to redeem their frequent flyer points for a flight in exchange for a $150 fee. While the fee seems steep – especially when you’re trying to book a flight that would otherwise be free or almost free – it’s not as easy to redeem points as you might think because the inventory that airlines make available for redemptions is limited. One complication is that you can use the miles earned on one airline to redeem flights on another airline – usually within the same alliance, but not always. However, the inventory that an airline makes available to members of its own frequent flyer program is usually different to the inventory made available to partner airline members (an airline will obviously look after its own members first). So, locating availability on partner airlines is tricky and you have to know where to look.

Ben had redeemed over 250 million miles for his clients, so he had plenty of experience with navigating the system. One thing that struck me about this presentation (and actually, the community in general) was how willing Ben was to share information about the tricks of his trade. People pepper him with questions on his blog and, within reason, he tries to answer them all.

As a general rule of thumb, if you locate an award you think you might want, book it immediately. Availability fluctuates constantly and may disappear overnight. If you need to cancel an award, the fee to get the miles redeposited into your account is normally relatively cheap (or free, if you have status). Date changes to award tickets are normally free, as long as where you’re going doesn’t change.

The other rule of thumb is to burn your points and don’t hoard them! Most have a fairly pragmatic view towards points and don’t regard them as good “investments”. That is, they don’t appreciate in value. On the contrary, because how points programs are run are largely at the whim of airlines, points tend to devalue over time – sometimes suddenly without advance warning – when airlines increase the cost of award tickets across the board. Ben indicated that he tries to keep his miles at a level which allow two first class redemptions (about 150-200k points for U.S. airlines), so that he can liquidate miles quickly if he gets wind of a change in program rules.

Ben also ran through some tips about where to locate award availability based on the alliance you wanted to fly.

Star Alliance. Star Alliance airlines apparently make the same amount of space available to all of their partners. This means, in theory, that if you want to redeem points on Singapore Airlines, you’ll see the same seat availability whether you have United or Lufthansa points. Singapore Airlines’ own members, of course, have preferential treatment and greater award availability. (There are ways to get miles on Singapore, even if you never fly them – such as by earning American Express Membership Rewards points and transferring them across to KrisFlyer, Singapore’s frequent flyer program).

The first site to try is the award search tool on United’s website (otherwise known as “dot bomb” in the community). If your itinerary has multiple segments (individual flights), and an end-to-end search doesn’t turn up anything, try searching for each segment individually. The latter approach might turn up something, and you will need to make the redemption by doing a multi-city booking and manually typing in each segment. If that doesn’t work, you may need to call into the airline to make a manual booking. Airlines normally charge for this, but you may be able to get the phone booking fee waived if you tell them it wasn’t possible to make the booking online.

The second site that Ben turns to is ANA’s site. You need to have points in an ANA account to use their mileage tool, but it’s useful to supplement and fine tune United’s searches.

Expert Flyer, of course, is an alternative, if you’re willing to pay for a tool designed at helping with finding award availability.

As for airlines to redeem on, United is pretty good value.

OneWorld. American’s site is pretty good for finding availability on certain of its partners, including Alaska, BA, Hawaiian and Qantas. Indeed, it’s apparently better for searching BA availability than BA’s own site. BA’s site is a good second source for finding availability on OneWorld partners where American’s site does not turn up results.

One useful trick that Ben covered when redeeming AA points it that if you’re flying internationally, you are allowed to have one free stopover at what American regards as a “transoceanic North American gateway”, which is basically any airport which has a connection to an international location with American or a partner airline. This can be leveraged to give yourself a free one-way ticket within North America (which includes the Caribbean), valid for up to a year after the main flight.

This is best illustrated with an example. If you want to fly from Hong Kong to San Francisco, instead of booking HKG-SFO, you would book something like HKG-SFO-JFK. The date of the SFO-JFK segment can be up to one year after the HKG-SFO flight, which allows you to pick when you want to visit New York in the future. Remember that changing dates is fairly easy with award tickets (subject to availability), so it’s a ticket with some flexibility. You’ll need to book your own return ticket from JFK. JFK can be somewhere else in North America as well, subject to certain routing restrictions (you’re probably not going to be able to do HKG-JFK-HNL).

Another redemption option that AA offers is the distance based “Explorer” award, which can offer an affordable way to construct a round-the-world ticket (e.g., 14-20k miles of travel for only 130,000 points in business class).

BA points are great for short haul flights (but crap for long-hauls). Chase’s BA credit cards are well known for occasionally coming with 100,000 point sign up bonuses.

Sidebar

Ben’s bookmarks in Chrome:

  • Gmail
  • Twitter
  • FlyerTalk
  • Chase
  • ANA Tool
  • Award Wallet
  • ExpertFlyer
  • One Mile at a Time
  • Facebook
  • FlexOffers (affiliate program)
  • MilesBuzz!

How to spot a mileage runner:

  • They’re sitting up the front
  • They only have carry-on luggage
  • Their carry-on has a yellow Flyertalk luggage tag
  • They wear Bose noise cancelling headphones
  • They photograph all their meals
  • They get off a plane and then get straight back on it for the return trip

Redemption products

The tail end of Ben’s presentation was about what the best “aspirational products” to redeem on were. “Product” refers to the flight experience on a giving airline, route, cabin class, and aircraft type. “Aspirational” means that it’s not a product you would think of paying real dollars for unless you were a very high net worth individual. Replete with an envy-inducing photo slideshow, some of the noteworthy products Ben flashed up included:

  • Intercontinental in a new Lufthansa 747-8 in First. Notable feature: your bed is separate to your chair. (Lufthansa typically releases space in first class space to partners 2 weeks before a flight. Use ExpertFlyer’s flight availability search tool to figure out how likely they will be to release award space – if “F > 3”, then there are more than 3 revenue tickets available and unsold, and a good indication there will be surplus space.)
  • Long-haul in an Emirates A380 in First. Notable feature: showers and a personal mini bar.
  • Long-haul in a Singapore A380 in Suites. Notable feature: it’s not first class, it’s “Suites” class.
  • Europe to Bangkok in a Thai Airways 747 in First. Notable feature: you get a free 1 hour massage if you go to the first class lounge in Bangkok’s airport.

Steve Belkin

Steve Belkin (known online as Beaubo) is practically an elder figure in the community. A full generation older than Ben, Steve gave an engaging presentation on Friday morning. It was basically a story-telling session. Steve had accumulated over 20 years’ worth of experience in the points game, and with it, a boatload of pretty remarkable stories (not to mention about 40 million miles).

A family man and, fittingly, an entrepreneur in the solar energy business, Steve’s motivation for being in the points game was to see the world, to keep in physical contact with his family, to share the experience with his family and friends, and to solve puzzles.

Wait. Solve puzzles?

Steve didn’t earn his points by spending all his time in planes. Steve earned his points through creative schemes which required a great deal of chutzpah. “Scheme” is perhaps a poor choice of word as it conjures up images of Bernie Madoff and Alan Bond, and belies the actual skill and entrepreneurial spirit behind how Steve earned his points.

Steve’s modus operandi is to spot an opportunity, optimize it, and — this is where he diverges from most others — figure out how to scale the shit out of it. It’s pretty easy to take advantage of an opportunity yourself, but it takes a different skill set to figure how to scale up because it usually involves recruiting people to work for you. He operates in a different league to even the most prolific individuals in the community.

His exploits are well publicized on internet forums, but his most famous is the Baht run. I’m not going to recount it here because it would take too long. You can find summaries elsewhere on the web. However, let just say it involved him:

  • Taking advantage of a points promotion being run by Air Canada on $8 flights operated by Thai Airways on its new 50 minute Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai route.
  • Flying over to Thailand (having never been there before) and recruiting 10 Thai rice farmers and 10 disabled Thais from a massage parlor to each fly 5 round-trip flights for 4 days a week, for a couple months.
  • Being flagged by the DEA and having to fly back to Thailand to deal with it (for pretty serious reasons).
  • Being flagged by Thai Airways and having to fly back to Thailand to deal with it (for rather amusing reasons).
  • Air Canada freezing all his frequent flyer accounts.
  • “Convincing” Air Canada to unfreeze his frequent flyer points after he went to the press.
  • Ending up with 3 million miles.

Other schemes recounted:

  • The Vegas Run, featuring a bunch of out of work actors each taking 20 trips to Vegas in first class for a haul of 750,000 points each and 10 million in total.
  • The Chocolate Run, featuring hiring German college students on FlyerTalk to fly for him and earn 1 million miles.
  • The Wyndham Promotion, featuring him booking out 60 empty hotel rooms and earning 1.2 million points after cutting a deal with Wyndham’s corporate HQ to allow him to sidestep a no-show, no-points policy.
  • The eBay Scheme, featuring Steve taking out a second mortgage on his house to push $200,000 in spend through eBay in collusion with a friend to take advantage of a promotion.

Really fascinating. The blend of skills involved reminded me of the startup world – problem solving, negotiation and social skills, scaling an opportunity, and just getting out there and executing.

The Panel

The seminars took a more philosophical turn here, and the panel session was fascinating. Steve, with the voice of a seasoned veteran, put the brakes on and provided a bit of perspective to the game. In a nutshell, Steve believed the glory days of the points game were gone. Various factors – the restructuring of the airline industry, the growing bank of un-redeemed miles, and the growing number of people getting in on the game due to the free flow of information on the internet all pointed to the whole shebang stacking up like a house of cards. Miles would continue to be devalued, airlines would move to revenue-based mileage programs, and opportunities such as credit card churning would vanish. This caused a great deal of consternation and dismay among the crowd.

For someone who had clearly devoted a lot of his free time to the game over the last decades, I found it interesting that Steve was attempting to inject a dose of reality and perspective into the situation by telling everybody to stop obsessing about things. He was essentially saying that people getting stressed out about what he was saying should take a step back – the whole thing was a First World Problem. He had a point.

Of course, no one likes to hear that their livelihood may be going away, so Ben – a young, enterprising guy with many years ahead of him – offered a vigorous and fairly eloquent counterpoint on these.

One thing they did agree on is that you should never bank miles – inflation will kill them.

Gift Card Churning

Besides flying, the other way to earn miles and point is to spend money on credit cards. The penultimate session was about ways to generate points via credit card spend. I’m not going to go into detail here, but basically there are ways to amplify points generation by the use of gift cards.

The infamous Office Depot / Vanilla Reload / Bluebird “opportunity of the year” that was available for several months in 2012 allowed people to push through substantial spend through a credit card that offered a 5x bonus on spend at office supply stores. People – myself included – were buying thousands of dollars worth of Vanilla Reload cards (stored value cards) at a time from Office Depot. Buying four fully-loaded cards generated 10,000 points at a net outlay of just shy of $16, and you could max out the opportunity at about half a million points… if you could find enough Vanilla Reloads.

Mileage Malls and Product Resale

The final session, which was interrupted halfway through by a tornado warning, also looked at ways to amplify credit card spend. There exist various online shopping malls which, if you go through them to purchase goods from online retailers, give you a points bonus. Sometimes the points bonuses, coupled with a discount in the underlying good, made it profitable to buy the goods (generating spend and points), and then resell the goods for a nominal loss or gain (to recoup the spend) via Amazon Stores. A lot of overhead and a fair amount of risk, but potentially lucrative and somewhat scalable.

Closing Thoughts

The Chicago Seminars were an engrossing, entertaining, informative and fascinating experience. The community has pretty capable “leaders,” if you want to call them that, and despite the apparent nature of the game – the scheming, the arbitraging, the exploiting of loopholes – all of them presented themselves as reasonable, down-to-earth, intelligent and (mostly) ethical people.

The audience was a mixed bag from all walks of life. Some of them had ridiculous egos that you’re bound to find whenever people think they’re part of an “in” group. Some of them were overly obsessive. But most were just trying to find a cheap way to travel. All were bargain hunters at heart – the next generation of coupon cutters. I met a father of a college-aged kid who could now afford to fly his daughter back home every quarter to see her. I met a retiree who could now travel overseas with his wife more than their means would otherwise allow. I met a woman in her early twenties – an accountant from Tampa – who was using the miles to backpack in places around the world. And I’m doing it because I love planes, traveling, the startup-like mentality, and a good challenge.

*As for the results of my self-inflicted 90 hours on planes, I managed to squeeze in 6 international trips last year, all in business, except for 4 segments which were in first and 1 in economy, for a nominal cash outlay. I also gave a pair of upgrades to a friend’s brother to bump him and his wife up while they were on their honeymoon. The Chicago January runs were the only mileage runs I did last year.

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9
Jan 13
Wed

Cities over the last 365 days (2012)

After skipping making this post last year (I forgot), below is the list of cities and towns I saw over the last year. (Here is the 2010 list.)

Amman, Jordan
Petra, Jordan+
Wadi Rum, Jordan
Jerusalem, Israel
Tel Aviv, Israel*
Haifa, Israel*
Ein Bokek, Israel
Chicago, IL*
Miami, FL
Panama City, Panama
Shanghai, China
Seattle, WA
Beijing, China
London, UK
Duesseldorf, Germany
Cologne, Germany+
Koblenz, Germany+
Frankfurt, Germany+
Fuessen, Germany
Liechtenstein+
Varenna, Italy
Bormio, Italy+
Sydney, Australia
Copenhagen, Denmark
Helsingør, Denmark+
Malmö, Sweden
New York, NY

All places had overnight visits, unless marked with ††.
* Multiple entries, non-consecutive days.
†† Daytrip only.

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26
Sep 12
Wed

Driving the Stelvio Pass

I recently returned from a 10 day whirlwind trip to Europe, visiting London, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Duesseldorf, Cologne, Fuessen, Liechtenstein, Varenna and passing through Koblenz, Frankfurt, Munich, Switzerland and Austria. The trip was centered around a wedding in Tel Aviv, and another in Varenna (a town on Lake Como, Italy).

I flew into Cologne, took a train to Duesseldorf and stayed with a friend there. I have always wanted to drive in Germany, so I rented a nice car in Duesseldorf (a diesel which gave me about 900km on one tank of petrol!) As luck would have it, my friend needed to be in Frankfurt for business on the day I was leaving Duesseldorf, so we drove down together, stopping at the Deutsches Eck along the way. I dropped him off in Frankfurt and continued south.

When there’s no traffic jam, German autobahns are fun to drive. They are famed for having lengthy stretches with no speed limits. Despite this, German drivers are incredibly well behaved and predictable. Almost religiously, they keep left except when overtaking. The result is that you pretty much can drive as fast as you want. People in the right lane tend to travel at about 100-130kph, and people in the left lane can go anywhere from 120 to well over 200kph. At those velocities, you need to concentrate and put a bit of thought into driving (lest you rear-end someone at catastrophic speeds), so it keeps things interesting. That, and a great soundtrack, made for a memorable road trip.

The highlight of the drive was not in Germany, however. I drove all the way down to Italy, and on the return journey decided to cross over into Austria via the Stelvio Pass. It’s a pretty spectacular road which snakes between snow-capped Alpine mountain peaks through over 60 hairpin turns. Cars share the road with suicidal motorcyclists and hard core bicyclists (respect). I’ll let this video I took do the rest of the talking:

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15
Jul 12
Sun

Minutes count…

Hmmm… I seem to have just missed out on a UA deal which mispriced flights to HKG in F at 4 MileagePlus points (yes that’s literally 4, not 4k, or 70k, which is the normal going rate). Apparently it’s been already honored at least once (comment #169).

I can’t seem to find a service that will reliably notify me when an RSS feed updates, so looks like I’m going to need to code one this evening.

Update (6.53pm): And I’m done. I added on a new bit to my existing script which periodically scrapes this cheap fares forum for any postings for routings containing SFO, LAX, SIN or SYD and emails me. It now monitors a bunch of feeds for new posts from One Mile at a Time and a couple other FF blogs. First non-test poll should be at 7.00pm.

Update (7.10pm): Used dos2unix to fix up a weird newline issue caused by Windows that was preventing the cron job from running. Working now:

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30
May 12
Wed

48 Hours in Beijing

The thing about flying 12 hours to get to a place, and then having to fly back after only 48 hours, is that it tends to focus the purpose of the trip. You don’t really have time to mess around, and you don’t really have time to do a lot of different things.

One of my best friends from Australia has been living in Beijing for the last four years. In that last four years, I’ve only seen him twice. During that time, he also had a son, who I had not seen. (I attended the christening ceremony, which was held in a Sydney church, via Skype and a laptop held up by his sister.)

When you’re working in two different continents separated by the world’s biggest ocean, time and distance seem to create a pretty big barrier… but not as big as you’d think. And so, for the Memorial Day long weekend, I decided on impulse to put my small stash of miles to work and booked a flight to Beijing in first class. It only cost twice the miles of an economy class ticket. I figured if I only had 48 hours, I might as well show up well-rested.

It turns out that it was a good choice, because the denizens of first class pretty much spent all 12 hours of the flight in various recumbent poses. It was the middle of the day in San Francisco when we departed, but somehow two of my neighbors managed to sleep through almost the entire flight. The flight attendants even switched the cabin lights off after we took off. I took a stroll through business class to stretch my legs and noticed that most people there were sitting up – tapping on laptops, reading Kindles, watching iPads or whatever. Their cabin lights were on. I stepped back into the darkness and settled once again into my flying lectus among the hedonists. I then had to sit through a five course meal served over what seemed like a gratuitous two hours. The food wasn’t very good either.

On United, the more senior flight attendants get the long haul routes. They have some sort of tenure, so most of them don’t aim to please. They left me alone for most of the flight, except for the one time they came to inquire whether “everything was alright,” just when people started getting naked on the episode of Game of Thrones I was watching on my iPad. I would never pay money to travel on United in first, even if I could afford it.

I was lucky to arrive at the massive Terminal 3 of Beijing Capital International Airport at an off-peak hour, and I met Kevin in the arrivals hall only about 20 minutes after stepping off the plane. We climbed into a black taxi* he had chartered.

The last time I had been in Beijing was in the winter of 2005, where I was taking a law school class which doubled as a sightseeing tour. Cold, miserable, and viewed through the eyes of a student on a budget, the Beijing of 2005 was a much different affair to Beijing in the spring of 2012. Freed from the obligation of needing to see the major tourist attractions like the Great Wall and Forbidden City, the focus of this trip was going to be catching up over food. But not before getting a foot massage. You know, because the flight was so long and arduous.

Kev worked in finance and was living what appeared to be the typical expat life (for someone in finance) with his wife Cath and 10 month old son. Work had provided him with a nice apartment in the city center, surrounded by other expats, affluent locals, and a host of white-skinned kids running about the community playground, rattling off fluent Mandarin.

We had dinner that night with Steve Fitzgerald and his wife Gay. Steve was the father of a mutual friend who was visiting his daughter in China and had decided to stop by Beijing for a couple days to catch up with some of his friends. Back in Sydney, we used to go out each week to pub trivia nights at the Paddington RSL, so it was different and interesting seeing him in this new environment. He had been Australia’s first ambassador to China in the early 70s. The dinner was at Temple, a restaurant operated by a Belgian which was set among the grounds of a beautiful, restored 600 year old temple, which itself was nestled in a hutong.

As you can imagine with someone like Steve at the table, the conversation was engaging, but unfortunately by midnight the jetlag was kicking my ass and I was literally nodding off at the dinner table. However, I was lucid enough to see John Dawkins, the former Treasurer of Australia, randomly materialize at our table to say hi to Steve, before he vanished as abruptly as he had appeared.

The next morning I woke up with phlegm down my throat. The previous day had been cloudless, but where the blue sky was meant to be, there was only gray. Pollution is a constant issue in Beijing, and the U.S. embassy has been publishing air quality statistics for several years. Their AQI, or air quality index, has become a frequently bookmarked webpage among the expat community (also, available as an iPhone app). The index is logarithmic, with 0-50 being “good”, 51-100 being “moderate” and 101-150 being “unhealthy for sensitive groups”. At the top of the scale, 301-500 is “hazardous”. I was told that international schools start to send kids home if the index exceeds 300. Like a snow day, but with particulate matter.

The U.S. embassy has a Twitter feed which pushes out air quality info periodically. One day, the Twitter feed was reporting that the AQI had risen to a “hazardous” level. It then tipped past the 500 mark. An automated tweet immediately went out reporting the air quality as “500; Crazy Bad”. It turns out that an AQI of over 500 was considered unattainable, so the person who had programmed the tweeting bot had just coded in whatever came into their mind. The US embassy quickly revised the language to the more diplomatic, “beyond index”.

On the way to lunch, we stopped by the National Art Museum, where an exhibition celebrating however many years of communist rule was on display. There were rows of paintings from the middle of the 20th century glorifying the peasant class and persecuting the merchants and the landowners.

 

Lunch was at Capital M, a restaurant owned by Australian Michelle Garnaut which occupied a prime location overlooking Tiananmen Square. Officially, the occasion was that Kev and I were celebrating a joint birthday (we were each born on the same day of the year) so about 20 people showed up, including a handful of people I knew. We had a pavlova for the birthday cake.

Kev’s friends were an interesting mix of expats – mostly Aussies and North Americans. I was pleasantly surprised when almost everyone I spoke to recognized the startup I worked for (we do not market our product to China), although the follow up question was invariably, “How does it make money?”

To add some entertainment, Kev had put together a trivia competition which featured questions such as “What is a wobbegong?“, “Translate ‘snow ewe smite’ from Australian into English”, and “Who is the head coach of Guangzhou Evergrande F.C.?”

When conversation turned to the AQI, people looked outside the window and hazarded a few guesses. A Canadian guy whipped out his iPhone. The Chinese government was reporting an AQI of 131. The U.S. embassy said it was 198.

Dinner was at a Vietnamese restaurant called Susu. Like Temple, it was also located in a hutong, at the end of some dusty, non-descript alleyway. The restaurant was neither dusty nor non-descript, opening up to a courtyard shaded by a large boughed tree, overlooked by a wooden deck from which you could gaze across the roofs of the hutong. The birthday girl was celebrating her 30th, and being an employee at the Australian embassy, had invited quite a number of Aussies along. It was a relatively young crowd, but many of them had been in China for years. I guess in expat communities around the world, there’s a certain unique vibe and culture that develops based on the host city – there’s a certain cadence to the conversation – how people introduce themselves, what topics of conversation arise, the common vocabulary they use. Beijing was a community of diplomats, government workers, non-profits and certain types of business professionals. Frankly, even though I was myself an expat and an Australian, I felt out of place there.

Later that night, we ended up at a North Korean bar, owned by North Korea and staffed by real North Korean waitresses. It was as bizarre as it sounds.

It was not a classy venue. However, we were not there for the décor. Clearly, the Great Successor had picked the best women the DPRK had to offer and put them on display in front of a crowd composed mainly of curious South Koreans drinking beer by the gallon. The waitresses were impossible to make small talk to, and we could only imagine that they had family back home that were at risk if they ever went “off message”. At one point in the night, each waitress went up on a stage and did her thing. There were dancers, a violinist, a zheng player, an opera singer, a drummer and an electric guitarist. The acts were accompanied by canned applause and the reverb and echo of their microphones had been turned up to 11, but despite those handicaps, each performer was of a quality that was startlingly incongruous with the setting.

Two friends I went to law school with in California turned up after the show. They were meant to have arrived before the show, but had got lost in the maze of suburbia entangling the bar. We had not seen each other for almost three years and had a lot of catching up to do.

On the way home, we stopped by the bar at the Shangri-la. Normally, being on the 80th floor would afford spectacular views, but Beijing was shrouded in haze and we could barely see the ground.

The next day, we took a stroll through a nearby park. It was a Monday, but the park was filled with grandparents socializing, exercising, and looking after their grandchildren. It had a feeling of community that you don’t get in the West – not even in a Floridian retirement community. On the other hand, it was a somewhat strange sight – the one child policy had essentially created a park full of grandparents fussing over grandchildren who had no brothers or sisters. I am an only child, but at least I have friends who have siblings, so I kind of know what it’s like. This is a generation of children who are going to grow up without any frame of reference. They won’t even have real aunts or uncles.

Ironically, the Chinese food in Beijing is not good, but I couldn’t leave the city without eating Peking Duck – one of my favorite dishes. Also ironically, we ate it at a restaurant owned by a Cantonese chef called Duck de Chine (the restaurant, not the chef). The duck was delicious.

And then I was in a black taxi on the way back to the airport.

___
*Black taxi: not an official taxi. Someone who makes money by driving people to and from destinations and willing to lop off a passenger’s legs if not paid. “I’ve been on a trip to the Great Wall with a U.S. diplomat friend and when we weren’t satisfied with the black cab and wanted to pay less. He held on to my backpack and almost physically assaulted me. This was despite my U.S. diplomat friend flashing her dippo card and saying she was a U.S. diplomat. These guys have nothing to lose and don’t care. We paid him when he started calling his friends for help.”


 

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19
Mar 12
Mon

What do all the controls in an airplane cockpit do?

A Quora user gives a massive reply to a “What do all the controls in an airplace cockpit do?“, explaining what just about every knob, light, switch, lever, screen, dial and button does in the cockpit of Boeing 737-600. I loved it. And then The Atlantic ran an article on it.

It’s just a matter of time before someone creates a site which explains what everything does with images and mouseovers.

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17
Mar 12
Sat

Ballad of the Road Warrior (Pico Iyer in BusinessWeek)

Pico Iyer romanticizes about business travel, a lifestyle traditionally open to “ridicule, of satire, even of tragedy” (and even pity):

The vacationer arrives in a city with all his time free (so he believes) and finds he can never enjoy a break from his holiday agenda. If he has a plan, he’s already halfway toward an unhappy ending; if he doesn’t, he may be in bigger trouble. The unexpected free day in which to explore a foreign place? It’s probably a joy quite lost to him. The hours of hard work that give life outside the office real savor? Unimaginable. Even when I’m traveling on holiday, I’ll often give myself an assignment or a writing project because, if I don’t, the days drift by in a blur, and I come home not really knowing where I’ve been.

The first rule of any kind of travel is that the destination, and even the purpose, of your trip is less important than the spirit you bring to it. One friend of mine, a self-employed filmmaker, plays frequent flying as if it were a kind of Monopoly with miles. Recently he took seven mileage runs in a month (one of them from L.A. to Bangkok and back), and a part of me guessed that he was in it for the accomplished business traveler’s sense of movement, the possibility of adventure, the chance to escape as much as for his 1K status.

Others like to sample the ways in which Atlanta, Chicago, and Raleigh, N.C., are all foreign countries. As when abroad, they aim to pick up a few words of another language in each of these places and some of the customs. The most exciting new city I’ve discovered in the past two years of global travel was Little Rock. For a few, the ultimate hero is a highflying consultant like Ram Charan, who didn’t have a proper home until he was 67, lived his adult life entirely in hotels and on planes, and sent his laundry to an office in Dallas, where a group of strangers would forward it to his next destination.

 

BusinessWeek recently ran a travel feature with some pretty interesting articles:

  • The Bangalore Express: Business class on the LH455 from Silicon Valley to Bangalore is always full. It’s essentially a 10 hour networking session.
  • Point Kings: How some people have a butler when they don’t have a home.
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19
Feb 12
Sun

Zero to 100,000 miles in under 6 days

Chicago is a cold place to be in January. Much more unpleasant than San Francisco. I should know – I flew from San Francisco to Chicago three times. In one weekend. And I did that three weekends in a row. I only made it out of Chicago O’Hare Airport on one of those nine trips, but each time I stepped off the plane, the bitter chill that blasted its way through the gap between the jet bridge and Boeing 767 metal was an unmistakable welcome to Chicago.

But I’m guessing you don’t want to hear about the weather in Chicago. You want to know why I made nine round-trips across the country over the course of six days. It wasn’t for business and it wasn’t for a girl (sadly). If you think about it for a moment, there’s only one thing it could really be for.

In December, I was browsing some blogs trying to figure out a way to use a bunch of Avios points that I had received from a British Airways credit card promotion. One of those blogs, “One Mile at a Time” was run by a guy going by the handle of Lucky, and in one post he was raving about a couple of promotions that American Airlines was running. The combination of those promotions made it possible to go from having no status with American all the way up to its top tier frequent flyer status – Executive Platinum – in the space of three weekends and for under $2,000. You had to live in California, Texas or Illinois to be able to take advantage of the opportunity. It caught my eye.

Achieving Executive Platinum status ordinarily requires you to fly 100,000 miles. That’s over 160,000 kilometres, or seven roundtrips between San Francisco and Sydney, or about 200 hours of flying.

I did a bit of thinking, ran the numbers, read the fine print, and then spent several hours booking flights. And with that, I was thrust into the world of “mileage running”.

“Lucky” is Ben Schlappig. He flies an average of about 300,000 miles a year, most of it in business and first class. He spends almost a third of the year in four and five star hotels. He has top-tier status with most, if not all, U.S. airlines. And Ben is, like, 21 years old. He just graduated from college last May.

Ben is a hardcore mileage runner. This means he often takes flights for the sole purpose of flying, and not to go somewhere in particular. Although most would think this is a highly peculiar hobby, as he mentioned in an interview, his classmates spent their weekends getting plastered at the bar, while he spent his weekends criss-crossing the country on cheap flights racking up frequent flyer miles. This, combined with savvy management of credit card point promotions, and a whole lot of tricks he picked up from his experiences, meant that he was soon regularly flying in first and having encounters with celebrities and politicians (on a recent international flight, he shared the cabin with Grace Mugabe – yes, the Zimbabwean President’s wife, whom he commented on with scorn). From what I can gather, Ben does not come from money – mileage running is all about getting great bargains, so he appears to have managed this all on a college student’s income. He now runs a side business helping people find ways to redeem their frequent flyer points (if you can’t find seat availability, for $150 a redemption, he’ll find some creative routings for you to make it work).

On his blog, Ben explained that American was running a promotion which doubled “elite qualifying miles” (EQM) for all of their flights in January. American was running a second promotion with doubled EQM for all flights between LAX/SFO (Los Angeles and San Francisco) and DFW/ORD (Dallas-Fort Worth and Chicago O’Hare). A customer service rep had confirmed that these two promotions were stackable. Furthermore, American was offering discounted flights between SFO-ORD for only $200 return (plus about $20 in tax) throughout January. The sentiment was that American, which had just entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, was doing this to attract more customers which would help it to fight its way out of its financial woes. In a nutshell, one return flight to Chicago would net over 10,000 miles.

I stopped telling my friends what I was doing after I got horrified reactions from a couple of them who thought I had quite frankly lost my marbles, or decided to invest in some Ponzi scheme. Why on earth would anyone in their right mind want to put themselves through what I was putting myself through?

I was never actually asked, “If this is such a good deal, then why isn’t anyone else doing it?” But the answer to that question is: “there were.”

If you look hard enough, you’ll find that almost every enthusiast community has a bustling online web forum which acts as a sort of global clearinghouse for information about it. Like sci-fi and fantasy? You’ll find your ilk on StarDestroyer.net. If BMWs are your thing, you’ll find enthusiasts on bimmerpost.com (who sign their messages with the list of BMWs they’ve owned in the past). If you think quantitative easing is going to inflate the value out of the US dollar and like to keep your assets in gold and silver bullion, Silver Stackers is your go-to place. Aircraft and aviation? Airliners.net. And for frequent flyers, there’s the venerable FlyerTalk forums.

The folk at FlyerTalk (or FT) had cottoned on to this AA promotion-fest a while ago and a couple hundred people had not only said they were going to take advantage of it, but they had all submitted their complete flight itineraries for January, and a forum member named “2millionquest” was diligently compiling all that data.

I met some of these people at the airport. I won’t lie, it was surreal stumbling off the plane from San Francisco, only to walk a few metres to the next gate and fly straight back there. The only thing more surreal was that when I was waiting to board the return flight, I’d recognize anywhere from two to ten familiar faces – people who had just got off the same flight I had, and who were now heading back to San Francisco. Upgrade request lists on some flights were 30-deep (that’s about three to four times what you’d normally see) because a lot of elite status members were partaking in these MRs in a bid to renew their status.

After a round-trip, it’s pretty obvious who is embarking on the same escapade, so people would just walk up to each other and say, “Hey, are you on FT?” or “You mileage running?” And then, “Wanna hit the AC?” It was like some sort of secret handshake. (AC stands for Admiral’s Club – the brand name for American’s airport lounges.)

The mileage runners (MRs) tended to congregate in airline lounges, away from the hoi polloi milling around the departure gates. Many MRs didn’t have lounge access, so people were messaging other MRs through FT and requesting to be “guested in.”

I reached out to one FT member who was taking the same Saturday night red eye out of SFO and he gave me his mobile number. I texted him when I was outside the AA lounge and he came out to meet me. He was a tall, congenial Asian guy called Allen. Pretty much all we talked about was mileage running. It was a fascinating conversation. The only personal details I got out of him was that he was a hardware engineer from Sunnyvale in his early 30s, having graduated from MIT about 10 years ago. After a few words about how software engineering was where all the money was these days in the Valley, he told me how he had been mileage running for about a year now. He asked if I had any good MR stories to share, and I confessed I was a complete newbie to the game.

I asked him whether the promotion we were currently taking advantage of was a frequent occurrence and he said that a deal this good only happened maybe once every 5-10 years. He mentioned that he had picked up a lot of information from FT, and also from a seminar that a few "luminaries" in the FT community had run in Chicago a few months earlier. I learned about "fuel dumps", how best to use Avios points, why spending $450 for an Amex Platinum card might actually be a good deal, and a bunch of other random tips. After a while, we decided to go hunting around looking for other FTs. They weren’t hard to spot. Most lounge guests were either alone or grouped in twos and threes. But in one corner, a group of about a half dozen mismatched people were engaged in lively conversation.

I had walked into a den of pretty serious MRs. They were mostly a generation older than me, and mostly men (there were two women). The discussion was all about flying, and I think there was a measure of shared relief among the group that they could freely talk about mileage running with other like-minded individuals without worrying they’d get the same shocked looks that I was getting from my friends. Acronyms sprayed the air like machine gun fire. And from what I could tell, it had been a long time since some of them had flown in economy.

One lady, who was from Sacramento, recounted a story about how she had to travel to London via New York and freaked out when she couldn’t get an upgrade out of coach. “There was no way I was flying international at the back of the plane,” she snorted, and then told us how she rerouted the flight through two different cities and managed to get the upgrade.

A hardened, older gentleman with a pot belly and sandals was showing off his itinerary, which he had done up in an Excel spreadsheet in meticulous detail. He was flying 11 segments that weekend.

Another lady told the group how she had discovered which lounge in DFW had the best showers. “They have nozzles coming at you from the sides as well as above!”

Then there was a guy called Ben (not the same Ben). Ben was based in Dallas and he was already an Executive Platinum member (or “Exec Plat” as they called it). He had heard a rumor that American was going to either lift the mileage thresholds or add additional tiers, and he was generating more miles “just in case”. Just in case. “No offence,” he said to the group, “but a lot of people don’t see why an Exec Plat who has flown 100k miles should be treated the same as one who has flown 200k miles.” Ben was a middle-aged tech manager who flew to Tokyo several times each quarter (I’m guessing he was an EDS exec). In doing so, he had racked up 6.5 million miles with American (most of them “butt-in-seat” miles). If you’re now thinking of the movie “Up In The Air,” you’re not the only one. If you haven’t seen it, George Clooney plays a frequently flying businessman who hits an insane number of miles flying American.

Sitting in on that group’s conversation was scary. It’s like any conversation where everyone else is well-informed and super passionate about some niche topic and you’re not. I might as well have walked into a medical conference. Mileage running has its own glossary, and these people knew an incredible amount about the art form. About the planes, the airports, the airlines, the frequent flyer programs, the credit cards, the hotels, the best ways to redeem points, the best way to get upgrades, the best ways to route flights, the best way to find MRs, the best way to talk to gate agents. There were so many facets to navigating the air travel industry. I was lost and I had nothing to contribute except questions.

Allen and I arrived at the gate just as a final call was being made for our names. We were traveling light (just a laptop bag for me), so we were able to make our way straight to our seats without having to wait in the aisle for people to hoist bags into overhead bins and jostle infants into seats. When we arrived in Chicago, we went straight to the AA lounge to wait for our next flight. Allen pulled out his laptop and gave me a tour of ExpertFlyer, a subscription website which people use to discover mileage runs, track fares, and check award seat availability. “If I wanted to use my miles to book a flight in F [first class] to Hong Kong tonight, I could do it. Look, there’s three spots available,” he said, jabbing at the screen.

Spending all that time up in the air was no where near as bad as it sounds. Each weekend was more or less the same routine. I’d drive to SFO on Friday night and park at an off-site lot using a discount coupon. I’d hop on a red-eye to ORD, then return to SFO by mid-morning. I’d have the rest of Saturday to myself, before driving back to SFO at night. Then it’d be another red-eye, returning to SFO by mid-morning again. I’d then head straight back out to ORD and catch the final evening flight back to SFO. Due to ticket availability, I had to route through Dallas a couple of times.

SFO to ORD is only about 4 hours, so it’s not exactly a long-haul flight. Almost all the flights had wifi, so I could do some work and surf the net. (Incidentally, if you want to see why Apple’s stock price hit $500, you only have to walk around the cabin – anyone who is on an electronic device is on a iPhone, iPad or Macbook, with the occasional Kindle.) The flight attendants brought drinks around and I listened to music on some noise-cancelling headphones. The Economist gets delivered to me on Fridays, so I had the chance to read it cover to cover over the weekend during the periods where electronics have to be turned off in flight.

And, I actually like planes and airports – with the exception of security screening checkpoints. I like watching massive people carriers maneuver around taxiways and roar off into the sky. I like the bustle of airports, where people from all over the country and the world mix together. I like gazing out the window at the changing landscape – the rolling hills of the Bay Area, the cornfields of the flyover states, snow-covered mountain ranges, and the frigid vistas of the north-eastern states (so much more interesting than flying across Australia, which is just unending stretches of desert).

A flyover state In between flights, I could stretch my legs and wander around the terminal. I got to know where everything was – where to get food, power, and where to sit and wait. American flies out of a newly refurbished Terminal 2 at SFO, and it’s a surprisingly pleasant place to be.

I would even say it was relaxing, actually.

Not everything was smooth. It was, after all, the middle of winter. The rainy season at SFO and the snowy season at ORD constantly threatened to disrupt travel. In January 2010, freak snowstorms in the U.S. threw air travel into chaos. If even one of my flights was cancelled (much less a repeat of 2010), I would have fallen short of 100k miles. You generally aren’t entitled to earn miles for flights you don’t actually physically board. Luckily, the weather held up for the most part. Before the second weekend, a cold front moved into Chicago on Friday, dumping 8 inches of snow and causing the cancellation of about 50% of flights into ORD. The forums were abuzz with people trying to figure out how they could claim "ORC" or original routing credit for the flights they no longer were able to take (apparently Customer Relations, and not Customer Support is the department you want to contact for these kinds of discretionary requests). The storm had moved on by the time my flight arrived on early Saturday morning.

Three of my flights had “mechanicals” which caused delays, but nothing too disruptive.

Only one of my flights had a real issue. My final flight from ORD to SFO during the second weekend was delayed. It was snowing in Chicago, but it was the fog in San Francisco that caused at first a one hour delay, then a two hour delay, and then a three hour delay. The 49ers were playing the Giants for a berth in the Superbowl that evening, so at least the delay meant that I had the opportunity to watch the whole game. The flight was heading back to SFO, which meant a lot of 49ers fans were at the gate watching as well. Unfortunately, they lost in overtime. When we eventually boarded the plane, it had a “mechanical.” Something to do with the fuel pump. So we had to wait another hour for 16 volunteers to deplane and for their luggage to be unloaded. I ended up getting home at about 2.00am that night.

Exec Plat status

So, what did I get for all my troubles?

After the first week, I got upgraded to Gold. Being able to bypass the long security lines was nice. The front seats and exit rows in the economy cabin (so called “preferred seating”) were also now available for me to book. After the second week, I moved up to Platinum. It was nice being able to board the plane early. When I went to the gate agent to get a boarding pass, she noted that I had a middle seat and, without me even asking, she said she’d move me to my preferred windows seat up the front of the cabin. One of my upgrades to first class also cleared.

When I hit Executive Platinum, I became entitled to unlimited complimentary domestic upgrades. But the real money is the 8 “systemwide upgrades” that Exec Plat members are given each year. SWUs allow you to upgrade to the next class of service on any American-operated flight (very handy for international trips, and if you don’t use them all, you can gift them to friends and family). You also get extra luggage allowance. You get to board the plane first, your luggage comes out first, and because it qualifies you for OneWorld Emerald status, you get to use the first class lounges of OneWorld airlines throughout the world. Telephone booking fees are waived. So now, to make use of the time and money I invested in this, I just have to get flying… but not to Chicago!

Flying in F

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31
Dec 11
Sat

Happy New Year!

Wishing everyone an even better year ahead for 2012!

27
Nov 11
Sun

Yakutsk: 200,000 people living in ridiculous weather

Yakutsk, the coldest city on the planet, has always been a source of curiosity for me. Located in depths of Siberia, it has pleasant summer temperatures maxing out in the twenties Celsius, but in winter it plunges to an unfathomable negative 50 degrees.  If you’ve ever walked into a commercial freezer for 30 seconds, you’ll know roughly what it’s like. But to live there? It seems absurd. I actually have Yakutsk’s weather on my iPhone weather app just to make me feel warm.

Anyway, a journo from The Independent just published an interesting article about Yakutsk that is worth a read:

I know this because Ive just arrived in Yakutsk, a place where friendly locals warn you against wearing spectacles outdoors. Yakutsk is a remote city in Eastern Siberia population 200,000 famous for two things: appearing in the classic board game Risk, and the fact that it can, convincingly, claim to be the coldest city on earth. In January, the most freezing month, average “highs” are around minus 40C; today the temperature is hovering around minus 43C, leaving the city engulfed in an oppressive blanket of freezing fog that restricts visibility to 10 metres. Fur-clad locals scurry through a central square adorned with an icy Christmas tree left over from the New Year holidays and a statue of a strident Lenin, with one arm aloft and pointing forward, thoroughly unfazed by the cold.

A couple of weeks ago, Yakutsk hit the headlines after a series of burst pipes caused Artyk and Markha, two nearby villages, to lose their heating for several days. The temperatures then were minus 50C. Television footage of the ensuing “big freeze” showed groups of people huddled in swathes of blankets gathering round makeshift wood-fired stoves to keep warm. It looked like fun – of a sort. So I decided to come to Yakutsk for myself to find out how people manage to survive, and go about something resembling daily life, in the worlds coldest place.

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17
Oct 11
Mon

How they prepare for mealtime in airplanes

Interesting look at how flight attendants get meals ready (for business class and the pilots):

It’s actually pretty fascinating. Everything is oven-cooked or warmed in a couple of small ovens.

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11
Jul 11
Mon

The first person to fly 10 Million Miles on United

Last weekend, Tom Stuker became the first person to journey 10 million miles in the air with United (“butt-in-seat” miles, not including credit card points). It took him about 30 years, and what he got was way cooler than what George Clooney got in Up in the Air. Along with a bunch of other stuff, he got his name on a 747 (amusingly, he already has his name on a 777). Rachel Talks Travel has a great summary of this accomplishment.

Stuker is a Chicago-based consultant for the automotive industry. Here’s an interview with him, and here’s another good article. Lives in a different world, I tell ya.

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28
Dec 10
Tue

Cities over the last 365 days (2010)

Reprising this 2009 post, here’s a list of cities and towns I’ve passed through over the last year. It’s a very sorry looking list compared to all the past lists… hoping to remedy that in 2011.

Los Angeles, CA
Laguna Beach (OC), CA
San Francisco, CA*
New York, NY*
Union City, NJ†
Salt Lake City, UT*
Ogden, UT
West Yellowstone, MT
Yellowstone National Park, WY*
Blackfoot, ID†
Napa region, CA*
Tokyo, Japan
Washington, DC

All places had overnight visits, unless marked with ††.
* Multiple entries, non-consecutive days.
†† Daytrip only.

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15
Nov 10
Mon

How they do airport security in Tel Aviv

US airport security has not been having a lot good press lately. People these days now have a choice between a TSA backscatter machine (which experts worry may be carcinogenic and which reveal more about people’s bodies than they like) and a pat down by a TSA officer (which has been described as legalized sexual assault). Israel has been grappling with terrorism for a very long time, and this article explains how incredibly efficient getting through security at Ben Gurion is:

At the check-in desk, your luggage is scanned immediately in a purpose-built area. Sela plays devil’s advocate — what if you have escaped the attention of the first four layers of security, and now try to pass a bag with a bomb in it?

“I once put this question to Jacques Duchesneau (the former head of the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority): say there is a bag with play-doh in it and two pens stuck in the play-doh. That is ‘Bombs 101′ to a screener. I asked Ducheneau, ‘What would you do?’ And he said, ‘Evacuate the terminal.’ And I said, ‘Oh. My. God.’

“Take Pearson. Do you know how many people are in the terminal at all times? Many thousands. Let’s say I’m (doing an evacuation) without panic — which will never happen. But let’s say this is the case. How long will it take? Nobody thought about it. I said, ‘Two days.’”

A screener at Ben-Gurion has a pair of better options.

So, can the TSA learn?

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3
Oct 10
Sun

European Delivery – driving Europe in a new car

There is a lesser known program where, if you are a U.S. resident, you can go to a European car dealer in America – BMW, Mercedes, Porsche, Audi, or Volvo – and ask them for European Delivery, or “ED” as its known on online car forums. The car will be built in Germany (or Sweden) and you will have to fly over to Europe to pick it up.

Why would you want to do such a thing? Well, when you pick up the car, you get to drive it around Europe for a few weeks. And, because you’ll likely be starting in Germany, you get a chance to try out your new car on the autobahns. The only problem is you still have to break in the engine, so that could be frustrating. (Apparently the recommended break in for a BMW is maximum 4k rpm or 100mph for the first 1000 miles – which might be frustrating on the autobahns, so maybe you could drive around Europe and then come back to Germany near the end of the trip.) At the end of the holiday, you drop off the car at one of the drop-off points around Europe, some of which are outside of Germany, and it will get shipped to you, arriving in your neighborhood 1-2 months later.

The kicker is that buying a car on ED is going to cost you several thousands of dollars less than buying it locally (unless you’re getting a Porsche, which actually charges a premium for this option). The reason is that some of the commissions and fees and taxes that get charged along the way disappear. So, the discount will basically fund the cost of your holiday in Europe, with change to spare, even if you bring someone along to share the experience. The manufacturers will even throw in a couple weeks of free auto insurance, and temporarily load up the GPS system with European maps, while you’re there.

And you can do ED on lease (which might get past the break in thing, although you’ll possibly spoil the car for the next lessee or owner). If you’re thinking of buying a car… what a great idea for a vacation.

The New York Times recently wrote an article about this, but this program has been floating around for many years.

Other links:

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14
Sep 10
Tue

Travelling without a passport

Daily Mail journo Dominic Lawson lost his passport and his boarding pass in Amsterdam, and still managed to catch a flight back to London without having to spend an extra night in Schipol.

But the Dutchwoman at the BA counter was all smiles and sympathy, and called the representative of the UK Border Agency.

Most unusually, there is such a person permanently based at Schiphol; in other countries, one would have to travel to the British consulate, which in the Netherlands would have meant a trip to The Hague, and – it was already evening – goodbye to any chance of leaving that day.

Fortunately, I was able to give the man from the UK Border Agency the number of my missing passport, which he fed into his computer, and after asking various questions to test my knowledge of my own claimed identity, he told me he was prepared to escort me through passport control.

Everything turned out better than expected. But I dare you to try that anywhere in the US.

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23
Aug 10
Mon

Lost Without Translation – Observations on Tokyo

The local train from Narita International Airport was quiet. Some of the Japanese around me were intently fixated on their phones, fingers darting in response to some e-mail or game. The rest had assumed their other default train position: heads slumped forward in languorous slumber, as the endless Tokyo suburbia rolled by the window on a steamy summer’s day.

(Click here for selected trip photos)

Signs in the compartment reminded commuters not to speak on phones while traveling. I turned to Aya and remarked that it was strange to discriminate between people conversing on the train – like her and I were doing – and those using a phone. She just shrugged and agreed.

The Japanese are well-known for their reserved politeness – a necessary survival mechanism, it is said, because they live in such densely populated conditions. I have my doubts. Hong Kong is perhaps even more densely crammed, and reserved politeness is not something the sharp and opinionated Cantonese are known for. Neither was the Tokyo megapolis always a concrete jungle teeming with 30 million inhabitants – the single most productive area on the globe. Somehow over the years, the Japanese have preserved the quiet village attitude portrayed monochromatically in Kurosawa’s samurai-era films, with eyes lowered, going about their business in mute among the steel and concrete.

Nowhere is this politeness reflected more visibly than in store service. From the ubiquitous irasshaimase greeting, to comping a meal if a strand of hair is found in food, the level of service is not driven by the promise of tips (since none are usually expected, or indeed accepted) but ingrained culturally. It is almost a form of self-flagellation, for none of these courtesies are expected to be returned by the customer. Greetings and thank yous go unanswered. A simple arigatou is considered excessive when receiving change back from a cashier. A friend remarked that he once inquired in a clothing store for a product, and the store clerk made a great show of looking literally high and low for a t-shirt they clearly didn’t have. For what gain?

On my first night there, I followed my hosts in Tokyo, Christoph and Aya, out to Ebisu. They were in Ebisu because they wanted to buy a bike off Craigslist from a Frenchman. It was an electrically-assisted bike, which gives you a burst of speed with every peddle to help you on your way. Naturally, it was manufactured by one of the gigantic Japanese keiretsus for just the domestic market. The only problem was getting it back home, because bikes aren’t allowed on the trains and we had come by train.

Christoph is a tall, lanky German lawyer whom I had met at Stanford. Fluent in Japanese and, on a good day, three other languages, he held a doctorate and two master’s degrees. But today, he was going to play the dumb, clueless gaijin. Aya wheeled the bike over to Christoph and told him to pretend to only know English – or even better, only German. Surely, the confused stationmaster would let him through rather than have to deal with an indignant foreigner.

Aya and I walked through the gates. Christoph trailed us, but as he passed by the stationmaster’s window, the stationmaster stuck out his arm and waved Christoph down. We turned around to see the stationmaster pointing down at the bike and then making a cross with his two index fingers which he waved vigorously up at the towering German. Christoph was momentarily flummoxed, and I could see him trying to decide what language to reply in. He started to object in English, but it was clear the stationmaster was having none of it. Switching to plan B, Christoph abruptly swapped to Japanese. The stationmaster, to his credit, didn’t flinch, and now had free reign to express in no uncertain terms that bikes were not permitted and he needed to turn around now.

» Continue reading whole article »

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27
Jan 10
Wed

Air New Zealand to Offer Beds in Economy

Air New Zealand will offer beds in economy class on their California to Auckland route. Now this is a game-changer. Adjoined sets of seats can be converted into small lie-flat beds. If you are travelling with someone else, you can purchase the third seat for half-price, which enables you to get a bed. (I wonder if you still have to buy a seat if the flight is not at full capacity?) But it does look like you need to be travelling with another, though. And it looks a little cramped if you don’t want to spoon.

Sorry Qantas, I’d be willing to connect through NZ if it meant I could get a good night’s sleep on the 12 hour trans-Pac flight – even though it adds a couple hours to the trip back to Sydney. (United can just go jump.)

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4
Jan 10
Mon

It’s the little things…

I love flying Virgin America. And they currently have free Wifi! Which I am using! Joy!

Interesting note on how the planes provide net access (I thought it was by satellite, but it’s not):

WiFi on Virgin America is powered by Gogo® Inflight internet. Here’s how Gogo turns a plane into a flying hotspot. When you’re using a mobile phone in your car (hands free of course), your phone continuously searches for the strongest connection. As you move, your phone switches cell towers to maintain the best signal.

Gogo has built a mobile broadband network of ground towers covering the entire sky above the continental United States to do the same thing for a plane. Equipment onboard continuously selects the strongest connection from the towers below. With nothing but air between these towers and your plane, it’s possible to get a strong connection even at 35,000 feet.

28
Dec 09
Mon

Cities over the last 365 days (2009)

Reprising this 2008 post, here’s a list of cities and towns I’ve passed through over the last year.

San Francisco, CA*
New York, NY
Lake Tahoe, CA/NV
Sydney, Australia*
Crescent City, CA
Portland, OR
Seattle, WA
Eugene, OR
Yosemite, CA
Shanghai, China
Hangzhou, China†
Los Angeles, CA*
Laguna Beach (OC), CA*
Santa Barbara, CA†
San Diego, CA
Monterey, CA
Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA††
Cambridge, MA
Boston, MA
Singapore†
Kiama, Australia

All places had overnight visits, unless marked with ††.
* Multiple entries, non-consecutive days.
†† Daytrip only.

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22
Jul 09
Wed

Shanghai clouds…

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are all blocked in China. But at least I can still blog! Eclipse was clouded out… mega-disappointing, but what can you do? Still, it’s pretty cool when day suddenly turns to night for 5 minutes in the morning. Waiting for my flight back to the States…

9
Jan 09
Fri

It was a dark and stormy night…

I wrote this last year and forgot about it until I just turned up the draft of it on my hard drive.

Pulau Redang is a tropical island off the east coast of Malaysia. The Berjaya conglomerate owns two resorts on the island: the beautiful Beach Resort and its demented step-child (what Berjaya calls the Spa Resort, except that the spas are actually all at the beach resort). Dave and I happened to be staying at the spa-less spa resort. When we stepped off the ferry, a courtesy bus was there to greet us. The bus was filled mostly with European couples with young kids in tow, young Malaysian couples… and us. We were not a couple. (If you must know, Dave had attempted to arrange for some female company but when he failed to deliver we decided to go anyway since the accommodation was, through some family connections, free.)

The bus’ first drop off point was the Spa Resort and we realized with dismay that we were the only people to get off. There was almost no one around the Spa Resort and it was virtually a wasteland. After we had dumped our stuff into our room, we made a beeline for the much more active Beach Resort, passing by a group of bewildered Singaporeans who also had the misfortune of booking themselves into the Spa Resort. “Wah lau, where are the bloody spas, wei?”

Redang is a segregated island. On the east coast there are a cluster of beachside resorts, restaurants and miscellaneous stalls and stores. At nighttime, things were much more active on the east coast. However, as there are no roads connecting the Berjaya properties to the east coast, the only way to move between the two is to take a boat ride, or a two hour trek through the jungle.

We weren’t about to go wading through the undergrowth in the pitch darkness, so the only real option was to take a boat. We ended up finding an old boatman by the wharf – weathered face, toothy grin and all – and chartered his boat. The boat was little more than a tin can with an outboard motor and tarp suspended over it by a few rusty metal poles, but it would do the trick.

There are no lights on Redang. There were no lights on boat either. After clambering onto the boat, the boatman apologized, saying he needed to procure a light for “safety reasons”. He steered the boat into the neighboring marina and plucked a light from a miscellaneous dinghy which may or may not have been his. Once the feebly blinking red light was affixed to the stern, we set off. The light wasn’t for navigation, it was to warn other boats cruising in the area not to run us over. It was dark and overcast – the sea, land and sky merged into one inky blob, but with practiced experience, our boatman steered us through the shallow waters and we arrived twenty minutes later.

We ate dinner and spent a few hours on the east coast and decided to return when we realized a storm was brewing. By the time we reached the dock the raindrops were the size of dollar coins and we found our boatman huddled under a makeshift corrugated iron shack. We didn’t even know if it was now possible to make it back in this weather, but obviously it wasn’t a problem as the boatman quickly bundled us onto the boat. I was seated at the front, looking towards the back. Dave was on the middle seat, facing me. The boatman was at the rear, manning the motor. We set off.

And it was terrible.

The sea had become incredibly choppy. It was pitch black, so we couldn’t see it, but we sure could feel it. Because the boatman seemed to be gunning the engine in an effort to get back as quickly as possible, he was taking each wave at speed. The boat would catch the crest of the wave, become airborne for a split second, plunge over the top and back into the water with a spine-shattering crunch. Every three seconds.

If visibility was bad before, it was non-existent in the driving rain and spray, which was now entering the boat horizontally, smashing like needles into my back and into Dave’s face. Lightning would occasionally flash, momentarily revealing the tumultuous ocean, the rocky shoreline and Dave’s visage, with was transfixed with a confused mixture of abject terror, pain and a look which said, “Hey this would actually be quite cool if we weren’t about to die.”

It was freezing and we were soon shivering uncontrollably. Meanwhile, our boatman was resolutely manning the till as if it were a cheery Sunday morning. In naught but a t-shirt and shorts, he was standing, one foot perched up on the side wall, one hand on his hip and the other loosely holding the till. He seemed to know where he was going even though we couldn’t see anything. But we needed only to run into some rocks and we’d be instantly stuffed.

Then out of the gloom, about ten metres away, the dim spectre of another boat just like ours emerged, travelling parallel and in the same direction as us. It was not carrying a safety light, not that it would have helped. I could barely see ours and I was only a couple of metres away from it. The lightning flashed once more and I could see four passengers cowering inside the boat, their positions identical to ours.

The boats sped alongside each other for a few seconds and I could hear some shouting over the whine of the engine and crashing of the waves.

And then we sped up. Dave and I exchanged horrified squints of “What the fuck?” and soon realized that the two boatmen had decided to race each other. It was a tough few minutes to endure.

By the time we arrived back on shore, we looked like a couple of drowned rats. I can’t say that I would do it again, but it was quite an experience.

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29
Dec 08
Mon

Cities over the last 365 days (2008)

Reprising this 2006 post, here’s a list of cities and towns I’ve passed through over the last year. I think I forgot to do this last year.

Sydney, Australia*
Hong Kong, China
Kampala, Uganda††
Moshi, Tanzania
Arusha, Tanzania
Lake Manyara, Tanzania
Singapore*
Redang, Malaysia
San Francisco, CA*
Stanford, CA*
Yosemite, CA
Lake Tahoe, CA/NV
New York, NY
Monterey/Carmel-By-the-Sea, CA††
Dallas, TX

All places had overnight visits, unless marked with ††.
* Multiple entries, non-consecutive days.
†† Daytrip only.

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30
Nov 08
Sun

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Lovely.

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2
Sep 08
Tue

Panoramas and other pictures from Yosemite

As is now usual, more photos in Facebook (album 1, album 2). Warning: the panoramas are large files.

Click for full sized image
Glacier Point (lower terrace)

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Glacier Point (lower terrace)

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Glacier Point (upper terrace)

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Vista across the Valley

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The Grizzly Giant

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Tunnel View

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Treeline

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(Almost) Touching the California Tree

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Half Dome

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The top of El Capitan

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2
Aug 08
Sat

Farewell Sydney

Another 24 hours and I should be in San Francisco. Still a bit sick but still excited. Sad to be leaving Sydney though.

23
Jul 08
Wed

Some things I’d like to do in the States

In no particular order…


Hear Obama speak live


Visit the Googleplex


Hike Yosemite


Dine at The French Laundry


Eat at an In-and-Out


Drive the Big Sur


See Joshua Tree National Park

Click for full sized image
Watch a Shuttle launch


Swing by the Monterey Bay Aquarium – “Maybe he’s singing to that man!” (props if you can pick the reference)

7
Jul 08
Mon

A little too ambitious

My travel itineraries are notorious for being overly complicated, but can I just note for the record that: (a) trying to organise a weekend trip to a foreign country; (b) with 2 weeks’ notice; (c) with several people who are spread across four different timezones; and (d) via email, is an exercise doomed to failure.

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27
Jan 08
Sun

To the Roof of Africa

“What’s that?” Paul asked, pointing quizzically to a bag sitting on one of our beds.
“That’s a tent.”
“Tents are provided,” Paul declared. “You can leave it here.”

We were in our hotel room with our trek organiser who was busy inspecting our gear. The fact that my climbing companion had come along toting an 8-man tent was only one indication of our under-preparation. Having done mission work in the hot and humid climes of Northern Africa for the past several weeks, Shen had turned up for a trek which would take us through subzero temperatures and up almost six kilometres of rock with little more than a set of shirts, business pants and that heavy tent. He had brought along a tent on a whim, having forgotten what I had told him not to buy in a packing list I had emailed months ago.

To be fair, he had relied on me to lug most of the additional equipment he would need from Sydney. I was amply assisted by his ever-concerned mum, who had turned up at my apartment with a 10 kilogram bag filled with enough of his clothing for a month-long skiing trip. She insisted that it was all essential. I left Sydney with everything except sleeping bags, which I had been told would be substantially cheaper to buy in Hong Kong where I would be passing through first.

I, on the other hand, was under-prepared in another way. Fiona, a friend who had climbed the mountain the previous year, had warned me to follow a regular training regimen of walking at least four weeks before departure. I never really got around to it. Every time someone asked what I had done to prepare for the climb I would respond vaguely with, “oh, just walking around here and there.” My credibility was somewhat preserved when I pointed out mountain guides which stated that jogging or other cardio work doesn’t really help with mountain climbing and all you can really do to train is to walk (preferably up hills).

In reality, my training consisted almost entirely of walking around Hong Kong searching for a sleeping bag which would allow me to weather temperatures down to -15°C without a detour to hypothermia. This, in hindsight, involved a considerable amount of exercise given that finding such a sleeping bag in Hong Kong proved to be much harder than anticipated.

We walked into several outdoor stores in Mongkok (which ordinarily is a district in which you can buy anything ever made) only to be met with looks of disbelief and a declaration that such bags had to be specially ordered in from another continent. One wide-eyed vendor responded by pushing me a 0°C bag and telling me to “just wear more clothes to sleep”.

After several days, I located two allegedly eligible sleeping bags. One was sold by a store owned by a local chap who had scaled the highest mountain on all seven continents and had reached the North and South poles. The sleeping bag he was offering was called “Eusebio Sport” and was rated to -15°C. The name was decidedly European-sounding and seemed promising until Google failed to turn up a single hit on the bag.

The other candidate sleeping bag was made by Triton, which turned out to be a local manufacturer. It was comfort rated to -10°C, but had, unusually, an extreme rating of only -15°C. The “extreme rating” is normally defined as the lowest temperature in which you can sleep without dying along the way. It’s normally significantly below the “comfort rating”, the lowest temperature in which you can theoretically get a good night’s rest. It was somewhat disturbing to me that apparently only five degrees separated unbroken sleep from death. After a great deal of equivocation, I elected to go with the Triton and bought two of the 1.2 kilogram bags.

Mount Kilimanjaro is Africa’s highest mountain, standing at 5895 metres. It was formed as the result of volcanic activity and is not part of a mountain range. Consequently, it’s the world’s highest free-standing mountain, rising up starkly from the plains of northern Tanzania, near the Kenyan border. Its silhouette dominates the horizon from nearby Moshi and Arusha, the two towns most commonly used as launching pads for those who would climb Kilimanjaro. Kilimanjaro’s dark expanse stretches upwards, starting from one end of the horizon -– and you have to physically rotate your head to see this -– tracking gradually upwards towards a peak, before falling away again. Often shrouded in clouds, you can occasionally glimpse the snow and glacier capped peak of Kilimanjaro, glistening in the bright African sun.

The fact that Kilimanjaro is considered to be a “non-technical” climb is deceptive. “Non-technical” merely means no special equipment is needed -– no pick-axes, ropes, crampons or other rock- or ice-climbing gear. But non-technical doesn’t mean it’s easy. Any mountain above 4000m puts a climber at risk of AMS, or Acute Mountain Sickness -– an affliction which develops among some people who climb above about 3500m. Curiously, predisposition to AMS appears to be independent of a person’s fitness.

I had booked the trek after discovering Paul Robert Shayo on Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum while looking for trekking company suggestions. He had been given several recommendations, all positive and all from different people over a reasonable period of time. I emailed him and found him to be comfortingly responsive and honest. At under USD 1,000 for our 6-day trek (excluding tips), his offering provided remarkably good value as well, especially compared to other companies pricing their programs at multiples of that.

Paul, a local Tanzanian, had been a guide for about eight years before he struck out and started his own company, organising treks and safaris. Our guide, who was not employed by Paul but had been called in just for our trek, told us he was a good man and his profit margins were relatively thin. Now somewhat portly in stature, it was clear that Paul had not been regularly guiding for some time. However, if you’re looking for a trekking company, look no further – Paul was fantastic. Always flexible and never pushy, he was simply professional to a level which is rare in Africa.


Paul (right)

Back in Moshi, Paul bundled us into a minivan in which our support crew was already waiting – a guide, a cook and four porters. As if that wasn’t enough, we picked up another two porters on the way to the mountain, bringing our entourage up to eight. Eight of them for the two of us. We felt ridiculous.

On the floor of the minivan was all the stuff that was coming with us up the mountain, a jumble of baskets and mismatched bags. Next to the bulbous metal gas cylinder was a thatched basket full of fruits and vegetables. Eyeing the whole pineapple conspicuously sticking out the top, we jokingly asked our guide, “so where are you hiding the chicken?”

He turned around to us. “Do you want to eat chicken?”

We were startled by the seriousness in his voice. It sounded like he was actually ready and willing to procure a chicken for us. We quickly assured him he were just joking.

Naturally talkative, Shen launched into conversation with the crew as we drove towards the Machame Gate, the starting point for the climb. Having been to Africa several times in the past, he seemingly knew the cultural norms and started interrogating anyone who spoke English in the van (which really was only Daniel and Paul) about whether they were married, whether they had children, what tribe they were from and how many cows they had to pay in order to marry their wife.

Our guide’s name was Daniel, a quietly spoken Tanzanian father of two who had been guiding for about a decade. He responded rather reticently with very short answers to Shen’s barrage of questions. After a little while, Shen popped his “absurd question” test.

The “absurd question” test is given to a person whose grasp of English is ambiguous in order to ascertain whether they actually understand what you are saying to them, or in order to determine whether they are acting reasonably. With Paul, Shen had been speaking to him about Tanzania and his opinions about neighbouring African nations. Paul had easily passed the test when Shen asked, “So do you think Tanzania is the most advanced nation in Africa?” Trying to goad Paul into saying something overtly parochial, Paul looked at Shen as if Shen was clueless and proceeded to rattle off a list of African countries which were clearly further along the developmental chain than Tanzania.

Daniel had answered with one word responses too many consecutive times, triggering the test.

“So, you’ve been guiding for a long time?”
“Yes.”
“Wow, you must be very fit!”
Slight nod. “Yes.”
“So, can you climb the mountain in one day?”
Pause. “Yes.”
“In one day? All the way to the top?”
“Oh, yes.”
“And back down again?”
“… Yes.”
“You can climb all the way to the top and all the way down in one day?”
“Yes.”
“You’ve done that before?”
“Yes.”

Shen and I shot each other nervous glances. It seemed that Daniel’s guiding duties would see him just pointing the way up the mountain and we wouldn’t be getting much other value-added services from him. How little did we know.

There are about five major routes up the mountain which start at different points around its base. Each leads to one of three main routes up Kibo, the summit dome of Kilimanjaro, where the ground cruelly and materially steepens up until the crater rim.

The most popular route is the 5-day Marangu route, also nicknamed the Coca-Cola route due to its popularity and relative ease. It approaches Kibo from the east and follows a relatively uniform gradient which doesn’t get terribly steep. However, it’s said that about 75 percent of people who attempt that route fail to reach the summit, due to a lack of time to acclimatise to the altitude. Most recommend adding an extra day into the program for acclimatisation if you’re using this route.

Our route, the 6-day Machame route (nicknamed the “Whiskey route” because it’s, well, harder), begins from the south-west approaching Kibo from the west. One acclimatisation day is built in, during which you circle the base of Kibo along the Southern Circuit before attempting to summit using the south-east route up Kibo.

Other routes are the Lemosho route, which begins from the east at a slightly higher starting altitude; the Umbwe route, a steep, direct-access route from the south; and the Rongai route, which starts from the north near the Kenyan border. The Lemosho, Machame and Umbwe routes all interconnect around Kibo, and the more hardcore climbers can access Kibo via the “Western Breach”, a western route which passes by the Arrow Glacier. Although the western wall is generally too steep to climb, a section of it collapsed in ancient times (hence it’s called a “breach”), making it vaguely climbable (or “scramble-able” in more accurate climbing terms). The Western Breach closed in January 2006 when a rock fall killed three Americans who were ascending it. The route reopened in December 2007 but numerous tour companies still refuse to use it due to continuing safety concerns.

Some have attributed the rock fall to the effects of global warming melting the ice which usually holds the scree (loose pebbles and rocks) which is prevalent at the mountaintop together. In fact, if you have seen An Inconvenient Truth, global warming has been named as the reason why the great glaciers atop Kilimanjaro are retreating. Although the cause has been disputed (the alternate explanation is local climate changes not directly related to global warming), there is no doubt that the glaciers are disappearing and some predictions have forecasted that Kilimanjaro will lose its white cap as soon as 2015. Since 1912, Kilimanjaro has lost over 80 percent of its ice fields.

Day 1 (11/1/08): Machame Gate to Machame Hut (up 1200m)
Due to a mishap involving our luggage being lost for four days after arriving in Africa, we arrived at Machame Gate at about 3.30pm. Kilimanjaro is part of a national park and is overseen by an authority which charges expensive park fees. The park fees (over USD 600 per person in our case) go towards maintaining the park’s facilities and providing rescue services.

Paul was about to pay our park fees when we hit a roadblock. The park ranger came out and told us it was too late to start and that we should come back tomorrow. When pressed he said that park safety regulations forbade it. But, if there is anywhere in the world where regulations can be overlooked, Africa is it. After a quarter hour of backroom negotiations, our resourceful organiser came through for us. He shook our hand, wished us good luck and said he’d be back in five days to pick us up. With our daypacks and walking sticks in hand, Shen and I set off, leaving the porters to attend to all the other baggage.

The weather at the start of the route was perfect. Cool, not a trace of humidity, and well-shaded by the trees bordering the path. The first day’s path winds through 16 kilometres of rainforest, rising 1200 metres to bring us to Machame Hut, a campsite 3000 metres high on the border where the rainforest gives way to a moorland ecosystem. Although the rainforest was dense, an occasional clearing allowed the sun to break through and we could see the canopy at the mountain base gradually pulling away – a satisfying sign of progress. Rain constantly threatened, but the skies never managed more than a faint drizzle.

Because of the late hour of our start, we were only three hours in when the sun set, plunging the trail into darkness. We pulled out our headlamps and trudged on, making good time and arrived at Machame Camp at 8.30pm to the lingering smell of other climbers’ dinners. Of course, they had all reached there about the time we had set off. Not accustomed to walking or working in the dark, our entourage nonetheless set about industriously preparing dinner without complaint, borrowing my headlamp for light.

Our tent was almost set up by the time we arrived and all we had to do was sit in it and wait for dinner. The group’s waiter was an earnest porter who introduced himself as Goodfred. He laid out a tablecloth inside our tent and served up a surprisingly nourishing meal of roasted potatoes, beef stew and mangoes, accompanied by our choice of tea, coffee or Milo.

By the time we had finished, my backpack still hadn’t materialised and it turned out that the poor porter who had been saddled with it had gotten stranded in the dark. Without being able to see the path, he apparently had wisely elected to stay put until help arrived. Daniel sent another porter armed with a small torch to the rescue. My bag turned up at about 10.30pm.

The porters had a lot to do and it was to our never-ending amazement what we witnessed them endure. We had been recommended to drink about four litres of water a day. I don’t drink much ordinarily (sometimes earning me the sobriquet of “camel”) so I had only packed 1.5 litre, 1 litre and 500 millilitre drink bottles. About halfway into the first day’s walk, two porters who had been trailing behind approached us for our water bottles. Porters’ English skills are generally tenuous, so we thought they were offering to refill our bottles at a nearby stream. It turned out that they had not even packed water bottles for themselves and so were absconding with ours for the rest of the trek. We never saw them again (the bottles, not the porters).



Left to right then top to bottom: Machame Gate; A few minutes into the trek with Godfrey ahead; The waterbottleless porters; Daniel and Filippo preparing dinner in the dark

Day 2 (12/1/08): Machame Hut to Shira Camp (up 800m)
We were feeling pretty good after the first day and I awoke at 7.00am. Shen had already been up for an hour, having had to answer to the “second” call of nature in the pre-dawn light… twice. I greeted him with the words, “Was your piss clear and copious?” That was supposedly how, as a rule of thumb, you could determine if you were drinking enough water.

Campsite toilets were little more than cramped wooden boxes with a hole cut into the floor. The smell was unholy, with the box stiflingly small and the temperature at that elevation not sufficiently cold to mask much of the smell. I wondered why they didn’t make the toilet box larger to allow for more air to circulate, but Shen remarked that it was to allow you to keep your balance. If you slipped, you could jam your hands against both walls – and surely enduring the stench was preferable to falling into it, as Shen had almost done, the thin film of urine on the toilet floor having turned to slippery ice during the night. I spent several minutes convincing Shen and myself that the brown matter on the bottom of his trouser legs was mud and not something more organic.

Breakfast was a multicourse affair of bread, mangoes, sausages, cucumbers, tomatoes and eggs. One other dish was served to us with the proclamation that it was “porridge”. When we lifted the lid in ravenous expectation, Shen’s reaction was of intense dismay.

“Oh. It’s posho.”
“What?”
“Try it, you’ll see.”
I sniffed at the opaque white liquid gingerly. “Doesn’t seem too bad.”

It looked like oats, without the solid bits. After a few spoonfuls, the taste finally got to me and I gave up. Posho is maize flour mixed with water, a staple food for the region, similar to rice’s status in Asian countries. Often used as a semi-solid accompaniment to meals, Filippo the cook had added extra water to turn it into something resembling breakfast porridge. While doing mission work, Shen had to endure it at virtually each meal and his distaste for it was clear.

Goodfred came to clear our plates and looked at us when he found our posho pot still brimming.

“You don’t like?”
We lied. “Oh no, it’s good, but we are full.”

Images of my parents around the family dinner table telling me that “people in Africa would kill for your leftover food” filled me head and the irony of it was not lost on me.

The second day saw us begin with a steep ascent. “The most difficult part except for summit day – it gets easier,” Daniel assured us encouragingly.

Any illusions we had of being competitive with the porters were dashed when they showed us what they could do when they could actually see where they were going. We had headed out before them, leaving them to break camp and pack everything up. Within twenty minutes, they had strode past us up the rocky path, bags perched on their heads, resolutely trudging past our panting selves.

The incline was relentless and soon the forest canopy gave way to moorland. We made our way through low-lying scrubbery filled with peculiar plant-life prevalent on Kilimanjaro. Due to the rapidity of the ascent, the day would be relatively short – only four to five hours before making our destination.

That morning we met a lot of the other groups that were climbing the Machame route. Some were pairs like ours, others were groups of over a dozen accompanied by an army of porters. Climbers have to register in a logbook at each campsite and from this we learned that we were the youngest people in the camp, with the oldest being impressively over 70. The climbers were mostly European (including a superlatively- named fellow called Fuchs Gerlard), with a few North Americans. No Aussies.

We passed by the group of Russians who were taking a rest on a pile of rocks. They explained they were from the Kamchatka Peninsula, which explained why they had all been able to strip down to their boxers in order to enjoy the brisk mountain air. With the sun hidden by clouds which had rolled in, the temperature was only a few degrees above zero.

There was also the friendly German, Reiner, and his sister Laura who had been climbing mountains for most of their lives. We nicknamed Reiner “Budgie” for his selection of skin-tight leggings as pants of choice. They usually dropped by each day at the campsites for a quick chat.

Among the larger groups was a troupe of Canadians which Shen had accidentally mistaken for Americans. After taking some mock offence, one of the group piped up with a “G’day mate!”

A passing Kiwi quickly retorted with, “There’s one in every crowd, EH?”





Left to right then top to bottom: Morning at Machame Hut including a view of Kibo; Looking back along day 2′s trail; The valley below from a lookout point; Daniel and I; Relaxing in the tent at Shira Camp; Shira Plateau; Dinner’s coming!

The path flattened out a bit after lunch and we soon arrived at Shira Plateau at 1.30pm – a rocky outcrop offering views of nearby Mount Meru swathed in clouds. Our entourage had already set up camp and had a tub of warm washing water ready by the time we wandered in. As soon as I stopped walking, I began to develop a dull headache and a searingly hot, flushed face.

At 3800 metres, Daniel assured me that this was a normal side effect of the altitude and of being tired from our late finish the previous day. I took an analgesic and lay down in the tent for about an hour but it didn’t improve. I had a bottle of Diamox, which I think is ordinarily used with stroke victims but is also used to treat AMS because it’s supposed to increase oxygen absorption, but I had been advised to avoid taking it. Shen was feeling fine. For afternoon tea, Goodfred came by and gave us some fresh popcorn, peanuts and tea.

At about 4.00pm, the mist and clouds covering the plateau rolled away and the sun came in. The warmth gave me a renewal of energy and I emerged from the tent to take in our surroundings and grab some photos. I even decided to brave the toilets, quickly coming to grips with the art of “shit and run” where you minimise the time spent with your nose mere centimetres away from the action hole. Woe be to you if you’re constipated.

Daniel came over to us for his daily briefing chat. As the reduction in atmospheric oxygen resulted in a corresponding decline in our loquaciousness, Daniel seemed to make up for the shortfall and began to open up to us. He had started his Kilimanjaro career as a porter, back in the bad old days where there were no weight limits on what a porter should carry. If a porter could lift it, he could carry it. This saw porters struggle with loads exceeding 30 kilos hoisted over their heads as they negotiated the perilous terrain. Typically understated in demeanour, Daniel described his first time up the mountain as “very hard work”.

He recounted his quickest trip where he escorted a “very strong” Scotsman travelling solo. The Scot had turned up, packed three litres of water, lunch, and then set off for a jog. Nine hours later they had gone all the way up the mountain and back down again. We were incredulous. When we learned the record for ascending and descending Kilimanjaro was a little over eight hours, we realised that Daniel was actually telling the truth and were immediately filled with even more respect for him.

The conversation then turned to weightier matters, like the post-election tribal-based conflict occurring in Kenya at the time. Daniel found the violence as senseless and distressing as we did. Tanzania has always been peaceful compared to its neighbours, and Daniel felt that this was largely based on a common language among tribes (Swahili) and a sense of nationalism as opposed to tribalism helping people to get along.



Left to right then top to bottom: Morning view of Mt Meru (you can also see a toilet in the middle of the picture); Morning view of Kibo; Panoramic, an hour or so into day 3′s walk

Day 3 (13/1/08): Shira Camp to Barranco Hut (up 700m, down 600m)
In the morning, my headache had thankfully subsided. We made an early 8.30am start and were the first tourists out of the gate. Today was the acclimatisation day. The conventional wisdom in relation to acclimatisation is summed up with the maxim, “Walk high, sleep low.” This practice apparently helps the body to get used to the altitude, but the reasons why it works have never been satisfactorily explained to me.

Within an hour, the moorland gave way to desolate boulders and rockier terrain – a sign that, at above 4000 metres, we were entering the arctic desert ecosystem. I had never walked at this altitude before. The highest I’d been before this was when I hiked in the foothills of the Annapurna region in the Himalayas. My headache soon returned, growing with each step. With frequent rest stops, a steady stream of porters, followed by a handful of climbers, were flowing past us. My resting pulse rate was over 120. My active pulse rate was as high as 180.

The fatigue and effects of altitude were further exacerbated by the sudden jarring changes in temperature. I was wearing a thermal t-shirt and my windproof North Face jacket (the same one I bought in Beijing, the best clothing purchase I’ve ever made). When the sun was out, the heat would be intense and I was forced to take off the jacket. An uneven coverage of sunscreen led to sunburn on parts of my face and arms (sunburnt earlobes are a first for me). Then clouds would suddenly roll in and the temperature would plummet. This made walking more comfortable, but as soon as I stopped to rest, the cold would soon bite and gusts of wind would cut through anything not windproof. Every 200 metres up, the ambient temperature would drop by another degree.

Despite the continual energy-sapping changes in clothing, I was bound to sweat even in the cold wind. The sweat seeped into the clothing, making it icy when the wind was blowing on it, and uncomfortably clammy when it was not. The clothing did not really have a chance to dry, given the conditions.

It was a hard slog and when we reached the Lava Tower Junction, I was relieved that Daniel had decided it was better for us not to go via the Lava Tower Route (4600m) but to use the southern trail (4500m) instead. My headache was debilitating now.

By lunchtime we had reached 4500m, the day’s high point and it felt as though the boulders we had been walking among were now thudding into my temples. My appetite had disappeared and from the packed lunch, I could only manage to down a sausage and a small cake before nausea overcame me. Two Nurofen tablets did little to ease the pain. Galvanised by Daniel’s assurance that the rest of the day would be downhill, I set off quickly, having had enough of sitting with my head wedged between my knees.

As we descended into the moorland, my headache began to slowly subside. I don’t know if that was because of the altitude or because I was no longer exerting myself on an uphill slope. Nonetheless, within an hour my senses were beginning to re-establish themselves and I was able to communicate with more eloquence than grunts and mumbles.

The moorland on the approach to Barranco Hut (3900m) was home to some bizarre vegetation (the area was known as the Garden of the Senecias).

As we neared our campsite, the clouds parted in the distance and I saw the fearsome fixture of the Barranco Valley which stopped me in my tracks.

“That has to be some sort of fucking joke,” I said, all good humour having deserted me.

Along one side of the valley loomed the Great Barranco Wall, a massive 300 metre tall cliff face up which some enterprising soul had decided to carve something resembling a path. In the distance the wall looked almost vertical, but you could just make out a faint dark line zigzagging up it. As the mist rolled over, hiding it again, I was reminded of the stairs of Cirith Ungol in Return of the King which Frodo, Sam and Gollum climb in Mordor. We would be scaling it the next day and my comparisons would prove to be not too far off the mark.

Given the brevity of our lunchbreak, we were among the first to arrive at Barranco (but after the porters of course, who had dutifully already set up camp). I charged down the path yelling, “Quick, we must alert Gondor!” only to run out of steam mere seconds later. “On second thoughts, Gondor can burn.”

Exhausted, we were in our sleeping bags and asleep before the sun had completely set at 7.00pm. Even though my sleep typically consisted of a five hour block of deep sleep followed by a series of 1-2 hour “naps”, sleeping on the mountain was decent and I usually woke up feeling rested.





Left to right then top to bottom: Porters pass me while I’m struggling up the mountain; The Shira Plateau to the left of the trail; Another trail view; Porter; Daniel; Near the Lava Tower Junction; Garden of the Senecias; The Great Barranco Wall

Day 4 (14/1/08): Barranco Hut to Barafu Camp (up 700m, 3 valleys in between)
In the morning, we woke up to the bitter cold. Our sleeping bags had shielded us from the cold admirably (despite having neglected to pack insulating foam mats to put under them) and we were loathe to leave them. Mornings were always cold and clear and the Great Barranco Wall loomed ominously in all its terrible glory. Its height meant that the sun had not yet risen over it and by the time we had finished breakfast, several groups had already started to climb it.



Left to right then top to bottom: Above the cloudline in the morning; Morning view of Kibo; About to climb the Great Barranco Wall; The Great Barranco Wall – you can see people climbing it in the full-sized picture

The Great Barranco Wall has little more than a rough “path” cut up a very steep incline. Climbing it involves about an hour and a half of scrambling up some semi-slippery rocks. I actually found it strangely enjoyable – I’ve been rock-climbing for a couple years now and the experience has somewhat desensitised me to heights, just as long as there’s a secure handhold nearby. Not to say that my heart didn’t flutter, like at a point where a large, smooth rock squeezes the trail out from the left. To the right is a sheer drop of tens of metres and the ground is a flattish piece of stone sloping away from the wall.

Shen was petrified. Having outpaced me on all the uphill sections, he was now struggling to cross some of the more precarious sections of the wall. Every time he froze up, Daniel would have to reach out a helping hand and firmly pull him across. Daniel took custodianship of Shen’s camera and from that point on was taking more photos with it than Shen. Interestingly, Daniel knew exactly how to use a digital SLR camera and many of the photos on Shen’s camera were snapped by Daniel’s capable hands when we were too exhausted to think.

The porters, as always, outdid themselves. A steady procession threaded themselves past us, often without using their hands for balance. There was some concern in their eyes, but otherwise, they took it in their usual stoic stride. When one particular porter made his way past with a large old-style transistor radio cradled in one arm – accompanied by the voice of Ryan Seacrest no less – I just had to stop and stare.

Eventually we made it all the way to the top but unfortunately the clouds had moved in, totally obscuring the view. To my annoyance, the trail beyond the wall cruelly descended a couple hundred metres. We walked down a small valley, over a ridge and down into another valley. I felt like Sisyphus. The second ridge was particularly steep and climbing it was taxing. My headache returned in full force and after we crested the ridge, entering Karanga Valley at 4000m, I soon found myself with my head between my knees again.

On that windy ridge, the porters somehow cooked up a hot lunch for us: a potato chip omelette. Hugely calorific but exceedingly appropriate given the circumstances. Unfortunately, my appetite had vanished.

While I sat there moaning, a nice young Austrian couple that we had kept bumping into on the trail arrived. They had recently become engaged and Shen asked them whether climbing Kilimanjaro before the wedding was such a good idea given the stress it might cause the relationship. They shrugged and said the real test would come on summit day. I realised glumly that summit “day” was less than 12 hours away.

Karanga Valley would have been a camping point had we been able to take the longer 7-day Machame route option. Unfortunately, the 6-day program required us to push on to Barafu camp, another 3-4 hours away and 600 metres up.

Above us stretched an imposing, unending incline. And as always, it was shrouded in just enough mist, or sloped in such a way as to hide the true extent of its height. Setting out with a thumping headache, I became increasingly convinced that, with the summit attempt scheduled for midnight, I would not be able to make it.

Then, I discovered how to breathe. It sounds strange, like Mr Miyagi telling Daniel-San, “Don’t forget to breathe. Very important.” However, in a flash of experimentation I started to hyperventilate rhythmically. With a walking stick in one hand, when the stick hit the ground, I’d exhale sharply. When the stick was in the air, I’d inhale, sucking in as much air as I could. I’d double the timing when the ground became particularly steep. The effect was amazing.

After a few minutes of exaggerated breathing, my headache actually began to clear. After a few more minutes it was like I had caught a second wind. My stride length became longer and more purposeful. I was no longer stumbling clumsily every few steps. I powered past a European guy who was ambling up methodically and then, amazingly, past several porters. Shen must have discovered the breathing technique days ago because he was not having problems keeping pace. The mountain catchcry is “Pole, pole!” (pronounced “po-lay”, Swahili for “slowly”), most often said by overtaking porters reminding us that not only was it expected that we would be slow up the mountain, but it was recommended. (Sage advice – on the second day a pudgy Russian stormed haughtily past us, only for us to catch up with him a few minutes later to find him suffering mightily.) There was no catchcry for us this time.

I was feeling great. My power of speech had returned and we were joking and taking photos once more.

At the top of the hill, a plain stretched out before us, followed by a steep hill leading up to a large rocky outcrop. On that outcrop was the precariously perched Barafu Camp.

Crossing the plain provided a few welcome minutes of traversing a rare patch of relatively flat ground. Now totally devoid of plant life, the path was made up of broken, jagged pieces of rock which tinkled like glass when trod upon. The wind kicked up and I felt what I thought were small pebbles flying into my face, only to realise it was ice. By the time we reached the foot of the day’s final hill, Daniel, who had given us a head start after lunch, had still not caught up with us.

As we resumed the uphill trek, my condition quickly went downhill again. The few hours of heavy breathing had caused my heaving diaphragm to collide with my stomach one too many times and now my stomach was complaining by inflicting recurring bouts of nausea. My pace slowed considerably and we had only made it halfway up the hill when Daniel caught up with us.

I finally stumbled into camp with a raging headache at 3.30pm. Almost seven hours of climbing had taken their toll and I was beat. “Barafu” is the Swahili word for “ice” and our guidebook described the 4600 metre high Barafu camp as being on an exposed outcrop of rock. And exposed it was. The wind howled constantly, and the temperature spikes were now regularly dropping into the negative territory. If you decided to wander off to the campsite edge to take a piss, you really had to be careful not to get blown off the edge (and to make sure you were standing upwind!). It was a pretty inhospitable place, but at least our tent protected us from the wind.

Daniel came around and inquired about my headache again. After assuring me that what I was experiencing was not too serious, he laid out Day 5′s game plan. Get some rest now. Dinner at 5.30pm. Sleep. Get woken up at 11.30pm for a midnight “breakfast” (originally scheduled for 11.00pm but negotiated to a later time after promising that we’d be able to get ready quickly). Summit attempt at midnight. Walk. And walk. And walk.

The next day’s itinerary was imposing. It would take 6 to 7 hours to reach the summit, Uhuru Point, which was about 1300 metres above where we currently were. We’d then return to Barafu camp, and then descend another 1600 metres to Mweka camp. Over 12 hours of walking and on very little sleep. Or, in my case, no sleep at all.

That afternoon, I laid out all the clothing I would need for the summit and lightened my daypack as much as possible, leaving only a one litre water bottle, lip balm and sunscreen, camera, spare batteries, a roll of toilet paper and a scarf. The porters would stay behind at Barafu while we climbed, so we could leave everything in our tent and did not have to pack our main bags before setting off.

With everything prepared, I eased into my sleeping bag and tried to fall asleep. It must have been the altitude, because I had to consciously focus on breathing deeply. Whenever I relaxed and slowed my breathing, a wave of nausea would creep over me and I had to pick up the pace again. It was a painful wait. The wind outside was loud and our tent was buffeted violently at times, but the porters had done a great job of securing it down.






Left to right then top to bottom: The view of Kibo behind us as we climb the Wall; Porters coming through; Traffic jam on the Wall; Scaling the Wall; At the top of the Wall; Weird flora; The plain before Barafu Camp; Elijah and Shen

Day 5 (15/1/08): Barafu Hut to Uhuru Point to Mweka Camp (up 1300m, down 2900m)
Eventually a voice spoke from outside. “Hello. Rafiki. [Friend]” It was Goodfred. We opened the tent flap for him to find him hiding behind a reflective board he was clutching as shielding from the wind. If he was cold (and he must have been), he was doing an incredible job hiding it. He reached in and deposited our breakfast – a flask of hot water, tea bags, coffee, Milo, powdered milk and a bowl of dry biscuits. I dumped a roll of fruit pastilles into the bowl.

We used the hot water to refill our drink bottles, mixing in the last of our powdered Gatorade (“It’s got electrolytes”). Heeding Daniel’s advice, I wrapped my bottle inside a scarf to ward off the cold– – drinks have a habit of freezing on the way to the summit.

Shen found out his ski pants were too tight to hike in and decided he would brave the summit in only a pair of business pants(!) and thermal leggings. Surprisingly, he later told me that his legs felt fine all the way up, but that his feet had froze. Shen had also decided to put on a tie for a novelty photo opportunity at the summit. I clambered into my clothes – thermals, a pair of tracksuit pants, t-shirt, fleece jumper, beanie, gloves, North Face jacket and overtrousers (or “plastic pants” as I like to call them)– – shoved a couple of hand warmers into my pockets, adjusted my headlamp and stepped out into the night.

All in all, I wasn’t feeling too bad. It was frigid as expected, but I was sufficiently rugged up to feel comfortable. The wind was another story. Vicious and constant, it drove daggers into anything exposed. For me, this was mainly my face. I couldn’t cover my mouth and nose because my breath would rise and fog up my glasses.

People generally set out at midnight because the scree is still frozen and because the clouds tend not to roll in until a few hours after dawn. Around us, the campsite was dotted with points of light as climbers began emerging from their tents. Below us, the faint lights of Moshi could be seen in the distance. Gazing up towards Kibo, a few short lines of white dots were inching their way up the slope, bobbing rhythmically and weaving back and forth – the groups that had left earlier. And overhead, the stars were shining stunningly in the cloudless sky. Midnight came and we set off with Daniel at the lead. We were accompanied by Peter, one of the porters who neither carried a bag nor a headlamp, who brought up the rear.

The path immediately became very steep and degraded into a mix of frost and fine scree. Periodically, the trail would disappear, merging with large expanses of bare, flat rock, and we would be completely reliant on Daniel’s pathfinding abilities.

Walking in the dark focuses your mind. With my headlamp only lighting up an area a couple of metres wide, I lost all context for my surroundings. We quickly settled into a monotonous routine: one miniscule step after the other, head down, listening only to our own laboured breathing accompanied by the howling wind. The wind was blowing across the cliff-face to the left, and every time the switchback trail curved back towards the right, my face would cop the brunt of it.

And that was all there was for what seemed like a torturous eternity. Every now and then, I’d crane my neck up and see the familiar white dots above us. There is nothing quite as demoralising as seeing how much higher and further those dots were above us, and then watching them continue to progress even higher. My condition slowly deteriorated. Bouts of nausea sent me into regular coughing fits. More stumbling on scree, only passingly aware that stumbling two steps instead of one could send me tumbling down the cliff via the express route.

Almost six hours later, we arrived at a sign post. It was Stella Point, some five thousand seven hundred and something metres up. We had finally reached the crater rim, but it was still dark. Shen wasn’t faring too well and he arrived behind me, staggering. Peter had taken his daypack off him and had been carrying it for about an hour. I was grateful when Daniel came over to relieve me of mine. I was starting to get dizzy – I couldn’t stand still, but swayed around like a drunk. I vaguely remember Daniel providing some encouragement, telling us Uhuru Peak was another hour’s walk and that the ground would not be as steep.

The next hour was a blur until we approached the peak. I recall Daniel pointing out the glaciers to the left, but when I turned to look, all I saw was blackness. At another point, I had slowed to a stop again when I felt a hand grab the top of my backpack and start propelling me along, gently nudging me in the desired direction. Left around the pile of rocks. Right up the next ramp. All I had to do was concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. Shen was behind me and I didn’t know what was happening with him, but at one rest point, Daniel was shining a torch in his eyes, intently watching his pupils. After passing by a series of false summits, the dawn glow had finally decided to show itself, and I reacted with a gasp when the huge spectre of the glacier materialised to the side. It was the first glacier I’d ever seen, and it was massive. I turned around to Shen and mumbled, “Wow… look at that…” but the words were lost in the wind.

Minutes later I finally spotted the signpost marking Uhuru Peak, and then, at 6.20am, I was there. Daniel broke into a smile and graciously offered his congratulations.

For the first time, we could stop, look around and numbly appreciate the view. Even in our semi-conscious states, it was nothing short of awe-inspiring. Photographs just don’t do it justice– – there’s no sense of scale in them. On one side, the crater rim dips down a couple hundred metres, and all around, gigantic glaciers sit on the rocky Kilimanjaro ground. A faint mist hugs the crater wall and in the distance, Mount Meru pokes above a thick cloud deck. There wasn’t much snow on the ground. We didn’t say much up there, but not much needed to be said.

I felt relief. Relief that I made it. Relief that it would be all downhill from this point. I was still too numb to feel much else, and judging by the muted smiles on other people’s faces who arrived at the summit, so was everyone else.

Shen had brought up a pack of biscuits and a bottle of Ribena to attempt to conduct a mini communion service on the summit, but unfortunately the Ribena had frozen solid. Within a mere fifteen minutes we had finished gawking and snapping photos and were heading back down the mountain by a different route, the cold having taken its toll.







Left to right then top to bottom: Dawn at the crater rim; Approach to Uhuru Point; Made it!; Corporate climber; Mist swirls in the crater (HDR image); Our summit team with the Germans; Southern Icefield Glacier; Glacier; Scree-skiing; Mawenzi peak rises on the other side of The Saddle

On the descent, Shen and I must have switched bodies, because it was my turn to suffer. We made our way down via paths composed of scree. There is a certain technique where you can slide down scree and descend in a quick manner, but I was simply too buggered to pull it off. Shen said it reminded him of skiing and promptly scree-ploughed his way down, leaving me in his dust.

Three hours later, the campsite was in view, and Daniel signalled for Goodfred to come over. Daniel said something to Goodfred in Swahili and Goodfred immediately approached me and wrapped an arm under my armpits, supporting me. I tried to assure him I was fine, but then I realised that I was incapable of walking more than a few metres without stumbling over a piece of rock. I collapsed into my tent, quaffed an orange juice they had thrust into my hands, and was instantly asleep.

After a couple hours of rest, we had lunch and were back on the path again. When we finally reached Mweka camp, the last for the trek, we finally had some time to take it all in. The mood was light and Shen and I had once again reverted to schoolyard humour. Apparently farting was a sign of acclimatisation and sadly, there was no shortage of that in our tent followed by poorly suppressed laughter. Only a few metres away, we were sure our porters in their tent were rolling their eyes until we heard one of them let rip with an earth trembling blast of flatulence. Laughter filled the camp, followed by a torrent of Swahili which could only have meant, “Aw come on, man, my mouth was open!”

Day 6 (16/1/08): Mweka Camp to Mweka Gate (down 1200m)
The next morning, our usual pot of posho was absent. It appeared they had finally got the message. We were in our tent trying to work out how much to tip everyone when Goodfred came around again. “Goodfred, how do you spell your name?”

Goodfred furrowed his brow. “G… O…”
So far so good. “F… D…”

Not so good. Stuck, Goodfred ran back to his tent and reappeared a few minutes later with a scrap of paper. His name was Godfrey. We felt bad for calling him the wrong name, but he didn’t seem to notice.

We were the first people off the mountain that morning. We signed into the logbook and Daniel gave us each a certificate saying that we had made it all the way to the top. We were then beset by touts from whom we bought t-shirts and a map of the mountain. Paul arrived to pick us up and on Paul’s advice, we gave the tips to Daniel to distribute (our total tipping pot was 15-20% of what we paid Paul). A few group photos later and we were back on the road to Moshi. Exhausted, sore, but happy.




Left to right then top to bottom: Morning view of Kibo; Signing-out!; The whole team – Daniel (Guide), Filippo (Cook), Godfrey (Waiter), Peter, Elijah, Joseph, Adolph and Abdul (Porters)

[Placeholder post]

[To be filled in.]

16
Jan 08
Wed

Bags arrived

Through a long, painful and thoroughly miraculous process, my bags were finally hunted down by Kenya Airways, but getting the bags from Uganda into Tanzania is another story in itself. Nonetheless, since the bags arrived we were able to begin climbing Kilimanjaro. Full story (or stories) to come…

8
Jan 08
Tue

Tanzania

Bit of a horror start to the Tanzanian leg… Kenya Airways lost my check-in luggage somewhere between Hong Kong, Bangkok, Nairobi and Entebbe! So the mountain hike is postponed, and will have to be cancelled if my clothes don’t turn up tomorrow.

4
Jan 08
Fri

At work… sort of

Currently in my firm’s Hong Kong office in IFC – just visiting out of curiousity and am being shown around the office by a friend who transferred here from the Sydney office (since he needed to come into work on a Saturday). I succumbed to a compulsion to check my work email. I’m just thankful I don’t have a Blackberry… yet. That is all.

Travel update

I fly out of Hong Kong on Monday bound for Kilimanjaro International Airport. The flight route will see me transit at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and Entebbe International Airport. I have been monitoring the situation in Kenya via BBC and CNN and it looks like the airport itself is largely unaffected by things, but there is always the possibility of flight delays. There are (illegal) protests planned for 8 January in Nairobi, which is the same day I transit, but I am not required to step out of the airport at all. I heard about the church massacre in Eldoret on cable (that same night, with rather unfortunate timing, one of the local TV channels in HK decided to screen The Patriot, in which a church is set alight with the townsfolk inside). Hopefully they can restore peace in Kenya – it’s chilling how rapidly things can go sour in Africa.

I’ll do a post on HK at some other time.

27
Dec 07
Thu

Customary departure post

At Gate 33 to HK for an overnight flight. I got flagged for a random explosives test. I always seem to get that. I’m also carrying two (empty) 1 litre drink bottles, but they didn’t seem to even want to open my bag to check whether they had anything in them.

5
Feb 07
Mon

The ski fields of… Dubai

The Mall of the Emirates is one of Dubai’s many shopping malls. There’s something strange, however, about the architecture of the place. It has a large tubular structure sticking out of its roof like some malformed appendage. This structure houses “Ski Dubai”, a ski slope in the middle of the desert. I found the sheer novelty value irresistable and gave it a go.

Ski Dubai is basically one big fridge, maintained at -1°C during the day, and about -7°C during the night when they turn the snowmakers on. Apparently the place consumes something in the order of 3000 barrels of oil a day. The slope is about 400 metres long, comes with a quad chairlift, a cafe at the midway point and a run they’ve overrated as black(!). It’s truly bizarre. You get up to the top of the run and there’s a door marked as a fire exit off to one side. They hire out all the gear you need (clothing, boots, skis, stocks and snowboards) – A$55 will buy you two hours on the slope. You get given this card which you swipe at the turnstiles just before the chairlift. It takes about 30 seconds to ski from top to bottom. It takes about 30 minutes before the novelty starts to wear thin.


The view from the top of the run


The view up the “hill”

  11:02pm (GMT +11.00)  •  Travel  •  Tweet This  •  Add a comment  • 

Climbing Railay

Railay Beach is normally accessed from Krabi via boat. After arriving on a flight from Bangkok on a plane on which Eric and I were the only Asians on board apart from the crew, we hired one of the licensed taxis to take us to Ao Nang Beach.

The taxi deposited us as this ramshackle pier where we paid 50 baht each for a longtail boat into Railay. Longtails, so called because the boat’s means of propulsion consist of a naked engine attached to a long, rusty, metal shaft with a propeller down one end and the driver’s steering hand (or, in the case of our longtail, the driver’s groin) on the other.


Interesting steering technique

Railay has two beaches – the mangrove-ridden East Beach and the slightly more genteel West Beach. It turned out that our taxi had actually taken us to Ao Nam Pier on the East side of Railay instead of Ao Nang on the West side. Luckily we arrived on the East Beach at high tide, saving us the lengthy trudge across the beach necessary for those arriving during low tide when the sea retreats several hundred metres out.

Most people come to Railay for the rock climbing. It has a large number of limestone cliffs which characterise the region, many of which are climbable. The four of us had been climbing for about a year beforehand, but that was all indoors “top rope” climbing. Outdoors climbing was something entirely new and we also wanted to learn how to lead climb (I’ll explain the jargon soon).

Every third shop in Railay is a rock climbing shop offering gear rental, guides, climbing lessons – whatever you need. The prices are actually fairly uniform, so it can be difficult to pick which shop to go with. We spent an evening doing the rounds, trying to find a place that looked decent.

Everyone in Railay is very relaxed – both tourists and locals. There are no touts on the island at all, save for the longtail boat drivers who will hopefully parrot “Boat? Boat? Boat?” if you walk past their hangout on the West Beach at any time of day or night (we were once asked if we needed a 45-minute boatride to Krabi town despite it being midnight and pitch dark on the water). So we weren’t all that surprised to come across one rock climbing shop manned by a staff member smoking some weed on its front step.

Being a group of 3 lawyers/lawyers-to-be and a risk analyst, we were interested to see if these climbing places were insured, and if so, by who and for how much money. In Australia when you climb indoors you have to sign all these waivers, disclaimers, go through safety checks and so on, but in Thailand – as to be expected – paperwork was simply unheard of. The most paperwork you’d get out of any of them was a rag with a number and date scrawled on it proving you’d paid. So when we asked the rock climbing shops who they were insured with, they stared at us like we were the first people to ever ask them that question. On hindsight, we probably were the first people to ever ask them that question.

But anyway, back to the shop manned by the guy that was high. We walked past him and into the store. He didn’t follow, but let us sit inside for several minutes while he finished his joint. As I said, all the locals are relaxed and none of them are in any particular hurry to take our money – which is kind of refreshing in a South-East Asian country. Finally, the man eagerly bounded in, “So, you want to go climbing? Let’s go!”

The wind visibly went out from his sails when we popped the question about insurance.

“Insurance? Yeah we got. Let’s go climbing!”
“Can we see the policy? You know – the paperwork?”

He hesitated and looked at us strangely. When he realised we were serious, he spun around to confront the rack behind him which was laden with folders and paper. He made a half-hearted attempt of flicking through one folder, becoming increasingly flustered. About five seconds later, he abruptly slammed the folder shut and barked at all of us: “Too busy for insurance!!”

He stormed out of the shop and promptly lit up another joint.

We settled with the place a few doors down (incidentally, they were insured by New Hampshire Insurance). Actually, all the climbing stores are licensed, and one of the requisites to being licensed is being insured, so we needn’t have worried. We hired a guide for one day. We had brought along our own harnesses and shoes but all the shops there are fully stocked with gear that can be rented.

Our guide was called Boy (his name is probably better transliterated as Boi, but we’ll stick with Boy for now). We were a little dubious at the start when we asked if he enjoyed rock climbing and he told us that he was getting bored of it (he was 23 years old). He turned out perfectly capable however in showing us the ropes. Amusingly, when he was 16 his parents sent him to school in South Africa to learn English. When he arrived there, he went to school for one day, decided it was boring and never went back. He spent a great deal of the next three months watching English movies. Actually, he only watched one movie over that three months, and of all the ones to watch to cut his teeth on, he had to pick Conspiracy Theory. But three months on, it finally clicked and he understood what was going on.

We learnt more that day than in the year we had spent indoor climbing. The form of rock climbing people are introduced to in indoor centres is called “top roping”. This is because the rope has been looped through an anchor point at the top of the climb. The climber is attached to one end of the rope via their harness, and the belayer (the person who will arrest the climber’s fall in the event they come unstuck from the wall) is attached to the other end. As the climber climbs, the rope slackens, so the belayer pulls the rope tense and, via a locking device attached to their harness, locks the rope in place. If the climber falls, the climber will only drop a few centimetres (the distance the rope stretches, plus any slack the belayer has failed to remove). You can belay someone who weighs a little heavier than you because if the climber falls, some of their weight is borne by the anchor point at the top of the climb – although of course if the weight imbalance is too much, the belayer will go shooting off the ground which is not good for anybody.

Top roping is fine indoors where all the walls routes are pre-roped, but in the outdoors it wouldn’t be safe to leave ropes out exposed to the elements, and especially not by the seaside. So, how do you get the top rope up there safely in the first place? This is where lead climbing (also known as sport climbing) comes in. Climbing walls may have a number of routes up them which someone has “discovered”. Along these routes, people have driven bolts into the rockface – small loops of metal which offer a climber protection and peculiarly are referred to as “protection” (as in “hook yourself into that bit of protection”). These metal loops are spaced several metres apart up the rockface. Apparently the steel loops at Railay kept getting corroded away by the salty air, so it was a comfort to learn that titanium loops were gradually replacing the steel ones.


Cath heading up the wall

Lead climbing is called lead climbing because the climber leads the way up the wall with the rope trailing behind. The lead climber carries a set of quickdraws, which are pairs of carabiners attached by a short length of fabric. When the climber reaches a point of protection, they clip one end of a quickdraw into the protection, and clip the rope into the other end. Falling while lead climbing is a fair bit more scarier than falling while top roping because you fall twice the distance to your last point of protection, plus the rope stretch distance and any slack (and there is invariably going to be slack because as the climber moves up the wall, the belayer needs to feed slack rope through to the climber to allow them to continue up the wall – unlike top roping where the belayer needs to take up the slack). You can end up falling several metres which is a bit of a shock to the system.

When you get to the top of the route, you then have to feed a rope through an anchor point (normally a solid metal ring). The trick here is to safely pass the rope attached to your harness through the ring to form a top rope. Of course, you can’t simply untie the rope from your harness, pass it through the ring and then tie yourself up again. Not unless you have a deathwish. So, climbers have evolved what is a rather intricate procedure involving quickdraws and knot tying to enable a lead climber to safely set up a top rope. Well, it’s not that intricate, but for a novice, there is a set of about half a dozen steps to follow involving clips, knots and rope which is pretty intimidating because the first time you do it, no one’s up there to help you and there’s a distinct uneasy feeling that you’re going to untie the wrong knot and plummet to a messy end. It doesn’t help that you use both hands to do the work so you’re not actually hanging on to the rock at all at that stage. Also, during the procedure there’s several carabiners and lengths of rope interwined into your harness, so figuring out which carabiner was safe to unclip, or which rope was safe to untie was a bit like figuring out whether to cut the green wire or the red wire. But with experience you get used to it, though you always have to be alert!

Unfortunately, the second time Kev went up there a couple things went wrong and he was stuck up there for about 20 minutes. “What am I doing wrong?” Kev yelled down at one stage. “Everything!” was Boy’s comforting reply. Eventually, unable to see what Kev had done (a bit hard, given he was 20 metres up) Boy had to climb up another route and talk Kev through the process – which it turns out that he had followed except for one step. Compounding the problem was a case of equipment failure – the carabiner on the safety sling wouldn’t lock.

Lead climbing, though a bit nerve-wracking at first, is quite fun. It involves a lot more thought than top roping – you have to plan your route more carefully because you have to place your protection, and of course there’s this whole anchoring business up the top.

There is also a form of climbing called traditional climbing, or “trad climbing” for short. This enables a climber to lead climb a wall without any pre-placed protection. A trad climber brings up their own protection, for example in the form of spring-loaded camming devices (though there are a lot of other widgets available). The climber pulls a trigger on a cam to make it contract, then places the cam into a crack or other space in the rock. When the trigger is released, the cam expands to jam itself into the space. The climber then clips themself into the device for protection and continues climbing.

This is a lot more scary because you have to trust that the cam is reliable, and that you have placed it in a suitable location on the rock face. Boy claims to have bought several cams some time ago, but never got around to trying out trad climbing because he just didn’t trust the cams. One benefit of trad climbing is that because the protection is temporary, the rockface is not marred. You can see James Bond doing some trad climbing in For Your Eyes Only (although he hammers pitons into the rockface for protection).

You can also climb without any protection and any belayer in what is known as free soloing. Crazy stuff.

Finally, there’s a newish form of climbing called Deep Water Soloing, which is like free soloing, except you climb over a body of water so if you fall and land correctly, you don’t die. This is what it looks like when done by one of the world’s best climbers.

Lead climbing was more than enough fun for us. We even went back again a couple days later for more. We hired Boy again, but before any climbing had begun, he unfortunately had managed to disable himself by whacking his eye with the rope while he was unfurling it on the ground. Luckily, our replacement guide was equally as able.

We spent all of our time on three novice walls – Diamond Cave, Muay Thai and the ever popular One Two Three wall.


Kev leading


Eric leading on the Muay Thai wall


Tying myself in


Me leading through a jungle of top ropes


Kev leading again


The One Two Three Wall


View from 30m up, 1-2-3 wall


View from 30m up, 1-2-3 wall


It got a little dark, but that didn’t stop us


An Asian version of Cpt Jack Sparrow? One of the climbing guides

We also hired a boat one day and went fishing and snorkelling. We went past the island where The Beach was filmed, but unfortunately we didn’t get a look at the beach itself.


Fish


There’s also another one of Eric and Kev bouldering in budgies but I won’t inflict that upon you


Relaxing


Mmm… roti!

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14
Jan 07
Sun

Apple iPhone

Well, the holiday’s almost over. I’m sitting in the lounge at Singapore’s airport having just watched Jobs’ iPhones keynote presentation. I want one now. Unfortunately, Australian mobile carriers have given it a “lukewarm response” and we won’t see anything until 2008 anyway. Boo. From what I’ve seen, Apple has hit the spot on a mobile device that gets just about everything right. It certainly stops phones like Nokia’s N series dead in the water.

5
Jan 07
Fri

An update

I think I need a t-shirt that reads, “I’m not Japanese or Korean” in as many languages as possible.

While walking through the Spice Bazaar (encumbered with several kilos of lokum), every 30 seconds a shopkeeper would intercept me with a konichiwa, ohayo followed by a stream of unintelligible gibberish which I can only assume is Japanese (or its Korean equivalents). This now familiar scenario plays out thusly:

“I don’t understand. I’m not Japanese.”
“Oh. Where you from?”
“Australia.”
Pause. “Ow-stra-lee-a?”
“Yes.”
“Originally, where you from?”
“Australia.”
“Ow-stra-lee-a?!” will come the reply, a little more emphatic in its bewilderment. “No… originally? You understand this word, ‘originally’?”
“Yes, I was born there.”
This is not the answer they expect and more often than not I walk away at that point, leaving them speechless in what is either a state of confusion or disbelief or both.

Tonight at the fish markets we were confronted by another tout. After trying the Japanese and Korean greetings, he finally settled on Ni hao. We kept saying hello, but that only made him cycle back to the Japanese and Korean greetings. Despite the fact that neither I nor my parents are native Mandarin speakers (in fact, mum is the only one that speaks it), we resigned to being pigeonholed as mainlanders. Which led to quite a peculiar one-sided conversation.

“Ah, China! I am from [unintelligible].”
“Where?”
“[Unintelligible]. You know Caucus?”
“What?”
“Caucus. You know Azerbaijan…”
“Oh, Caucausus!”
“Yes, I from [unintelligible]… er… Georgia.”
“Oh, Georgia!”
“I like China. Mao Tse Tung, Chiang Kai-Shek, Sun Yat Sen, yes? I study back in Georgia. I like Mao Tse Tung, he is good man. When Soviet Union not socialist anymore, China don’t want to have anything to do with that so I like him.”
“Uh…”

Hence, the t-shirt idea (if you can translate the sentence into another language, please leave a comment!)

As far as cities go, Istanbul is a little more distinctive than most. It is unique in that it straddles two continents – Europe and Asia, separated by the Bosphorus. It is one of the world’s handful of megacities, with a population somewhere around 15 million. It also has a varied past stretching over two and a half millennia. Originally named Byzantium by its founder Byzas, it eventually became the eastern capital of the Roman empire and after the death of Emperor Constantine, was renamed to Constantinople. Constantine was baptised a Christian on his deathbed, and during the same period Christianity had planted its roots in that region of the world. Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in the 15th Century and the city was ultimately renamed Istanbul (though the Greeks today still persist in calling it Constantinople). Throughout the years, the Christian demographic of the city changed to become predominantly Muslim. The Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923 by Ataturk who converted Turkey into a secular state, despite being a Muslim himself.

One of Istanbul’s most famous monuments, Ayasofya (Hagia Sofia or Sancta Sofia in Greek and Latin respectively), mirrors the change in control of Istanbul over the years. It was originally a church. When Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans, they couldn’t bring themselves to destroy the church, so they just plastered over its Christian artworks and coverted the building into a mosque. When Ataturk founded the Republic, he converted the mosque into the museum it is today. Restoration works have seen the original Christian art adorn the walls once again, and it is strange seeing the mix of Christian and Islamic art/symbols on the same structure.

Despite its population being overwhelmingly Muslim (ubiquitous mosques, the azan periodically sounding throughout the streets, the absence of pork from any menus, etc – though alcoholic raki seems to be readily available), Turkey interestingly prohibits by law the wearing of religious headwear and other “theo-political symbolic garments” for both genders in government buildings, schools, and universities. This parallels similar developments in Western European countries.

We took a daytrip to Ephesus, sold to us by our guide as the “largest excavation site on Earth”. Formerly a huge Roman city of 300,000, its harbour silted up over the years, turning the port into a muddy marshland. This attracted Malaria-carrying mosquitos and forced the residents of Ephesus to retreat to what is now the modern day town of Selçuk. Meanwhile, the shoreline retreated 8 kilometres out and left Ephesus high, dry, and deserted. Ephesus was never resettled, and so unlike other sites of ancient cities (Rome, Athens, etc), there was nothing above the city ruins except dirt. Ephesus is well worth the visit and it is surprisingly easy to imagine how it was a bustling and cosmopolitan city a couple millennia ago. The façade of the Library at Ephesus is world-famous, but more interesting to me was the fact that it was built directly opposite a brothel (perhaps seen as more socially acceptable given that the patron deity of Ephesus was Artemis, goddess of fertility?) Some enterprising men built an underground tunnel connecting the library with the brothel, so a man could use the justification of visiting the library as a convenient cover story for a quick “tribute to Artemis” along the way (the library was only open to men, so it wasn’t as if women could check up on their husbands).


Carpet sales


Library of Celsus

Paul passed through Ephesus on his evangelical travels and Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians is attributed as having been addressed to the Christians in Ephesus. John and Mary (Jesus’ mother) are also considered to have settled in Ephesus, and the house of the Virgin Mary is a popular site for visiting Catholics and Muslims alike. The setup of the house seemed somewhat tacky and idolatrous to me. (For instance, there’s a wishing board there where people write their wishes to Mary on napkins, tissues and the like and tie them to the board. Slightly less reverential, there’s also a tree stump next to the wishing board on which people have been sticking their wads of chewing gum for years.)

One more day here, then it’s off to Dubai on Sunday.

31
Dec 06
Sun

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year! As always, Sydney is one of the first cities to enter the New Year and the cable networks are awash with clips of the fireworks over Sydney Harbour. It’s still a couple of hours until Istanbul follows. Turkish TV, evidently not as squeamish as CNN or BBC, has been showing uncensored clips of Saddam’s execution.

We flew in from Paris this afternoon. Paris was overcast and dreary, but despite the grey pall, it still had loads of charm. I managed to visit a few extra places this time around. Saint-Chapelle (just around the corner from the Notre-Dame Cathedral) was particularly spectacular. It’s a small Gothic chapel split into two levels. Soaring stained-glass windows form the walls of the upper level and the effect is amazing, even in the murky Winter light. The Arc de Triomphe has many imitators around the world, but like the city it resides in, none really comes close. Incidentally, l’Arc is second in size only to the Triumphal Arch in, of all places, Pyongyang. The North Koreans intentionally constructed their arch to be slightly larger than its Parisienne counterpart in the early 1980s to commemorate Dear Leader Kim Il Sung.

As for Turkey, only been here for a couple hours, but I like it already.

13
Dec 06
Wed

EOY 2006/07

Itinerary for the end of year trip has been finalised. Due to airline industry pricing practices, a round-the-world ticket works out to be cheaper if you ever want to stop by more than a couple cities overseas. Unfortunately, the same tickets impose a circumnavigation condition on travel, which has necessitated a rather arduous journey to Paris flying the long way around the globe… and consuming over 30 hours of time. We leave on Christmas Day, so while eking out an existence in economy is not an ideal way to spend Christmas, fares are about 15% cheaper than Christmas Eve fares.

Looking forward to going rock climbing in Krabi. Coincidentally, we met a Singaporean holidaying in Sydney while indoor rock climbing last Sunday. She told us she’s been to Krabi about half a dozen times, lots of routes for people at our level… if these photos hadn’t whetted my appetite sufficiently, her descriptions did. Eric claims he’ll be joining us in Krabi despite getting totally smashed by Hong Kong’s insane PCLL curriculum.

Changing topics to The Amazing Race, another season has come to an end. As usual, the Race proved unpredictable and I got all my predictions wrong. A pretty ho-hum last episode, didn’t have any team I particularly disliked. Next season is an All Stars season, so I am very, very much looking forward to that.

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30
Sep 06
Sat

Richard I’Anson tour

I know there are a few readers who would be interested in this. Richard I’Anson, author of the Lonely Planet guide to travel photography (which is a pretty good book), is going on a tour throughout Australia showcasing his photos and talking about his travel experiences in places such as Bhutan, Ecuador, India, Burma, Nepal and Zimbabwe. He’ll be in Sydney at the State Art Gallery – Tuesday 31 October at 7pm to 10pm. Sounds good! Tickets are free but seats are limited, you can order tickets here.

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24
May 06
Wed

Sailing Scandinavia

My parents ditched cold and drizzly Australia today and have gone for a 2 week cruise. It departs from England and stops at Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, St Petersburg and Tallinn (that’s Estonia’s capital). Then they’re flying back via Bangkok (again?!) and Singapore. I can tell they’re getting close to retirement age because Dad has never taken a mid-year holiday overseas in 30 years.

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5
Feb 06
Sun

Hong Kong & Kuala Lumpur

HONG KONG
For me, there are two types of travelling. One involves waking up early, strapping on a backpack and spending the day walking around town from attraction to attraction with a map in one hand and a camera in the other. The other type involves waking up late, carrying nothing, and spending the day eating, shopping or chilling out. You know how people come back from a holiday and say they need a “holiday after the holiday”? Well, that’s what Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur were for me – three weeks to relax after being frozen alive in Europe.

Saturday
When I touched down around noon, Eric came by to pick me up from the airport. We made a short detour and drove past the entrance to the new Disneyland Hong Kong. Although operational, the theme park still has two phases of construction to be completed over the next few years. It seemed pretty quiet, actually.

Hong Kong, the most densely populated (or perhaps second most densely populated) region in the world, is anything but quiet. Everywhere people cram into gigantic high-rise apartment complexes and the streets are continually swarming with people. As such, there’s no concept of a rural/urban divide in Hong Kong at all hours of the night. Nonetheless, Eric’s three storey house sort of near Yuen Long, in the New Territories, is pretty much as close to rural status as the former British colony will allow. There are still multi-storey buildings everywhere, but there is at least much more greenery and a bit of agriculture around. Most of all, it’s strangely peaceful. Apart from the occasional hoon trying to do his best Takumi Fujiwara impersonation up the road at night, it’s silent.

It only takes 45 minutes to get into the CBD on HK island via a bus, KCR (light rail) and MTR (subway), which by Sydney standards is reasonable. However, for the more urbanised locals, that’s an eternity. In the sticks it may have been, but I liked it there.

The flight from Rome to HK crosses seven timezones. The way to get over this jet lag is to not sleep on the plane and stay awake so there’s no problems with getting to sleep when it’s the proper time to at your destination. Unfortunately, despite a brief afternoon nap, I was crashing badly by the time dinner came. For dinner, I went out with Eric and some old HK school friends of his to an area bristling with seafood restaurants. Displayed at the front of each restaurant were banks of glass aquariums which gumbooted waitstaff scuttled over in order to scoop out fresh, wriggling, seafood. Touts were out in full force, thrusting menus at us and screaming out daily specials and other incentives in Cantonese (it’s a language that’s really well suited for shouting, and combined with the typical Cantonese culture of being direct and somewhat abrupt, explains why Cantonese restaurants are always so noisy). After we had run the gauntlet once, we decided to go back to one of the first restaurants we had passed. We were sufficiently traumatised that a small debate took place about whether or not we should circle right around the block instead of just turning around to avoid being accosted again. Only HK$240 (AUD/HKD = 5.8) bought lobster, crab, scallops, sea snails, fish, prawns and these things which looked similar to Balmain bugs but with a spiky shell.

Sunday
The next day, Vivian joined Eric and I for a trip to Macau, only one hour away by ferry. There are no casinos in HK and many Hong Kongers use it as a gambling getaway (sort of like how Genting Highlands is to Kuala Lumpur). Grabbing a hearty breakfast of macaroni, eggs and spam(!), we hopped on to the ferry. Eric described Macau to me as, “Hong Kong in the 70s,” which makes me wonder what the Portuguese did differently to the British in administering their respective colonies.

We spent the morning wandering around the streets. Signs are still marked in the peculiar combination of Chinese and Portuguese and remnants of Western influence show up in the form of colonial-style buildings and churches – now all World Heritage listed. “Hong Kong in the 70s,” was a very apt description of Macau. Lots of high-rise buildings, but just lacking that modern sheen and polish. The prevalence of casinos turn parts of Macau into a budget version of Las Vegas.

We walked up a street lined with snack stores. Vendors stood outside with trays of almond cookies and ba gua to sample. By the time we had walked up and back, we had successfully gorged ourselves full on these freebies. This posed a problem, if only because it was now lunchtime. We ate at a Portuguese restaurant and had a dessert which was called, when literally translated, “saw dust cake” (or similar). I was assured that the light brown bits on the cake were not actually dead tree, but biscuit crumbs.

Then we hit the casinos. Eric brought us to one holding a rather dodgy promotion. In exchange for surrendering some of our personal details (name, address, passport number and so on), we got to play two games. The first was a scissors, paper, rock one (we entered our choices into a computer). If we won that, we would be allowed to play the second game. But only after they took an electronic copy of our identification (in my case, a passport) and, most strangely, a photograph of our hand. Viv and I never made it past the first game.

Eric had won both games on a previous visit and proudly carried the mugshot they had taken of his hand in his wallet. Unfortunately, on that previous visit, he was wearing a pair of badly ripped jeans, including one sizable hole in its backside. Before Eric could claim his prize, a Cantonese-speaking Indian security guard had sighted his gross dress code violation and yelled, “What the hell? I can see your underwear!” He grabbed Eric roughly by the arm and tossed him out on to the road.

Today, fashion wasn’t an issue, although something about Eric must have said, “I am in desperate need of money” because while we were watching a Blackjack table (keeping a distance as the minimum bet on all the Blackjack tables was at least HK$200!), a loanshark slithered up to Eric and started soliciting. After Eric had made it clear he wasn’t in need of money, the loanshark continued (in Cantonese), “Oh, if you want to yai yai, I can also arrange that for you.”

The literal translation for yai yai is “being naughty”. I learnt a new Cantonese phrase that day.

Monday
Monday saw Eric commence a two week internship at a city law firm. Being his first job in an office environment, he was visibly nervous about things. Nonetheless, we had arranged to meet up with him, along with various other friends from UNSW for lunch. After enjoying a nice sleep-in, I walked downstairs.

Eric’s grandfather was there eating lunch and watching TV. An amazing man of 95 years, he lives on the house’s top floor so he was obviously still very mobile. Unfortunately for me, he only spoke Cantonese.

My family is Cantonese. My mum speaks Cantonese (among other dialects), my dad speaks Cantonese. Two of my grandparents don’t speak English. All of my aunts and uncles speak Cantonese. But I can’t. I attribute it to growing up in rural Sydney, but whatever the reason, it was proving to be quite a liability. Through a steadfast refusal to speak Cantonese when I was young, I learnt how to listen to it through pure osmosis, but have major trouble stringing together a sentence when speaking. Even then, my Chinese is mangled by a thick gwei lo accent. Yes, I’m a true banana.

Anyway, I said good morning to Eric’s grandpa. The following exchange took place entirely in Cantonese:

“Are you going out?” he asked me.
“Yes, I’m going out,” I replied.
“Are you going out to eat?”
“Yes.”
“Well then, do you know how to speak Chinese?”
“No I don’t.”
He sort of grunted and said, “Well how are you going to [something I didn't understand] if you don’t know how to speak Chinese?”
“Err…”
“Wait till I finish lunch, and then I’ll help you.”
“Oh. Thank you.”

Not having a key, he let me out of the front gate. I assumed he was going to lead me to the bus stop, but when he turned the other way, I realised he was actually taking me out to lunch and stopped him.

“Uh, sorry, I need to take the bus.”
“Huh?” he replied sharply.
“Uh… take the bar-see,” I clarified.
“Oh! bar-see!” he paused, thinking. “But you don’t need to take a bus to have lunch.”

At this point, I needed to convey that I needed to take a bus to the city to meet Eric for lunch. The problem was, I didn’t know the words for “city”, “meet”, nor “lunch” (I told you my Cantonese was bad). So all I could do was keep repeating, “Eric” and “need to take a bus”, while gesticulating in the general direction of the city. He patiently listened to me but we weren’t getting anywhere.

“You want to see Eric? But Eric is working!”
“Yes, I know that… but… uh, take bus… Eric… uh… uh…”

After a few more repetitions of this (and steadily feeling more useless as time past), Eric’s grandpa tried to help and offered perhaps the only two words in English he knew: “Eat! Food!” he said, motioning he hand towards his mouth.

I looked down at my watch. It was noon. If I didn’t get the message through to him, I’d be late. Finally, I blurted out, “Eric! One o’clock!”

A light dawned. “OH!” he said. He led me to the bus stop, asked if I was okay to pay the fare, and went home. He was amazingly sharp for someone of that age.

I got into Central and somehow bumped into Kit among the throng of suits. Kit was now working his butt off for an investment bank and we arranged to meet for lunch the next day. (“Hm, no dinner is not good any day this week.” “Work commitments?” “Yeah.”)

Lunch was at a Japanese restaurant, and when I walked in, the place was awash with businesspeople. Whoever had organised the lunch had rounded up a bunch of law students on vacation internships. Everyone was dressed in suits. Being decidedly underdressed, it was a little intimidating, but luckily Jason was there – fresh from exchange in Toronto, on holidays, and suit-free.

Only a few hours into his first day, Eric was already feeling a little stressed after work. Unlike Sydney, lunch hour is standardised and inflexible in HK. It’s taken from 1-2pm. I arranged to meet Eric after work at 6. By 1.55pm, the restaurant had abruptly emptied, leaving just a relaxed me and Jason to finish off our tea. Jennifer (also suit-free) arrived and joined us until the restaurant closed an hour later.

That afternoon, Jen took us around the CBD. We started at the newly built IFC (International Finance Centre) Tower 2. As we strolled among the expensive brand-name boutiques and eateries, Jen, having worked at several large law firms both in HK and Sydney, filled us in on the work culture in HK.

Solicitors make around 50% more than their Sydney counterparts at a much lower tax rate. However, it sounded like that’s where the benefits ended. It’s three years before a graduate becomes a solicitor, unlike the six or so months required in Sydney. Long hours come standard, and with local firms having an official 5.5 day work week (Saturdays are half-days), “long hours” really means long. Internally, firms tend to be much more hierarchical. Whereas Australian partners are quite approachable, HK partners tend to take a closed door, hands off, figure-it-out-for-yourself, “don’t bother me unless it’s really important” attitude. Even once a student has received a vacation placements, the placement experience itself is competitive, with firms setting a variety of assessment tasks for interns to complete. Jen related how she had to give a simulated pitch to an investment bank client (a role which happened to be “acted out” by the firm’s head partner) in order to become their globally preferred legal adviser. Another task involved producing an analysis of all the issues pertaining to fending off a hostile takeover. Not quite your 9-6pm deal that Sydney firms provide. In fact, interns tend to put in 12 hour days there.

Jason and I became increasingly disconcerted as we moved through the shops in Central. All screamed extreme wealth (an A$35,000 mobile phone, anyone?) and after seeing several Pradas, LVs, etc, I declared that though every other city in the world only has one Tiffany store, HK seemed to have about ten. Sydney has one. Even New York has one. What was HK doing with so many? (It turns out that actually several cities have several stores: London has 4, Seoul has 5, HK has 6, but Tokyo has around 9.) That’s a materialistic culture for you.

When we had had enough, we stopped by Lan Kwai Fong for a bowl of sour grapefruit mango sago soup (the Chinese name is a little more elegant). Eric SMSed me at 5pm: “solicitor gave me work, meet you at 8 instead”. Jen chuckled knowingly, “I told you 6 was optimistic!”

For dessert that night, Eric took us to a shop called “Australia Dairy Co”, which as far as I could tell, had no connection with Australia whatsoever. When we arrived, the place was swarming with people and there were no spare seats. We didn’t have to wait long though. A waiter lead us through the labyryinth of bodies and to a table where a couple were enjoying their tea. The waiter scribbled out a bill, chucked it on the table and within 30 seconds the couple was kicked out and we took their place.

We’d barely sat down when another waiter came to take our order and plopped three glasses of tea on our table. We considered the menu while the waiter looked increasingly agitated, although once he realised Eric was explaining the menu to us in English, he looked more bemused than anything. “When it gets busier, I can order something on this menu and have it arrive before the next person has put in their order,” Eric commented while I wondered how it could possibly get any busier. “This is real Hong Kong service.”

I ended up ordering a french toast, which is a thick piece of french toast filled with peanut butter, drenched in butter and drizzled in as much honey as you want. Unfortunately for Eric, work had noticeably taken its toll on him. He’d lost his appetite, taken on an uncharacteristically subdued demeanour, and was seriously doubting his place in an office environment. “It’s so quiet! No one talks there!” he lamented.

Tuesday
Kit mysteriously failed to contact me and was not answering his phone, so I had lunch with Eric instead while Jen took me out for shopping around Causeway Bay. I’m really not a shopper – especially if I’m not looking for anything in particular – and the sales people in Hong Kong scare me. They’re really in your face, always hovering over you, always inquiring whether you need another colour, or more help, or if you’re ready to buy. So, we ended up having an extended afternoon tea until Eric finally got off work. We went to Sha Tin for dinner (pigeons!).

By this time, Eric was a broken man. Everyone knew it. Everytime someone mentioned work, he’d glumly grimace, sigh softly, shake his head and look down. The quietness, the isolation and the lack of sunlight he was experiencing was hell on earth for him. And it only took 48 hours.

Luckily his appetite had partially returned and we went out to dessert at… some place next to a big stormwater drain. I think it was in Yuen long. I don’t know. Anyway, we’re working our way through a large fruit salad when Kit called at 11.

“Uh… mate… I’m so sorry, I totally forgot about lunch! I only just got your message!”
“Busy day at work huh?”
“Yeah um… actually –” his voice turned sheepish at this point, “I’m still at work.”
“Oh, that’s rough. How about lunch tomorrow then?”
“Actually, something big has come up, I can’t do lunch this week either.”
“O… kay.”
“Tell you what, I can do coffee.”
“But I’m guessing you can’t guarantee that.”
“No.”

Jen was grinning again. “What did you expect? He’s an i-banker! Working in Hong Kong! That’s what you get for working in Hong Kong!” she said when I put the phone down.

Eric grimaced, sighed, shook his head and looked down.

Wednesday
The next day, I had Yum Cha at lunch with Viv. Eric dropped by, but could only stay 15 minutes before he had to rush off. Jen took me around shopping again, but we ended up eating again instead.

We met up with Jason, Jess, Yorkie and a couple of their friends for dinner. Dinner was organised for 6. By some miracle all the lawyers finished work on time (except Eric, who via a distressed SMS wrote, “Don’t know when I finish. Assume I’m not coming. Eat first”).

Later that night, I decided to go to Felix, atop the Peninsular Hotel. I had tried to venture in three years ago, but was rejected by a hefty New Year’s Eve cover charge. This time was better and we eventually made it into the toilets.

It was worth the trip. One wall of the restrooms is entirely made of glass, behind which the expanse of Kowloon sparkled. Three individual urinals behind a translucent plastic curtain faced out. So there we were, Jason, Eric and I, pissing over Hong Kong, gazes firmly fixed out the window.

“This is just so wrong.”
“Yeah, SO wrong.”
“So very wrong.”

There were two bathroom attendants manning the sink. When I went to use the sink, one held out his hands, palms up, as if he was presenting the sink as a gift to me. His, uh, hand action must have tripped off some automatic sensor because the water started flowing. As I saw other people use the sink, I started sniggering… it was all too ridiculous for me.

Thursday
I followed Jen and her aunt to Shenzhen on Thursday. Although Shenzhen, through its Special Economic Zone status (which entitles foreigners to a Shenzhen-only discounted HK$150 visa), has developed rapidly, it is still unmistakably mainland Chinese. The squad of men squatting beside the street gutter give it away. And of course the drab mainland concrete architecture.

Shenzhen operates in some sort of anarchy zone for intellectual property violators. They copy everything. The new Shenzhen MTR system has a logo which is exactly the same as Hong Kong’s, except for an extra line. Like HK, there’s a Causeway Bay district (despite the absense of any bay). And one of the most blatant ripoffs was a “Ukarmani Limited” store. Guess what its merchandise looked like. Shenzhen is the place, therefore, to go for knock off handbags, knock off electronics (“iPob”?!), knock off clothes, knock off software and knock off DVDs. Counterfeits bags actually come in different grades of quality (from AAA and AA+, down to C or lower) and are priced accordingly. Bring a local if you don’t want to get ripped off.

Shenzhen is also a great place for massages. One place offered three hours for HK$90, or one hour for HK$48. We could only stay for an hour. I have never had a massage where I’ve actually been able to communicate with the massuer/masseuse due to language difficulties. But my suspicions were confirmed that they do make fun of me to other masseuses while they’re rubbing away. But it was gooood. So good, in fact, that I accidentally fell asleep.

Back in Hong Kong, the final dinner was in Yuen Long for Hong Kong’s culinary pièce de résistance: pig oil rice. Get some rice, some soy sauce, and some pig lard. Mix. Eat. Delicious. Really. (Incidentally the restaurant is owned by a chap that, unsurprisingly, has a waistline like Officer Plod from Noddy.)

Eric drove us to Sai Gong for dessert to a place which was divided into four seating areas: smoking and durian, non-smoking and durian, smoking and non-durian, and non-smoking and non-durian. After some debate, we ended up in the non-smoking and durian section. Durian is that foul smelling and foul tasting material that passes for an edible fruit. Jason and Viv love it. Eric and I hate it.

Somewhere along the line the night turned late and judgments became impaired and a challenge was put before Eric and me to eat half a Durian Pancake (a fresh chunk of deathfruit embedded in cream and a durian flavoured wrapper). It was not pretty.


Still reeling from the durian mingling with the pig oil in my stomach, we set off to find a good view of HK that we didn’t have to pay for. As conversion turned to swapping ghost stories (much to Viv’s dismay), we arrived at the foot of “Flying Goose Mountain”. Turning off the main road and up a winding, single-laned path, we set off up the mountain.

Within minutes, a thick mist had suddenly rolled in and Eric was reduced to a slow crawl. Visibility was 5 metres at most. Eric mentioned that although he had never been to the mountain before, we should lock our doors as he heardthere might be illegal immigrants from China living on the mountainside who might not take kindly to our intrusion at this hour. Things were starting to get a little unnerving. The road was too narrow to turn around so we had no choice but to forge onwards. Finally the mist got so thick that Eric had to keep an eye on the rockface to our right to figure out where the road was. Since the headlights were reflecting straight back off the mist, Jason suggested that switching off the lights would make things better, and suddenly the car plunged into darkness.

“Yeah, I think this is better,” Eric agreed.

From the back seat, Viv and I could only see an inky blackness. “No no no! Turn it back on!”

After about a half hour of crawling up the mountain, we finally reached a lookout, but no one wanted to get out of the car. So we drove onwards and back down the mountain. After another eternity, we emerged back onto a main thoroughfare and approached a traffic light.

“Guys? The brakes aren’t working.”
“Yeah Eric, pull the other one.”
“No, no! I’m serious!”

He pumped the brakes, but surely enough the car continued to slide forward. There was a burning smell coming from somewhere that was growing steadily stronger. Luckily, the handbrakes were still operational, and we pulled over to give the car a chance to cool down. HK was really the last place I expected to get lost on a mountain.

KUALA LUMPUR
Car troubles greeted me in KL as well. I arrived in KL Sentral at night. Dave and Justin once again picked me up.

“Okay dude, we’re going clubbing! But first…”
“But first what?”
“But first, I need to fix up my car… radiator is having issues.”
“Job!”

KL was even a lazier experience than HK. Slept late, woke up for lunch. Went to Zouk. Won at pool. Got my revenge on Justin in snooker. Lost to Dave. Mixed results with DotA and Three Corridors. Still hate volleyball. Was made to feel linguistically inadequate. (Ni hee! Ngai mm hee!) Ate lots and lots of mamak food. Ate more Ramly burgers than is healthy. Wikipedia says:

“Despite its popularity among Singaporeans, the Ramly Burger is banned in Singapore … However, several stalls have smuggled the burger, albeit illegally, into the country. In particular, Ramly Burger stalls are rampant in pasar malams, which are harder to track due to their itinerant nature. Some have expressed health concerns over the Ramly burger, due to the liberal amounts of condiments typically lathered on the burger.”

I brought over some American mustard from San Fran and we added mustard to the burger. It’s good shit!

The main event in KL was Chinese New Year. I haven’t had a CNY in Asia since I was little. In Australia, celebrations are fairly subdued. Normally we have a reunion dinner together with any relatives we have in Sydney.

CNY is a public holiday in Malaysia and it’s traditional for people to make their way back to their family hometowns for it. Since most people working KL came from other parts of Malaysia, KL itself is extremely quiet during it – the roads are empty, the shops are closed. CNY falls either on the second or third new moon after the winter solstice (when the nights are the longest in a year).

We went out to see Fearless on CNY eve. Jet Li’s last movie, I observed.

“Choi! It’s not! It’s only his last martial arts movie!” Dave chided.
“And when was the last time Jet Li acted in a non-martial arts movie?” I said without skipping a beat.
“Oh yeah lah… you’re right. Shit. It’s his last movie.”

Too bad the movie was dubbed into Cantonese with Chinese, Malay and English subtitles (which only appeared for 90% of the dialogue). Otherwise, it was a decent watch.

Nighttime was quiet, just the “reunion dinner”. The TV was broadcasting a lot of Chinese variety shows (just like they like to hold in France, it seems).

The tradition for the first day (out of fifteen) of CNY is to go visiting relatives, in order of the eldest and then working downwards from there. I tagged along with Dave’s family (and picked up a whole stash of those wonderful red packets along the way).

They say that Malaysia’s three main ethnic groups are each linked to a different vice: gambling, sex and alcohol. Chinese are undoubtedly gambling crazy, and barely half a day has passed before mahjong sets and decks of cards are brought out to convert respectable houses into instant illicit gambling dens. Ironically, it is actually all illegal, but naturally no one gives a toss. Justin told me how a few years ago, a friend had set up a virtual casino in his house – almost ten tables, including a real dai sai table. The house (dealer) was literally the house!

Dave’s sister, mum, aunt and grandmother (the “gambling granny”) seemed to have a set up a permanent (Chinese) poker game downstairs, and the numerous times I played I came away burnt. (Something about that saying, “Age and treachery will overcome youth and skill”?)

Over the next three days, we pretty much did nothing but gamble. Hours and hours of it. Mostly Texas Hold’em and some variant of Blackjack. We made rounds at four other houses. At Douglas’ house, someone set up a large game of 21. We were playing RM10/20 hands. After losing a chunk of my red packet money, I decided to sit things out and watch the “big boys” game (ie, parents) of texas hold’em. The men were going crazy on it. The blinds were only RM5/10. One hand in particular escalated rapidly.

“Ok lah, what’s your bet?”
Yee baht!” ($200)
“Wahhhh lun eh… ok, ok, seong chair! Seong chair!” (literally, “get into the car!” as in “I’ll get on board”)
“Call, and I raise you another 200.” (flicking through a large wad of fifties)

Everyone went in and stayed in. By the time the river came, there was over RM2000 on the table. (Which to be honest, probably wasn’t that much money to them.)

At Jason’s house, Justin, Douglas and I were joined by this crazy girl who would bet every hand, and often raise to the limit. Most of the time it was a bluff, but since I was already down by quite a lot, I just couldn’t follow (and was too scared to go all-in). I kept getting bad cards and in the end I got blinded out of the game. Meanwhile Dave was suffering on a 3-deck blackjack game where Eugene, the dealer had made off with over RM600 of other people’s money by the end of the night (despite having to pay 2 to 1 on a blackjack). Incidentally, it turns out he was the son of one of Malaysia’s top 10 richest men, so I guess some people are just born to be lucky with money.

Contrary to Dave, Justin had been on a two and a half day winning streak. He put it down to wearing his “lucky clothes” – a special t-shirt, pants, and underwear. The day I left KL, he declared that he would be wearing those clothes for the rest of CNY. This posed some obvious sanitary concerns which his girlfriend took particular offence at several days later.

5/02/2006 3:18:15 PM Justin: well, someone, shirley told me to get them changed or not she wont come near me
5/02/2006 3:18:20 PM Justin: so i changed the shirt
5/02/2006 3:18:26 PM Justin: and i lost all my winnings
5/02/2006 3:18:36 PM Justin: and i’ve retired from gambling ever since
5/02/2006 3:21:03 PM Stu: HAHAHAHHA
5/02/2006 3:21:19 PM Stu: washed all the luck away
5/02/2006 3:21:23 PM Stu: evil woman
5/02/2006 3:21:34 PM Justin: aih
5/02/2006 3:21:40 PM Justin: all they think about is themselves
5/02/2006 3:21:40 PM Justin: jhahaha
5/02/2006 3:21:41 PM Justin: oh well
5/02/2006 3:22:00 PM Justin: my winning streak ended

I am still convinced that the person who has the motivation to open a late night mamak stall in Sydney will be very lucky with money.

31
Jan 06
Tue

Oooh. Ahhh.

Just had to post again for the sake of it. I’m much too thrilled about this internet-in-the-sky concept. I just realised I am going to have to get some sleep, just to try out this bed thing.

Tick one more thing off the “must do before I die” list

To my surprise, this aircraft has been fitted out with an internet connection. So I am fulfilling a goal to post to Hear Ye! from over 10km in the air. Getting quite a geeky kick out of being able to IM friends while airborne! But that’s not the “thing to do before I die” that this post is really about.

Singapore Airlines has an internet checkin feature where you get to select what seat you want up to 48 hours before flying. So I logged on a couple days ago to snatch my customary window seat for the Singapore-Sydney overnight flight home, when I realise that the schematic which shows the seat layout is a business class schematic (3 sets of 2 seats per row) and I’ve been already allocated 23H. I scanned through economy class and discovered that it was full up, and came to the gleeful realisation that I was the beneficiary of the overbooking practices of airlines – that is, they ran out of seats so they bumped me up to business class. Makes sense – the first few days of Chinese New Year have passed and people are returning home after having visited their families in Asia, so the flights back to Sydney are packed during this time. I had an aisle seat, and there were no other free slots, but as if that mattered – I was flying business class!

I love planes and flying long-haul flights (that, and liking the humid South-east Asian weather are two of my idiosyncracies most people baulk at), so when departure day arrives, I’m all excited. Finally, I get to travel in business class which I haven’t done since I was about 8 and back then they didn’t have fully reclining beds. Furthermore, I get to use for the first time my newly acquired Gold Krisflyer status (20kg extra luggage, fast check-in in the Gold queue, luggage is unloaded first from the plane so wait times at the baggage carousel are minimised, access to Star Alliance lounges and I get to board the plane first to avoid the rush for overhead luggage).

I arrive at KLIA check-in with only a 20kg backpack (it only holds so much stuff) and the lady tells me that there is another passenger bound for Sydney with a 14kg suitcase which he hasn’t been able to check-in because he was already way over his limit. “Would you mind checking-in his luggage on your allowance, sir?” she asks. Of course I don’t mind – everytime my mum goes back to Singapore we run into the same problem so it’s nice to be able to return the favour. She completes the check-in process and hands me my boarding pass, which I see in shock, is printed on an economy class template.

“Sorry, I should have mentioned this before, but could I get a window seat?”
“Hmm… sorry, this is a very full flight, I can’t move you.”
“Oh,” I stammer, “that’s um… okay. Could I check what class the seat is in?”

She gives me a funny look, and after a bit of tapping on the computer says, “it’s in economy class. It’s a 747, so it’s a bigger plane. You’re on the upper deck where economy class starts in row 22.”

I look at her in disbelief – since when did the upper deck of a 747 have economy class seats? I am shattered, and feel somewhat depressed on the first KL-Singapore flight.

I drop by the Star Alliance lounge when I get to Singapore airport, but it’s nothing special. By the time I arrive at the gate, a huge queue has already formed leading to the metal detectors and security checkpoint. I’m moping at this point, and when the gate staff inspect my boarding pass and say, “One moment sir, we are going to have to pull you aside for a moment,” all I could think was, “What now?!” Was I on some Interpol watchlist? Were they going to take me into a room and strip search me?

I’m standing off to the side for a few minutes when one of the staff bounds up to me and says with a smile, “Here’s your new boarding pass with a new seat!” With a start, I realise it’s for seat 3F, handwritten on a Raffles Class boarding pass. That really made my day. But wait, there’s more…

When I board the plane, a stewardess leads me to my seat. She leads me to the left, then down the aisle towards the nose of the plane. Ten seconds later, I realise I am walking in First Class.

First. Fucking. Class. It has to be a mistake. Any moment now the stewardess is going to realise it and turn me around. But no, she ushers me into a seat that’s bigger than my apartment’s sofa. That’s it, any moment now, someone is going to arrive and demand to know what I’m doing in their seat. But no, the aircraft doors are shut and I am still sitting in the first class cabin with three other passengers who actually look like they belong there. Any moment now, the stewardess is going to denounce my boarding pass is a forgery and declare I am an imposter. But no, she instead offers me a beverage. The plane takes off.

Since I was a kid I’ve always dreamed of flying in first, so much so that I put it on the “things to do before I die” (another idiosyncracy). Because the costs for travelling in anything but economy are outrageously obscene, I figured I had to win the lottery or rob a bank or similar to be able to fulfil it. So now I’m like a kid in the candy store. Here are some observations about first class so far… since I’ll probably never be flying it again in my life:

  • The stewardesses they use here are leading and chief ones (green and red sarong kebayas).
  • When they need to explain something to you, they kneel on the floor so they are looking up at you rather than the other way around.
  • They ask before pushback what beverage you want to be served after take-off.
  • You get to choose when you want to eat and when to be waken up from the bed.
  • Personal service – being addressed by name by the attendants.
  • The meal menu is pretty cool. I’ll see if I can sneak one out.
  • Toilets are roughly the same as economy class ones, but with a few more amenities.
  • Profit margins on first class must be huge. On an overbooked flight, out of 12 seats, only 4 are occupied (and only 2 are paying customers, the other one is SIA staff).
  • Laptop power port. I think business class has them as well.
  • Dolby surround active noise cancelling headphones – they pretty much block out 90% of the sounds from the four jet engines.
  • Stationery set, reclining chair/bed, large video screen for movies, etc. Mental!
  • The cabin lights are switched on in the morning only when everyone has awoken.
  • Sleeping in the bed is similar to sleeping in a train couchette compartment – gentle rocking. A proper bed is naturally more comfortable (perhaps in the new A380s?).
  • Meals are freshly prepared and come on a tablecloth. Can mix and match meals and request as much food and drink as you want.
  • Offered newspapers and magazines to read.
  • Despite this, First Class is so not worth the money people pay for it. But what luxury goods and services ever are?

I am so excited I can’t sleep. I wonder if they bumped me all the way up because I helped the guy out at check-in? That’s the only reason I can think of upgrading me instead of pushing a business class passenger up…

Homeward bound

It’s all over! The last flight to Sydney awaits…

A huuuuge thanks to Eric and Dave! They graciously hosted me, repeatedly came to my rescue (especially linguistically speaking… I really feel like the only monolingual person on the face of this planet currently) and generally showed me a really fun time during my stays in HK and KL respectively. Many thanks also to Jen, Viv and Justin for taking me around. And of course, thanks to my wonderful parents for funding this second sojourn (don’t worry, starting work soon, the sponging off you wil soon stop!).

The last time I tried to write a post on the plane I got sidetracked by the inflight movies, so I guess the full “report” will have to wait till I get home.

Typing this from the lounge thing they have at this airport for frequent flyers… it’s a novel experience for me, but I must say it’s underwhelmingly un-special. Showers are pretty handy I guess, and there’s a free drinks fridge. But otherwise, bleh.

20
Jan 06
Fri

Cities over the last 365 days

Following on from a meme featuring on this site and this site, here’s a list of cities and towns I’ve passed through over the last year. Unfortunately, the remainder of 2006 will be significantly less itinerant.

Beijing, China*
Harbin, China
Singapore*
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia*
Genting Highlands, Malaysia††
Chiang Mai, Thailand
Luang Prabang, Laos
Vientiane, Laos
Hanoi, Vietnam
Halong Bay, Vietnam
Hué, Vietnam
Hoi An, Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Phnom Penh, Vietnam
Siem Reap, Vietnam
Bangkok, Thailand
Dubai, UAE
Vienna, Austria††
Prague, Czech Republic
Bratislava, Slovakia
Budapest, Hungary
Sighisoara, Romania
Bucharest, Romania
Sofia, Bulgaria*
Athens, Greece
Mykonos, Greece
Thessalonica, Greece††
Washington, DC
New York, NY
Boston, MA
Cambridge, MA††
Montréal, Canada
Québec City, Canada
Toronto, Canada
Niagara Falls, Canada††
Chicago, IL
San Francisco, CA*
Las Vegas, NV*
Grand Canyon, AZ
Vancouver, Canada*
Whistler, Canada
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Brussels, Belgium
Venice, Italy
Florence, Italy
Pisa, Italy††
Rome, Italy
Naples, Italy††
Pompei, Italy††
Hong Kong, China
Macau, China††
Shenzhen, China††

All places had overnight visits, unless marked with ††.
* Multiple entries, non-consecutive days.
†† Daytrip only.

19
Jan 06
Thu

HKG

Had an absolute blast in HK!! Will try and do a writeup on the plane tomorrow.

12
Jan 06
Thu

Gelato

Although I complained about prices in the last post, there is one staple that hasn’t changed in price – ice cream! If you look in the right places, you can pay as little as €1.25 and get three large scoops of excellent ice cream. You can’t even buy one scoop in Sydney for that price.

Caught up with Harold for dinner yesterday who’s on his way up with Tal to Venice. Leaving tomorrow for HK where I can finally dispense with this damn heavy winter jacket. Should hit Gold level on my KrisFlyer account then too! :) Extra 20kg luggage allowance!

9
Jan 06
Mon

Expenses

I just have to say that Rome is horrendously expensive compared to when I was here five years ago. That’s what conversion to the Euro does, I suppose… makes everything 60% more expensive for an Aussie. Ouch.

3
Jan 06
Tue

Two thousand and six

Happy New Year and welcome to 2006! Looking back, a lot of stuff happened in 2005… 2006 is going to be very different, but still exciting!

The trip is going well, although I am suffering from a dramatic sunlight deficiency. Every single day, except for two in Arizona, has been completely overcast, if not raining as well. Contrast this to the 44 degree Sydney bushfire weather. Winter in the northern hemisphere sucks. Quick roundup follows (not many photos sorry, I’m a bit lazy when it comes to posting them!).

Vegas
We took a break from the glitz of Vegas and took a roadtrip to Arizona to check out the Grand Canyon and stopping at the Hoover Dam along the way (which sits across the Nevada-Arizona state border). Warmish weather, beautiful landscapes, good music and a reliable GPS unit made the 11 hour journey a great roadtrip.

The Canyon is much more impressive and larger in real life than appears in photos. The Colorado River winds through the bottom of a canyon comprising many different layers of bedrock, the lowest of which are dated in excess of a billion years old. When the sun peeps over the canyon wall during sunrise, its light strikes certain layers, vibrantly lighting them up in various hues of vermillion and orange and throwing long, sharp shadows across the canyon floor and walls.

Back in Vegas, we saw a performance by David Copperfield, who is pretty much the greatest illusionist alive (if not ever). An absolutely amazing show, the man is a genuine genius. I find it amusing how people try to deconstruct and figure out the trick behind each illusion after the show. Apparently it takes about two years to plan and design each illusion. Trying to figure out how a person at the very top of his trade has done his tricks in the hour after a show would be analogous to attempting to reconstruct the maths behind one of Einstein’s papers after reading only its conclusion. Some of his tricks were: the prediction of lottery numbers chosen by the audience (where the prediction was in a locked box on an audio tape and on a scrap of paper), making a car appear on stage out of nothing and most impressively, “teleporting” to an island in the Philippines (shown via a live video feed). As a presenter, Copperfield is smooooth. I’m pretty sure he could have had any girl in the audience that night, taken or not. One girl would have gone ahead and touched a scorpion after he told her to, had he not stopped her at the last minute…

Random observation:
- We bought a bag of Pork Rinds with an expiry date of December 3005 (packaged December 2005).

Vancouver
True to its reputation, when we arrived in Vancouver it was raining. Despite the weather, it’s easy to see why Vancouver is consistently rated as one of the world’s most livable cities and why it attracts such large quantities of migrants. (Vancouver has a huge Asian population – more than a whopping 30%!) It’s bordered by a decent harbour one one side, and mountains and forests on the other. North Vancouver residents live virtually at the foot of several ski fields. Being in British Columbia, it also lies at the doorstep of a wide variety of ecologies. Lots of outdoor activities here! And it has the added bonus of not being as cold as other Canadian provinces.

Christmas night saw people coming in from Singapore, Paris, Milwaukee, Dallas and of course Sydney. Someone drew up a large 30-person Secret Santa list beforehand, and when the time came to distribute them from around the Christmas tree, it was great fun. I scored a baseball cap and a set of poker chips that I wanted, and finally learnt how to play Texas Hold-em from Wai Ken, who plays poker professionally. I was then soundly trounced in a game with Gerald, Shelley and Wai Ken. There was also mahjong upstairs, snooker downstairs, and the well-used hottub out the back.


Wah Kit, Steven, Rebecca, Brian: Watching the opening of presents

On Boxing Day, the Soos held a lunch at their penthouse with some very schmick views of Vancouver. Then we went for a walk in the woods during the afternoon, trying to visit a Salmon hatchery along the way only to find it had closed five minutes before we had arrived. During the evening, Brian, Steven and I hung out at Gerald’s very nice apartment for the night (heated bathroom floor tiles!). I came third out of seven in poker – getting better, but I should know better than to go “all in” in a head-to-head with a pro!


View from North Vancouver


The Cole family (minus Gerald and Shelley)


Whistler slopes

Random observations:
- North Americans do not understand “How are you going?” or “How’s it going?” as a way of asking “How are you?” (“How are you doing?” on the other hand, is perfectly comprehendable.) It’s interesting noting that the French ça va literally means, “It’s going?”
- Lasik only costs a couple hundred dollars per eye here. That makes it cheaper for Australians to fly to Vancouver to get Lasik done than doing it back home!

Amsterdam
It was actually snowing fairly heavily when we arrived in Amsterdam. There was snow everywhere on the streets. Very pretty to look at, but not very nice to walk through with luggage. I took a wrong turn coming out of the train station so we ended up walking way further than we should have to the hotel. It wasn’t so bad for me as I was lugging my backpack, but my poor parents had to drag their trolley-bags through a thick layer of footpath snow.

Amsterdam is nice enough, but nothing amazing. Maybe it’s because its character is so well known that I was jaded before I even got there. I mean there’s what you expect: tonnes of canals and bridges, the smell of pot wafting out of the ubiquitous coffeeshops, the obligatory red light district visit with women strutting their stuff behind windows underneath UV lights, the long queue into Anne Frank Huis, and Rembrandt’s famous The Night Watch at the excellent Rijksmuseum (the painting is reproduced in a 3D sculpture at Rembrandtplein, so tourists can stand alongside a metal statue of Captain Frans Banning Cocq). The Indonesian food is good here, and I think the Rice Table (rijstaffel) is a Dutch thing which is sort of like a large smorgasboard of Indonesian dishes. Some Indonesian restaurants in Sydney should “import” this idea.

New Year’s Eve fireworks were okay, but the display in Sydney undoubtedly was better (as seen on CNN!). The Dutch also have a habit of tossing really noisy firecrackers and sparklers out onto footpaths – right into the path of passers-by. Pretty annoying.

Random observation:
- Pay TV shows that Australia is only known in this part of the world for fireworks, bushfires and Kerry Packer. (Kerry Packer died?!)

Brussels
I really like Brussels. It has character. Its narrow cobblestone streets are sometimes not easy to navigate, but at least there aren’t bicycles zooming around like in Amsterdam. The grand place is impressive. One major tourist photo spot is the Manneken Pis, a famous (but tiny) statue/fountain of a little boy taking a piss. The Belgians cutely dress him in different outfits throughout the year. While Manneken Pis is swarming with tourists, the little known Jeanneken Pis is hidden down the side of a dead-end alley a few hundred metres away. This shows a little girl in a not-so-elegant squatting pose pissing into a pool. Unfortunately, the water was turned off and the statue was behind a locked grille when I visited. I managed to get a photo through the grille, but felt like a pervert doing it.

The food is brilliant. Steaming bowls of moules et frites (mussels and chips, which surprisingly go together quite well), gauffres (thick Belgian waffles, smothered in whipped cream, syrup and whatever else you want on them), and of course, chocolat. Pralines and truffles. I bought over 3 kilos of the stuff today. They also have a lot of good beer here, but I wouldn’t know anything about that :P.

Random observation:
- Although Belgium is roughly split into a Dutch speaking and French speaking populace, its capital is officially bilingual. Most people also speak English too (and I’m sure some do German as well). Nothing like a city full of trilinguals to make you feel really inadequate.

27
Dec 05
Tue

Whistler

One of my relative’s relatives has an empty apartment in Whistler, so I’m up here with my cousins Brian and Steven for two all too short days of skiing. Well, actually I rented a snowboard for the first time and took lessons today. It’s pretty fun, but since I only have one more day here, I’m going to switch back to skis to explore the mountain tomorrow – Blackcomb and Whistler are pretty huge!

From what I gather about British Columbia, it’s all very outdoorsy and picturesque. This part of Canada is really quite beautiful and it helps that this Christmas season is one of the warmest (if not the warmest) on record. Whistler is only two hours’ drive from Vancouver and it makes me wish that Australia had some decent ski fields. But Australia is such an old continent in geological terms so it’s flat as a tack. I guess the flipside is that the sea has had time to grind up the sand to make some really great beaches. Oh well, can’t have it all I guess.

25
Dec 05
Sun

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas everyone! Christmas is such a different experience in the Northern Hemisphere… much better atmosphere. It’s cold outside, but inside it’s cosy, with a nice roaring fireplace and a real pine tree! And Vancouver is really beautiful (when it’s not raining). More later…


Christmas night at the Cole household

22
Dec 05
Thu

Still jetlagged?

Strangely enough, I think I’m still a little jetlagged. Even though I’ve been going to bed at around midnight (give or take a couple hours), my body has been getting me up at 5 or 6am. Then I lie in bed, awake, until I get bored and a more sane hour arrives. This is only annoying because I get pretty tired around dinner time, and it doesn’t help that dusk starts falling before 5pm here.

Anyway, we’ve met up in Vegas with my cousin and uncle. We’re hiring a car this morning and are driving out to the Grand Canyon, staying one night there to catch the sunset and sunrise. Then it’s back to Vegas to see David Copperfield perform, before setting off to the colder climes of Vancouver in time for Christmas Eve!

Star Trek: The Experience, Las Vegas

It’s safe to say that Vegas is a unique place in the world. Las Vegas Boulevard, better known as “The Strip”, is lined with a whole array of hotels and hispanics passing out fistfuls of cards advertising how carnal pleasures are only a phone call away (they continually slap the cards together to make a characteristic “I have sex cards!” sound, presumably so potential clients can still find them when the Vegas footpaths get too crowded).

It’s all flashy on the outside, especially at night when all the neon, blinking coloured lights and video displays are switched on. Lots of themed hotels, such as the Paris, which has a scaled down version of the Eiffel Tower sticking out the top of it and the Luxor which is done up as a black pyramid with a massive lightbulb at its apex shooting out a shaft of light into the sky. Very tacky, but strangely enough, not in a lame sort of way. The fountain display at the Bellagio is quite impressive, being much, much larger than Ocean’s Eleven would lead you to believe.

Whereas the outsides are varied, the insides of all the hotels are numbingly similar – rows and rows of slot machines, tables and tables of roulette, blackjack, 3-card poker, craps and other usual suspects. Lots of shoddy carpet.

Obviously an essential stop for a Trekkie like me, I took the monorail to the Hilton today to see their Star Trek: The Experience attraction. Half price tickets are available at the Tix4Tonight discount booths, which I picked up earlier in the day. STTE basically consists of two “rides” and an exhibit. The exhibit features a very cool timeline of the Trek franchise (recently extensively refurbished due to the heretical insertion of the Enterprise series into Trek canon) along with numerous display cases featuring props which were actually used in the filming of Trek (most humourously, the Mac used in Star Trek IV which Scotty tries to talk to… “Hello, computer!”).

The first ride I went on was a relatively new one called “Borg Invasion”. It was abysmal. It features an insipid movie which you watch with stereoscopic glasses while sitting in an “interactive chair”. It’s essentially a tiltable massage chair with the capacity to occasionally blast moist air into your face to vaguely simulate what’s happening on the movie screen. During the part where you supposedly get injected with Borg nanoprobes, I almost leapt out of my seat after I received an instant anal probe from several massage chair-style rollers which some sadistic designer had decided to strategically place in the seat bottom. I wandered out of the ride somewhat traumatised.

The second ride was “Klingon Encounter”, which although older, was decidedly better. Nonetheless, you still have to put up with actors running around delivering corny dialogue and trying to give an unenthusiastic crowd a Trek “experience” (“remember, the human spirit can never be assimilated!”).

If that was all there was, I would have felt ripped off, even though the ticket price was only $18. However, I paid another $20 to get the “backstage tour”, which is an informal 90-120 minute tour behind the scenes of the $70 million STTE facility. The tour was conducted by a genial guide called Gretchen who had previously worked at Second City, so she made the tour very interesting and humourous, but most importantly, without being the least bit patronising. You get to learn about the mechanics behind the rides, see actors moving between sets in the back corridors, discover how the facility was designed and even get to examine Okudagrams up close (including those in-jokes the Trek crew like to insert onto signage). Along the way, I picked up lots of new pieces of Trek-related trivia which – with my goldfish memory – I’ve unfortunately now seemed to have mostly forgotten (eg, the Bajoran nose piece changed between TNG and DS9 due to practical make-up concerns – the eyebrow ridges in TNG kept coming unglued due to how frequently actors move their eyebrows in making facial expressions).

The backstage tour made the visit quite worthwhile for me in the end – if you go, don’t bother going unless you do the tour as well. However, I would still say that you’d have to be a Trekkie to really get your money’s worth.

19
Dec 05
Mon

Hi. Bye.

In San Fran again. Rainy, but otherwise not so cold.

13
Dec 05
Tue

Brussels

I’m quite looking forward to Brussels. Mainly because they sell a lot of these things. They have a lot of other good food (Asterix in Belgium suddenly makes a lot more sense) and other famous things, but… I’m really there for the pralines!

  8:17pm (GMT +11.00)  •  Travel  •  Tweet This  •  Add a comment  • 
10
Dec 05
Sat

Financial management overseas

Once you’ve worked out your budget when travelling overseas, you have to figure out how you are going to access all your money.

Typically, there’s four types of things you can carry: cash, credit cards, debit (ATM) cards and travellers’ cheques. There are other things, such as Suncorp’s Cash Passport, but they are dependant on what financial institution you have an account with. Trying to balance factors such as safety, accessibility and maximisation of money after various exchange rate fees and commissions can be a headache. Often, it depends on where in the world you’re travelling which determines what the best mix of currency is.

Cash
Cash is very easy to convert at money changers which are readily available around tourist areas. It is perhaps more difficult to do it at banks – I was told at my local Commonwealth Bank that changing AUD to USD would involve a waiting period of a week or two to get the required currency in. Whether it’s better to convert to a foreign currency when you’re still in your home country, or after you arrive at your destination, requires a bit of research. Typically, the money changer market in Australia is less competitive than, say, Singapore where there is an Indian money changer around every corner. The more competitive the market, the better the cash exchange rates you will receive.

The exchange rate for any given day is called the spot rate. For our purposes, the interbank rate – the exchange rates banks use when swapping money between themselves – is the same as the spot rate. Money changers make profits by selling at a lower rate, and buying at a higher rate. The difference between the buy and sell rates is called the spread, and the larger the spread is, the higher the profit margin of the money changer.

For example, in Canada, money changers may buy your 1 USD for 1.19 CAD, and sell you 1 USD for 1.21 CAD. The spread here is 2 Canadian cents, around the spot rate of 1.20 CAD to the 1 USD. In other words, the spread is about 1.7%.

Currency spreads are not uniform. For example, in Canada the availability of American dollars is much greater than Australian dollars. Because Canadian money changers find it harder to swap Aussie dollars, they make their efforts worthwhile by increasing the spread.

So, 1 AUD may buy 0.87 CAD, but you may need 0.93 CAD to buy 1 AUD. This is a 6 Canadian cent spread (or a 6.7% spread).

In lesser developed countries, swapping anything other than US dollars may incur exorbitant spreads. Money changers in these countries may not have access to up to date information about exchange rates of non-US currencies and thus seek to insulate themselves from currency fluctuations.

In addition to buy/sell rates, some money changers charge commission. For example, after they convert your money, they will pocket a certain percentage for themselves as a “transaction fee”. Look for zero commission money changers, but note that these changers may roll this transaction fee into their spread anyway.

Further, some money changers (eg UOB in Thailand) will give higher rates for US bills with higher denominations. That is, swapping 50s and 100s will give you more Thai Baht than swapping the equivalent amount but in 10s and 20s.

Travellers’ Cheques
Travellers’ Cheques are best known for being secure and widely accepted. If you lose them, you can always replace them within 24 hours, unlike cash. This security comes with a cost, however, and it may be slightly inconvenient to have to produce your passport every time you want to encash your TCs.

TCs are normally bought at banks, or at a branch of Amex or Thomas Cook. When buying travellers’ cheques from a bank, it is sometimes possible to get the conversion done at an interbank rate. However, there will be a commission levied on this (which is essentially payment in exchange for the benefits TCs offer you). Some banks will waive this commission in certain circumstances – for example, being a Gold Mastercard holder at the Commonwealth Bank and being a member of one of their rewards programs allows the waiver of TC fees.

TCs are normally bought in USD, or sometimes Euros.

When you cash in US travellers’ cheques in America, you will normally get back all your money minus a commission of a few percent. So if you encash USD100, you may get back USD98 after a 2% commission. I presume this is because there is some work involved on the bank’s part in claiming back money from the TC vendor. There are some fee-free places where you can encash a TC without commissions – for example, Amex TCs can be encashed without commission at an Amex branch or a bank which is a “fee-free partner” of Amex (eg, Bank of America in the US).

When you encash TCs into another currency, you will receive a certain exchange rate which will be similar to (but rarely the same as) the exchange rate for cash. On top of this, there will be a commission charged (eg in Thailand, there’s government taxes and fees of 33 baht per transaction).

So, in a worst case scenario, you will get charged fees for buying TCs, for selling TCs, and only be able to recoup currency at a money changer’s spread rate.

In the best case scenario, you can buy TCs at the interbank rate and redeem 100% of your money if you are getting out money which is the same currency as the TC.

Debit Cards
Debit cards can be used overseas if they are part of the Maestro or Cirrus networks. Especially in developed countries, ATMs are widespread. However, they will be virtually useless for lesser developed countries or more remote towns which do not have ATMs.

The benefit of debit cards is that money withdrawn is normally debited from your bank account back at home at an interbank exchange rate. However, there is normally a flat fee incurred for withdrawing from an overseas ATM. For example, the Commonwealth Bank charges a flat fee of AUD$5 for each withdrawal from an overseas ATM.

Note that debit cards normally have a daily withdrawal limit. You can get this changed at your bank, but this is set in your home currency. So, if your limit is AUD 1000 per day, you will not be able to withdraw USD 1000 in one day while you’re in America.

If you are travelling with others, you can also save on the withdrawal fee by getting one person to withdraw money for the whole group (subject to daily withdrawal limits). For example, if there are two of you, only having to use the ATM once means you only need to pay a $2.50 withdrawal fee, which is often much more cost effective than using a money changer if you need several hundred Aussie dollars worth of currency. You can reimburse the person withdrawing back at home in your domestic currency, or you can rotate withdrawing duties if you are visiting more than one country.

Credit Cards
Like debit cards, credit card companies will bill you in your local currency after applying an interbank exchange rate. However, most credit cards (eg Mastercard) will charge a 1.5% international transaction fee which appears as a separate amount in your credit card statement. Amex tends to roll this fee into the same line. A 1.5% fee is roughly equivalent to a money changer’s spread of 3%.

Some shops will charge you a fee for using a credit card in order to pass on the merchant fee they incur from the bank. Typically, this is 2% for Mastercards and Visas, and 3% for Amex. This is much more prevalent in lesser developed countries where every cent counts, or for businesses with razor thin profit margins.

One advantage of using credit cards is you get frequent flier points. Normally points have a cash value of 50 to 70 cents per 100 points (0.5 to 0.7%), so this will marginally offset the international transaction fee.

Be careful with credit cards in lesser developed countries. Credit card fraud (via theft or “swiping”, where a copy of your card is made without your knowledge) may be a problem, so don’t let your card out of your sight. Most credit card companies offer a fraud protection guarantee, so this is more of an inconvenience than a major problem these days.

17
Nov 05
Thu

The city of Dubai (6 Sep 05 – 10 Sep 05)

I wake up to an SMS from an aunt in Singapore. It was only yesterday that she discovered I was going to Dubai alone and decided to send me the contact details of a friend she has there called Sanjay. “He’s abt 25. Met him in New Orleans in June. Nice guy. 1 of us insurance pple. doin VERY well,” says the message.

I grab a quick breakfast at the buffet restaurant downstairs and give Sanjay a call. He is all too accommodating and after a brief discussion about my plans over the next three days, we decide to meet up for lunch since I’ll be near his workplace in the Bur Dubai region.

My first destination is the Dubai museum, built in the two-century old al Fahidi fort. There are a few artifacts lying around the courtyard, including a cannon, a model of a dhow, musical instruments, old weapons and a nifty windtower structure called an al Barajeel. Windtowers were an ancient form of air-conditioning in which a tower several metres high channelled air down to a room via four openings. As the air moves down it speeds up which has a cooling effect. By convection, this cooler air pulls in the hotter outside air, which is in turn cooled as well. The effect is a refreshing, light breeze wafting from the tower base even when there is no detectable wind outside.

However, the real show is downstairs, where well maintained displays detail the history and development of Dubai, and the various aspects of its rich cultural heritage. There are exhibits about the Bedouins, Dubai’s relationship with the sea and fishing, Islam, camels and so on. Particularly uncanny was the use of holograms combined with models – in one, detailing the composition of an old grave, the grave’s dome cover faded from opaqueness to invisibility to reveal its contents, and then back again.

Around the corner from the museum is the old Bastakia Quarter. But even old Dubai doesn’t look that old anymore and extensive restoration work has produced a block of freshly painted and well-maintained historical buildings. Still, it is an interesting site where you can see both the crescent topped minarets of mosques as well as modern skyscrapers framed between narrow alleys lined with centuries-old windtowers.

I get in contact with Sanjay again. He tells me he’ll pick me up on a nearby corner and to be on the lookout for a white Mercedes. Apart from this and knowing from his name that he’s Indian, I have no idea who to expect. A gleaming new Mercedes 350SLK pulls around the corner driven by a man in sharp business suit. It has to be him. I’m more than a little sweaty after walking in the humid streets for an hour and I apologetically climb into the car, sinking into the convertible’s low seats as Sanjay gives me a hearty handshake.

I have lunch with his family at their apartment. Two “helpers” – otherwise known as maids in Asia, but male – serve a mixture of Indian and Chinese cuisine and I learn that Sanjay and his father operate an insurance brokerage business. It turns out that Sanjay’s specialty is life insurance – the same field as my aunt. As with most successful salespeople, Sanjay’s personality makes him instantly likeable and he offers to take me for a bit of a drive through Dubai after lunch, since actual lunchtime in Dubai extends for several hours in the afternoon, much like for the European countries bordering the Mediterranean.

Minutes later we’re cruising down Sheikh Zayed Road, an eight, sometimes ten, laned highway forming the backbone down the Gulf coast on which the “suburb” of Jumeirah hangs. Replete with its expensive condominiums, plush office towers and horde of cranes working on the next big, ambitious property development project, Sheikh Zayed Road hosts Dubai’s modern, dynamic, and constantly growing skyline. The exciting thing is that none of this existed just two decades ago.

Going back several centuries to the time when the colonial powers of Portugal, France, the Netherlands and Britain were present in the region seeking to control the trade routes, Dubai was a sleepy fishing village on the south-west shore of Dubai Creek in the part of town which is today called Bur Dubai. By the time Dubai had expanded across the Creek in 1841 (today’s Deira district), the British East India Company had finally established a presence in the region. These links to Britain, combined with a tax exemption for foreign traders instituted in 1894 started the growth of Dubai as a trading port. Free trade is still an aspect of Dubai which remains today. With the arrival of the Great Depression in the 1930s, Dubai’s pearl diving industry collapsed and the focus moved more or less solely to trade.

Dubai engaged in a lot of re-exporting – the importation of goods for the purpose of exporting them again. In 1947, India, in an attempt to stabilise its volatile currency, banned the importation of gold. Consequently, Dubai became infamous for being a gold smuggler’s staging point. Gold prices in Dubai were half as much as in India and smugglers, operating legally in Dubai (but obviously not in India) pocketed some hefty profits. The construction of new ports and trading facilities saw Dubai eventually surpass neighbouring ports as the trading centre of choice.

In 1971, after Britain departed from the region, the United Arab Emirates was formed – the only federation of Arab states to date. Dubai took its place within the federation as the largest emirate apart from Abu Dhabi. Under the federation, emirates are left largely autonomous and Dubai remains a free economic zone.

Sanjay dismisses the old part of town, Deira, as quaint but mostly irrelevant. Jumeirah is where it’s at today. In fact, he tells me he hasn’t been across the Creek for several months. As we drive further down the coast, business and commerce give way to pleasure and entertainment as the first of a crop of five star hotels and beach resorts begin to materialise on the skyline. Sanjay inquires if I’d like to see the new house that his family will be moving into soon. Of course I do, so we turn into a residential suburb filled with nothing less than streets upon streets of mansions.

There are Indian construction workers crawling all over the house we arrive at. Sanjay has a quick chat to one of them to see how work is progressing and invites me upstairs for a better look. From the balcony, the famous gigantic sail silhouette of the Burj al Arab looms in the distance. Although the Emrati nationals own virtually all the actual land in Dubai, that hasn’t stopped affluent expats from renting out land for their own needs. That’s the case with Sanjay’s family and despite having only a five year lease, they’ve decided to make extensive renovations to the house, including installing a pool, pool house, jacuzzi and snooker room.

The Middle East is a part of the world long plagued with instability. Together with the recent focus on terrorism and Muslim extremists, people tend to paint the entire region with a broad brush. This brush normally colours Arab governments as theocratic, stringently conservative and severely strict, in line with a restricted interpretation of Islam. Friends back in Australia even went so far as to query whether I would be targeted in Dubai as an infidel and treated accordingly. While it may be true that certain parts of the region are more “traditional” than others, it would erroneous to brand everything Arabian as such.

I remark that Dubai, even from the short time I had been here, seemed quite progressive and relatively liberal. “Oh yes, it’s very liberal here. As long as you maintain a respect for certain aspects of Muslim culture, people are pretty much free to do what they want. For one, alcohol is allowed, though it is quite expensive.”

As we exit the residential estate, Sanjay points out a particularly large mansion to me. It’s the Sheikh’s house, or at least, one of his houses. It is the leadership of the Al-Maktoum ruling family that has made Dubai the place it is today.

In 1966, Dubai struck oil. Sheikh Rashid, the emir at the time and regarded as the “father of modern Dubai”, put the oil to good use. Oil revenue was poured into infrastructure and development. It also enabled the elimination of personal income tax, free health care and free education for citizens. Sheikh Rashid’s work has been continued by his son, Sheikh Maktoum and the current Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed. This rapid development has earnt Dubai the moniker of “Dubai Inc.” by some and even The Economist has remarked that “Dubai is run like a family business by a benign autocrat”. Sometimes it’s referred to as the Hong Kong or Singapore of the Middle East.

Only about 6% of Dubai’s income comes from oil. Oil supplies are forecasted to run out within a decade so it is not all that surprising that Dubai is not fuelled by oil, but by services, trade and increasingly tourism. The royal family-owned and profitable Emirates Airlines, combined with events such as the Dubai Fashion Week, Dubai Shopping Festival, Dubai Desert Classic golf tournament and Dubai International Racing Carnival have all helped to put Dubai on the international map.

Accompanying this capitalism success story is an extraordinary level of multiculturalism in Dubai. Sanjay’s father arrived in Dubai shortly after the UAE was formed and slowly built up the family business from there. At some point during lunch, I mentioned that I’d booked myself in for a desert safari. Sanjay’s father interrogates me about who I’ve booked with and how much it will cost me. He turns to Sanjay and after a quick exchange in Hindi, he tells me to cancel the booking because he could net me at least a 50% discount. I ask if he also knows how to speak Arabic and am surprised to discover that he didn’t. “There are so many expats here, the Arabs better learn how to speak something else if they want to do business!” he says.

Emrati nationals only comprise 20% of Dubai’s population, the rest being expats. The majority of expats hail from India, with a sizeable chunk coming from Iran, Pakistan, and, strangely enough, the Philippines. It is the expats that provide a cheap labour force and fill Dubai with a rich mix of religion, dress and language. As is so often the case where people speak different languages, English has become the de facto language of commerce and Dubai is no exception.

As multicultural as things were, there didn’t seem to be much blending between the different peoples, with communities seeming to mix predominantly among themselves.

Unfortunately Sanjay has to head back to work to close off a deal with an international client. I bid him farewell and he drops me off at Mercato Mall to check out the shopping scene. Shopping is a big pastime in Dubai, and the shopping malls are certainly impressive. Even though the rest of Dubai has shut down for the afternoon (for a Mediterranean-style siesta), the malls are one of the few places that remain open. It’s buzzing despite being a Wednesday. Mercato Mall is relatively small, but it has some wonderful architecture modelled on an Italian style. I also manage to visit Wafi City Mall and Deira City Centre that afternoon. Wafi has a fair amount of affluence flowing through it and I was strongly advised by Sanjay to only look, and if the temptation to buy should arise, I should strongly think it over. Boutiques line the corridors of Wafi and the price tags dangling off the little bits of cloth and stones displayed in the storefront windows had an impossible number of digits written on them. On the other hand, Deira City Centre is more a mall for the masses. It’s pretty darn big. Despite being only three levels, it encompasses a fair chunk of real estate. Carrefour has built one of its “Hypermarkets” inside which features over fifty checkout counters… all of which were in use when I visited.

Multiculturalism is especially evident in the shopping malls. Sitting in one of the rest-stop cafes, I found it fascinating to observe Arab men in traditional white robes and Muslim women swathed entirely in black burqa and hijab walk alongside caucasian girls with miniskirts and low cut tops. Stores are staffed by a multitude of Indians and a liberal sprinkling of Asians – mostly from the Philippines. One thing I found particularly noteworthy was the quality of talent in those malls. I’m sad to say that while in Singapore it was a tough task finding the attractive people, in Dubai it was a tough task finding unattractive people. Maybe I was just there on the right day, but it was quite a sight nonetheless.

On the way back to the hotel, I pass by a bus station where a crowd of Indians had gathered around a small television set which was screening the fourth Ashes test. I inquire about the score and am disappointed to learn that England, batting first in the first innings, was in the middle of a sizeable partnership. “You’re Australian? That Shane Warne is really something,” one Indian remarks to me. “He is, isn’t he?” I replied. (Unfortunately, despite the heroic efforts of Warney, Australia later went on to lose the Ashes series 2-1 and British news featured nothing but the victory for the next few days.)

The next day I arrive at Jumeirah Mosque for their 11.00am “Open doors, open minds, mosque visit program,” a Sheikh Mohammed initiative. I arrive early to find the mosque doors shut. There’s only a handful of other tourists milling around, similarly wondering where to go. However, as 11.00am draws nearer, a sizeable crowd has formed at the mosque entrance. Finally, a decorous woman emerges from behind the door and welcomes us. There’s a little delay while everyone removes their shoes and the more immodestly attired among us get additional clothing distributed to them. Then we are ushered into the thankfully air-conditioned mosque. Like any typical mosque, its floor is empty, save for several pillars. There is no central point of worship, like a Buddhist shrine or Christian altar, with only a marker (mihrab) on one wall indicating the direction to Mecca. An electronic board listing the day’s prayer times, a stack of books, a couple of microphones and a seat for the Imam are all that fill the mosque apart from the fifty or so tourists which have invaded and are now scampering around taking photos of themselves in their new burqas.

Our tour guide introduces herself and explains the tour is not so much a tour as it is a lecture with a Q&A session. She decides not to use a microphone because the group is smaller than the one or two hundred visitors that normally attend. A quick survey via a show of hands reveals that there are two North Americans, a couple of South Africans, some Asians and a rather sizeable contingent of Australians comprising the crowd. The remaining half are European. This included our tour guide, who explained that she was originally a Swiss born in Lausanne who was raised as a Catholic before she converted to Islam. She moved to Dubai several years ago.

The talk is aimed at clearing up the misconceptions commonly held about Islam. Our guide quickly explains that shoes are not allowed in mosques for the practical reason that Muslims pray with their faces to the floor, and who wants to do that with a dirty floor?

Some time is spent explaining the five pillars of Islam: the Shahada – an expression affirming the monotheistic nature of God and the prophethood of Mohammed; the Zakat, essentially the necessity for charity; fasting during Ramadan; the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca for those able to go; and the Salaah, or the five daily prayers.

Our guide explains that praying towards Mecca acts as a focal point. Interestingly, because I had not visualised it in this way before, Muslims take heart in knowing that everyone else praying around the world at the same time as them are all facing towards one central location.

Prayers are performed five times a day, the first being at dawn. An Azan, or call to prayer, is sung out from loudspeakers on mosque minarets to remind people that they have to pray soon (that is, they don’t have to drop everything immediately). A muezzin (person who performs the Azan) comes out and gives us a demonstration and the Arabic is translated into English for us.

“What if dawn comes at 5.00am?” one woman asks. “A bit early to get out of bed, isn’t it?”

Our guide agrees, but notes that there is nothing to stop someone from crawling back into bed after dawn prayers. However, getting out of bed for the few minutes of the prayer is a sign of dedication to the faith. She adds with a smile that the Azan is slightly modified at dawn: the sentence, “prayer is better than sleep” (repeated twice) is added to it.

When the floor is opened to questions, they come in thick and fast and all seem to be probing at the status of women in Islam. Most people are concerned. Most of these things are explained away as merely cultural developments, as opposed to religious ones. Traditionally, there is Muslim men and women (presumably outside of the same family) do not mingle. Veils and full-length garb are all about hiding women’s features, helping them feel comfortable while walking down the street and not being stared at. Similarly, separation of genders during prayer is not a matter of segregation (women are not disallowed from using the main prayer room) but comfort. In terms of why all women’s clothing in the region is black, black is chosen due to its neutral status as a colour, but other cultures do wear other colours – for example, the colourful abbeyas of Malay women.

Perhaps unfortunately there is little discussion about the beliefs of Islam, with the focus mainly on rituals and customs. It comes as a surprise to many that Islam and Christianity share many commonalities – acknowledgement of Abraham and Moses as prophets, acknowledgment that the Old and New Testaments are relevations from God (although Islam believes the Qur’an replaces the Holy Bible) and so on.

I do discover, however, the answer to a question I have had for a long time, and that is that “Allah” is used as the Arabic word for God by Christian Arabs too.

It is certainly an interesting morning, but I still have reservations that other States in the region employ a view as permissive as Dubai’s. Nonetheless, the Jumeirah Mosque visit program is an excellent thing to have, especially in this day and age. I remain a steadfast Christian, but found the talk very instructive.

Nearby the mosque is a public beach where the brilliant azure waters of the Gulf lap gently onto the shore. The peak of summer had past about a month ago, but Dubai was still incredibly hot and humid. I test the water and find it to be surprisingly warm. Unfortunately I have brought no clothes to swim with and besides, I have a lunchtime reservation at a restaurant to keep, so I find alternative relief from the heat in the comfort of an air-conditioned taxi.

“It’s a hot day isn’t it!” my Iranian cab driver observes with a chuckle as I wipe my face down with a tissue. For some cruel reason, all the taxis in Dubai seem to be equipped with outside temperature gauges, and the one in this taxi is reading in the mid-40s. “But don’t worry,” he reassures, “if you came one month earlier, it is over 50 degrees.”

My next destination is the Burj Al Arab. Modelled after a billowing sail, the Burj is a central icon of Dubai. Although debate continues on whether the hotel is, on the official scale, a 7 star hotel, or merely a “5 star deluxe” one, with rack rates for its suites (there are no regular “rooms”) starting at around US$2000, it’s probably beyond debate that it’s the world’s finest, and tallest, hotel. (Incidentally, I had stayed at the world’s second highest hotel – the Baiyoke Sky, which is 13 metres shorter – in Bangkok only a week earlier. It was much less extravagant.) So rarified is the Burj’s air, that it is built on an artificial island several hundred metres off the coast “to protect the privacy of guests”. Entry is usually restricted to hotel guests, unless you pay a US$55 entry fee. It’s rumoured to have cost so much money to build that the hotel will have to run at full occupancy for several centuries in order to be paid off. This would make the building an Emrati landmark rather than a viable commercial venture.

After a while my driver asks if I am staying at the hotel, to which I promptly answer, “I wish!” This multi-billion dollar structure was a must-visit, but since the rates for a night’s stay would fund my backpacking trip for about a month, I was visiting via a lunchtime restaurant reservation, which was only a marginally cheaper proposition.

“She’s beautiful isn’t she?” he rhetorically asks as we drive up the driveway. I can’t stop staring. It actually looks that much better in real life. We are stopped at the front gate by a security guard, who lets us through after satisfying himself that I am on the restaurant reservation list.

Inside, I feel very out of place, expecting someone to rush out and toss me back onto the street. An African bellhop approaches me. “Are you staying here, sir?” he asks.

This time, I resist the urge to blurt out “I wish!” and tell him I’m headed for the restaurant. He directs me up the escalators which are flanked by two gigantic tropical aquariums and an elaborate fountain with a mesmerising jumping water display. At the top of the escalators, the roof opens up into an opulent, soaring triangular atrium. Each level is painted in a different colour, and the result is a gradient of rainbow colours stretching up towards the top of the building. It’s actually all quite gaudy, but everything in this part of the city is so ostentatious it looks perfectly acceptable.

Al Muntaha is the restaurant at the top of the Burj and in addition to serving food it offers great views of the city. Through one window you can see The Palm, a famed property development built on reclaimed land in the shape of a palm tree. The Palm is just one example of the myriad of large-scale property developments in progress. (Sanjay had joked the previous day that the national bird of Dubai was the crane.) Another, larger Palm is scheduled to be built soon after, and yet another reclaimed land project called The World will also open. (Locals joke that when The World is completed, you can live in Paris without leaving Dubai.)

The foundations are already in place for the Burj Dubai, a skyscraper slated to be the world’s tallest upon completion. Developers are keeping the building’s final height a secret, but it is expected to reach over 700 metres and possess 160 floors. A deal being financed by the Chinese government will see a 2 kilometre long shopping mall called the Dragon Mart being constructed as a foothold for Chinese exports into the Middle Eastern market. There is also Dubailand, a massive US$5 billion “tourist city” covering 45,900 acres, aimed at tripling the number of people visiting Dubai by the end of the decade. Almost ludicrous in scale, it will contain 45 theme parks, sports centres and discovery zones, including an indoor ski-slope, an equestrian centre, three sports stadiums, a zoo, and an artifical rainforest. All this being built in the middle of a desert, mind you.

Later in the afternoon, I make my way over to the souks which have begun to reopen. I take an abra across the Creek for the measly fee of 50 fils and hit the perfume, spice and gold souks. Expecting the open air markets of Asia, I am somewhat disappointed to see that the layouts of souks have been modernised. They are all basically covered walkways, lined by merchants hawking their wares in air-conditioned shops. Nonetheless, the gold souk is amazing. By tradition, weddings in the region require brides be given gold which is new, so this ensures a fresh supply of gold flowing through the market. And there is a lot of it. Most of the gold on sale is 24 carat, which is a very deep yellow-orange colour. Window front displays are laden with copious amounts of gold chains, bracelets, rings, pendants and countless other trinkets in a bewildering array of designs and the light reflecting off them radiates a bright, warm glow.

Interestingly, I do not notice any visible security around the gold souk – a testament to the low crime rates in the emirate. It is soon twilight, and I decide it is time to leave the glow behind and take a stroll along the creekside and past the dhow wharfage. Thousands upon thousands of boxes sit on the wharfage. They are filled with goods of all descriptions and from all manner of places. Some sit on the wharf unguarded for weeks.

On my final morning in Dubai I have a stroke of good luck. I had only been able to book my hotel for two nights and was without accommodation for my final night. It is low season, but mysteriously all the hotels in the area seem to be booked out. So, just as I am in the process of checking out, backpack in hand and wondering where on earth I am going to go, I decide to ask if any vacancies have opened up overnight. After a bit of tapping on the computer, the receptionist hands my key straight back to me and tells me that I can stay for another night.

When the afternoon comes, it is time to go on the desert safari. A four wheel drive picks me up at the hotel, shared by a British Indian mother-son pair, two Irishmen and a South African living in Zambia with a particularly wry sense of humour. The first activity is sand-duning. We drive about an hour out of the city, past a Sheikh’s compound surrounded by a 2 kilometre wall, and into the desert where we meet up with a convoy of at least ten other four wheel drives – all run by the same safari company. Our driver gets out of the car to have a chat with a friend but leaves the engine running. All of us are nervously eyeing the fuel gauge, which is sitting on empty. We had stopped at a service station earlier, but it was only to let some air out of the tires (a lower tire pressure helps when driving on sand).

Five minutes later, our driver is still chatting and the car stalls and dies. Hopefully, it’s not due to the lack of fuel. Meanwhile, the first vehicles in the convoy have started to leave. We look over to our driver, who is chatting with another driver whose car’s bonnet is open. The South African remarks, “They’ve got to be concerned. Their bonnet is open and no one’s fixing it!”

By the time our driver finishes socialising, we are one of only two cars left. Our car refuses to start, but after a few attempts, the engine splutters back to life and everyone breathes a sigh of relief. Then it’s off to the dunes.

“Ok everyone, you might want to buckle up!” our driver tells everyone as we leave the dirt road. There is a barrage of clicks as everyone dons their belts. Then Dave, one of the Irishmen sitting in the backseat calls out, somewhat frantically, “Um, my belt’s broken… it won’t clip in!”

Seconds later we hit the first sand dune and Dave goes flying.

“Well, unfortunately you’re just going to have to hang on tight!” our driver replies, only half-apologetically.

Sand-duning is fun. Really, really fun. Basically it involves going for a hoon around the sand dunes at high speed. It’s like an hour long roller coaster ride in first gear. The cars wrench violently in the sand as they mount a dune and then dive sharply down the other side. Sometimes they decide to drive along the side of a dune and we’re all trying to grab a hold of whatever we can as the car shudders along, tilted at some unnatural angle. The wheels spin rapidly as the car attempts to cling to the dune, throwing up large masses of sand and the engine roars between the creaks and crunches of the car’s suspension.

Then in the middle of it all, our driver gets a phone call on his mobile. And answers it. So there he is, one hand holding a phone, and one hand alternating between the stick and steering wheel, with his knees occasionally helping out with the steering. This guy’s a real pro – the rest of us are hanging on for dear life (especially Dave) and he’s handling it all like it’s some Sunday afternoon drive through the neighbourhood.

The cars take quite a beating and I learn that the average lifespan of them is only three years. Ours is fairly new, but apart from Dave’s broken seatbelt, the speedometre has already ceased to function.

The convoy pauses for a while so we can catch the sunset, and all the bonnets are popped open so the cars have a chance to cool down. Then we’re back to sandduning again.

Eventually we arrive at a campsite which is where dinner is being served. Dozens of candlelit tables surround a large carpet in the middle. To the side, there are several tents. One allows people to try on some local clothing. Another demonstrates henna painting for women. A rich, fruity smell wafts from a third tent – inside this one tourists get to sample sheesha, a water pipe used for smoking flavoured tobacco. Outside, a bored looking Arab leads two camels around in circles while tourists clamber on and off them for their minute-long camel ride.

The campsite is meant to emulate a typical Bedouin desert encampment, but the whole thing is so touristy and tacky that any resemblance with a genuine Bedouin campsite must be purely coincidental. The food is pretty decent, though, with a mix of regional cuisines.

As dinner begins to wrap up, a large group of men start to congregate on the carpet in the middle of the camp, reclining on some large cushions. I didn’t know what was happening next, but I could guess. And I was right.

Enter a belly-dancer.

She is pretty good at belly-dancing, but nothing particularly special. More interesting is the exhibition of what I can only describe as enthralled lasciviousness by the horde of men encircling her (with their wives sitting a short distance away at the tables, mind you).

Mandeep, the Sikh in our four wheel drive, turned to me and said, “This is like the biggest sausage-fest ever, dude.”
“Yeah man, I was just about to say that,” I agreed.

She calls someone from the crowd and Mandeep and I are amused to see it’s Dave. She rolls up Dave’s shirt and ties it in a knot. Now that his gut is exposed, she gestures him to imitate what she does. He makes a good effort, but is no match for her supple, undulating tummy. We’re all in stiches.

After the show is over, she invites everyone to take the floor and join in with the dancing. About fifty men immediately leap to their feet, all jostling to get beside her. Luckily she is used to the attention and knows how to take control. Then it’s a case of monkey-see, monkey-do as the men try to mimic her moves and fail horribly. It’s morbidly fascinating.

Finally it’s all over, and it’s back to the car. We all take the piss out of Dave for his sterling belly-dancing performance. He can only plead, “Hey guys, whatever happens in Dubai stays in Dubai.”

Our driver finally stops to fill up the petrol tank, and an hour later I am at Dubai International Airport for my 2.00am flight to Europe.

11
Nov 05
Fri

Backpacking trip entertainment review

U2 Vertigo Tour Concert (Madison Square Garden, New York)
After almost getting arrested by the NYPD (that’s a story for another time), I went to the October 8 U2 concert in New York. It was awesome. Keane supported. Here’s the set list. I don’t have any photos unfortunately, but there was one moment when they switched off the lights and Bono asked everyone to bring out their mobiles and the stadium lit up like a night sky.

U2 will be touring Australia in March next year.

Wicked (Oriental Theatre, Chicago)
When we tried to see Wicked in New York, we were told tickets were sold out over a month in advance. Luckily, the Chicago production wasn’t so overbooked. Wicked is based on a book which recounts the “real” story behind the Wicked Witch of the West. It’s a lovely take on the Wizard of Oz which amusingly relegates the role of Dorothy to historic irrelevancy and explains how the “Wicked Witch”… wasn’t wicked after all, being a victim of a malicious propaganda campaign undertaken by the xenophobic Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Very entertaining (I liked the Loathing and Wonderful pieces), but to me not as memorable as other classic musicals which have made it big on Broadway.

Wicked

25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Circle in the Square Theatre on Broadway, New York)
Spelling Bee was an excellent small scale production about a group of kids and their involvement a Spelling Bee competition. It’s hard to explain beyond that what it’s about, but it’s entertaining and very funny all the way. They even had audience participation, pulling up several members to join in the competition – including one Mr Tejani who appeared to have won a few spelling bees in his time because he kept spelling words correctly where he should have got them wrong. I’m not entirely convinced that he wasn’t planted in the audience. There’s some improvisation thrown in as well. Highly recommended.

Spelling Bee

Second City Reloaded (Second City, Toronto)
I’ve never been to a comedy club before, but it’s pretty fun. Toronto’s branch of Second City is famed for being the place where Canadian actors like Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Mike Myers and Eugene Levy honed their comedy skills before making it big. A lot of the skits are hit and miss, but happily most of them are hits. The two hour show is followed by a free half hour session of improv, and it’s fascinating how people can think on their feet so rapidly.

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3
Nov 05
Thu

United’s last kick in the pants

So everyone’s sitting in their seats at 10.00pm and the 14 hour United Airways flight to Sydney is due to depart San Fran at 10.15pm. The captain gets on the PA system and says, “Good evening, we’ve just done our pre-flight check walkaround and noticed that there’s fuel leaking from one of our engines.” Big groans all around. He continued. “Obviously that’s not a good thing. So what we’re going to have to do is disassemble the engine, have a look around to find out where the leak is coming from and then put everything back together again. United apologises for the inconvenience, and we will keep you posted.”

One minute later he gets back on the PA and adds, “On second thought, it’s probably going to be quicker if we just swap planes so we’re going to have to get you to deplane in a moment.” Pause. “Uh, you might also want to bring your pillow and blanket with you to the new plane.”

“Quicker” meant several hours while we waited for the crew, food, luggage and 360,000 pounds of fuel to be transferred across. But at least it’s nice to be home in one piece.

1
Nov 05
Tue

The final night

Spent an interesting night watching the Halloween festivities in Castro – it really is a Huge event in America. Anyway, this is the final 24 hour period of the trip. As they say, all good things must come to an end. It’s been an extraordinary four months and I’m sure I’ll suffer a bit of that period of surreal depression you get after returning from a prolonged period of travelling and falling back in to the relative routine of everyday life. As always, I’ve learnt a lot about the world around me, about myself, and probably more than I wanted to know about my travelling companions (for better or worse…).

See you all back in Sydney!

30
Oct 05
Sun

Counting down the days

Went to Alcatraz today and had a nice dinner at Chez Panisse in Berkeley (review to come).

Tomorrow, a closer look at the Golden Gate Bridge…

27
Oct 05
Thu

United Airways shows its true colours again

Firstly, the four and a half hour flight from Chicago to San Fran did not come with a meal – United wanted us to pay $5 for a snack box. Secondly, when we got into San Fran at around noon, our bags did not appear on the baggage carousel. Turns out that United screwed up with the handling of our baggage. Our backpacks ended up on some other flight. We were promised the bags would be delivered by 8.00pm that day. However, that was yesterday…

26
Oct 05
Wed

Advisory warning

While browsing Chicago’s “Magnificent Mile” – a long section of Michigan Avenue lined with boutiques and other expensive stores – I stumbled across Chicago’s Apple store. I went in to use the free net access there (or here, rather) and overheard a lady complaining to a staff member about her damaged iPod. I glanced over and it was a older generation iPod with a disturbing amount of sand stuck behind the click-wheel surface and behind the display glass. I couldn’t quite catch the whole conversation between the staff member and the woman, but at one point he blurted out rather loudly, “So you want us to print an advisory warning saying not to rub sand on your iPod?!

23
Oct 05
Sun

Time extension!

Extended stay in San Francisco by two days, will now be back home on the morning of November 3rd. Toronto is probably the city that I’ve found to be the most similar to Sydney, except that it’s fricking cold and windy here.

United Airways sucks. We rang up their hotline to change our flight times and didn’t have certain information on us at the time, so we said “sorry, I don’t have that number on me at the moment”. The extremely rude reply came as, “No need to apologise. I don’t think you were being sincere anyway.” A second incident was on board the plane when Dorian leaned over to take a newspaper from a newspaper trolley passing by. Instead of saying, “Sorry sir, you can’t take a newspaper at this time,” (or similar), Dorian’s hand was physically swatted away by a disgruntled stewardess, followed by a stern “NUH-UH!”. Fly United? NUH-UH.

15
Oct 05
Sat

Rain rain, go away

Boston was a good change from the rush and bustle of New York. It’s a quiet city, which I guess means less distractions for the students at Harvard and MIT which are across the river in Cambridge! The highlight for me was the Mapparium, a 10 metre high globe made of stained glass windows with the map of the world as it was circa 1935. There’s a bridge suspended through the middle of the globe through the Indian and Pacific Oceans and you get to pore over the world as it was when colonialism was still very much in fashion. The globe reveals many things which show how much has changed over the last 70 years: the full scale of the Soviet empire, the carving up of vast tracts of Africa between the European powers, a united India (before Pakistan and Bangladesh were separated out), the complete absence of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia from the map (all come under the label of French Indochina), a China without Manchuria and so on.

The other interesting aspect of the Mapparium is its acoustic qualities. A “whispering gallery” consists of a circular wall which reflects sound waves along its surface such that sound travels a full circle back to the speaker. A whisper along the wall can be clearly heard by anyone listening along the wall’s circumference. There are many whispering galleries around the world, such as in St Paul’s Cathedral in London, or the Echo Wall in Beijing’s Temple of Heaven. However, the Mapparium is different in that speaking in any direction, since it is a full sphere, will result in the same effect. Furthermore, standing in the middle of the sphere and speaking produces the unnerving effect of hearing yourself in surround sound with startling clarity.

We also had the chance to catch up with Danny, who is on exchange at Boston College, for an enjoyable dinner. We concluded that European men seem to have a peculiar (and somewhat unsettling) habit of walking around bedrooms in underwear and socks and nothing else.

Currently enjoying a restful stopover in Montréal with the wonderfully hospitable Frances and Frances. Unfortunately the clouds have decided to follow us around and since we left New York every day has been overcast and rainy. It’s a pity really, because Montréal would otherwise be a very nice city to walk in. It really doesn’t have any “grand sights” like a castle on a hill (though it does have a chalet on a hill, which the locals call “the mountain”), but nonetheless has a certain charm to it. One aspect of this city that I find particularly charming and somewhat unique is the bilingual aspect of it (though something which I’m sure is shared by various European countries). Montréal belongs to the French-speaking province of Québec, but most locals are completely fluent in English as well (incidentally, this also means that many migrants to this city are trilingual). Signs are all in French, mostly with English written beneath in italics. Unlike France, however, locals don’t mind whether you make an attempt to talk in French or not. Anyway, hopefully the weather improves over the week. Apparently the progression of Autumn (or “Fall”, rather) means that the leaves on the deciduous trees are changing colour and thus the forests are quite a beautiful sight, but I haven’t been able to see this yet due to the constant rain.

8
Oct 05
Sat

Those cheap shoes are tickin’, I’m callin’ the po-lice!

Perhaps it’s the temperate weather on this visit, as opposed to the biting winter coldness, but I’ve enjoyed New York a little more on each subsequent visit. It hasn’t visibly changed much since I came here almost five years ago. Lots of WiFi hotspots and other superficial modifications, but apart from that it’s pretty much the same city.

Of course, except for the WTC. The WTC site is a gaping hole in the city, demarcated by a chain link fence with boards commemorating September 11 dotted around the site. Constructions on a new subway station are underway, but the building of an appropriate memorial site and skyscraper is proving to be much more controversial. The site is nothing much to look at, but it’s still worth a visit.

Yesterday a terrorism alert hit the media about a possible attack on the New York subway system. We went into a bank to change some traveller’s cheques and it was disconcerting to see on CNN terrorism reports pertaining to the city we were currently in, although I imagine New Yorkers are getting increasingly used to it. In response to the terrorism alert, the subways were swarming with cops (I had my bag randomly searched once) but with 4.5 million depending on the subs daily, the terror alerts weren’t deterring anyone from using them – least of all backpackers with no other means of transport. Meanwhile there was one guy selling newspapers outside a station who appeared to be getting quite frustrated by the lack of sales. At one point he was crying out, “Terrorism alert! Read all about it! … Hey, those cheap shoes are tickin’. I’m callin’ the po-lice!”

U2 is in town playing at the Madison Square Garden. We queued up for about three hours yesterday waiting for cancellation tickets. In the line we had the somewhat painful experience of listening to a local man who was some leftover remnant of the hippie era. His ramblings covered things like the time he smoked pot on the Great Wall, how everyone in the world is ignorant or stupid, how no one talks about “important” issues in the world anymore (including moving towards a four day work week), and most disturbingly, how Australia should cut down its Asian migrant intake to avoid dilution of its “culture”. It was a relief when we got to the ticket booth and parted company. Unfortunately, we found out that the only tickets left were US$170 ones and left empty handed.

5
Oct 05
Wed

It’s so white

At the Apple Soho store. Dorian looks around and goes, “The trendiness here is sickening!” Haha!

29
Sep 05
Thu

Snippets from Greece

Fully sick scooters
Wrexes with basketball-sized mufflers and boot-sized sub-woofers with Greeks at the wheel going oonce-oonce-oonce up the street are a fairly common sight back in Sydney. It’s no surprise they’re around in Greece, either, but not everyone can afford a car. So they fall back on the next available thing: scooters. And since you can’t fit a sub-woofer on a scooter (or at least they haven’t tried yet), they tune these things up to deafen as many people as possible. These things make a helluva lotta noise.

But it’s a scooter. I’m sorry. You just can’t look cool on a scooter. Even Vin Diesel can’t make it look cool. And when you’re toting a peroxide blonde mullet and are going farting down the street on your pissy little shitmobile every night at 2am waking the neighbourhood up, you’re just retarded.

Restaurant touts
The great thing about eating in Athens is that there are so many outdoor eating places, and the weather is great for it. Fresh bread, large blocks of feta cheese atop crisp salads, copious quantities of olive oil and desserts dripping in honey. Yum. Part of the ritual of finding a place to eat is running the gauntlet of taverna owners who stand by the roadside demanding that passers-by sit down at their establishment for a meal. An example of one such invitation (spoken all in Greek) as Dorian and I walked by:

Restaurant owner: Come in and have lunch!
Dorian: We’ve already eaten.
Restaurant owner: Already eaten? Your friend doesn’t look like he’s eaten anything in his entire life!
Dorian: (Laughs)
Restaurant owner: Is he Japanese?
Dorian: (Laughs again)
Me: What? What’s so funny?

Sights around town
The central focus of Athens is… you guessed it, another citadel-on-a-hill-overlooking-town. Pretty much par for the course for Europe, but Athens’ Acropolis is unique in that its buildings are about two and a half millennia old. It goes without saying that it’s a world heritage site, and although most of it is covered in scaffolding, it really is a pretty impressive sight. The Acropolis also provides a 360 degree view of the sprawling metropolis of Athens, which is mostly homogeneous. A museum at the Acropolis houses some excellently preserved statues and friezes, all created centuries before the birth of Christ.

The sheer age of artifacts is what makes Athens interesting. Marble was used a lot in Grecian art. After such works have been restored they – apart from the odd missing limb or head – look much younger than the 5th century BC dating they have. Athens is full of such stuff and they keep discovering more. Locals are afraid to knock down and replace buildings because when they dig up foundations, they also keep digging up artifacts. When this happens, no further development is allowed on the land until everything’s been excavated. Understandbly, locals aren’t in a hurry to find out whether they’ve been living on top of an archaeological goldmine and so are quite content to live in aging apartments.

When the government laid new Metro lines, they too ran into the same problem. Near Syntagma station, they unearthed the remains of Roman bathhouse . So they dug a large hole to the surface, stuck a glass roof over it and turned it into a roadside exhibit. The Metro track had to be diverted. The smaller artifacts were moved into glass cases inside the Metro station. I don’t think anywhere else in the world has 2500 year old trinkets displayed in a train station.

Changing of the guard
I’ve seen the changing of the guard in several countries, and I thought the goose-stepping in Sofia was ridiculous, but the Greek soldiers stationed outside the tomb of the unknown soldier really take the cake. I present this:


The Islands
History aside, Athens really isn’t all that pretty. However, the Greek islands are another story. We took a high speed ferry to Mykonos which was about four hours away. As you approach it, the island makes its character instantly known – buildings dot the landscape with whitewashed walls and bright blue windows and doors. Mykonos hosts more than twenty beaches and in high season it gets absolutely packed. Being September, it was the shoulder season and we were lucky not enough to have to deal with crowds… especially as Mykonos is notorious for being a “gay island” hangout. The beaches are pleasant enough, but they can’t really be compared to Aussie beaches. The sand is not fine grained, but consists of small grey pebbles. The Aegean Sea, although a beautiful deep aquamarine colour, is as flat as a tack, and there are no waves to speak of on the beaches. Apparently the Greeks like it that way, but to me it’s a bit like sitting in a cold bath. But it’s a terrific place to chill out nonetheless, and that is what we did…

26
Sep 05
Mon

Lower Eastern Europe

Sighişoara is small Romanian town of about 35000 people nestled in among the hills of Transylvania. It features a typical European castle-on-a-hill overlooking the town. Sighişoara’s is notable for being the birthplace of Vlad Ţepeş, otherwise known as Vlad the Impaler. Vlad’s house has since been converted into an overpriced restaurant where tourists can enjoy a steak (cooked rare, of course). A clock tower from the 17th century stands next to Vlad’s birthhouse. Unfortunately, the clock was not operation when we were there, but climbing the tower provides a great vantage point. At the top of the tower, the railings – on which is marked the reassuring words, “Do not lean” – have little plaques stuck on them noting the distance and direction of major world cities. Sydney is the most distant at over 15,000 kilometres. Down near the base of the tower is a piaţa where they used to, among other things, hold public executions. Today, it is filled with a variety of souvenir stalls selling everything from Romanian handicrafts to ultra-tacky Dracula memorabilia.

Sighişoara is not heavily touristed and although that made for a peaceful day, it seemed like most of the inhabitants had never seen an Asian before. I was stared at by a Roma boy all through lunch, which was quite disconcerting. Of course, the staring was mutual at times – especially when a bunch of Gypsies in a horse-drawn buggy went by on the highway (the horse conveniently defecating all over the road as it trotted past). However, later in the day, I passed by a bunch of youths who started making mocking Chinese-sounds – something I haven’t experienced in many years.

The next day, the weather had turned cold and overcast. We hopped on the train to Bucharest. At first, it was only wheat fields and hills – layered in different shades of grey by haze and distance. Poor light gave everything a moody, muted colour. As we moved out of Transylvania and closer to Bucharest, things got depressing. Agriculture and countryside slowly gave way to industry, and great rusted, stained hulks of factories and abandoned vehicles lined the railway side. Cottages were replaced by monolithic, dirty and overwhelmingly grey apartment blocks. When we finally rolled into Bucharest, the rain clouds had rolled in as well.

The rain was here to stay. It rained for four days straight, so heavily on the first two days that we were mainly stuck indoors. By the third day, the rains had resulted in some minor flooding around Bucharest, but were beginning to ease up and we headed into the city.

Grey, drab, and dreary, Bucharest really felt like the Eastern Europe of old. Bucharest felt like it was still mired in the past. Boulevardes link a series of piaţas through the city, but unlike the piazzas of Italy, most of them are voluminous cobblestoned areas which would be empty if the Romanians weren’t using them as ad hoc car parks.

Bucharest is not a city frequented by tourists, lacking information booths, English signs and any central tourist attractions. All the sights we saw were conspicuously devoid of tourists, including a decent replica of Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, called the Arcul de Triumf in Romanian (a lot better than the ugly four-sided replica in Vientiane, at any rate). We only visited one museum – the large Taranului Roman Museum which was mostly filled with unremarkable wooden artifacts, glass paintings, stone crosses and embroidered clothing. Overall, the feel was quite depressing, though the city was certainly interesting.

Romania only recently emerged from the shadow of a communist dictator’s rule in 1989. During the reign of Nicolae Ceauşescu, Romania was afflicted with economic turmoil, famine, torture and forced relocation as thousands of villages were uprooted in a program of rural urbanisation. Also during this time, Ceauşescu tore up the churches and booted some 70,000 citizens off their properties in order to use the land for his own dubious and ultimately failed land development projects. His incongruously named “House of the People” (now the Palace of Parliament) is one of the largest buildings in Europe, but it is a mammoth concrete monstrosity. Although impressive in size, it is devoid of any colour whatsoever. It stands on a stark piece of land with ill-kept gardens and next to parkland which is overgrown with weeds and polluted by rubbish. Bordering the park and palace is the B-dul Unirii. An entire suburb was destroyed in order to make way for what was intended to be Bucharest’s Champs Elysées. Ceauşescu even went so far as to make his boulevarde six metres longer than its Parisian counterpart, but his vision never really took fruition and B-dul Unirii is now aptly described as an “urban wasteland” by the Lonely Planet.

Ceauşescu was finally executed after an uprising in 1989. In the Piaţa Revoluţiei you can see the balcony where he made his final address to a hostile crowd. When you see how close the balcony is to street level, it becomes clearer why he left the building in a hurry via an airlift from the roof. The piaţa now has a memorial dedicated to those involved in the 1989 Revolution. Wikipedia has a good account of the Revolution.

Bucharest is really quite bleak by any city’s standards and compared to the Romanian countryside. It was not until several days later on the train that we got to talk with a local and confirm that Bucharest really was bleak and it wasn’t just because we weren’t visiting the right places.

The other thing about Romania is the high population of Roma, an ethnic minority facing much discrimination in the region. Roma are better known for being associated with the term “Gypsy”. Gypsies are much maligned all through Europe. In a store in Prague, I noticed that Cheryl’s backpack was not zipped up properly, and the shopkeeper did not hesitate to point out that “maybe the gypsies opened it up”. Officially the Roma population in Romania is about 400,000 out of the country’s 20 million, but it is reckoned that actual numbers are closer to 2 million. Romania certainly had a lot of them. In Bucharest, I had ducked into a bookstore and bought some postcards. As I was putting them in my bag, I noticed a group of gypsy boys staring at me intently through the window. I got spooked and decided to stick around the store for a little while longer. Half an hour later, they appeared to have left, but when I walked out, they suddenly emerged from behind a bunch of pillars. There is little that is more traumatising than a group of four gypsy children surrounding you and demanding money, hands roving all over the place. Luckily, my backpack was locked, so I shoved my hands in my pockets, blindly ran onto the road and into oncoming traffic, and made my escape.




L: The monstrous Palace of Parliament
M: Piaţa Revoluţiei
R: Central Committee Balcony where Ceauşescu made his final speech

Train journeys can be a great way to travel and our path through Eastern Europe required several overnight journeys. As long as you have a reservation for a couchette or sleeper car, sleeping is normally not a problem. I find the rocking motion of the train quite soothing, actually. The only inconvenience is when you have to deal with border crossings. This involves a train stop in the middle of the night – once before reaching the border to get your passport stamped with an exit stamp, and once after crossing the border to get an entry visa. So, a typical scenario is getting woken up at 2.00am by one border guard, then later at 3.30am by the second. This can get quite annoying if something delays the process.

We visited Sofia after Bucharest. The trains we took into and out of Sofia were routes sufficiently obscure such that only backpackers seemed to frequent them. Going into Sofia we shared a compartment with Takeshi, a Japanese guy travelling solo (there seem to be a lot of solo Japanese travellers). A more unusual sight was a pair of girls from Hong Kong in the compartment next to us.

Bulgaria is probably at about the same level of economic development as Romania. However, not having gone through the same sort of turmoil Bucharest had gone through, Sofia is an attractive city. Many of its streets are paved with faded yellow cobblestones and in contrast to Bucharest, it has a large number of Orthodox churches scattered around the town. We also managed to see the changing of the guard, which features a ridiculous performance of goose-stepping, only outdone by the preposterous display the Greek soldiers put on in Athens. Although we were only in Sofia for one day, we quickly got a sense that Bulgarians were a warm and friendly bunch. In hindsight, it would probably have been better to spend more time in Sofia and less in Bucharest.

The Bulgarian language uses Cyrillic characters so the country felt very Russian (which is a little peculiar since it is almost like saying Hungary uses Roman characters so it felt very English). Interestingly, the Lonely Planet notes that Bulgarians nod to signal “no” and shake their heads to signal “yes”. Although this could produce some rather amusing opportunities for miscommunication, we never ran into any problems with this.




L: Foreign dignitaries arriving at the National Assembly
M: Alexander Nevski Church
R: Changing of the guard in Sofia

It was on the train from Sofia to Thessalonica that we met Ionut and his friend, whose name I won’t even attempt to spell. The two of them were both Romanian engineers who worked for Romanian Railways. As a perk of their jobs, they got to travel on the entire European train network for free. Utilising this deal, they had managed to visit a great deal of Europe – something which would not normally be feasible on a salary of about 300-400 Euro a month. To cut down on accommodation costs in Western Europe, they would arrive on an overnight train in the morning and leave on another overnight train in the night, taking a one-day whirlwind tour of a city.

Ionut’s English wasn’t very fluent and he had a habit of exclaiming something was “very fine” if it was to his liking. He wanted to visit Australia to see our crocodiles which were “very fine”, and our kangaroos, which were also “very fine”. However, on his salary – which was “not very fine” – getting to Australia just wasn’t possible.

On the other hand, Ionut’s friend, fed on a steady diet of movies on the TCM channel on pay TV, was fluent in English and very talkative. He was a great teller of anecdotes and jokes and seemed to have an endless supply of them, especially stories of his time in the Romanian army.

When we told him we’d recently been to Bucharest he immediately expressed his distaste. “I don’t like Bucharest. It’s very grey and boring. Ceauşescu destroyed everything. I come from the North, it’s much better up there.” He then told us another joke:

The Japanese built a car entirely out of gold and invited George H W Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev and Nicolae Ceauşescu to take a look at it. They came and had a look, but before they were allowed to leave, were searched by the Japanese police. Bush was searched first and when a gold screw was found in his pocket, he was summarily thrown in prison. Gorbachev was then found with a spark plug stuck down his pants, and he too was thrown into prison. Finally, Ceauşescu was frisked, but nothing was found and he was praised for his honesty. The next day Ceauşescu visited Bush and Gorbachev in prison.

“Why did they arrest you?” he asked them.
“I took a screw from the car as a souvenir,” Bush replied.
“And I took a spark plug,” Gorbachev said.
“Oh, fuck you!” Ceauşescu exclaimed. “No wonder why I couldn’t start the damn car!”

At around 3.00am we were woken up by the Bulgarian border guard. As we lay there bleary eyed, Ionut had in the meantime taken to pacing up and down the train carriage with a pack of cigarettes. He was nice enough to duck back in to let us know that he understood it was a non-smoking compartment, so that was why he was smoking outside. Unfortunately, while he was explaining this, he was waving his cigarette around, filling the compartment with a rather noxious smoke which lingered and made it very difficult to get back to sleep.

By 4.00am, the train still wasn’t moving. The border guard had discovered to their annoyance that someone in the next compartment didn’t have a Bulgarian visa in their passport. After a few tense moments of trying to figure out what to do, the unfortunate man was tossed off the train in the dead of night and we were off again.

One thing about travelling is how sudden changes of environment can be from one day and the next. By late that morning we had left behind the gloomy weather and foggy hills and emerged into bright sunshine, accompanied by the vivid Greek countryside with its stony cliffs, rolling plains and fields of olive trees, cotton plants and vineyards. We were back in the “West”.

Upper Eastern Europe

Prague, Bratislava and Budapest are all old bastions of the Hapsburg empire. Each city has a hill overlooking the town and the Danube with a castle of some description sitting on the hilltop. So, that’s what I’ll start with in a brief roundup of each city.

The dominating feature of Prague Castle is St Vitus’ cathedral, a large cathedral with a impressive set of stained glass windows and chapels. We climbed the three hundred or so stairs to the top and were rewarded with a fantastic view of Prague and all its warmly coloured buildings and cobblestone footpaths. We caught the sunset on the famous Charles bridge at the bottom of the hill, a pedestrian-only bridge perpetually milling with tourists, portraiture artists and a variety of buskers. (Incidentally, the scene in the movie Eurotrip, where the group is sitting on the bridge in Amsterdam was actually filmed in Prague, very near the Charles Bridge.)

In the evening we listened to a performance of Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik and Vivaldi’s Quattro Staggioni by the Prague Chamber Strings at the National Museum at Wenceslas Square. A bit of a tourist trap, but a good recital nonetheless. Wenceslas Square is currently hosting a variety of contemporary art sculptures which are somewhat questionable in their artistic merit. Among the works of art were a model of Superman flying straight into a block of concrete (his head is actually embedded in it), an anatomically exaggerated abstract representation of the “relationship between men and women” (the man is actually balanced on his oversized appendage) and a row of men built out of metal and with balls of steel (literally).

The only disappointment about Prague was that the Astronomical Clock in the Old Town was under a three month long restoration when we visited. It was all covered up with scaffolding, but that didn’t stop a crowd from gathering under it and bitching about how unlucky they all were to have come at such an inopportune time.




L: Cheryl and a guard at Prague Castle
M: View from St Vitus’ Cathedral
R: Near the Charles Bridge

Bratislava stands in contrast to Prague. Once part of Czechoslovakia, Slovakia peacefully became independent from the Czech Republic in 1993. Its capital, Bratislava, is the poorer cousin of Prague, being more compact and less visited. Bratislava Castle is a very plain building and seems to have been stripped bare and partially converted into offices. However, it does offer a picturesque view of the city. There is also a small museum in the castle which displays various objects found in the region from Roman times in nicely lit glass cases.

Bratislava’s city centre is a network of cosy pedestrian walkways, overflowing with cafes and restaurants and shares the same warmth of colours of Prague. Again, we had unfortunately visited during a period of heavy restoration – the town hall square had been uprooted, leaving an ugly hole and dysfunctional fountain in the middle of town.



L: Bratislavan street
R: City centre



L: Park
R: Bratislava Castle

Budapest’s castle is more like a small town. It contains a variety of museums, churches, hotels, restaurants, a palace and the Fisherman’s Bastion. The Fisherman’s Bastion is a distinctive structure built of white stone a hundred years ago. It overlooks the Danube and was used as a checkpoint on The Amazing Race (where Gus and Hera were eliminated, if memory serves).

Reminiscent of Prague, after visiting the castle we made our way down the hill on foot and crossed the Chain Bridge, one of the bridges connecting Buda and Pest – respectively the Western and Eastern halves of the city. Rumour has it that the Chain Bridge’s designer was so assured that his bridge was perfect, he had resolved to commit suicide if it was proven otherwise. After the bridge was opened, it was discovered that the lions standing on the bridge corners lacked tongues and consequently the creator took his own life. This rumour was summarily dismissed during a boat tour we took on the Danube at night, when all the major buildings are lit up with floodlights. The boat tour’s pre-recorded commentary offered a surprisingly frank overview of the city’s history, including an appraisal of the Marriott Hotel complaining that it was “too big, the angles are bad and it looks like a fortress”.




L: View over the Danube to Pest
M: Us at the Fisherman’s Bastion
R: Chain Bridge and Budapest Castle at night

Throughout these countries, the food was great. Hearty garlic and onion soups filled with melted cheese and served with a wide variety of fresh breads normally kick off meals. Main courses heavily focus on meat and gravy (with dumplings to mop up the sauce in Prague). Vegetables are normally ordered as side dishes because mains normally won’t come with them, maybe except for potatoes or sauerkraut. Beer is the standard drink during meals and is cheaper than soft drinks which come in ridiculously small quantities (200mL bottles!).

Interestingly, it is the custom to specify the weight of dishes on the menu. It is also customary to clear plates from the table as soon as possible, which means that you have barely taken your last bite when your dish is whisked out from under you.

From a travelling perspective, the three countries reminded me of Western Europe and all felt quite safe. Romania and Bulgaria proved to be an interesting counterpoint to the “Westernised vibe”…

18
Sep 05
Sun

Next stop, Sighisoara

It was about 8.00am when this Jamaican train conductor sticks his head into our compartment. “Sighisoara? It’s the next stop. 9.30am.” There was at least one more hour of sleep left in the journey, so I just rolled over and shut my eyes.

We woke up at about 9.00am to the sight of Romania rolling by through the window. Romania is much more like the Eastern Europe I envisioned it to be. Cornfields dotted the landscape, occasionally punctuated by small villages which were composed of a group of dilapidated buildings with cracked walls, broken windows and little old gypsy women sweeping pathways with brooms made of sticks. Transylvania was misted over and the hills in the distance took on a hazy, dreamy and soothing complexion as we neared our destination.

The train chugged to an abrupt stop at 9.35am. At this time Dorian and I were still struggling with our backpacks in our cabin, so we had to make haste. We stumbled into the impossibly narrow train corridor where another train conductor inquired, “Sighisoara?” and pointed towards the exit on the other side of the carriage. I just nodded and made a beeline for the door. In the way were pieces of luggage and passengers bound for Bucharest, puffing on early morning ciggies. I can only assume they were still half-asleep because most of them inconsiderately refused to move out of the way, so we just brushed unapologetically past them and if our backpacks maimed them along the way, so be it.

When we got to the vestibule area, the train door was shut. “What the hell do we do?” Dorian asked. I managed to open the door, and just as I did so, the train started chugging forward again. “Shit! Jump!” Dorian yelled, and I readily obliged.

“Ah, nothing like a drama to start the day. At least we made it. Ok, let’s find our hostel.” Oblivious to the lack of signs identifying the train station, I forged onwards, not noticing Dorian becoming increasingly bewildered. I must have been distracted by the small gypsy boy who was after my bottle of peach iced tea. Sighisoara looked like it was in bad shape, with deserted streets and the same dilapidated buildings we’d seen on the train.

Out on the main street, the road signs weren’t quite matching up with what was in the Lonely Planet. The hostel was only meant to be 50m from the train station, but nothing resembling accommodation was in eyesight. Dorian observed that we had passed several buildings along the way marked with “Medias”.

“Uh, I think we might be in the wrong city.”
“Can’t be!” I replied. A few seconds later, we decided to head back to the train station information office to ask, somewhat sheepishly, “Where are we?”
The answer came back as dreaded, “Medias.”

Turns out we had jumped off the train about 35km too early and were in the village of Medias, a village which was noticeably absent from the Lonely Planet.

Luckily, there was an old regional train bound for Sighisoara only half an hour afterwards, and we finally reached our destination, slightly shaken, but otherwise fine.

Romanian Currency
One of the reasons why I refused to believe that we had got off at the wrong stop even though the streets weren’t matching those in the LP’s map was that sometimes the LP is out of date. We bought a copy of the Eastern European LP which was published in February of this year. When we got into Sighisoara for real, we went to the ATM. I was all ready to withdraw 10 million lei but I grew suspicious when the highest preset amount offered to me on screen was only 400 lei. I got cold feet and cancelled the transaction.

Turns out, as we discovered on a nearby poster, that only in July the Romanian government had decided to slash four zeroes off their currency. Had I not cancelled, I would have been attempting to withdraw about A$400,000.

14
Sep 05
Wed

Eastern Europe so far

A few quick words while we wait for Cheryl to arrive from the airport. Prague was very pleasant. It’s a relatively quiet town, quite picturesque with buildings painted in warm colours. There are also plenty of cobblestone roads which are impractical for both pedestrians and vehicles, but at least they look nice. The people of Prague seem to talk with a great deal of gusto. Upon inquiring whether a money changer could break a large banknote, Dorian was gruffly chastised, “No, it is IMPOSSIBLE!” Upon inquiring whether her youth card could qualify her for a concession, Cheryl was told it was, “PERFECT!”

On another occasion, we had a sudden craving for some dessert so we ducked into a delicatessen to inquire if they had any strudel. All we got in response was a confused look and a quizzical, “What?” With more bravado and persistence than I could dare to muster, Cheryl kept repeating “Strudel?” in various intonations to an increasingly puzzled shopkeeper. Finally, after about the fifth “Strudel?” he snapped as if we had insulted his mother’s honour and, with arms outstretched, he boomed, “Strudel? WHAT IS THIS?” Cue our hasty exit.

Ja… Berlin!

12
Sep 05
Mon

Checking in

I was meant to have typed up a post on Dubai by now, but I unfortunately haven’t been able to find the time… Prague is a pretty city, and although it’s regarded as being in Eastern Europe, it’s very much like a Western European country. Tomorrow Dorian and I leave for a place where no one in Berlin will find us … BRATISLAVA!

7
Sep 05
Wed

Just… whoa

So there I am, speeding down Sheikh Zayed road in Sanjay’s new Mercedes SLK350, watching 5-star hotels, which cost more per night than I will make in a month, go by. (I only met Sanjay a couple hours before that, but that’s another story.) The outside temperature gauge on the car has just hit 50*C and I’m glad that virtually everywhere here is airconditioned… Dubai is such a complete change in tone to this trip, and it’s really quite a remarkable place. The full story later.

5
Sep 05
Mon

Half-way point

Two months in, and two months to go… a brief glimpse of the middle-east awaits.

I have a few moments left on this terminal, so just a random thought. Out of all the terms for a mobile phone – including hand phone and cell phone – I’ve grudgingly come to realise that the American “cell phone” is probably the most accurate one. Technically, a cordless phone can be loosely classified as a mobile phone. It’s not quite as mobile as a “real” mobile phone, but there’s still overlap. Hand phone is completely general because just about every phone you use fits in your hand. Cell phone is short for cellular phone, and this relates to the technology behind them – namely, when you are on the move, your phone transfers between different “cells” (zones) to keep the connection going. This is an aspect not shared by cordless phones or landlines, and accurately distinguishes cell phones from other types of phones. But I’m parochial, so I’m sticking with mobile phone, thank you.

4
Sep 05
Sun

My England no good

My time in Singapore coincidentally coincided with this year’s Comex Computer Expo in Suntec City. It’s big, busy, and much better than the Sydney conventions, but I was disappointed because there wasn’t really anything new there. Apple is making one of its big announcements on September 7, so I’m waiting for that. The “special deals” on at the expo weren’t that cheap either as my annual pilgrimage to Sim Lim Square revealed. Didn’t buy anything this time except a polarising filter for the camera.

Anyway, on the way back from Sim Lim, this girl stopped me as I was walking on the footpath. “Uh, do you speak Chinese?” she said in English. I said no and then she asked if I spoke English. When I said yes, she moved in closer and in a quiet tone of voice said something along the lines of: “I’m from JB in Malaysia and I was wondering if you could help me. My grandmother is sick, and I’m here with my small brother and we need porridge but I don’t have a job. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

She was clearly fluent in English so she was pretty easy to understand. I said yes and waited for her to continue. But she didn’t, she waited, looking at me expectantly. I stood there waiting for an actual question or request.

“Look, my grandmother is sick and I’m alone with her and my kid brother here. I can’t find a job and I need some porridge.”
“Uh, ok…”
“Do you understand me?”

At this point I was getting seriously confused. Perhaps my English skills had irretrievably deteriorated over the last six weeks from all the bargaining I had done in Vietnam using bad grammar and incomplete sentences.

“Yeah, uh… sorta. What do you want?”

She just looked at me again. Ok, think fast, think fast. She either (a) wants some money; (b) wants a job; or (c) wants to know where she can buy cheap porridge. Quite frankly, I had no earthly idea what she wanted. It could have been any of those things. Or none of them. I decided to play the safe card.

“Look, I’m not from around here. I’m from Australia.”

Now that should have covered possibilities (b) and (c), but she just said again, “No you don’t understand me.”

So I tried, “Sorry, I don’t have any cash on me.” (Which wasn’t exactly true, but I wasn’t about to give her the only thing in my wallet which was a $20 note.)

She looked increasingly exasperated. “No, you don’t understand.”

I was out of ideas. What was I missing? A faint thought crossed my mind that she may have been offering some… Special Services – you know, of the Bangkok kind – but I wasn’t about to venture into that line of inquiry. So I just apologised and walked off. I still have no clue what she was on about.

31
Aug 05
Wed

Travel snippets

An issue of nationality
We were eating in a restaurant in Luang Prabang when this elderly man started to make conversation with us. His opening line was: “Are you … konichiwa?”

Later on, in a Bangkok food court, I was browsing through all the stalls and paused by one selling Japanese ramen. A man turned around and looked me over before giving me a double thumbs up: “Japanese ramen! Very good!” I just smiled and nodded. He didn’t stop there, he was determined to unload his entire stock of Japanese vocabulary on me, each word bursting from him like some revelatory profundity. So I let him. “KONICHIWA!” Pause. “Uh… SUGOI! Mmm… OISHI!”

“Sorry, I’m not Japanese.” I said in as broad an Aussie accent as I could muster, and he turned slightly red. “Oh… you’re from Singapore?”

Locals in heavily touristed countries pride themselves on being able to pick what country a tourist comes from. It’s all part of a game really – especially with people selling stuff – to figure out how much money they can extract from you and to figure out what you might have a tendency to buy (not in all cases, but often). When we went to Angkor, our driver Jack had an impressive knack of being able to pick out who was Korean and who was Japanese with uncanny 100% accuracy. He’d point out someone to us and label them, then approach them to confirm. However, Asian tourists born in Western countries always mess with people.

Even after speaking in English, I have never been identified as being Australian, except by other Australians (and one Irishman in Chiang Mai). The overwhelming majority of people pick me out as Japanese, and running gauntlets of moto, tuk-tuk and cyclo drivers inevitably ends up with me creating a stream of konichiwas and ohios. In marketplaces, deft salespeople jabber off a stream of Japanese at me before quickly switching to English when I shoot back with a, “What?”

Cheryl places the blame on my hair, which is now long overdue for a cut. However, when it comes to her, people really don’t know what to make of her genetic heritage. An inordinately large number of Vietnamese thought that she was Vietnamese, and in Laos she could occasionally pass for a Laotian. Otherwise, she’s either Japanese or Korean like me.

Whenever someone asks us where we’re from, we have several choices: Australia, Singapore and Malaysia. We could easily masquerade as Japanese, but that would be asking for trouble, because some people can string together a few sentences in Japanese and I can’t. Saying Australia always raises eyebrows, and makes us have to explain where our parents come from. Saying Malaysia is a lie, but makes us less prone to being ripped off while bargaining (since it is known in the region that Malaysia is not as affluent as Singapore). Normally, we just say Singapore, and that has satisfied everyone.

It’s a small world
Over the past few weeks we’ve repeatedly run into people we’ve met earlier in the trip. However, none as often as a German, Hans, and his family whom we first met in Ha Long Bay. It’s not altogether surprising since most people in this region follow similar itineraries, but it is still quite amusing. We ran into them again while crossing a bridge in Hué and again the following day while visiting some tombs. We bumped into them again in Hoi An – Hans literally almost fell off his bike when he saw us. And just when we thought we’d seen the last of them, we ran into them after the Beatocello concert in Siem Reap.

Hotel to airport in ten minutes
The taxi drivers sure drive quickly in Bangkok. There is an “elevated expressway” that goes from central Bangkok to the international airport. Our driver was determined to break the expressway’s land speed record, posting a top speed of 180km/h and cruising at 150km/h for the rest of the way (despite a 90km/h speed limit). I think he would have gone faster if his car was able to take it. It turns out there was a cop with a speed gun standing at the expressway exit, but by that time our driver had deftly slowed down to a more pedestrian 80km/h.

Let me phrase that another way

On trying not to fall sick in Bangkok: “Yes, you wouldn’t want to get bid-ridden in Bangkok, although the beds in the Baiyoke Hotel would be nice ones to get ridden in. Uh, wait… that didn’t come out right.”

25
Aug 05
Thu

The Kingdom of Cambodia

Throughout South-East Asia, vendors sell attractive lacquered wooden boards with prints of Tintin covers on them. A few days ago in Siem Reap, I spotted one entitled, “Tintin au Cambodge”. I thought that was strange, since I don’t ever remember Tintin visiting Cambodia. I looked closer and realised that, with Angkor Wat in the background, some joker had drawn Tintin hobbling around on crutches with a peg-leg, followed closely by Snowy, also missing a limb. A sign in the corner read “Danger! Landmines!”

Cambodia is perhaps most well known for the turmoil which engulfed the country at the hands of the Khmer Rouge and the notorious Pol Pot, especially for the three and a bit years they came to power from 1975 (some believe this was in part caused by the “secret bombing campaign” the US had undertaken on Cambodian soil in the antecedent years). During that time, they attempted to radically restructure Khmer society, abolishing currency, religion, families and, by some estimates, 3 million lives. Even after Vietnam “liberated” the country from Khmer Rouge rule, they continued their aggression against the government, engaging in campaign aimed at “demoralising” it. One of the ways they did this was to heavily mine areas of Cambodia, causing death to many civilians in the process. Today, the Khmer Rouge is thankfully now only a presence in history books. Although much of Cambodia is still plagued by undetonated landmines, the danger to tourists who stay on marked paths is negligible.

A visit to Angkor is expensive. A one-day pass costs US$20, and a three-day pass costs US$40. Passes bought after 4.00pm begin the next day, so most people buy after this time and catch a free sunset. We rode into Phnom Bakheng, a hill overlooking the surrounding countryside, and waited for the sun to go down. Our driver, “Jack”, came up with us and explained he couldn’t tell us about the site because he was not a licenced tour guide. He told us that the government sold licences for US$1000 (which, to the average Cambodian is about three to four years’ worth of salary) and he was saving up for one. Until then, if he talked about the temples, the police walking around would fine him.

On our first full day in Siem Reap, we hired two motos to take us around the main temple sites of Angkor, visiting Angkor Wat, the structures of Angkor Thom, Ta Keo, Ta Prohm and Banthay Kdei. Angkor was an old Khmer city, home to some one million residents and part of the six century old Angkor empire which extended significantly beyond the borders of current day Cambodia. It left behind a legacy of innumerable temples, citadels and other structures which are all roughly 1000 years old.

Everyone is familiar with the silhouette of Angkor Wat’s inner temple. The Thai Royal Palace in Bangkok even has a miniature replica of it. However, nothing quite prepares you for its sheer size. Angkor Wat covers almost 2 square kilometres and is surrounded by a very wide moat which I initially mistook for a river. In a region of the world where wats are everywhere, it is easy to see why this one is regarded as a clear standout. We woke up at 5.00am to catch the dawn at Angkor Wat, and it is quite an experience to walk up the main walkway in the pre-dawn gloom and see the temple spires loom ahead, getting larger and larger.

Unfortunately, Angkor is an extremely touristed site, and even at that hour, the temple grounds were swarming with people hoping to catch a sunrise. However, by 7.00am, most of the Japanese and Korean tourists had departed by the busload, disappointed that overcast weather had obscured the view of the sun. Luckily for us, it meant that we were able to explore the temple without the hassle of human traffic.

Originally a Hindu temple, there is an extraordinary series of stone bas-relief carvings around the outer wall of the temple esplanade that stretches on for 800 metres. While the construction of a structure of Angkor Wat’s size is not too problematic with today’s technology, the intricacy of the carvings around the temple are as complex today as they were a thousand years ago. They are not something that can be mass produced by a machine, but have to be designed and chiseled inch by inch by painstaking human labour. (Although I suspect that CAD/CAM techniques today could probably do the chiselling a lot quicker, but still, art without a human touch is often not the same.)

Angkor Thom contains several structures. We first saw the Bayon – a structure replete with spires adorned on four sides with an enigmatic smiling face. The Bathuon is a structure currently undergoing restoration, but tourists are allowed to walk around it. A local who claimed to be a university student of Khmer history approached us and, unsolicited, started talking about the temple as a tour guide would. We thought he was just using the opportunity to practise his English, but our naive assumptions of his altruism were quickly banished when, at the end of the impromptu tour, he demanded money from us to help fund his education. As far as scams go, this one was fortunately very minor.

Ta Keo is an undecorated, unfinished temple, which stands above the treeline. By the time we had reached its summit, we were well and truly tired with grabbling with Angkorian steps. Temple steps, especially near temple summits were narrow, very steep and quite treacherous. You have to turn your feet sideways in order to climb them. This was not the result of bad design, but rather symbolised the metaphorical difficulty of reaching the heavens.

It is with relief, then, we came to Ta Prohm which is pretty much a ground floor only temple. Ta Prohm has a great deal of character, stemming from the encroachment of the surrounding jungle on it. Over the centuries, large trees have wrapped their roots around and through blocks of stone. Many are now only removable at the risk of destroying sections of stonework which the roots now ironically support. This is also the location where the front cover of the Cambodia Lonely Planet was photographed. After some wandering around, we discovered the Khmer man on the LP cover sitting down under a tree, selling some miscellania. A shrink wrapped copy of the LP with him on it lay nearby, and a curator gestured to us that he was indeed the man on the cover.

On another day we hired a remorque-moto – basically a two-person carriage attached to the back of a moto – to take us to the more remote structure of Banthay Srei. It took us 90 minutes to drive out there, over some incredibly bumpy roads, but it was a nice journey overall. The remorque-moto seats are very well padded, and you get a good opportunity to see the surrounding landscape and peasants. Banthay Srei is small, but holds some very intricate bas-relief carvings. They are so intricate that it is thought that only women could have done them (though I don’t know whether this is said in jest or not). On the way back we visited Preah Khan, which has a lot of information about how restoration work was conducted on the temples. Finally, as a favour to our driver, we spent ten minutes in a large, expensive souvenir store, which entitled him to a litre of petrol.

As great as Angkor is, it is quite tiring, and after you visit the major temples, things unfortunately do become repetitive. “All watted out” is a common expression used by tourists there.

Much of Angkor has luckily survived, and in most cases the only evidence of the touch of the Khmer Rouge in the area are the multitude of statues missing their heads (they sold them off for money). Back in Phnom Penh, however, the memory of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime are preserved in several locations, and are an essential part of a visit to Cambodia’s capital.

Two main sites high on the “must visit” list are the Choeng Ek “Killing Fields” and the Tuol Sleng Museum. The former is situated about 15km out of the city, and is the site of many mass graves, from which around 9000 Khmer corpses were exhumed after being slaughtered by Khmer Rouge soldiers. A stupa filled with skulls commemorates the dead. One of the startling things is how close the actual graves were to the area in which prisoners were held when waiting to die. They were clearly within eyesight distance, and earshot. Most were bludgeoned to death (children against a tree) in order to save bullets.

Tuol Sleng is the site of where prisoners were held in Phnom Penh. The prison was originally a high school, converted with the construction of small cells with irons bars in classrooms and barbed wire draping the concrete walls. In the interrogation and torture rooms, fairly gruesome photos (thankfully in black and white) show the results of Khmer Rouge handiwork. Another cell block shows hundreds upon hundreds of photos of the victims of prison, all taken by the Khmer Rouge who had an obsession with record keeping. It all makes for sombre viewing, but a necessary one.

21
Aug 05
Sun

The Road to Cambodia

I’m currently sitting in a cafe called The Blue Pumpkin. They make a great fruit shake. They also provide free WiFi net access, so I’ve availed myself of this freebie and am typing out this post on my laptop which miraculously survived the bus trip up from Ho Chi Minh City. Siem Reap is a rich city by Cambodian standards, fueled by tourist dollars stemming from Angkor and overpriced food, so the availability of wireless net access should be not all that surprising, but it is somewhat bizarre to log on to World of Warcraft for five minutes just to be able to say “I played WoW in Cambodia”.

The journey from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh was a tiring one. Getting to Bavet, the border crossing town, was fine, but once we cleared Vietnamese immigration, things went downhill from there. Things are chaotic on the Cambodian side. It appeared that we had arrived a few months too early to make use of the new immigration facility Cambodia was in the process of building. Instead, there were a few wood huts off the side of a dirt pathway in which immigration officials check off visas. As we were wondering where to line up, we were told just to stick our passports on a large pile of them and they would be processed momentarily. There were no border guards, police or security of any sort. No one asked to check my passport. In fact, it would have been quite simple to walk straight through and illegally enter the country. It wasn’t even clear at which point we had actually entered the Kingdom of Cambodia. The road to Phnom Penh is in fairly bad shape. It’s filled with potholes and bumps, which our minibus driver took at speed. Every few seconds the minibus would fly over a bump, go airborne for a split second and then return to earth with a spine-jarring jolt.

The primary reason for visiting Siem Reap for tourists is, of course, to see Angkor Wat and the other myriad of temples in the Angkor region. Impressions in a later post.

17
Aug 05
Wed

History lessons in Saigon

If you ask any Vietnamese person from outside of Ho Chi Minh City what they think of it, they will inevitably mention three things: “lots of people”, “busy”, and most often of all, “noisy”. After spending a tiring few days in the stifling Old Quarter streets of Hanoi, the fact that even the residents of Hanoi – Vietnam’s second largest city – were complaining that HCMC was too crowded and noisy caused me some concern. This, combined with numerous stories of drive-by bag snatchers, pickpocketing beggars and other security concerns, did not give me a very good impression of the city before we arrived.

Three days in, and these impressions happily proved to be untrue. HCMC has a population of around 7 to 8 million, about double that of Hanoi. Luckily, the city is significantly more spacious, with the streets being a great deal wider than in Hanoi. There is far less noise than you would expect from the thousands of motorbikes, cyclos, bikes, cars and buses that rumble past every minute, horning included. Sure, it’s chaotic and crossing the road is always somewhat hazardous, but it’s not all that bad.

HCMC used to be called Saigon in the old days, and many Vietnamese, both from the North and South, still call it that. The renaming of the city is one product of Vietnam’s incredibly tumultuous history, a history which I was, regretfully, almost entirely ignorant of up until a day or two ago. (The extent of my knowledge up until then was that the Americans had waged a war there which they may or may not have lost. That and memories of Full Metal Jacket and various other Hollywood films.) Although I came across bits and pieces of information about Vietnam’s past before HCMC, it was only here that I had my first real history lesson. The interesting thing is that being the first time I heard about the Vietnam war in full (known here as “the war in Vietnam” or “the American war”), I heard it from a Vietnamese perspective.

We went on a half-day tour to the Củ Chi tunnels (where Viet Cong used to hide out near Saigon) and had the fortune of getting a fantastic tour guide. Mr Binh was a war veteran with a Filipino father and Vietnamese mother who had served in the US Navy as a 2nd Lieutenant, apparently under John Kerry. He had lived for several years in New York and California before returning permanently during the war in Vietnam. He had been shot two times during it, and he was justifiably embittered by the whole experience. The great thing about him was that he pulled no punches in talking about things. This pissed off more than a few tourists on the bus, but I liked the guy almost immediately.

After welcoming us to Vietnam, he immediately began a patriotic spiel about how great his country was, boasting about its 8% GDP growth and it being one of the largest agricultural exporters in the world (second in rice, third in coffee). He proclaimed Vietnamese cuisine as excellent and denounced American cuisine as terrible. While this may not seem out of the ordinary for a developing Asian country, it is quite significant when you consider that Vietnam has been embroiled in some sort of conflict for the greater part of the 20th century. “Because of all of you,” Mr Binh paused, eyeing everyone on the bus, “Vietnam has suffered aggression up until about 25 years ago.” An Israeli lawyer up the front of the bus puffed up his chest and vigourously shook his head. “Not all of us! Not me!”

Mr Binh ignored him and ploughed on, talking about all sorts of topic at random, including the branding of all caucasians as Big Assed Tourists (“Do you know why you don’t ride motorbikes? Because you have big asses! But don’t worry, we say in Vietnamese so you don’t know.”) Although he initially refused to talk about the war because it was upsetting for him, enough interest had been generated to persuade him otherwise. What followed was a colourful and engrossing thirty minute talk, on the bus, about how Vietnam had been effectively screwed over by one country after another: French colonialism, Japanese invasion during WW2, the splitting of the country into North and South Vietnam which led to American involvement in the Vietnam war, incursions by the Khmer Rouge and a small attack by the Chinese. In a nutshell, the Vietnam war arose when communist North Vietnam (called the Democratic Republic of Vietnam) attempted to reunify with South Vietnam (called the Republic of Vietnam) which was under the control of a nepotistic government, which was really a puppet government controlled by America. Because of the fear of Communism and the Domino Effect theory floating about at the time, America saw fit to get involved and stop the Pinkos from claiming another country. America failed, and after losing tens of thousands of troops and generating significant international dissent, withdrew its forces. Today Vietnam is one of five socialist countries left in the world.

As the day progressed, Mr Binh softened a little and acknowledged that Americans weren’t that bad. He had befriended many Americans in his time in the navy and the general sentiment was that most of them were only there because they had no real choice. During the day we got to crawl through some 100 metres of a tunnel dug 8 metres into the clay ground, and some tourists coughed up cash (US$1.20 per bullet) to fire M-16s, AK-47s and a whole other array of rifles, machines guns and shotguns at the shooting range.

Visiting the War Remnants museum in HCMC was a chilling and intense experience. It used to be called the Museum of American War Crimes (or something similar) before it was decided this was not good for tourism. However, the latter title is probably more accurate. The museum exhibits the nitty-gritty of the war, and the reality is incredibly gritty. The museum is well maintained, and is split into several sections which surround a main courtyard filled with American jets, tanks, artillery and ordnance. One section is a tribute to wartime photographers, who risked life and limb to capture the truth (most of them were killed at some point on the battlefield). Another section shows the effects of the American use of dioxins (such as the infamous Agent Orange, used to defoliate large areas of Vietnam’s land), napalm, nail bombs and other nasties on the civilian population: rows and rows of photos of deformed children and disfigured victims line the wall. Another section is dedicated to imprisonment and torture. I found the pictures of torture victims and exhibits of torture methods overwhelmingly disturbing, a graphic reinforcement in my mind that there can be no justification for allowing the legal use of torture. One Viet Cong soldier was beaten and tortured for several days, before being moved – ironically to a hospital – for further torture. Four amputations, presumably without anaesthetic, were carried out on him over several weeks. Ultimately, he did not reveal any information, quite probably because he did not have any to begin with. The final section remembers the anti-war protests and efforts which occurred around the world in opposition to American involvement.

Also worth a visit is the Reunification Palace – the old seat of South Vietnam’s government, which was then called the Independence Palace and was preserved after the unconditional surrender by South Vietnam’s government to the North. (Take the free guided tour.)

Given that Vietnam has only enjoyed peace for a little over two decades, it becomes clear how much the Vietnamese are now enjoying life. The environment that the Americans devastated is now largely regrown, and Vietnamese farmers are among the wealthier people in the country. The majority of the population is now composed of youth, who have had the benefit of growing up in peacetime.

We passed by a park near central HCMC. During the evening, it is filled with people, young and old, playing badmington, chinese chess, riding skateboards, and kicking around shuttlecocks in a game similar to hackeysack. It’s not quite hackeysack (the rubber base is slightly spring loaded), but the players were the most skilful I have ever seen. Groups of two or four would kick around a shuttlecock – both feet, many times they would kick the shuttlecock as it fell behind them, without looking. As we sat down to watch, a young Vietnamese man (also called Binh) came over to talk to us. He thought we wanted to buy a shuttlecock, but in the end we just had a conversation. He explained that the players we were watching were practising for competitions. They all wore a special leather shoe, with a sole made from car tyre rubber (incidentally, the Viet Cong used to wear sandals made from tyre rubber as well). It turned out he was a recently graduated mechanical engineer taking a short break before looking for a job. He hoped to be able to get some overseas work. In socialist Vietnam, salaries are still largely moderated – teachers, doctors, lawyers, tour guides and social workers alike, all earn from US$100-500 a month. A friend of his in the IT industry got to travel to Finland for some work, but was paid at Vietnamese rates. His friend would finish work, then get a job as a waiter in the evening (which quadrupled his earnings), before returning to Vietnam six months later. Nonetheless, despite the constant flow of tourists splashing around huge amounts of Dong, Binh was quite happy with life.

“Yes, I like it here. I hope to be able to save enough to travel to Cambodia soon.” And that, not so surprisingly, seems to be the attitude of most Vietnamese these days.

13
Aug 05
Sat

Big and small?

By 1.00pm I was already exhausted. A tailor brandishing a measuring tape shuffled around me as I held my arms outstretched. She paused, gestured at my chest and then at my hips before pointedly inquiring, “Big and small?”

I was lost, so I just returned the question with a blank stare, hoping she’d elaborate.

“Big and small?” she said again. Despite the English, she was still speaking a language I didn’t understand, so I looked helplessly over to Cheryl and asked for a translation. Cheryl thought for a moment, then matter-of-factly stated, “Oh, she’s asking if you want the sides straight or fitted.”

Clearly, I’m not a clothes shopper.

Welcome to Hoi An, a town on the World Heritage List. However, its old buildings are perhaps overshadowed by what most tourists end up doing here – getting clothes tailored. There are literally hundreds of tailors (or “cloth shops”) in Hoi An, and it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say it is a town full of master tailors. They can make anything and everything.

The process goes like this. You find yourself ushered into one of the myriad of cloth shops. Inside they’ll have a stack of fashion magazines and the latest British mail order catalogues. It’s simply a matter of flicking through the books and pointing out a design you like. You can come prepared too, by bringing along a favourite item of your own clothing you’d like replicated, or a picture clipped out from some magazine. If they can see it, they can sew it. And even if you orally describe something and draw a rough sketch, they can do a pretty good job of things too. After you pick the design, you spend time looking through walls full of fabric – silks, cotton, wool, cashmere, synthetics and so on. Pick a fabric and pattern, negotiate a price, get measured, pay the deposit (about 50%) and your clothing will be ready for review normally within 12 hours.

As good as they are, it is quite likely you will need time to make adjustments. Although my business shirts were fine the first time I got them, I had to send a coat back for adjustments three times because the right shoulder of it wasn’t sitting correctly. Don’t be afraid to ask for adjustments. No doubt when you complain that something’s too tight they will say, “Not too tight! It looks good!” But if you insist, they will oblige without (too much) complaint.

Perhaps the biggest issue is choosing a tailor. I don’t believe this is too big a problem. People who have been to Hoi An will have found tailors they swear by, and many tailors have billboards outside displaying testimonials written in all manner of languages from satisfied customers who have bought an excessive amount of garments. Virtually any tailor you go to will do a good job. That said, there are probably two good ways to ensure you don’t end up buying from the rare bad tailor. One indicator is if there are any other tourists buying from the shop. The second way you can judge is to get one small item of clothing made – a shirt or similar – and check the quality.

We got clothing made at four tailors. We got a couple business shirts made at Mai Cloth Shop (Stall 7, Hoi An Cloth Market). Mai’s is located in the cloth market, a group of stalls in a warehouse where you can watch tailors sewing. Mai’s stall is extremely busy. A little too busy for my liking. Especially in the evening, there can be over ten people crammed around her tiny stall. With everyone talking at once, staff are easily distracted. One lady there was taking Cheryl’s measurements when she got sidetracked half-way by another customer and didn’t come back for five minutes. They have a dodgy fitting room in an alleyway which you’ll have to share with some of the fattest rats in Hoi An. Nonetheless, despite the chaos, Mai does a good job with the tailoring.


Cloth Market

Hanh Hung (39 Phan Dinh Phung St, on the corner) was the store we got most of the clothing made at. The atmosphere was a lot more relaxed and pleasant, and if you look like you’re serious about buying, they’ll give you a complimentary bottle of water (we received about 6 litres of water between us through our visits there). The store is very clean and well kept, and the staff give you a bit of breathing room (although they will still ask “you want something more?” every ten minutes or so). Workmanship was generally very good. I suspect that Hanh Hung is more expensive than other stores, but by western standards, the clothes they produce are still very well priced. Business shirts are from US$5-10 depending on material, and suits start from US$40 or so upwards. I got a suit made out of cashmere/wool for about US$85. They accept credit card (3% surcharge, but you can try and factor this in when you are negotiating price). In case you thought all tailors were women, Hanh Hung also uses male tailors.

In the end I got eight shirts, one suit and a pair of shorts for just over A$200. Cheryl made five shirts, two suits (coat, pants, skirt), one dress, and one trenchcoat for around A$320. We were also given four complimentary silk ties… though probably not so complimentary given what we paid for the other stuff. (A$1 = US$0.76 = 11000 Vietnamese Dong.)

The main problem you will have is buying too much. Weight and space are issues you must consider beforehand. Shopping for clothing here can be addictive, and it is all too easy to get much more than you initially planned.

11
Aug 05
Thu

And in the news…

What do a cigarette lighter, Fur Elise, and Saddam Hussein have in common? Well, you can buy a cigarette lighter with Saddam’s face on it, and which plays Fur Elise when you flick it open in Hoi An. This is just one of the strange knick knacks which hawkers offer here, accompanied by the universal cry of, “You buy something!”. There are more mundane things for sale, such as English and French copies of the Vietnam News, thrust in front of tourists’ faces who are trying to enjoy their breakfast.

I haven’t felt the need to buy a copy yet, because, strangely enough, I’ve been reasonably in touch with world affairs on this trip. Not from news web sites, but through satellite TV. We had ABC Asia Pacific in Hanoi, BBC World in Hué (complete with a simultaneous audio translation in Japanese running over the top of the English which was distracting to say the least) and now CNN in Hoi An. Was disappointed to hear the result of the second Ashes test, saw the terrible pollution in Kuala Lumpur, and even managed to catch the landing of the Discovery shuttle live. And there is too much coverage on Iran’s resumption of nuclear materials conversion. For domestic affairs, e-mails from friends have kept me up to date, including the juicy Crikey scoop on Alexander Downer’s daughter’s controversial award of a Chevening scholarship even though she only obtained third class honours.

10
Aug 05
Wed

Cuts, rips and commissions

Underlying everything to do with tourism, it seems, is an intricate, multi-layered system of commissions. Today’s attempt at commission grabbing was the most blatant. We took an Open Tour bus from Hué into Hoi An – a four hour air-conditioned coach ride for US$2. When we got into Hoi An, the bus stopped at the local Camel Travel office, which was fair enough, since that was the company that was running the bus service. However, before anyone could get off, the Vietnamese dude up the front said, “But first, we take you to a great hotel! Only 7 minutes from city centre. You go, look, and if you don’t like it, you can walk elsewhere.” And before anyone could object, the bus was off again, hurtling down the road and incidentally, taking us away from the hotel we’d already booked when back in Hanoi.

Eventually we arrived at the Green Field Hotel. I looked up the trust Lonely Planet. “Green Field… Green Field… ah, here it is… ‘Green Field Hotel is the furthest hotel from the city centre.’ Ah. Oh, it’s not even on the main map.” A British girl in the seat behind who had been reading over my shoulder yelled out, “This guy says the hotel’s off the map!”

Mass confusion ensued on the bus as a tired mob of caucasian backpackers complained that they already had booked at another hotel and that they wanted to get back to the city centre. The Vietnamese dude just kept repeating, “Don’t worry! Stay 10 minutes, check out the place! Don’t worry!” In the meantime, a horde of hotel staff had boarded the bus trying to get all of us to check out their new pool (“We don’t need a stinking pool!” an American was heard shouting, more than a little miffed). Some people disembarked and took motorbikes back in. The rest of us refused to disembark, and eventually they figured out we weren’t going anywhere unless they brought us back into town. As the doors shut, the Vietnamese dude tried again.

“Hey! You all must be hungry… I know a great restaurant—”

The cry of dismay on the bus was unanimous and instantaneous. Evidently, we looked like we were about to riot, because he quickly shut up about the restaurant and drove us back into town… to yet another hotel. However, in a twist of fate, it was the very hotel we had made reservations at, so it had worked out quite well for us.

Hoi An is lovely. Small, quiet, walkable and the shopping looks to be excellent. Especially if you’re after clothes, for tailoring is the town’s profession. But more on that later.

DIY laundry

Hué doesn’t seem to have guesthouses, and most accommodation is in the form of hotels. We ended up in the Binh Minh 2 Hotel. The “2″ signifies that their first hotel was successful enough to open up a second branch, about five minutes down the street. Some hotel “chains” even have three hotels in the same town.

Binh Minh 2 is relatively expensive, at US$15 for a twin share room (which comes with one double and one single bed), but it’s well worth it. Service is excellent. Reception was staffed by this diminuitive, yet highly energetic lady called Tu, whose smiles were so big that she had to close her eyes to fit them on her face. The room was not merely clean, it was spotless – more so than some of the 4-star hotels I’ve stayed at.

Anyway, having a bathtub at our disposal for the first time on this trip, we decided to forego the costly in-house laundry service and do it ourselves. So we pushed down on the plug, filled the bathtub up with water and mixed in some laundry powder we’d brought along. We dumped the clothes in and gave them a good scrub. The water turned an ugly shade of grey and we decided it was time to begin rinsing them. The only problem was, we couldn’t unplug the plug. It was stuck, and the grey water wasn’t going anywhere. I scampered downstairs to reception to see if we were doing anything wrong, only to be reassured, “Push plug to open, push again to close”.

Since doing our own laundry in the bathroom was in violation of the hotel’s guest regulations, we were in a bit of a fix. We couldn’t get them into our room, or they’d see the washing. So we moved the wet, soapy clothes into a basket, and decided to empty out the bathtub via the toilet. Manually. With a couple of empty water bottles.

Many, many minutes later, we’d siphoned tens of litres of water into the toilet and sink, by which time it was nearly midnight. We called a guy up who came to fix the plug. Moral of the story: make sure you can take the plug out before you fill up the tub.

6
Aug 05
Sat

In the North of Vietnam

We stayed in the Old Quarter in Hanoi, like most tourists. It’s a pretty full on place that really assaults the senses. The streets are narrow, and the metre-wide footpaths, spilling with squatting Vietnamese, merchandise and refuse are often unnavigable. The roads aren’t that much better, with a constant flow of traffic making it essential to concentrate when you’re walking about. Everyone talks about how crossing the roads is an art. There are no pedestrian crossings (even when they are marked). However, since the majority of traffic is composed of motorbikes which are fairly adept at weaving sideways, all a pedestrian has to do is walk slowly across the road and the bikes will swerve to avoid. You could almost do it blindfolded and not get hit. However, it’s the cars and the buses which pose the hazard – if they were to weave to dodge a pedestrian, they would instead end up taking out the herd of motorbikes passing alongside them. At first the experience is a bit of a novelty – it almost feels like there’s this invisible shield repelling the traffic away – but it starts to wear thin very quickly.

Like in many developing countries, the horn is used as a convenient method of signalling “I’m here!” rather than one of annoyance, which ensures a constant barrage of noise. Finally, even though the streets of the Old Quarter are narrow, the buildings are often three or more storeys high, giving the streets an even more cramped feeling. It also traps the air, which is more often than not filled with some very… peculiar, odours.

In the middle of the Old Quarter is a large lake, Hoan Kiem, where it is rumoured large turtles reside, according to traditional legend (read here). It’s only slightly less hectic around the lake, and the bright, opaque, green colour of it doesn’t lend it any large amount of attractiveness. However, by twilight it does get better. Fading light masks the algae in the water, the stifling humidity begins to cool, and the Vietnamese come out to exercise by the lakeside.

One day outside of the Old Quarter, we visited Ho Chi Minh’s masoleum complex. After he died, the revered Vietnamese leader, as with Mao, Lenin and Stalin, was preserved and placed in a glass box. The complex covers a large area, thankfully fenced off from traffic, containing the old Presidential Palace, a museum dedicated to Ho Chi Minh’s life, a few buildings where Uncle Ho used to live and of course, the masoleum itself. As with my visit to Beijing, photography was strictly forbidden. Through an intricate series of checkpoints and metal detectors, I was gradually stripped of bag, camera, and mobile phone (and not all at once) and given a few numbered tags in return. I had no other option but to surrender everything and hope that I would be seeing my gear on the other side.

The masoleum is chilly. Uncle Ho’s body is kept airconditioned, surrounded by four guards in full uniform staring straight ahead (and no doubt thankful that they weren’t on duty outside in the heat). The experience was similar to Mao’s masoleum. It’s deathly quiet inside as the procession of tourists and locals meander through the corridors and around the ghostly body of Ho Chi Minh.

On Thursday we took a 2-day tour to Ha Long Bay, with one night spent on board a boat. Although the bay was fairly crowded (we counted over twenty other ships moored around where we were for the night), and the water was polluted – the translucent shape floating through the water was a plastic bag as often as it was a jellyfish – it was a very welcome relief from the hustle and bustle of the city. We took a kayak out and rowed under a one metre high tunnel and into a small body of water encircled by limestone cliffs. There, for the first time in days, it was perfectly silent. The caves in Ha Long Bay, with their stalactites and stalagmites are a world heritage area, but to be honest, they only reminded me of Jenolan caves.

The people we have met on the trip have been somewhat varied, but mostly European, with a disturbingly high proportion of lawyers… three British lawyers who would be starting work with A&O and Eversheds in September, a Kiwi barrister reading for his second Masters at Oxford, a Dutch law student who had no intention of practising and a retired couple from Melbourne who complained that their family had “too many bloody lawyers”.

The staff at all the guesthouses we have stayed at have been terrific. The Thu Giang guesthouse in Hanoi is family-run, but most of the day-to-day operations are handled by an amazingly resourceful 21-year old lady. Unfortunately on the first night, a storm meant that tours to Ha Long Bay had been cancelled and some guests were forced to stay an extra night. Consequently, Thu Giang was still full, and we were diverted to the Wing Cafe Guesthouse. Staying at the latter guesthouse was an ordeal. Something surely must have died in there because the bathroom was filled with this unearthly stench. Fortunately, we only had to put up with it for one night.

Today we arrived in Hué on a comfortable overnight train. Hué’s much more relaxed and I can’t say that I’m going to miss Hanoi.

30
Jul 05
Sat

Vietnam tomorrow

We finally depart Laos today. Cheryl has in the meantime fallen for Luang Prabang. That’s all for now, just stopped by a net cafe to burn a half hour.

28
Jul 05
Thu

A couple of quick notes

Photography
Although the situation concerning the availability of net access has changed dramatically in the last five years, it is still somewhat fiddly to get photos online. Internet cafes, even in Laos, are broadband connected, and time is charged out at 100 kip a minute (about A$1.10/hour). Nonetheless, uploading pictures is difficult. This is not necessarily because there is a lack of facilities for getting your files off the camera, but because it takes time to firstly sort through the hundred or so photos taken each day for the small handful that are worth posting, then to post-process the photos, and then to upload them and link them. Post-processing is time-consuming – you can’t just upload a bunch of 6 megapixel images weighing 2 to 3 megabytes each. You need to resize them, then compress them suitably with jpeg compression (I use around 7 on the Photoshop scale). Then there’s cropping and retouching work that can be done. Uploading them takes a while as well – broadband here can be unreliable. So, rest assured, I have photos, but you will have to wait a while to see them.

Currency in Laos
Laos is one of those countries, like Italy (pre-Euro) and Indonesia, whose currency comes with an extra two or three zeroes tacked on the end for good measure. (Okay, that’s being flippant for countries whose economies have gone through major turmoil in past decades.) The range of Lao banknotes is remarkably small, coming in 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10000 and 20000 kip denominations. There does’t seem to be any coinage. While the currency conversion from A$ to Kip is somewhat fiddly, conversion from US$ to Kip is a kindly 1 to 10,000. So, their largest banknote is worth US$2.

On our first day, going to the bank, I handed the teller two US notes totalling $30 and received a fistful of cash in return. With so many banknotes and so many zeroes floating around me, I felt momentarily “rich”. That was until I saw the Lao woman next to me struggling to cram bricks, almost as big as cinderblocks, of 20000 kip notes into a duffel bag that would put a Hollywood gangster’s money briefcase to shame. In order to avoid such silliness, and the death of forests whenever the local Lao decide to withdraw cash to purchase land, the economy has adapted such that virtually all vendors accept payment in Thai Baht or US Dollars, with change given in Kip, all calculated with the swiftness of routine. This system of three currencies is officially illegal, but of course the practicality of things demand it.

The Royal Palace Museum

Luang Prabang was the location of the Lao Royal Palace for much of the 20th century. However, Laos hasn’t been a monarchy since 1975, when the Communists took over, and the palace was accordingly converted into a museum. For US$2, you get to see the place where royalty used to dine, sleep (the King and Queen had separate bedrooms) and receive foreign dignitaries. Most interesting though, was the gifts room, where various displays laid out gifts bestowed to past Lao Kings from visiting foreigners.

The majority of Asian nations had presented ornaments of incredible craftsmanship and intricacy. France gave a lot of crockery – Limoges porcelain and the like. The United States gave nothing of artistic value, instead delivering a gift that no other nation could replicate – a small piece of fabric portraying the Lao flag, brought to the moon by Apollo XI, and a small vial of moon rocks. There was also a model of the lunar lander and the keys to several US cities. Why Knoxville gave King Sisavangvatthana the keys to the city is a mystery to me. Australia’s gift was a small wooden boomerang, and two rather shoddy-looking gilded boxeds, encrusted with a handful of opals – delivered by none other than the Right Honourable Harold Holt. The Lonely Planet reports that the gifts are organised in the room by country – with gifts from capitalist countries on one side, and gifts from socialist/communist countries on the other – but some reorganisation must have taken place subsequently because there is no sign of such ideological division in the giftroom anymore.

Along the way, there are 16 paintings depicting the life of Prince Vessantara, purported to be one of the final reincarnations of Buddha. In an annual festival, the story of his life is related in the temples over the course of the day in celebration of it. It could be a case of cultural relativism, but I am still struggling to grasp at some thread of logic behind it all. The story goes like this. It starts off well, with the Prince donating his white elephant of “perennial prosperity” to the people of Kalinga, who happened to be starving at the time. This didn’t go down well with his contituents, who promptly banished him, his wife and two children from the kingdom. His family went into the jungle to become hermits, until one day, an “evil Brahmin” appeared, looking for slaves. The Brahmin, picked up the scent of the Prince’s family and set off after them. The Prince’s wife then had a dream of Something Bad happening to her children and warned the Prince, begging him to protect them. The Prince gave her some reassurances, but when she was off gathering food in the jungle, the Brahmin turned up and the Prince promptly sold the two children into slavery. As you do.

The wife attempted to rescue the children, but was blocked by three mythical creatures who transformed themselves into tigers to block her path. Then the Prince tried to sell his wife into slavery as well.

What happens next is a little unclear. The wife was not sold, but instead the couple were granted eight wishes by some deity. The paintings do not disclose what happened with those wishes. But anyway, the slave driving Brahmin ends up getting lost in the jungle and turns up in the wrong town. The “wrong town” happens to be one where the king is the children’s grandfather. The king buys the children back and is joyed to hear the whereabouts of his son. Soon after, the Prince is given a grand welcome back parade by the king. The king then abdicates, again for reasons unknown, and the Prince is crowned king.

End of story. Feel free to fill in the gaps with additional research, for I’m sure there must be some in a story which involves selling your family off to slavery. But for now, it’s all a mystery to me.

26
Jul 05
Tue

Breakfast in Luang Prabang

It is raining. Not the kind of rain that plummets down from ominous grey clouds and attempts to punch holes in your umbrella, but a soft, steady, non-threatening sprinkle. A kind oddly fitting for Luang Prabang, the sleepy town of about 16,000 in the north-west of Laos, a town on the World Heritage List.

At 8.00am, the Joma Bakery Cafe is already pumping out fresh pastries and bread; the rich aroma of butter and coffee drifting through the air. Motorbikes occasionally putter by, ridden skilfully by locals with one hand on the handlebars and the other on an umbrella, shielding themselves from the rain. Sometimes a second passenger would be riding pinion, or balanced behind gracefully like a side-saddled equestrian competitor, long skirts making it impractical, not to mention immodest, to straddle the seat. Monks stroll down the street after the morning’s alms collection. They carry umbrellas – tattered black ones – which seem to clash with their bright, almost fluorescent orange robes. Wet tourists clutching damp, well-thumbed copies of the ubiquitous Lonely Planet scurry by, some retreating into the refuge of the bakery.

Despite its unpainted grey concrete walls, the bakery has a certain charm to it, one of the many by-products left over from the days of French colonialism. Of course, only tourists can afford to eat here. Luang Prabang is a town “revitalised” by tourism. However, unlike so many other tourist hotspots in neighbouring countries, the local Lao, for the most part, seem largely unaffected by it all. There are no throngs of scrappy children begging for money, or tuk-tuk drivers doggedly soliciting for fares, or store vendors calling out “Hello! Hello!” for passers-by to buy their wares. When we first arrived in the city centre, somewhat disorientated and struggling to don our backpacks, two men approached us. We braced for an offer of a guesthouse to go to, or a tuk-tuk to get on. Instead, they merely asked us where we needed to go and pointed us in the right direction.

The people here are used to white faced Westerners tramping around the roads, taking it all with a stoic indifference. Their smiles are genuine, with no traces of slyness or a sinister gleam in their eyes which hints at some ulterior motive.

Besides the beautiful restored French villas, now converted to expensive hotels maintained on tourist dollars, the decaying remnants of colonialism manifest themselves in crooked paving and shoddy brickwork. But beyond the uneven roads and pathways, intricate temples adorn the landscape, their entrances guarded by gilded nagas – mythical seven-headed serpents. A wat on top of Phou Si, the hill around which the town is built, stands as a golden cap upon a cloak of greenery – the lush jungle which escorts the swiftly flowing Mekong River down towards the South-West.

The previous day, we had arrived by Lao Airlines on a surprisingly well-maintained twin-propeller plane and were driving into the town centre, chatting to a kindly Thai lady in the back of the songtel. It was her fifth or sixth time in Laos and she was going trekking. We had told her that we would be leaving for Vientiane in three days and her expression suddenly darkened. “Oh, but foreigners cannot get entry into Vientiane. The ASEAN meeting is on.”

We’d heard about this meeting only a few days ago when picking up our air tickets from the Lao Airlines office in Chiang Mai. “Sorry, no entry to Vientiane on the 27th,” Mr Sittidet told us hesitantly.

This remark had caused us to sit up very straight. “Ministerial meeting. Big news.” Big news to everyone but us, it seemed. “Foreigners not allowed.”

“But you issued us with tickets, and we have a pre-issued visa.” Mr Sittidet made a few phone calls and when he issued us our tickets, we thought the problem had been avoided. But apparently not.

The first morning in Luang Prabang we headed straight for the Lao Airlines office to reschedule our flight. There was no way around the 38th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, so coincidentally timed to coincide with our one day transit through Vientiane, so we were thus forced to hold up in Luang Prabang for several days. But no matter. If there was any town to get stuck in for a few extra days, this was a good one.

The rain has now eased. Soon it will be hot again, the streets being brightly lit by a strong, glaring sun. But for now, we will head out and enjoy the cool, damp air while it lasts.

See also
- LA Times article

24
Jul 05
Sun

Books in Chiang Mai

Down a side alley in Chiang Mai, there are two competing used book stores. Gecko Books is owned by an American with a sharp accent and aloof demeanour glaring intently at a closed circuit TV monitor. Behind Gecko is Backstreet Books, run by a Irish ex-pat who had been living in Chiang Mai for the last ten years. Both stores have an amazing collection of English books – most genres, from the classics to the modern – all at A$10 or less. I had just purchased Arthur C Clarke’s Fountains of Paradise from Backstreet Books when it started raining heavily outside. So heavily, in fact, that the lights went out. I peered out into the alleyway and all I saw was darkness. The whole of Chiang Mai, it seemed, had been hit by a blackout.

Not willing to endure the prospect of walking back in the rain and in the dark, trying to avoid the street traffic, I walked back into the store and sat on a step. In front of me, the Thai lady behind the counter was frantically searching for a stash of candles with a cigarette lighter. Everywhere else in the store was pitch black. The Irishman came cautiously bounding down the stairs, and soon there were four candles stuck on the front counter. The candles were already half burnt down when they were lit, casting piles of books in a flickering, murky orange glow.

“Does this happen often?”
“Unfortunately, yes. You’re Australian, aren’t you?”

Most Asians had been picking us for Japanese. Must be the hair.

“Yes we are.”
“Which part? … I’ve been to Melbourne a few times.”
“Sydney.”
“Ah.”
“So how long have you been in Thailand?” Cheryl asked.
“Ten years.” He paused. “It’s nice here… like when you get booked by the cops, they don’t take it personally like in Dublin, or Melbourne. Like, you do something wrong and they’re all ‘who the fuck do you think you are?’ But here, it’s different. I was coming back from Cambodia, doing 140 when the police pulled me over. He was smiling, and after he fined me, he asked me if he’d like a cup of tea.”
“Really?”
“Yeah, people don’t lose their tempers here. Cutting in on someone on the road, ’tis perfectly legal y’know. Actually, a few months ago a friend did this…” he popped up his middle finger and waved his hand in the air, “and got shot in the head for his troubles. He lost his cool, and so the Thai guy did as well. Thai guy was carrying a gun. It was just there.”

He pointed vaguely over the shoulder, like it had happened in the next street, which it may well have. He chatted for a little while about how hard working the Irish and Chinese were. Then he talked about his trade, buying books by the hundreds overseas and shipping them back to Chiang Mai. He didn’t have the latest Harry Potter though, didn’t want to step on any toes. “There’s a few new book stores around town, let them sell it. People gotta make a living you know? Otherwise…” he held a finger to his head and flicked his thumb as though cocking a trigger.

The lights next door in Gecko flickered back on. “Oh, the lights are back for everyone except our store.” The Irishman walked to the fuse box and fiddled around. One by one the lights came back on and we bid him farewell.

19
Jul 05
Tue

Eleven photos

I have uploaded a handful of photos in the album.

Dave about to throw up

While we’re on the topic of photos, how’s this for a coincidence: see this, then see this.

In other news, my grandmother, of all people, actually likes my dyed hair.

The “Super Luxurious” Bus

When the time came to leave Kuala Lumpur and the genial company of Dave, who I must again say is an excellent host, I had several options. Taking a plane down to Singapore was relatively expensive and wouldn’t save that much time given KL International Airport is situated some distance from the city centre. Getting a bus was more desirable, giving me time to type up this post. Dave’s father suggested I try a new coach service which he kept insisting was “super luxurious”.

Transtar runs a bus route between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur which they’ve called a “First Class Express” service which the company’s brochures optimistically insist is better than taking a plane. The Transtar bus is actually a second hand coach, purchased from the United States and repainted in a gaudy browny-gold colour. The inside has been completely stripped and refurbished. As a result, the full-sized coach only carries 16 passengers, each with their own oversized Osim leather lounge chair with a built in massaging system, and electronic footrest and recliner. I was told that Osim chairs can cost as much as a car, with their flagship model going for tens of thousands of ringgit. The company brochure goes on to list the various features of the bus service. Each seat also has its own LCD screen with on-demand audio, video and computer games. The brochure displays a picture of a smiling Malay lady holding a tray of food, captioned with, “A stewardess on board a coach? Unheard of but true.” Finally, to cap things off, the coach proudly comes with the latest safety innovations, most notably, seatbelts.

I must admit, the coach was very comfortable. Unfortunately, the extravagant Osim massaging chairs turned out to be rather poor at massaging. The five massage modes alternated between various forms of spasming and intermittent vibration against my calves and lower back. This turned out to be more annoying than soothing. The stewardess also turned out to be an effeminate soft-talking Indian man who seemed to have an aversion towards eye contact.

The journey, although only 5 hours, including the time it takes to get processed at immigration, included not one, but two toilet stops. (I was told on arrival in Singapore that 5 hours was quite quick and the bus must have been speeding.) There is a toilet on board, but this was to be used only in the most direst of emergencies. Apparently if the diarrhoea struck while we were en route, I was to tell the steward, who would then tell the bus driver, who would then stop at the first available opportunity by the roadside. Until then, passengers were encouraged to “hold on” as best as possible.

No one used the seatbelts.

Even the overnight bus services in Australia don’t come this extravagant, so I was trying it out of curiousity more than a desire for comfort. You can catch a regular coach down to Singapore for less than half the price I was paying, but even then, the trip only cost RM86. Of course, when I say “only”, I say that being someone who earns their money in Australia.

Salaries in Malaysia are quoted in terms of a monthly amount and are low. A graduate at PricewaterhouseCoopers gets about RM2100. A graduate lawyer undergoing chambering (or a pupillage – there is no real equivalent for this in Australia as far as I know) earns about RM3000. Converted into Australian dollars, these amounts are barely much more than dole payments in Australia (indeed, the Malaysian minimum wage is a mere RM700 per month). Naturally, the cost of living – especially food – is proportionately lower, but not everything is so. Purchasing power is generally on a dollar for dollar basis. A Malaysian spending RM1000 would feel roughly the same amount of hip-pocket pain as an Australian spending A$1000. However, the purchasing power of the Ringgit, once you start to move beyond food and other basic necessities, rapidly diminishes.

Corruption is still visibly prevalent. Bribes are paid routinely to avoid traffic infringements – saying “Boss, help?” with a bit of money passed behind an Identity Card and fines are literally waved away by the policeman. It is more or less the norm to bribe driving instructors around RM200 in order to ensure a pass in driving tests (short of someone crashing the car). And that’s just at the street level.

Road rules are more like guidelines, and it’s a common sight to see motorbikes and cars running red lights if there isn’t any traffic around.

I don’t have many pictures of KL. The downside of bringing a digital SLR camera is that you don’t exactly want to lug it around when you’re out for drinks at night. We went to Sunway Lagoon one day, which is a combined amusement and water park. Lots of middle-easterners visit there, and it is an odd sight to see middle-eastern women in full veils (head coverings and all) running around trying to manage their kids in the water park. We also went up to Genting (again) where we got fleeced at the restaurant we had dinner at as well as on the Pontoon tables. The drive up there was interesting – with heavy fog, drizzle, steep inclines and with Justin taking racing lines through the curves in complete disregard of the lane markings. Caught up with Ananda at La Bordega, a nice joint in Bangsar with a wall full of board games which patrons can bring to their tables and play. Eight of us played a few rounds of Taboo. Despite my atrocious run at games in KL, losing badly at snooker, pool and Warcraft, this was a rare occasion of Justin, Patricia, Viv and myself triumphing over Alex, Victor, Dave and Ananda. Note to self: there is a better way of describing the word “blink” than saying “a method of cleaning your ocular sensors”.

On most nights, it was just enjoying a good chat at one of the multitude of mamak stalls around the town – something Sydney is sorely lacking when it comes to doing things at night and really the most memorable of experiences in KL.

12
Jul 05
Tue

So I dyed my hair

Cheryl and I had just stepped off the express train from Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Backpacks in tow, we negotiated our way through the various offers of carriage from taxi drivers and stepped into the muggy heat of Malaysia.

“You ah beng! Check out the hair lah!” came Justin’s voice, sailing across the carpark.

Justin’s greeting was a remark concerning my recent change of hair do. Only a week beforehand I had cut my hair shorter than usual in preparation for spending four months overseas, resulting in it being spiked up. It was the idea of another friend, Kevin, to get it dyed. Figuring that it would probably be the only chance I would have to do it before I started work the next year in the conservative legal industry, I went along with the idea and my hair turned, after a tedious two and a half hour process, a pale shade of copper. For the most part, I was interested by the reactions I would get from this apparently out-of-character decision. In this regard, I was not disappointed.

Dad was mortified. “You’re going to be a lawyer soon, for goodness sake!” he exclaimed in exasperation when he first saw it. It generally didn’t sit well with the older generation, and I was variously described as looking “ugly”, like a “punk” and like a “street kid” (which, a friend’s mother pointed out was a good thing because it means I would be hassled less when overseas). My parents were most worried that it signalled the emergence of some sort of repressed rebellious phase, neglecting to realise that I had nothing really to rebel against.

Reactions from my friends were a bit more positive. However, when I held a farewell gathering a couple days before departure, two of them didn’t even recognise me. Jarrod, after I had opened the door for him, offered his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Jarrod.” Dorian, a friend of over 12 years shook my hand, abruptly brushed past me and then shouted into the room, “So where’s Stuart?” before being told with a great deal of amusement that I was standing directly behind him.

If I had anything to worry about, it was that immigration officials around the world were going to detain me on suspicion of stealing the passport of someone who actually looked respectable in their passport photo. I was assured that this would not be a pleasant experience, especially in a non-English speaking country.

Nonetheless, I found it somewhat ironic that despite the perceptions – and more often than not misperceptions – of the danger of going to some of the countries I was going to (landmines and Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, terrorist activity and political instability in the United Arab Emirates because it was in the Middle-East, mafia and gypsies in Eastern Europe), the recent tragic London terrorist Tube bombings had turned a bastion of the Western World into place more dangerous than these “non-mainstream” countries.

We got in the car. David turned to us in the backseat. “Why are you two wearing seatbelts? Don’t you trust my driving?” he asked. It remains a mystery to me why seat belts in the back are optional in Malaysia. Surely the laws of physics don’t operate differently there.

But anyway, there there we were, 6616 kilometres from home, with Justin jeering at my ah beng haircut and Dave weaving his car across the slippery Kuala Lumpur roads, on day one.

9
Jul 05
Sat

Google Earth Trip Route Map

A lot of people have been checking out Google Earth recently so I created a list of cities I’m going to in a Google Earth’s .kmz file format. You can download it here, open it in Google Earth and then click the play button in the “Places” pane to start the “tour”. Google is so cool. I better go to sleep now.

Update: web browsers seems to want to incorrectly download the .kmz file as a .zip. So what I did was zip up the kmz file into this file which you can download and unzip to get the real .kmz file. Strange.

24
Jun 05
Fri

Travelling!

So, I have about seven months of freedom in between uni finishing and work starting. I’m filling up four of them by going backpacking again, leaving in a couple of weeks on July 10. I’m spending two months in South-East Asia with Cheryl, then a month in Eastern Europe with Doz, then a month in the US and Canada with both of them. I don’t know if any regular readers live in any of the cities that appear in my itinerary, but if so, please drop me a mail! Looking heaps forward to it. More details as they come.

Postcard requests
I will do what I did five years ago and offer a postcard, to the first five or ten readers who ask, from their country of choice. E-Mail me with your postal address and desired country if you want a postcard.

31
May 05
Tue

My ear hurts

I just spent three hours on the phone trying to finalise a travel itinerary… it’s almost there. I think its possible that we may have packed a little too much in… on paper it looks really exhausting, but it should be flexible to drop out stuff while we’re on the run. More details later.

  11:51pm (GMT +10.00)  •  Travel  •  Tweet This  •  Add a comment  • 
27
Jan 05
Thu

Tales from Beijing Winter School

“Welcome to Beijing airport, ladies and gentlemen, where the local time is 7.00am. The outside temperature is… cold. Um, it’s negative 9°C.”

It wasn’t yet sunrise when we landed in Beijing, home for almost 14 million people and capital city for some 1.3 billion Chinese. Our landing was ushered in by the tens of construction cranes lined up by the runway-side, silhouettes in the bleak pre-dawn light. It sure looked cold.

And it sure felt cold as we walked outside and were hit by a blast of chilly Beijing air. It took about half an hour to reach the hotel in a car provided by CUPL, our host university. Thus started Beijing Winter School, a law elective with a reputation for being one of the bludgiest subjects available. Here are some trip highlights. Get comfortable, it’s a long post.

Photos
• Available here

Taxis
Beijing’s city centre is roughly at Tiananmen Square. Encircling the Square are six “ring roads”. The majority of the main city is within the first two or three ring roads, and by the time you reach the fourth and outer roads, you’re in Beijing’s equivalent of the ‘burbs. However, Beijing is large and sprawling, so there’s no real clearly defined “built-up” zone as there is in Sydney.

Taxis are an inexpensive way to get around town and there are three varieties of them. 1.20 taxis are the cheapest, the most cramped and are identified by their aerials which are placed to the side of the roof. 1.60 taxis have an aerial in the middle. I never travelled in a 2.00 taxi, but they are supposed to be relatively spacious.

Beijing taxis also charge by distance rather than time, which is a good thing because the time spent wading through peak hour traffic can be significant. I also learnt the hard way that the back left doors on taxis don’t open.

Taxis are a particularly good way of commuting because in Beijing vehicles have complete right of way over pedestrians. The only reason they slow down is so your body doesn’t make a dent in their new car. I don’t even know why they bother drawing in zebra crossings.

I don’t know what’s going to happen for the Olympics, but currently Beijing taxi drivers aren’t a very communicative bunch. They don’t speak English. When you tell them where to go, they don’t even acknowledge you – they just start driving. You actually have to ask them whether they know where they are going, because the answer is sometimes “no”.

Kev, who lived in Beijing for half a year studying Mandarin, is a bit of a shit-stirrer. He likes to ask taxi drivers what they think of Tiananmen and other inflammatory questions. One day, he managed to piss off our driver by demanding that he not smoke in his own cab. Tensions were alleviated later however, when our cab was neatly cut off by a passing van. After a few blasts on his horn, the driver let loose with a magnificently enunciated string of superlatives and profanities. I didn’t have a clue what he was saying, but I was impressed. It was like a triple hit combo. Kev complimented his swearing skills and the driver puffed up his chest in pride. Kev then proceeded to teach the driver how to swear in Cantonese, Hokkien and English.

Beggars at Wangfujing
Wangfujing is next to Tiananmen Square and is a prime shopping and business district. There’s a large shopping mall there, filled with more designer labels than you’d be able to find in Australia. There’s even a Volkswagen showroom inside the centre. Outside on the street are a variety of market stalls. Some stalls sell fruit coated in toffee which is skewered onto a stick. It costs Y5 in this area, whereas anywhere else it’d only be Y1. Strolling down the street, you’re assailed by hundreds of stall keepers trying to get your business. A man yelled out to Louise: “Hello! Hello, beautiful!” When he managed to secure her attention, he picked up a skewer and shook it at her. “Snake?” he offered, with a toothy grin.

“Someone should tell him that that’s not the way to attract Westerners,” Shan later said. Some stalls sell more exotic things, such as scorpions, silkworm larvae and goat’s testicles.

Exotics  Dave digs in to some Scorpion

The gap between rich and poor in China is the largest of any nation in the world and there are a network of beggars that roam Wangfujing. One woman had managed to run into us four times over the course of a single night, each time following us for a hundred metres or so while tugging insistently on our sleeves. I seemed to freak her out a bit though when I started staring at her and not speaking.

When it was time to go home, we found ourselves at a darkened intersection where the normally ubiquitous flow of taxis had dried up. After a minute or so of waiting, a kid emerged from the gloom. His face was smudged with dirt and his clothes hadn’t been changed for some time. Beggar. He started soliciting money from Shan. I started to make my way back up the street, urging the others to do the same.

Unfortunately, the kid had by that time neatly attached himself to Shan’s leg. He began wailing for money, sitting on Shan’s foot and hanging onto his thigh with a vice-like grip. Unable to move, Shan tried shaking him off, which only made him squeeze tighter. A few minutes passed and the kid only pleaded louder. We then broke the cardinal rule and gave him some money.

Shan was about to find out why never giving money is a cardinal rule. The kid took the money, and then demanded more. Louise and I helplessly looked on while Viv tried to negotiate with Shan’s release in Mandarin. They flagged over a waiting trishaw guy, who turned out to be no help at all.

“Where are you from? Korea? Japan?” he said, sussing us out. “Why don’t you just give him some money?”

To make matters worse, a taxi finally pulled up. Louise got in, followed by me. I held the door open to prevent the taxi from speeding off. Things were getting frantic and the kid wasn’t showing any signs off letting go. I tried to get the taxi to move closer so Shan could pull himself in and prise the kid off using the car door, but Beijing taxi drivers don’t understand English nor any amount of gesticulation or body language. Eventually another trishaw driver passed by and rode his bike into the kid, who promptly let go. Shan immediately made a break for the taxi with Viv following closely yelling out, “Drive! Drive! Drive!”

Cultural Exchange: Backstreet’s Back
CUPL separates its postgraduate campus from its undergraduate campus. One afternoon we took a trip out to the undergraduate campus for a “cultural exchange”. We were led into a room which contained a karaoke machine blasting out music from what must have been a “Boy bands of the 90s” VCD.

The odd thing about UNSW’s contingent this year was that it didn’t look like we were from an Australian university. Out of the 45 or so students on the trip, only two were not Asian. The rest were mostly from Hong Kong. In fact, most people had flown into Beijing direct from Hong Kong or Shanghai, as opposed to Sydney. Many could read Chinese, and a sizeable number could speak Mandarin.

So, it must have be a bit confusing when the CUPL students started to wander into the room, expecting a bunch of white Aussies and finding instead a bunch of Chinese.

CUPL put on a couple of student performances for us, kicking off with a small dance. It was followed by one of their students singing a Mandarin pop song. I thought it was cool when Yumin jumped up and joined her – something they wouldn’t have been expecting at all. Cynthia then taught a group of UNSW and CUPL students some dance moves and had a “dance off” which had hilarious results.

Dance off  Telling the time

The Unregistered Taxi Driver
Eric and I had to leave the CUPL “cultural exchange” early in order to catch an overnight train to Harbin. The campus was about 45 minutes’ drive from Beijing’s central train station, and the city’s registered taxis don’t drive out that far. April, one of the CUPL postgrad volunteers, managed to find us alternative transport.

There were a line of cars down a sidestreet with a bunch of guys in sunglasses leaning on them. April leaned close to us, “These are unregistered taxis. But don’t worry, we use them all the time.” She paused, then added, “Oh yeah, and try not to speak English if you can.” She procured a guy who was willing to take us back to Beijing for Y90. As we were about to get in, April realised the car didn’t have any number plates. The driver just laughed. “Don’t worry!” he snorted, opening his boot to reveal several sets of plates in it. He shut the boot again without taking any of them out. That seemed to satisfy April, so Eric and I just shrugged and got in.

We soon discovered why he didn’t have plates on. When he reached the toll gate at end of the expressway back to the city, he pulled up behind the car in front. As the boom gate went up for it, he expertly manoeuvred his car so that it was touching the rear bumper of the one ahead and followed it through before the boom gate came down. No toll? No worries.

We had to pay our intrepid driver his fare before we got to the train station so the cops didn’t realise he was unregistered. Funnily enough once we got there, none of them pulled him over for not wearing plates.

The Train to Harbin
You can buy tickets for inter-province trains in China at five levels: soft sleeper, hard sleeper, soft seat, hard seat and standing. Soft sleeper tickets are equivalent to first class ones and are where all the Chinese bourgeoisie hang out (not bad for a Communist country). There are four beds to a compartment, and each bed comes with its own LCD TV. Soft sleeper carriages also come with a sit-down toilet which has a supply of 3-ply toilet paper. A polite attendant waits in the corridor if anything is needed.

We travelled to Harbin in hard sleeper class. The beds in hard sleeper class are actually no harder than in soft sleeper. However, here headspace is minimal as they cram six beds into each compartment. The compartments don’t have doors and the lights automatically switch off at around 10.00pm. Here is the domain of China’s rapidly growing middle class. “Don’t dangle your feet over the bedside here, it pisses the locals off and they’ll swear at you,” Kev warned. Trolleys occasionally trundle down the corridor selling fresh fruit, magazines and instant noodles. Only a couple hours into the journey, people break open their bowls of instant noodles and pour in hot water which is available in each carriage. Soon, the unholy stench of chemical fertiliser fills the air. Being a student living out of home, instant noodles are a staple food for me, so there was something disturbing about instant noodles whose smell made my nose wrinkle.

The seats are for the peasants. They are uncomfortable, messy and smell. They are also shared with the standing class, who end up tangled on the floor during the night. These carriages work on the “you move, you lose” principle – go to the toilet and you’ll find someone has taken your seat. Here the train attendants are gruffer. Brushing against one of them accidentally is enough to earn an earful of admonishments from them.

   

Everyone laughed when we told them we were going to Harbin. When the Beijing locals think Harbin is too cold even for them, you know it has to be some serious frigidity happening up north. On the train up, Eric inquired about the weather to some other passengers. One of them had a piece of wisdom to impart.

“In Harbin, make sure you always carry a pen.”
Eric was puzzled. “A pen?”
“Yes, if you take a piss outside, you’ll need to tap it off,” he answered, making a brushing motion near his crotch.
“Tap what off?” Eric replied incredulously.
“Well, it’s so cold it freezes when it comes out!” The man laughed maniacally.

Four of us, Kev, Cath, Eric and I ended up heading to Harbin – a 12 hour journey. Eric had booked separately from us, so was enjoying a soft sleeper. I was surprised the train up was so full, actually, but then I read that Harbin has a population of almost 10 million. Strange for a city which is further north than Vladivostok and buffeted by arctic Siberian winds during winter. Eric, however, hadn’t yet booked a return ticket. When we pulled into Harbin at 5 in the morning (it was -27ºC), our first duty was to get Eric a return ticket. All tickets to Beijing were sold out… except for hard seat class. He had been unceremoniously downgraded from soft sleeper to peasant class.

When Eric discovered that, he merely said, “I’ll do it.” Eric is hard core in that way. He went around Beijing in just three layers of clothing. He went around Harbin in four, and his jacket was unzipped. Harbin’s daytime temperature at that time of year averages -20ºC.

When we got back to Beijing, Eric had managed to snatch five hours of sleep. Keeping the “you move, you lose” principle in mind, he stayed in his seat the whole time. Along the way he had made conversation with a medical student who was on his way home for the Spring Festival. If you thought Eric had it bad, this guy’s lot was even worse. Home for him was in Kunming, involving a 12 hour train to Beijing and a 15 hour one to Kunming, followed by a two hour bus ride. And this was all with a standing ticket. Well, it wasn’t quite that bad. He was travelling with eight other students. Between them, they had purchased two seats, and took turns sitting. But still.

Jack
We were looked after and led around Beijing by some friendly CUPL postgrad students who had volunteered for the job. It wasn’t until the start of the second week, however, that we got to know them a little better. After an entertaining show given by a Chinese acrobatic troupe, we had dinner in this place which was a sort of combined Mongolian barbeque, Japanese teppanyaki, hotpot and buffet restaurant combined into one. Jack, one of the postgrad students, approached our table with a large mug of beer, sat down, and told us that everyone’s first beer was on the house. So four of us went to claim our beer and to our surprise were handed a whole jug, each. After managing to pass one jug off to a neighbouring table, we were still left with the problem of three jugs to get through. The solution? Drinking games, of course.

We kicked off with a favourite called “Ar Saw Chor”. Kev had taught it to our group a few nights prior and it’s supposed to be an old game Japanese kamikaze pilots used to play to psyche themselves up before flying off. Given the strong anti-Japanese sentiment that still exists among many Chinese after what happened in the last World War, we conveniently omitted this fact when Jack asked us where the game came from. The rules are simple. There are three words which are yelled out: Ar, Saw and Chor. Each word is associated with a hand action. Ar is said with the right hand being brought down once in a karate chopping motion. Saw is the same, but with the left hand. Chor is said with both hands being brought down. Whenever you make the chopping action, you point to another person, and their job is to continue the sequence. So the first person says, “Ar!” and points to another person with their right hand, who then has to shout out, “Saw!” and point to another person with their left hand, and so on. First person to break the sequence by using a wrong hand action, or by thinking too long takes a drink.

It’s pretty fun, and you can really get into it by screaming out the words and trying to go as fast as you can (especially when you get locked into a one-on-one face-off). That we did, and pretty soon the rest of the restaurant was looking at our table wondering what the hell we were doing. Dave, Shan and Jack were the most confused with the game (in that order) and their wits deteriorated rapidly as the night wore on and the beer supply dwindled. Viv was virtually untouchable, astonishingly fending off several concerted “everyone get Vivian” attacks.

The other game we played doesn’t have a name, but it’s Korean and involves pointing chopsticks. Apparently Koreans are renown for the amount of alcohol they can drink and consequently their drinking games are aimed at getting the booze flowing as fast as possible. Everyone sits in a circle. One person gets to call out a number higher than one, and at the same time everyone points at someone else. Then, starting from the person who called out the number, you follow where the chopsticks point and hop from person to person, counting up to the number called out. The person it finally lands on has to drink. That person gets to call out the next number.

When we left the restaurant for a bar, Jack was already off his nut. Jack was in his late 20s and had aspirations of studying law for a stint in McGill University in Montreal. He spoke English well, in a clipped, somewhat nasally accent, rolling his Rs like most Beijingers did. He had a habit of exclaiming “Oh my God!” in such a unique way that everyone imitated him for days afterwards. Fantastic bloke.

As we stumbled out of the restaurant, Jack cried out, “Everyone look! My chi gong is so strong! I can stop a car by holding up my hand!”
“Yes Jack, but only the red ones right?”
“No! I can do black ones too, but it will take more time!”
Just then, a black car rolled past – David noticed it was an unmarked police car and quickly forced Jack’s arm down – “You don’t want to stop that one.”

 

The next day we went out to the many Beijing hotpot restaurants which serve free beer. Jack revealed another one of his many (dubious) talents and started reading people’s palms. Among the various revelations was one that Eric would have two or three girlfriends at one time in his life. He was pretty pleased by this. We were finally forced out of the restaurant when a man on the table next to us, filled with Mafioso-looking types, turned around and told us to “stop speaking English and speak in Chinese so we could be understood”. Given we were the only two tables left, we decided to make our exit. By the time we reached outside, Jack had dredged up another game, one purportedly to test how sober people are. It basically involves making yourself look like a retard and spinning around trying to keep your balance. Eric took up Jack’s challenge and soon both were spinning around to the soundtrack of Eric hollering to himself, “Concentrate Eric! Concentrate!” Eventually, both Eric and Jack ended up flat on their back on the filthy Beijing footpath, desperately trying to make the world stop spinning before their eyes.

Access to Jack’s dorm at the university shuts at 11.30pm and it was past that time. So he ended up spending the night in Eric and David’s hotel room. Not wanting to sleep on the floor, Jack got them to push the two beds together so they could share them. Rumour has it there was a bit of ass grabbing that night.

The Great Race
We went to the Badaling section of the Great Wall, which is heavily trafficked in the summer, but not so much in winter. Seeing it made me realise what sadistic bastards the old Chinese Emperors must have been. The Wall is constructed across the spines and peaks of hills and is incredibly steep in sections. It’s hard enough walking it, let alone having to be the poor peasant building it. Nonetheless, it’s an impressive structure, ducking and weaving its way over the rugged terrain. Crenellations make up one side of the Wall, a defence against the barbarian hordes rampaging from the North. It’s with some measure of irony that China now earns a healthy buck by letting barbarians clamber all over the Wall. Watchtowers are also placed periodically along it, and our destination was the highest one, at 888m.

Only a quarter hour into the walk and not satisfied with simply admiring the views, Jack, Eric and Shan decided to have a race up to the nearest watchtower, which involved a climb up a steep flight of uneven steps. They stripped down to only three layers of clothing (two for Eric), and amidst a set of bemused onlookers and several groups of Japanese tourists yelling “Go for it!”, bolted off. It wasn’t long before the three runners were noticeably fatigued. Shan cramped up and was the first to fall behind. Eric managed to stave off Jack for a while, but was soon overtaken by the seasoned Beijinger, who won the race.

 

When Dave and I got up there, a good five minutes later, the three of them were still struggling to catch their breath. That’s when things started to turn sour. Jack started to feel dizzy, clutching his head and wobbling from side to side. Seconds later, in his usual nothing-fazes-Eric manner, Eric stood up and declared, “I’m okay guys, I’m just going to throw up now.” He staggered over to a nearby bucket, tucked away in the corner, and proceeded to make retching sounds into it. We later discovered that the bucket was actually already full of camel shit which, we were told, smells quite horrendous when it mixes with puke. Five minutes later, Eric was right as rain again. Unfortunately, there weren’t any “I threw up into a bucket of camel shit at the Great Wall of China” t-shirts being sold to commemorate the achievement. Jack recovered after popping a couple Panadols and eventually made it to the top with us.

Unbridled Patriotism
Every sunrise, the People’s Liberation Army conducts a flag raising ceremony at Tiananmen Square. We had to wake up at 5.30am to catch it, and bleary eyed, we made it to Tiananmen an hour later. As soon as we clambered out of the taxi, we were immediately set upon by a group of hawkers trying to sell us postcards, hats and other assorted paraphernalia. At 6.30 in the morning, no less! Tiananmen was fenced off and we were informed by a policeman that it wouldn’t be open for another half hour and were directed to a line of roughly thirty people who were also waiting for admission. By 7.00am, we were shivering in the morning air. The line had swelled to several hundred patriotic Chinese and curious foreigners. They then opened the gates and we were led in by another policeman.

“This is quite orderly,” Dave remarked to me, as the crowd shuffled towards the flagpole. Then the policeman glanced back and snapped, “Hey! No pushing! Stand in line!” There was more jostling and the pace picked up a little. He turned around again and yelled, “I said, don’t push! Walk, don’t run!” but this time he had a slight smirk on his face. I started to feel a bit of pressure from the people behind and had to scramble. Soon the policeman had a wicked grin on his face. “Don’t think I don’t see you! Stop pushing!” As if on cue, the crowd surged forward past him and broke into a run. Shan disappeared into the throng. Eric kept pace alongside me while Dave yelled out, “Stu, I’m right behind you!” hanging grimly on to my backpack. It was chaos.

I guess the only time civil disobedience against the commands of a State official is tolerated is during displays of unbridled patriotism.

By the time we got to the viewing line, we’d managed to get good vantage points and the crowd quickly settled down to wait for dawn. Tiananmen was once again silent, in a surreal contrast to the pandemonium only minutes before. We had to wait another twenty minutes, by which time we had frozen solid again. Soldiers emerged from the entrance to the Forbidden City carrying the flag. Soon it was ascending the pole, accompanied by the 48-second Chinese national anthem (which had to be repeated twice) blaring over loudspeakers. The flag reached the top, the crowd dispersed, and that was that.

 

Court Visit
The Chinese legal system bears little resemblance to English common law systems. The PRC has a Constitution, but everything is different after that. China is not a federalised nation. The whole country is governed by a central government and all provincial and local authorities are completely subservient to it.

The peak legislative body is the National People’s Congress (NPC), run out of the ornate Great Hall of the People which stands on the west side of Tiananmen Square – the equivalent of our Parliament House. Tourists visiting the Great Hall are required to don plastic bags over their shoes to avoid marking the marble floors. Inside are a multitude of artworks, each a gift from China’s provinces. There are also a bunch of reception rooms, one for each province, used to receive dignitaries arriving from their respective provinces. There was one for Taiwan, but the door had been barred up.

The NPC proclaims basic laws which override everything except the Constitution. Further down the hierarchy is the Standing Committee of the NPC, which also proclaims laws, as does the State Council which is a rung further down the ladder. Each province or major city has its own local People’s Congress, which is free to pass regulations that do not conflict with laws made at the national level.

It is when the judicial system is considered that any notion of separation of powers goes out the window. There is no concept of judicial review in China. Courts are not permitted to interpret the Constitution. This means that courts cannot review a law passed by the NPC to see if it conflicts with the Constitution (“ultra vires” in Latinspeak). In fact, the Supreme People’s Court, China’s highest court, can only make judgments and interpretations of laws made by the Standing Committee of the NPC and lower (so long as no interpretation of the Constitution is required). The NPC is effectively a law unto itself. The Constitution is also a “soft” one, modifiable without the manner and form requirements safeguarding Constitutions as we know them.

With regards to judicial independence, a Professor referred us to Li’s Case (2003). It involved a conflict of laws. A regulation concerning seeds passed by the Henan provincial People’s Congress conflicted with a law made at the national level. The judge ruled that the provincial regulation was invalid. She was subsequently removed from her judgeship by local authorities while the NPC took no action.

Nonetheless, China’s ways are slowly changing. The Rule of Law was a recent development in Chinese law and had to be written into the Constitution. While the Professors stressed that theory and practice remain two different things in China, at least recognising these fundamental principles in writing is a start. Contrary to what you might expect, I found the Professors who lectured us were generally quite open-minded. Many had completed an LLM at various ivy league universities, which may be the reason for that.

We had the opportunity to observe a criminal trial in one of Beijing’s intermediate courts. We were all given earpieces and the case was simultaneously interpreted to us. Courtroom procedure is quite foreign. The judge occupies centre stage, as he should, but he is curiously flanked on both sides by two jurors. The prosecutor sits on the left, defence counsel on the right. The defendant takes a seat in the middle, in front of the judge. No one stands to deliver oral submissions.

The case we heard involved a man who was charged with robbery of a Nokia phone. The robbery involved a knife and assault, though I’m not sure if he was charged with that as well. The trial started with the judge interrogating the defendant about various introductory matters – name, age, whether he understood what he was being charged with, and so on. This was followed by the prosecution’s submissions and then the defendant’s submissions.

Peculiarly, there were no witnesses, no procedures for the admission of evidence, no cross-examination… not a trace of anything we learnt (or in my case, failed to learn) in Litigation 2, UNSW’s evidence course. Evidence was only given by the prosecution in the form of pre-recorded witness statements which were read out. And those statements were pretty much second-hand hearsay. The defendant’s counsel delivered a relatively short submission, consisting solely of a few factual objections, such as how one of the prosecution witnesses identified the defendant as wearing a white coat when in fact he was not. The prosecutor gave a short rebuttal, saying that the defendant’s memory was similarly dodgy, therefore her witness’ account should at least be given as much evidential weight as the defendant’s. I gather from this that the concept of burden of proof operates differently in China.

The trial concluded with the verdict to be delivered a week later (so we never found out the outcome).

Astonishingly, despite the formality of the trial, once the legal personnel had left the room, the entire courtroom was suddenly accessible. A few students rushed up to the judge’s bench and began snapping photos. At one point someone even found the judge’s gavel and began waving it about and bellowing, “Order! Order!” before a stenographer or judge’s associate or whoever he was rushed out to confiscate it. After this initial shock (because I don’t think anyone would contemplate doing this in an Australian court room!) I figured it would be the only opportunity I would get to sit in the judge’s chair and tried it out for myself.

Speaking of Crimes…
Beijing is a relatively safe city. Kev and Cath, who had both lived there for some months insisted that women could walk the streets alone. The only warning of crime I got was to watch out for counterfeit notes. If you pay someone using Y100 or Y50 notes, the locals will all inspect the note to make sure it isn’t dodgy. As a foreigner, you have to make sure that when you get change in 100s or 50s that it’s real money. There are several security features which are used to determine this: (1) there should be texture when you rub Mao’s collar; (2) there should be a metallic thread through the middle of the note; (3) there should be a watermark of Mao in the white space of the note; and (4) certain numbers should be printed in a metallic ink.

Eric was the first to come across the phenomenon on our second last day in China. Having bargained a North Face jacket down to Y120, he handed over some cash to pay for it, including a Y100 bill. Something happened and the sale didn’t go through, but Eric noticed that the hawker had swapped his 100 for another. Sure enough, upon closer inspection back on the bus, it was reasonably clear it was a counterfeit (the watermark was printed on and the colours were too vibrant).

Later that night, we went out to karaoke (where, I should add, the standout singers were Sandra and Viv). Soon after word spread around that Jess had somehow managed to get a date with a local working at the k-bar, the night went downhill. Someone else had fallen prey to a taxi driver who had passed them two fake 50s. Another person discovered that their hotel luggage had been rifled through and had lost Y300. Another person was informed that one of their grandparents had passed away. It was like Beijing knew we were leaving and all the seedy elements had decided to crawl out and have their way with us.

 

Commercial Law in China
One afternoon saw us take a visit to De Heng, China’s biggest local law firm. Unfortunately for them, it was a visit that didn’t impress. The lawyer sent out to talk about the firm spoke poorly, didn’t seem to understand the point of the questions we asked him (the few that there were), and even answered his mobile phone which went off in the middle of his speech. Given his audience, a bunch of undergraduate law students who would soon be applying for vacation clerkships, it didn’t help that he emphasised that De Heng primarily dealt with local Chinese firms. You could almost hear the sound of everyone tuning out, seeing no relevance in learning about this firm. We also had a five minute floor tour, during which nothing was explained to us and where I saw an abnormal amount of staff who all seemed to be checking their e-mail on Yahoo!.

De Heng has around 500 practising lawyers spread around the world. It’s an interesting statistic. The big six Aussie firms have somewhere in the range of 1000 lawyers each. When you consider that China’s population is 65 times Australia’s, that their GDP ranks them seventh in the world and is growing at around 9% per year, there must be some reason for the scarcity of lawyers in China. I never found out what the reason was, but I speculate it’s a mixture of the history of their newish legal system and the way they culturally handle disputes.

On the other hand, one of the morning lectures we had on trade law was conducted by two partners from the international US law firm Jones Day. The lecture was meant to be on trade law, but a bunch of career-minded fourth years managed to change the topic to legal careers. Ashley Howlett, one of the partners, kindly obliged and gave us an interesting talk.

Originally a New Zealander, Ash had spent most of the last decade acting in prominent property and construction matters across Asia. He told us that if we wanted truly international legal work – true cross-border work – we needed to join either a US white shoe firm, or a UK magic circle one. Unfortunately, while he held great respect for the top tier Aussie firms, they are ultimately minnows in the global playing field. He expected the industry to undergo consolidation so that all the major legal work in the world would go to around a dozen firms (composed of 7-8 US and 4-5 UK ones).

For Australians, getting into a US firm is difficult due to the requirements of having a US JD degree and to be admitted in a US State. It didn’t help when Ash said, “We accept grads from the top law schools, such as Harvard, Yale, Oxford.” We were hoping that he’d add, “and UNSW,” at least to give us a little face, but he didn’t.

UK firms are easier to get into. Unfortunately, Australian firms are very competent and there is an oversupply of lawyers in Australia. The result is that there is little room left for international firms to set up shop here (exceptions are Bakers and Coudert Bros). In order to work in UK firm, Aussies have to travel overseas. The most convenient way to get into a magic circle firm is via Hong Kong, which suited most of the people at the lecture who were Honkies anyway. Personally, I don’t speak anything but English, so that essentially bars me from that route. I asked Ash if there was any other way in for people like me, and he basically said that the Asian offices in a firm like his would look for one of two things: language skills or experience (or both). “Get a good job in Australia and try in a few years,” he recommended. “Maybe learn Chinese, because when you get to my age, it isn’t so easy anymore.”

12
Jan 05
Wed

Quickie Site Update

Internet seems to be having trouble accessing Gmail, so no e-mail replies for now unfortunately. It’s been a good few days. Very tiring as usual, but I’m gradually adjusting to the schedule and, surprisingly, the weather. Kev helped me to pick up this imitation North Face jacket from some local market for 200 yuan. If it’s imitation, I can’t tell because it’s keeping me nice and warm.

Went to Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the National People’s Congress today. Gotta run, maybe more later.

5
Jan 05
Wed

Beijing Itinerary

Almost there… I’m leaving on Saturday for Beijing where UNSW is holding a summer session elective called “Chinese Legal System” there. Yes, it’s conducted in English. Yes, China has a legal system. Here’s the timetable:
 

  Morning Afternoon
Mon 10 Chinese Legal System overview Australian Embassy visit
Tue 11 Constitutional Law The Forbidden City
Wed 12 Tiananmen Square
The Great Hall of the People
Yonghe Lamasery
Temple of Heaven
Thu 13 Intellectual Property Law Field trip to State IP Bureau
Acrobat show
Fri 14 Contract Law Great Wall, Ice Lamp Park
Sat 15 Harbin
Sun 16 Harbin
Mon 17 Foreign Investment Law Law firm visit
Tue 18 Corporate and Securities Law Court visit
Wed 19 China’s Foreign Trade Law Ming Tombs & CUPL’s new campus
Thu 20 Mediation, arbitration and civil enforcement procedures Summer Palace
Farewell Banquet
Fri 21 Free Free
Sat 22 Free Depart Bejing

 
Should be fun, although the main thing to be worried about is the temperature. This was showing on the firm’s intranet today:

Ouch

That’s like, a 38 degree difference. I’m so going to get sick. On the weekend I’m meeting up with Kev and Cath who are bungling me on a 13-hour overnight train trip with them up to Harbin. Harbin is way up north. In fact, it’s further north than Vladivostok, which is a notoriously cold Russian city. I’ve been warned of sub-negative-20 degree temperatures there. I’m so going to die. Nonetheless, the Ice Festival in Harbin looks amazing (although when they light it up at night it looks pretty cheesy).

Interestingly, by the end of the trip I’ll know more about Chinese IP, Foreign Investment, Corporate and Trade law than Australia’s. Not hard, since I know nothing about those Australian laws.

There’s also a 3.5 hour transit in Singapore on the way there. My sprightly Aunt Carol has been kind enough to take us for a quick late night snack while we’re there, a welcome respite from airline food. Apparently the cuisine in Beijing leaves a lot to be desired.

28
Oct 04
Thu

E-Mail from China

Spending six or 12 months in China seems to be popular these days and it’s always interesting to hear about people’s adventures abroad. I thought this latest e-mail from Kev was highly entertaining:

I went to Pingyao last weekend, which required a 13 hour overnight train from Beijing. Pingyao is a small city with a population of only 50,000 and is the only city in China with a fully intact Ming dynasty wall.

The train trip was pretty memorable. Last week in Chinese class, I quizzed the teacher on Chinese swear words. He was actually quite willing, even when I asked him to grade different words in terms of severity. If you haven’t heard before, “Dongxi” means “things” in Chinese. You can refer to just about anything as “Dongxi”, except people. If you say to someone “Ni bu shi dongxi” or “Ni meiyou shenme dongxi” this means something to the tune of “You’re worth nothing” or “You’re a piece of shit”. My teacher told me it was a ‘cultured’ way of swearing, if there is such a thing. The only more ‘lihai’ or stronger way of swearing is “Cao ni”, which is literally “F–k you”.

Chinese trains have 3 or 4 different classes – “Hard seat”, where the peasants congregate. If you land a hard seat and it’s an overnight train there is no way you will get to sleep because the peasants will be drooling, spitting and smoking all over you. “Hard sleeper” (what we usually get) and “Soft sleeper” – luxury class. In hard sleeper you usually have middle class Chinese. Train trips are good for learning Chinese because most Chinese talk with anybody while on the train, better still if it’s a novel foreigner. In Hard sleeper each section has six beds – 3 beds on opposite sides: 2 on the top, 2 on the middle and 2 on the bottom. The middle-aged guy below me in the middle bunk was dressed quite smartly in a relatively modern suit. Unfortunately this belied his real self.

The bastard started smoking just after the lights were turned off – you’re not allowed to smoke in hard sleeper. Passive smoking is accentuated because of the poor ventilation in the trains. C told him off and he was actually quite apologetic and he put out his cigarette. However later on he lit up again, by then I was in a semi-sleep state and in no mood to do anything about his selfish behaviour – you can’t teach a dumb dog new tricks. In the morning while he was preparing to get off the train (his stop was before ours), the peasant had the brilliant idea of burning his plastic drink bottle and then he started smoking again. This time C again politely asked him to stop smoking. He defended himself, saying he was getting off the train and basically told her to piss off. I chipped in and in my sternest voice said “Ni mei you wenhua. Ni bu shi dongxi.” “You’re uncultured. You’re worth nothing.” He fixed his eyes on me, they looked like they were about to pop out and the veins on his bald head suddenly bulged. For clarity, I repeated what I said: “Ni mei you shenme dongxi.” The inevitable tirade exploded out of his mouth: “Cao ni ma! Tamade! Cao ni ma! Cao ni ma!” Translation: “Fuck your mother! Fuck! Fuck your mother! Fuck your mother!” By this time a small crowd had gathered in our part of the train, bemused by the slanging match, and providing their own commentary on the situation. If he had continued he probably would have started frothing at the mouth, but his wife quickly bundled him out of the train. It was satisfying to get him so angry and worked up.

Our 2 other friends were in the compartment next door and thought I was just practising and learning swear words with locals and didn’t realise that it was serious. In any case, it was good practice.

This incident is not too dissimilar to when we were in Kathmandu and trying to buy stamps. The store clerk (the store was basically a closet-sized booth), a mangy, dodgy Nepalese man, told us there was a commission being charged on stamps and demanded a price about 25% above the face value of them. We were incredulous. When our tour guide, Dorgi, caught up with us, he said he had never heard of commissions being charged on stamps before. The clerk refused to budge, and then Kev, finally letting his annoyance loose, dispensed with the broken English you use when you’re trying to speak with someone who isn’t very fluent in English, and dressed him down with a rapid torrent of insults: “Mate, you know what you are? You’re nothing. You’re nothing, mate. You’re bullshit.” While the clerk was still trying to translate what he had said, we promptly stormed out. We found the stamps elsewhere, no commission.

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6
Aug 04
Fri

Sydney’s Mini-Amazing Race

Last week on Saturday Kev and I participated in a race confined in Sydney, loosely based on The Amazing Race. It was a blast. I was going to keep a live update of things as the day progressed, but it turned out to be too hectic.

The day started with 30 teams of two at Concord West station trying to answer a 10 question IQ test to get the first clue for the race. After a few minutes, we dashed off looking for a tea house in Bicentennial Park where another 3 IQ test questions were waiting for us. The next clue was to go through the venue of the Olympics to find five checkpoints. At each of the checkpoints was a letter, which when combined, spelt out the name of a street in Newington. It was a strange sight watching pairs of people puffing and panting through the streets around Stadium Australia looking under seats and ledges for these letters. I myself discovered how incredibly unfit I was (which proved to be a large liability) as we ironically made our way through avenues named after Olympic athletes.

Finding all the letters, our next destination was about 2km away in Newington. We went to the nearest bus stop and only had to wait about 5 minutes before the bus arrived. It was there we bumped into four friends who had got on the bus at an earlier stop (I’ll just call them the quartet for ease of reference). It turned out that despite our best efforts at getting ahead, we’d see a lot more of them in the upcoming hours. On the way to Newington we passed a fair number of teams who were walking(!) all the way and the expression on their face as they watched us fly by in air-conditioned comfort was priceless.

We got to Newington, but had trouble finding the exact street due to a mislabelled map they had provided. We ended up in some weird cul-de-sac and had to squeeze through some fencework to escape (getting shouted at by some irate householder in the process). We managed to evade the quartet and found the clue some 10 minutes ahead of them. The next clue sent us back the way we came to climb up some spiral walking structure where out next clue told us to make our way to the Homebush ferry terminal, a good 3km walk from the spiral structure.

It was at this point that we made a fatal error in decision that saw us lose a whole hour on the leaders. Basically, we started up Hill Rd which led directly up to the ferry terminal, looking for a bus stop that was supposed to be ahead. After about 10 minutes of walking, we couldn’t find it. It was noon at that stage. The ferry left 20 minutes past the hour, every hour. Stuck in a dilemma whether to keep walking or not, we decided to double back and high tail it to an earlier bus stop. After the waste of 15 minutes, we arrived back at the spiral structure and bumped into the quartet (thereby losing the lead we’d opened up over them). To make matters worse, we’d just missed the bus, and were forced to wait 25 minutes for the next one.

Eventually we arrived at the ferry terminal at 1pm, conscious of the fact that some groups had managed to catch the 12.20pm ferry (putting them an hour ahead). At the terminal, groups were forced to face off which each other in games of memory and win before being allowed to progress to the next stop, which was Central Station in the city. It would have been quicker to catch a bus to Lidcombe and then a quick train into Central, but as luck would have it, the next bus back to Lidcombe was at least another half hour, and the ferry was already there. There was a major pooling of teams at the station that got on the 1.20pm ferry, which would take an hour to make its way to Circular Quay, but the ferry was a nice chance to recuperate and eat.

The ferry terminated at Circular Quay, but 10 minutes before that would stop in Darling Harbour. We made a last minute decision to get off at Darling Harbour and run for Wynyard station, which we were wagering we could reach in under 10 minutes. We bolted off the wharf, Kev almost taking out a little kid in the process, and ran puffing and panting to Wynyard. The quartet had meanwhile decided to go somewhere else. When we got to Central we found the quartet had somehow managed to beat us there by a short margin. The next clue sent us to the Powerhouse museum. There, a queue formed whereby groups, one at a time, were forced to solve either a chess puzzle or a tangram puzzle before being allowed to continue. It had a weird effect of forcing time splits between groups. Frustratingly, the quartet had got there ahead of us and had monopolised both chess and tangram puzzles. Kev and I made short work of the chess puzzles and staggered off to the Belmore Park checkpoint (that is, the bastards sent us all the way back to Central Station!). We had somehow managed to get ahead of the quartet again by that stage.

It was about 2pm and the next task was to get up to Myer and take down prices of some computer hardware and software. We managed to catch a bus on Elizabeth St which took us uptown. On Level 6 of Myer, we gathered up the prices under the watchful eyes of the sales staff who were bewildered at why these teams had been coming through the store for the last hour looking for prices of the same objects. We hit a snag trying to find this piece of software called “Kingsoft Powerword” but found a saleswoman who had the whole price list all written out for us. It turns out another team, in a stoke of genius, had decided to phone into Myer and get the prices over the phone, saving them the trip up there. We left the store at the same time as the quartet, headed for the Uni of NSW, the next checkpoint.

By this time fatigue was beginning to set in in a major way. As we ran out the store onto Market St, my left calf cramped up. So there I was, pulled up in the middle of the footpath with people streaming around me, clutching my calf in absolute agony. I stumbled forward a couple steps and my right calf proceeded to cramp. Kev, now 30 metres ahead, turned around to see what the delay was. I had to take a couple minutes to stretch my legs out and limped off for the bus stop.

When we got back to Elizabeth St, we sighted the bus across the road and we had to run for it again. Thankfully I didn’t cramp up. I made it onto the bus, looked behind, only to see Kev 20 metres behind, himself having cramped up.

Then the bus driver shut the doors behind me and hit the gas.

I had to scream out, pleading the bus driver to stop and open the doors again, which he luckily did. Kev had to half-hobble, half-drag himself onto the bus.

We got to uni at 3.30pm. The quartet pulls up in the bus behind us and pips us to the next checkpoint yet again. We had to then balance a ping-pong ball on a spoon while walking up the uni walkway. Then it was up to the Barker St carpark to count the number of car spaces on level 3. My quadricep cramped up on the way there.

The next task was to find a volume of the “British Ship Research Association Journal”. We stepped out of the lift on level 7 (where the journals are) just in time to see the quartet coming down the stairs from level 8 (the express lift stops from level 8 upwards). It was getting eerie how they seemed to get to places at about the same time we did, despite having taken different routes.

The final checkpoint was down on Coogee Beach and thus began our final dash for the finish line. A bus was the plan, but the question is, what bus? It was here that Kev, in what can only be described as an inspirational stroke of genius, decided to head for the bus stop outside the Ritz. This was an unorthodox move, because the closest bus stop to uni that went to Coogee was 2 minutes away, whereas the one at the Ritz would take at 15 minutes of walking to go to, and we were in bad shape for walking.

We timed our run well and the bus came just as we got to the bus stop. As it pulled up alongside Coogee Beach, we stepped off with bated breath… and sighed with relief when we realised the quartet was nowhere to be seen. They had taken the orthodox route and had unfortunately missed the bus down to Coogee by a matter of minutes, and were forced to wait a half hour for the next one.

In the end we placed a mediocre 12th from 30 teams, an hour behind the leaders, but it was a terrific experience and something I’d definitely do again next year. I just have to make sure I’m a lot fitter next time!

14
Jul 04
Wed

Of Faraway Places…

Just making brief mention of two travel sites: Dan’s (SE Asia) and WaD’s (Europe).

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11
Mar 04
Thu

North Pole, Solo

Hey mate, an interesting story.

http://observer.guardian.co.uk/magazine/story/0,11913,1157082,00.html

http://www.bensaunders.com/equipment

I tend to be desensitised to these sorts of achievements, you hear about them more and more? But apparently what this guy’s attempting has never been done before.

Thanks Pete!

27
Jan 04
Tue

Melbourne Trip & Aussie Open

Melbourne was fun, although the train ride down was not. The overnight XPT from Sydney Central to Melbourne’s Spencer St Station takes ten hours. Seeing that it was currently the middle of Summer, and keeping in mind the infamous 40ºC temperatures that seem to afflict the Australian Open each year, I didn’t pack a jumper. The train, unfortunately, had its air conditioning set at full blast, and the result was a sleepless, frigid night where I observed the train stopping at a variety of country stations at odd hours such as 3 and 4am. Upon debarkation, Melbourne greeted me with sub-20 degree weather and I was immediately familiarised with why they say the city is renown for its four seasons in one day.

I had accommodation with Andrew in a well-located serviced apartment on Bourke St, in the heart of the CBD. Melbournians, engaging in the traditional Sydney-Melbourne rivalry, have touted their city as much more trendy and happening than Sydney. I can probably concede that Melbourne fashion is better (if only because they need well-stocked wardrobes to deal with the temperamental weather changes). It may have been the long weekend, but Melbourne is a lot quieter that Sydney. Shops seem to have even shorter opening hours (we couldn’t find a decent cafe open on Sunday morning), and the footpath traffic is light. And of course the scenery alongside the Yarra can’t compare with the backdrop offered by Sydney Harbour.

The first thing we did was try to find a jumper for me to buy. We entered Myer but couldn’t find anything suitable to buy. Strangely, not many jumpers were being sold – I know it was mid-Summer, but most of the locals were wearing jackets and jumpers. No matter, because by the time we emerged from the store, the sun had broken through the clouds and the temperature shot up.

We spent the first day sight-seeing the CBD – the Rialto tower has an observation deck where you can look down upon Melbourne. From there we made our way down to Crown Casino (which dwarfs Star City), where, after a couple hours, we won our dinner money. We then walked to Federation Square, where they were showing the tennis live on a large screen, and afterwards to Rod Laver Arena and its surrounds.

Caught Lost In Translation at KinoDendy on Collins St at night. I loved it. I have this considerable fascination with the peculiarities of modern Japanese culture and the movie did a great job of sending them up and inflicting them upon a hapless Bill Murray. The film, as its title suggests, basically shows how foreign cultures can be as baffling as customs and actions in our own Western society, especially when they come to relationships. It’s funny and thoroughly entertaining.

The next day we went to the Australian Open. Saw Mauresmo vs Molik, Davenport vs Zvonareva, Agassi vs Srichaphan, Roddick vs Schalken and a bit of Grosjean vs Ginepri. I’ve never watched tennis live, and you get a real appreciation for just how hard they whack the ball around, and how fast Roddick’s 220kph serves are.

Agassi vs Srichaphan
Click here for more photos

I was approached a few times by groundstaff who sought assurances that I wasn’t going to use more than 200mm zoom on my camera, so just be careful if you turn up with a huge lens, because you won’t be able to use it if they catch you (but it is pretty hard for them to catch you once you’re actually at your seat).

The following day was Australia Day. Wave graciously took Andrew and I for a drive along the Great Ocean Road. She came at around 7.30am, so we had to be back in about 12 hours for my train back to Sydney. It’s a nice, meandering drive out to the West. The road mostly follows the coastline, edged continually by the ocean, beaches and sheer cliffs. We first stopped for a morning snack at a joint called Andrew’s in a small town that I can’t remember the name of. By coincidence, we ate lunch at a restaurant called Waves (yes, chosen because it was Wave’s namesake) which had decent food but non-existent service. We reached the first vantage point overlooking the 12 Apostles shortly after noon, followed by the other rock formations – The Arch, The Grotto, and the famous London Bridge, which before the 1990s, was a double arched outstretch of rock. Giving it that name obviously cursed it, because one of the arches collapsed one night, stranding two people on the newly-formed island who had to be rescued by helicopter.

On the return journey we had dinner at a shop in Geelong called Gilligan’s (too bad my name isn’t Gilligan, that would have completed the trifecta), which was described by Wave to sell “the best fish and chips in Melbourne”. I must say, she was right on the mark with that one. I don’t even think I’ve found a better place in Sydney for them. Photos here.

2
Jan 04
Fri

Quick Update

Stopped by McDonald’s after a seafood dinner on the East Coast and ended up in Maccas for a coffee of all places. It’s next to a rollerblading track so they have a separate line for bladers to order (a “skate-thru” so the sign says). Apart from this, there’s Internet access, mcfish dippers (fish nuggets) with wasabi sauce, lime juice and some very nice cars in the parking lot. Where else would you see a Ferrari, Porsche, Maserati and a bunch of Jags in a Maccas carpark? I’ve been dragged off to Malacca tomorrow with the family for what I predict will be a couple of boring days… I need to find more people around my age in this country!

28
Dec 03
Sun

Update

Travelling with the extended family is definitely no where near as enjoyable as travelling with friends. No lucky buddha this year (although my aunt experienced the early openings of the buddha scam when she was told that Pantip Plaza was shut for the day, despite me being at the Plaza at that same time). Nonetheless, I do have a couple tales to spin when I get a little more time to do a write-up.

Came back from a damn good week in KL to Singapore for a couple days before heading off to Bangkok. We bought a Canon EOS 300D at Sim Lim Square for about a grand and a half. Also ordered in another compact flash card, an external speedlite flash and an f/1.4 lens. It’s sound, and importantly, a quite affordable digital SLR cam.

Last day in Hat Yai today, flying back to Singapore for New Year’s tomorrow arvo. Been a pretty lazy holiday. A good half dozen or so two hour massages will do that! In the meantime, you can check out Wade’s site – his itinerary was fairly similar to mine.

14
Dec 03
Sun

Update

Taken ill with a cold or flu or something. Sucks. Don’t feel like typing much, so here’s some pictures.

Other photos:
- Bowling
- Bowling Scores
- Bukit Damansara Mansions
- Justin the Clown at 1 Utama
- Jee Jen the Clown at 1 Utama

12
Dec 03
Fri

A Few Spare Moments

Last night’s expenditure? Char Kway Teow: 3 RM, Ice Kachang: 1.80 RM, Sugar Cane Drink: 1 RM, Longan Drink: 1 RM, Red Bean Ice Block: Free, Snooker game: 2 RM, Pool & Foosball: 3 RM, Mahkei: 7 RM. Total spend: ~A$6.70.

Played a bit of volleyball today where I totally humiliated myself. I hate that game.


At the Volleyball Court

Other miscellaneous pics from today
- 1: Jee Jen spikes at Eadwine
- 2: More Volleyball

10
Dec 03
Wed

The Runs

The flight up was relatively uneventful. There must have been an entire French army platoon on board – a whole horde of head shaven, buff guys with matching khaki backpacks scattered through most of economy class. Luckily, I wasn’t seated amongst them. Surprisingly, very few Aussies and Asians were on board. Most were Europeans on their way through to Frankfurt, or transferring back to Paris or London via Singapore.

I was seated next to two Sydneysiders, both also coincidentally travelling alone, who helped pass the time with conversation. Katie was a 17 year old PLC Pymble student on her way to Germany for seven weeks. Extremely chatty and somewhat jaded about the whole HSC deal which she will go through next year. She had no idea what she wanted to study in uni, which is not unusual at all. However, she’s studying Italian and German for the HSC, so something makes me think she’ll end up studying Arts. Pretty typical North Shore girl too, whose idea of being rich is (only) if you own a yacht. Nick was a Westie who finished high school at Hurlstone Ag in 2000 and is studying Biomolecular Chemistry (or something that sounds similarly impressive) at Sydney U. He was surprised I knew where Hurlstone was, and sniggered when I told him I was from Camden (even further West than him!) and sniggered even more when I told him where I went to high school. “If you lived that far away, why didn’t you board? … Ohhh, that’s right, the boarders don’t have a good reputation, do they?” He was on his way to Malaysia and Thailand for about a month, with an itinerary very similar to mine.

We were served by a steward (flight attendant?) improbably named Craig David. There must have been a lot of Europeans on board, because Craig expressed surprise and relief when he asked if Katie was from Australia. “Phew, I don’t have to keep talking so damn slow! Would you like the beef or the chicken?”

Turning to me, he asked if I was from Singapore, and expressed even more surprise when I told him otherwise. I could pretty much tell that Nick and Katie were Australians as soon as they spoke a single word of “thanks” (the “th” dipthong in the word is normally lazily contracted to “f” by Asians, and Europeans say the word with a skewed inflection). I find that accents are the easiest way – and a reasonably reliable way too – to tell where a person originates from. Mixed accents indicate a person was born in one place and grew up in another.

Anyhow, after a five hour bus trip, I’m finally in KL enjoying the hospitality of the Kepa. I’m not just relaxing after lunch (A$0.80 for a plate of mee goreng!), where the chilli is slowly burning a hole in my gut. Apparently I finally get to meet photographer extraordinaire Eadwine, and his girlfriend Ee Laine tonight. (What is it with Asians and spelling names differently?)

9
Dec 03
Tue

Leaving

Just making my customary Sydney airport departure post. These internet terminals are abysmally slow.

Exchange Rates

On 10 Dec 2002, AUD $1 bought:
- 1.00 Singaporean Dollar
- 24.54 Thai Baht
- 2.15 Malaysian Ringgit
- 0.564 US Dollars

On 10 Dec 2003, AUD $1 buys:
- 1.27 Singaporean Dollar (+27%)
- 29.57 Thai Baht (+20%)
- 2.81 Malaysian Ringgit (+31%)
- 0.742 US Dollars (+32%)

From the sub-50 US cent rates we were getting 2 years ago, strong appreciation of the Aussie over this year means that it is good to be an Australian tourist once more (and not a farmer). Exchange rates from Oanda (taken at the interbank rate).

8
Jun 03
Sun

25% Return Tickets to Singapore

Return SIA tickets from Sydney-Singapore, including 2 nights hotel accommodation from only A$340. Bargain. Travel must occur before end of August. Singapore is desparately trying to give their tourism industry an adrenaline shot after being cleared of SARS.

12
Apr 03
Sat

Hong Kong Tourism

Oops. Unfortunate timing for this Hong Kong tourism ad campaign.

7
Apr 03
Mon

Life After Tyranny

Simon Bone’s site is a collection of travel writings where he’s visited some of the more undemocratically governed nations of the world. His account of North Korea is particularly interesting (5 years old).

9
Jan 03
Thu

Trip Roundup

I got a bit tied up when I came home with things, but now that I’m free again, I’ll finish writing about the trip. This will be a big post.

The 26th: Caveat Emptor
Kicked off the day with breakfast with Amy and her mum. In another one of those “degrees of separation” trackbacks I’m so fond of, Gerald and I both know Amy through two different routes. With Gerald, she’s a schoolmate’s cousin. With me, I first met her when she was the year 12 formal partner of a schoolmate of mine, which eventuated because she went to his sister’s school. Coincidentally, she’s also in the same dragonboat team as me now. Tangled web, eh.

The rest of the day was spent shopping for a digital camera. Let me say upfront that, if you are buying a digital camera in Hong Kong, be careful. My main requirement for a new digicam was that it should be able to fit in my pocket. After research, my original intentions were to buy a Canon Digital Ixus v3 – compact, well featured, good quality and 3.2 megapixels (RRP is A$1000, best price in Oz: A$820). We found one shop selling it in the high HK$2000s (about A$700), so that was a decent deal. But then we sighted the Olympus C-50 Zoom going for HK$3500 (A$815). It was a compact, a centimetre fatter and wider than the Canon, but still decently sized. Its main selling point was that it was 5 megapixels. I knew nothing about the model, so I went back to the hotel, jumped on the net and did a bit of reading. The C-50 retails for US$800, received positive reviews and had most of the features I wanted, so the Olympus it was.

The first strange thing we came across was the selling price of the digicam. Up and down Kowloon, from Mong Kok to Tsim Sha Tsui we asked for the digicam (with an international warranty). Prices ranged from HK$3500 to HK$4900. About 20 shops later, we were still clueless as to the reason for a A$300 price difference. And we were getting annoyed that we had to ask for a price at most of the stores, because it’s common practice to not stick price tags on goods. We came across a camera shop on a street parallel to Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui. After a quick round of bargaining, we underwent price-shock: the digicams were being offered to us at HK$3180 a piece. Out came our credit cards and down went our signatures on the dotted lines. We had to wait 20 minutes for them to retrieve stock from their warehouse, so the salesman took us into a small room to teach us how to use the camera. That’s when things started to happen.

A perhaps not so well known sales tactic, but a common one nonetheless, is a modified bait and switch trick. You go into a store wanting to buy one thing, but you come out with something different because the store has convinced you to buy something else. They rope you in with a low price on your original item, show you it, then dissuade you from buying it, switching you to a “better” model which has a much higher profit margin. Only it’s not really illegal, because in bait-and-switch advertising, the bait is “out of stock” or “not for sale”, but these HK merchants are still willing to sell you the goods you originally wanted.

So, the onus is on the salesman to switch you onto a different product – which isn’t going to be easy, right? The incredible thing about this is that this can happen without you realising it, even if you are aware of the tactic, which I was fully (garnered from dad’s tales of his shopping experiences in HK a decade ago, and from my shopping experiences 3 years ago). I don’t know if it is the skill of the salesman, or the stupidity of the customer, but the relative ease of which they can start to make you hesitate about buying the camera that you spent hours researching on the net, reading through impartial reviews and opinions, and begin considering the model that they, a party with a huge vested interest and bias, are recommending – of which you have next to zero knowledge – is very troubling.

I know my technology. I was very well informed when it came to the compact digital camera market at that time. I knew about bait-and-switch, and yet, they almost managed to do the switch on us. Almost.

There was something a little different and dodgy about this camera store. The guy had taken us into the room with the Olympus and had already started to bad mouth its quality. Here we go again, I thought. He snapped a couple shots, and stuck them up on the TV. We were agape. The quality was pretty cruddy. Washed out, faded, slightly blurred photos. He brought in a Nikon CP5700 for comparison (Gerald already owns a 5000, so he wasn’t trying to push the 5700 on us). No contest, the pictures were much better. We knew the CP5700 was a class above the C-50, but the picture quality on the Olympus was way, way below par. At this point, doubt started to enter our minds.

We were beginning to doubt the quality of the Olympus. Despite all its glowing reviews, here we were seeing its image quality, which was quite frankly, crap. Surely the reviews would have picked up on this? Or maybe this is just how the camera is? What on earth was going on? Our camera hadn’t arrived from the warehouse yet. Alternatives?

“Here, have a look at this Fujifilm’s quality. This F402 is 4 megapixels.” (Although he neglected to mention it was an interpolated resolution.) We sat and compared the Fuji’s quality to the Olympus, and it won hands down. Now we were worried. After extolling the virtues of the Fuji F402 for a few minutes, the next sentence jolted me back into reality: “This camera sells for HK$5000, but I’ll do it to you for HK$4500.” He was doing the switch. At this point I shut up and was adamant in not considering the F402. Gerald, on the other hand was beginning to get drawn in. Blood in the water. The salesman started to focus all his attention on him.

I had to pull Gerald out of his spiral, so I said that regardless of the quality, we can sell the Olympus back in Australia new for 75% of its Aus RRP, and still make a profit. All good. Then, second shock. “Erm, this model you are buying – it is Japanese. The camera menus, and manuals, in Japanese.” Shit. What the hell were we supposed to do with a Japanese version of the camera? We couldn’t use it without obvious difficulties, let alone resell it back in Australia!

“Never mind, how hard can a camera be to use, huh?” the shark said, smiling wryly at us. “By the way, the Fujifilm is in English.” We were in a rut. I stuck to my guns with the Olympus, but was starting to panic inside. The shark dropped the price on the F402 to HK$4200. Gerald paused, then started talking in a Anglo-Cantonese (swapping between English and Cantonese):

“Look, we’ll duck back to our hotel and check out the Fuji’s price, then return and buy it if it’s better.”
“No, don’t waste your time. Wait until your C-50 comes, then go back to your hotel room, check, and come back.”
“No no, we’re not doing anything now, we might as well check now.”
“Oh what, don’t you trust me?” he retorted.
“No, it’s not that…”
“You’ve seen our discount over Australia on the Olympus, the discount on the Canon will be similar!”
“But… I’d like to check back at the hotel still–”
“– you don’t trust me?! Look if you are going to be like that and not trust me, I won’t even sell it to you at $4200!”
“No need, no need, I trust you.”

Meanwhile, I was figuring out if I could get out of the deal altogether. Otherwise, we were going to get burnt bad, one way or the other. I received an SMS from Dad saying he wanted to meet up at the Timberland store. In the next few minutes, a miracle occurred. I asked Gerald whether it was possible to back out of a deal even though we had signed. My reasoning was that we hadn’t taken delivery of the goods yet. With online retailers, you can cancel orders even after authorising payment, so it is possible, but I wasn’t aware whether it is a consumer right to be able to cancel orders before delivery (any lawyers out there that can answer this for me?). Gerald spoke again, “My cousin wants to cancel his order.”
“Huh, why?” he said, turning to me. Think fast, think fast.

“Because you are scum and are ripping us off.” Nope, can’t use that one.
“Because you are a person of questionable parentage and I’ve changed my mind.” Nup, not that one either.
“Ummm… my Dad just SMSed me. He has been looking for a camera and just bought one without um… giving me warning. He’s on Hong Kong island… so uh, I don’t need to buy a camera anymore.” Oh wait, did I say that one aloud? I guess that will have to do.

In an amazing event, which I’m still not sure of why it happened, he asked Gerald if he wanted to cancel his order too, and then… complied. He didn’t get angry, or anything. He gave us back our credit card slip (all 3 copies) and tore them up (thank goodness they weren’t using electronic transacting). We exited, extremely relieved to come out of that ordeal without loss, putting our faith in American Express’ card fraud protection program. Over the next few hours, we tried to figure out what the fark happened, piecing together the puzzle bit by bit.

Step 1: We tested the Olympus at a few more stores. The picture quality was much, much better. We suspect the C-50 we were looking at in the scam store was either a pre-production model, or had been tampered with for bait-and-switch purposes. Our faith in the C-50 was reaffirmed.
Step 2: We checked the price of the Fujifilm F402 digicam. The first store we checked at had a price tag on the camera. It read HK$2500. Ouch.
Step 3: We started specifying “international model, not the Japanese model” when asking for prices. The prices jumped up to the low HK$4000s. (Japanese stock, “soi forr” is reasonably common in HK. It’s cheaper, but everything’s in Japanese, including the 110 volt power requirements.)
Step 4: We revisited the 30 plus stores we’d previously gone to and started specifying “full package, including battery charger, remote, English manual, international warranty and international model” when asking for prices. The prices were revised again and rocketed to high HK$4000s.

Bingo! That’s what was different. We’d been shopping in the past two days for different camera models and packages, and not a single salesman in any store had mentioned anything about differences.

I ended up buying my Olympus in Singapore.

The 27th
Caught up with Lill (Aussie, HK-born) over lunch, one of the topics of conversation being a complaint of how she didn’t manage to get around to straightening her hair because it would have taken 6 hours and few hundred bucks (in contrast, my A$3, 20 minute haircut in Thailand was surprisingly decent). After lunch, we went digicam shopping AGAIN, but this time for a Canon D-60 (mmm, very nice) for her boyfriend, which she ended up purchasing the next day.

Went to the HK Museum of History, where they had recently opened an exhibition on the history of HK. We’d walked through the whole floor, when the announcement came that the museum was closing in 15 minutes. Then we realised that there was another half of the exhibition that was on the 2nd floor. Oops. We had to run through all the interesting bits.

The 28th
Met up with Kit (Aussie, HK-born). Bummed around the whole day. Tried to catch an afternoon session of Infernal Affairs on HK island, only to find that if you book 30 minutes before the show, only front row seats will be available. We ended up returning to Mong Kok and booking into a 10.40pm session. More bumming around. Wandered through Temple Street. On one end there is a long row of fortune tellers charging HK$80 for their babblings. Apparently if you ask them, “if you can tell the future, why aren’t you rich?” To which their standard response is, “I’m being punished for telling people more than they should know.” Which of course is bollocks. Just form a fortune telling cartel and tell each others’ fortunes.

Kit felt he needed something herbal to consume to address the problem of being too “eet hay” (peculiar asian concept that some foods are… hmm… “heaty” and need “cooling” foods or drinks to balance it out). We walked down Temple Street past a tramp of prostitutes (a couple of which barely looked 16) and sat down at a herbal place serving “turtle jelly” (guai leen goh). We spent the next half hour trying to convince Kit that “guai leen goh” was indeed made from “guai leen” (turtles), of which it is.

Movie was quite good. Best cop movie I’ve seen in a long time, although the Mong Kok cinema is crap and is in mono sound.

The 29th: Chinese Roots
When we arrived into Hong Kong, my uncle had the flu. On the second day, my grandfather caught it. He spent the rest of the trip in his hotel room. From there, it was transmitted to the rest of the family, catching everyone. When it got to Dad, he was bedridden for almost two days. I thought I had managed to evade it until it caught up with me on the very last day of HK.

The 29th was our day trip into China, so after waking up at the obscene hour of 6.30am, we caught a ferry up to the Cantonese speaking district of “poon yue”. Specifically, “poon yue dai loong” (something something big dragon). This was the hometown of my grandmother, and it was here that I was told I’d be able to “get in touch with my roots”.

The China air was frigid when we disembarked. We made our way past the unsmiling immigration officials, and got picked up my grandmother’s relatives, all descendants of my great uncle (paternal grandmother’s brother, or “kow koong”). The 13 of us set out in an overcrowded minivan they’d hired for the day. First stop was a Buddhist site featuring a 40m statue of some Buddhist god or something atop a hill.

One of the problems with China is that they have no eye for aesthetics. When they attempt to beautify things, they appear incredibly artificial, which detracts majorly from the presentation. While you understand their intentions, they just haven’t got the hang of it. It seems to be a problem with not adapting to the environment, but making the environment adapt to them. (Much akin to them “beautifying” Ayer’s Rock/Uluru by chiselling it into a cube shape.) In this case, they had flowerpots with lettuce in them lining gardenbeds. Lettuce amongst flowers? I mean, come on. That, and the Chinese people’s overwhelming urge to build everything using grey concrete. Concrete everywhere. I hear they have concrete urinals elsewhere in China, which stink to high heaven (waste slides over porcelain, it sticks to concrete).

The worship site was quite interesting. They had this shrine alcove you could buy firecrackers for. People would run up to the shrine holding a bundle of crackers, then gingerly lighting the fuse before piss bolting out of the area. As a result, you could hear the thunderous roar of crackers no matter where you were on the hill.

Evidence of China’s considerable economic growth is readily visible. We were expecting my grandmother’s village to be exactly that, a village. Instead, we came across a rapidly industrialising town. Much infrastructure had been recently developed. Too much, in fact. The three lane highways were grossly underutilised by a populace still trying to come to grips with lane markings. As with all lesser developed countries, the horn is used frequently as a signalling and warning device (as opposed to one of road rage as in Australia). My uncle was undertaking a “take-no-prisoners” approach to driving. Zebra crossing ahead? No worries, just let loose with a few blasts on the horn, rev the engine, speed up, and that 80 year old great-grandmother crossing the road will move out of the way for sure.

By the time we rocked up at the restaurant for lunch, the rest of the clan had arrived. A veritable entourage of young and old relatives I never knew I had. They all came on scooters. It looked like a bikie gang… but of scooters. Enough relos to fill up three large tables. It was at that point in time it struck me how much like mainlanders these people were. My uncles were all slouching in the typical mainlander garb of a well-worn and frayed cheap suit, loafers, unkempt hair, chain smoking away on cigarettes. They were so much like peasants. Well, that’s because they were. And I was related to them.

I must stress here that I neither intend to be condescending nor patronising here. This realisation did not come with such a feeling. What I realised was that these were my roots, and my roots were not as far away as I imagined. All Chinese, everywhere in the world, have migrated from China to seek better fortune somewhere along the line. These mainlander ancestors, amongst the billion or so other mainlanders, would likely have been peasants. For me, my paternal grandmother had migrated from China to Singapore. She got lucky and married my grandfather, who was exceedingly well-to-do at the time (and still is currently, somewhat, despite his various rash and excessive youthful vices). But even on my grandfather’s side, migration only occurred with his father – my great-grandfather – living in poverty in China, migrated with nothing to Singapore after selling off the family pig for $5 for a boat ticket. Within a couple decades, he was a business tycoon, mixing it in Singapore’s colonial high society. It only takes one generation to change things, but it can be many generations before that happens. I’m just one of the more fortunate ones in the extended family.

Despite me having bestowing the undignified classification of peasantry on my not-so-distant relatives, they pulled no stops for lunch. Their hospitality and generosity was exceptional. Put it this way, they certainly weren’t living in poverty, which I suppose is a tangible result of China’s economic progress – a falling percentage of working class in poverty. A large plate of live (or at least, freshly killed) prawns was served. They were small and required much effort in peeling them. Nearing the end of lunch, everyone seemed to have lost interest in peeling the prawns, so me and Gerald began the process of consuming half a plate of prawns. Someone noticed we seemed to like prawns (well, we do – they are expensive in Sydney, and no one was eating them so we were acting as waste disposal units – but it’s not like it’s our favourite food) and when we finished our current plate, another half-full plate was plonked down. Compliments from the other table. After devouring that, yet another plate was put in front of us. We gave up after that.

We left for a tour of the residential part of town. We pulled up to a street, across from my grandmother’s old primary school, which was now converted into a ceremonial hall. An archaic steam-driven pile driver across the road was meanwhile driving metal rods into the ground as foundation for a new building. Its clanging reverberated throughout the village. It was fascinating to watch in action, but the din it was making was not insignificant. Again there were many instances of aesthetic efforts gone horribly wrong. Ponds built in locations around the town were concrete eyesores, filled with stagnant, black and odorous water. It didn’t do anything to bolster their image when we were told that one of my Dad’s aunts had committed suicide in one of those ponds years ago. Heck, all you’d have to do is fall in accidentally and it’s game over.

People smoke everywhere. Convenience stores around the village are ill-stocked with merchandise rapidly nearing or past their expiry dates, and with non-perishables lingering around from the era of Mao. The exception is the ubiquitous availability of cigarettes, whose turnover must be earning the tobacco companies a tidy profit indeed.

Eventually we made it to the houses, which were all much the same. Devoid of carpet, they were nonetheless high-roofed and quite spacious (partially due to the fact of the relative lack of furniture). A water well in the yard was a remnant from the days when there wasn’t running water. I was aware that China had an “open door” economic policy in the late 70s, but it seemed like the town had an open door social policy too. We tramped through over half a dozen homes, a couple were rented out to non-family tenants, but they didn’t seem to mind when we flocked through their kitchen unannounced. One interesting three storey house we toured was uninhabited. It was actually still under construction, and had been for 20 years already. As there was no one to live in it, the family was not in any hurry to complete it.

The town was moving into the Internet age slowly too. My relos were quite eager in pointing out that they had a net-connected computer. “Gnor dei yow deen lo lau seong, lay tai-ha!” they kept insisting (We have a computer upstairs, go and look!) I swapped e-mail addresses with Warm, a cousin there who was also studying English at university. Paradoxically, her first Chinese name is “sheet” (snow or ice) but her English name is “Warm”. Unfortunately with my atrocious language skills, I couldn’t wrangle a satisfactory response from her on that matter.

Eventually we tired of walking around. I got bored. I took to pestering the local wildlife to amuse myself. My uncle kept a coup of chickens, one which had escaped from the pen. So Gerald herded the loose fowl towards me, and I managed to nab it, before tossing it over the fence back into the pen. That was strangely satisfying. Then I spent a few minutes herding another stray chicken through the streets. Chickens are stupid. You move left, they move right. You move right, they move left. Thus, it is very easy to direct them where you want them to go. I spent the next few minutes chasing the chicken (reminds me of the French Nike ad of the guy being chased by an angry chicken). During that time, I observed my peasant cousins, aunts and uncles watch me curiously. I can only imagine what they must have been thinking about “that strange cousin” from Australia’s peculiar fascination with the local poultry.

Dogs dragging around their litters of pups also frequented the streets. Extremely cute balls of fur flopping around in the dust. I soon learnt that those dogs were ultimately destined for the dinner pot, for soup and meat, which is understandable and not repulsive if you can accommodate for a cultural paradigm shift.

After a bunch of photos and more chatting, the daytrip was over and we returned to Hong Kong.

The 30th
Met up with Jamie and Kit. Since we considered Jamie as pretty much a local, we placed responsibility on her to decide what we should do for the day. After failing to find the prospect of Ocean Park enticing (an overpriced theme park), we decided to head for the outer burbs and see the Wishing Tree. An MTR, KCR and bus trip later, we arrived at the tree. Basically, these people sell you pieces of paper, carrying messages of luck and fortune, which is weighted with an orange, connected with some string. The aim is to throw the bundle into the tree and hope it sticks. The theory is, the higher your orange goes (and sticks), the more likely your wish will eventuate. If the orange doesn’t stick, then you’re stuffed. And there’s also the prospect of your projectile causing someone serious head injuries when it returns back to earth. (They aren’t familiar with the concept of yelling “heads up!” out there.) As long as you keep a respectable distance, it’s fun to watch other people grapple with their predicament – especially women, whose arms and shoulders are simply not designed anatomically for throwing. Oranges miss the tree completely. Some even fly backwards away from the tree. Some catch on other bundles of paper, fail to stick, and bring other people’s wishes down with them. Hilarious stuff, not that it’s meant to be a game. Tourist note: orange vendors sell bundles for $3 each, although you can get a deal that will get you 4 oranges for $4.

We returned to Tsim Sha Tsui afterwards and had a walk along the harbour side. There were many weddings going on simultaneously there, and we took to chasing after married couples to uh, check them out. Eventually we decided to go into the Science Museum and Planetarium. The Planetarium is a hemispherical dome, upon which an array of projectors cast images up onto the roof, so you have vision all around and above you. Chairs are reclined backwards for ease of viewing the movies and documentaries they show there. I was here last when I was about six, and was thrilled. Unfortunately, fifteen years on, the current experience left a lot to be desired. Probably because the projection technology was decades old, the documentary taught me nothing, the chairs were reclined, and we all fell asleep.

Dinner finally rolled around, and what was going to be a dinner for four in Causeway Bay turned out to be a dinner for ten as Gerald and I roped in a few more friends. Kit and I went back to Jordan to pick up Glen, a Singapore computer engineer also studying at UNSW, from his hotel (finally, someone who has no Cantonese skills like me). Sometime after that, we made our way to Lan Kwai Fong, bar and club centre of Hong Kong, and crawling with drunk expats. We had drinks. I decided it was once again time to test my allergy to alcohol (I never learn, do I?) and managed to down half a cocktail before a rash was observed on my neck and I was persuaded to stop because no one relished the possibility of having to drag a vomiting sick bloke through the streets of Hong Kong at that hour.

The 31st: New Year’s Eve
The final day of 2002 rolled around and I met up with Derek for lunch. The last time I’d seen him was when we were both in HK three years ago. This is despite the fact that we both live in Sydney. Shocking. I learnt that since we last spoke, he’d started a grad law degree (like the one I am planning to do this year). I also learnt that in HK for some strange reason, lawyers earn a packet. Grads receive around A$90k, with that doubling after two years. The HK tax rate is also only 17%.

For the actual New Year’s celebrations, I met up with Kit once more and at 11pm we headed off to Lan Kwai Fong. However, we were obviously clueless, as virtually everyone knew that if you wanted to be in LKF for the countdown, you had to be there hours before the event. When we arrived at Central, police were directing the human traffic. A cop laughed when we said whether it was possible to get in, saying that there were 10000 people attempting that currently, but there’s simply no more room. So, at the risk of being stuck in the middle of nowhere, we jumped on the MTR and hurried back to Tsim Sha Tsui where we knew they’d be doing a harbourside countdown.

We arrived at the station and emerged above ground at 11.50pm, only to run smack into a brick wall of people. We were on Nathan Road, on the side wall of the Peninsula Hotel. All the action was happening just around the corner, on the road that runs perpendicular, along the harbour. Our line of sight did not reach around the corner, so we began to squeeze our way through the crown inch by inch, until we finally were stuck for good – literally hemmed in by the press of bodies in front and behind us. Luckily, the crowd was pretty tame. There wasn’t any alcohol out on the streets, and at one stage during a forward charge, Kit yelled out in Cantonese to the people behind to stop pushing… and they did.

Thank goodness everyone in HK is so short. I pity the girls standing around me that barely reached my chin level, they didn’t see much that night. Not that there was very much to see. Lifting myself on tiptoes, and craning my neck around the corner, all I saw was a sea of heads. Countdown came, countdown went. No fireworks, just a few hoots, a bit of silly string sprayed into the air, and the tide of people slowly started to reverse. Not content to waddle around at 1m a minute, we escaped down a side alley.

There’s a bar/restaurant up the Peninsula Hotel called Felix. In there is meant to be a real swanky urinal. The urinal wall is made out of glass, overlooking HK, so apparently you can “piss on HK city”. Out of curiousity, and because we weren’t going anywhere fast for the time being, we snuck in a side entrance into the hotel and wandered around. We found Felix. There were no restaurant tables left (naturally all booked out), but the bar was not full. Unfortunately, the HK$300 cover charge discouraged us mere mortals from entering, and we gave up on that idea and started making our way back up Nathan Road.

HK people work crazy hours. I wrote that all stores were open on Christmas. On the Christmas Eve dinner, one of the girls there in the fashion industry said she was moving back to Australia because of the HK working hours – 9am-midnight days weren’t uncommon. Derek’s sister, working in a law firm received a company memo said they could finish work early on Christmas Eve at 1pm. The memo came with a disclaimer: “(only if there is no work to do)”. Naturally, there was more work to do. So, there we were walking down the street, past 2am, and we came across a Giordano clothing store. Open. Fully staffed. 40% sale. These people are crazy, we were thinking, as we went inside and snapped up a few bargains. It must have been 2.30am when Kit overheard two of the sales people chatting.

“Hey, we just hit our sales target for today!”
“You’re kidding me! No way?!!”

I cringe to think what kind of sales total was the target, that it took until 2.30am to reach.

The 1st: New Year’s Day
Slept in. Woke up in time for lunch, which we had with Andy (Amy’s cousin) at 2.30pm. We then met up with Amy at a relatively dear Japanese dessert place which didn’t have English menus, so I went with the random choice – number 136 – the item without the photo. If it’s dessert, it can’t be all that risky can it? Turned out to be quite nice, though $10 for some icecream, jelly, dough balls, fruit and red bean paste is a little steep.

And that basically sums up the HK trip. If you’ve been to HK before and have seen all the sights, then it can be a very boring place. All that’s left is eating, shopping and sleeping. However, you can only spend so much time eating, your wallet only is so big and sleeping all day in your room is something you can do back home.

As I reiterate, my number one maxim for travelling is simple: Your travel experience depends on who you travel with and who you meet along the way. The better the company, the better the time you will have. And I had a pretty good time!

31
Dec 02
Tue

Happy New Year!

The last few days have been heaps busy, between a daytrip to China and catching up with friends. Currently waiting for all the relos to get their acts together so we can go to dinner, then out to welcome in 2003.

Year in review? It’s been a long, long year, which at times has dragged quite badly, but all things come to an end, even the not so good things. I have learnt that the world is both small and big. I’ve learnt that there’s much more than one way to skin a cat. It’s all a matter of perspective.

What about the incoming year? I normally don’t make New Year’s resolutions. After all, all they are, are annual goals you set for the year, which may or may not be kept. I keep a list of goals throughout the year, continually revising them as they are achieved or are no longer relevant (although it is important not to confuse reclassifying a goal as irrelevant, with rationalising yourself out of that goal because it appears too difficult to achieve). Most goals fit within the convenient package of a year, but some don’t. When I get back to Sydney, for instance, I’m going to sign up for a Scuba diving course while it’s still Summer, which is something I’ve been wanting to do for years. I should receive word whether I’ve been accepted into law in Mid-January. I don’t know what to expect from next year, but nonetheless I look forward to 2003.

Anyhow, time to head off. Have a blast, this New Year’s Eve!

26
Dec 02
Thu

The 25th: Christmas Day

Kicked off the morning by meeting Edmond in a dodgy Mong Kok alley at 10. After getting him to translate for us a bunch of yellow doorway signs and posters adorned with attractive women and prices ($350 for all day “service”!), we went for breakfast. The unusually hot chilli we added to the won ton meen was just a bit too fiery for that hour of the day, and my stomach went a bit queasy for the rest of the day. Luckily it didn’t develop into something more inconvenient.

Next on the agenda, we walked to Olympia City to catch a 11.40am screening of Hero, joined by Kay (who was late again). The movie is in Mandarin, but has English subtitles. Hero’s a very cool movie, better than that other well known flick, Crouching Tiger. If it has made it out elsewhere, do go and watch it. The special effects are Hollywood-class, the actors are big name (Zhang Zi Yi has no functional purpose in the movie, but makes for good eye candy), the cinematography exceptional, and the plot is decent. The movie centers around assassins and the unification of China into the Qin dynasty in 221bc, a popular theme for Chinese movies like this one. Perceptions about the unification of China in Hero and The Emperor and The Assassin are interesting. On one hand, there is the view of the Qin kingdom mercilessly conquering the six kingdoms, ruled by a manical tyrant emperor. However, curiously the view that seems to emerge more strongly in movies is one of appreciation for the acts of this tyrant – the formation of the unified “Great Motherland” of China which would otherwise have not arisen. If not appreciation, then at least a Machiavellian understanding of Qin’s motives. I wonder how many Chinese share this view. From my airchair view of world politics, it is perhaps this view that goes some of the way to explaining China’s persistence in regaining Taiwan. Even present day nations dream of gaining or regaining glory (such as Mussolini’s vision of rebuilding a Roman empire), and China is no different. It’s just that today’s borders are more or less policed by the US.

It’s surprising how many shops open on Christmas Day. It actually feels just like any other day. I reckon Aussies are bludgers and Asians work too hard :). We had a good lunch at one of those festy roadside places. This was followed by some steamed milk. Although we were full at this stage, we chased it up with a taro pearl milk tea at this really busy stall which makes like $5 every 10 seconds. We also came across this large sign, when translated, advertising “First Love Internet Cafe”. Turns out that it was probably a net cafe with, hmm… “added services”. Let’s just say, you can surf the web and get some tech support for your joystick at the same time. An illegal practice in HK, but nonetheless a sound business idea.

Three full days of walking takes its toll, and we tramped into a reflexology centre for a relaxing foot massage. With our feet revitalised, we took a break at the hotel, before heading back out to do more shopping. We ended up at Pacific Place, where Edmond left to meet with other friends. We had dinner in the area, and went to a really nice asian desert house called The Sweet Dynasty. That really hit the spot.

Kay left for home, and Gerald and I decided to resume his mission for this trip – to find a piece of memorabilia authentically signed by Andy Lau (for a friend). We had exhausted the knowledge of all the Hong Kong locals that we had gone out with over the last couple days. (Carol – see previous post -claimed to know someone who knew Andy Lau to an extent that an autograph was obtainable, but this avenue would take more time than we had in HK.) Thus, we turned to the next available resource: Hotel concierges. They are meant to know everything, aren’t they? The one at our hotel was fairly uninformative, so we decided to test out the reputation of two of Hong Kong’s best. Arriving at The Peninsula, Gerald donned a thick Aussie accent and a register consisting of enlongated vocabulary. The concierge immediately pointed us out to the Sino Centre in Mong Kok, which we had already visited. Inside that centre there are shops which exclusively sell pictures of celebrities which I swear are photos off the internet printed by inkjet printers. Throngs of giggling Honkie girls crowd around those stores gushing at whatever male singer happens to be in fashion at the time. Unfortunately, none of the photos were autographed. The confidence of the concierge hit a brick wall and he concocted an excuse saying that autographed merchandise is rare, and are only given out in concerts to true fans who would never sell their booty.

At the Sheraton, we were attended to by a concierge by the name of Wesley. Wesley was a woman. I’ve heard of wierd Honkie names (eg: Apple, Mango), but that one takes the cake. She was a bit more helpful in a request that was rapidly turning into something much more difficult than anticipated. She referred us to the Sino Centre, HMV, a few other music stores (all unlikely), and finding out for us what music companies Andy is affiliated with. However, still no dice. We were half hoping for extraordinary American-style hotel service, but I guess inhindsight it was fortunate that none of them said, “Unfortunately we do not have that information, sir, but we will do our utmost to find out for you and get back to you. And what is your room number?” (Although Gerald half-jokingly pointed out that if they said that, he’d go and book a room for the night. :)

Next post on another day. In the meantime, go amuse yourself with pictures of urinals from around the world.

The 24th: A house? Like, a real house?

Gerald and I spent the first part of the day shopping, with two things in mind. The first was a digital camera (more on that in a later post), and the second was for random KK gifts. One for the night’s dinner, and another for the party following. The only restriction was that it had to be to the value of HK$100 per gift (AUD/HKD = 4.3). So after some aimless wandering, we settled upon a more or less matching set of gifts: for the dinner, a box of Lindt chocolates and an electric toothbrush. For the party, a bottle of Aussie wine and $100 worth of assorted condoms. They said be creative for the party gifts, so we were.

Following that, we took the MTR to HK island, down to Causeway Bay, which was absolutely packed full of human traffic, with the intention of meeting Kay and Bev. Kay was running late, and we were to meet Bev at the Clinique stand in Sogo. A fairly bad choice for a rendezvous point, seeing that the Clinique stand was at one of Sogo’s entrances which was constantly flooded with an unending stream of people. And also due to the fact that we hadn’t met Bev before, so had no idea who we were looking for. Anyway, Kay turned up and we discovered that Bev had actually wandered off to the Body Shop. We spent the next few hours shopping with Kay and Bev for their KK gifts, and also for wrapping paper for our condom “custom fun pack”. Mostly uneventful, except for the incident with some stuffed toys in a department store – Snoopy’s compromising position on the shelf and Mickey and Minnie’s questionable choice of undergarments. Hmm, yes.

Dinner was at a Western-style cafe at Wan Chai with Bev’s family and friends. Mediocre food. Turns out that when Honkies try to cook Western food, they are still influenced by Asian tastes. For example, the beef steaks were given a large dose of meat tenderiser (sodium bicarb), which is fine for normal Asian dishes where beef is sliced fine. However, for a large hunk of steak, it is decidedly strange. During the round of KK present swapping, we were extra careful not to mix the condoms and wine with the chocolates and toothbrush. I got a business card holder, Gerald got some Neutrogena shampoo. Right.

Dinner finished at about 11 and we went up to Kay’s office to drop off some bags. Kay works in PwC (GTS) Hong Kong, having transfered from the Sydney office a few years ago. Her office is in the Cheung Kong Center, also the office of Hong Kong’s richest man (the building is also owned by him). The view from there is quite impressive, one aspect showing the harbour to the North, and another aspect showing Mid-levels, basically the equivalent of Sydney’s North Shore, imposingly dotted with expensive high rise apartments climbing up the hillside. We also stopped for a quick toilet break in the schmick-ish executive Women’s toilet (it seems they have a separate toilet for execs). The toilets require security card entry and naturally Kay only has access to the Women’s ones, but this wasn’t a problem as the office was naturally deserted at 11pm on Christmas Eve.

(BTW, Bev is one of Kay’s friends, living in Hurstville, working as a market analyst in a Sydney firm on holidays in HK like us.) Waiting for a bus that never turned up, we instead took a taxi to the party, stopping on the way to pick up Carol, a UK-born Honkie working in audit also at PwC HK.

The party was at a house at Jardine’s Lookout. That middle word is a strange one on Hong Kong Island: house. In a place where space is at a premium, and where apartments abound, and an area such as Mid-levels, owning a house says something about affluence. So, naturally we were all quite curious to see this residence. It turns out that the place wasn’t quite a house, but a townhouse. Not that that didn’t mean a 7 or 8 figure price tag. Our host owned a few of them and joined them together. Nonetheless, going by Sydney standards, the place was decently sized. Although HK has higher wages and an extremely low tax rate (15%), this is balanced by significant living costs, especially for housing. For the same price in Oz, you could get a mansion in the ‘burbs, although we have a 48% tax rate to contend with.

The party was bustling when we arrived. It composed mostly of work people in their mid to late 20s, so not really my age group heh. The party was surprisingly tame (by Aussie standards, anyway). Lots of bottles of wine, but not a single drop of beer or spirits to be seen. And no one pissed. Unfortunately, everyone was jabbering in Cantonese (although a large number of people seemed to be overseas educated and therefore English-speaking) so we didn’t mingle much. The KK gifts were randomly distributed a few hours later, and we eagerly awaited to see who would receive our bundle of fun. It went a little something like this:

Generating an idea for a KK gift: Free
A few boxes of assorted condoms: $95
Gift wrap for the boxes: Free
The expression on the face of a rather innocent looking Honkie woman (and those around her) opening “gift number 42″: Priceless

I was a bit surprised that no one had had a similar idea, but as I said, it was a tame party. Turns out Kay knew the unlucky/lucky recipient of our gift, and she was married, so at least we knew our gift would be used in one way or another hehe. We eventually returned to the hotel later that night.

Post about what we did on the 25th coming later.

24
Dec 02
Tue

Merry Christmas!

I got stuff to write about, but later…

23
Dec 02
Mon

HK

Woke up with a whole lot of gunk in my throat this morning, but I think I’ve just about acclimatised to the pollution in the air. Spent the day tramping around with Gerald and Edmond looking for a 33.5kg Denon home cinema amplifier, which is roughly 50% cheaper than in Sydney. We found a good price for it, but I have no idea how he’s going to bring it back into Sydney. This evening, met up with Christine (from three years ago), and two other of Gerald’s net friends, Ron (a chemicals trader) and Ada (interpreter). Interesting mix of quite different people, but my lack of ability to speak Cantonese is proving a liability with regards to communication heh. Tomorrow we’re going to a Christmas Eve party. Daytrip into Guangzhou is scheduled for next Monday – apparently to visit my grandmother’s ancestral village which has records of her bloodline stretching back a millennium or two. Trying to meet up with Lill on Friday. Kit arrives tomorrow, Jamie on Friday. Other than that, nothing to really write about. Just the SES cycle (sleeping, eating, shopping).

20
Dec 02
Fri

Of Food and Massages

Nearing the end of our so-called “eating trip” in Hat Yai. It’s a small city, or large town, near the Malaysian-Thai border. We arrived here late Thursday afternoon. Although we are not here on a tour, we had hired a tour bus to drive us to our hotel. The tour guide gave us the usual spiel about the city, including a mention about the “agua show” and the “sexy show”. He took great pains to emphasise that the “agua show” (a transexual cabaret) was a family show, whereas the “sexy show” was… well, not. After a large scare involving my grandmother losing her passport (she was extremely lucky as it was eventually recovered intact, being lost on the bus which took us to the hotel), we headed straight for food. Dinner was on a hillside restaurant overlooking Hat Yai. The view was quite nice, although in the daytime, the city transforms into a grey slagheap like most other Asian cities. A$13 bought us a two hour massage (including tips) which we had in our hotel room. My goodness, a one hour remedial massage back in Oz costs $50. I was sharing a room with my American half uncle. The earliest we could have booked our massage was 11pm, so we were half asleep by the time they came up. It seems that because of Hat Yai’s proximity to Malaysia, that the Thai here know how to speak Hokkien, along with most members of my family. I, of course, do not. So my uncle is busy making banter with the masseurs (masseuses?) while she’s walking up and down his back, and I’m there clueless, trying to figure out if my masseur is trying to tell me to sit up or turn around. Turns out that my uncle’s masseur was having trouble with his somewhat larger frame, and was calling him a fat ass (in that many words). Nonetheless, very refreshing, no problems getting to sleep that night!

Today we went out to the markets where mum went crazy and bought out half a store – over 10kgs of preserved junk (nutmeg, dried mangoes, cuttlefish, etc.). In the afternoon we went for a reflexology session (foot massage). Again, very refreshing, although the guy did get a bit over zealous and as a result I now have a bruised left calf. Then I got a surprisingly decent A$4 haircut despite the barber not knowing a word of English (he just started cutting, no questions asked). The food here has been wonderful: fresh, sweet coconuts and mangoes, suckling pigs, pigs trotters, crabs and so on. Beautiful. (Kev & Em – I’m back on a one day cycle!) We leave tomorrow morning for Singapore, and leave the following day for Hong Kong. I think I have time to slip in a midnight viewing of The Two Towers on Saturday/Sunday in Singapore.

I swear, Australia needs 24 hour eateries. We arrived in Singapore on Wednesday at 11pm. The plane was 90 minutes late because Qantas misplaced someone’s luggage. After dumping our bags with relo’s, went off for a second supper (first one was on the plane) at 1am. Love it. This place is about to close, so I’ll be off now.

17
Dec 02
Tue

I’m Off

Ok I managed to snag a terminal at Gate 32, the flight leaves in half an hour. Thank you, that is all. :)

10
Dec 02
Tue

Solar Eclipse in the Outback

Day 1: Arrival (December 3, 2002)
We stand yawning in Sydney airport’s domestic terminal. It is not yet 6am, as we arrive at the departure gate. The airport is uncharacteristically quiet, expected at this hour, but still feels somewhat surreal. Large letters printed on the windows announce that the gate is for departures to Adelaide. The chairs in the terminal are dotted with the usual businessmen, flying to attend early Tuesday morning meetings elsewhere in the country, but this morning’s mixture of flyers is different. Here and there, people are not attired in the typical garb of business suits, but instead, shorts and t-shirts. People who are blinking in an effort to clear their bleary eyes whilst pouring over maps, and arcane charts filled with numbers and symbols. These people, like us, are chasing the solar eclipse of December 4, 2002.

The flight to Adelaide takes only a little longer than the average Hollywood movie, 1 hour and 45 minutes. Breakfast is served, and soon we land in Adelaide, only 75 minutes after we left due to time zone differences. The morning sun is weak, and it is only 16 degrees, so we don jumpers and head off in the car that we have rented, a fairly new Ford Falcon with 12000 km on the clock. Our destination for the day is Port Augusta, roughly 300km away, or a three hour drive. As we have plenty of time, we decide to have a poke around Adelaide, unaffectionately acknowledged as the biggest hole of an Australian state capital city where nothing ever happens.

It is just past 9am, and the city barely feels like it is waking up. Many shops are still shut or in the process of opening, and the streets are surprisingly empty in what should be peak hour traffic. We wander around Rundle mall, basically a small version of Sydney’s Pitt Street Mall, but without the people, and shop until noon. At lunchtime, the city is decidedly more active, though the footpaths are still far from being crowded. I complain to Dad how much of a hole Adelaide is, to which he chides me for being so critical.

“Ok, you name me one thing Adelaide is famous for.”

No reply is forthcoming. To be fair, Adelaide, built around the Torrens River, is a pleasant city, although its demeanour is similar to that of an oversized country town than a major city. Still, finding that Adelaide has nothing to offer us that we don’t already have in Sydney, we begin our drive northwards.

South Australia’s tourism commission proudly proclaims the state’s miles of unwinding road. Indeed, South Australia is a wonderful state for driving. The main highway is wide, with many kilometres of dead straight road. The day is bright and sunny, with scattered clouds punctuating a pale blue sky, but a constant breeze keeps the temperature at a comfortable level. Meanwhile, the terrain that scrolls by is ever changing. In keeping with Australia’s reputation for being an incredibly flat country, visibility extends for kilometres around. There is a distinct impression of space and freedom. The horizons, normally suffocated by the cityscape’s irregular outline of buildings, are replaced by the more natural features of the Australian landscape. In the distance to the west, gently rolling hills have acquired a deep cerulean hue in the wavering heat haze, emanating off an intercepting expanse of water that is Spencer Gulf. To the east, tanned plains extend to meet a range of hills – a mixture of rich ochre and auburn rock, speckled with the faded greenery of parched vegetation.

We pull into Port Pirie for a rest, although its name is a mystery to us, as this “port” seems to be kilometres off the coast of the Gulf. Nonetheless, this non-descript country town sports a McDonald’s which serves as a toilet stop for us. Stepping down from the car, we are assaulted with a barrage of flies, reminding us that summer has once again returned.

We arrive at Port Augusta in the late afternoon, although dusk is still some hours off. It is here that we have accommodation booked in a motel for the next two nights – a staging point for our eclipse viewing.

Choice of viewing location is crucial for any eclipse. Because of the remoteness of the locations this eclipse passes over, travel to any location will be time consuming. The path of the total eclipse (the “umbra”) is a narrow band, only tens of kilometres wide, which starts in eastern Africa in the morning, and sweeps across the Indian ocean. It once again crosses over land via Australia’s southern seaboard in the late evening (7.40pm), before setting, still partially eclipsed. Although totality – the point where the moon completely covers the sun – lasts for over three minutes at the peak of the eclipse, somewhere over the Indian ocean, Australia only catches the last dregs of it. Totality will be, at maximum, 30 seconds.

Although the eclipse crosses over large tracts of both the African and Australian continent, there are only two towns in the world that are in the direct path of 2002’s solar eclipse: Ceduna and Lyndhurst. Ceduna is a coastal town, some 464km west of Port Augusta. Lyndhurst is much further inland, about 300km north east of Port Augusta. In Ceduna, hotels, motels and inns alike have been booked out months in advance. This small town, population 3000, expected an extra 20000 people to swarm in for the eclipse. Many of these 20000 have travelled internationally especially for the eclipse, and one particularly enterprising group of Japanese even hired out a football field for the occasion. Because Ceduna could not hope to accommodate this sudden influx of people, an array of “tent cities” have been set up around the town, impromptu lodging for the thousands of travellers gathered there for a brief, but spectacular and momentous event.

Ceduna has better facilities than Lyndhurst, being less remote. Ceduna, basically situated where the eclipse enters Australia, experiences a totality four seconds longer than Lyndhurst. However, being a coastal town, the chances of inclement weather are increased. Cloud cover over the sun will destroy the full effect of a total eclipse. Further inland, although not immune from cloudy conditions, has greater possibilities of clear weather.

Stepping out of the restaurant at 7.40pm, I check the sky, anxious that the late hour of the eclipse would see the sun being too low on the horizon, dampening the impact of the eclipse. I need not have worried, though, as due to daylight saving, and the lengthier Australian summer days, the sun was still at a fair height. The weather situation in Ceduna, on the other hand, is looking doubtful, with scattered cloud forecasts arriving in for all coastal regions. However, our choice for viewing location takes us neither to Ceduna nor Lyndhurst. Rather, tomorrow, we were off to Wirraminna.

Day 2: Eclipse (December 4, 2002)
Geographically, Wirraminna is roughly halfway between Ceduna and Lyndhurst. Wirraminna is not a town, but merely the name of a 2 kilometre rail siding, designed exclusively to let trains, in their long journey across the continent from Darwin to Adelaide, pass each other. Because of this, the crowds at this location were likely to be a small fraction of those in the towns and viewing conditions among the best.

Wirraminna is approximately 250km north-west of Port Augusta, situated along the Stuart Highway: a single laned, but well maintained, road that crawls thousands of kilometres up through the great, vast deserts of outback Australia, from Adelaide, through Alice Springs and finally to Darwin at the north end of the country. The highway is named after explorer John McDouall Stuart, who in 1862, after numerous failed attempts, found a path from Adelaide, through the gruelling outback environment, to the north coast of Australia – a seven month journey.


Start of the Stuart Highway

We pack for the day’s trip, ensuring that we have sufficient fuel, food and water, and importantly, our photographic equipment, which between the four of us, is composed of 2 video, 1 SLR, 1 digital and 2 normal “point-and-shoot” cameras. It is 9am when we leave.

In Australia, there are three types of environments: the urban, the bush and the outback. Away from Port Augusta, the transition from the urban to the outback is sharp. Unlike New South Wales, there is hardly any land that could be considered as bushland, as the Australian outback begins to claim the inland terrain almost immediately.

The outback landscape is extraordinary. As with the trip to Port Augusta, a 360 degree view of the horizon is possible, except that out here, the horizon is absolutely flat. Unbridled flatness. The same rusty red dirt that has scattered itself along the highway extends outwards for kilometres around. Tufts of dry grass abound, with the occasional low-lying Mulga tree disrupting the skyline. Wildlife, though scarce, exists, with the occasional emu striding off in the distance, or the occasional fly-ridden kangaroo carcass – victims of roadkill – lying alongside the road. The landscape is starkly monotonous, but the desolation is strangely mesmerising. The further we progress inland, the more barren the surroundings become.


Panorama of the Outback

We stop at a lookout that opens up a view across a salt flat. A vast, perfectly flat pan of reflective whiteness, a remnant of what, in the wet season, used to be a large lake. Now, it is a sterile curiousity, parched from the relentless evaporation inflicted upon it by the sun. The many lakes along the highway are in fact salt lakes at this time of year, a literally glaring reminder of the aridness of this place.

Traffic along the highway is busier than usual. Eclipse tourists. A line of cars, campervans and four-wheel drives stretches out in front and behind us. We pass only a handful of vehicles headed the other way, mostly road trains: huge, lumbering 150 ton trucks, towing up to three trailers, fully laden with a myriad of supplies for, or from, the townships along the highway.

At another rest point, a salt lake rests right by the roadside. We shuffle down a short embankment to get a closer look. Surprisingly, there is still a trace of water in this lake, centimetres thick, above a crust of damp salt. The damp salt tastes putrid, and is undercut by a gluggy layer of mud. Further away, where the water has long vanished, the salt has transmogrified into a rock hard, glittering surface. A Swedish eclipse watcher with a Canon Powershot G2 camera lies down to capture a particularly bizarre salt formation on the lake surface on film, but struggles to maneuver himself into a position where his supporting arms are not scratched by the salt beneath his elbows. The Swede has travelled a long distance to be here, his last eclipse viewing in Germany being stymied by cloud cover. He gazes up towards the heavens and smiles optimistically. Today will not be a disappointment, he says.

We look around and realise that we have been lucky. The sky is cloudless. The blueness above, even more featureless than the brownness below. The sun is high above the horizon, but it is not hot. A strong wind has arisen from the west, blowing dry but cooling gusts of air across the outback. Meanwhile, news from Ceduna filtering up is reporting scattered cloud down south.

It is still early by the time we reach Pimba, a tiny town marking a turnoff from the highway that goes to Roxby Downs. Pimba has not much besides Spud’s roadhouse. A 24 hour service station with attached bar and room full of pokies machines. Though mainly catering to passing truckies, today Spud’s was lively with tourists. We decide that Woomera, only 8 kilometres up the road, is a more interesting place and drive there for lunch instead.

Woomera is well known for its role as a missile test site, most active in the 50s and 60s last century. The Woomera township itself borders a huge area of land, the Woomera prohibited area, that is still under military control. More recently, Woomera has been in the news as it is the site of Australia’s much maligned refugee centre. Not surprisingly, there is no evidence that a refugee centre exists at all in the area. Instead, the town is dedicated to a commemoration of its historical role in rocketry development. Woomera was bustling. Probably the bustling it had been since the town was founded in 1946. Throngs of tourists – Americans with thick yankee accents, to mainland Chinese dressed in their characteristic suits and ties despite the outback weather, to Europeans wearing “Eclipse in the Outback” t-shirts – all milling around.

Inside the Woomera heritage centre, we eat lunch, and then elect to visit the local museum. We pay $3 for entry and ask for an entry ticket, only to be told that none exists. “Just go in,” we are told. I guess the honour system works well out here.

The small one-room museum hosts a variety of memorabilia from Woomera’s heyday, with model rockets and planes, theodolites and faded photos. A model of the Lake Hart Launch Area stands on one side of the room. The launch area was to be the test site for a cutting edge “V2” rocket that Britain was jointly developing with Australia. Unfortunately, after the equivalent of $200 million being spent on the construction of the site, Britain decided that it no longer thought the project was viable, and canned it. The site still exists today, alongside the salt flat that is Lake Hart, but all that remains of the launch area are its giant crumbling concrete foundations.

The hour of the eclipse draws closer and I spend some time constructing makeshift solar filters for my camera and video camera from the lenses of some eclipse glasses. Having not bought any costly solar filters, I decided to make them myself. After aiming them at the sun, now descending in the sky, I was feeling quite satisfied of their effectiveness. Not as good as proper $100 filters, but still incredibly good value for $6.

“First contact”, where the moon would first start to creep across the sun, would occur at 6.40pm, with totality being achieved almost exactly an hour after that. It is now 4pm. We leave Woomera and Pimba behind and make our final trip to the eclipse site, stopping by Lake Hart along the way. On the approach to Wirraminna, campervans, tents and caravans begin to line the roadside. Anticipation builds, as 52km from Pimba, we cross a cattle grid. 1.4km later, we cross the southern limit of the eclipse area and enter the umbral zone, where anyone within would see totality, albeit only briefly at this extremity.

10km further and we near the centreline of the eclipse. Crowds have started to gather by the roadside, an array of sedans, four-wheel drives, vans, tour buses, and even road trains whose drivers have been fortunate enough to pass through the area at the time, all sitting lined up on the dirt. The high radio mast of a solar powered radio transmitter signifies the Wirraminna rail stop to our right, but we decide to press on. The centreline of the eclipse is the point at which totality lasts the longest, however, due to factors such as atmospheric refraction, the true centreline now lay a few kilometres further down the road, just past the Coondambo Fibre Optic Repeater Station. The repeater station is a fully automated, solar powered facility. It acts as a repeater device, regenerating the optical signals that travel along the fibre cable that joins Adelaide to Darwin. Gigabytes of Internet traffic data stream through it, and from Darwin, are forwarded onwards to Asia and Europe.


Wirraminna roadside at about 5.30pm (large panorama). Cars continue to pour in over the next hour.

The roadside is now like a car park, as more cars continue to stream in. In the outback, however, space is ample, and we have no trouble finding a viewing spot, just opposite the repeater station. It is roughly 5.30pm, and we begin to set ourselves up. Conditions are perfect, except for a stiff wind that is buffeting our camera tripod, so we tie it down with three shopping bags filled with rocks.

Stretching up and down the roadside in one of Australia’s more remote areas, are now lines and lines of people, all waiting expectantly for the spectacle about to unfold. Some chill in banana chairs, VBs in hand. Some are fiddling with their equipment. Some are sharing a yarn. Telescopes, and all sorts of cameras and other monitoring devices point westwards, and there is a buzz in the air, palpable even in the brisk wind, and the excitement mounts.

6.40pm approaches, and people begin to cast their glances towards the sun. I slip my eclipse glasses on, which turns the blindingly incandescent fireball in the sky into an angry red circle, framed in blackness. The seconds tick on. Nothing seems to happen, but then in the bottom-left corner, something. An optical illusion? Our imaginations playing on our expectations, perhaps? But no, in the corner of what should be a perfect circle, is an imperfection. It is the moon. The eclipse begins.

In the initial minutes, people are pointing skywards, jabbering, “Look! Look!” Tautologically, it would seem, for there is not a single person not transfixed. Thus begins the hour long wait, as the moon slowly consumes the sun. Without the glasses, you wouldn’t suspect a thing, for although the sun is being covered, there is no visible diminishment in its radiance.

  
The eclipse begins at 6.40pm / The moon marches on.* / Almost there…

Relatively few people on earth witness a solar eclipse, for not only are they rare events, but when they do occur, they happen over remote, unpopulated areas or the ocean. Solar eclipses are rare, because the moon’s orbital plane is tilted from earth’s orbital plane. Thus, only when the moon lies between the earth and sun, and where its orbital plane intersects earth’s, will an eclipse occur. A maximum of five solar eclipses can happen in a year. Though lunar eclipses happen less frequently, they are more visible because when one occurs, half the earth can see it (those in nighttime), whereas, solar eclipses are only visible along the umbral path. Furthermore, solar eclipses are sometimes annular. This means that the moon is not large enough to cover the full face of the sun (even though it travels directly across it) and the normal effect of a solar eclipse is not achieved.

Solar eclipses in history have signified many things. Asians have traditionally believed that a dragon was munching its way through the sun, and have employed measures such as drum-banging, firecrackers and shooting arrows into the sky in an effort to scare it away. In Tahiti, eclipses have been regarded as the sun and moon engaging in sex. Even today, solar eclipses are interpreted as signals of divine providence, or omens. We Aussies are just happy that such a spectacle landed in our backyard.

The excitement simmers, while people stand around looking silly in their eclipse glasses. Some, though, employ a more traditional method of eclipse viewing – poking a hole in a card, and then projecting the image of the sun through that hole onto another piece of cardboard. It is at about 7.30pm when things start to pick up again. By this time, the moon is covering up a sizeable portion of the sun. And subtly, the light across the outback plains starts to dim. Imperceptibly at first, but slowly everyone notices. It is an eerie experience. Even though it is late in the late evening, the sun is still appearing to shine as brightly as ever in the sky. However, all around, things are harder to make out than they should be. The sun, through glasses, is crescent shaped.

Darkness begins to fall. This is not the gradual darkness of dusk, or even the sudden darkness of a black storm cloud covering the sun, but such something much more intense and foreboding. The drop in sunlight sweeps across the plains uniformly in all directions, ever accelerating, and even now, the sun itself is beginning to fail in the sky. The wind has whipped up, and the temperature drops. Shadows began to fade, merging with the increasing gloom. Silence.

Anticipation builds, and not a soul is not looking towards the dimming sun. Through the glasses, the moon continues is smooth slide across the sun, which is now but a sliver. People start to yell, “it is coming!” The sliver seems to thin forever, but suddenly there is a flash, the flash of the diamond ring effect – a parting gesture from the sun – as the moon completely slides across it, achieving totality and plunging the land into darkness.

It is as if a key had been turned in a lock, and clicked.

  
7.40pm: Totality.* / End of totality, shown by a diamond ring effect as the moon moves off the sun.* / The momentary flash of light from the diamond ring effect.

Everyone is awestruck. Some people are cheering, some people are clapping, some people are looking dumbfounded. But everyone has whipped off their glasses and is staring upwards.

All around, it is night time. Objects appear murky. Stars, shimmering beacons in the celestial void, have come out, and the temperature drops a few more degrees. But the chills running up and down my spine are not from the cold. No, for up in the sky is one of the most remarkably staggering and extraordinary sights people have witnessed, or will witness, in their lives. For me, it was the achievement of one of my lifelong goals, and an unforgettable moment. Suspended in the sky, which was no longer blue, but black, was the silhouette of the moon, as perfect a circle and as black a black as you could ever see, encircled and emblazoned by a fiery aura of rich crimson and orange – the sun’s corona – which appeared to gently pulsate and throb with a graceful smoothness. I was spellbound. All around, cameras fired and shutters whirled, people whistled and others moaned in wonder. The atmosphere was electric.


The landscape during totality. This has been scanned directly from the photo negative as the photo development place somehow neglected to develop this particular picture.*

28 seconds. A brief 28 seconds to savour the experience. A rich experience of sight, sounds, and spine-tingling feeling. It was all over too fast, as a flash from the second diamond ring effect triumphantly announced the return of the sun and the end of the unique spectacle. In my state of awe, I had forgotten to remove the filter from the video camera, thereby failing to capture totality on film, but it was but a small bother. I had seen a total solar eclipse, and that was what mattered.

Minutes later, people begin to leave. We decide to stay back to watch the outback sunset. Light gradually returns as the moon moves onwards. The sky begins to acquire a pinkish haze as the sun drifts down. We relax from the car, as another traveler begins to leave. A single man, from rural New South Wales. He too, drove from Port Augusta, and was meant to meet up with friends in Ceduna. However, upon hearing about the weather, decided to head for Wirraminna instead, thinking it to be the wiser option. Further news from Ceduna, however, was that the clouds had fortuitously parted in time for the eclipse. The sun finally creeps below the horizon, still in partial eclipse, obscured by the retreating moon, and twilight arrives.

 
Sunset in the outback. The sun is still partially eclipsed. / Queueing for petrol at Spud’s in Pimba.

On the way home, we are all exhilarated. Not in a psyched up, adrenaline induced way, but in a reserved manner of disbelief and amazement. It is a long drive home, so we stop over at Spud’s for dinner. Spud’s is doing business like it has never done before. Tourists are converging here from the surrounding eclipse zones for dinner or for refueling. Cars are queued up several deep, waiting for a petrol pump, and it takes up to an hour to get served food.

By the time we finish eating, the queues at the fuel station are gone, and Spud’s has started to clear out. The sun’s rays have completely disappeared from the land. On the highway back to Port Augusta, we pull into an observation point. A few cars are parked here, people staying for the night in their cars and campervans. We switch off the headlights and at once involuntarily gasp as we are enveloped in pure darkness and the beauty of the night sky becomes immediately apparent.

Far away from the “pollution” of city lights, it is as dark as it gets, and the night sky is free to explode in a dazzling display of starlight. The land around is shrouded in utter blackness, but where it meets the horizon, the sky has a deep, faint blue glow. Without light for kilometres around, save from passing traffic, it is so dark you cannot see yourself, nor your surroundings – only the stars above. A thick band of stars swathing the sky from east to west forms the Milky Way. There are clouds in the sky, except that you realise that the night is cloudless. These clouds are actually the magellanic clouds, distant clusters of stars. We spot the Southern Cross, low over the western horizon. Sirius and Canopus, the two brightest stars as viewed from earth, twinkle to the south. An unwavering point amongst a sea of thousands of shimmering dots is Saturn. Although forever gone from the city skies, the beauty of the night sky still reigns over the outback, as it has since the dawn of time.

It is 1.30am when we return to our motel room, slipping easily into a deep, satisfied slumber. We had seen what we came for.

* * *

The next eclipse in the world has a totality that extends for seven minutes, but as it is over Antarctica, very few people will have the chance to see it. In contrast, in a decade or so, another eclipse will pass near Shanghai, and will be witnessed by millions.
________________________
* Photo Notes
Most photos were taken with my digital camera. However, being the three year old brick that it is, it had trouble with the light metering, resulting in wonky exposures. Soph’s normal point-and-shoot camera was more successful in capturing the sun. These photos were scanned in and are denoted with an asterisk. Unfortunately, none of these photos remotely do justice to what was seen on the day.

1
Dec 02
Sun

BRB

Off to see the moon eat the sun tomorrow. Back Thursday night. (If you haven’t visited this site for a while, I did a large update at the end of last month.)

8
Oct 02
Tue

Millennium Trains

Finally got to ride on one of the new millennium trains the other day. They are snazzy. They pull up to the platform with a high pitched, high tech, whirring sound. Stepping inside, the trains still have a, I guess you could call it, “new train smell” which is not unlike hospital disinfectant. The colour scheme is done up in a orange, which is tastefully used so it isn’t garish. The vestibule areas seem to be quite roomy. The seats are firm, but comfortable, swivel backwards and forwards smoothly and without clunking hideously, and I think they support most of your back. The window ledges have been adjusted so you can comfortably rest your arm on them. Likewise, the window rims on the sides are situated just behind the headrest so passengers with window seating can rest their head backwards. When the train takes off, its virtually silent – all you can hear is the soft drone of the air conditioning, together with a smooth acceleration. Multiple electronic LED displays in each carriage indicate stops, and, with joy, the train guard’s voice (more often than not they are speaking their non-native language) has been replaced with a clear recorded one. Gone from these trains are the days of, “Next step Benkstawn. Sten clear, door close.”

10
Aug 02
Sat

Ansett Global Rewards

I had around 35k frequent flier points in Ansett’s Global Rewards Program when it went bust. There’s now a way to redeem them, at the Triple A Club. The catch is, you need to spend $1 to claim back 1 frequent flier point. In effect, to claim back 30,000 global rewards points, you need to spend $30,000 (which will net a total of 60,000 Triple A points under the gold scheme). Triple A points convert back to their value in cents. So, spend $30,000, get back $600 in rewards. Not a terrific incentive.

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29
Jul 02
Mon

Hotham

It was a fantastic week. Snowed three times, twice overnight and once while we were on the slopes. It’s 8 hours down to Hotham and the general consensus was that it was better than Thredbo, Perisher and Selwyn – but naturally, anywhere overseas is better. We were accommodated at a beaut lodge in Dinner Plain, 15 minutes from Hotham, arriving Sunday afternoon, ready for 6 days of skiing. I haven’t gone skiing for 5 years, but its one of those sports that’s really easy to pick up again and by the 4th day we were hitting all the blacks. My leg muscles are big now, but I give them one week to atrophy again.

Hotham slope map – highlights are runs I tried (186k)

Big D: Isolated from the rest of the mountain, this is a waste of time. If you’re a first timer, head to the Summit instead.

Summit: Windy and flat. Rambo’s Revenge and Australia Drift are not worth the time it takes to waddle across to the area. Take Sun Run over the bridge and head towards Heavenly Valley.

Blue Ribbon Area: Probably the best area. Long slopes with variety, and not heavily trafficked. On the Saturday, all the other lifts were packed, but Blue Ribbon was queue free. Boondoo’s a nice run, as is Varsity Drag (which we kept accidentally calling Varsity Blue). Return to Hotham central via Davenport access.

Basin Area: Avoid Noticeboard (ice, moguls). Avoid Wall of Death. Wall of Death should be double black.

Heavenly Valley Area: A decent area, except for Slalom Gully which turns to crap by midday – snow’s very inconsistent, full of bumps. The blacks feeding into it are pretty good though, if slightly icy. The Cornice, followed by Black Snake makes a nice run.

Orchard Area: Terrific area, but it does get monotonous after a while. Not as heavily trafficked as Heavenly Valley. Snow’s good, especially in the morning. Avoid Watershed, but try Bushwhacker, Big Slope and Twirligig. If you can return via Spargo’s as opposed to Greenline, do so. Spargo’s is very steep, especially the last part (there’s a sign at the end section saying “steep descent, use low gear!”) but definitely doable. It was rated double black the for half of the week (icy conditions, and a no fall zone) but that shouldn’t stop you if you don’t mind the steep – the run is smooth and there aren’t any bumps to stuff you up.

Photos in the gallery.

Unfortunately my digi camera’s not waterproof and it’s a bit of a brick so I never brought it onto the slopes. I also figured that if I fell on the camera, the camera would do me more damage than I might do to it.

Hotel Service

Now this is service!

30
May 02
Thu

Got a bit of spare cash?

Got a spare bit of cash? Pay a few thousand, and you can take a joyride in a Russian Mig. For a bit more you can experience weightlessness via a parabolic flight in an Ilyushin-76. A bit more, and you can journey to the “edge of space” in a Mig-25. For 100 G (that’s grand, not Gs as in multiples of gravity) you can book a flight on a one hour sub-orbital flight that goes over 100km high. And if your last name is Tito or Shuttleworth, and you don’t mind a price tag with 7 zeroes on the end of it, then a journey to the ISS is in order. See space adventures. One day in my lifetime, sub-orbital flight may become as affordable as taking a first-class airplane flight is today.

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29
Jan 02
Tue

Couloir

Not sure if I’ve linked this before, but Couloir has some vey nice hiking photos.

24
Jan 02
Thu

Heads Up!

Virgin Blue has this offer:

More than 10,000 $1* one-way flights will be made available in Virgin Blue’s largest and lowest ever special fare offer, as part of this weekend’s Australia Day celebrations.

Australia’s only low fare carrier has over 10,000 seats up for grabs, for flights departing Virgin Blue’s home base of Brisbane to Adelaide, Cairns, Canberra, Darwin, Mackay, Melbourne, Sydney and Townsville.

Obviously you need to purchase a return ticket (so in effect, it’s a half price return flight) and the valid departing times are only available during offpeak mid-week days (Tues/Weds/Thurs), and it’s not as useful if you’re not a Queenslander, but if you are, it’s a good deal. Too bad I have to work during the week. Thanks Denise for the alert.

4
Jan 02
Fri

Misc

Something weird happened and all the permissions on the Hear Ye! directory got cleared somehow, which is why that permission denied page has been coming up (I only just found out). Anyhow, yesterday I got back from a rather ordinary cruise. Doing a bit of last minute shopping today, and I’ll be back in Sydney tomorrow night.

I did send a Happy New Year sms to the page on the 1st, but the sms gateway is a little tempermental…

31
Dec 01
Mon

Well, it’s New Year’s Eve. The weather in Singapore has been fairly cool here, although everyone else keeps complaining about it. I’m definitely a hot weather person. I don’t sweat much, which helps given the constant humidity, and I reckon I could stand living here for a couple of years. When we came back from Bangkok, we got a taxi from Changi airport. It turns out that our driver was an Australia PR (permanent resident). He married two wives – one in Singapore, and the other one was an Australian he paid $20,000 for so he could get his PR status. He said he planned to move to Melbourne after he saved up enough to buy a house there. He works in Singapore simply because it pays better, and that much is certain. The number of nice cars roaming the streets here is verification that Singaporean society is quite affluent (and enjoy flaunting it).

The big news in Sydney has been, of course, the intense bushfires burning on its outskirts. About 7 or 8 years ago, I was in Singapore and Sydney was hit by the largest spate of fires ever. This year’s appears to be even worse. According to this map there are some fires burning near my hometown of Camden, although the town itself is not threatened. I suspect I will return to a very hazy, smoky city in a week’s time.

I saw the Thai premiere of Fellowship of the Rings. They have nice cinemas there, and cheap tickets (120 baht, or A$6 for a normal seat). Hoyts la premiere style seats are only A$10. The movie is an incredible visualisation of the book. Given the three hour length (I would say three hour constraint), Jackson did a pretty good job of adapting the book to the big screen. My opinion is, though, that you really must read the book before the movie to appreciate it. Without the knowledge of the book, it would be understandable that the movie may appear disjoint and underdeveloped. And of course, entire chunks of the book were removed for the movie.

Singapore activites: Sleeping, Eating, Shopping. Shower. Repeat. Cruise in a couple days.

30
Dec 01
Sun

Scam In Bangkok

It was our final day in Bangkok, a warm, sunny Saturday morning. My cousin and I were busy sampling some of the local cuisine. We were at some roadside stalls near Bangkok’s World Trade Centre, eyeing the food on offer by the local denizens. The ever present traffic streamed past on the road, accompanied by the stifling pollution emitted by improperly tuned cars. Gerald passed a 20 baht note onto a stall owner in exchange for food of varying description skewered on four sticks. The transaction had just completed when we were approached by an amiable Thai man dressed simply in a white business shirt who claimed to be the chief of security of the World Trade Centre. The usual questions were exchanged, “Where are you from?” and so forth. Soon after his eyes lit up and he inquired, “Have you gone to see the lucky buddha today?” We shook our heads and he continued, “Ohhh you must go to see lucky buddha, open one day in the year, today only!”

It was about 11am at that point, and we were due to meet back with everyone else in the hotel at 12.15pm for check-out. “We’re running short on time, perhaps after we check out of the hotel, we can return with the rest of our group?”
“Oh, but lucky buddha close in 40 minute, and open only one day in the year, today. It only 7, 10 minute by took-took away. You must go and check!”
He then asked for a pen and scrawled out the directions to “lucky buddha” on a hastily concocted map. He paused, then added, “While you there, you should also visit this place…” He muttered a few more sentences that we didn’t quite catch. We nodded in apparent comprehension nonetheless. He handed back the paper, on which was written “Wat Sapan” (the name of the temple in Thai) and something else we didn’t pay attention to at the time.
“So, you want to go? Took-took, only 30 baht!”
I looked at Gerald, “Yeah, why not? If it’s only open one day in the year?”

The next thing we knew, our hospitable Thai security chief had beckoned over a took-took that was conveniently waiting by the roadside. He negotiated a 30 baht fare to Wat Sapan, and we were on our way.

A took-took is one of the various forms of transport around Thailand. It’s a small three-wheeled, open-air vehicle powered by a whining two-stroke engine. Being somewhere between the size of a motorbike and car, took-took drivers weave in between the Bangkok traffic as deftly as a ship may navigate a rocky shoreline in treacherous waters. To some, riding a took-took is to place your life in jeopardy. To others, like us, it’s the only way to travel the streets. Sure, you cop lungfuls of torrid grey fumes from cars in front and trucks overtake within centimeters of your face, but it’s all good fun.

Five minutes later, we were deposited at a rather modest looking, non-descript buddhist temple. The took-took driver turned off the engine and in halting English, told us he’d wait for us until we finished. He led us over to a stall selling bunches of orchids, jor sticks and other buddhist worship implements. Without time to object that I wasn’t Buddhist, I was given an assortment of the knick knacks shoved and I found myself inside a shrine before a 3 meter gilt statue of smiling Buddha. Two Japanese lay prostrate before it. With no real idea what to do, nor any desire to find out, I lit the candles and jor sticks, stuck them into their holders, shoved the flowers into some large urns and hastily departed the room. Gerald proxy-worshiped for his mum, who’s buddhist.

We made our way over to a second, smaller shrine, which was empty save for a man seated on the steps at the entrance. It wasn’t hard to play “spot-the-non-buddhist-tourist” with me there, and the man called out to me: “Do you speak English?”
“Yes.”
“Ah, are you Buddhist?”
“No…”
“Ah… well, come, sit down here. Must not stand in presense of buddha, is rude.” He patted the step beside him. “Sit down here for five minutes, will bring you good luck,” he said, pointing at a line of Thai inscribed over the shrine’s entrance. So I did, and we started chatting. The man, turned out to be another amiable Thai. He introduced himself as (what sounded like) Pee.

“Where are you from?”
“Australia.”
“Ohh! Australia, yeah I know Australia. Sydney?”
“Yes, Sydney.”
“Sydney, yes… Sydney, Kinfordsmit, you know Kinfordsmit?”
I looked back blankly, “Sorry?”
“Kinfordsmit! Kinfordsmit! Airport!”
“Oh, Kingsford-Smith airport! Yes, of course I know.”

It turns out that Pee was an assistant pilot for Thai airlines who used to fly the Sydney-Bangkok route, but was recently relegated to the Sydney-Singapore route. He seemed quite excited when we mentioned we would be heading to Singapore later that day.

“You know Sim Lim Square in Singapore? Yes? Good camera there!”
Sim Lim is better known for its 7-levels of computer hardware on sale there, but nonetheless he had got our attention. We moved on to the topic of discussing the price differences between Thailand and the rest of the world. Electronics in Thailand are relatively expensive, and Pee explained to us, that a common habit of airline staff was to buy cheap cameras in Singapore and resell them to Thai stores at a 25% markup price. On the other hand, Thai goods, such as gems (typically sapphires and rubies) and clothing were attractive to foreigners due to their relative price. When these goods are exported from Thailand, however, they are hit with high government taxes. For gems, this boosts prices for jewellery importers in Singapore and Sydney by as much as 95%.

“You know Tiffany?”
Tiffany show in Pattaya? Yes, we went!”
He scrunched up his face. “No! Tiffany store, AMP Tower in Sydney…”
I have no idea where Tiffany’s is in Sydney, but I knew what he was referring to, so I just gently nodded.
“Many tourists, come to Thailand, buy goods cheap and go back home. Sell to stores and make profit. You see, your passport,” he lectured, jabbing at his shirt pocket, “gives you right to take gems out, no charge. One setting… one bracelet, earrings, necklace. One setting, no charge. No rectory [factory], import, export tax.”
It’s true, tourists are exempt from taxes on goods bought from overseas (within certain guidelines). If you could sell gems, for instance, back in Australia for a 50% markup, it would still be less than the 95% worth of taxes levied by governments. That equalled a tidy profit. “I have made $2500 US dollars this way once,” Pee boasted. That would be enough to repay the cost of a holiday to Bangkok! Gerald’s and my eyes glistened and we listened on intently. It was all logical.

“Do you know where best place buy gems?”
“Yeah, gems of the world? Big gem stores?” Gerald replied questioningly.
Pee scrunched up his face again and shook his head vigourously. “No! Those places are tourist place! Must buy from exporter stores! Tiffany buy from exporter, you buy from exporter. Not tourist place!” He laughed. “If you have chance, you go to exporter and take gems. Go back home, sell for big money! This trick very well known among tourists. I surprised you not know!”

He took out his wallet and pulled from it a scrap of paper. The wallet bulged conspicuously with a thick wad of cash. He closed it, paused, then opened it again, and pulled out another scrap of paper. The second scrap was a receipt for a necklace set with a small ruby. “Look, I buy this just yesterday.” The receipt was made out to the tune of US$2500. “I sell when I in Singapore next.” The receipt vanished within the folds of the wallet again and he scribbled some words on the first scrap. “I show you where to buy gems…”
“We have no time, maybe next–” Gerald began, but Pee cut him off.
“Only take 5 minutes! I strongly suggest you go, check, see. Very quick, go back sell, make money.”
He passed the scrap of paper to us. Scrawled on it was: “Tiffany (Phatunay) Thai Government Export Centre Name Yindee Lapidary”
We thanked him and chatted for a couple more minutes during which we learnt that Akubra hats from Australia seemed to be another hot item that could be marked up in Thailand.

Surprisingly, our took-took driver was still there, waiting patiently. “We must tip a bit for waiting and returning us to the hotel.” I noted to Gerald. The driver revved the engine and we zoomed off. We began discussing the knowledge that Pee had imparted on to us. It was all believable. “Y’know, this whole thing could be one big scam?” Gerald said. The whole thing smelt of a scam, but we just couldn’t see how at that point in time.

Five minutes later, we pulled into a small alley and the took-took ground to a halt. “Ah, good shop here, you go in, look, 5 minutes.” Our gazes turned to the shop he pointed at. We had been startled by the unscheduled stop, but we were all the more startled at the sign on the shop: “Yindee Lapidary Gems”
The penny dropped and everything clicked into place. Stories of tourists paying huge amounts for gems, only to return home to find that they were nearly worthless, returned to my head. Of course! We began filling in the rest of the blanks, much like you do after a movie that has a twist at the end.
“No no, got to get back to hotel. Must meet tour group in 10 minutes.” Gerald said firmly, his language dropping in level to match the took-took driver’s proficiency in English. The driver kept insisting that we take a 5 minute look, but we kept insisting back, just as firmly that it was “very important” we get back to the hotel and get back immediately.

The driver was visibly pissed off, but he complied. We never actually got dropped off at the hotel, but about a kilometer away from it. In no mood to complain, we quickly jumped off and chucked a 20 baht note at him, which he pocketed sullenly. We scooted off, realising we had been hit by the famous Thai gems scam.

I have only heard about tourists being sold devalued gems, but never the surrounding tale of how so many tourists succumb to such gullibility. Having experienced it, the scam (although I’m sure it has a few variations) is fairly elaborate. In hindsight, though, it falls apart with examination:

1. The “chief of security” probably wasn’t.
2. The took-took driver was all too conveniently waiting by the roadside to take us to “lucky buddha”.
3. The took-took driver all too conveniently, and all too cheaply, waited on us at the temple.
4. “Wat Sapan” open for one day only? Yeah, right.
5. Although Pee claimed that the sign about the second shrine said that if you sit for five minutes, you will be lucky, no one else who had come to the shrine sat for five minutes.
6. Although Pee possessed enough knowledge to convince us he knew a bit about Singapore and Sydney, he never showed any airline pilot credentials. He claimed his business card was left “at home with his wife”.
7. And of course the dead giveaway: How the heck would the took-took driver know about a gems exporter? And coincidentally the same one that Pee told us about?
8. The other phrase written on the Wat Sapan map given to us by the security chief was naturally “Yindee Lapidary”

Back at the hotel, we discovered that we were not the only ones to have been targeted that morning – two other groups had undergone the same routine, but no one was stung. One group even had a took-took driver who explained to them that if they stayed in the gems store for 10 minutes, he would get 5 litres of petrol. I think we came out with the better deal – 20 baht for an extended took-took ride, a temple visit, and a good chat – there is a measure of truth in what Pee said, although Thai gems is probably not what you should be looking at.

Anyhow, I’m currently in Singapore. Will get around to doing a full write-up when I get back. Have an awesome New Year’s…

25
Dec 01
Tue

Day 4

Net access at 120 baht an hour. That’s AU$6, not too bad I guess. So… impressions in brief:

Chiang Mai is a city in Northwestern Thailand, population 1.5 million. Although Thailand is categorised as a newly industrialising economy (2nd world nation), it is lesser developed than other countries such as the bordering country of Malaysia. There are patches of places which may pass off as being Western, such as shopping malls, hotels and the highly touristed places, but move away from those immediate areas and you see the rest of Chiang Mai is not as well developed. Pretty typical for most NIEs, though.

We’re travelling on a package tour, the 21 of us having chartered out a bus. Yesterday’s activities comprised visits to Doi Suthep (atop which sits a Buddhist temple) a handicraft area of the city (Silk factory, jeweller’s, leather factory, etc.) Unlike the tour I went on in Shenzhen, China, a couple years ago, the commercialism wasn’t so evident. In China, it was clear that the tour guide had a cut in any purchases made at the shops visited, acting much like a salesperson at each shop visited. Here however, our tour guide by the name of Bob (I’ll explain another time), slept on a chair while we shopped. Today included novelty elephant rides, novelty ox cart rides, a novetly bamboo raft trip down a brown river, and a visit to the orchid factory.

The night markets are vaguely reminiscent of Nepal’s Thamel district. The main difference is that the merchants are not as persistent in soliciting passer-bys. The sales routine is the same world wide, though: “Hello, cheap cheap… I give you special price. Because you friend, I give cheap, today only.” The bargaining process is a bit more refined than in Kathmandu, and the prices a little more rigid, but otherwise, it’s the same stalls selling knick-knacks and baubles (being 2nd world instead of 3rd world only means that the baubles are slightly more intricate), and the same type of people selling them. We’ve got knowingly ripped off more than once here, but all in all it doesn’t matter. We may overpay in this country, but I’m sure that, due to the marvels of capitalism, if the same goods were for sale in the “first world”, the prices would actually be higher. And most likely not negotiable.

We haven’t had very much opportunity to sample authentic Thai cuisine (the tour throws in a lot of buffet meals, and other meals follow set menus), but generally the food here is mostly appetising. Tomorrow we’re off to Bangkok, followed by Pattaya. Tonight, however, I have a two hour massage booked. Mmm… relaxing…

21
Dec 01
Fri

It begins

About to fly off… just had to make a post at the airport. SQ222′s boarding now…

13
Dec 01
Thu

Notes from the Road

A well written travel site. I think the structure could be a little more cohesive – have more continuity in terms of navigating the site. It’s just a tad confusing. {src: /u/b/g}

13
Nov 01
Tue

Around the World

weecheng.com is the name of the site kept by
Tan Wee Cheng, or TWC, as he shortens his name to. TWC is a Singaporean with wanderlust, having been to a wide array of countries. His site contains a series of travel journals (of sorts) which are more than speckled with intriguing observations on the history, socio-political and culture of the countries he’s visited. Unfortunately, his site is not structured or designed very well, and it does become a chore to find which link continues the page, and what page belongs to what section.

22
Oct 01
Mon

Computers in Nepalese Schools

Village in the clouds embraces computers. While net access is relatively available even in a country like Nepal, that is only in the urbanised areas (and it’s not exactly cheap, either). Obtaining access in the mountainous regions is a much trickier prospect. I remember one of the small villages we passed through while trekking there at the beginning of the year displayed a sign proudly declaring: “Yes! Ghandruk does have a telephone!” Having a telephone line is one thing, but sufficient line quality is another, as is affordability. {Src: Slashdot}

1
Oct 01
Mon

Escape from Afghanistan

Interesting read about one man’s experiences in Afghanistan in the 70s.

31
Mar 01
Sat

Nepal

If you haven’t heard yet, three Aussies were killed in an Avalanche in Nepal a week or so back. A large article appeared in the News Review section of today’s SMH. The trekkers were walking along a part of the Annapurna circuit on their way to the Annapurna Base Camp, as part of  acclimatisation for an Everest summit attempt (the human body must take time to adjust to differing atmospheric conditions above 3000m). The way the media initially reported the incident was, I suppose, typical sensationalism. Hiking in Nepal was made to seem somewhat perilous and authorities “justifying” the accident cited that it was a “freak event”. I trekked through the Annapurna area at the start of last month and the trails are certainly not as dangerous as the media has it. Scores of tourists hike along the tracks every day, some with small children (which although seems strange, is not unusual). Our guide for our trek had guided people as young as 7 (with their parents) to as old as 73. The recent SMH article goes back to look at the initial reports and how valid they were – as a result, its account is closer to the truth. I bought a map of the Annapurna Conservation Area in Pokhara, and the place the 3 Aussies were hiking through that fateful day is a clearly marked as an Avalanche area. Avalanches happen there with regularity – they are not freak events – especially in Spring when the snow starts to melt (even in Winter, temperatures rise to the twenties Celsius, as the sun beats strongly down on the mountains). While there is no doubt that hiking is indeed dangerous, deaths are relatively scarce given the vast amounts of tourists who hike each year. Furthermore, the Aussies were walking without a guide. Although this is done by quite a few people (we ran into a few during our trek), there is no substitute for the years of regional experience a guide will have – it literally could be lifesaving. There’s always risk in things like this, but it’s not as bad as the media makes it to be.

Sidenote: Annapurna is a region of the Himalayas a few hundred kilometers West of Kathmandu, the capital. Everest is in another region, a few hundred kilometers to the East.

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20
Feb 01
Tue

Wow. We made it. The trip, which can be described as no less than “awesome”, is over. I am finally home. I need to fix up my uni enrolment. I need to move a ton of stuff up to my new apartment. We have about 80 rolls of film to develop between the four of us. Deep Space 9 resumed showing tonight. Busy, busy.

13
Feb 01
Tue

We’ve been around the world, been in countless shops, reviewed a myriad of prices. Conclusion: Tag Heuer watches are the cheapest in Singapore. Cheaper than Malaysia, which is in turn cheaper than Switzerland – the place which actually makes those damn things. I suspect the same goes for other brands of watches – so, if you are looking to buy a watch, come to Singapore (and bargain the price down, of course). Anyhow. Went shopping today and spent more money than I probably can afford. Yes, Singapore may be small, it may be boring, but it’s good for shopping, eating, and sleeping. Been doing a lot of that lately haven’t I?

Only one more day here before going back North into the land of people-who-continually-bag-out-Singapore. Only 5 more days before I return to Sydney. Oh dear, I think I’m losing coherency. It’s late, I should be off to bed now.

12
Feb 01
Mon

Crossed into Singapore after driving down from Kuala Lumpur today. Left Kev and Em, who are currently in Johor Bahru, and took a taxi in. I’m happy. I’m on a cable connection at my aunt’s house right now. I’ll be here for a couple days, one of which Kev and Em will join me for, before we all make our way back up the peninsula. Tomorrow holds a day of watch and computer hardware shopping. And eating. Sweet.

11
Feb 01
Sun

A Few Days In Chitwan

As I promised, I would write about Nepal in Malaysia. I don’t have time to write about all the Nepal leg, so I will talk about a small part of the trip.

Nepal is known more for its mountains than its jungle. Nonetheless, Nepal has several “jungle” regions and we visited one of them: the Royal Chitwan National Park situated near the Indian-Nepal border. Chitwan is located in the flatlands, known as the Terai region, which contains rich plains primarily employed for agriculture. Inhabited by the indiginous ethnic group, the Tharus, Chitwan is also home to a wide variety of exotic (well, exotic to Westerners) wildlife including Rhinoceros and the elusive Tiger.

We stayed in Chitwan for three days, accommodated by the Eden Jungle Resort which, like most things in Nepal, has a name far more sumptuous than the real place itself. The resort, more which is more aptly called a lodge, was placed just outside the national park in a town called Sauraha. We were to follow a 3-day programme encompassing a variety of activities scheduled in at different times – not unlike a school camp, actually. After a bumpy 5 hour bus ride from Pokhara, we pulled into the lodge and were served lunch, a rather bland Western-style vegetarian meal that resembled fish and chips. Except, without the fish.

The first activity we engaged in was a Tharu Village Visit. A guide whose name sounded uncannily like “Dunny” showed us around. We strolled through the fields and Dunny identified for us the Lentil crops, the Rice crops, and then… a huge pile of Rhino dung. It turns out that Rhinos pick only one place to defecate and return to that place every time it needs to take another crap. It so happens that this Rhino had designated its toilet to be in the centre of a lentils field. I’m sure the farmers were impressed.

The Tharu village was a stereotypical village not unlike something you’d see in an Attenborough documentary. Houses were constructed of bundles of sticks cemented with a mud-water-dung mix (the dung adds more consistency to the mix). Rooves are constructed from bundles of grass thatched together. Although the roof is replaced every year, the nature of it means that they are also home to a multitude of spiders and other creepy-crawlies. Tharu houses also tend to have very tiny windows, or no windows at all. This was because, as the guide explained, the Tharu being the indiginous people, are very superstitious and large windows means bad spirits can get in. I guess this is not unlike the Chinese superstition that in your house, you should not be able to see the back door from the front door. This is because should there be a straight passage from front to back, good spirits will fly in the front and then fly right out the back. Thus, it is necessary to “block” the passage to trap the spirits. What I never understood is that, wouldn’t you also be trapping the bad spirits too?

I never was one for superstition.

After the village we made our way down to the riverbank to watch the sunset. Back at the village the riverbank was described as being a beach, and in preparation Kev, Emily and Yvonne brought their swimmers (I refused – you don’t get “beaches” alongside rivers). My suspicions were confirmed when we got to the river, and found that the riverbank was anything but a beach. The Rapti River itself was a wide, slow flowing, slightly polluted body of water which meandered lazily through the area. No worry. We picked a log fallen on the dusty riverbank and watched the sun go down. In our silence, we could hear in the distance the sounds of the jungle – whistling birds, bellowing elephants and barking deers. Dinner was again nothing special.

The next day Kevin woke up infested with lice. He was itchy. Damn itchy. Suspecting a dodgy bed blanket, he later hurried off to the pharmacy for a bottle of Scabex – “relief from scabies, lice…” and something else starting with “P” that we can’t quite remember. Nonetheless, he was incessantly scratching throughout the day. The rest of us were quite amused.

First up was a two hour elephant ride. The four of us crammed into a basket atop the elephant’s back, driven by a moustachioed Indian man brandishing a thick wooden pole and brutal-looking metal spike. Whenever the elephant misbehaved, was slow to obey commands, or (as we suspect) even thought of misbehaving, it earned a rather savage whack from the pole, followed by a series of jabs from the spike, followed by a loud whincing noise from the girls.

The novelty of riding elephants does wear off quickly as it is not the smoothest of modes of transport. In fact it was almost as bumpy as the bus we came to Chitwan on. I ended up with bruises on the undersides of my legs due to the way we were seated. Nevertheless being on the largest land animal in the world was a rewarding experience. A trip through the jungle culminated in chasing a pair of Rhinos: a mum and a baby. Whilst stampeding through the jungle in an effort to give us more photo opportunities of them, I got stabbed in the leg by a rather vicious thorn from an overhanging tree. Emily got her leg crushed when the elephant passed a bit too close to a tree trunk. We enjoyed every moment of it. We’d surround the Rhinos, only to have them break through the circle and run off, waggling their incredibly big asses in our direction.

Unfortunately I have to go now. Even though there’s more to say (steaming pools of elephant piss and other such details), dinner takes precedence!

10
Feb 01
Sat

From third world Nepal to second world Malaysia. I am finally back in a part of the world I can call home. Basically, I’m following Kev and Em around (Yvonne left us to visit her relos in Penang). We drove in from Ipoh today to KL. In a couple days we’ll drive to Johor Baharu. After that, the roles switch momentarily and Kev and Em will follow me into first world Singapore where I will visit my relatives. This is definitely the relaxation and recuperation leg of our journey! As I’ve said before, South East Asia is a culinary delight and we’ve been eating, eating and eating. Where else can you step off a plane and have supper at 2 in the morning?

6
Feb 01
Tue

Very quick post. Was trying yesterday when the power cut out. Anyway, just plugging the trekking company that arranged most of of experience here in Nepal: Holiday Mountain Treks and Expeditions. They are also the kind provider of free net access and momo! We leave for Malaysia tomorrow.

3
Feb 01
Sat

Back from the trek! Tomorrow we’re off to Royal Chitwan National Park for a 3 day “package tour” type deal. Elephant riding sounds fun, and is a welcome relief to walking the paths on foot. It’s been a blast – but money is running short, unfortunately. I have a ton of mails to get to, uni enrolment to fill out, and a heap of current affairs stuff to catch up on. Until Malaysia and Singapore then.

27
Jan 01
Sat

Greetings from Nepal! Time is money, so this will be another brief post. We flew into Kathmandu two days ago and took a van up to Pokhara yesterday (and what an exciting journey that was…). Tomorrow we are starting on a 7-day long trek around the Annapurna region of the Himalayas. Should be fun! As expected, this country is a world of difference from 1st world Europe. If we have spare cash, I’ll be posting again, but if not, then our accounts about Nepal will have to wait until Malaysia! Nepal is already the most memorable country of this trip. (Especially, and I guess, unfortunately, since we are Australians, tourists, and comparatively very rich).

22
Jan 01
Mon

Our time in Europe draws to a close, as does the postcard count which stands at 60. Tomorrow, we leave Munich for Frankfurt where we spend one brief night before jetting off to Nepal. Between today and Nepal, we’ll be mainly resting and taking it easy. I chose to spend this afternoon doing some good old net surfing, trying in vain to catch up on over a month’s worth of IT news (the P4 is out already?).

All in all, Europe was a fantastic experience. One day I’d like to come back in the Summer and perhaps go around the Mediterranean. Another time, to visit Benelux and Scandinavia. What I’d like to do, and what actually happens, of course, are two different things. While Western Europe is a diverse part of the world, it still is the Western World, and has all the common traits first-world countries share (and we have just visited 5 out of 7 G7 countries, after all). Each country has its nationally famous monuments, its art galleries, Christian cathedrals and churches, palaces and castles…

Nepal should be a refreshing change. A third-world nation, it is virtually completely foreign to any other country I’ve been in. Religion, culture, language – all different. We haven’t worked out our exact itinerary there, but it will be divided between Kathmandu, Pokhara and a short trek through the Annapurna region (perhaps the Southern Circuit). This should allow us to briefly glimpse Nepal’s cities, villages and of course, its absolutely incredible landscape, being at the doorway to the Himalayas. We were impressed by the Alps, but I suspect the world’s highest mountain range will completely out-do them.

After Nepal, we jet over to Malaysia. I’ll be accompanying Kev and Em as they “relo-hop” down the peninsula to Johor Bahru where I’ll cross over the border into Singapore and begin leeching off my relos there. Enough of the historical sites, the museums and the monuments. Malaysia and Singapore will be a most relaxing time dominated solely by, heh, shopping, eating and sleeping.

This’ll most likely be my last post from Europe, so goodbye, au revoir, tschüß, adios and ciao. The next time I’ll be writing, I’ll be in Nepal, where the salutation changes to Namaste!

21
Jan 01
Sun

As you might have guessed, easyEv has become quite a central part of our stay at Munich! Yvonne’s job searching, Kev’s browsing for a place to eat tonight, Em’s catching up on news in the SMH and I’m doing this post. Today, we essentially did two things.

Twice a day in Winter, at Marienplatz, the Glockenspiel tower on top of the town hall will ring out with its famous tune, accompanied by small figurines prancing around underneath the clockface. We caught the 11 o’clock “show”. The tune played by the belltower upon striking 11 can be described as something no less than deranged. Emitting from the tower for 10 painful minutes was a cacophany of banging, dinging and clanging that had extremely little semblance to music. We stayed until the end, driven by the prospect of seeing the cuckoo pop out and do its thing. Unfortunately, the wooden bird was totally disinterested in its job, flopping out and giving three pathetic hoots before comfortably nesting itself into dormancy again. How bored (and tone-deaf) would one have to be to create such a torturous instrument? We left with one question that Kev, and only Kev, could have raised: Do pigeons try to mate with the cuckoo?

The remainder of the day was spent travelling through most of the 13km of corridors of the Deutsches Museum. 8 levels of exhibitions makes it the world’s largest science museum. I love my sciences over arts and after five weeks of art galleries, church frescoes, historical museums and cathedral crypts, I took to the prospect of spending a day immersed in science with eagerness. The Lonely Planet describes the Deutches Museum as a mix between the Smithsonian Institute and Disneyland. Unfortunately that was a bit of an overstatement. As large as the museum is, 8 gigantic levels must make for a real headache when it comes to upkeep. Many sections of the museum are, quite literally, gathering dust – and not obscure sections either. Chemistry, for instance, consisted of display case after display case of rudimentary chemical reactions that every Year 9 student does (eg: Acid into water gives off heat. Thrilling.) On the whole, however, the museum was jampacked with information (all in German and English, except for the older sections which are only in German) that one could not hope to digest all in one day. I ended up browsing through topics more interesting to me (computers, telecommunications, astronomy etc.) and skipping those that weren’t (textiles, mining, food tech, etc.). At only 5DM, the Museum was well worth it. I would be willing to pay more if they updated some of their older, crumbling, displays.

Plans for tomorrow… personally, I haven’t decided. Yvonne is going to Neuschwanstein and Emily wants to go to Nürnberg.

20
Jan 01
Sat

Guten Tag

Now that we’ve arrived in another European city graced with an easyEverything store (this one sporting an insane 550 terminals), I can finally fill you all in on what’s happened in the last week or so. Apologies in advance for typos: German keyboards have switched the position of the ‘y’ and ‘z’ keys, which is particularlz annozing. See?

Moving from Austria and into Germany marks the final country in the European leg of our tour. The number of postcards sent in my mailouts so far has reached an expensive 55. Some people requesting postcards over the Net have already received theirs, whilst I still have not sent some theirs.

Anyhow, what has happened as of late? It goes without saying that unforeseen events will occur in a trip like ours necessitating a slight change of plans. For us, this was Emily falling ill on our arrival in Salzburg. After lengthy discussion, we decided that it would be best if everyone was fit as possible going in to Nepal. As a result, Berlin was unfortunately sacrificed for extra time for resting in Salzburg and Munich. Another contributing factor was the brilliant accommodation we had at Salzburg – a hostel that was twice as good as the 3-star hotel we stayed at in Bayswater, London. Salzburg was extended for three nights, and Munich by one (I think, there’s been so much chopping and changing that I’m still confused). Nonetheless, the extra time in Salzburg enabled me to visit Innsbruck.

Venice was an interesting city. Any city that you arrive in via a 4 kilometre rail “bridge” is. Venezia is a city comprised of over 100 small islands connected by a series of footbridges and canals filled with (in places) the most foul smelling water. There are no forms of motorised transport there asides from water vehicles. Water vehicle travel is expensive. Most of our travel was done on public ferries called vaporetti. Water taxis charge by the quarter minute, and the romantic gondola rides are not so romantic anymore when you realise they cost over $150 to hire for 50 minutes. Not bad money for someone standing on the back of a boat pushing a stick. Finding accommodation in Venice is easy, as it was in Rome and Florence. They come to you. In our case, soon after alighting the train, we were accosted by a John Cleese lookalike who offered a berth at the Hotel Adua.

Apart from the novelty of Venice’s city planning, Venice is famous for its venetian glasswares, and strolling through the streets will reveal multitudinous glass dealers flogging off the same wares at vastly varying prices (so shop around if you intend on buying something). Despite the Italian love of piazzas, Venice only has one proper piazza (the rest are called campo) which has a pigeon count rivalling that of Trafalgar Square. It is here where the Basilica di San Marco resides – the burial site of Saint Mark. Inside there is a large altar screen constructed from gold and is jewel encrusted, showing just how ghastily poor the Catholic church is. Naturally, we had to pay 3000 lire for the privilege of seeing this screen which looks very… Hindi, in style. But that might just be me.

An afternoon of shopping resulted in me almost losing my credit card. That same afternoon, however, resulted in us fortuitously bumping into Jamie (from Rome, remember?) at the Piazza. He and another friend, Anthony, were attempting to gain access to the actual crypt St Mark was buried in, but that is another story I will tell another time. We met up in the evening with Tom for dinner, before permanently parting ways in Europe. We were bound for Vienna next.

In stark contrast to Italian rail, our Austrian train pulled in half an hour early to Wien Ost-Bahnhof at the unearthly hour of 6.15am. Stumbling out of the train, we were met by blast of ice cold air which reminded us that the comparatively balmy Italian weather was no more. Waiting an hour in the station (conveniently unheated) for everything to open was not pleasant, but eventually we booked ourselves into a hostel.

Vienna looks like a capital city. It’s spacious, with roads lined with classic-style buildings and none of the hustle and bustle of Italy. A bit boring after a while, actually. Vienna was bloody cold. Freezing. -6 degrees Celsius to some (eg: Canadians) is not cold at all in Winter. But to Australians, used to weather 50 degrees Celsius hotter (and I’m not exaggerating, Sydney recorded some 45 degree C days this Summer) this time in the year, it is fricking torturous.

Experiences in the home of classical music involved attending an evening of chamber music, lunching at an Australian pub (yes… we had to look twice at that too to make sure it said “Australian” and not “Austrian”), walking between the entrails of the Habsburg royal family under St Stephan’s Cathedral, and so on. One event that deserves mention was bumping into Herr Lucas and the Trinity Grammar German tour, in the Sigmund Freud Museum, no less. The odds of the happening were quite ridiculous.

Salzburg was beautiful. One or two degrees warmer than Vienna, it, at least, was blanketed in snow. We stayed there for 6 days, basically, and enjoyed every moment of it. Well, almost every moment. On our first day there we had a particularly shocking time with public transport. Quick rundown of some of what we did:

Sound of Music Tour. Fulfilling the girls’ lifelong dreams, we took this 4 hour tour tracking the places where Sound of Music was filmed. This involved 4 hours of hopping in and out of a minivan, marked by periods of listening to the girls incessantly singing over the top of the Sound of Music soundtrack that our driver, Nabil, had put on (and thankfully later pulled off due to him experiencing the same distress I was in).

Die Festung Hohensalzburg. This thousand year old fortress towers over Salzburg and is visible from almost any point in the city. Climbing it resulted in a beautiful view and burning off the numerous calories accumulated from eating way too much.

Mozart Stuff. Mozart was born here. He lived here. He has many memorial sites dedicated to his memory. I think we visited all of them.

On one day Yvonne and I made a daytrip to Innsbruck, 200 kilometers distant. (Emily hadn’t seen enough of Salzburg’s AltStadt, and Kevin “couldn’t be bothered going”.) Innsbruck was awesome. Set in between two mountain ranges provides a 360 degree postcard view, everywhere (didn’t I say this about Lucerne?). We visited the Alpine zoo there, along with the Hofkirsche and a “Golden Roof” (Goldenes Dachl, I think the German for it is) sporting 2700+ gilded copper tiles. Free schnapps tasting and net access capped off the day.

And now we’re in Munich. That was a very brief rundown of what happened, but it’s now dark in Munich and we’re getting hungry. We’ll be back at easyEverything tomorrow, getting our much needed Net fix.

18
Jan 01
Thu

Very quick note – access to net has been very limited in Austria, will be spending a couple hours updating in Munich. Due to poor health of Emily, we have cancelled Berlin, unfortunately, from the itinerary and as a result are still in Salzburg (which is gorgeous). Until Munich, then!

9
Jan 01
Tue

Firenze

As the second major Italian city we’ve visited, it certainly hasn’t detracted from my initial impressions of Italy gained from Rome. Florence has been distinctively different from Rome, but no less enjoyable. Apart from excessively pigging out on ice-cream (I ate three cones yesterday), we visited Pisa and its famous leaning tower yesterday, and took a daytrip to medieval Siena today. Due to the fact that all museums in Florence are closed on Mondays, tomorrow is the day we are seeing Florence itself. Running short on money and net time. Ciao.

5
Jan 01
Fri

The Day Today

Although I like the people I’m travelling and all, naturally, spending a month together every day can start to grate. Yesterday, we met up with Tom and Jamie – two friends that went to high school with me (none of us are boarders, so for those aware of the bad press TGS has been getting back home, don’t get any ideas) – and also Pat, a fellow Aussie they met at the Roma Termini train station. The idea last night we had dinner. It appears that we were on the “wrong side of town” as we couldn’t find a pizzeria. In Rome. Anyhow, drenched from the rain hurtling down, we stumbled into a pizzeria that was empty. Instead of taking the hint and leaving immediately, we proceeded to order. The waiter returned with food that could only have been reheated microwaved supermarket pizzas. Not a good meal. Anyhow, we resolved to meet up the next day (that being today) and travel to the Vatican together.

The Vatican is essentially a country within a country. Inside high brick walls resides an independent “nation” with an area of 0.44 square kilometers of which Pope John Paul II is head of state. It’s official language is Latin. Our first stop was to grab a quick, overpriced breakfast, which we did standing up (eating food sitting incurrs being charged a higher price in Italy – there are signs warning that “purchasing food does not give you the right to sit at a seat”). We reached the Vatican Museum soon after. The Vatican Museum is both an impressive display of antiques and artworks, and an impressive display of the wealth of the Catholic church. There is far too much in that museum to digest in one day. The “complete tour” marked on the brochure is supposed to take 4 hours, but after traversing only 20% of the journey in 2 hours, that estimate was quite underestimated. Incidentally, should you ever find yourself in the Vatican Museum, purchase the audio guide. It is very comprehensive and, dare I say it, well worth the £10,000 (that’s 10,000 lira, not pounds) it costs. The highlight of the museum, of course, is the Sistine chapel which includes the vey well-known frescoes of Michaelangelo (creation of Man, the Final Judgement etc.) among other artists whose work grace the chapel’s walls.

After another overpriced meal in the cafeteria at the museum, we made our way over to St. Paul’s Basillica (I think it’s called that), the papal residency. It turns out that tomorrow is a national holiday for Rome due to the closing of the Jubilee gates. From what I heard, the Jubilee gates open only once every 1000 years, and for a period of one year. Last year the gates opened. Tomorrow is the day they close for another thousand years. The result, I can only speculate, was today there was a mass of people queued up outside the Basilica, awaiting entrance. It would not be unfair to say there were over 100,000 people lined up. As for the Jubilee Gates, I still do not know anything about them, where they are, or if that was why there were so many people there. Needless to say, we weren’t about to queue up for hours, so we left for gelato (I’m addicted, I would move to Rome for that stuff alone) followed by dinner at a Lonely Planet recommended pizzeria. Immediately after we made for easyEverything. I’m convinced the easyEverything here is running a scam. $3 for 3 hours the rate may be, but 50% of the terminals here are mysteriously non-functional. For dumb terminals which run on a netboot and pull down identical operating system images from the main server, there are certainly more problems than there should be. And the terminals never seem to get fixed either. Tomorrow we are attempting to visit Pompeii.

One more thing: hot off the press is that Australia has banned all beef imports due to problems with BSE. Needless to say, our aversion to beef (and also lamb, as two cases of BSE in Germany were attributed to sheep!) in Europe has been justified.

3
Jan 01
Wed

Roma rocks. After a rather sleepless night’s train ride in from Lucerne, we pulled into Rome at about 10am today. Our initial plan was to find the Lonely Planet mentioned hostel, ‘Fawlty Towers’ but within minutes of stepping off the train we were approached by an Asian woman asking if we were looking for accommodation. Unsure at the time if this was some scam or similar, we gingerly asked for further details. It later turned out that there were many people like her, waiting like vultures, to book incoming tourists into accommodation. She had been in Rome for over 10 years and spoke Mandarin, English and Italian (just as it is strange hearing Asians speak French, it’s the same with Italian. Strangely, we never saw any Spanish speaking Asians in Barcelona.). After spending about an hour going through a few different options, we settled upon “Kenzo Pensione”, a Japanese owned place about 3 minutes walk from the Rome train terminal. 40K lira a night per person with a TV and bathroom was fairly decent. Probably the best place we’ve been in so far, actually, being clean, neat and well aired.

After an afternoon nap, we took to the streets to get an overview of the city. Our first order of business, however, was to get to a Thai airways office to reschedule one of our flights. We will now be spending 2 days less in Nepal, extending the Malaysia leg of our journey instead. With this change comes the possibility of me dropping into Singapore. We bought a ticket at the easyEverything net café I’m now sitting in, although at that time the café had no free terminals. It is slightly smaller than the one in Barcelona, with “only” about 300 terminals. 3000 liras buys 3 hours, which, for a traveller is virtually an unlimited amount of time. As for the rest of the day, I’ll give a brief run down: we came across an ice creamery and bought some of the best tasting ice cream we’ve had on this trip yet. We visited the Spanish steps, and the fashion houses in the street leading up to it (Gucci, Armani, Bally etc.). We ate a mouthwatering dinner at a trattoria – prices were very affordable compared to Lucerne. Tomorrow, we’ll be properly visiting the old Roman monuments. This update was rushed – there aren’t any terminals free at this time, so I’ll be handing the computer over to Kev now.

One more thing, a note to mum, as I’m having trouble reaching her by phone: Happy 50th Birthday Mum! (for the 4th of Jan).

1
Jan 01
Mon

Welcome to 2001

They don’t seem to have exclamation marks on Swiss keyboards. Nonetheless, Happy New Year all. As Kev has provided an abridged account of last night’s events, I will not dwell on it other than say it was an interest New Year’s.

Switzerland has been a wonderful place. The scenery is incredible, especially to an Aussie who has seen so little snow in his lifetime. Everything is coated in a glimmering white. Lucerne (Luzern, as it is natively called) is surrounded by snow peaked mountains, providing a postcard view that extends 360 degrees from just about any point in the city. Additionally, there is a lake through the centre of the city that adds to this Winter Wonderland. Yesterday we took a trip up Mount Pilatus, named after Pontius Pilate who was supposedly buried there, and the dragons that supposedly inhabit the area (exclamation mark). The snow was powdery and soft, and we nicked off with a toboggan and went on a few suicidal runs down the mountain side, followed by the traditional snowball fights. We went through a lot of film whilst on that mountain.

Tag Heuers aren’t that much cheaper than can be found in Australia, but I’ve been told that they can be found even cheaper in Singapore, so it looks like I will have to wait until we are in South-East Asia before I look into actually taking the plunge and buying one. Tomorrow night we leave for Italy. We are changing our itinerary and are swapping the order of our visit, travelling to Rome before Florence. Good thing too, because despite the sunny weather and beautiful scenery, it is bloody cold here. So we welcome the more temperate climes of Italia… and will be on the lookout for an easyEverything net cafe :). Tschüss.

29
Dec 00
Fri

Barcelona on a Budget

How to do Barcelona on 1200 pesetas a day… We made a mistake in our budget and underbudgeted by about $10, so we have to go around today on about $12, $2 of which is going to this internet access. The primary purpose of today’s net access was so we could pre-book hostels in Italy, instead of tramping around with backpacks doorknocking on hostels presenting a rather enticing target to be mugged. The remainder of the money’s going on food and the postcards I still have to buy and send out. Unfortunately, there will be no more easyEverything cafés until Rome, and then in Berlin and Munich – so, as Adrian pointed out, we will have a problem with lack of connectivity over the next week or so.

28
Dec 00
Thu

Montserrat

I grossly underestimated the number of computers in easyEverything last night. We asked the cashier and it turns out there are over 400 computer terminals housed in this building. That’s just crazy.

Today, we visited Montserrat: a mountain, monastery and general sacred place which resides about an hour out from central Barcelona by train. Montserrat the mountain, standing about a thousand metres above sea level, was formed as a result of tectonic activity eons ago. The ocean used to cover the surrounding land, but gradually the land was pushed upwards to form the mountainous region Montserrat was part of. Also, as a result of this, Montserrat was considered sacred, and some ambitious people decided to make the long trek up the mountain and stick a monastery up there in the early 11th Century.

These days, pilgrims to the monastery, which houses an icon called “Black Mary” (Mary is the patron saint of Montserrat) have it easy. You can trek up mountain trails, or take the funicular – otherwise known as a cable car (especially characterised by simulataneously ascending and descending cars which counterbalance each other). Although the journey up and back down is a rickety one, diagrams advertising the funicular’s six independent, fully working braking systems served to reassure nervous travellers. However, the chain smoking controller guy at the top of the mountain destroyed this impression when we saw him dispose of a cigarette by chucking it into the gearworks of the funicular’s machinery.

The mountains around the place have some strange rock formations comprising of smooth “bubbles” poking up to the sky. The most prominent of these formations, popularly found on many Montserrat postcards, is decidedly phallic. I guess that’s why it’s features so popularly. Montserrat was about 5 degrees colder than Barcelona, but the killer here was the wind which whipped around us ferociously at the mountain top – so much so we feared that Yvonne would be blown clean off the dirt paths. Another group of tourists asked me to take a photograph for them, and when I took my hands out of my pockets, my hands instantly froze.

The monastery/basilica itself is an ornate, ill-lit Catholic building. Not very austere these days, but it is not hard to imagine monks from ages past enduring the dark, the cold and the hardships of a life without pleasure in the same corridors we were walking. Above the main altar, in the centre in an alcove on the second level of the basilica, is an icon of the aforementioned “Black Mary”. A sinister looking statuette where an ebony Mary holds an orb, with a small child on her lap, him too holding a smaller orb. She is encased in a glass case, except for the orb she holds which protrudes. Catholics pilgramage here to touch and kiss the orb. This is followed by a brief prayer before they move on to a prayer area. Although Christian myself, I do not understand the stock they place in Mary. Given the central position she has in the basilica, you would almost think that they are placing her above Christ Himself.

There is also, of course, the customary giftshop where Black Mary has been replicated hundreds of times in minature form so that tourists can take her home with them. It was an interesting visit. There were very picturesque viewpoints upon the mountain which looked down onto the Catalonian plains, dotted by small villages and fields, surrounded by hills which poke above the low cloud level.

We have a reservation in an overnight train tomorrow which will pass through France and wind its way North-East to Switzerland. Ah, Switzerland, the land of fine chocolate, neutrality, a 400,000 men strong standing army and the place where I will be on lookout to buy a nice Tag Heuer watch. But more on that later.

27
Dec 00
Wed

La Rambla

Finally, affordable net access in Spain. I’m currently typing this up in a huge Net Café called EasyEverything. It’s actually a large chain of Net Cafés found all over Europe and they are incredibly massive. The one I’m sitting in currently has over 150 terminals – each equipped with a flatscreen LCD screen with everything hooked through a fat fibre optic connection. The capital outlay to start up these chain of stores must have been massive. Their billing model is slightly different as well – the cost of access is a flat 200 pesetas (AU$2), but the amount of time that buys you varies with the current number of computer terminals in use. I’d say 80% of computers are in use right now, in the evening and my 200pts gets me 45 minutes. In the morning, it would buy me 3 hours.

We have bunked in “Hostal Paris”, a clean hostel with daily room service and a TV(!) and the best bathroom we’ve had out of all our accommodation so far (even the 3-star hotel we stayed in in London!). The hostel is located in one of the narrow pedestrian-ways just off La Rambla, the main street in this part of Barcelona, the “old town”. The local language is actually not Spanish, but a dialect of sorts called Catalan. Not that it makes much of a difference, but our knowledge of this has got a few reactions from people – Kev requested the bill in Catalan (courtesy of the Lonely Planet traveller’s phrasebook). The waiter’s eyes lit up and he exclaimed, “you speak Catalan! Not Spanish!”

La Rambla runs the length of a couple kilometers and its two narrow one-way, one-lane roads are split in the middle by a wide pedestrian strip upon which most people walk. Spain is my type of city – it’s a night city. In the morning, the weather is a mild cold and La Rambla is not heavily trafficked. The trees that line the side of the pedestrian strip have not lost their leaves like the other deciduous trees that appear throughout Europe. Old men silently sit in chairs that line the road, apparently in trances of sorts. People walk their dogs, and a few shops start to open. The sounds of birds fill the air as bird shops on the pedestrian strip sell their wares which include parrots, budgies, and even roosters and pigeons!

By night, La Rambla has changed altogether. The road comes alive as people line the streets. Buskers set up their activities comprising of an array of human statues, puppeteers, magicians and even a Jazz pianist who somehow wheeled in a piano. Newsagencies, shut during the afternoon re-open. Every 50 metres, there will be either a “Lecturas” or “Clara” stand. They are not your everyday newagencies, for they have an impressive collection of porn magazines and porn “literature” – all on open display, none of this shrink-wrapped 18+ packaging. In fact, it even seems that the Spanish are a more passionate people than the French. Based on empirical observation, couples walk slower, kissing and cuddling is more common, and Spanish is a sexy language as much as French is a seductive one. Then again, it could just be because France currently is freezing its ass off while Spain is enjoying a somewhat balmy Winter and couples prefer to have a snuggle inside where it’s warm.

There are plenty of scams along La Rambla as well. I’ve seen the infamous “Where’s the Ball?” game, where a dealer shuffles a ball between 3 boxes and you have to pick which box it is under. An unwinnable game. I also encountered another group of “rose ladies” today which I deftly sidestepped. Next time I’ll be a little more verbose with my reaction…

All in all, Spain is a place I’d like to revisit… along with France and the UK! There’s much I haven’t mentioned – the food, the markets and the other attractions, but that will have to wait until I have more time to write about it.

26
Dec 00
Tue

Once Biten…

As I was saying in the SMS Log, I think I got lifted of $250. We were tramping all over the town with our backpacks, feeling pretty worn out. We were in a pedestrian-way resting and, as Kev put it, “the sharks smelt the blood in the water”. The sharks came in the guise of a group of 4 or 5 women brandishing roses. I have no grasp of Spanish whatsoever so I just looked on blankly while they inserted a rose into the top of my jacket. In hindsight I really screwed up. We should´ve all just shooed them away, but given our tired mental states, didn´t. They wanted 1 peseta for the rose (the equivalent of one cent). This already should´ve sent alarm bells ringing in my head and I pulled my wallet out. Mistake. Although my wallet never left my hands, Within the next 20 seconds, they had somehow managed to slip out the 22000 pesetas I had recently withdrawn for the three day stay and the 50 marks I had leftover from Germany. The rose must´ve been the distraction because I remember her reinserting the rose into my jacket and for those brief moments I gazed away from the wallet. Impressive sleight of hand. Either that or I dropped the money somehow. Either way, I´m now in a near-paranoid state of mind.

Apart from this unfortunate incident, Spain is also looking appealing. Kev has been raving on about Paella for the last few weeks, so we are all hyped up about it somewhat…

Anyway, there´s one more post I have to make about Paris, and that´s about our visit to the Louvre. The Louvre houses one of the most famous paintings in the world: Da Vinci´s portrait of Mona Lisa. It is encased in climate controlled glass box with dessicant scattered all over its floor. It is subjected to the flashes of thousands of cameras a day as people mill about snapping and videotaping the painting, which measures about 70cm by 100cm. However, we couldn´t work out one thing. Why was the Mona Lisa so famous? We couldn´t think of anything satisfactory, so Kev and I decided to do a bit of asking around.

1. Man at the Gift Shop: “I work here everyday, for so long, and I still do not know!”
2. Security Guard: “(Us) Parlez-vous Anglais?” “(Him) A leetle…” He had no idea. We did not see his nametag which read “surveillance” so he looked like a curator.
3. Information Desk: Basically the woman there told us that the Mona Lisa´s origin was controversial – it may have been a self-portrait of the gay Leonardo, or not been painted by Leonardo at all (but by one of his students). The smile of the Mona Lisa is also questionable – is it a smile, or a look of annoyance?
4. Cute Gift Shop Girl: “(Us) Parlez-vous Anglais?” “(Her) Ohhhh… a leetle…” She mumbled after much stuttering something about Leonardo painting it for his friends. She also attempted to get another museum visitor to translate for her, but she had asked an American who had no idea.
5. Curator: “(Us) Parlez-vous Anglais?” “(Her) A leetle…” She repeated information that was similar to that of the information desk, adding the fact that the style of colouration of the painting was unique, and that the Mona Lisa may have been a man in drag (“man in woman” was the exact phrase she used). Finally, she noted that the Mona Lisa´s eyes follow you from whatever angle you viewed the painting – however, from my readings, this is true of any painting in which the subject is looking at the viewer.
6. Gift Shop Woman: “(Us) Parlez-vous Anglais?”
“(Her) A leetle…”
“(Us) Do you know why the Mona Lisa is so famous?”
“(Her) You go through that door and go to the second corridor on the left…”

25
Dec 00
Mon

Internet access is expensive in Paris. 1 French Franc a minute. Anyhow, today is our final day in the Hollywood-portrayed “City of Romance”. It’s drizzling, grey and the streets are deserted on Christmas day, but this city has been fun. I will keep this update short – I’ve only 4 minutes left, but there are three things I will mention about Paris. Parisiens really have good taste gastronomically speaking. We’ve been eating really well here spending about 100FF on dinner each night. The patisseries are also a treasure you won’t find in Australia. The metro system (subway) here is also the best I’ve seen yet – puts all the other systems we’ve experienced to shame. Finally, Paris looks magical at night. One evening up the Eiffel Tower, overlooking the River Seine, Paris is no longer the drab grey of the Winter day but a colourful sparkling, energetic city. We leave on an overnight train for Spain in a few hours where the weather should be warmer, the food cheaper, and the local language completely incomprehensible. A bientot! (This is an English keyboard and I can’t find the circumflex key.)

19
Dec 00
Tue

Farewell England

Finally, on the last day, I have found affordable net access at “only” £1.00 an hour, on a quick broadband connection (and a flatpanel monitor!). Today we escaped the smoggy air of London and made our way to Warwick, home of Warwick Castle which dates back to 1068 when it was commissioned by William the Conqueror. After one train decided to die on us while chugging out of Marylebone Station (pronounced with a silent “y”), we switched platforms to another train and were on our way.

The English countryside is very picturesque. In typical English weather, misty with light drizzle, the lush fields and gently rolling hills are quite an eye-pleasing sight. Warwick is a small British town. We arrived there looking for lunch, and, because most of the other shops and restaurants were shut (at noon on a Tuesday!), we stumbled into a pub, soaked by rain and ate there.

Warwick Castle was wonderful. It was a medieval castle, straight from the fantasy novels and computer RPG games that had captured my imagination over 10 years ago. Now, I was walking the grounds. A brief desription doesn’t do it justice, but nonetheless, a brief one is all I have time for. The dungeon was everything you’d expect it to be – dark and dank, only, it wasn’t a twisting labyrinth. Contained within was a “dungeon within a dungeon” – the oubliette. It was a small pit into which particularly disliked criminals would be shoved into (crouching room only), locked into and then forgotten (as the name implies, from the French, oublier, to forget). The opportunity to climb the battlements and parapets was also worthwhile. After climbing and descending 530 steep steps (most of them spiral) we gazed through the out from the crenellations on the castlewall over the misty countryside. We gazed down the murderholes to the ditch surrounding the castle, some 100 feet below. We walked the grand dining rooms, bedrooms and dining rooms. The armoury, a display entitled “Death of Glory” contained an “interactive” display of arms and armour. I felt how heavy a 7lb one-handed Great Sword was, and how taut a long bow’s bowstring was (up to 50 kilos of force needed to draw the largest bows! And archers could fire as many as 15 arrows a minute.)

Tomorrow we leave for Frankfurt, staying there very briefly before taking a train to Paris, France. Although the other have had negative impressions of England (or London, specifically), it is everything that I had expected. I have definitely enjoyed the heritage the place has offered.

15
Dec 00
Fri

Update

I was neither maimed nor killed in New York. In fact, I did enjoy the visit to it more than the one I made about 5 years ago. It was an interesting experience, although my opinion of New York as a city still is quite negative. Cold, busy, dense and, with the short cloudy Winter days, dark and gloomy. It’s a tough city, and one where the homeless have it very much tougher than Sydney homeless. The subway system, for instance. Dirty, busy, pushy but quick and efficient. Suburban trains don’t accelerate much faster than that. The Layout of Manhattan is clinical – horizontal West-East streets, and vertical one-way only avenues. Very easy to navigate, but hard to remember (was that the corner of 20th and 7th or 30th and 2nd?). As a quick run down, we visited The Met (which I Rogue Speared through :) featuring a very impressive collection of artworks, window shopped through 5th Avenue, Macy*s and Bloomingdales (who allows dogs to browse through the wares alongside their owners), took the Staten Island Ferry, visited Rockefellar Plaza, Wall Street and the NYSE, ate at Chinatown and a diner at Times Square, and a variety of other typical touristy events.

In contrast, London is similar to Sydney. A posher, larger version of the place, perhaps, but one better than New York. And today, the Sun shone and the sky was clear (it’s around 5-10 Celsius, equivalent to a cold Winter day in Sydney). Quite an anomaly I’ve been told. We’ve been to Trafalgar Square (and kicked the pigeons there), the National Gallery, Buckingham Palace (waiting for Clinton, but due to some misinformation, it appeared that he had escaped us a few moments before we arrived, and we ended up seeing the changing of the guard), Westminster Abbey (very impressive, and it’s easy to see from its architecture where RPG designers have gotten their inspiration and ideas from – medieval Europe) and so on. Unfortunately these entries take a long time to write. I have been writing a diary, and my intention is that when I come back to Australia, I will flesh out and insert entries that are more than brief observations, and more my thoughts and feelings.

8
Dec 00
Fri

We Are Here

Made it to NY after a 12 hour flight to San Fran followed by a 4 hour one to the Big Apple! Noticed that they’ve installed free net terminals in Sydney Airport (as opposed to the sparse access they provided last year when I went to Hong Kong), but there wasn’t enough time for me to make a post there – coincidentally bumped into a friend there – she was taking a flight that left 20 minutes later from an adjacent gate. So, NY… It’s currently snowing lightly and is cold at about zero degrees Celsius (although I have sufficient clothing luckily!), but this city really is incredible. Fast paced, busy, and with horns perpetually blaring in the streets (just like the movies). The people are very direct, not that friendly a lot, but then again I think that Aussies would be friendlier people as far as tourism goes. It goes with the lifestyle – a more laidback attitude to life means they are less “efficient”, but they are a warmer bunch than Americans. This net station is time limited so I will cut this off now – I think there is, however, net access back at the Hostel (which also happens to be ‘roach infested). We’ll be looking at travelling 5th avenue later today after taking the subway from W 20th to Times Square. Yes, it is all wonderful. (Someone please shut Kevin up because he can’t stop imitating the Yank accent.)

14
Oct 00
Sat

End of Year Trip

Instead of the middle-east, which is really beginning to heat up, we’ve decided to go to Kathmandu instead. I’ll be away for 2.5 months, so what’s going to happen to this site? Well, I intend to put up a site in place of Hear Ye! (a travel edition of it? :) which I can update from overseas. I intend to visit as many net terminals as possible and keep an online journal of the trip.

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11
Oct 00
Wed

War in the Middle-East

I said before that at the end of the year I’ll be doing the round the world thing. We were going to spend 3 weeks in the middle-east (Egypt, Jordan, Israel) but of course the tensions are high there and war could break out soon. So we unfortunately decided to scrap that part of the journey and are looking at going to either Marrakesh or Kathmandu instead.

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2
Aug 00
Wed

In Japan

Along with Endquote’s revival, there’s a hosted site on there that gives the accounts of a guy remporarily living in Japan. I love reading that type of stuff.

12
Jul 00
Wed

Europe Backpacking Trip

I dunno if I should be making this post, but it wasn’t my idea. It’s actually on the request of a friend. That said, a bunch of friends and myself (four of us in total) are planning to go backpacking across Europe during the Summer holidays at the end of the year (yeah yeah, it’s fricking cold and mid-Winter in Europe and we’ll freeze our asses off there as I’ve been told more than once). We start our trek in dreary-skied London and work our way around Europe. However, we got some sort of plane ticket deal where we get a chance to stop over in the USA for a bit before going to Europe. Which brings me to the question. We have a choice between NYC, and LA. I’ve been told NYC is better but last time I was there I froze my ass off (ok so that’s going to happen in Europe anyway, but why extend the suffering?). Now, that’s not all. Being poor uni students, it would be great if we could scab discount accommodation off someone. So I was just wondering, on the very slim possibility that, if there was anyone who reads this page, living in either NYC or LA or thereabouts, who would be willing to shelter us Aussies for the few days we are in the States. Anyone willing to express even a hint of interest?

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29
May 00
Mon

Travelog: Aussies in North Korea

Written in 1994. That’s a helluva lot of writing for a 3 week trip.

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7
Feb 00
Mon

Readings

Tog of AskTog is not only a design guru, but he’s got some articles that make for good reading. Try Japan on $1,000 a day – a humourous and revealing account of a couple weeks in Japan, and A Night in the Cathouse for starters. I love well written travel stories (even stuff like Shlonglor’s trip to Vegas – anyone remember that?) – here’s another one of Japan again.

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12
Jan 00
Wed

Hong Kong Street Air

This quote sums up the air in Hong Kong pretty well. I’m sure you know where it’s from: “I can’t stand it any longer. It’s the smell … I feel saturated by it. I can taste your stink and every time I do, I fear that I’ve somehow been infected by it.” They don’t use dry ice to create smoke for theatrical productions, just compressed street air.

10
Jan 00
Mon

Troubling

We went on a 3-day cruise up to Malaysia and back while overseas. It’s just slightly troubling to know that at least some of the systems aboard a 78,000 tonne cruise liner were running Windows NT. Here we see the emergency drill video displaying an IP conflict error message. I couldn’t resist the photo opportunity. [Another pic]

Sorry... didn't quite get that phone number

7
Jan 00
Fri

bbs

Back from a three day cruise up to Malaysia. I leave for the trip back to Australia tomorrow, so barring any mishaps with the plane flight (our Qantas flight number is “124″ which has some rather unfortunate implications in Cantonese when said aloud… Chinese superstition which my grandparents are especially quick to point out :), I’ll be back in Sydney tomorrow and making semi-regular updates once more. And back with a webcam too – one that dad (of all people…) got conned into buying!

3
Jan 00
Mon

Blurg

Back in Singapore. Got loan of a laptop and net connection from my aunt. I’m happy :)

Sim Lim Square is a 7 level computer shopping mall in Singapore and there are easily a dozen stores that openly sell pirated software spread out amongst the 7 levels. So there I was, looking at a copy of the (alleged) final release of Win 2000 when the store lights went out. The shopkeeper hurried everyone out of the store, wheeled the outside displays inside and slammed down the shutters. The store had been closed in under 30 seconds. All around the mall you could hear shutters banging down. Funny, that. I’m still trying to work out how the signal got around that police were coming. One hour later, all of them had reopened. Real, original game software is even cheaper in Singapore. $49 for new releases.

I finally found a store with the Intellimouse Explorer in stock. Hardware in Singapore is that much more cheaper than Sydney. It’s a really schmick mouse. The scroll wheel could be a little more stiffer (it rolls too smoothly) to provide more tactile feedback, but apart from that, it complements Microsoft’s excellent hardware range quite well.

I bought my digital camera, but it wasn’t the Kodak. The storekeeper convinced me to go with the 2.3 megapixel Fujifilm MX2900. I’ll probably put up some pics taken with it later.

Some net news. Andrew told me of SMSMEBABY, an sms web gateway service for Aussie mobiles. It allows exchange of sms to e-mail and vice versa as well. Looks nifty… I dunno how they can afford to provide it for free though. Surely they don’t make that much from advertising?

As for e-mails anyone has sent me, I will get back to them when I get back to Australia, so just hold on tight.

28
Dec 99
Tue

Bleh

At a cafe with a friend. Jumped onto a free net computer with a 1.5MB connection :). I didn’t find a terminal at the airport though. Anyway I thought I’d take the opportunity to check mail and do a quick post. I’ve decided I’ll get a Kodak DC290 digital camera, if I can find it at a good price. Prices I’ve seen so far range from HK$5500 (which sounds dodgy) to HK$6700 and everything in between. Full retail games here are cheap – average about AU$55-60 for new releases. Of course, you could get the “OEM versions” for 10% of that at AU$5 :).

People here are short. I’m actually taller than the majority of people on the streets. It’s giving me a bit of an ego boost, actually :). Of course it’s the opposite in Sydney where just about everyone is taller. I need to buy a suit for work (which starts on Jan 17th). I’m actually too small in Australia to buy a premade suit (nothing is that small). But everything here is like… mini-size or asian-size. My cousin is sharing the hotel room with me. He’s 5’9 and his feet stick off the end of the bed. Clothing in adults’ small size in Australia just fits me, but I have to go to adults’ large size here :). Anyway, gotta run. Have a great new millennium y’all.

And one tip. Never open Solo’s site at a public terminal when people are watching :).

24
Dec 99
Fri

Just Can’t Keep Me Away

We’re just about to leave for Hong Kong. It turns out that my uncle has access to the business class lounge. How bourgeious is this? Free alcohol and food! And a free net connection (yes, I’m not paying to make this page update). I can’t imagine what the first class lounge is like…

Another $2 to Burn

Safely made it :). I’m now 6800km from good ol’ Camden. And found another Net terminal. Singapore’s airport definitely seems much more modern (I’m on IE 5.0 now, and my $2 buys me 15 minutes :). Not to mention clean. Think I’ll try to find another terminal in Hong Kong airport when I get there later tomorrow, make it a habit of sorts. Oh yeah, Merry Christmas!

23
Dec 99
Thu

Burning $2

Well we arrived at the airport about three hours too early. I was just thinking how strange it was that an Airport that will be a hub of international travel in September next year has not one internet terminal for people to access. I wasn’t quite right – there’s three terminals running Netscape 3 (can we say, ancient?) inside the boarding area. So what the hell… I needed to burn some time, so I shoved $2 in for this 10 minute net session I’m now getting. I still reckon though, that an airport is the best place for an internet cafe – people needing to get in touch with others around the world, while needing to kill some time waiting for flights.

8
Nov 99
Mon

Sex and Drugs

Wow… a site on prostitution that emphasises textual content (it’s pictureless). Hmm I can just imagine it being turned into a Lonely Planet guidebook for desparate travellers.

Interesting records the CIA keeps… check out the profiles for Aust, Can & the US.

Illicit drugs: Tasmania is one of the world’s major suppliers of licit opiate products; government maintains strict controls over areas of opium poppy cultivation and output of poppy straw concentrate (Aus.)

Illicit drugs: consumer of cocaine shipped from Colombia through Mexico and the Caribbean; consumer of heroin, marijuana, and increasingly methamphetamines from Mexico; consumer of high-quality Southeast Asian heroin; illicit producer of cannabis, marijuana, depressants, stimulants, hallucinogens, and methamphetamines; drug-money-laundering center (US)

Illicit drugs: illicit producer of cannabis for the domestic drug market; use of hydroponics technology permits growers to plant large quantities of high-quality marijuana indoors; growing role as a transit point for heroin and cocaine entering the US market (Can.)

17
Jun 99
Thu

E-Mail from Japan – The Third Instalment

There are also many manga/anime mags for horny men. These are basically just comic porn, and I don’t mean they’re a joke :) Generally there is a great deal of (what we in the West would describe as) pornography here. A lot of it is just soft-core. Like in all the newspapers (even the prestigious ones) it’s completely normal to have ads for the equivalent of ‘playboy’ or ‘post’. I don’t really get it. Maybe they don’t even have any concept of pornography (it is a western concept by the way — I read a book on it earlier in the year). It’s interesting.

15
Feb 99
Mon

Glimpse into the Japanese Psyche – Part II

“Don’t ask me exactly why, I’m not sure, but westerners are seen to be glamourous here, so that has something to do with it. And perhaps they think I’m a very handsome westerner (I don’t know why). For example, one girl thought I looked like Leo de Caprio (!?). I think it’s a case of all westerners look the same to them, just like to some Aussies all asians look the same.”

(see “Part One“)

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2
Feb 99
Tue

Postcard (well… E-Mail, actually) from Japan

One of my friends is over on exchange in Japan for a year. He left a couple weeks ago and I got his first e-mail from there yesterday. One snippet that surprised me (because of how stereotypical it sounded) was this:

By the way, the three questions I’ve been asked most by girls and female teachers (and a surprising number of boys as well) while at school are:

1.Do you like Brad Pitt?
2.Do you like Leonardo Di Caprio?
3.Do you like ‘Titanic’

Since I’m not enraptured by any of them and I feel cruel to tell them that, I’m starting to lie now, just so their faces don’t fall to the ground.

7
Jul 98
Tue

Clive James

Watch his postcards from wherever on TV. They’re the best documentaries you’re going to get, and they are hillarious.

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