Saturday, March 31, 2007

Feel Good Hits Of The Summer

So it turns out the internets is everywhere up here and at this particular moment FREE! So I just thought I'd digress from the pictorials (too much work) and just let you know what I've been listening to and reading while on my trip. For most, this will be incredibly boring, so switch off now.

Reading: Just before I left Australia, my good friend Ian was reading Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles and was raving about it. So on the day I left, I bought it on a whim and have formed an unheathly obsession with this writer. I have feverishly scouring bookstores in every town we've been to and managed to find/read/inhale Kafka on the shore, Sputnik Sweetheart and The Elephant Vanishes. I'm currently making my way through Hard Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World. As a writer, he toucches a lot of the devices used by magic realism but in a really bent way, almost akin to early Peter Carey short stories. The funny thing about his novels is that each one alludes to the others in themes and images. As such, I have decided I must read them all.... now!

When I couldn't find any Murakami, I swapped one with Mumtaz for a book called The King's Last Song by Geoff Ryman. This book basically imagines the life of the Jayavarman (an ancient king) in Angkor juxtaposed with an archaeological dig in the present which uncovers his memoirs. Very good, not usually my type of thing but a enjoyable read that gets into the Cambodian psyche quite well. Tim also gave me River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler which is a recount of the author's time as an English teacher in China in the mid-nineties. Very enlightening in regards to the way China works and a really cracking read (I read it in a about two days). Actually not a dud book yet which is unusual.

Music: I have found that hip hop is the best travelling music and the Dangermouse (with Jay-Z and the Beatles) Grey Album is the perfect bus/train album. If you haven't got your grubby paws on this, its fantastic, way better that the Jay-Z black album it originates from but I guess if I said it was better than the White Album some narky Beatles fan would probably get all Mark David Chapman on my ass. I'm also listening heavily to Iron and Wine, this is probably my favourite at the moment as it instantly makes me feel calm and happy. Anyhow, here's my top songs for travel:

10. Shitty Future - The Bronx
9. Like Herod - Mogwai (Government Commissions version)
8. Night Train - Guns N' Roses
7. Long Snake Moan - PJ Harvey
6. F.E.A.R - Ian Brown
5. God's Gonna Cut You Down - Johnny Cash
4. Beware - Deftones
3. All The Same - Queens Of The Stone Age
2. Swallow That - Superchunk
1. Upwards Over The Mountain - Iron and Wine

Lots of rock but that's the way I like it. Of course, new Queens album soon and all this is gonna change. On the local music scene, we went to see these guys, the Naxi orchestra of Lijiang. During the cultural revolution, the muscians hid their instruments by burying them so they wouldn't be destroyed which is pretty rock. The Naxi Orchestra is one of the few orchestras that still play traditional Chinese music as it was before the revolution and they are pretty gnarly as at least ten of the band are in their eighties. The only downside was too much talking and not enough rock action but more on that later. It was almost as good as seeing the Pixies who are touring Australia but I guess I really wouldn't want to see them would I? (starts to cry)...

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A Tale Of Two Cities

Pictorials once again: This time Kunming, C to da H to da I to da NA!

The two cities referred to in the title of this blog relates to my experience of Kunming and Ruth's experience of Kunming as will be explained.

Arriving in Kunming, we immediately hooked up with my old friend Tim. We went for a walk in the park where we snapped happy photos in the traditional pose of China. While its been nice to meet people on our travels, there's nothing like a genuine, old skool friend from home to lift your spirits.

Unfortunately, those spirits got immediately struck down by the flu and I spent a lot of time in our hotel room watching TV. Happily, China is the king of the chinese take-away even providing "burger in a bucket" with the chips and tomato sauce conveniently poured over the top.

Its a little known fact that for most of SE Asia, even in the cheapest, skankiest rooms, we've been subject to pay tv featuring crappy western movies and I've seen more shit movies in the last three months than the last six years of my life. In China, no such luck and I was left with "Fashion TV." It was an endless parade of bad fashion, bad people and bad music as they pranced down the catwalk. The tag line is a sultry whisper "I saw it first... on fashion tv" which I soon changed to "I see dead people... on fashion tv." This is Tim and I discussing our next fashion moves.

For Ruth, who wasn't struck down by the flu, spent her time wandering the streets of Kunming, shopping and reading in her favourite coffee shop Salvador's (she went there every day) while I languished in agony in the hotel room. So yeah, her experience of Kunming was hanging out and being cool. Two cities indeed.

When I dragged my sorry arse out of bed, we went to check out a temple and tried our best Fashion TV poses.

The temple was a tranquil place with a central pond filled with turtles. Well, we thought it was tranquil until we realised it was actually a turtle orgy out there and all those cute animals were going at it big time which somehow shattered the illusion of peace.

No disney cartoon animals allowed in the Kunming Zoo as even two diemensional characters would be horrified by what goes on inside. On a stupid whim we thought we'd check out the zoo to see some pandas, a steal at $2. Kunming zoo: where you can see the wild zebra run free in the 2m x 2m pens! It was a tragedy beyond all comprehension. All the animals were in small cages with no vegetation and looked bored or pissed off. Seriously, this lion seemed to be saying "when I get out I'm going to eat everyone of you fuckers." They even gave out blow up baseball bats to visiting school kids to terrorise the animals. We never did find the pandas which was probably a good thing. If you want a flag to rally around, try the immediate improvement of Chinese zoos.

We then retreated from the zoo life horrors to the place we loved the best. Salvadors became almost a fall back position after a hard day. After almost getting us lost (because I always know where I am), Tim and Ruth perfected their inner-city cool while lounging about.

We also went to the museum which is the polar opposite of the zoo, brilliant in every way. There is a particular fascination with this ancient table which they replicated as a large statue out the front which I dubbed "tiger biting ox's ass" as that's what it is. One unfortunate moment was when I couldn't find a sculpture in the museum which was on the brochure. We asked a guide (who couldn't find it) but he was so impressed in our interest in the museum he gave us an indepth tour conducted in chinese for an hour. Tim could only understand bits of it while I just nodded and smiled not comprehending a word of it (stupid tourist). To be honest, I only wanted to see the piece because it looked like a Dio album cover.

After all this, Tim still managed to take us out drinking which is by no way reflected in this photo. So this blog entry is dedicated to Tim, who talked the talk, walked the walk and even had me out drinking and dancing 'til 1am when I was sick as a dog. Kunming was a special time for the fun we all had. And he helped us shop for stuff we needed...

The cost of a goose down coat for Ruth: 442 yuan. The photo of Tim trying it on to the horror of the shop attendant: Priceless. (Seriously, best photo of the trip).

Lijiang tomorrow. Laters.

Monday, March 26, 2007

On the highway there's a million ways if you want to disappear

Due to technical difficulties...

After arriving in China I discovered I couldn't log onto blogspot and combined with a nasty bout of the flu, it seemed like a good reason to stay away from computers. Anyhow, by some miracle of the internets, I can't see my blog but can log in and post stuff now which I couldn't do last week. Brilliant but be warned, I doubt that there will be many, if any, updates until we reach England at the beginning of May so things may be a little sparse. And there's always a chance that this site might be go down again.

As mentioned, since arriving in China I've been struck down with the flu and also a stomach bug (joy of joys) which has made it less than enjoyable. However, in Kunming I got to hang out with my old friend Tim who has been in China for eight months learning the language. Watching him converse with the locals was both impressive and somewhat sexy. Ruth and Tim, who had only met briefly before, got on like a barn on fire and became good friends, it was sweet to see. Anyhow after a week in Kunming, we are now in Dali which is kind of like Vietnam's Hoi An on steroids. Next we go to Lijiang and then up to Tiger Leaping Gorge and then further up to the Tibetan Plateau for you trainspotters. That's the itinerary, I'll keep you posted if I can.

Anyhow, here's some more pictures to finish off Vietnam before I make an incursion into China.

Hue to Hanoi to Sapa (all photos by Ruth, apart from the one's of her obviously)

We had a one day stop over at Hue before taking the night train to Hanoi. We visited the Citadel in the middle of town which was the former palace of the King which was spectacular. Apparently, he used to be a little frisky so there used to be a "purple" city which was solely occupied by the king's hundreds of concubines and only eunuchs were allowed to enter because of their penislessness. Sadly most of it got destroyed during the war but there's still some phenomenal structures left, like these.

We also visited the home place of Thich Quang Duc, better known as the Rage Against The Machine First Album burning monk. He set himself on fire in Saigon in 1963 to protest the persecution of Buddhists at the time. I had been here before but this time it was infinitely more peaceful which I think Ruth captured in this photo.

We then went to the station to catch the night train. I went to get some water and supplies and when I got back, Ruth was surrounded by monks and nuns. While I was doing sign language to explain what a carrot was with a local shop keeper, this group of nuns and monks were staring at Ruth until one guy came and spoke to her. They couldn't really communicate but then the guy's sister (the nun in the photo) came over and started chatting to Ruth for a while. All that time, the nun's family took film and photos of them talking. Ruth and the nun (sorry, I've forgotten her name) swapped email addresses and if she comes out to Australia she's going to stay with Ruth. I actually think this was one of the nicest experiences that Ruth had in Vietnam.

Notice how I keep mentioning the night train. Its just because I love that Guns N' Roses song called Night Train. So here's me on the night train, I can never get enough...

After the night train, we arrived in Hanoi at 5:30 in the morning and it was about 10 degrees. When we left Hue it was about 34 so we were still wearing shorts. Ruth immediately embraced the cold and was glad for some relief from the relentless heat.

I, on the other hand, sooked and curled up in my teddy bear doona...

We went to Halong Bay which is one of the highlights of any trip to Vietnam. Its basically hundreds of limestone islands jutting out of the sea.

We did this trip with a lovely Melbourne couple, Clare and Nathan, who we'd met on various points of our journey (we even took a, you guessed it, night train with them). Here's a picture of Nathan, Clare and I on board our boat.

Mysterious Halong Bay... ahh yes, just like the brochure promises.

Next we went to my new highlight of Vietnam, Sapa. Sapa is a small hill town outpost surrounded by mountains and hill tribe villages. The locals cultivate the hills into these amazing terraces that go on for miles and miles which look spectacular. It is also the home of the fattest pigs in South East Asia.

One of the nicest parts of our trip was meeting Mumtaz, who we met in Saigon, hung out with in Mui Ne and Dalat and met up again on the night train (again) to Sapa. On the first day we went on a trek to a small town called Cat Cat. We immediately gathered an entourage of locals who gladly posed for photos with us and then we bought a bunch of hill tribe stuff from them. Capitalism in action kids but they were sweet.

Sadly Mumtaz left us the next day but only after proving she was a card shark.

We then took a 15km walk through the hinterlands and through three different hilltribe communities all with their own distinct cultures. It was a beautiful day and the hill tribe people were welcoming and lovely. Unlike other visits to local communities, we got to see the locals in their everyday lives as opposed to "locals in their everyday lives as constructed for tourists." This definitely made Sapa a highlight although trekking15k through mountainous country was a little much for me... I almost died.

Sapa was a truly wonderous place.

PS Ruth's ipod has died in the arse which is a calamity of epic proportions (she even cried last night about it). If anyone's coming to England in the next few weeks, can they bring over her laptop. Or maybe we can have a benefit concert to raise the money to send it over.

I'll start.

Imagine a darkened stage with a single spotlight on me in a tuxedo. I take a sip of gin and tonic as a mournful piano melody plays. Then I start to sing:

I've been alone with you inside my mind
And in my dreams I've kissed your lips a thousand times
I sometimes see you pass outside my door

(Screams) Hello!
Is it me you're looking for?
(Everybody!) I can see it in your eyes
I can see it in your smile
You're all I've ever wanted
And my arms are open wide
Because you know just what to say
And you know just what to do
And I want to tell you so much
I love you

Thank you Lionel, thank you audience, you've been great. I'll be here all week. Late show at 10! Leave donations in the tip jar on the bar. Goodnight.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Three things I know to be true about music

1. If Lionel Richie received loyaties for every time "Hello" was played in Vietnam, he would be the richest man in the Universe. I'm talking richer than Bill Gates, Donald Trump and the Queen combined. There would be gold statues of Lionel Richie in every village and town on the planet. Seriously, he would own you and your house, we would all be Lionel Richie's bitches. Whether its a bartender singing it, a saxophone musak version, a traditional Vietnamese band playing it or the sweet, sweet original, there is no escape.

2. No matter where you go, there is no excuse for liking Fall Out Boy. No matter if you haven't heard any rock music in two months and have been subjected to the worst pop the Western and Asian world has to offer. Even when you're ears prick up expectantly in hope of a good song when you hear a guitar, as soon as you know its Fall Out Boy, bludgeon yourself. Has this crap made it to Australia? I hope you're all safe...

3. When in Revelations, they talk about pestilence and plague, it is obviously a metaphor for the Pussycat Dolls. There is no village remote enough to avoid them and when the hill tribes of SE Asia stop humming "Hello" they inevitably follow it with some PCD. The end of the world is nigh and the four horseman of the Apocalypse are wearing hot pants and pushing your buttons baby.

Off to China tomorrow. Weird. Pictures soon if I find the technology...

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Facet Squared

Pictorials again - Mui Ne continued - Da Lat - Hoi An

A quick run through of the last little while. Sorry blog fans, posts will become more sporadic over the next little bit while we go to Sapa for the week followed by a small place called... urm China. Computing might be hard.

Just up the road from Mui Ne is a small fishing village where all those fisher men and women I mentioned come from. A lot of them get around in these little basket boats which seem less than safe but then I saw a kid swim from shore to one of them a couple of kilometres off shore. Occupational Health and Safety experts would have a field day with the Vietnamese fishing industry here.

Mui Ne doesn't have much to offer apart from a long beach but they like to play up their tourist attractions including these impressive white sand dunes. I actually loved them but one thing I learnt from this is that white sand dunes are fucking hot... FACT!

Which led to me rocking this Lawrence of Arabia look. This was a variation of the one Cambodian kids found soooo hilarious. I also learned that if you slide down sand dunes on a big bit of plastic, you will end up with a crotch full of sand... FACT! You will also be pulling sand out of your hair and clothes for weeks afterwards... FACT!

We ended our tour of Mui Ne at the red sand dunes. Mui Ne basically traffics in sand related tourism... FACT!

We then moved onto Da Lat. I haven't got much to say about it because I got a bit depressed and home sick and just wanted to curl up into a ball and die... or some such thing. Actually, I just wanted my Mum. Anyhow, they call it the Paris of Vietnam and in case you didn't believe them, they built a fake Eiffel Tower. Almost as good as the real thing! (By the way, Ruth had a fabulous time here while I was sulking and has amazing photos of a motocycle tour she took through the hinterlands. If you know her, you should pester her to write an entry on it or send photos. It looked amazing.)

Anyhow, after my hissy fit in Da Lat, we then went to my favourite place in Vietnam, Hoi An. Hoi An is centred around an old town which is filled with French, Japanese and Chinese architecture. Almost every second shop is a tailor and its almost impossible to leave here without a new wardrobe. I said almost... I've still got the same old crappy clothes. We arrived on the full moon festival where all the streets of the old town were lit up with lamps and no traffic was allowed. Very nice!

We also took a boat ride down the river which was filled with floating candles. The woman rowing our boat grabbed one and put it on our boat. It was a very beautiful way to spend the evening.

Hoi An during the day looks like this. Of course, it would be remiss of me not to include a photo with a dog in it.

Hoi An also has great French Restaurants and I ate lots of deserts like this one, chocolate mousse cake. My God, it was fine. After four days in gorging myself, I now sport a late period Marlon Brando look... it suits me.

We then caught the express bus "Vietnam style" to Hue. Please note:
1. The guy in blue second from the right eating breakfast is the driver.
2. This was an hour after we got picked up and the bus was full.
3. It was about two minutes after he had put fuel in the bus.
4. I was tempted to go down and join him since I hadn't had any breakfast either because they collected us at 7am (we had to get up at 6am to make it).
5. We are approximately two blocks away from where we were picked up.
6. I was hungry and tired. He is a bastard.

I'm on the night train!.. to Sapa tonight. See ya soon.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Message from home

Hello from Ian. IAN FRICKIN' MCKAYE!!! Joy! Its ten years since I saw Fugazi and yet, the love never ends. I hate to say it but when I hear them, I feel the need to don my air guitar and rock. Embarrassing much? And signed on my favourite album too... bliss.

Thanks to Claire (pictured), beers are on me in London (two pints I have now been informed).