Expat Protest and WHO

Today the Chinese government allowed a small expat anti-war protest in Beijing. Even the English language China Daily has reported on it, albeit it in an alternate reality way with regard to the stopped Chinese student protestors. Some delicate balancing going on here between the government criticising the US, stroking the US to make sure it doesn’t get upset, and not setting a precedent for local protests.

The World Health Organisation website worryingly vanished behind the Great Firewall yesterday. I’m hoping this is because of politicing about the status of Taiwan, rather than government covering something up. I think that the day before yesterday the SARS infection table listed Taiwan as a separate country, whereas now it is magically a province of China, but I’m not sure. Anyway, at least it’s back up today.

Kunming Life

I’ve been in Kunming for three weeks now, and it’s a pleasant place to live. I’m studying at the Center of Chinese for Foreign Students Yunnan University. The university is very eminent for a place so remote from Beijing. This is because during the Cultural Revolution lots of academics either fled or were exiled here. I’m also staying in university accommodation, although I upgraded my room to one more like a hotel than a student room. The first two pictures are views from my window.

You can see the street sellers who hang out from daybreak until eleven in the evening, with time off in the late morning and afternoon. I buy my breakfast there just before dashing to class at 8am. There is a choice of:

  • deep fat fried hand-sized disks of dough with herbs
  • deep fat fried banana pancakes
  • rice balls wrapped round strange bread stuff
  • freshly chopped-up meat and veg hot-pot in a scone-like bread roll (the comforting sound of the knife chopping both wakes me up in the morning and eases me to sleep at night)
  • a kind of bean stew which I haven’t tried yet
  • warm soybean milk to wash it down

The cost of a decent breakfast is about 15p, although I am getting a bit tired of it now and have bananas more often.

Sometimes the peaceful hum of students in Kunming is distrubed by arguments. Quite what these are about I don’t know, but they have a certain brutality to them, and seem contrary to the Chinese culture of not losing face. Once I was woken up by a street seller shouting, haranging an old white-haired man. Another seller was holding him back as he tried to attack her. The old man grabbed and shook one of the trees by the stalls, until he eventually calmed down and lurked just down the road. Another street seller argument a few days later was I guess turf war one, I’m not sure how slots for selling are allocated.

Another time, outside the window I spotted a man running out of the university entrance across the road. This is most unusual, as you don’t see many joggers, and he was sprinting. Two uniformed guards (there are guardmen everywhere) sprinted out after him, followed by a whole miscellaneous crowd of people. The victim dashed under the pedestrian bridge and out of my view along the road, and over the next minute about 20 or 30 people came out to follow. Some were students, some old, some young, some well dressed, some not. Shortly the two guards came back with the captive, and took him into their office at the entrance to the university. The crowd lurked outside for sometime, but the guards wouldn’t let them in. The people seemed more angry than curious, but hung about for so long they must have had some stake in things.

Round the corner down the road there was a fourth incident. A women was screaming and shouting, really angry, kicking at a man who I can only presume was a thief. He was being held by two other men. The scene was rough, the thief struggling and lurching round the pavement, clutching something, perhaps her bag. A few people were stopping to watch, and I quickly hurried on.

Kunming is in its way quite beautiful. This is partly because it is outside the tropics, so you sometimes find real fluffy white clouds, and the sun actually takes a while to set. The weather reminds me of home, it’s even quite unpredictable. There are huge skyscrapers, drummed into the landscape to show that China’s economy is flourishing. Most of them house banks, there seem to be an infinite number of banks. These have a strange appeal to me after so long in the relative poverty of SE Asia. Energy, life, action, human strength. Kunming also has some actual beautiful places, such as parks and zoos, and places out of town in the mountains. Well, these are often beautiful only by Chinese standards of tourism, which are quite clinical like a painting drawn by an engineer.

There’s a school just down the alleyway where I live, and the day before yesterday on my way out to upload these digital photos a whole horde of children were coming out. With hardly an exception they all shouted “Hello!” to me, until I couldn’t help but grin. It’s not like there’s a shortage of foreigners here, they must be doing this all the time!

After being on the move for three months, it’s interesting to observe how my behaviour changes when I’m in one place. Days are thrown away much more readily, with the feeling that there’s an endless supply of them left. I’ve reacquired the strange concept of the “weekend”, when I head off on day trips to tourist attractions nearby.

Some Photos

I finally got round to finding a computer I can plug my digital camera into, so I’ve added a few photos. Go to the March archive page and scroll down. You can find a photo of the terraces at Bac Ha in Vietnam, and one of the pig on the back of a moto. By popular demand, there’s even a picture of me at Tam Coc.

This Blog is Censored

With that provocative title, you might expect that the Chinese government have clamped down in a purge on me, or perhaps the Vietnamese secret police have chased me across electronic borders. Not quite, this is self-censorship. And, no, I don’t mean the unconscious “censor” from psychology, or the very conscious way that I select which things to talk about so publicly.

In Vietnam, I talked to a few other people who I haven’t mentioned in my accounts. I would like to write up what they said, although none of it is particularly surprising if you have read the literature about the Vietnamese government. Which you probably haven’t. Basically, the communist government are scared. They are as a group afraid of other sources of power, and as individual bureaucrats are trying to preserve their own position. They also try to gain advantage for themselves, whether manipulating perks and resources their way, or through outright corruption. This all leads to excessive, complex, and ever changing paperwork, which requires bribes to slice through it. Control-freakery due to fear.

People in the south are perhaps more resentful of this than people in the north, the post-WWII division of the country still haunts a little. What’s sad is that a lot of the fear isn’t really needed any more. Until quite recently, US citizens weren’t allowed into some ethnic minority areas, in case they were hard-right wingers or CIA agents trying to recruit locals. But Vietnam doesn’t need to be scared of this, it’s opened itself up to trade and become a very capitalist communist state, one which I am sure the American Empire approves of immensely.

I don’t want to either over or under emphasise all this. When bribes become sufficiently codified and understood locally they take the role of taxes, and cause much less of a problem than grinding poverty and hard work. On the other hand, as a tourist I’m sheltered from this view of the government, so naturally am inclined to end up with a rosy view. The only time I spotted the negative side of the government was when doing quite non-touristy things.

Unhappy New War’s Day

It’s slightly unnerving being in a foreign land when your country is going to war. There isn’t much fuss about the war here, it doesn’t affect China that much, only some potential economic damage relating to oil prices. A couple of people today talked to me about it. The main concern, presumably one that comes from the Chinese media, is not that the US/UK/Spain are acting in an immoral way, or that the US doesn’t have the right to exert its power to protect its interests. The fear here is that the war will spill out into a larger and more dangerous conflict across the Middle East.

Some good news today. To my surprise and pleasure I spotted that Anne Campbell, Member of Parliament for Cambridge and for me, was one of the rebels who voted against the government the day before yesterday. She supported the amendment which said the war in Iraq was not yet justified, and had to resign her junior government position in order to do so. I had emailed her about ten days ago and got the usual vaguely supportive response that was mainly loyal to the government; this clearly wasn’t how she was acting in private. It’s encouraging that there are people in the world with the courage and conviction to stand behind their beliefs, and to show the potential for both parliament and international law to have strength.

Mandalay Monastry

This week I was tidying up my notebook, and found the notes from a conversation I had with a monk in a monastry in Burma. I promised at the start of January that I’d write about it, and now I’ve got round to it. So we go both back in time to the end of December and change note to the subject of religion. I’d been in Myanmar for about two weeks, and was recovering from minor illness in the disappointing city of Mandalay.

Phil had gone on a four day trip north while I rested, and I was soon well enough to make trips out into the city. The name Mandalay is very romantic, and I thought it would be quite beautiful and characterful. Instead it is laid in a grid, with a huge great military area plonked in the middle, which when walking past felt as large as Cambridge. There is a pleasant moat round the military area, with rich reflected colours of the sky in the early morning mist.

On the first day I climbed Mandalay hill, which is much higher than a skyscraper. It was a few km walk from my hotel, and like the hills in Cambodia it protudes alone from a vast plain. Coming from a small island where hills roll together in groups this is very unnatural to me, mystical enough that I can almost believe the legends about them being frozen giants or dragons. Half way up the hill is a most moving Buddha statue with one arm pointing out over the city.

At the time I was very into Buddha expressions. I spent a while kneeling down and looking into his face, reminding myself that life is change and everything is impermanent. This then made me think of the correct attitude to have about life, which balances both acceptance of the world as it is and compassion for it. Are these the Buddhist thought processes that led to this Buddha’s gentle-faced contentment called enlightenment?

The next day I went to the market to try and buy some warmer clothes, and was so overwhelmed by it that I completely failed. There was an intimidatingly large indoor centre, selling unsewn fabric and women’s clothes, but apparently none for men. I wondered round looking at vast mounds of Colgate toothpaste and popular books in Burmese script, until the colourful food market outside attracted my eye. Like most of these places in SE Asia, it bustled with people weaving through narrow paths between all manner of fresh fruit, vegetables and spices. A family in a shop attracted my attention and offered me to try a spicy snack, a mixture of nuts and strong herbs which was to much for my unaccustomed tastes.

By this point I was exhausted, depressed and still not really well; I didn’t know what to do for the rest of the day. I looked vaguely for a quality Burmese tea shop to sit down in, and instead spotted a temple. In Burma these are usually very tranquil places, where you can sit undisturbed in the open courtyard and look at the towering stupa, think and read your book. Within ten minutes about three different people tried to talk to me. This was a bit frustrating until I realised what was going on – the guidebook had mentioned that some temples in Mandalay were good places to meet monks trying to practice their English.

My third disturber was a young monk, perhaps 18 years old. Like all monks in Burma, he was dressed in orange robes with a shaved head, only in this case his head was particularly large and round. He was friendly, although not at all fluent. As he talked to me a small audience of non-monks stopped by to watch us, which made me a bit wary about what was going on. When I asked who they were, the monk said that people are curious, and he got them to move on.

He invited me to his monastry, so to get myself out of my depressed rut I agreed. We walked a few hundred yards across the road, and through an open gateway much like the entrance to an urban university accommodation block. There were narrow streets inside the enclosure, and scatterings of two or three story buildings. He led me through a smaller entrance to one of them, and we climbed an outside wooden staircase. I removed my shoes, and we enter a substantial, although divided up, room. Being nearly two metres tall I could see over the rough partitions.

Maybe 25 monks live there (with 600 in the whole outer compound). All the young ones sleep in a row on mats on the wooden floor, and the older ones have their own beds. An old monk was asleep on his soft platform in the far corner, and it was peaceful and light and sunny. The place is quite academic, but also a home. Blackboards with English practice chalked on them, books, calendars, flowers and chairs. I could imagine happily living there, not so differently from how I lived at university. Not quite what I expected of a monastry, my mind had thought of a stereotyped Catholic austerity.

The monks are from Shan state, in the north-east of Myanmar, a place not fully under the Burmese government’s control. Indeed, these monks are Wa people, famously stereotyped in colonial times for head-hunting, and now controllers of one of the warlord armies near the Chinese border. (My journey has taken me almost in a completed loop. I’m now, in China, only a few hundred km from the home of the Wa).

They are Mahayana Buddhist, which is more inclusive of lay people than the dominant Theravadan Buddhism in Burma, but philsophically more dubious with worship of god-like beings. The monk who found me won suitable brownie points for doing so, and stayed nearby all day, but I spent most of the time talking to a much more fluent monk who was 21 years old. He was friendly, calm, wise and thoughtful. He came to Mandalay when he was 10 years old knowing nothing; he initially had to learn the Burmese language. First I asked him about being a monk.

On Being a Monk

The monks’ parents pay for their study. They learn both the Pali language and Sanskrit in order to study scriptures in the original languages, but they also study other subjects such as English. The monks have an obligation to return to their village each year to teach Buddhism.

All the monks under 20 are really Novices, you must be at least that age to become a Monk. Even a young kid can be a Novice. The transition to Monk is made if you are invited to be one and you agree. You also need:

  1. Parental permission
  2. To commit to desire to become enlightened
  3. To commit to obey the rules/disciplines of the monk (precepts).

The precepts are prohibitions from killing, stealing, lieing and sex/marriage. You cannot decide to be a monk for your whole life, as you can’t know the future! You can stop being a monk whenever you like.

On Perception of Christianity

This was one of the most interesting areas that the fluent monk talked about. In Wa state, Christianity has been prohibited by the Wa chief. This is partly because Christians burnt down a monastry. The fluent monk believed that Christianity was an immoral religion, and was quite interested and surprised when I described that true Christianity has a strong moral code. He genuinely didn’t know about or understand Chrisianity, because of lack of information – in particular the Bible was suppressed by the government.

What was interesting was his surety of belief about it before, combined with his honest adapitability on finding out more information. We all believe things strongly, and in this case his belief was clearly wrong, although I could completely understand and sympathise with how he came to believe it. What do I believe now that is transparently false to someone with more knowledge than me?

A similar thing happend in northern Vietnam. A guide described the northern Mahayana Buddhism as being much better than the Therevadan sort praticed in the south. His reasoning was logical, that Mahayana Buddhism involves and can enlighten the lay people, whereas in Therevadan Buddhism you have to be a monk. However it was also flawed, as it ignored the huge philosophical holes in the justification for Mahayanan beliefs, and also the ease and commonality of becoming a monk in a Therevadan country. To me it was clear that he didn’t know the full picture, and the reason for that was because his experience was narrow.

On Lay Believers

There is no upper “coming of age”, people live with their parents until quite old. You can ask permission to leave you parents.

People in Myanmar rarely live in sin. To marry you get permission from parents, and sometimes they have a ceremony in a monastry. A monk tells them how to live and not to quarrel. There is also a state registry hall. Amusingly to me, marriage there is a promise for life, even though he had said that being a monk wasn’t because you can’t know the future.

90% of the population are Buddhist in Myanmar. Anybody can come in a monastry at any time. However, once a week people come to the monastry to hear teaching. The teachings are of the Buddha, translated from the Pali.

The fluent monk described that you worship Buddha to gain peace of mind. “May I be free from trouble, greed/ignorance and anger”.

On Government

The fluent monk specifically said that he cannot talk about the government. The one thing he did say I mentioned in a previous post – that the Wa people call the Burmese area “Myanmar”, as a way of indicating that they don’t like attempted Myanmar government rule.

To Conclude

I spent most of the day and afternoon there chatting. The monks fed me with some snacks, including more spiced nut stuff, which would be delicious if I had a taste for it, bananas and green tea. Their supplies all come from donations collected from the community. It was sunny and peaceful, and by the time it came to leave I felt light and happy again.

I took some photographs of the monks, and we all laughed about how tall I was that I could see over the partitions. The fluent monk took me across the street to another building also in the outer enclosure. Here about 20 monks were having an English lesson. The old teacher was quite excited; from his poor speech I could tell he hadn’t talked to westerners much. I sat at the front of the class, and was instructed to chant pairs of words with frustratingly similar pronunciation. “People”, “Pupil” and so on. Then I read a bit from an old teaching book which must have dated from colonial times. It was about a Burmese gentlement visiting London, and involved lots of exotic places. The teacher was particularly interested in the pronunciation of “Hackney”.

The fluent monk told me that you can visit any monastry at any time, and monks are always welcoming. So next time you’re on holiday in a Buddhist country, don’t be intimidated and check one out!

(Updated 28 March 2003, as I found some more notes with a few details on.)

Arrival in Kunming

The bus journey to Kunming was less exciting than the train ride to Kaiyuan, but was nevertheless very atmospheric. It was quite a small bus with maybe 20 people on it. They all wore thick, warm coats, and looked like important working people. They sat quietly, in a disciplined way, with their hands lightly resting on top of each other on their laps. No chitter, no chatter, no spitting in the aisle, throwing rubbish out the window, or the like.

We travelled for 3 or 4 hours, mainly through cities and along quality carriageways. The traffic was mostly trucks, with a few buses, and hardly any cars. It felt like the whole countryside was alive with industry, lorries carrying important things ferrying them back and forth, to build stuff, to conquer nature, to make China great! All in the thick, misty, cold dawn. You could see your breath.

The silent orderliness inside the bus was only broken when we got stuck in a traffic jam. The whole road was blocked some way ahead, and only single files of traffic getting through. We must have waited about an hour all told, and after five minutes people started to talk a bit. I was looking at the numbered bus rules and regulations on a poster, hence learning the Chinese characters for 4 四 and 5 五 (1 一, 2 二 and 3 三 are easy!). Sitting next to me was a young friendly soldier in a smart uniform. When I got out my phrasebook to look up 6 六, he smiled at me. Soon he was drilling me, counting to the unfathomable heights of one hundred, in a beautiful voice. When you listen carefully to someone speaking Chinese there’s a curious, simple, tuneful life from the tones. Just as I am always impressed by perfect French rolled Rs, any well made sound that you can’t make is surprising and beautiful. We must have driven the people in the quiet bus mad by my repeated attempts to ennuciate the numbers, but did cause occasional bouts of friendly laughter.

I’m now staying in Kunming, at a curious hotel / student lodgings run by Yunnan university. My plan is to spend a month here, taking a Chinese language course. My first two nights were in a pretty grim room, but I’ve managed to change to a much nicer one today. Strange to unpack into a place I won’t have to move out of in a few days time. It has been bitterly cold, but now it is sunny in the afternoons. There’s the most heavenly bookshop in the world, which even stocks guidebooks that are meant to be banned by the government because of their history section and pictures of the Dalai Lama. That traveller’s rumour is either untrue, or the place will be shutdown within the week, as it is recently opened – perhaps the right bribes have been made. Especially astonishingly, they have Lonely Planet Tibet! I resisted the temptation to snap up a history of China and SE Asia, some kanji flashcards, and the complete works of Tintin in Chinese.

Night with The Journalist

The Journalist enthusiastically showed me round Kaiyuan in the evening. It’s a clean, bright, bold place. With wide boulevards, and cruising cars. Lots of pucker shops, but not at the gluttonous extremeties of a Ho Chi Minh City department store, these were clearly targetted at a substantial middle class. People were all smart and confident.

My slightest whim was catered for by The Journalist. For example, I had trouble looking up a word in my phrasebook, and had indicated that I needed to buy a dictionary soon. Next thing I know he was confidently asking all sorts of people in the street for directions, and we arrived at a bookshop. It did indeed have English-Chinese dictionaries, but I thought I’d wait for both better choice and advice in Kunming. So, he took me to another bookshop, which had a different choice. I had to say “Kun-ming” very clearly, and indicate that I quite wanted something to eat.

Food was obviously very important business to The Journalist. He chatted up some more people in the street, and marched at a pace round town, eventually finding what in Thailand would be described as the night market. This is somewhere with lots of simple restaurants and stalls, and wide selections of cheap, tasty food. We walked all back and forth along both perpendicular streets of it, and at every stall he went in, lifted the lids off pots, sniffed and asked the keeper questions. I wanted to go to one of the places with lots of fresh vegetables and flaming woks, preparing delicious hot, new stir fries. He seemed more keen on the places with the prepared stewed dishes, which Burmese or Cambodian style sat cold in pots out the front. Eventually he settled on one of these, selected lots of dishes for us, which were accompanied by hot rice. It was delicious if salty (or is that MSGy?), and there was lots of it and green tea to wash it down. Even though it would have been very cheap, The Journalist paid for us both, which made up somewhat in my mind for him blagging a free half a hotel room off me.

We went back to the hotel room and to sleep. His travel arrangements were of some interest to me. He had a small rucksack, which mainly seemed to contain a train time table and a road atlas of China. There was also some toothpaste. No change of clothes. He took off his top layers of clothing, and went to bed in long johns (they were very long, and worn under his quite thick cord trousers), without having a shower in the evening or the morning. Mind you the shower did look a bit useless, and I skipped it as well, so perhaps he thinks all white people are not only smelly, but have far too much stuff with them. (Actually, by backpacker standards I’m travelling quite lightly, and by tour bus tourist standards extremely lightly).

I was usefully shown how to abuse a hotel. Hotels in China seem to have bottled mineral water in a dispenser, which can heat it for you as well, so you can make green tea with the provided tea bags. This is excellent, and in many ways more sensible than purifying all tap water to drinking standards as we do in Europe. He rang reception several times – to order a refill for the water bottle, and more green tea bags which he tried to persuade me to take with me. He kept trying to retune the TV, I assumed to get the English language evening news for me. There was a curious electric smelling thing, which you opened a little bar of soap like stuff and put it on top of it, and it made a nice smell. Just think, I could have gone for months and never known how to use it!

I went to the toilet and brushed my teeth with my trousers and money belt still on, and made sure they were right near by my pillow, on the other side of the bed from him. The aim was to ensure that any attempted thievery would make enough noise to wake me up. Frankly a futile exercise, as I’m a very sound sleeper, although perhaps a touch less sound this night.

I awoke in the morning money belt unslashed, throat unslit, and with a good long rest to boot. Subsequent checks have shown that my luggage has been untouched, so I proclaim The Journalist to be Trustworthy. He also gave me his address and phone number in Haerbin which is in the NE of China. I think I’m meant to visit him if I go that way. Oh heck, I’ve just thought, perhaps he wanted me to phone him when I safely arrive in Kunming? It would be a futile exercise, as telephones don’t convey pointing fingers and dictionaries very well. I’ll just have to learn Chinese first.

At 6am we went to the bus station, he organised my ticket, put me on the bus and shook hands goodbye. I was grateful, and also moderately surprised that he didn’t follow me onto the bus. I’ve no idea where he was going or what he was doing, but thank you anyway, The Journalist!

Goodbye Playboy, Hello Journalist

The train journey along the Red River from Vietnam into 云南 province (Yunnan, Cloud South) is stunning. I embarked at 河口 (Hekou, River Entrance) , the border town, armed with only half a bottle of water and no food. The Playboy kindly met me in the morning, albeit half an hour late. I’d given up and gone to the station on my own, but he found me half way there. To get in with the spirit of things I checked to see if he’d been with a girl, but he denied it. He helped me buy a ticket and get on the train. Immediately the station was impressive, clean, organised, with neatly tended plants. A security guard searched my luggage before boarding. The Playboy wrote a note in Chinese to help me later on with the second leg of the journey, but I put it away thinking that with my phrasebook I wouldn’t really need it.

Fat guards with well made uniforms whistled for the train to leave. As we pulled out into the countryside, everywhere outside felt vast and cold and misty. Pucker signalmen stood precisely on their designated spots by the track. The soft dawn light hurtled past. Inside it was brightly lit and clean. I managed to buy some pine nuts and extra water from one of the stour staff, and then a bit later on some excellent thick noodles in a spicy sauce. Everything so disciplined. It feels like an empire.

I had no idea how long the train journey was going to take, but after a few hours it becamse clear that it would be all day rather than just the morning. As a policy I don’t look at my watch on public transport, or even ask how long it is going to take. A policy that was essential in unreliable Ghana or Myanmar, and psychologically makes journeys anywhere much more enjoyable.

The Chinese were very friendly on the train, so if anyone ever said anything to you about them being unfriendly people, forget about it. A few different groups of people and individuals sat near me. For most of the journey, The Journalist (as I shall call him) was opposite. He gave me a great Chinese bun thing with a tasty meat paste in the middle, and some pineapple. When I got out my Chinese characters (for the last couple of weeks I’ve been learning some, and am up to maybe 50) he helped show me how to really draw them.

The train tracked the Red River into China. There were incredible terraces in the river valley, growing all kinds of crops. Exciting to see wheat, and cabbages, and all sorts of others, grown in a patchwork, after the monotonous rice-everywhere of Vietnam. Beautiful irrigation systems with photogenic dams redirecting the small river into channels, sometimes lifting it half way up the side of the deep valley and sometimes letting it flow the natural course.

In the mountains the train weaved in and out of tunnels. Suddenly, I looked out the window and glimpsed below us a vast gorge, so steep as to nearly be a waterfall. Everything lush and green and wet. Out the window the other side we sometimes hugged the edge of the hills, giving an epic but not so good view down across the wide, cloudy plain to the west. A mountain on our right so large I can’t quite believe it and have to keep looking back at it. Back into the tunnels, then without warning hills around, speckled all over with small white boulders.

Suffice is to say, this is a recommended train journey. And I haven’t even mentioned the numerous small stations, with confident, well looking mountain people, getting on and getting off. Workmen with flasks of green tea, refilled by a guard with a kettle. Huge earthworks of unknown purpose, perhaps new dams. Down on the plain, massive agricultural areas – there were some crops protected by a sort of cloth greenhouse that went on forever.

The train pulled into its final stop 开远 (Kaiyuan, Open Distant) in the early evening. Attempts at communication between The Journalist and I had been less than successful. They consisted of either him talking in Chinese, and me not understanding, or him writing a simple sentence in Chinese, and me not understanding. The sentences were a bit better as sometimes I understood a couple of characters, and I could recognise place names and times. My phrasebook was less than helpful at everyday conversation. Anyway, somehow he made it clear that when we got to Kaiyuan he would come with me, I thought perhaps he would show me a good hotel, or we would have dinner together.

He walked me to the bus station. Two American travellers in Hanoi had said that the train from the border to 昆明 (Kunming, Multitudes Bright) wasn’t running at all; I assumed that was a half truth, and it only runs to Kaiyuan, hence the need now for a bus. Anyway, by this point I was thinking I might not go straight to Kunming and instead try and get a bus westwards, and explore a bit more of this area. None of this stuff is in my China Lonely Planet; it briefly mentions the existence of Hekou, but otherwises mentions no places in the intervening area. This is why I kept having to wing it. Doing things that are Not In The Book, is obviously Dangerous and only to be attempted by Very Brave Travellers. Obviously this is much more fun.

With infinite patience The Journalist made it through another rupture in communications with me, and managed to explain that the next bus to Kunming was at 10pm that night. Since I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go to Kunming at this point, and I was tired after the unexpectedly long train journey, I instead managed to convey that I would spend the night in a hotel. I failed to convey that I would then decide what I wanted to do in the morning.

We went to the hotel next to the bus station, and from handy pictures I selected a cheap room (70 yuan, or about $9). There was some confusion at this point because I had to hand over 200 yuan, and I couldn’t work out why, but in the end I just went for it to see how events took their course (the next day it turned out to be a deposit which I got back). The Journalist insisted on coming up to the room with me, and I looked it over and said it was fine. Then he put his bag down, and he kept trying to communicate with me about buses, or days or something. I was trying to explain that I might stay a couple of days in Kaiyuan, as in the sun it had looked quite bright, clean and interesting, and I needed some time to rest and acclimatise to China.

He got increasingly confused, and in the end looked through my notebook, and found the note that The Playboy had written to expediate my onwards journey. Ah! Now I remember, he’d read it on the train! The Playboy had obviously written in no uncertain terms that I needed every assistance on my journey to Kunming (this isn’t true, it’s not that hard to buy bus tickets with the name of the destination in Chinese characters from your guidebook), and so The Journalist was kindly doing everything he could to help me out.

Then it dawned on me that he intended to stay the night in the same room. There were two problems with this:

  1. I didn’t want him to.
  2. He hadn’t paid.

By this point I’d collapsed on my bed, half groaning, half laughing. I wanted to ask all sorts of complex questions, like where would he be if I wasn’t there? Didn’t he have work to go to, or another train to catch? It was at this point that he did show me his card that amongst lots of Chinese said “Press Pass”, hence my name for him. Without being really rude and physically throwing him out the room, and then with the loss of a probably entertaining evening, I didn’t know what to do.

Chinese people when they help you are obviously very helpful, and very clingy. I’m sure to him it seemed quite the natural solution for him to stay in my room, most economical and convenient for us both. In the end I decided to let him stay, but to take reasonable precautions that when I use the bathroom my money belt and passport are with me, rather than in the room. My main fear was that this was an elaborate con, but it seemed unlikely, and anything would be better than my previous nights sleep…

Welcome to China!

The population of all the other countries I’ve been in during the last three months (Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam) is about 200 million. The population of China is about 1250 million. If I took the perhaps reasonable attitude of spending time in a country proportional to the number of people who live there, then I’d have to spend the next year and a half here.

When I got to the border town of Lao Cai, I had one day left on my visa so headed to Bac Ha to see some countryside Vietnam. This is the upcoming place (now Sapa is getting too self-contaminated by the tourists) to look at the beautiful mountain scenery and check out the ethnic minority hill tribes. Midweek, when I was there, it is completely empty, and I didn’t see another white person for a whole day until I found two on the bus back to Lao Cai. At the weekend there are colourful markets to which people come down from the hills, and some tour groups arrive to photograph people in their traditional costumes.

I only had one morning before having to go to the border, so I took the shortest walk up to a village called Bam Pho (I think) 5km from Bac Ha. The people were obviously used to seeing westerners, but not midweek, and were very friendly and kind. I ended up following two up past the village to some fields on the hills where they were going to work in the morning. Hill farmer commuting. They kept going up to the highest peak, but I didn’t have time to follow. They were Flower Hmong, and the women wore bright colourful clothing. Compared to villages that I saw in Myanmar, this one was very well organised. The houses seemed better built, and the village was kept cleaner, with better managed paths and roads. I’d be interested to find out whether this was because of Communist rural influence (near Kengtung in Myanmar where I saw other villages has been largely untouched by any government, if anything actively harmed), larger quantities of proximate tourism over a longer time, or simply a better organised / technologically advanced ethnic minority.

The terraces they farm on are incredible. There was a man with an ox ploughing a hill. At first I couldn’t quite believe what he was doing. He was standing on a very steep hill, it felt like 70 degrees, but of course it probably wasn’t, standing on a wooden ploughing device yoked to the ox. Amazingly the ox managed to walk along the contour of the hill, and the man stay balanced on the plough to give it weight, churning the earth underneath. I’m not sure if he was making a terrace, or if there’s a crop which can grow on the slope.

Land borders are fascinating places. Border towns have a unique character, quite different from either country. There’s a strange feeling of freedom, as to enable trade people of both nationalities can cross quite freely. It’s only foreigners who have to have the right visa, and wait for lots of stamps and paperwork. Lao Cai on the Vietnamese side had motorbike riders who wore helmets, and didn’t speak any English at all. This is unprecedented – every other moto-taxi driver in Vietnam can say at least the word “motorbike”, and they never wear helmets, it would be a terrible fashion faux-pas. The Chinese helmets are only half the size of motorbike helmets in the UK, so you get decent all round vision which would be essential in Vietnamese city traffic. It is actually illegal to not wear a helmet in Vietnam, just never enforced, it looks like it may be enforced in China. Many more people use cars, buses, and have access to decent trucks though, so it’s hard to tell. And walk, people in China actually walk places – a very strange thing to do in Vietnam.

As I was waiting for my passport to be stamped, a passing classical looking Chinaman shook my hands to welcome me to his country. He had one of those fantastic oriental moustaches, and I felt like I’d had just the right welcome to the new. Hello, China!

The no-man’s land between the two countries is a small bridge across the Red River (it really is red), with two grand arches demarking your exit from Vietnam and entrance to China at each end. These huge monoliths are a largely successful attempt to make a virtual border on a map a real one in the world, cartography escaping from paper. At the other side, just as I was taking in all the smart buildings and Chinese writing everywhere, I was met by a beamish English speaking man who called himself Mike.

Mike proudly described himself as a “playboy”, seemingly thinking this would endear me to him. As if to prove it, he would sometimes rush up to young women in the street, entreaty them to spend the night with him (yes! I can understand Chinese without even knowing any!) and take their curt refusal buoyantly. He took me to his father’s hotel just round the corner, which was a bright but basic place. Feeling a bit out of options, I negotiated for a long time (Mike insisted on this), and ended up paying 40 yuan to stay the night, and he would take me to the train station in the morning for free.

He was very clingy, and would have walked round town all evening with me to practice his English. Good though he was at speaking, he wasn’t so good at understanding, and I felt tired and overwhelmed by things anyway. So I managed to get rid of him, and he said he’d meet me later at 8 o’clock (we both flunked the meeting, I fell asleep, he woke me up, only to say he had to go to do his other job at the bus station, getting tips from English speaking foreigners there). The town, by the way, was astonishing to me, with all its clean, crisp buildings, made by an engineer not an artist, but still strangely charming to me after the roughness and dirt of even Vietnam. I fell asleep properly, unhappy with the room (I couldn’t find the bathroom, and it was noisy with a paper thin wall to the room next door; the hotel wasn’t quite convincing), and ready to move on the next day.