fivetospare

Cheng Chin Yuen

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Ni Hao!

Fivetospare has returned. I have decided to be more disciplined to do a bit of writing at the end of each day to avoid the inevitable backlog! So far so good as long as the laptop is working fine. Below are the daily entries from 5 - 11th July uploaded via Wi-fi from Gui Lin's Youth Hostel!

Not all places are so advanced. In fact the internet scene is strongly regulated here. I can post my stuff by I cannot view my own blog.

The write-ups for Manali, Naggar, Sangla, Chandigarh and Delhi are also up right below the Guangzhou, Yangshou and Gui Lin pics. They are much overdue and most much forgotten.

China has been really good to us so far, especially to our stomachs!!

Cheers and see you all in late September.

Chin Yuen


Gui Lin Town Centre


River Horses


Mental Exercise in Seven Stars Park


All gone up in smoke!


Show Hand


Be like a lotus flower


Gui Lin from Seven Stars Park


Word Art


Gui Lin arrgh!!


Wan(2) Dan(4) Le(4)!!


Horse


Disinfected?


Spot the Fire Engine


Mei You Liao


Nice?


Raft Assault


Big Shark


Mid stream Mama Stall


Bejewelled


Ginger Sweets in the making


Outdoor Seafood


Beggar walks alone


Customise your shoe


China's success


Half Moon Everyday!


View from Yue Liang Shan


Delicacy Maybe


Yue Liang Shan


Peaceful Easy Feelin


Must be an 8a


Bird Busker


Scarecrow comeths!


Where the streets have no cars.


For my majong loving relatives!


Luo(2) Ci(4)


Plasticine Rocks


Yangshou Street Scene


The heart is still going on and on and on!


Stylo Milo


2195 jade piece suit to fight decay.


Guangzhou Shopping Street


All the funny things.


Street Strategy


Some guys get all the luck!


I like Guangzhou already!

China Daily - Fivetospare's gone diary style!

5th July - Guangzhou

Changi’s warehouse-style Budget Terminal is still better than most airports in India. Hans, whose food I have avoided since my JC days, is the only eatery here and I am pleased to report that the food is now safe for consumption. The extensive menu, creatively disguised as a flight schedule board, does make it a better choice than a fast food outlet. The problem is that most people think that the ‘SM103 Chicken Spaghetti flight is taking off at ‘8.00’. Thank you SP for sending us off! We’ll see you and EK (and you car) at the airport when we get back.

On this leg, I have my travellers’ guitar once again and it helped me pass the time in the departure lounge. Thanks to Jennie, RHCP’s Stadium Arcadium has been in my ears for the past 3 weeks!

The S$154 flight was uneventful except for some haughty sniggering after a Singaporean stewardess attempted to make some announcements in Mandarin. Sia Sway!

Our arrival in Guangzhou couldn’t be more different from the one in Kolkata 5 months ago. Yes, the massive spanking glass enclosure was air-conditioned and No it didn’t have mosquitoes having their midnight snack while you waited for your baggage. A ‘Do Not Stay Here Lingering’ sign behind the immigration counters ensured that we were processed at an atypical bureaucratic speed.

The initial gungho chill-out-till-dawn-at-the-airport plan was shelved when the Indian currency conversion was applied to the 240 yuan airport hotel rate. It was past midnight and our backpacker brains were not working too good…or perhaps we didn’t want it to work to good. Service was impeccable and we soon found ourselves in an air-conditioned mini van hurtling across empty wide roads to the affiliated hotel about 10 minutes away. It was the type of accommodation no true backpacker should be associated with. The type where the room was opened by an electronic card. I think I could have caught the France-Portugal showdown on the LCD if I wanted to. There is also a wireless keyboard if you wanted to practice your typing. Guangzhou is no stone-age city.

China has probably come a long way (surpassing Singapore) in terms of sexual liberalisation over the media. One lengthy advertisement was done talkshow style with an attractive host interviewing a big bunch of busty women in low-cut blouses. The product: a bust enhancing cream. So the sharing of miracles go…

Translated from Mandarin

A : ‘Actually I my breasts are quite big, but they are unbalanced. The left one is smaller than the right. So embarrassing! But after XYZ cream, look! (camera zooms) The left one became bigger and now it is a perfect pair!!’

B : ‘I used to be flat-chested and my classmates would call me names. (All women release a sympathetic ‘Oooh’) But look at my…er… me now! Look how they have grown (camera zooms again). XYZ has practically changed my whole life and I would like to take this opportunity to say something. I love you XYZ!!’

Goes on to C, D, E till Z

Air time must be quite cheap over here.


6th July - Guangzhou

Morning seems to come late with comfy hotels. We barely manage the noon checkout and take the free shuttle back to the airport to catch the bus into the city centre. I must say that in all aspects so far, China has beaten India hands down excluding costs. As they say, if you pay peanuts, you get India.

The bus dropped us off at the worst place possible: The Main Train Station-Metro Intersection. Half a dozen trains must have just arrived and half a million people were dragging their luggage in all directions. Somewhere in the chaos of humanity, a man was shouting and a woman was crying. The ticket queues in the Metro station wasn’t moving thanks to several blatant queue jumpers so we decided to retreat and rethink our strategies over a lunch of 5 yuan handmade noodles. Food at least was cheap and good.

I went down to the ticketing melee while Karen looked after the bags. In the space of half an hour, the crowd has diminished significantly and one Metro staff decided to tell me that there were more ticketing machines on the other side of the station. I thanked her but wished she stood a little further with her loudspeaker. It’s so good to understand the local language. I broke from the queue but hardly anyone followed. Did I understand the lingo? It turned out that I did and got my Metro chip in 5 minutes. Being a Samaritan at heart I went back to spread the word but again, only one guy budged from the queue. These people either think the whole world is out to sucker them or they have a patience that surpasses the Indians.

It’s true that the people here talk like they are a little deaf. Karen when ordering a bowl of noodles, felt that the hawker was looking for a fight. Sadly, getting out of the train is as challenging as getting in. Second hand smoke is also a big problem (Most of the smoking is done by the men). Despite these, we have received free and genuine help from the common people on the streets and the quality of service is much better than anticipated. One guy wanted to help us jay-walk a busy highway. Another showed me where to find a coin phone. Guangzhou so far is Great.

Guangzhou Youth Hostel on Shamian Island is probably our cheapest option on the quiet sandbank where neat blocks of low-rise colonial buildings still exist. 190 yuan got us a really nice double room even though we should have stayed in the 50 yuan per person dorm. Here, in AC comfort I watched a replay of how France ended Portugal’s hopes of a World Cup final.

The old streets of ‘Canton’ are well worth an aimless wander. Rows of medicinal shops here used to sell all sorts of exotic animals. They are definitely still around, just moved elsewhere after the government crackdown. However, large terrapins and its horned relative seem to have escaped protection. There is are eateries on every street all selling very decent handmade noodles and ‘economical rice’. You have to buy a coupon at the door before you get your food even at the smallest hovel in the wall. The streets are relatively clean for a city 10 times the size of Singapore and the traffic seem to flow quite smoothly.

Imin, my long time climbing friend took us out for a porridge steamboat dinner with Jasmine, his wife and his mother-in-law. It’s so good to meet up with friends overseas and soon we were tucking into tender beef slices, pork balls, super-fresh fish, deep fried fish bone, you tiao, large scallops, chicken rice, fried translucent kway teow, scrambled egg and crisp vegetables all cooked in a smooth grain-less porridge pot. Thanks Imin, Jasmine and Auntie for the expensive treat, wonderful conversation, good advice and the late ride back to the hostel! If we choose to fly back home from Guangzhou, dinner will be on us!

The car-ride back took us on some really high highways. It is kind of jumpy when you look out of the window and you see the top of some buildings. We must have been at least 10 storeys up and there were tiers of traffic below us. The pillars holding up these highways are also much thinner than those back home.


7th July – Guangzhou to Yangshou

The alarm rang at 9.30 so we got up at 11.30 and made the checkout 10 minutes late without risking any of the 200 yuan deposit. In both places that we have stayed in, 200 yuan deposits are mandatory and efficient walkie-talkie checks are done before you can check out so you can’t nip the towels and pillows. Lunch was ketchup pork chop and rice. One portion was enough to feed the both of us but not for the locals who shovel mountains of food into their mouths at frightening speed.

At one Metro station, one man was wailing on the floor. In his arms was the limp body of a young child. The PA system was calling for doctors in the vicinity.

Buying our computer generated bus tickets to Yangshuo was a breeze even though one guy cut into my queue. I was more amused than irritated because the queue was only four persons long. The problem was that the 8 hour ride cost us 260 yuan. I need to stop comparing the prices of the two countries or suffer financial depression.

We deposited our packs at the left luggage and went to visit the Nan Xue Museum. Essentially the main attraction was a 1234 tomb discovered in 1983, when a hill was being levelled for a block of apartments. The emperor had 14 people buried with him including a child and four concubines and over 1000 treasures. The Chinese believed then that jade could stop the decaying process thus the emperor was encased in an immortality suit stitched together from 2195 pieces of jade. It didn’t work too well and very little of his remains remain today. According to the audio guide, (which incidentally required a 200 yuan deposit) the reason for the poor condition of the buried bodies and treasures was the frequent flooding of the tomb whenever the rains got too heavy. Another funny thing to share was that only the commanders in that era had swords made from iron. The regular foot soldiers had to make do with bronze ones. I wonder if these commanders led by example and fought at the front. The emperor also had some musical instruments with him notably a large rack of thick boomerang shaped stone plates hung according to size.

The helpful noodle-maker tried to give us directions for a mosque but we couldn’t understand half of what he was saying. Well, the half that we caught was good enough to find us the shortcut. At his narrow joint, where the heat waves from the stoves could be felt on our backs, two bowls of noodles, a pepsi and a bottle of water cost us only 14 yuan. Again it was pay first, eat later. I preferred it the other way round, which is always the case in India.

Since we weren’t muslims, we were denied entry into a mosque in the centre of the city. Interestingly, if not for the gold Arabic writing at the top of the doorway, you might as well be standing in front of Thian Hock Keng Temple.

The next stop was the Temple of the Five Immortals. It was also closed so we sat beside the gates while children cycled in circles and adults played badminton and chaptek in the open space in front. Some old folks are exceptionally deft at chaptek really impressing me with their shots from behind the back not even looking at the chaptek. I haven’t seen so much healthy living life crammed into public space back home.

All I remembered of the wet market we stumbled into was the Titanic soundtrack ‘My Heart Wil Go On’ after having seen a huge live fish being beheaded and cleaved into half. I also thought I saw a basket of baby morays.

Another open space in front of ren min gong yuan (People’s Park) was a hive of young children taking rollerblading lessons, the middle-aged crooning (or croaking) favourites from two makeshift karaoke stands and a two buskers belting out an electric guitar version of the ‘Chu Liu Xiang’ theme song.

Guangzhou seems to have gotten most things right. The long distance bus terminal could use a shower room and water in the toilets so we will smell better after a hot afternoon of walking. The other passengers in the bus right now are suffering as I type.


8th July - Yangshou

The comfortable brand new 30-seater coach is moving when I woke up. Through the large glass panels, I see a hazy view of the limestone karsts sticking out of the lime green rice fields like crooked fingers and the tips of wizard caps. I put on my spectacles and the view improves. I can also see the metal fillings in Karen’s gaping mouth. She always sleep with her mouth open. I look down the aisle and see dollops of spit all the way to the rear seats. The one just behind me must have been quite fresh, I could still see the air bubbles trapped in it. Just as I turn to admire the scenery once more, one little emperor with a crew-cut started throwing up some green stuff behind…

Yangshou was still asleep when we arrived and we had the whole street to ourselves. It looked like a set in one of those old kungfu films. The good folks at Lisa’s Hotel mistook us for locals and charged us 10 yuan less than the usual rate or perhaps we were the first customers of the day. The third floor 70 yuan room we were allocated overlooked the main street – Xi Jie. It was a blasting in disguise. Xi Jie was fine at 8 am in the morning but from 9pm till 2am, the cafes and bars just opposite do their bass thumping techno thing and this time I had forgotten my SIA sponsored earplugs.

As all comfortable air-conditioned rooms go, we woke up just in time for dinner. We forgot that in China, food comes in ridiculous portions so the drunken duck, bamboo chicken and vege dish we ordered could have fed four. Rice was free flow and it all came up to 67 yuan including one pineapple juice. Not too bad for a restaurant in the tourist heart of Yangshou but from now onwards it’s a two dish limit for us. Next door was ‘Mei You’ (don’t have) café. The advert goes ‘We mei you warm beer, mei you bad service, mei you FEC so you mei you reason to hesitate, come on in!’

Yangshou is super-duper-disgustingly touristy, loaded with many more local visitors than farangs. Surprisingly only KFC has made a huge intrusion and every shop lining Xi Jie is either a café, bar, hotel or both. Handicraft shops and travel agencies occupy the spaces that are left over. In the morning, Norah Jones competes with Celine Dion and in the evening, Beyond out-sings Bon Jovi. In between, touts wearing farming hats play Chinese shrill flutes and pipes rather skilfully. The pedestrianised street is thronged with excited Chinese tourists all talking as loudly as possible. In China, loud is the only volume.

Here are some random observations made as we roamed the tourist thoroughfare. DVDs are 8 yuan each. Buy 10 get 1 free. Shows like the Da Vinci Code, Cars and Basic Instinct are already out. On a pastry shop display window was a cake decorated with majong tiles. A muslim man was selling a chapatti wrap for 1 yuan. There are 3 rock-climbing shops in Yangshou! You can get your caricature or portrait done on a T-shirt here. It will definitely be better than the real thing. One enterprising lady painted on white canvas shoes. Internet places are called ‘Wang(3) (Net) Ba(1) (Bars)’ They costs as little as 2 yuan an hour but an XP platform is hard to find. There is also a tiny and ineffective non-smoking section in each internet café. Coffee can cost you up to 30 yuan. Ginger sweets are quite unique, especially when you see them being yanked and snipped from a big blob of thick sticky golden gum and then left to cool.

We spent the evening talking (even though I was wearing my Team Italy singlet) to a German couple who were on a 6-month ‘round the world’ trip. ‘round the world’ here actually meant 2 months in South America and 4 in Asia. One of them made an interesting observation about the Chinese. ‘The Chinese are rude in a group but polite as an individual’. I think there is some truth in that. They were doing a rush job of Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand so we could give them all the highlights.


9th July - Yangshou

Our resolve to get up early was thwarted by the rain. So poor us went to sleep without breakfast and awoke hungry at noon when the sun was shining. Hunger helps to get things going and soon we were out of Xi Jie on the main street leading to Yue Liang Shan (Moon Hill). Prices pummel out of the tourist trap and the claypot rice we had cost us only 6 yuan each. This claypot was done a little differently. You could mix and match your ingredients which included pork ribs, roast duck, Chinese sausage, ham, char siew, salted long beans, unsalted long beans and chai poh. Boiled bean sprouts and radish soup were on the house. The outcome was really yummy and good fuel for the 1251 steps up Yue Liang Shan.

Getting back into backpacker mode, we found our way to Yue Liang Shan on our own. Here electric golf carts got people places and those we approached wanted to clobber us with a 50 to 150 yuan charge. In the end, while standing by the side of the road considering our options, one uncle in his motorbike-lorry convert gave us the ride for 10 yuan.

The climb was made with an auntie in tow trying at all possible times to sell us drinks and postcards. I wanted so much to tell her that we wouldn’t buy anything from her to save her the climb. There were several such touts gathered below and it was her go so every tourist that went up had an auntie with them carrying a small styrofoam cooler box. (One tout guessed correctly that we were Sinagporean.) She did come in useful in showing us the way at some junctions.

Yue Liang Shan is actually a huge natural arch in one of the limestone karst formations. The trek led up to and under it to a viewpoint from which we could admire the stunning forests of green pinnacles much associated with Gui Lin Auntie dearest, infinitely patient, pointed out a nice caterpillar at the summit. The touts in India would not go through such extreme lengths to secure a sale. The touting here is less aggressive, more persuasive and polite but we stuck to our resolve not to buy anything and be contented with our boiled water.

The Chinese certainly know how to make money. Ticket prices have gone up by 6 yuan and you had to pay 1 yuan more if you wanted someone to take care of your bicycle.

The way back was made in a van with 8 other locals for 2 yuan per person, really cheap for an 8km journey even though I had to sit on a small wooden stool sandwiched between two women. One friendly old man felt sincerely sympathetic when we told him that we did not want to visit the surrounding caves. It’s like coming to Singapore and not eating black pepper crab I suppose.

For dinner, we had Beer Fish, a local must-try. The auntie at the pasar malam style stall actually showed me the live gaping catfish before I sent it to the choppers. You can’t go wrong with fish this fresh and the sandy freshwater taste was very slight. Well, we went wrong with our prawn dish. The target victims were a wriggling mess of large prawns of the mini-slipper lobster kind with big pincers. But the auntie referred to them as ‘long xia’ which we mistook for lobsters so we asked for something smaller. In the end we got ‘heh bi’ or small shrimp. It was still the right species but so small it was not worth the effort to de-shell them.

Karen went to the public toilet after the evening’s stuffing and heard love-making noises. Not in the toilet but in its vicinity. There must have been a pasar malam style brothel conveniently located just beside the food stalls.

China’s all rush and bustle, flooded in mass consumption and consumerism. The Big Macs have 4 patties for heaven’s sake. Things operate sensibly and efficiently. I do miss the slower and more illogical way of doing things in India. People here need to be more ‘shanti’ and take it easier on themselves and others. Try observing how a group of Chinese men eat. They do it swiftly with grunts of aggressive appreciation.


10th July - Yangshou

I didn’t wake up as planned to catch the France-Italy showdown. I should have because the mozzies and all the fanatical screaming downstairs kept me in and out of sleep. One French guy was bellowing ‘Figoh! Figoh! Figoh!’ [actually Fa(4) Guo (2) grossly mispronounced] in a variety of tunes. Incidentally thanks to Siew Ping, my resident singlet bears the Italian football insignia! After watching the highlights, I think they played really dirty and without the flare of the French. Too bad under the obligations of friendship, I can’t sell my singlet.

We checked out of Lisa’s Hotel into the local Youth Hostel. Two nights of Beyond to Beatles-band wannabes wailing ‘Guang Hui Xui Yue’ and ‘Hey Jude’ followed by 2am bed-rocking techno beats was good enough reason to part with 10 more yuan for some traditional village peace and quiet. The Chinese do not need anyone to teach them how to party.

Today we cycled among the limestone giants, past lazy mud-brick farm villages through fields of padi to the muddy Dragon River. For 130 yuan, a bamboo raft took us on an idyllic ride made a little more exciting by several man-made rapids. We drifted past floating stalls in mid-stream selling cold drinks, ‘roosted fish’, and water-sprays to soak your friends with. The bamboo raft was fitted with two comfortable bamboo chairs and a beach umbrella to keep the elements at bay. The sheer karst density was quite a sight and ranged from huge mountains, arches, pillars to crooked fingers of very climbable limestone. It would be more dramatic if they were closer to the river’s edge. During the brief mid-trip shower, the raft-man had the service sense to lower the umbrella to better shelter us. He also pointed out the ‘Yin Yang Shan’ to us. It looked like the black half of the famous symbol with a curvy slope and a hole right through the rock mass where the ‘Yin’ dot supposed to be! I was quite surprised that the boatman did not ask for a tip at the end of the trip. He even showed us where our bicycles were and how to get back to Yangshou.

One thing the Chinese do very well is to exploit the natural landscape to bring in the yuans. Beside the impressive bamboo flotilla, pavilion rafts seating 10 to 15 people sipping tea around a table bring leisure tourists a little upstream where they can do exciting things like take photos with horses, monkeys, water birds tethered to poles and a Bactrian camel. Each pavilion has its own young female host, dressed in unauthentic ‘tribal’ garb who lead the group in song competitions using loud-hailers. So don’t expect to find the tranquillity befitting the landscape in the tourist spots in China. You will find that in Laos where people are more…quiet.

Hot water is a given almost anywhere in China so there’s no real need to buy mineral water. This is something the Indians could learn. It’s lighter on our conscience this time. In India, we are very much more part of the plastic problem.

Bike rental is dirt cheap, only 5 yuan a day for a ‘ladies bike’ – no gears, no cross bar, one obiang basket, no problem. 10 yuan fetches you a gungho ‘chiong’ ‘Giant’ mountain bike. The mud guard doesn’t work too well and the thick tyres are slower on the road. 10 yuan can also get you a tandem which in general is bad for the male half of the couple.

A bottle of local beer is as cheap or sometimes cheaper than a can of coke. Only 5 yuan for 630 ml.


11th July – Yangshou – Gui Lin

Some days you feel that you have done a lot. Today was one of those.

The rain this morning did not stop a kitchen fire on the second floor of Mei(2) You(3) Café. Maybe it’s just the inauspicious name, after all we are in China where a man must cross a temple’s door with his right foot and a lady with her left. A riot of umbrellas took to Xi Jie to be held back by a single policeman two metres behind the fire engines that were dousing the second level with their jetsprays. We were just having a drink there yesterday.

It was still raining when we checked out at noon to make our way to the local bus-stand. The ride was only an hour long but that didn’t stop the driver from screening an old Stephen Chow movie which was so hilarious it stole most of our attention from the legendary Gui Lin scenery. When we stopped to refuel, I noticed that the finger nails on the young driver’s left hand were 3cm long!

We checked into a cosy little room in Gui Lin Flowers Youth Hostel just opposite the train station. The lounge lobby is a great chill out area with big sofas, a pool table, internet terminals, free wi-fi and soothing acoustic guitar music. The only fault is that smoking is allowed. We got our room for 90 yuan, this time without TV or attached bath. YHA members get 10 yuan off the standard rates.

The horsemeat lunch was tough on the jaws and tasted like beef. This time we remembered to ask the cook to leave the MSG out. Gui Lin also boasts of snake, pangolin, pheasant and tortoise specialities. In one cage outside one restaurant, we saw some animals that looked like huge grey hamsters. One of them had half his face ripped off and was still scampering around. All animals and a huge variety of seafood are displayed live in cages and basins on the boardwalk.

For 2.4 yuan, we caught a public bus to Wang Cheng, a 14th Century Ming palace. The 15 yuan admission ticket has already risen to 50 yuan! The Chinese certainly know how to make some fast cash. We didn’t feel too ripped off as the price included a guided tour of the palace. The guide had excellent poise and like all Chinese ladies I have seen so far, flawless complexion. I learnt that while I was conversant in Chinese, receiving really deep stuff about Chinese history, poetry, culture and tradition was way beyond me. What made things worse was the professionalism of the guide who threw questions back at us.

‘You come from Singapore? Don’t you speak Chinese in back there?’ she asked innocently.

‘Errr…I got F9 at A levels.’ Damn Sia Sway. But they are speaking some really cheem stuff here man, even for Karen.

The palace was under restoration so we skipped it and the guide was good enough to make us feel that we didn’t miss much even though it was what we came to see. It was either that the ancient Chinese were really refined or our guide could throw some really poetic smoke bombs. A strangler fig, which we had seen countless in the jungles of Malaysia was turned into a ‘Lover Tree’ which embraced its victim and inter-twined its smaller leaves with the larger one’s of the host. But the particular tree that she showed us didn’t die like the rest. Why? Look over there. There being directly in front 200 metres away, was a pair of red lanterns which protected the tree! Total PoeTree in Motion!

In this fashion, she made scribbles in the rock, otherwise boring memorials and unattractive caves come alive. She should join the teaching service.

The highlight was an underground tunnel filled with Tai(4) Shou(4) or our guardian Gods. We were told how to find our respective Gods based on our year of birth and out Chinese horoscope. Mine turned out to be a scholarly fellow who didn’t look like he rock-climbed or play the electric guitar. Karen’s was a fierce warrior-general with a weapon in hand. One guide came up to me and said ‘Wow, you have got a very powerful guardian. What you accomplish in one effort, others like me will take nine! You really should pray to him’. I couldn’t really stomach getting down on my knees and praying to a piece of inscribed jade. All the Gods looked so human except one. This one had small arms growing out of his eyes. In the palm of each arm was a small eye. I think he would make quite a good guardian to those born in 1984.

In the tunnel was a stairway leading down to a pool of water. This dark chamber was where you could meet your guardian God. You had to be lucky and you God must have an empty slot in his timetable. Here comes the best part! To increase this chance significantly, you should buy a painting or a jade carving of your guardian God. Where the hell in this dark and dank tunnel could I buy such an item? Please take me there! A door opens and you are now in airconditioned God-Mart with half a dozen assistants to help you find your God in whatever form your house decor desire! What a complicated sales pitch!! Trust the Chinese to scheme it up. Well to their credit, one boy actually wanted to have a look at his God and here’s what the sales girl had to say – ‘What’s your year? 1989?? Oh I am sorry, the 1989 God is sold out.’

I went back to the stairway and walked down the wet steps to the pool. Water was dripping from the porous limestone as it always been for hundreds of years. There was a red spot light in the middle of the pool and I felt quite eerie, alone in the cold. I guess my Tai Shou wasn’t available at the moment.

The next part was a good lesson in how audience participation should be incorporated in a tour. We were brought to a museum about the ancient scholars and how they had to pass 5 levels of examinations before they become an Emperor’s official. The last and the most challenging paper was set by the Emperor himself. Suddenly, we became ancient scholars and were made to sit for an ‘imperial exam’. We were ushered into our own concrete cubicle to take the test. It was the size of a toilet. The test paper was tastefully done up, designed to look like what Confucius might have sat for and we had to answer all six questions using ink and mao bi (Chinese brush). The questions were based on what our guide had said but I couldn’t read them. So like some of my students back home, I left the entire sheet blank. Very stress man!

That was not all. One ‘student’ role-played a cheat in the examinations and was subsequently shackled and taken away to be beaten! For the rest of us, the costumed invigilators who conducted the role-play marked our scripts and a certificate was presented to the top scorer. This attentive Chinese guy was dressed in a red hat and imperial gown which had a comical looking dragon in the front and had to kneel before and swear his loyalty to good old Confucius in a temple nearby! We all almost died laughing! 50 yuan seemed an OK price to pay now. Once again, when we parted, the guide was very professional and did not demand any tips.

The only thing left to do in the palace was to climb the 152m pinnacle. This we achieved after burning some serious amounts of lactic acid. I need to get some fitness back. At the top, Gui Lin in its full urban horror sprawled before us. There was not a trace of the old city to be seen. In India, most cities retained an ‘old quarter’. Here, it was all glass and concrete between the nearby limestone upthrusts. Well, ever the optimist, the far faint horizon, where the concentration of peaks in the various shades were the densest still does take you breath away. Gui Lin is lucky to be surrounded by such beauty that beckons you to them.

We had another guide at the viewpoint. He was from Beijing and had visited Gui Lin when he was a young boy. His memory of Gui Lin then was a dirty town with muddy streets and old buildings. When he return to work as a guide, the city was unrecognisable. ‘It is much better now’, he says and tells us how beautiful the lakes are at night when it is lit buy psychedelic lights. Gui Lin thrives mainly on tourism and its wealth are controlled by a few who has the right ‘connections with the government’. As we said goodbye, this jolly fellow gives us a piece of cheeky advice, ‘go to the parks before 7.30. You won’t have to buy a ticket this way.’ Thanks man but I know where I will be at that time.

I cannot agree with what China has done to most of her attractions. The winning formula seems to be converting the place into some kind of amusement park or ‘technofying’ the attractions with light and sound. The concept of keeping things as natural as it should be seems alien. Perhaps the naivety of keeping things simple and peaceful is simply not possible in a country so high on the developmental roller-coaster.

My friend Chin Seng is right. The biggest kick is trying to blend with the locals and it is getting easier as each day passes. We learn the lingo and naturalise a bit of the accent. ‘Che(4) Suo(3) or toilet’ becomes Xi(2) Shou(3) Jian(1), ‘He(1) She(3) Mo(4) – drink what becomes ‘Lai(2) She(2) Mo(4) Yin(3) Shi(2)’ and guesthouse becomes ‘Bing(1) Dian(4)’. Local tourism is booming and most people think we are Chinese but from some other part of this vast country. The service and friendliness we are getting from the locals gets better by the day and I am beginning to find some space to like these men who smoke and spit in shorts, work shoes and pulled up socks. Most of the time, they have their shirts on but when it gets too hot, going half naked is not a problem.

One thing I have noticed about Yangshou and Gui Lin are large number of electric vehicles. Extended golf carts ferry people to tourists attractions and many women ride noiseless electric scooters. Wide bicycle lanes, separated from the roads make cycling a viable and popular option and pavements are so wonderfully wide (1.5 times that outside Takashimaya)!

Before restaurants open for dinner, all the waiters are formed up parade-style for a uniform inspection and briefing. Perhaps this explains the unbelievable level of service we are getting. Labour is so cheap that there is always someone or even two persons to open the door for you.

China is certainly not beggar free even though you don’t see that many of them as compared to India. You still meet the occasional leg-less man scooting around skateboard-style on his torso. The one I saw today had his pants trailing behind him. Another guy on the floor had some holes in his leg. In those holes were some metal pieces. One child was sitting on the pavement outside KFC while the crowd inside stuff themselves (KFC seems more popular than Macs here). Another leg-less guy was making his way back to his wheelchair after taking a pee in the bushes. All just another tiny drop in the sea of humanity.

It is raining every day but not long or hard enough to hinder our sight-seeing.

Here’s an interesting question from Karen – Who would you rather have rule the world, Indians or Chinese?

Incidentally, if you are looking for a really good depressing book to read about the women of China, try Xinran’s ‘The Good Women of China’.

It is the end, my only friend the end - The Doors

Chandigarh (2nd – 3rd June)

It was another long day of bussing from Sangla to Chandigarh. Enroute, we passed through Shimla which is a horribly thick metropolitian gravy carelessly but generously ladled over verdant pine forests. Darjeeling would be a much better place to visit.

The first person we met in Chandigarh was a tout. Welcome to the jungle once again. He first insisted that the Transit Lodge we were looking for was ‘closed’ and then ‘full’. We told him to buzz off and leave us alone. Transit Lodge wasn’t full of course but their dormitory accommodation like all in India was only for men. So we had to take a big double which was a little off the budget. We also had to photostat our passport for registration. After some persuasion, the guy at the counter was willing to do the photostating for us the next day for 4 Rs. Karen was exhausted and went to sleep. I went downstairs for some decent tandoori chicken.

Chandigrah claims the title of the cleanest and greenest city in India. Is there really such a thing in India? The entire city is laid out on a flat grid of 81 sectors with each sector having an area of about 1 square kilometre. It is kind of science-fi to say, ‘Hey Scottie, take me to Sector 67’. Scottie doesn’t beam you up. He starts peddling on his tricycle. The streets are unbelievable clean, wide and tree-lined. This alone is cause for amazement after 4 months in India! Most buildings are low-rise and property here is said to command staggering prices. The main criticism of this city (designed by a Frenchman) is that it lacks character. This is true. What can be so defining about a largely uniform 81 square kilometre flat city? It is clean and the air is fresh but you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference if you were in Sector 45 or 54.

The bizarre Rock Garden at the northern tip of the city is the product of a warped mind. Here the maze of textured concrete will take you through a fantasy land of sculptured gardens and waterfalls with its large enclaves of cows, monkeys, birds, strange men and women all made from recycled plastic, ceramic and bangles. The designer here liked short people since all archways are really low. A sign warns people of a 100 Rs fine for littering. The considerable litter floating in the ponds and moats says the fine isn’t heavy enough. Somewhere in the middle is a large playground for children and an amphitheatre. I wouldn’t describe this place as nice but it’s certainly one of the stranger places on Earth.

Just to give you an idea of how heavy human traffic is, a bus leaves for Delhi from Chandigarh every 12 minutes! This is discounting the VIP buses!

Delhi (3rd – 6th June)

The attractions in Delhi seem to be a let down after seeing the rest in Northern India. The Red Fort will be outclassed by any in Rajasthan and the Taj will make Hayuman’s Tomb look more like a tombstone. Jameck Masjid, the largest mosque in India is well…just the largest mosque in India. I guess you have to be there during Friday prayers to feel the full effect of 10,000 murmuring Muslim men.

Three sights are worth visiting. The first is a government handicraft wholesale centre aimed at improving the lives of the village craftsmen by getting rid of the middlemen. Here you can by a really superb Ganesha stone carving for an equally superb price of S$100,000. The five storey centre is filled with good quality, varied and authentic handicrafts from all over India.

The second is the Jain Bird Hospital opposite the Red Fort. Here thousands of injured birds are nursed back to health before they are freed. In the hundreds of cages in the nursing ward, you can examine a variety of bird injuries from bandaged wings to pus infected eyes. When they have recovered enough, they are moved to the general ward on the top floor which houses about 3000 birds. Paintings of the various ways a bird could get injured are on the walls.

Finally, Old Delhi is tops. It is dirty, crowded and poor, more like Kolkata than the shopping swank of New Delhi. I went there early the last morning in time to catch people sleeping on their carts and in between cars, milking and slaughtering their buffalos, cooking their simple fare by the roadside on gas stoves, and selling bales of marigolds. There were also queues for free jaundice medicine. Men stood in line on one side and women and children on the other. Where the two orderly lines converged sat the ‘saint’ who gave out the free medicine twice a week.

Delhi will spoil you for choice with its restaurants, darbas and fast food chains. We finally found a mutton briyani which surpassed the one we had in Gwalior many moons ago. The 42 degree heat was a good ice cream excuse. I dropped a cone on the pavement, wiped off the affected areas and continued eating. No, I didn’t have any problems that night. For a little less than 40 bucks, we celebrated our finale dinner at a really posh restaurant and reviewed the entire trip by asking each other questions. Questions like ‘Who was your favourite foreigner on this trip?’ and ‘Which was the grossest toilet?’

Manali-Naggar-Sangla

Manali (23rd – 27th May)

Quote of the day: ‘I’m not a complete idiot, some parts are still missing!’

Manali can be likened to a hilly version of Bangkok’s Kao San road. There are too many tourists in particular Israelis who in general do not smile and come here to smoke more grass when it becomes too hot to smoke it in Goa. The locals hate their surliness but they do have money to throw after 3 years of national service back home. The perpetual war must have taken its toll on some of these young minds and they come here to let go, behave like idiots and destroy their reputation.

Despite being disgustingly touristy, Manali does have it’s perks. The pine forest in between the new and old parts of town is serene and for 5Rs, you are saved the acrid vehicular pollution on the narrow link-road. The slate-roofed village of Vaishist across the valley is worth a visit if you go beyond the tourist stretch. Here we saw a wonderful black bird sporting a mini-Mohawk with a white tail of two long ribbons. A big dog also decided to adopt me as I went to explore a waterfall, rubbing its side against my legs as it dashed past me from time to time. It decided the jump ship after an attractive traveller came up the path. Here the local women have piercings on both sides of the nose and carry huge loads of soil and vegetables in funnel-like woven baskets.

At one Tibetan pizzeria, I picked up a book about various torture techniques the Chinese used on Tibetan prisoners. One of the many gory methods involved binding the prisoner’s hands behind him and hanging him just above the elbows. The weight of the body would exert immense pressure on the shoulder joints. This technique was known as The Eagle. A fire is lit just beneath the prisoner to roast his feet. Chilli powder is thrown in to enhance the pain in the eyes and open wounds on the body. The prisoners who will not survive are often released to die at home so that the authorities are spared the inconvenience of disposing of the bodies.

I walked about 17 kilometres to Solang Valley one day through apple orchards and golden wheat fields. In between these tracts of farmland were generous clumps of marijuana growing wild and healthy. This explained the readily available supply of hash beneath the bar counters in Manali. Built into the side of some houses were bee hives. I also wormed past a man trying to get his herd of 25 cows up a steep mountain path. When they didn’t move under his whip, he would throw rocks at their backsides. It was quite a mammoth task getting these big girls up the mountain. It also gave me quite a thrill to get through them.

Solang Valley is the one-stop adventure centre where you could ride a horse up the hill to paraglide or roll down the hill in a huge air cushioned ball-capsule. This place is too touristy for me but great for the countless Indian families. Going on a family holiday is a celebrated event in India and a great source of pride for Indian fathers (and for that matter, all fathers alike). It also often involves a lethal shopping and binging spree.

7 men from Harayana decided to adopt me for the afternoon after I stumbled upon them at a shady spot beneath a huge tree. They have come here on holiday without their wives and children to fulfil their ‘mission’. After driving up from Manali, they were quite impressed that I had walked the distance. It was great fun walking with these older guys. They had the regular sense of lewd sexual humour harmlessly targeted at one another. The oldest among them, a 55 year old whom they affectionately call ‘Grandpa’ got most of the flak. Machoism is so infused in these jokers that ‘snaps’ taken are always of them individually ‘paunch-in-hairy-chest-out’ in a tight singlet. The ‘mission’ turned out to be a visit to a temple up the valley to pray to a stone ‘lingam’ (Phallus). The symbol of virility ironically stood beneath a waterfall weak enough to have its flow mystified by the wind before it hit the ground. The pleasant end result is a slime-covered rocky platform for all of us to stand on, high on the side of the valley beneath an almost invisible curtain of mist. The guys took turns to embrace the lingam and whisper their prayers. Sometimes the water flow would suddenly increase with the lull of the wind and the poor soul would get soaked but the holy moment went on uninterrupted.

After talking to the hashish-smoking sadhu and when their clothes have dried, the we walked back to the main tourist fairground to have tea and biscuits. Not only did they pay for my share, they gave me a lift in their SUV back to Manali. The B&W music videos of one popular Indian singer in the 60s was replayed until we reached Manali and the karaoke ruckus only stopped when we got our of the car. Stomachs were already rumbling and the group insisted that I tried a local favourite from a roadside stand. Imagine ping pong sized kuay panti, broken at the top by the vendor’s gritty thumb, and dipped, index finger and thumb included, into a cold mild curry and swirled around until some bits of potato got trapped in the cavity. The mini curry capsule is then handed over to you with yellow curried fingers. Yum Yum! I couldn’t remember the colour of the fingernails before it went into the saffron dip.

Manali is not without hope. There is a great Kebab stall where the dust and fumes of a thousand vehicles marinate the wonderful assortment of chicken, trout, cheese and sheikh kebabs. The staff at Johnson’s Café certainly do justice to the hundreds of rainbow trout they gut everyday. The lush Rivendell-like region around Manali is gutted with small valleys, carved from as many waterfalls getting more powerful from the snowmelt as the days become warmer.

Naggar (27th – 29th May)

Naggar offered us the much needed getaway from the Manali madness. There is nothing much to do here except to enjoy the valley views and silence among a small clutter of slate roofed houses. The Naggar Castle is a good example of how finely alternating layers of wooden beams and stone blocks can be fitted together. The other attraction we visited was the house of a Russian artist whose name I cannot recall. A sign advised, ‘For your full enjoyment, See The House Walk Slowly’. The paints were unimpressive but there were some photographs of the Kirlian Effect which was something new to me.

We spent one entire day walking 6 kilometers to a Rainbow Trout farm for a trout lunch and dinner. Our fish addiction was stylishly satiated on a tree-shaded platform over the raging river that flowed through the trout troughs. The fried trout was as fresh as it could get and brought back fond memories of the many good alabalik the Cheng family devoured in Turkey. On the way back, we saw the local folks drying the hay on the asphalt road regardless of the vehicular trample. When the hay was dried, it was twisted and plaited like hair before bundled for export.

As you can see, Naggar was nice because there was nothing much to do and nobody to do it.

Sangla Valley (29th May – 2nd June)

The first leg to the fabled Sangla involved a gruelling 13 hour bus-ride from Naggar. The ride took us through some steep gorges, limestone karsts landscape that resembled those in Gui Lin and rice terraces while the daylight lasted. We missed our destination and had to spend the night in a dingy room truck drivers would have felt totally at ease in. There were four beds and we managed to choose the two that had no bugs. It was 2 am and bugs may not matter in the state of exhaustion that we were in.

The second leg of four hours teetered mostly on the edge of a gorge. So sharp was the drop that from the window, you couldn’t see the road. So high was the danger that prayer stops were constructed at the nerve-bending sections so that the driver and passengers could get off and tell God they didn’t want to die today. A sadhu would place the red tikka of protection on their foreheads with the flat side of a toothpick. The sadhu also changed the donated coins for notes with the conductor. At some sections, the road was carved into the rock leaving a overhang for the bus to go under. Some of these overhangs had cracks so deep in them, you hoped the ground vibrations would not dislodge the tons of rock as the bus went through. It was an exciting ride, filled with gory mental pictures of charred bodies trapped in a flaming bus getting mangled as it tumbled in slow motion down the rocky hill side. Aren’t we glad we were taking the same route back?

Sangla is a fitting end to rural India before we spending our remaining days in Chandigarh and Delhi. Graced by the holy mountain of Kailash and a truly authentic slate-roof-wood-and-stone settlement, the good people of Sangla, characterised by their green felt caps, treat tourists as tourists should be treated - with a polite indifference. We were found accommodation by a waiter after a long unsuccessful hunt. He took us to his uncle’s place which was not fully completed but habitable. It was away from the busy main street and had the best view of Kailash. The restaurant people are nice enough to tell us not to order chicken after we complained about a substandard chicken curry. ‘Yes, chicken is not fresh, need many days to come. Mutton very fresh’ This said with so much sincerity that all we could managed was a ‘Thank you very much, tomorrow I will order mutton.’ We did come back the next day and the mutton was as good as promised. One old lady with a fly on her nose cut us two large flowers from her garden when we wandered into her compound. I put them in my hat and that gave her and all we met in the village the giggles. Joyful people make you do joyful things. They let you into their houses so willingly and always try to give you tea. I sort of invited myself into one of the older houses to have a look and went away with a handful of dried apricots. They were given to me by the owner, a lady who had some tongue problems and couldn’t speak but who could sure smile a lot. Not many foreign tourists come to Sangla so it remains largely untainted by tourism and the locals still busy themselves primarily with farming not tourist hunting.

One evening exploration led us into the village’s main temple. Some major festival was on the way. The women were milling around the large courtyard while the men were taking their Gods out of the temple hall. The people here are Hindu but the four Gods they stretchered on four pairs of poles looked like giant Japanese dolls with a mop of black hair that covered their faces. Something like Sadako but with shorter hair, much bigger head. The Gods exited the temple and the half the villagers followed. We followed and followed and followed. They must have walked 3.5 kilometres at least. The pace at the start was furious but slowed down somewhere in the middle when the old folks got tired. We went past two more villages and eventually stopped in a larger courtyard of a new school. Someone told us that they were here to receive another God who was visiting from Uttar Pradesh, the neighbouring state! After the prayers, singing and adorning had been done, the four Gods were bounced vigorously on their poles such that the hair started to jump and you could see the faces more clearly. Pieces of the God’s costume were falling off. Some men carried shotguns ‘in case there is trouble’. Karen saw a group of youths at the fringe of the forest with guns of their own. A cooking fire was boiling the post-festival feast but we decided to head back before it got too dark and the drizzle became too heavy. Their religion may have some Tibetan influences since Sangla once lay on the ancient road to Tibet but it was ranked among the weirdest I have seen in India.

One afternoon as we were having tea, there was excited shouting and men and women started struggling, dragging and lugging their red gas tanks up the road. The waiter that found us our accommodation shouldered two such tanks and walked as fast as he could over-taking many along the way. In such a remote place, there were no gas pipes and gas refills meant bust or boom especially for those running restaurants. We followed the crowd to a small gas lorry that has just arrived. They were all patiently waiting in line to exchange fresh tanks.

When Karen felt like being lazy, I took the local bus back down to the gorge and took a slow sunny walk back to Sangla. Along the way, there were sheep convoys again driven single-handedly. Lorries and buses stopped to let the sheep pass as any injury to any sheep will definitely lead to a big quarrel and a ridiculously high compensation. When the scenery got devastated by a massive dam, I hitched a ride back in a jeep with three local guys. They were having some kind of argument over petrol. On the way, they stopped to buy some siphoned petrol from an army truck only to return it a few kilometres later when they agreed that the quality of the petrol was questionable. They stopped the truck once more, kicked up a fuss and resold the petrol back to the driver. India is kind of strange isn’t it?

I left my hair behind in Sangla as a parting gift and some poor barber became 0.70 cents richer. He was a poor barber as Karen remarked that it was the worst haircut ever and decided to call me ‘tortoise head’. At least my hat will have a better fit.