Sunday, 26 December 2010

Christmas in Beijing

[This post coming to you over China's 'Great Firewall', thanks to a Virtual Private Network and some perseverance...]

Leaving Hong Kong on Tuesday 22nd I caught the subway from my base in Tsim Sha Tsui and connected with an MTR train to the mainland China border at Shenzhen. Once through immigration and across into China Proper I found my way onto the long-distance Beijing train to take me, in 23 hours and 45 minutes, 1 whole latitude and 1500 miles north to Beijing West train station. One bus and 2 more subway lines later I emerged shivering in Chaoyang District to be met by the smiling face of Cecily, 2 months and 10 days after saying goodbye in Nha Trang, Vietnam. As reunions go, this one was highly anticipated and as warm and comforting as they come.

The ensuing week has been a blur of meeting people, subways, sushi, walking, shopping, freezing winds, city cycling, Christmas tree buying, cat feeding, classic movie watching, Chinese learning, Lomographing and late-sleeping loveliness, with a Christmas as wonderful as it could have been away from home and family thanks in large part to the cooking of Cecily's flatmate Prudence and the international company of Ivy (Hong Kong), Will (Texas), 2 Chinese girls including Ceci and Pru herself from Essex.

The universal, cross-border procession of Christmas day: drinking, eating, sleeping.

Upcoming activities include New Year's Eve partying, ice skating, snowboarding, city sightseeing, eatingreadingsleeping, as well as planning which of China's many neighbours to visit for my 'visa run' and which of this huge country's many provinces to visit for the remainder of my stay.

For those bound to be wondering, I do miss my bike but I don't miss riding it every day (or SE Asia for that matter).

Saturday, 18 December 2010

1 Day in HK

The view from the proper Peak above Central on Hong Kong Island

The best pool in Asia?

Looking to the marine typhoon shelter and the International Commerce Centre on Kowloon, HK's tallest building

Nature continues to grow above Man's creation

I didn't expect to see a water(trickle)fall, though it does belong to the Island's water board

The afternoon sun on the city as it sets behind The Peak

Descending the steep path back down into the metropolis

This city literally is an Urban Jungle - trees, bamboo and palms grow all around the flyovers and skyscrapers, with the HK Zoological and Botanical Gardens even finding a space on the hillside

From solitude and peace to bustling crowds and noise - HK is a great city if, like me, you enjoy both

The HK Cultural Centre

The ever-incredible HK Island skyline (The Peak is right behind the buildings shrouded in darkness).

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Hong Kong - Contrast Like No Other

The view from my pillow in Mirador Mansions, Tsim Sha Tsui

Wow. What a city. I've not even been here 24 hours yet but have already taken in a lot of this pretty unique place; Special Administrative Region of China, ex-British pied-à-terre in East Asia, home to people from every corner of the planet. After flying in I've already sailed the Star Ferry from Kowloon to HK Island, taken the MTR, ridden the bus and walked in the cold sea wind - the city is at the same time prohibitive to pedestrianism (like in Bangkok, getting to a point 10 metres away requires 200 metres of walking and 50 stairs) and incredibly easy to get around without a car, though the Rolls Royces and Ferraris have plenty of multi-lane bridges and flyovers to speed along.

I get my Chinese visa on Monday and leave for Beijing on Tuesday so have a few days to continue exploring. Coming here from the beauty and peace of Ko Chang (and the relative quiet of Bangkok's backstreets) is certainly a shock and totally the wrong way round to do things! It's so coooold!

The few days back in Bangkok passed quickly thanks to the company of Ben, Caro and Steffi - we (eventually) met on the bus back from the islands and I had a fantastic time with them in the city. Thanks to their friend Simon and his fellow Italian buddy I got to see a new side of the city that I otherwise wouldn't - RCA, or Royal City Avenue, is the place for affluent young Thais to party, a street full of door-to-door nightclubs and bumber-to-bumper Porsches and Mercedes. The Italians had the necessary style (as you'd expect), as did the girls, but Ben and I were lucky to be allowed to join in wearing shorts and flip-flops. This was just as good a way to gain some cultural insight and the difference between this and my earlier Cambodian experience was huge, the result of (relative) peace and years of economic development.

So after arriving on the 18th of November to dismay I left almost a month later to good feelings and happy memories of Bangkok's tourist hub, and its hidden realities. Now in Hong Kong, feeling once again like a real person and not merely a tourist, I'm missing the easy availability of tasty, filling food for 80p and a bed for £3, and the beer which has become a staple part of my diet recently is now out of the question! I said an emotional goodbye to my bike, now adorned with the 20 country flag stickers along the toptube which will be gathering dust in a Bangkok guesthouse for the foreseeable future, and am, truth be told, loving the alternative freedom that only carrying 15kgs of luggage brings.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Hiatus: Chilling on Ko Chang

Sunset on Lonely Beach

Sunset on another beach...

...and another.

Another island, another scooter.

Sunset with a beer (repeat each-and-every night) - the view from our Bungalow

Plenty to keep an eye out for though - this and a baby crocodile/monitor lizard are our neighbours, along with a platoon of huge red ants

Back in Bangkok - Playing sepak takraw in the park with the locals

The old guy and the child were 100 times better than us 3 Westerners, but at least we gave people a good laugh

Not a huge amount to write - my bike is now dismantled and resting comfortably in a Bangkok guesthouse, along with about 30 of the 40kgs of stuff it and I have been carrying from home. I'm now living free and easy with just 1 bag and the only non bike travel appropriate stuff I have. Warmer clothes are slowly being accumulated or their shipment arranged in preparation for the 40°C drop in temperature which awaits.

I am also resting comfortably in a beach bungalow on the west coast of Ko Chang. As sure as the sun sets beautifully over the same fishing boats each evening, Tibo and I sip a beer and relax even more than the daytime allowed for. Aside from renting scooters, an island theme, there is little to do but swim and read and relax, which is all I really need. Tibo has spent the past 5 months humping 70kg banana bunches about on a farm in Australia so he is enjoying the minimalist lifestyle just as much.

My bus to Bangkok leaves on Saturday 11th, so the same will be true of the remaining 3 days.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Bangkok, and a Change of Plan...

From this... this, in just 12 hours.

Chilling at the pool by day

Partying by night

Arriving in Bangkok, eventually

Buddha in Bangkok

Performers in front of royalty for the festival of the 'good old days'

The meat market that is the infamous Khao San Road, Bangkok

Even Buddha needs cash - there's a good few $100 here

Loi Kratong festival on the full moon

Chinese lanterns fill the sky for the festival, from the roof of my favourite (non-tourist) bar

Lots of pool, beer and relaxation

Free Muay Thai outside Bangkok's MBK mall - a lot of blood and 1 TKO

The uniqueness of travel by bike was made stark last week, as the photos above demonstrate - one evening I was enjoying cocktails till the early hours with a bunch of great people, 24 hours later I was eating dinner alone before retiring to bed at 8:30 pm. The latter was par for the course in the first 2 months of the trip from home to Istanbul but hadn't been a factor again since then. I remember now how dull and lonely it can be.

The scenery is beautiful - Cambodia's huge palm tree dotted paddy field horizons and roadside life, Thailand's wilder, less utilised land and forests - the difference between the 2 countries was stark, though too subtle for the couple I overheard in the immigration queue at the border who saw both sides as being identical. Immediately Thailand was more Western than 100 metres back in Cambodia. People live away from the main highway, and the connecting roads are mostly tarmac rather than dirt. Shops are less makeshift and stock more than a handful of products, and fancier houses abound. The highway is silky smooth and 4-6 lanes wide compared with Cambodia's maximum of 2, and there's no dust. It was hot, and though the 70-mile days passed quickly all the interest was within my mind, thinking ahead to what I will be doing next. I was making a beeline for Bangkok, though on arrival I wasn't sure it was the place I wanted to be.

Khao San Road is infamous as the centre of backpackerdom, where you can do and see things that don't generally take place back home - I won't go into details, but ping pong balls are involved in the most common offering, minus the table and bats. After 2 nights amongst this I retreated to the quiet alleyways and allowed myself to walk through the madness of an evening and retire to a cheap and quiet room at night. This place is the epitome of the much uttered phrase 'corrupted by tourism'. No longer a home to Thais but clearly a place where some of them make a lot of money. For the longer-term traveler it's a novelty to be briefly indulged in but the inflated prices and lack of sincerity quickly make it necessary to move on. Luckily I met Chris, a fellow long-term resident of Nirvana Hostel in Delhi, along with Tibo and Julian, a couple of similarly-minded French guys, so have been exploring the city with them for the past week and enjoying the realness that it is possible to find here.

So, to moving on. Back on the road towards Bangkok I considered my options. The one certainty in my life at the moment is my desire to spend time with Cecily, in Beijing. That person who was briefly alluded to in an earlier blog from Vietnam following our meeting on a beach and subsequent, incredible date together, has now taken up a pretty strong position in my life. We'll be spending Christmas together, and who-knows-how-long after that - so clearly I'm going to China, and clearly I'm not cycling there. On arrival here Singapore was still 30 days' ride away, so I took the easy option of 30 days of not riding and flying from here instead. Judge me if you will, but at least I made it to Asia before being waylaid and finding something more important than the bike - some feared it would happen before I was out of Holland!

I fly to Hong Kong on the 16th December so I have 3 weeks left in Thailand - another one in Bangkok and a couple on an island in the Thai Gulf, before leaving behind the heat that has been with me since April for a cold, snowy winter. Excited is not the word!

What happens next I'm not sure. I'm at the mercy of Chinese visa politics and the far more complex laws governing relationships - even though the Riding East has technically halted, I'll keep updating (assuming it isn't censored).

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, Effort and Reward

The beautiful, friendly, staring children of the roadside food stop

Sharing and laughing with Tara - Photo courtesy of Tyler Kellen of Going Slowly

While being a huge tourist attraction the temples of Angkor are also holy Buddhist sites - these guys have a lot of flesh to try not to look at!

The Khmer Bayeux Tapestry, beautifully carved ancient stories in stone

The classic photo of nature reclaiming what is hers

The ancient and the modern in a different form

Friendly young monks

The 3 monkeys, my Angkor companions

Two tough days of riding have landed me up in Siem Reap (or Siam Defeated), the city base for the Temples of the Khmer Empire, SE Asia's premier tourist attraction (besides the place in Laos where you bar-float along the Mekong in a rubber ring getting steadily drunker).

Day 1 out of Phnom Penh ended up at 103 miles and 8 hours, my second longest day of the trip so far. It was flat and the temperature never rose above the mid-30s but keeping up even a modest average of 13mph on a 60kg bike whilst waving at all and sundry took it out of me - I stopped at the first hotel I'd seen all day by 16:30 and devoured all the food I could find in my bags, before dinner and sleep. The children here have to be the friendliest of anywhere, the constant barrage of hellos makes the Vietnamese seem positively antisocial - more fool the person who doesn't deign to respond to even one, as the hello gets louder and more aggressive until it is finally answered out of fear from 200 metres further down the road. It took some effort to emerge from my hypoglycaemic stupor and interact with the 10 children staring at me shoving banana after banana into my face (they're so small here you need about 10 for the potassium content of 1). Emerge though I did, eventually, and the maturity, self assurance and consideration of these 4-12 year-olds melted my heart. I have no trouble believing that the lives they are forced to live, and these are the lucky ones who get to go to school, makes them far more grown-up than many twice their age in other more privileged societies.

Day 2 was a tad shorter than the one before at 93 miles and just over 7 hours, but with a headwind most of the way it required Coke stops every 25/30 miles. I hate how much I depend on it to keep going but it's better than petrol I suppose. Surprisingly Cambodia seems to be a bit more expensive than Vietnam, and with the relative scarcity of food and drink stops 3 meals of bread and peanut butter were devoured - the food here is great but sometimes an empty stomach wants more than rice or noodles. The final 10 miles into Siem Reap were whizzed along at 16mph on a high of having reached the place that 2 days ago was 200 miles away, and with the prospect of meeting up with some friends made back in the first few weeks of Vietnam.

Friday was a rest day and I allowed myself to do nothing more strenuous than turn the pages of my book and raise a coffee cup to my lips. I didn't actually feel too bad - my legs are used to it and the rest of me can cope, but I enjoy guilt-free laziness the most. That evening though I was lucky enough to meet up with Tyler and Tara from Going Slowly - I started following their blog in 2009 as they set off on their bikes from Scotland (having flown there from the US) to ride the World and it helped me to overcome the fears that I had before setting off myself. They've since visited 20 countries including Russia, Mongolia, Finland and Tunisia, and through some incredible stroke of luck we found ourselves in the same town at the same time 18 months later. They are just as nice in real life as their excellent writing leads you to believe, and it was interesting to swap experiences and compare thoughts over dinner - we have done things very differently, traveled in different directions at different speeds and with different mentalities, but the bond between people who have immersed themselves in the world and realised they love it was clear. Sadly the non-stop nature of the ensuing days meant we didn't get the chance to meet up again, but hopefully we will find ourselves sharing time and space again one day.

The following day was Temple Day 1 of 3. Having heard some negativity on the splendidness of Angkor Wat (you know who you are!) I was worried the place would become a victim of over-hyping, but that wasn't to be the case. Along with Romy, Sonia and Courtney, the 2 lovely Aussies and 1 lovely Canadian I'd met in Vietnam and again in Phnom Penh, we explored for the next 3 days, first by bike and then by tuk tuk. It is certainly possible to get templed out but the majority of them are incredible places to be. Facts such as the Khmer Empire, at its height, being a million-strong community while London was a village of 50,000 (so it's thought, anyway), and the simple sight of such incredible buildings, intricate carvings and signs of complex civillisation make it more than just a visual experience. At points we found ourselves trapped by hoards of happy-snapping Japanese tourists which, while still entertaining, detracted from the experience, but in the moments where we had a temple to ourselves it was easy to feel the past. Sitting on an ancient carved stone watching the warm light of the setting sun to no other sound than the birds chirping was pretty cool.
While the attraction of so many tourists is doing wonders for Cambodia's recovery and general overseas appeal, the greedy hands of corporations are again taking advantage. Our $40 fee for a 3-day ticket sees $4 going to the maintenance, preservation and restoration of the temples, while $7 goes to to hotel chain-cum-petroleum conglomerate who have signed a deal with the Cambodian Government, who themselves take control of the remaining 73% or so - to spend on social care for landmine victims and the elderly, I don't think. Having had a look into this it seems the deal has recently been renegotiated with more favourable terms for the temples, but as always someone is waiting in the wings ready to take a nice fat slice of someone's cultural heritage.

Anyway. For the final day we decided to see the sun rise over Angkor Wat itself. Being awful at dragging myself out of bed at 4am it seemed sensible simply to not bother sleeping, so following a lovely meal inside a not so lovely swarm of light-drunk bugs, a bunch of banana daiquiris (so manly, I hear you say), a jug of gin and tonic and, thanks to the enthusiasm of Kerry, Hayley and the embodiment of happiness and fun in human form that we shall call Canada, a good few hours of dancing like a loon in a Cambodian nightclub, we made it through to 4am - just enough time to ride home (look, no hands!) and charge my camera battery for what is going to be one of the world's most beautiful sights, while trying to stop my head from lolling into the wall. Back on the bike for 5am and sat on the grass at Angkor Wat by 05:45 - of course it was cloudy. By this point we were all more concerned with sleep so following the dejected walk away from nature's failure to comply we found some hammocks for an hour or two's nap before a solid 7 hours of tuk tuk riding (far from relaxing) and 3km of mountain hiking. On second-wind number 4 and no sleep for almost 2 days we eventually made our way back into town, the girls refreshed after a quick pummeling under a cold waterfall and me by sweating out the gin in the jungle. Still not time for bed though - finally, come midnight, my head hit the pillow and that was that until the following midday.

After 1 and a half days of idleness I'm just about recovered but still not ready to move on. I want to make the most of the good company and nice vibe here (the hotel has a garden courtyard, good food and is only $5) so will wait a few more days before departing for Bangkok. Thanks are due to Courtney, Romy and Sonia for some of the best days of my trip so far : D

Monday, 1 November 2010

Out of Vietnam and into Phnom Penh

A few of the 17,000 inmates who passed through Tuol Sleng Prison, S-21.
1.7 million were killed in the 4 years under the Khmer Rouge

Formerly a high school, it was turned into a prison for the torture and interrogation of anyone - men, women, children - even vaguely subversive to the Khmer Rouge regime

With the atrocities occurring only 2 generations ago it is important to preserve the memories of the worst acts of Pol Pot and his regime so it can't happen again, at least in Cambodia

One of the prison's security orders

One of the 4 buildings is completely encased in barbed wire to prevent escape or suicide

Some cells are large - these are where the bodies of the final 14 victims were found in 1979

A former teenage worker at the prison - many ended up as prisoners themselves, or faced an exiled life when the regime fell and the truth of what they had been a part of was revealed

Some classrooms were divided up into individual cells not big enough to lay down in

Internal walls were knocked through

As with Vietnam and the war, everyone you meet is linked to this past somehow, but normality is fully resumed

Nothing like the small of meat hanging in 40 degree heat

Nothing goes to waste

Like Saigon, ancient architecture exists alongside the modern

Choeung Ek - The Killing Fields. Teeth and bones litter the entire area

The skulls and bones of around 5,000 of the nearly 9,000 killed here have been exhumed from mass graves and are on display in an 11-tier Buddhist stupa. Some feel uncomfortable taking photos but the government and the people want the realities to be known

After 2 months in Vietnam we caught a boat from the deck of our hotel in Chau Doc in the south-west of Vietnam, up the Mekong and in to our first experience of Cambodia, the infamous Phnom Penh. A city known across the world, where it is even known at all, for drugs, prostitution, paedophilia, genocide, and friendliness.

Outside of the main backpacker area, where you struggle to walk a metre without offers ranging from marijuana to opium, acid to women, there is little evidence of this. The city is prosperous considering its past, and there is a lot of money in the country - though expectedly it seems to be in the hands of the Lexus-driving few. Government buildings and banks make up the best on the skyline, a common thread in this part of the world.
Tourism is playing a big part in keeping the momentum of the country's recovery and the people are very friendly; far more engaging than in Vietnam, and happy to chat, though still with the aim of getting an extra dollar or two. The development isn't all good, however - the Lakeside area I am staying is scheduled for 'redevelopment', which means the forced eviction of its residents for the building of something fancier. Over lunch on Sunday I awkwardly sat and watched the owners of the restaurant I was in selling off and packing up their chairs and tables, plants and photos, in preparation.

The currency is US$, with the 'cents' being Khmer Riel. At just over 4000 to the dollar it takes a bit of thinking about when checking change. Life isn't easy and a lot of the tuk tuk and cyclo drivers live in and on their bikes - walking the streets at night you see fans of hammocks spanning from trees to tuk tuks as they sleep beside the road.

I've spent a week in the city so far. It was once the jewel of French Indochina and some facets of that remain - the vibe that was at first intimidating and unknowing has vanished, and aside from the murky underworld that is occasionally evident (old grey-haired white man with barely legal Cambodian girl, foreign corporate takeovers of the country's past, power in uniform and the subservience they demand) it's a nice place to be. Ban Ki-Moon and Hilary Clinton have been in town over the past few days, the UN here to talk about the ongoing Khmer Rouge trials and the US affirming their relationship with the country. The UN would like to extend the trials to bring to account lower ranking officials of the regime, but with the current Prime Minister being an ex-official himself and some of his allies potentially being the ones facing the dock, he'd prefer them to stop at the 4 individuals under Pol Pot who are scheduled for trial, and the one, Duch, who has just been sentenced to 19 years for war crimes and crimes against humanity. I think the UN see the power in the symbolism of bringing more people to account, but with so many involved maybe moving on is preferable.

On another not insignificant note, after 52 days with Georgie we've decided to go our separate ways, for the sake of both our sanity and our friendship, so, Whitesnake interlude here... here I go again on my own. She will have company for the remainder of her trip, however, so no need to worry about me leaving her alone in Cambodia! After leaving home and riding as far as Istanbul on my own I've not spent a single night alone since the end of April, so getting to sleep on the first night was a strange experience. Thanks to Kris, Courtney, Sonia, Romy, and last night Ed and Philip, the incredibly cool and camp teenagers of Phnom Penh and their amazing street dancing, some wine and a few beers, and the hours spent on Skype with a very special lady in Beijing, all is well with the world. This trip has always been about finding out what I want from life, and, in life as in science, a negative result is still a good result.

Now I'm off to collect my passport with its newly acquired Thai visa (i.e. my ticket to sit on yet more beautiful beaches) before 2 big days' riding to Siem Reap tomorrow - 320km in 2 days will test my legs, but it's all flat...