31 10 2011



On the road in Yunnan

12 06 2011

There’s this concept in physics called the observation effect. It says that sometimes, just watching something will stop it from happening. Observation results in interference, which is its own input into the system, thus changing the system. Just see it and it’s already gone.

One good place to ponder this concept is on the smooth, sealed Dăli – Lìjiāng highway,  southwest China, while you try to avoid getting squashed by all the thundering progress. Anyone who says that progress marches is misguided. Colonial soldiers march. Brass bands march. Progress is more of a 10-tonne truck that barrels down the highway, shaking the foundations of nearby houses and kicking up the dust. And there are lots of trucks on the road in southwest China.

Of course, trucks have plenty of company. There are home-made farm vehicle frankensteins, with ute/tractor hybrids proving popular; motor scooters; workers on bikes; workers on foot; and the occasional glossy expensive car. But the trucks are the rulers of the road and there are sheer mobs of them. What am I doing here? I’m on a bike, blinking in the dust, and searching for that genuine Lonely Planet backpacking experience.

I’m looking for old China.

So far, I’m really not having much luck. From what I’ve seen in the last 6 weeks, this country has all the heritage preservation of an amnesiac. There just isn’t any old to be found. What’s to be found is Old China Lite. Old China Lite means grandiose temples and buildings that are at maximum 20 years old. If the past is a foreign country, then Old China Lite feels like going to a foreign restaurant in your home town, and just knowing that everything on the menu has been reworked to suit local tastes. Old China Lite has bright lights and loud music and the tackiest souviners that you can imagine. It’s a theme park. It’s everywhere, and it’s full of rich middle-aged tourists from the cities. They apparently love this stuff.

Currently, however, it’s occurring to me that this plump shuffling crowd might have their reasons to prefer a low-authenticity version of the past. Middle-aged? Check. Educated and urban? Yep. This marks them. They may have been here before as part of the re-educated generation.

At the time that my parents’ generation was heading off to university or on their OE, their counterparts in China were getting sent off to become peasants. Young people were lifted from the cities and dumped into labour in the countryside. Sometimes they had no idea of if or when they would come back. Marriage could become a life sentence to exile because any children would be legally locked to their birthplace. Backpackers, I think, can enjoy the experience of stark and simple rural beauty because it’s not the rest of their lives. But to face a future of rusticated poverty and boredom… I can understand why middle-aged wealthy China is interested in a comfortable, airbrushed past. Progress thunders on.

I’m thinking these thoughts as I turn off the highway , and the road reverts to something more along the lines of what you would picture for rural China. Meaning: the seal ends and the dirt begins. A metre-high, baked-on mud spatter coats the house walls next to the road. Even now, in the dry season, there’s a definite aroma of pig poo. In the wet – it doesn’t bear thinking about. So I press on past the houses and into the countryside, where people in the fields work pump-action spray bottles with dubious contents. Every so often a heavy construction vehicle rumbles past. There seem to be a lot of earth works going on.

Then I round a corner, enter the village and hit genuine old China. Not restored, not rebuilt, not bulldozed in the first place. Noone has ever gotten around to it – yet. The alleys between the houses were very obviously designed by people who were not thinking about motorised transportation. They form a maze that leads down to the water and up to the rocky outcrops. The walls are whitewash, mud and stone, layered one on top of the other over time like strata deposits. The clear light here bounces off the white. Old people sit and play mahjong in the temple. People wear their traditional clothing simply because it’s what you wear, like I would wear jeans.

Down by the water is a hostel. It’s sandwiched between the cliff and the shore, and most of the view is blue water or blue sky. There’s a courtyard where everyone eats a communal dinner which tastes like cosy home cooking. What’s really remarkable is the other backpackers. They are young, curious and university educated. Barring me and one Irish girl, they are all Chinese, but they graciously switch to excellent English for our benefit. I think that it says something about a country when it starts to produce backpackers. When you have enough freedom to step out of the rat race because there’ll be a good job to come back to, when you have enough education to wonder about how the rest of the world lives, when you can live on a shoestring because it’s not the rest of your life.

I’m only here for one night, then I have to bike back and catch my flight. It’s a sunny day and I wander back through narrow alleyways, listening to the lakewater slapping at the rocks. The whole village, with its stonewashed walls and traditional clothes, has the weird feeling of being suspended over the edge of a precipice. Any minute now, the drop will begin; in fact it already has. Already the waterfront is too expensive for the locals. It’s all been bought up by folks from out of town, and they’re bringing in out-of-town labour – rural backwater  time doesn’t sit well with city time schedules, and besides they trust people from their home province more. The backpacker owner is planning out the conversion of the backpacker to a luxury resort. And on the trip back, I get a good long look at what all those 10 tonne trucks are building. It’ll be a wide sealed highway, suitable for tour buses full of people after souviners and loud music. I bet they’re planning out the theme shops already.

I spend a lot of the ride back to town contemplating the observation effect.

Singapore Girl gave us grown-up privileges

14 06 2010

Taking off at night in the rain, the view out the window looks like a post modernist painting. Individual objects blur and lose their proportions. Sullen glows in the distance could be cities, or fires, or cities on fire.

Singapore Airlines has decided that we are all big enough to play with real metal adult cutlery without stabbing anyone with the fork. Bless. Not only have anti-terrorism measures made the traveler’s life supremely inconvenient, they have also removed our grown-up privileges. I just wish that, instead of the metal detector, airports could install some kind of telepathic innocence reader so that they could see my inner thoughts on the subject, which would be: Are you NUTS?!? I’m not going to (a) hold up the plane with my nail scissors; (b) ignite something with my laptop or (c) try to incinerate the craft with my 200mL bottle of shampoo.

Of course, a telepathic innocence indicator could run into all sorts of problems. I can imagine it bringing up private and embarrassing personal stuff, for one thing. And anyone willing to blow up a plane probably has a special sort of blind belief in their own innocence (and possibly the imminent availability of 72 attractive virgins) that would send the green lights flashing too.

My four edicts for rewarding travel

28 05 2010

1. Go slow.

In fact, if you’re up for the full travel experience, find a way to live somewhere rather than just stay in traveller’s accommodation. This could be flatting, couchsurfing, staying with a local family, or volunteer-for-bed work like WWOOFing. Almost without exception, the most remarkable experiences I have had involved one of the above.

Even if “going native” isn’t your style and you’d prefer a more straightforward travel experience, going slow is important. Every move requires time to organise, as well as a certain amount of stress. The longer you stay in one place, the higher the proportion of experience time to logistics time.

2. Find people living locally.

This is the other benefit that comes from living somewhere other than tourist accommodation. The locals can tell you what’s really going on – from politics to where the good gigs are in town. Milk connections with friends, or even friends of friends.

3. Learn the language.

If you are in a country for a while, see if there is a local language school that you can attend for a week or two when you set out. This is another way to find people living locally – not just through developing language ability, but through meeting other foreigners who are sticking around for a while.

4. Pack light.

If you are backpacking, you need to carry everything you’ve got. And the more you’ve got, the harder it is to move around. Look at the stuff you’re thinking of carrying and eliminate everything that you don’t consider absolutely essential.

Here is my list of absolutely essential things for hot-country travel:

  • Indian-style clothes. Comfy, loose and cotton, covering as much skin as possible – dress to protect from sun, insects and local conservative clothing codes.
  • A belt pouch to hold your essentials under your clothes. However, if you’re travelling through super-dodgy zones (e.g. places in Peru, Columbia, India), there are thieves who happily circumvent this security system. For these places, I’ve heard the following works well : sew a pocket in the inside of your trousers, well below belt level, and put your stuff in there.
  • A shoulder bag that zips up securely, and a wallet that goes inside it. Money for day-to-day stuff goes in here. Reaching into that hidden belt-pouch under your pants isn’t a good look when you’re buying coffee. And your day-to-day money shouldn’t be in the same place that your passport, credit card, and emergency wad of cash are. Advantages of a shoulder bag: You don’t take it off, the way you do with a daypack. You can hold it across the front of your body in high-security situations like public transport or crowded places. It makes you feel less like a tourist gimp.
  • An emergency wad of cash, and photocopies of your essential documents, somewhere that isn’t your belt-pouch or your shoulder bag. Scanning all your essential documents before you leave and emailing them to yourself and your emergency contact is a good idea as well.
  • Broad-spectrum antimicrobial cream and strapping tape.
  • If you’re going anywhere with malaria – prescribed doxycycline tablets (these also double as antibiotics for anything bacterial). And a mosquito net that you can hang from the ceiling. Actually, bring the net if you’re going anywhere tropical that’s out in the wops.
  • A notebook. I found this was the fastest way to learn a language – write down any new word or phrase as you learn it. In the end, it becomes better than a dictionary because it has the language you’re using from day to day.
  • Little, lightweight gifties for people you meet. It feels very good to be able to give something back when you have received kindness. I took watercolour card and paints, and handed out pictures; these are also good because they prevent any weirdness that comes from gifts of money or other things with a price tag.
  • A down jacket. Seriously. It becomes a pillow, a blanket for transport with brutal aircon, and emergency warmth if you end up somewhere cold.
  • Tampons. They aren’t always available when you need them.
  • An outfit that still makes you feel pretty, even if you haven’t bathed or slept for more than 48 hours.

Living in a bubble

23 05 2010

Beautiful people in a sparkling cool bubble, floating above the street – the image on a highway billboard says it all. Jakarta likes to see the world from an air-conditioned glass cocoon. When the traffic hits in the evening, a car can take an hour to cover 2km. Walking would be faster. But people like their bubbles.

I’m not used to this version of Indo, which I saw in my previous life as a backpacker. This is a country where a supermarket is often a luxury concept. Ditto fridges. You get your food from the local market and cook it up, or eat something hot from a street stall. A motorbike is a heavy vehicle. So is a bicycle, sometimes.

Our big adventure today is to escape the glass bubble by walking home from the mall, the biggest air conditioned oasis of them all. The tampons were horrendously hard to find at the supermarket – a luxury item even for the luxury concept – and are shrinkwrapped like electronic equipment. I also have two new books on southeast Asian politics, also shrinkwrapped. The Thai one, only a few months old, is a scathing commentary against the current regime. The author must nearly be wetting himself at his highly auspicious timing of publication, with the world media spotlight on redshirts and teargas in the capital. A local shuttlevan speeds past, people on the roof, people hanging off the sides, everyone in fluoro orange shirts waving the Indonesian flag and shouting slogans. Some sort of rally just like in Thailand… forget courage in the face of political oppression, I’m more impressed by their courage in the face of near death from falling off. Further down the road, we catch up with them standing outside the stadium, still shouting slogans that turn out to be directed at their soccer team. So much for Indo as a hotbed of political turmoil. It seems that people will only take to the streets for sport.

21 04 2010

Singapore is confusing. On the one hand, it’s jammed full of glittering high-rise real estate, the likes of which I have never seen. Coffee’s expensive. And my gym… if I’d signed up to it for weight loss, it might have been cheaper to amputate a limb.

On the other hand, there are things that I always thought were marks of a “economically challenged” country. People try to sell you stuff on the street. A lot of prices are negotiable. There are mysterious old men with bamboo brooms and a mission to clean the streets of the world. A lot of heavy lifting seems to be done by people rather than machines. Bike couriers aren’t lycra’d cycleobsessives with an expensive roadie, they’re ancient guys with doubtful contraptions and a crate on the back.

And now I wonder… I’m sure that the NZ of my childhood had a lot more “economically challenged” signs than it does today. When foreign imports were horrendously expensive. When it was highly unusual to fly anywhere. When I just ate plain peanut butter sandwiches and an apple for lunch (although that could just be who my parents were). I’m not sure – it’s not like I was paying much attention at the time. What happened? And what are the reliable signs that a country’s people are doing well for themselves?

Luckily, as a science graduate I can leave those sorts of questions to someone with a BA.

Next Post

12 04 2010