Chop till you drop

Thursday, August 31. 2006
Yesterday my Taiwanese class was canned because my teacher has hurt her back. So instead I went to Bikefarm after work and did some more work on my chopper - I swapped the front end from the other Husky (which is spare because of the FZR front end conversion I did). So now the choppers has a good tyre, a front fenders and brakes that work. Then I put a small sissy bar on the back. That didn't go as well as I planned - it seems to have ruined the lines a bit, and it's currently too far back to make using anytime other than cruising practical. I'll get some photos together eventually.

In other news, the issue of whether I will teach the afternoon class is still up in the air, but I'm teaching one until they can find another teacher for it. I usually enjoying subbing a lot because the pressure of long-term goals is removed and you can have more fun. Yet after only two afternoons of it I'm finding myself sick of teaching it already. In a lot of ways the afternoon classes are better - the kids are a little older and you can communicate enough with them to have meaningful conversations, but it remains I'm sick of it.

Hope they find someone soon.

My Way 11: The Netherlands

Wednesday, August 30. 2006
Author's note: in the intrest of some kind of formatting sense, the things will now come in a country at a time, just because I fee like it.

Holland. The Netherlands, same thing, yeah? Here I was. I really hate long flights and my limit had been tested severely. But I landed without issue and the exit procedure was easy. The locals were friendly and customs more a case of, we know you have no drugs because thats what people come to us for and never have I left an airport so easily. I got me some Euros and found the train to the city. The time difference meant that in my head it was well and truly bed time, but the light outside said, lets eat lunch. This makes poor heads hurt. I had nowhere to stay figured out yet, but I did have an older copy of Lonely Planets Europe guide (it was old enough to still give prices in Guilders but mention the exchange rate for the Euro and someone had ripped out Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway for some reason) that Id stolen from my old house. In there would surely be a place to stay. I needed to find two nights accommodation so off I set. Out the front of central station was a tourist office. I went in, they were closed. I was on the steps consulting LP when an old lady cones to me and asks what I am doing. Looking for a place to say, I say, then return to the book. China is full of touts who want to sell you a shitty hotel room, or just plain rip you off. I had gotten very good at ignoring such lark, and was not about to stop here. But she persisted. How much will you pay? I dont really know, I said, as little as possible. Im sure there is a hostel somewhere in Amsterdam I can go to. Up until then I had not made any kind of advance booking, knowing that there would always be room for a lucky boy like me. I intended to do the rounds and find somewhere.

But on she pushed, with the questions, was I a Yankee, where had I come from, and when the answers seemed to please her, she invites me to stay at her house. She runs a hostel from her place and chooses her customers from the lost looking at the train station. I passed her tests and looked good enough to be able to stay. What the fuck was going on, I thought, my head well and truly where my heart still was, back in the Middle Kingdom. How much? And the answer sold it to me, 15 Euros a night. Good enough, the best I could tell is that the average was nearly twice that. And I got myself breakfast too.

So the old lady takes me to where her other catches are and we all get on a tram (with still-valid discarded tickets she has scavenged for us) and we go to her house. It is not far from central station, so I am happy. This is also where I met Alise, my first friend in Europe. We get as far as introducing ourselves and I remember her name, because it is easy. Jetlag is a real bastard, it reduces you pretty considerably in mental capacity. But Alise, I can remember that.

I see the room, say OK, pay the lady for two nights (exactly what she can offer and exactly what I need) and she sends us off to see the town. I actually want to sleep but she insists, she has tickets. Off we all go then into town again, she points me in the right direction and then goes off to find more potential customers. So I find myself walking, quite unintentionally, jetlagged and feeling sad, through the red light district. Everyones heard about this place. Weed is legal to sell at registered coffee shops (which seems to be all of t hem) and while using it in the street is technically illegal, the police are also amongst the worlds most liberal, so they never say anything. So the smell is everywhere, making every nerve think, oh man, we all better be careful, what if the filth shows up? But its cool, and everyone is all mellow because of it, so the atmosphere is totally laid back. Then you get to the parts with the red lights in the windows. And there are actually whores behind them all. All doing their business, all trading away. Whole streets are lined with these places, then all the alleyways, and all the streets beyond that. Punctuating the experience are souvenir shops and sex clubs. It is all more than you can ever imagine having simply heard about it, seeing it for real is mind-blowing enough. Now imagine you just came halfway around the world, out of Asia for the first time is maybe four years and jetlagged to hell. Its downright surreal. And not tempting in the least, which is actually a little odd.

Actually, my impression of the whole city was that it was totally crazy. Everything that was clandestine and illegal in pretty much the rest of the world was available (for a not too unreasonable price) was available and completely visible. This send every kind of mixed message to us, who have grown up being told that of sex, drugs and rock n roll the only one we are allowed to have is the rock n roll and then only if we keep it down and dont sing along to the swear words. What the hell happened here that led to this situation? Its not possible that one day the government woke up and collectively thought, we are going to turn Amsterdam into the party capital of the universe. More thoughtful deconstruction of the situation is doubtless available, and we all should go and find it as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, the reality of the situation is easily seen if your eyes are only jetlagged and not unfocussed because youve been joining in and it is that availability of the drugs (soft only, which seems to cover weed and mushrooms, possibly some of those garbage herbal ecstasy crap potions) encourages education and discussion among the population and therefore responsible, enjoyed usage. The locals, that is to say, know exactly what it is they are doing and appreciate and enjoy in general moderation. This proves that it is possible. On the other hand, you have visitors from all over who descend upon the enlightened centre here and turn it all into one big shitty frat party. The Brits are the worst. You can generally find them attempting to raise hell, which seems to be getting drunk and heckling their mates in front of the whores (none of them actually packed the testicles to go and follow through themselves) then going and getting too stoned to move before midnight has even rolled around. In the meantime they make a loud mess of the streets. I must not pin the lousiness entirely on those visiting from the UK, all countries the Netherlands included have contributed to the degeneration (but also enlightenment) of the situation. For the moment it seems that the party crowd holds sway, but hey, it was summer.

I go into a bar and watch the soccer. Germany beat Portugal, I didnt really care. I went back to the hostel and realised that the trams had stopped and I had very little idea of how to get back. Especially in the dark. But I remembered which tram line the house was on and followed it around until I saw familiarity looming out of the darkness. No-one tried to pickpocket me, stab or rape me, and not once did I shoot up, drop or get high. Day one, all finished.

Breakfast was included in the price. This turned out to be tea, toast, fried eggs and a slice of cheese. You must be there between eight and nine. Dont piss the old lady off or give her any reason to get stuck into you, she will, then you get a smile. Dont ask me to explain this. No-one really can.

After the feeding I had to go out and phone my friends. To tell them I was there (mysteriously, two days before I intended) and to arrange some kind of meeting. I did this and it was set that at two oclock I would join them for falafel or something. I had a talk with Alise, too. She was from Latvia and dead surprised I even knew where it was. Even more shocked that I was planning to go there. But we would have never had that conversation, and I wouldnt have got her contact details, if her name had been anything hard to remember. This is something to keep in mind further down the story.

I fell asleep in the late morning and woke up just in time to get my shoes on and start out to get the meeting with Aby and Elena. I was actually about ten minutes late, beginning a pattern of tardiness that was to plague me. They were friendly, if a little vacant. Long-time friends, it was never going to be easy to break in between them and I never did. I talked as much as I could, trying to be nice. They had done mushrooms for the first time the day before and were a little out of it because of that, so I chalked things down to that. The ice would never actually thaw after that, not really. This just happens sometimes, despite your best efforts.

We walked around the rest of the day, appreciating the sights of Amsterdam and talking about the obvious and stuff I did in China. That was big on my mind, having just ended and having had no-one to talk to before about it, and I think I went on too much about it all. I dont care, I was doing my part. We went by a tattoo and piercing place and I had another hole put in, to commemorate the missing of the flight to Beijing. We met with their friend David and he showed us the famous askew buildings of Amsterdam and some of the quirkier local sights (like doors you can only get to by boats on the canals) and after he left, we found a bar to watch the soccer final. Theres thoughts there to write out, something about the most dramatic game for a long while, but Ill leave it with this. If Italy beat Australia only by cheating, Italys victory is invalid and Australia are the worlds best. So we actually won, suck it. Fuck those guys.

The meeting the next day so we could all get to Breda together was a good idea, except I was late and had to make my own way. Thats another missed train and another hole I got to be getting. But despite having to go out of my way to get to the missed rendezvous, it was no hassle getting to Amsterdam Central and getting on my way south. I guess I should put the story here of why and where and all that, all the things about Breda, but you know? That whole story I dont feel like it. Breda was a nice little town, I slept on the couch of a little apartment for a week, I spent my birthday there. There is a church in the centre and a maze of cobblestone streets to deal with and I left about a week later, on a Monday. I went to The Hague and to Rotterdam in between and did some cooking for myself. Life in Europe, as predicted, was going to be more expensive than before in China, and I was fully aware of just how so. Life in the west just costs more and I was constantly on the lookout for ways to cut corners and save money. Buying the simple things from supermarkets and walking around, things like this. Sleeping on couches. Language was not a problem, because all these wonderful Europeans speak enough English to more than get by, some are exemplary. But I would be too if Id been doing it my whole life. Oh, wait. That really explains it.

I caught a bus to Brussels.

My Way 10: Kunming

Wednesday, August 30. 2006
The Hump hostel. Right in the middle of town, sitting on the edge of the main square behind some big gates. Nice positioning, I had to think. The taxi let us out and we were immediately hassled by beggar kids. I had seen every kind of beggar in China, from no arms, no legs, horrible rash, burned to crap, single mum with hungry kid, students from the country, religious reasons, but this was the first time Id seen little kids. And werent they persistent. They would grab your clothes and bags, cut you off and follow like pit bulls. Only when we were inside the building did they go away. Hot damn, plus we were far from in the mood to deal with that. Mostly you can process this shit, but little kids is way different. The unavoidable reality is they are reporting back to some adult, somewhere, with the takings, and if you give them anything, all the kids in the area swarm you. We found out later about this for now we had shaken them and it was time to check in and maybe get some kind of rest, clean our shit up and see what there was to see. Maybe plan ahead a little. We were going our own way after that and a bit more thought was needed now. Winging it along a rough route had worked since wed left Chengdu (mainly because the way we had gone had only one path to follow) but there were visas and airports to suss out. But first, to check the damage. I was lucky, I guess, the water had not hit my pack as hard. Right in the top I pack my wet pack, to provide some kind of waterproofing, and apart from ending up soaking in mud and slightly damp clothes, no great harm had been done. Mica, on the other had, had been almost totally washed out. All his clothes were really wet and all the souvenirs he had acquired in Lijiang were in a bad way. This included dresses for his mum and sister, so it was a real bummer. None the less we washed everything, then washed ourselves, then washed t he packs and by midday we were shiny. Things were drying and aside from some stains, we werent in a place to complain to much. Dont sweat the small things, Mica always told me, and he was right. You know, he really was. At the end of the day, it was nothing.

And we had a few days to cool out, chill out and hang out (but not at the same time, because that kind of multi-tasking is bad for your head, man) in Kunming. The reputation we had heard of this place had been the same from everyone. Chilled out, relaxed, even for a big city. First impressions told us this was not true, but we saw it eventually. Yes, it was cool and chilled in Kunming. The hottest months are, strangely, April and May so we were already in the citys long Autumn, which was followed by a miniscule Winter and replaced by the almost eternal Spring. Warm and dry, like clean sheets right out off the clothes line having dried in the summer sun. Crisp and clear like a cool breeze over the sand dunes. I could go on, but the weather was, in a word, perfect.

The days we spent walking around and talking to the other travellers. We did no obvious sightseeing, went to no temples or distant attractions. We sat and talked, the spectre of our parting standing just around the corner all the while, we played pool at the table and met a bunch of the locals who came by for the bar and to chat with the visitors. No-one was there to hassle you or sell you any crap, there wasnt much to do so no-one was really in a hurry. No-one was out to trick you or rip you off and you got good at out-foxing the beggar kids downstairs. Going off to hunt for food (there were some really great noodle places nearby) and a little more shopping (the capitalist orgy of cheap souvenirs and cheap pirate DVDs was rapidly approaching a close, so we relented again and again) was all the activity that really occupied us. Chatting with folks and Mica trying to stitch up a Thai visa were the only real distractions.

A few funny things happened too, and then something amazing. A bookend and a big finish.

When I first landed on the mainland, and then when I wrote about Guangzhou, I never mentioned Jake, but I really should have. Id just arrived and the first person I met was this friendly Englishman. We chatted for a while and had a few drinks. The next day as I planned my exit and attempted to make it work, he was with me the whole time as we tramped through the rainy streets and did our best to track down the right transport option. He even carried a bag for me. He was the first person I met in China, on almost my first day, and here in Kunming I find him again.

Hed stayed in the same hostel almost the whole time I had been making my way about the rest of the country. Id been in a big loop up the coast and down the middle, while he had made a short trip to Guilin, Yangshuo and then to Kunming. Six weeks and thats as far as he made it, but to be fair he was working there. Money was short, and there are certainly worse places to be doing that. And it went that on my last days, indeed, my last day overall, in China, he was there. Because hed been camped out in the Hump, which I had chosen totally arbitrarily. Bookends to a trip, nice and neat. This is how Jake came to be there that day.

The second last day (in our plans), the penultimate. As I would have had it. Mica has been telling me for a while about his days as a pro skater in Mexico. We were talking in Chengdu about sports and the like, snowboarding and all that, and he told me about his pro skater days. Honestly, what cant he do? And ever since then, the subject had come up a few times clearly he was thinking about it. So it came that we were looking around Kunming for a skate shop. We had found a few places, generic sports stores and the like, that had crummy toy boards. The staff were unhelpfully bad at English meaning that they couldnt exactly be bothered communicating with us enough to make a sale but we persevered at the department store long enough to talk to a guy from upstairs, who had friends who could skate. He called one of them and asked if there was a skate shop in Kunming. Yes there was. And here is how we find it. He walked us outside to the bus stop and sent us on our way. He didnt have to do any of that and we thank him, because without his contribution we wouldnt have made it that day.

The section of town is called Foreigner Street, because its where most of the trendier shops and the English schools are, thus a lot of foreigners live there and go to shop there. The Chinese presence it not exactly under threat, I must note. There indeed we found a bona-fide skate shop. Real decks, proper trucks, all the gear. Nice t-shirts and shoes too. We talked to the girl there and got prices, but were not satisfied. We kept looking and there was another place, where after some haggling, extreme haggling, Mica got a decent price. We sat there on the floor and put that sucker together and there we had it. Chinese skateboard. It had been a few years since he had skated, so he wanted to practice a little before doing anything serious. So up and down the street he went, getting the feel for it back. He tried some jumps and a few other tricks. A few years since he had skated? You wouldnt know from the stuff he was doing, this kid was good.

All the way home (except on the bus) he skated down the street, jumped over things, nearly hit people. It was kind of fun, nearly taking out strangers. After we get back to the hostel we talk about skating a little bit, but since I dont really know anything about it Im in no position to really be a part of it. We sit around and do the do nothing thing, we swap music from each others iPods. I write SKATE CHINA on the bottom of the board, Mica writes on some things for me.

Cue the next day. It rained a little the night before, but the ground has dried up. Time to take the board out. Wet concrete and grip tape dont mix, so wet days dont go well. The reason Mica went out looking for a board was simple. An observation we both made, after talking about skating, is that China is the perfect place to skate. Urban skate, since the countryside doesnt work anywhere, because urban China is almost fully paved in either asphalt, concrete or some kind of stone. Marble benches about, rails are everywhere and every single city had numerous wide open plazas. Sure they are full of people, but sure as the rails dont have bits of metal welded on them to prevent grinding, the public places are policed not by officers of the law who eat punk-ass kids for breakfast, but by bored looking rent-a-cops. In other words, Chinese cities are big skate parks. We set out to test the theory.

Since we had only one board, Mica would be the skater with backup from Jake, who used to participate in his youth. I would be on photo duty. The open space out the from of the hostel was nice and big but soon turned out to be too crowded. So we headed across the road and there is a much bigger plaza there. Soon Mica was jumping things and doing tricks, we were taking pictures and the locals were sort of taking an interest. Mica just wanted to practice, so he wasnt too happy about their presence, but what were you to do? This was their backyard, after all. After a little while we took the show to somewhere with a bit more room and less cracks in the pavement.

What looks like the main plaza in Kunming, its wide and smooth, partly elevated. There are about five steps down and it looked just right. Mica took himself back and took a long run up, jumped and landed. Yes, he says, this is the right place. So he goes back and jumps again. I take photos as he goes again and again, doing different tricks and sometimes making it, sometimes not. I give the other camera to Jake, so we get twice the opportunity to grab the best shot on each jump. We try every different angle we can think of, we get closer and further, we go in front and behind, we go under. All the while the crowd grows. From the few people who were there at the start, to the people who came by to see what they were looking at, and from there it snowballed. In ten minutes there must have been a few hundred people, forming a human wall around the rectangle he was using for a run up and a circle around where he was landing. Picture a Mexican dude jumping a handful of stairs, the crowd cheering when he lands ok and laughing when he stacks it, kids cheering and people shouting encouragement, the crowd getting bigger every time he goes up and back. Mica getting more and more determined to land the tricks, the guys taking photos getting more and more daring with their positions and shots. The people in the crowd start to try and talk to us about whats going on, we try to explain that its simply an impromptu session, nothing more. The locals seem like they have never seen anything like it, and they do like a spectacle. We have to try and keep the kids back, because the crowd creeps closer every time. We dont want anyone to get hurt.

A few local kids can speak a little English, they tell us they are skaters too. But we never get too far in conversation. No-one tries to stop us or break it up, even the rent-a-cops are watching it all. Its just entertainment to them.

Eventually things have to end. Im supposed to be on a plane to Beijing to get a connection that night so we have to clean up our stuff, eat and I have to be going. So we get our things and walk back to the hostel, all of us buzzing from the experience. We never expected anything of a reaction, let alone such a huge one. The crowd had applauded before dispersing. And then, as we were talking about the potential behind this and joking that we should have put a hat down and collected some money, just as we were saying this, a little girl comes up to Mica and gives him a bottle of Coke. Just like that. She wanted to buy him a cold drink, because it was a hot day and he was doing his best out in the sun like that. And before we could even get a picture, she was gone.

That was the best part, and that sealed the resolve for us to go back and do it all again, only on a larger scale But more on that some time later. It was the birth of Skate China and will only end when we are satisfied

So back we went to the hostel. I packed my stuff, gave the key back and we sat down to eat. This was going to be it for a while, if ever again. Goodbyes are never easy. But we said ours, and like that Mica and I were on out separate ways. I got into a taxi and headed for the airport.

Kunming airport is not exactly straightforward, but I found the right check-in desk fast enough. I put my bag on the belt and showed my ticket. Something was wrong. What are you saying? I dont understand. It dawns that I am late. Bullshit, I think, because I am there with plenty of time. Whatchu talking about? But I am brushed aside and sent to the Air China (or whoever) desk and they tell me I was ten minutes too late to check in. Sorry. Can I change it? You have to do something! And they do. Free of charge (good thing because I have almost no RMB left) I can go the next morning. The flight will get me to Beijing just in time to get the connection If nothing goes wrong. If nothing goes wrong This bodes very badly. Very, very badly. But I have nothing to do but sulk back to the hostel, feeling a lot like I did in Chengdu, only this time I was alone.

I walk out of the airport saying, fuck, fuck, fuck. Fucking hell. Fuck it all But Im not that upset. I save myself a night at Beijing airport. And I got it all sorted for free, imagine that happening anywhere else. So I get a bus back into town and walk back to the Hump. Imagine Micas face when Im back again.

We had a good night after that. We talked about our plans for Skate China. We swapped more music, we talked more. I slept a little. When the time came to leave again, I felt somewhat satisfied. Now it really was time to leave. I made it and got away without paying for the last night there. Cheers guys. With that kind of attitude you might be half as good as Mix someday!

The flight to Beijing left on time. Id bought the connection ticket weeks before and this one couldnt be changed, so making it there was imperative. It also arrived on time, after some innocent flirting with the hosties. Always fun. I run off the plane and wait impatiently at the baggage carousel. Finally my goddamn bag pops out and I am off again, running like a bastard to check in I have just over an hour to get through all the bullshit they force on you at airports. Long story short, I arrive sweaty and unsettled at the boarding gate just as they open it to let people on the plane. Score one for me, zero for the bastards that would hold me back. Yeah, all of them. China was officially over.

I was headed for Amsterdam.

My Way 09: Shangri-La

Wednesday, August 30. 2006
Shangri-La is a name Ive heard before. Some kind of heaven, somewhere in the clouds, somewhere far away that you can only find after a long adventure. It was all of these things, in one way of another, and it was many other things too; what happened there is one of the reasons I didnt sit down and write about it for so long. The last days in China were enormous, I felt like I was ten feet tall, I felt like it was a pinnacle and I knew it was an end to something special. What happened in Shangri-La was in times ordinary, in others spectacular, in others again painful, but in all times it was looking back on it nothing except beautiful.

The town itself is nothing amazing as the bus drives in, and in all the guidebooks it wasnt even called Shangri-La. Zhongdian doesnt have the same mythical ring to it, so I decided that is why the locals encourage the alternate name. In fact almost nothing in town has Zhongdian written on it. The hotels, the bus station, all the signs and all the restaurants say Shangri-La, the hills around the town all claim in high white lettering that this is the one truth. A more prosaic idea is that Shangri-La is the Tibetan and traditional name of the area and more so than recognising the Tibetans heritage, it encourages tourism. Or maybe some magic has had its way and these all appear possible explanations; the land itself is strong enough to make the humans call it what it wants.

The first step toward the plateau on top of the world, we are deeply nestled in the west edge of the Himalayas by now. In between Tiger Leaping Gorge and here the view from the bus is extraordinary. I feel like I can see further than ever before. The land is so high up and the sheer size of the rolling valleys between them open up massive plains and plateaus, the geometry of it all is the reason you get such widescreen views and I feel like the human eye just isnt capable of capturing it all, of processing it all and so the brain is overwhelmed by the power of it all we all feel a step closer to nirvana. There is myself and Mica and the Dutch couple we met in the gorge who happen to be travelling the same direction as us. We all stop our conversations and stare out the windows for a time, it is all really too much. The biggest sky you ever saw, the most vibrant panorama you ever knew is right there.

The bus rolls into town and its over. If our eyes cannot appreciate the view there is no way six mega pixels could ever be enough.

Off the bus we haggle with a shady looking hotel owner. He show us his establishment and even though the price is right, the hotel is just another concrete block, lifeless and void of atmosphere. I voice my opinion, I think we can find somewhere nicer in town, lets just go have a look. I have a feeling about it. What is there might not be as well appointed but it will be much better off at the end of the day trust me here. So we jump in a taxi and roll from the new town where the bus station is to the Tibetan old town, that was there before the tourist industry built the depressing concrete jungle of a typical Chinese town around it. There is a hostel there and for the price of a twin hotel room we stay in a ten-person dorm without a bathroom (you have to go outside for it) but seeing as its still Summer and we have not showered in days, this doesnt bother us. More about the effect China has on you later, when the story is finished.

So we go for a walk around the old town while it is still light. We accidentally walk down a side street and end up in a residential street. Not far from the commercial centre, this is some of the most depressing poverty I have ever had to walk through. Crumbling clay houses, people inside you can see through the holes in the wall. Kids just sitting about, doing nothing, no sign of modern convenience. Coming through some of the most beautiful land on earth to get there only to find human built squalor trapping the people who live there. Again, I dont know how to feel about it. Later when I ask Mica, he claims that these people might just be the happiest on earth. Nothing personal, possessive or material to worry about, living in heaven. I begin to doubt if he is right, when we turn the corner and suddenly are in the middle of reconstructed tourist town paradise, under a huge Tibetan sky and a beautiful sunset. The town square is full of dancing people and music playing, people singing. We stand and watch for a while.

After the show is over and the sun well and truly set, we get some food. The ordering takes place by way of us going into the kitchen and pointing at our preffered ingredients. This is not uncommon among foreign travellers as a way of getting food we actually want. The state of cleanliness in the kitchen is also assessable this way. And in further flung places like this, it is also a huge novelty for the staff. Everybody is a winner.

When I go back to the dorm room to get some toilet paper (we stopped by a supermarket to get supplies and I had an attack of the squirts come on, so I legged it on ahead) there were more people there. When we checked in it was just Mica and I, now there were four Chinese people there. I sat on my bed as they went about their business. They were talking, to me it sounded like they might be arguing, not knowing what they were saying it can easily sound like fighting. For some reason Chinese lends itself to this presumption. For all if its qualities, picturesqueness is not ranked highly, one might say. I ponder over this when one of them asks me something (I forget what) and we start talking. She speaks excellent English and soon we are having an actual conversation. This is a rarity in China. The generation who were schooled during the years of the Cultural Revolution often had an extremely truncated experience in the classroom, with many people not even managing the basic education enjoyed up until then. Those years were hard on everyone in China, very few people escaped unscathed, so talking about it is always a touchy subject. They also went on for long enough that the damage was long lasting and widespread. As a consequence the age group of about 35-40 saw little of a classroom and almost certainly learned no English. The current generation who are now in University and above, as well as high school students (all together the 16 to 30 bracket) all have some English classes. High school kids are not generally so reliable but University students are who we backpackers turn to when we need to find linguistic help. Always look for the youth when in trouble! But even so, someone who can have a decent conversation is a real rarity. Beyond pleasantries and basics, that is to say. So when I made an offhand remark that their conversation sounded like they were arguing, expecting either little comprehension or at least acknowledgement of the joke, I was stunned to hear that this girl was fighting back. Within two minutes we were arguing. I was on the back foot, having been blindsided not only by the wit of this girl but her goddamned straightforwardness. Straight shooter, take no shit attitude, she fought right back. I was done for there and then.

We showed each other our photos and then that was all for then. I went off with Mica to play with the hostels computers and when I came back, she asked me what we were doing the next day. I admitted we had no idea what we were going to do. Mostly because we both had left our trusty Lonely Planet guides behind long ago. Then we were invited to join them sightseeing they had arranged a minibus to get to all the nearby sights and there was room for two more. Would we join them? The answer was, of course, Fuck Yes.

The next day came around and an angry looking Chinese girl was waking me up. Come on, we are going to leave without you if you dont get up. What happened to the nice, polite locals that I had come to know and love? Something was wrong with this girl, clearly, and as I stirred my head cleared and the previous nights dreams came back to me. Shed made her way into my head and now she was waking me up with a threat. This was going to be a strange day.

We piled into a crappy little minibus and tooled down to the bus station. Mica and myself were planning to get on the overnight bus to Kunming. We did a hit and run on the tickets and then met the Chinese crew for breakfast. We will call them Rocia, Portia, Fiona and Emo Dude. Emo Dude could speak no English and we silent and broody. Rocia and Fiona had limited control of the greater language, but it turns out the Portia had lived in Europe for a while and had gotten good at fending off the locals, thus her ability to tell me to shove it.

All day, as we went off to far-flung lakes and meadows (good thing we had the minibus, though I could have done without the driver getting high halfway through the day) that were really out of the town and even further higher into the hills. Once in the park, transport was in eco-friendly busses. Long elevated wooden walkways over marshy grassland took us to a huge lake, the sort of place that in spring would be a treasure. Here in the summer it was just special, not to mention kind of cold and rainy. The humidity doesnt really factor up that high, so it was colder than we were used to back in Sichuan. But mere weather will not inconvenience us, no sir. We walked back to the parking lot and minibus through the meadow, keep off the grass signs ignored.

Shangri-La is most famous for being home to the biggest Tibetan monastery in the world, even bigger than anything actually inside Tibet. There we headed next, after a short tour of the surrounding countryside and a stop at a tourist trap (the driver gets commission for taking us there, yet another bleed-em-dry setup to get those tourist Yuan out of us) where I amused myself by offering five RMB for anything and everything they tried to sell me. My solitary laughter filled the rooms. It was hilarious. By the end it degenerated into sheer rudeness, so leaving was well in order. Around the corner from the monastery the driver left us, after trying to extort more money (for fuel, apparently, and we happily let him go, knowing that public transport through there is plentiful) and we walked. Mica had heard from other travellers the night before that there was a back entrance of some kind where you could avoid paying the entrance fee. Not that it was expensive, but the Chinese were into cutting as many corners as possible. So we managed to find it based on second hand information from a hazy source and in we went.

The monastery was more than just one big building, it was like a little self-contained precinct. Inside the walls were houses, temples of varying size, buildings of all sorts. It was more than just a place of worship, it was a place to live, a place to study and a place to grow. The standard of the buildings didnt differ from those outside, we were still in a poor area, but the vibrancy of the colours everywhere, shimmering slightly after the rain, with monks hurrying in groups and walking in solitude between buildings it all adds up. The size of the main buildings was indeed huge, they were probably bigger than anything else in town. Bigger than the bus station building, bigger than the tourist hotels that lined the streets. The grey sky let in just enough sunlight to cast a glow over it all and we walked around, in and out of all sorts of buildings, looking at the artwork and statues. Even after the troubles of the Cultural Revolution, there are still enough Buddhist structures left in China to get an appreciation of the religions influence on the area (and in the years since it has enjoyed a limited revival) and I think every city I went to had a major temple of some kind. You also see Taoist and Confucian temples, but the Buddhist examples are always the most colourful and interesting. Their many halls are filled with statues and paintings, the air thick with incense. When they are busy they ring with noise, when they are quiet you can hear a pin drop. This one had both, the busy parts were riots of sound and colour, but there were contemplative, dark and silent rooms too.

Emo Dude knew a little secret. He led us (when no-one was looking) up to the roof of one of the buildings. The view was spectacular. You could see the whole monastery from there and all the way to the hills that circled the area. The farms that lay in between were spread out before us and for a minute we all stopped and stared. Then we realised we were alone up there. Mica did some back flips, we climbed out to the edges and no-one could have seen us there.

We went back down and left through the main gate. There is a long stairway leading to it, a long way down, where we had an impromptu photo session. The language barrier had ceased to be a problem and we all joked and laughed, sometimes the humour was more physical than verbal, but we had fun. Only Emo Dude seemed to be distant and shy. God only knows, he probably had not ever come across two white guys like us. Few people do have that privilege. He didnt hold anything against us, I could tell, but he was just a distant guy. Friends are easy to make in t he right place at the right time and this was it.

From the monastery we went back into town to eat. Since breakfast not a crumb of food had come our way, since we were trying to get the most mileage out of minibus guy (no time to eat!) and when we went into a Tibetan hotpot restaurant, despite my previous hunger, I felt my appetite vanish. Hanging from the walls were all the different parts of dead yaks. All hung on the walls, all black and preserved. This was the local way, display the wares and respect the animals. I had never seen this before. It is confronting and quite unsettling. I even wanted to leave, but the other convinced me to stay. I agreed and it was worth it. Hotpot is just a big metal bowl on a flame with soup. Into here you add vegetables and meat, stock and spice. Boil it up and dig in. Simple but all so good. Each person has their own little bowl and a dish of spice to add flavour. The Chinese crew all had red-hot chilli, looking ready to fire a full grown man across the room. They ate it like it was nothing, taking meat and vegies from the pot and dragging them liberally through the spice and eating it like it was nothing. Gaping horrified, Mica and I both called for the low-deadly-chilli option. Shockingly, they catered for us. We got white chilli. For those not in the know, white chilli looks and smells harmless, almost like vinegar. In small doses it adds flavour. So for most of the meal, we were good. After the food is mostly gone, noodles were added and cooked with the flavour of all the food that had since gone in. On top of this we ordered some of the meat from the wall, to introduce me to my oppressor, and found that it was really good. Just goes to show. And all that.

I ate the noodles with the rest of my white chilli. It was not spicy, but in big enough doses makes your mouth and lips and throat tingle like nothing else. I cant describe it. A little and you feel a little numb, a lot and theres a nightclub in your mouth. You better believe that everyone is invited, Would you like to come? It wasnt that bad, actually. Try it before you die, to be sure, and let me know how it was.

After that we headed back to the hostel in the rain and Mica and I got ready to leave. We had a few hours left. The two of us went off to get some supplies for the trip (toilet paper had run out too) and in the supermarket, Mica confronted me. You like her, dont you? I can tell, man, you have to tell her. Just do it, you pussy. Just tell her. I wanted to argue back. Were about to leave. Wont see her again. But I knew what would come. You never know, so just suck it up and do it. Pick up your sack and go play ball.

So I did. Mica took one for the team and sat outside talking to Fiona and Rocia. Emo Dude was asleep. I sat with Portia and talked some, then told her. All day Id been talking to her and fallen for her, I know I got to go now, but you never know where the roads in life will lead you. Take this for what its worth and remember what we did this day. Its been fun. All that. I dont really know what I achieved but I felt better.

Goodbyes were said and off to the bus station we went. The sleeper bus was not up to the standard of their rail-bound cousin. The bed was too small to stretch out all the way and not wide enough to fit our shoulders into. Metal bars restricted us at just the wrong places and no sleep was had that night. The bus drove most of the night and stopped, inexplicably, for several hours, in the middle of nowhere. Awake and paranoid, on top of the melancholy at having to leave a girl like that behind, I was crapping myself. Were they going through our luggage below? Would we be abducted in the middle of nowhere? Holy crap, its hot and theres no air-con anymore because the engine is off Fuck, I need a drink. This sucks.

Morning came and still sleep had only paid the fleetingest of visits, leaving us with his distant cousin, exhaustion. Eventually Kunming rolled into view. This was to be the scene of the end, the last gasp of China and we both were in a thoroughly bad way, in no mood to be there or anywhere. Off the bus we found that our packs had been thoroughly soaked during the night. Had rain leaked in? Maybe something from above had dripped all over our gear? It didnt smell bad but the dust in had been turned to mud and so as well as bring wet, the bags were also filthy with mud. Fuck all this, just fuck it.

I had managed to grab some info back in Shangri-La about hostels in Kunming (the LP guides since long gone) so at least we had a lead on where to go and get a bed. They had info about busses to town, but we could not even be bothered figuring that much out so we taxied it into the city.

Wednesday, August 30. 2006
I've been back and still no sign of an entry on Bali. Slack. My photos are good though.

Work is back on and just as much fun as I remember. In other news, last night Dinna and I found a place to move in to, and I think she is going to do so tomorrow, it being expedient with her current landlady to do so. I'll let you know how it goes.

Bali tomorrow

Sunday, August 20. 2006 you probably won't hear from me till the end of the week. Expect photos, I guess.

Dinna checked herself out of Hospital on Thursday morning. It was a little ahead of schedule - she took the last course of medication home in a pill to be taken the next day. She seems fine, her fever has receded.

My arm is starting to heal up, though I visited the doctor myself Friday afternoon to have my left wrist checked out. Seems to be ok, just a little swollen.

Beach tomorrow. Yeah!

Grind, ground

Wednesday, August 16. 2006
The grind goes on. I visited Dinna twice in the hospital today. They're saying that at the earliest she will be out Friday morning, but that still seems to be subject to negotiation, depending on who you listen to.

After work finished today I ran off - I didn't want to get bogged down again arguing about my contract. To be honest, I'm not sure I can be bothered any more - the lull of summer is nice, but once semester starts again it'll be lots of hassle, even without the afternoon class.

Not much else to report, except I forgot to mention that I bought a drum kit on Saturday night. Very much a spur of the moment thing - it was there, it was too cheap to pass up. It's a Mapex V-series fusion set up, which funnily enough I had my eye on the same model back in Australia probably five years ago or so. I haven't taken collection of it yet, and here's the problem - I haven't told Helen and Brian about it yet either. I don't know if they'd have a problem themselves with me owning and playing a drum kit here, but I suspect they would be worried about pissing the neighbours off (even more). Also, my room is already filled with junk and there'd barely be room for the kit in here. Dinna has suggested I leave it in her apartment, but that's a mere four ping and I don't think she realises how much space even a small kit like this one takes up.

That, and I've got no way of transporting it adequately now. I'm thinking of building a trailer for the bike.

It's not a bad dilemma to be in.

Down again

Monday, August 14. 2006
What a shitty day. Dinna is still in hospital with kidney problems and a fever (she got transferred to the Gongguan branch of NTUH, and her sister came an visited from Zhanghua). I came off my bike this morning - my own fault. I rode too fast then had to hit the brakes suddenly. Amazingly, I locked up the front wheel. Normally these things happen in slo-mo but this time the bike was down in a millisecond. I grazed up my right arm and knee, as well as corked my calf and sprained my left hand. I'm ok though, pretty lucky really.

Then work decided they wanted to give me hell over resigning my contract. There are two; I don't really want to sign the one for the afternoon class for bunch of reasons, like it's a complete frustrating waste of time and effort, on top of which they've reduced the hours from eight to six without reducing the workload. I was told that I had two options: sign both contracts or sign neither. Not really sure where all this will lead.

After that I went to the scrap yard for some parts for my bike. The boss there is pretty cold, but he wasn't there today. He wife was, and she is a bitch. Not friendly, and certainly not fucking helpful. She pissed me off so much I stormed off - not something I do often in these situations because it doesn't look good.

After that I went to Bikefarm to let off some steam. What a fucker of a day.

Update: Predictably, I'm feeling pretty sore all over after the fall. Godamnit.

Utter Incompetence

Monday, August 14. 2006
My girl is in hospital right now. She started complaining about lower abdominal pain on Wednesday, which hadn't let up by Friday. She saw a useless doctor in a clinic near her work who told her that it was 'nerve pain' and prescribed some basic painkillers, which did not work.

Friday night she had a bad fever, which didn't improve so Saturday morning I took her to her regular hospital. The doctor there was not the one we've dealt with before. He was a jerk. He sent her to have a urinalysis in another department and the girl in the lab told her that the results showed nothing and maybe an ultrasound was in order. Dinna went back down the doctor and when she told him about this, he told her that she could ask the lab assistant to do the ultrasound. He's lucky I wasn't in the room at the time.

I cannot believe that he could say such a thing. Not only is it incredibly poor bedside manner, but also it doesn't look good to disrespect the staff in your own hospital.

He ended up prescribing more painkillers and a bunch of other stuff (five varieties, in total). The drugs had a limited effect and Saturday night the fever was just as bad, if not worse.

So this morning we cabbed over to the Emergency department of National Taiwan University Hospital. They put her on a drip, gave her bunch of medicine, a couple of injections, an x-ray and recommended that she stay over night. Some with her kidneys, they were saying.

Then I got a call from her just before, asking me to bring her some clothes - they are transferring her and recommending her to stay a week. This could be a problem - we are supposed to be going to Bali in a week. But more to the point, I'm wondering where we would be if we had just listened to the first two incompetent asses. Nerve pain. What the fuck does that even mean anyway?

Baltic Ballet

Sunday, August 13. 2006
Health and fortune update

All is well! I have found the source of the world's hottest women!

Updates will continue sometime.

Current status: China -- 100%; everything since then -- about a month behind (oh fuck).

So liberal amounts of patience and love required.

Peace out


My Way 08: Tiger Leaping Gorge

Monday, August 7. 2006
Almost sadly, the next morning we were back at the bus station getting a ticket to Qutiao. A short wait and we were away, somewhat sadly because it was a nice place but in full knowledge we had not missed anything.

The bus down the road was in two very different ways one of the best and worst I rode in China. Stay positive and start with the good the view from the windows all the way from Lijiang to Qutou was, simply said, stunning. The hills grow into bigger hills and like the ripples in a pool they eventually grow into the Himalayas. They hint that they could, and do, hold awesome power as they sit there as they have all these years. Green and strong. In between are the endless fields and farmers of the Chinese heartland, working away all day, and the simple cheap houses and buildings that are inescapable in this part of the world. The road winds through the hills and it feels like it is only at their permission that the road is allowed to exist. We are the minority out there and this is only the beginning of the majesty.

The downer was that the other passengers all seemed to be old, disgusting, chain smoking, egg-eating filthy fucking horrible good-for-nothing-loudmouth decrepit Chinese men. The floor was soon covered in eggshells, ash, spit and bits of whatever they let fall. Which was about half of everything they were eating. Smoke filled the bus and the open windows covered us in ashes. Theres a rant about consideration and all that, and also a lesson in when in Rome but fuck that. I wasnt happier than when we finally hauled our gear off the bus and into the rain.

Qutiao is a tiny spit of concrete awful at the junction of the Lijiang to Zhongdian road and a place called Tiger Leaping Gorge. The town itself is awesomely forgettable and notable only for the bus stop and a few tourist cafes on the road up to the gorge. In the cafes the staff are amazingly friendly and know that tourists are there for one thing. They endeavour to help as much as possible, in the hope that you will avail yourself of a milkshake. In our case, after not quite finding the place, we wandered in to be informed that France had beaten Brazil. How about that. The Gorged Tiger caf was a very helpful location and for a pittance we left our big packs there and set out. The Gorge has two paths the lower is just a road, the upper is a hiking trail that goes to the same place but requiring a lot more effort and is much more rewarding. After all, its not really a hike if its along a road. And it was incredible. Mica and I followed the trail, essentially alone except for the occasional encounter with a local farmer or hiker coming back the other way. We walked higher and higher, the path getting steeper and steeper, the going getting rougher by the minute. The scene that grew before our eyes was breathtaking. Ive used this word before and now I regret that this was breathtaking, I could barely draw oxygen. My head swam with the beauty, the river carving a way between the growing cliffs on either side that grew wildly and uncontrollably into green and grey, fierce and imposing yet soft and curving. They grow seemingly forever into the swirling misty clouds at the apex, topping the gorge with wispy and booming rolling crowns.

Along this we walked for a few hours before the path turned into the switchback section. We stopped for water and chocolate at one of the rare stalls. We stopped and took photos. We had a talk with some guys from Hong Kong coming the other way. Mica took off ahead of me, pushing himself, while I went at my own pace. I was now alone in the wilderness, pulling myself along through the still oppressive heat (while Yunnan was drier than places further north, it was still humid enough to feel like a towel around you) and struggling between looking at the scene in front of me and watching my feet, lest I fall on my arse.

I met Mica at the top. We were all the way in the middle and it felt like the middle of the world.

After that the trail was fairly easy. Nothing tricky, nothing hard and we met up with a Dutch couple, who we walked it in with to the Halfway Guest House. We stayed and ate there for a pittance again. The most amazing view from our room that cost less than lunch usually would. The hostel had no running water, but few places out there do. It was magic, nothing more, nothing less.

The walk the next day was easy. It was only a few hours down to the road and along to Walnut Garden, where we ate and caught a bus back to Qutiao. Tiger Leaping Gorge was over. It was not nearly as hard was it was made out to be, but no less memorable. This was our last adventure in China, this was the last great hike, the last throw. What was next was amazing none the less, but for different reasons, and indeed the last big wilderness of the road.

We sat at the bus stop and flagged down a bus. Some Chinese people were there too, so they organised a decent price for us too. We were headed for Shangri-La.