Locations: Nabone Village, Nam Dua Village, Ponsay Village, Nam Thi Village and Lak Seep Village near Lak Sao, Bolikhamsai province, Laos.
Date: 27th November 2006 - 28th November 2006
On Monday the 27th of November we left Vientiane to spend two days visiting projects in the Central Eastern side of Laos. These projects were being undertaken in partnership with the Laos government and it was members of the local government branches that kindly showed us the project sites.
Getting off the bus in the dusty town of Paksan we walked to a hotel where we phoned Ms. Thongsakoun, the government co-ordinator of the project. Within a few minutes we were in a car and taking a short trip to the Provincial Education Centre were we met with governmentofficials employed in that sector including Mr Khamsy Ngommalath - deputy head of the provincial education service.After discussing the project sites we were to visit we got back in the car for the long trip to the village sites near the town of Lak Sao. The road trip takes in some beautiful scenery, with Karst formations on either side sloping down to narrow valleys and scattered villages. However, the remoteness of these settlements is part of the reason for their poverty, due to the difficulty of transport to and from the areas.
After four hours of mountainous road we reached Nabone Village. This village had been identified by ActionAid and the government as one of the poorest in Laos. Until recently, most of the villagers had been subsistence farmers with any extra income coming from selling surplus rice in local markets. The aim of the ActionAid project in this area was to introduce infrastructure and skills to allow the villagers to produce other products for sale. The needs assessment and decision process resulted in two different products being identified as suitable for this village - fish and textiles.
Materials for the building of small fish farms were provided and eight tanks were constructed in the village. Each tank holds a large number of catfish which are now bred by the villagers. The fish provide an extra element to their diet and an important source of income. There are not any large lakes in the area so fish is not widely available in the local market. Eighteen traditional style looms were also constructed in the village, along with other simple machines for silk and thread processing. The looms were constructed from simple wooden materials which are available in the area and have no motorised parts which makes their maintenance very easy. The local women were trained by a textiles producer bought in by ActionAid and now know how to make a variety of textiles, mainly the complex traditional pattern used by Laos women on the hems of their skirts. The sale of these textiles creates a profit for the village women who previously worked in the fields and allows them to spend more time caring for their children at their home. We were very warmly welcomed by the people of Nabone Village and they kindly presented us with some handmade textiles.
Next, we drove a bit further to come to Nam Dua Village. The assessment completed for this area had resulted in the construction of a goat farm. Similar to the fish breeding project in Nabone Village, the project aimed to provide an alternative source of income to the village from the breeding and sale of goats. 120 goats were currently on the farm and several kids had been born recently. This project had only begun two months before so no sales had been made yet. If the project proceeds well, there will be scope for the villagers to expand the trade to include milk and skins. The kindly folk here presented us with some Cambodian style headscarfs which will no doubt come in handy when we get there.
The last destination for the day was an education class in Lak Seep village, 10Km from Lak Sao town. This project had begun in 2004 and its purpose was to teach reading, writing and numeracy to previously illiterate villagers. The class members were almost all female and there are clear cultural reasons for this. There are no fees for tution of primary school pupils (up to age 9) although there are other fees (building maintenance etc.). After this, most female children are kept home to work in the fields or to help look after younger siblings while their brothers continue to go to school. The result is that many females never learn to read or write properly and their calculation skills are poor. This can cause problems for them later when dealing in the market place or travelling to other towns. The low importance attached to the education of females in South East Asia is a large factor in the gender inequality that is evident in the region, others include traditional stereotypes e.g. women do housework including fetching water and wood; women care for children; female children are less desirable than male children for parents; females tend to marry at a young age etc. Through the education classes, the pupils are taught literacy and numeracy using themes that are relevant to their lives e.g. health issues, agriculture, law, gender issues etc. There are three graded levels, each taking between 5 and 8 months. After reaching level 3, the students can participate in a skill-training exercise to learn an alternative skill such as weaving or fish farming. The education classes are conducted by teachers supplied and trained by ActionAid
and are currently operating in 15 villages in Laos with a view to expanding to another 10 villages next year. Of the 43 classes initiated, 18 have completed level 3 so far.
The next day we went to KamKueth District Education Office where we met government officials who informed us about the other sites we were to see that day. The first was Ponsay Village where villages were being trained in the art of rattan weaving, having completed their level 3 education classes. The rattan weaving trainer was supplied by ActionAid and had been teaching 111 students in 3 villages in the area. Rattan is a vine that grows in forested, tropical regions and is useful for making furniture and baskets. After 2 months of training the villagers could construct quality baskets and mats which fetch a good price. This however was only level 1 training and future training would give them the skill to produce more complicated and large furniture pieces. Rattan is available in the local forest and is easy to harvest. Weaving rattan is not widely done in Laos and it is a highly valued product in Vietnam so future sales should be good.
After this we visited a school building in Nam Thi Village which had been constructed with the help of ActionAid. The government education budget is not enough to provide schools for all villages resulting in some children having to choose between travelling long distances to a school in another village or not going at all. This building was being used as a day school for local children and as a night school for the ActionAid education projects.
The majority of the projects we visited in Laos are still in their infancy and it remains to be seen whether they prove to be successful long term. However, the signs are good and the government is showing enthusiasm and support which will undoubtedly make the expansion of successful projects easier in the future. The government employees we met were keen to help and seem dedicated to their work although they are hampered by a lack of funding due to the poor economy of Laos. This combined with the inaccessible terrain and lack of trained teachers makes education in Laos a difficult task but the work that ActionAid is doing is definitely helping some of the region’s poorest inhabitants improve their prospects in life.
Monday was spent wandering around Luang Prabang visiting the numerous wats (Buddhist temples where novices live and study) that are scattered throughout the city. The architecture of these places is impressive but the Lao seem to have a major problem with painting. Gold paint is slapped everywhere with no effort to actually restrict it to the areas it should be. If you have any colouring in books at home please send them to Laos - they need to learn how to keep within the lines.
The old palace, now a museum, proved to be one of the least opulent palaces in the world, being more like a French style stately home. The highlight of the town though was the night market. Hundreds of vendors set up stalls along the main street lit with millions of low wattage bulbs to sell all manner of handicrafts, textiles, paintings and tat.
On Tuesday we slung hook and headed south in the Landy with a delightful 4:30 departure time allowing us to see the sunrise over the Laos landscape. We arrived in Kasi around 10:30 and negotiated with a guesthouse to allow us to leave the Landy there while we took a bus to Phonsovan. A bit of the French lingo turned out useful here as the older generation still speak French. Our timing turned out to be quite good as 20 minutes later we were on the bus and heading towards the Plain of Jars at top speed. Unfortunately, Laos is such a mountainous country, top speed equated to about 30 Km/hr as its impossible to find a piece of road straight enough to get out of 2nd gear. The bus ride also proved interesting for the sheer amount of puking that was occurring. It seems the village-dwelling Lao aren’t used to the constant twisting, turning, up-hilling and down-hilling and it upsets their delicate stomachs. The first thing the bus driver does is hand out a rake of plastic bags. These get filled with great regularity and slung out the window. One old woman behind us was going hell for leather. I reckon she slung at least 7 bag fulls. The sound of her constant retching was starting to make me feel queasy towards the end.
Eventually though the Vomit Comet reached its destination and we were in the bizarrely wild west town of Phonsovan. Consisting mainly of two long dusty streets with some cheap hotels, the town didn’t have a lot to offer. We checked into a grubby hotel and got a taxi out to the Plain of Jars Site 1 for sunset.
The Plain of Jars is and odd attraction. Large jars carved out of single lumps of rocks litter several areas of the plains of North Eastern Laos. No know knows exactly how old they are, what they were made for or why they are scattered in 3 randoms groups within 30 Km of each other. Theories abound of course but conclusive evidence is had to find because of the vast amount of Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) in the areas. The Mines Advisory Group has an office in Phonsovan and the visitable areas of the Plain of Jars have been cleared by MAG. Every hotel lobby and restaurant has a huge number of empty shells and casings on display, giving stark evidence of Laos’ unenviable record as the most bombed country on earth.
The next day we visited the other two sites for jars and enjoyed a visit to the local market. One of the delicacies of the area is swallows stored in jars until they ferment but unfortunately they had sold out of them. They did have bats, mole-like rodents and the usual gamut of unsavory meat and fish products though as well as a whole host of vegetables and nuts which I’d never seen before. The five hour bus ride back to Kasi had less vomiting this time due to the late hour.
On Thursday morning we drove to the touristy town of Vang Vieng. I didn’t think this town was going to be any good but fortunately I was proved wrong. The main activity in the area is Tubing - floating down the river in a inflated tractor inner tube and stopping at various beer stops on the way. Good craic and for 4 dollars you could hardly complain. Some bars had TVs blaring endless episodes of Friends and these were the ones that were packed. Luckily this left the other bars with quite a quiet and relaxed atmosphere.
Friday was caving day. We got on the bikes and toured around the area to a number of caves. The first one was fairly deep but not hugely impressive so we went 13Km further out to see some others. These were massive - we spent an hour walking one way into one before we decided that given our total lack of preparation, it wasn’t too wise to go any further. Rumour has it that this cave extends over 3Km into the mountain to an underground lake.
The next day we drove further south to the capital Vientiane. There isn’t really alot to recommend this city. The streets have an odour of poor sewerage and the monuments and temples are not impressive. The most important stupa in the country, That Luang, proved to be thouragly tedious. However, I did see a monk there who had his whole body tattooed with Buddhist scriptures, including his head. That’s devotion for you.
Sunday was spent seeing the other sights (such that they were) and generally hiding in air-conditioned buildings to avoid the heat. On Monday we were going to get a bus out to central and eastern Laos to visit the ActionAid projects there.
Locations: Lin Tie Village near NingMing, GuangXi province, China.
Ling Jiao Eco-village near Hengxian, GuangXi province,China.
Sherpai Village near Hengxian, GuangXi province,China
Date: 18th September 2006 - 22nd September 2006
Having arrived in Nanning on the morning of the 18th of September after a 13 hour sleeper train ride we were in need of some nourishment. Luckily, we met up with Li Ql (pronounce Lee Chee) – the HIV and AIDS Project Coordinator for the GuangXi province who brought us to lunch. After lunch, we got back on the public transport - bus this time - to the out-of-town bus station then onto another bus to the city of Nanning. Upon arrival, we met the other members of ActionAid based in the area - Mr. Liu - the Development Area Coordinator and May, a volunteer. We had a bit of time to explore the city centre area of Nanning and were surprised at how relaxed it was in comparison to other cities in China. Down by the river, old men played Erhu and sang traditional songs, while children painted models and zoomed around in toy go-carts. I couldn’t resist having a go with the pump action ball bearing guns and it was a major struggle to resist the temptation of peeling off a few rounds in Richard’s direction. Further along, in a tree-lined square, middle-aged women waltzed gracefully to the strains of French music. It was hard to believe that this area of China had been identified by ActionAid as one of the poorest but as the staff pointed out, there is a major difference between city life and village life in China. A fact that was to be demonstrated first thing in the morning.
It was a long and bumpy ride out to Lin Tie village in a 4×4 on Thursday morning (nice to see one working). The poor standard of rural roads in China is a major contributing factor to the poverty of rural villages as transporting materials along these roads can be prohibitively expensive. Eventually we arrived and spent some time viewing the Water Irrigation Project that had recently been completed. This project installed a 3 Km long pipeline which channeled water from the mountains to irrigate previously barren land. The project materials were paid for by ActionAid but the installation was undertaken by local volunteers who clocked up 280 man hours of work in just 16 days. The project cost was low at 14,000 Yuan (~950 pounds) and resulted in large areas of land which were previously too dry to farm becoming fertile. In mountainous regions, every square meter of flat land is vital for growing rice - the staple diet of subsistence farmers in China.
Next we visited the village itself to see the community centre that had been constructed for the elders of the village. Following the strategy that has been adopted by ActionAid worldwide, a needs assessment exercise was performed with the community. This revealed that a community centre for the village elders was the number one priority for this village. This came as a surprise to us but later conversations revealed the reasoning. Almost all the middle generation now work in the city (as there is no money to be made from mountain farming) and are therefore away for most of the week. The elder generation are left to work the fields and look after the children. People cannot move their family to the city because their residence card states their birth village and their children cannot be educated anywhere else. This is a method that the government is using to try and prevent wholesale evacuation from rural areas to the cities and all the associated problems that would result. However, despite the responsibility and workload that the elders were forced to shoulder, they had no place where they could meet up at the end of the day. This resulted in them being confined to their homes where they were often isolated and lonely. After the needs assessment was carried out, ActionAid again donated the materials for the community centre but the design and construction of the building was carried out by local volunteers.
Buoyed by the success of these projects, the village now has a committee that meets to discuss future projects that they can undertake. By coordinating the development of the committee and the use of local labour to complete the projects, ActionAid has given the villagers a fresh confidence in their own ability to undertake solutions to the problems they face. On our way around the village, it seemed to us there were more pressing problems that needed to be addressed - the sanitary conditions were poor, with no collection of rubbish. Also, there were no toilets of any sort in the village. However, the needs assessment process had ranked these as secondary problems. This is why it is a useful and necessary process. If left to outsiders, the most pressing problems that the people faced my never get revealed or solved. The villagers are currently discussing methods of dealing with these issues and they are using the community centre as the venue for conducting these meetings as well as a host of other activities including the teaching of Mandarin (some villagers only speak the local language) and the preservation of the folk music tradition.
Before leaving the village, we went to the local primary school where ActionAid had undertaken some simple but effective projects. Basketball nets had been donated which gave the children some activity to do after school, especially those who were forced to board due to living too far away. The distance in fact was not great but due to the road conditions it would not be possible for them to travel every day. Also, the children had been taught about HIV and AIDS and were given leaflets they could use to inform their parents about the issues. AIDS awareness is still low in many areas of China but due to the proximity of this area to the Vietnam border and the resulting drug route, this area was deemed to be at a higher risk than others.
Walking around the school, it was striking the difference between here and the more wealthy city schools. The children were amazed to see us as for them it was the first time they had seen a foreigner in the flesh. This was true of some of the teachers as well. Needless to say, after we got trounced by them at basketball, they weren’t so afraid of us anymore.
Back in Nanning and we somehow managed to get coerced into cooking dinner. A trip to the market was in order. Not for the faint of heart! Buckets of fish lay side by side with turtles, eels, crabs, toads and various other unidentifiable things - all of them living. The sight of a woman picking toads out of a bag, slamming them onto the ground to stun them and then gathering a bunch onto a weighing scale with a cheery grin on her face is an image that will stay with me for a long time. Not to mention the dog flesh, goat flesh, chicken innards, pig guts and snakes that were liberally spread around. We ended up with some goat meat and chicken and a bunch of vegetables that looked vaguely similar to their western counterparts.
After dinner we checked our emails and were delighted to see that the PSB had found us out and weren’t too happy about us scarpering from Kunming. Naught that could be done about it though. If they hadn’t of taken so long etc. Also, there was a delay in getting the distributor sent out which will put even our extension date in jeopardy.
On Friday we attended the monthly group meeting that is held for people with HIV in the area. Team building exercises were held followed by a discussion on the group’s future project. Most of the members had contracted HIV through the use of shared drug needles due to a lack of awareness of the danger. The group was set up to allow people to meet fellow sufferers and to try to rebuild their confidence and provide a method for them to attempt to make a better future for themselves. The group was given the loan of a fixed sum that they could invest in a project that would pay the loan back in a set period. Submissions of potential projects were made by group members and the final one would need the backing of all the members. Most of the members were subsistence rice farmers so the project that was chosen was to invest in a crop of sugar cane that could be sold for profit. Due to the hurricane damage to the American crops of sugarcane, the price had increased substantially and it was reaping good returns for farmers in the south of China.
By setting up this group, which will become autonomous after 12 months, ActionAid is attempting to give HIV sufferers in the area increased social interaction and encouraging them to find methods of improving their situation.
The rest of the evening was spent on buses. One back to NingMing, then one to Nanning, then one to Hengxian. In Hengxian we met up with Liu Yanyan, the Development Area Coordinator for the area. In the morning we were to attend a “Green Map” exercise in a local village.
The village turned out to be Ling Jiao Eco-village near Hengxian. This village is sponsored by the government as a flagship village which has pioneering design for sustainability. The Green Map exercise involves creating a map that charts the natural and cultural environment. The idea is that the process of drawing the Green Map will force people to think about the natural resources that are available to them and how to protect and use these resources in a sustainable manner.
The project invited school teachers from surrounding villages to come to Ling Jiao to learn about how to draw the Green Map so that they could teach their school children and undertake the exercise in their own village. The village of Ling Jiao was an ideal place to site the exercise as it had an abundance of natural resources which had been designed in a very clever manner to ensure their potential was both harnessed and protected. Water was channeled effectively to irrigate the fields, septic tank systems piped methane gas into homes for use as cooking gas and the village was designed to maximize the use of communal areas for cultural activities such as music and dance.
We spent 4 or 5 hours exploring the village and gathering information to draw the Green Map. The exercise undoubtedly was a success for the visiting teachers who had the opportunity to explore the eco village and learn from its design. The Green Map exercise made them take notice of the natural and cultural features of the village and think about how they could introduce similar features in their own villages.
On Sunday we traveled to the remote village of Sherpai where the local project committee which had been set up by ActionAid were celebrating the completion of their second project – the opening of a bridge. Due to the remote location of the village and the poor road infrastructure, transport to and from the village was difficult. The construction of a new bridge over a part of the road that was prone to flooding made access to the village much easier in the rainy season. In a similar manner to the village of Lin Tie near NingMing, the project committee had grown in confidence and were now considering a number of other projects that they could undertake with government funding – the improvement of the road surface being a primary objective.
Yet again, we have been very impressed by the commitment and enthusiasm the staff of ActionAid China have demonstrated for their work and we have also gained a good appreciation of the difficulties that rural populations face in China. It was surprising to us how much difference simple, low cost (e.g. water irrigation, AIDS awareness) projects could make to these areas. Small projects undertaken by local volunteers were making a huge impact to these communities and giving them the skills and confidence to undertake future projects on their own initiative. By facilitating the development of these skills, ActionAid is arming people with the knowledge and enthusiasm to help themselves and their communities.
For further information:
First thing Monday morning we turned up at the Vietnam embassy with a small hope that they would give us our passports back a day early because really - how long does it take to stick a small piece of paper into a small book? Four days? Not really justified is it? But apparently it is because they told us to sling hook. I bet they had them sitting ready in the drawer though the gits. The next task was to get some cash changed into dollars because Laos was another one of those countries where there was no international cash machines. We got out a shed load of Yuan and headed to the bank to change it to dollars. An easy enough transaction you would suspect. Not in China. After 4 banks we finally were directed to the main Bank of China in Kunming. It’s huge size impressed us. Surely here we thought. “Yes” they said. “Certainly you can change Yuan to dollars here. However, we’ll need your passports and receipts from a Bank of China cash machine”. What kind of buffoonery is this? YOu can only change cash if you get it out of a Bank of China cash machine. We already had the cash and we didn’t get it out of a their cash machine and no amount of pleading was going to change anything. Enraging. Exiting with angry glares and launching on a tirade against mindless bureaucracy, we bumped into some friendly women waving bundles of cash at us. They knew what the score was. They’d seen hundreds of enraged foreigners exiting the bank and quickly copped on to a nice little business opening. Amazingly, they were rubbish at negotiating and we got a pretty damn good rate out of them. So that was that little problem solved. Stunning that you are forced to use the black market just to get a few dollars though.
Tuesday was the day of reckoning. We had the passports back and we were rolling down the road to Laos. Woohoo! However, we were going the wrong way and had to turn back after 3 hours. How we laughed. Also, we had totally underestimated the distance to the border. Driving until 3am only got us halfway there. Another 11 hours driving on Wednesday got us to Jing Hong where we phoned our guide who would see us across the border and explain to those friendly border chaps why we were weeks behind schedule. Ray proved to be a great guide and didn’t mind staying up until 3am while we lumbered towards the border. We even managed to repeat the good old leaving petrol cap behind gag that we’d enjoyed so much in Turkey. Luckily it was only 40 minutes delay this time.
After 4 hours sleep we were back on the road and blazing towards the border. The road was rough as a badger’s behind and most of the time we were driving beside a huge highway that was under construction. This road was going all the way from Kunming to Thailand through Laos, courtesy of the PDR of China. After a few hours explaining our delay at the border (thanks Ray) they waved us through and we experienced the most bizarre border crossing procedure yet. Apparently, only one person is allowed to be in a car that is driving across the border. Richard had to get out at the marked line, walk 15 metres to the next marked line and wait until I’d driven across the space so he could get back in. A huge boost to national security I’m sure. I’m fairly sure there would never be another terrorist incident anywhere in the world if this policy were introduced across every country. After a few Km we arrived at the Laos border control. We were a bit wary of this one because we’d read somewhere that Laos didn’t allow campers into the country. Would we be able to blag it? The thought must have been troubling me because I actually drove straight across the border line and had to break sharply and nonchalantly reverse back across it much to the amusement of the border guards. After a brief look at our passports they demanded a 10,000 Kip fee. Good God, 10,000 Kip, how much is that? 1 USD. Large sigh of relief. The best was yet to come though. While repeating the bizarre line crossing business, one of the guys wanted to see in the back. Oh no, I thought. He’ll see the beds and we’ll have to bribe our way in. However, it was not the case. A casual glance in, a quick squeeze of the mattress to determine that it was in fact suitably soft and we were on our way. No engine number check, no storage boxes search, no nothing. I’m confident that the line crossing procedure made sure we weren’t smuggling any contraband though.
We were finally in Laos! We drove down the remarkably good road to the small town of Luang Nam Tha and parked up at a guesthouse beside the river. They didn’t mind us sleeping in the back and we made sampling the local beer our priority. The imaginatively named Beer Lao isn’t amazing but it wasn’t bad and came in remarkably big 650ml bottles. Given that we were parked 7Km outside of town, we broke out the bicycles and headed off to see the sights. An old stupa 3 Km away was supposed to be worth seeing but just as we were arriving it was getting dark so we progressed on towards town. Or tried to. It got very dark very quickly and it took us an hour of peddling around dirt tracks on the outskirts of town before we found one that would bring us in to the centre. Lesson learned. Bring lights.
While sampling some Lao cuisine, we met a fellow traveller - Rachael from Scotland who had also suffered from “Too long in China” syndrome. On Friday, we biked around the area, (in the daylight this time) and generally tried to work out a plan. We had two weeks in Laos before having to bring the car to Thailand to get fixed while we flew to Vietnam so we had to determine what was worth seeing. The Nam Tha area was great for trekking and kayaking but with only 2 weeks we couldn’t justify spending 5 days on these activities. We decided to head further south to Luang Prabang and during the course of the day we picked up some people who were also heading that way - Scottish Rachael and her Aussie friend Jasmine and Israeli Matan.
An early departure on Saturday morning meant we arrived at Lunag Prabang at 6pm. The Lao countryside was beautiful and practically untouched - the road twisted and turned through vast swathes of tropical jungle with scattered villages along the way. There is no sign of industry and the villages were all without electricity. The houses are small wooden affairs built on stilts and have thatched roofs. In Luang Prabang we found a hotel to park at and hit the town to experience the night life. Unfortunately, almost everywhere in Laos closes at 11pm even at the weekend so we eventually ended up in a dingy bar with a bunch of other foreigners. Sunday, we hired some scooters and cruised out to see the waterfalls located outside the town. The waterfall was pretty spectacular and there were many cascaded layers where you could take a dip. True to our form though we managed to get a dud scotter which broke down on the way back causing hassle with the rental guy and a subsequent tedious argument. Despite this it was a fine day and the Lao culture of relaxation was beginning to permeate our awareness. Already we were slowing down and saying things like “there’s no rush” or “I might do it later’. The Lao food was great and a welcome change from Chinese fare and the Beer Lao grew on us with every tasting. Luang Prabang was a picturesque town and next week we would explore it - if we could summon the energy.
We rushed around town trying to see the sights before having to leave for Kunming and managed to get in a few - the old fort in the centre and the facade of the old cathedral (the rest was destroyed in a fire). It would have been nice to spend another day or two in Macau but we really needed to find out what was happening with the engine so we had to return to Kunming.
We booked a bus to take us directly to Guangzhou where we would fly back to Kunming but the border crossing from Macau proved to be a fairly tedious affair with long queues and the most pointless paperwork ever. It seems the Chinese authorities cunning method of keeping the country SARS and bird flu free is to get people to tick a box if they have it. Genius.
Interestingly, Dr. Margaret Chan of China has taken over as the Director General of the World Health Organisation, with her previous work in dealing with bird flu in Hong Kong factoring highly in her selection.
After getting the longest stare in the world from the border official checking my passport we were through. Ok, so I’ve lost a bit of weight but I’m still a sullen looking Irish man with a beard - how hard is it to check the features? Sullen? Check. Beard? Check. Irish? Check. Hmmm, not sure. I think I’ll stare at him for another few minutes to see if he’ll crumble and admit that he’s actually a cheery looking Brazilian called Pedro. Seeing Richard giggling out of the corner of my eye didn’t help me keep my composure either. In the end, we arrived at Guangzhou airport at about 11pm and the flight was at 6am so we checked into a nearby hotel after some heavy bartering which amazingly this time we won.
After touchdown on Tuesday morning, we headed to the garage to be told it was sorted. A quick test drive disproved that theory. There was no power from the engine and it sounded like a bag of nails. There was naught for it but to strip the engine down. “Why didn’t they do this in the last 2 weeks?” I hear you ask. Because we weren’t there to tell them to do it. Frustrating. They got to the job with some gusto though I’ll give them that - 6 guys had the engine stripped in under 3 hours and revealed that some cylinders were burning oil. There seemed to be a problem with the valves or the valve seats - we couldn’t really get the story out of them with the language barrier. They seemed confident they could do some repair with us ordering any parts though which was a relief. There was no choice but to wait and see if they could sort it.
Wednesday we lounged around the hostel harassing other travellers to relieve our boredom (sorry Nolan, Damien, Juliet, Lauren and others). Thursday, we went to the Vietnam embassy to apply for a visa. Another test drive of the car showed a marked improvement. The power was back but the acceleration was still jerky as if there was a cylinder misfiring. They said they would have another play around and see if they could improve it. We played football with the guys from the garage in the evening and luckily they weren’t very good so we did ok.
Friday was spent lounging again and on Saturday we returned to the garage. The engine hadn’t changed and after putting the choke cable back on and tightening the leaking water pipe ourselves we decided that it would just have to do. It was drivable and would hopefully get us to Thailand where there is a good number of Land Rover service centers. We cleaned it out and packed it up ready for hitting the road as soon as we had our Vietnam visa. In the mean time we hung around the hostel and lightly ribbed everyone we met (sorry guys) then hit the town in the evenings to experience the little nightlife there is in Kunming. We did find one good music bar though and had a good time gatecrashing some guy’s birthday party. Fair play to him - he made us very welcome, especially after he trounced us at a few games of cards. We were certainly looking forward to departure day though. Six weeks in China was more than enough and Laos was calling for us.
P.S. People shouldn’t comment on update posts because when they change the comments make no sense.
Finally we were off the boat. Three sleepness nights did not do much for my humour but I was looking forward to see this dam that everyone’s in such a fuss about in the west. Well, it’s long but it’s not very high. And it’s not really finished yet. Only 4 of the 26 turbines are running. It is an impressive amount of concrete though and is a monument to the modern Chinese school of architechure i.e. functional but butt-ugly. Our tour guide of course only spoke Chinese but I managed to hover around a group of Americans (who had an English speaking guide) trying to look discreet. The huge locks used for allowing ships passage are impressive too but it takes 5 hours to get a boat through them all.
After the tour we got a bus to the city of Wuhan where we checked our emails for news from the mechanics. It seems they were still working on it so given that our extended visa was going to run out on the 3rd, we decided to head to Hong Kong and Macau. Luckily, I had an acquaintance living in Shenzhen which is near the Hong Kong border so after a night in Wuhan we flew to Shenzhen and met up with Tom and his wife Shelly. Much credit to them - despite me only meeting Tom once before in Manchester, he welcomed us like a true scholar and gentleman. Tom was working until 9pm though, so we roamed around Shenzhen for a bit looking for a restaurant. Stumbling on a fish restaurant we were amused to be introduced to a wide selection of acquatic creatures in tanks before choosing some of the unfortunate chaps to assuage our hunger. A couple of crabs for starters and a meaty fish for the main was pretty enjoyable. Well it was for me. Richard however spent the next 4 days puking and defecating everywhere.
Wednesday I pottered around Shenzhen with Tom while Richard guarded the toilet with a vigour not usual for him. Shenzhen is a special economic zone in China and astonishingly, only began 20 years ago. Before then it was a small village, now it is a sprawling metropolis with innumerable highrise buildings and an affluent population.
The next day, we got the ferry to Kowloon, which is the part of the mainland facing Hong kong island and is legally part of Hong Kong. Wandering around the river bank, admiring the spectacular view of Hong Kong, we came across the Avenue of Stars which celebrates martial arts heroes of the big screen. We stumbled across the Space Centre next and treated ourselves to Tom Hanks bigging up the Appollo moon landings. The much-vaunted shopping of Hong Kong was disappointing though. The technology is old and as expensive if not more so than in the UK. Also, there seems to be only 3 things for sale: watches, clothes and cameras. Not even good cameras, most of them were analog (barbarians). In the evening we went back down to the river for the City Lights show. The buildings by the river in Hong Kong are all rigged up with lights that pulsate in time to piped music at 8pm every night.
On friday we crossed the river by boat onto Hong Kong island and made our way to the visa office to get new visas for China. The Irish passport won out here as the visa was almost half the price for me. This chore done, we checked into a hotel then got the venicular railway to the mountain peak in the centre of the island. The ride started off ok but got a bit worrisome when we hit the steep middle section which results in the bizarre optical illusion that all the buildings are tilted forward 45 degrees. At the peak in a tower which you can climb to have a panoramic view of the whole island. Given my dislike of heights I felt the fence could have been a little bit higher but rather than complain I made do with swearing profusely and refusing to go near the edge like a man. In the evening we hit the night-life areas of Soho (de ja vu?) and Lan Kwai Fong but were a bit disappointed. Prices were steep and the crowd was mostly of the older generation.
On saturday we got a bus to the other side of the island to check out Ocean Park. Amusingly, Richard managed to puke before he even got on a rollercoaster. The huge coral reef aquarium was the highlight of the park. It had 3 viewing levels packed full of bizarre creatures, my favourites being the leafy sea-dragon and the saw-nosed shark. After a few rollercoaster rides, the dolphin and sealion trick show was impressive but was a bit odd. These creatures are impressive enough on their own without having to teach them to do backflips and head footballs.
In the night we returned to Land Kwai Fong but it was much the same as the previous night. In the morning we checked out, got some books (thank Jebus for bookshops that sell books in English) and got the ferry over to Macau. At the ferry terminal we came across a pair of strangely offical looking travel agents called Sex Travel. Richard was given a brochure by the agent. Basically, the gist is you pay 1300 Hong Kong dollars (90 quid), get the ferry to Macua for a 45 minute massage and an hour of sex with one of the lovely ladies you could pick from the book, then get the ferry back. The agent claimed to get an average of 100 customers a day!
It was good to see Hong Kong, even though it wasn’t on our original itinerary but the myths that surround it proved to be ill-founded. It’s not a cheap place to shop for electronics. The highrises are impressive but look dated and are showing signs of wear and the nightlife is pretty rum compared to any city in England. In short, it seems to be stuck in a late 80s timewarp. It’s good for a long weekend but I definately wouldn’t fly out here for a two week holiday.
So here we were on the Sabbath, pottering around Macau. We checked into a cheap hotel then hit the streets. The older part of the city is remarkably like Lisbon (unsurprising given its past) right down to the cobbled pavements and the balconyed buildings. The Portuguese influence is waning fast though with 95% of the city populated by Han Chinese and Portuguese cuisine difficult to find. Within a few minutes, we had come across the 300m Macau tower which sits like a lighthouse on the shore. Paying the 70 Macanese dollars entry we took the glass elevator up 59 floors at such speed that your ears pop several times in 20 seconds. The viewing room had sections of glass floor which, given my dislike of heights, inspired me to new levels of swearing. Luckily though, the view could be enjoyed from the safety of a railing that wasn’t very near the edge and the glass flooring could be avoided altogether. For those freaks who like being at height there were several exciting activities they could indulge in. You could get strapped to a rope and jump off the top of the tower like the slack-jawed buffoon that you are. If that wasn’t good enough for you, you could tie a rope to yourself and walk on the outside of the 61st floor which is made of glass and has no railing. “What kind of backwards oaf would do that?”, I hear you ask. And if that still wasn’t enough to convince you that you were indeed a ham-fisted goon, you could climb the ladder up the spike of the tower an extra 100 metres. Surely only the most cream-faced of loons would consider such a feat.
That done, we descended to seek our fortunes in one of the many casinos in town. While eating in a deserted restaurant we were tipped off that the Sands casino was the place to be. Strolling through the deserted streets past deserted bars and eateries we wondered where the feck everyone was. The casino was to anwer that question very quickly. Huge as it was the Sands was bursting at the seams with punters slinging dollars around like there was no tomorrow. This raised more questions, mainly: where was all this cash coming from. Within 20 minutes I had lost 450 dollars (30 quid) playing roulette which was the lowest minimum bet in the house. BlackJack was 100 dollars (6.5 quid) a hand! Given the collosal rate of loss that I suffered, I spent most of the remaining time oggling the dancing girls and wondering how there were full seats at the 200 dollar minimum bet tables. Returning to the hotel after a few beers in a nearby pub, we had to run the gauntlet of 8 suspiciously young ladies offering “massage” for 300 dollars (20 quid). One actually followed us up in the lift shaking her head from one side to the other in disturbingly child-like manner saying “why not massage?” continuely.
This was to be our only night in Macau because we left to return to Kunming the next day having become increasingly disturbed by the nonsense the mechanics were emailing us.
Will we ever get out of China?
Find out in the next exciting update of Rum Trip Weekly.
P.S. I’ve been reading over some of the entries and I should mention that the blog entries only describe the bare bones of what we’ve been doing during the week. They don’t attempt to give the real impression of towns, cities or sights because to do so would take much too long. Our opinions of these places are made from countless small things that we encounter each day - the bus driver in Nanning who hocked loogies for a full 20 minutes while stuck in a jam; the 3 year old we laughed at when he got walloped by another, started crying then got walloped by his mother; the strange looks you get when you’re the only white person in town; the motivational exercises workers in department stores are forced to do in the mornings; the traffic, smells, beggars, touts, fruit stalls and taxi drivers that we interact with every day. All these small things build our impressions of a place and form our opinions of it. It would be impossible to accurately describe these impressions in print. If you want to find out what a place is really like, you’ll just have to see for yourself.