Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Crying Fowle!

But I did get to Dublin eventually. Back nearly two weeks now, I had an initial burst of energy, getting out of bed early and sorting out insurance claims etc.. This enthusiasm, however, has started to flag. Nothing has changed. Unlike Thailand, this is same same, no different. Even the few conversations I have had with my work mates reveal a DCU with all the familiar virtues and flaws.

Last Sunday I joined Justin, Jules and Killian for a night out on the town. I found out that even I had not changed, enthusiastically chatting up Bulgarian students and passers by on the street, acting as relatively sober adjudicator in fast food altercations, and picking Justin up off the ground. Same same, no different.

Yesterday I took out my machete and cut through the final two hundred pages of John Fowles' 'The Magus'. It frustrated me. Thoroughly infuriating. Not since reading Guy Endore's 'The Werewolf of Paris' (a book which profoundly depressed me), has a piece of fiction altered me mood so dramatically. I felt ready to burn the novel after I was finished. In some ways it reminds me of Matheson's '7 Steps to Midnight', but is infinitely better written and with loftier aims. As I said before, Fowles can write. He has a skill that surpasses most contemporary writers. However, skill is one thing, intention another. I can accept that fiction can have an educational purpose (witness "1984"), but the more I read the more I find moralising by an author intolerable. That was one of my main gripes about the work of Salinger, and, for all that Fowles is a far superior craftsman, it certainly pertains to this novel as well. The lead character, Nicholas Urfe, is painted deliberately as an unsympathetic reprobate, and for most of the novel I sympathesised with those critics who regarded the novel as cold. Urfe is not someone you can easily identify with. Nevertheless, he is recognisably human, unlike his adversaries. To ascribe moral superiority to the forces that torment him is a celebration of sadism and an insult to the reader. To hold Urfe's new self up as an example of chastened maturity, as Fowles evidently intends, to accept his attitude to the other characters of the book as the right approach to take, is a demonstration of authorial smugness I find detestable. I feel that if I ever meet Mr Fowles I will deal him a slap not unlike the one Nicholas deals to Alison, and for pretty similar reasons. I can love his talent, who he is, but despise his intention, what he does with it. I could go on and on about this book, but what few people read this blog, have no doubt precious little interest in my literary opinions, so I'll stop here. Nevertheless, for anyone with eyes, it will be apparent that for a novel to have such a strong effect - negative or positive - it must be a special work, and 'The Magus' is. I tip my hat, however begrudgingly, to you, Mr Fowles.

It was something of a relief to leave the heady heights of Fowles' sermonising and take up Dick's 'The Penultimate Truth'. This is Philip K. Dick from around the time he wrote 'The Man in the High Castle'. The style is simple and clear, the plot full of the invention that characterises Dick at his best. Fresh air.

On the media and culture front, I have also taken to watching 'South Park' on the bus, via my new gadget from Hong Kong. There is an episode where Cartman fools Butters into believing the world has been devastated by an asteroid in order to make him hide out in a bomb shelter for a week. This so that Cartman can take Butters' place with Kyle et al. in going to a Mexican theme restaurant called Castle Bonita. I don't think I have seen such a clever use of B-movie cliches in a parody before. It even managed to give Cartman dimensions we have seen again and again in noir villains, but which still managed to resonate in a new way. Cartman speeding around Castle Bonita while the cops closed in was an unforgettable finale, worthy of a James Cagney or John Garfield. See what I am reduced to.

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Stars in the Sky (Getting my Fix)

Not having slept for 24 hours, I refused to sleep on the plane. There were too many movies I'd missed and that were playing on the 14 hour flight. I limited myself to 'Stranger than Fiction', 'Hollywoodland', 'Little Children' and 'The Good Shepherd'.

'Stranger than Fiction' was very obviously trying to out-Charlie Kaufmann Charlie Kaufmann, but once it declared its central premise - man finds that he is a character in a new novel and destined to die unless the author changes her mind - it didn't know what to do with it and ended up effectively ignoring it. We had then a moderately pleasing romance involving an otherwise uninteresting man and a cookie cookie lady (as cliche-ridden a relationship as you can get). Given the ambition and the cast, it was a great disappointment. And what the hell has happened to Tom Hulce!

'Hollywoodland' unwisely tried to use a detective story format to tell a real life tale, that of the suicide of tv Superman, George Reeves. Again some good casting was wasted on a clumsy movie. It speaks volumes that the detective never actually does any detecting; indeed what few clues he does throw up he himself discards as irrelevant. Instead the Brody character acts as the eyes through which the audience views the events and characters surrounding the sad figure of Reeves. I couldn't help thinking that there was a far better movie to be told if they just told it straight a la 'The Aviator', or even 'Ed Wood'.

I liked 'Little Children' though it frequently made intensely uncomfortable viewing (even more uncomfortable when you are on a plane surrounded by 'Love Actually' viewers). The Jaws pastiche involving the paedophile in the swimming pool was a classic case in point. Perhaps a little too pat (and conservative) in its ending, but interesting nevertheless.

'The Good Shepherd' worked, but didn't achieve the classic epic status De Niro evidently sought (there were echoes of 'Godfather 3', for instance). What a cast though! Damon, Hurt, Pesci, Jolie, Gambon, Crudup; even De Niro stepping out from behind the camera to take a role. De Niro could even afford to give Keir Dullea ('2001') what was practically a non-speaking role. It got a little confusing towards the end, needlessly so, but was more hit than miss.

After fourteen hours of film watching, I should have been ready for sleep and I did have a four hour wait in Heathrow before my flight back to Dublin. Instead I read. Sitting in the Aer Lingus flight area, by the door, I waited and read. Suddenly I raised my head. My cousin, Janet was just walking by. She had just gotten off a Dublin flight to Britain. It turned out she was going to England for two months with 'Dublin by Lamplight', a play in which she stars. It was great to see a friendly face before I even got to Dublin.

Hong Kong by Port Light

Hong Kong really should be seen for many reasons, but as I went to the airport I passed the commercial port. Unlike so many ports around the world, this port looked like a continuation of the earlier evening's lightshow, a veritable Chirstmas tree of illumination in the dark of early morning. I suppose the other side of the coin is to wonder at how much energy is being needlessly wasted. I admired the sight, while worrying at the cost. The taxi driver just played his Eagles cd.

Getting to Hong Kong airport is very difficult in the early hours of the morning. The express trains, buses etc. are all problematic and only the taxi offers a reliable, if expensive, route. As if to mirror this early morning sleepiness of transportation, the airport itself doesn't really wake up until well after 5 am. Quite a few people were standing around waiting for check in to start when I arrived. Shops and restaurants too were closed, and only for Chin Chin's biscuits I would have been very hungry. Still I was there, I'd made it to the airport and my flight, so on with my older 1 Gb MP3 player and a little Tom Waits played me along until boarding.

End of Days

Saturday and the tour was finished. I had to move from the room as both Daniel and I had booked an extra night's accommodation and one involving our own rooms. Chin Chin, however, had a tour starting on Sunday, but could not get a room in the hotel due to a mix-up involving an electronics fair that was on. Both of Daniel and I being the gentlemen we are offered our extra beds (we each had a twin bed room). And so it was I had a guest in my room.

We went off shopping, primarily for electronics. There is a market area just off the top of Nathan Road with street stalls and streets devoted to electronics. We headed there. Although the stalls were great for souvenirs, the shops were poor for electronics or at least seemed to be. Each of us was straining at the leash to get away for personal shopping or, in Chin Chin's case, other reasons (she was to meet a former boyfriend). After lunch that is what we did and I got some heavy duty souvenir buying accomplished. I was still disappointed with the electronics though and went back to the hotel bewildered at Hong Kong's reputation. It was at the hotel I met Pat who told me of a computer centre where we had been and bursting with bargains; the Mongkok Computer Centre. I hopped right back on the subway and after some confused searching eventually found the place. He was right, there were bargains, especially MP3 players and external hard drives. I was to meet Daniel and Chin Chin for dinner, so wiping my drool, I headed back to the hotel.

No one wanted to eat, but Daniel wanted an MP3 player, so leaving Chin Chin to her own devices, we went in search of ours.

I showed Daniel the player I was interested in and he jumped at it. Unfortunately it was the last one in the shop. Disheartened I went next door to find the same player there. One thing made me pause, however. On the way to the centre I had tried to get money out with my credit card and had been rejected. I had little currency left and what I had was for the taxi in the morning. Would my credit card work? The shopkeeper insisted on going into every trivial detail of the player; I would be pretty embarassed if after 15 minutes explanation by him I couldn't actually buy the thing. I couldn't see Daniel either in case I needed help. I felt I looked twitchy and suspicious and was thankful he was so engrossed in his spiel. Finally though I handed over my card. I hoped he didn't notice the sweat on my brow. He swiped, I keyed and hooray, it worked! My credit card worked. Now I could get that De Lacie external hard drive I wanted. But where was Daniel?

Daniel was propped against a wall feeling sick. He wanted to go, he wanted to go now. Could he wait a moment while I went to the shop next door and get that hard drive. I knew exactly which one. No. He was sick and didn't think he could get back alone. We left. I got him some water and a place to sit. In the fresh air (or relatively fresh air) of the street I thought maybe he might let me run back. I didn't want to have to go to the hotel and come back again. Grudgingly he said okay. I ran back, pointed out the hard drive, gave over my credit card, rejected. Three times tried, three times rejected. I looked longingly at the drive, but knew it would not be mine (as it happened there were 100 dollars I never knew I had in my money belt). Despondently I made my way back to Daniel and we got the subway home. At least I had my video playing, 4 Gb MP3 player (it said MP4 but wasn't).

When I got back, Chin Chin was watching a programme on Amazon anacondas and their questioned ability to eat people. She had gotten me a packet of chocolate biscuits for breakfast. It was a lovely thought. I was up at 4 for my taxi, and food would be hard to come by. Anacondas ended and the news began. Plumby British presenters gave the latest rundown on Hong Kong and the world, at least as much as the authorities allow. Chin Chin kept the noise down, but I still heard the heartening news item that Kasparov, the former chess champion, was now a vocal opponent of Putin. Unfortunately he had just been arrested. There was a courageous man. Knowing he had some celebrity, he was now using it to protest against the worst thing to hit Russia in ten years. I wished him safety and good luck, though in all honesty, when the world lets that criminal run Russia unchallenged, despite ample warnings, there is unlikely to be any help for Kasparov. Ironically, those arch opponents of human rights, the Chinese, seemed to be on Kasparov's side.

As it was I wasn't too sleepy, which is just as well as at 12.30 there was a knock on the door. The other group leaders were having a party and could Chin Chin come out to play. I gave my blessing and off she went. I still couldn't sleep though and didn't. The taxi came as ordered at 4 and off to the airport I went.

Rich Seafood

The sad thing about this trip is that so little time is left for Hong Kong. Officially we had just two days there, though this really translated as a day and an evening. Of course, one is free to stay on by oneself, but then given the mix-up with my travel plans, that was never going to happen for me. We arrived on the Friday (13th) and I was to leave at 7.35 Sunday morning.

After we crossed the border checkpoint - a crazy set-up in the train station, very similar to an airport - we caught a commuter train to Kowloon and then took a quick taxi ride to our hotel. We were right in the heart of things, very close to the main street, Nathan Road.

I left Daniel to have his shower while I went out to get some currency. When Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, it was made a Special Administrative Region. Hong Kong then, though steeped in Chinese culture, is still very much a Western boiled soup, and Hong Kong dollars, although of similar worth to Chinese Yuan, are distinct. At one bank I was told they stopped serving currency at 5. I looked at my watch; 5.04. The rest of business went on as usual. Eventually another bank told me I'd be better trying a street vendor as bank charges were high. I tried the first one I came to, and in my hurry got the worst deal possible. As I neared my hotel I noted the first foreign exchange I had come to originally (and so had passed by) offered the best rate of all. So much for my caution.

We went to the street markets for dinner and I went crazy seeing all the fresh seafood. Spurning the banquet others were getting, I ordered razor clams in black bean sauce (truly delicious) and 'Affluent Prawns', smothered in MSG. These prawns may have been rich, but they were big too, and very tasty. Unfortunately, as I was to find later, they might have been more properly called 'Effluent Prawns'; I was to suffer.

Nigel was to bring us to see the Hong Kong light show, down by the harbour. As we walked I talked to Andy. Before we knew it, Andy, Jane and I had lost the others. Making our way as best we could, we did find the harbour and almost immediately bumped into Pat, Jill etc. who had left us earlier to go shopping, I think (shopping was very much more than the usual passion for sisters, Jill and Barbara). Haike and Chin Chin were there too and we knew where we would meet the others later (to go up Victoria Peak), so things had brightened up. The skyline too soon brightened up. Using the lights of the skyscrapers on Hong Kong Island, a vast play of light and music soon unfolded. Shining off the dark waters, themselves aswarm with brightly lit boats, the coloured buildings were pyrotechnically dazzling. Sadly it only went on for half an hour or so. We made our way to the ferry terminal, the specified meeting point, and met the others.

Suddenly Nigel left us. Haike was bringing us up to the viewing platform on the hill, but still we hadn't expected to be saying goodbye to Nigel so soon. We left him at the ferry terminal. Climbing to the funicular, however, we decided we had to part on better terms than that, so calling from call boxes we arranged to meet him later.

The trek to the viewing platform on Victoria Peak was not as simple as we thought. Even at the end there were around 6 sets of escalators to ascend. We eventually made it though and again it was worth it. Below us stretched the huge, coloured carpet of Hong Kong. We were above the highest skyscraper here and so able to appreciate the concentration of it all (Hong Kong Island has the lion's share of tall buildings, and it isn't that big). With the lights and the glowing water, it put me a little in mind of Sydney that New Year's Eve night when we looked down from Surrey Hills. Unfortunately the effluent prawns decided to kick in right then. Ironically it was to Bubba Gump Prawn Restaurant to which I turned for lavatorial help. Much as I hate the movie, and dislike American food chains, I will always have a special place in my heart for their bathrooms.

We made our way back to meet Nigel. It was all very strange to be honest. Pat, Jill, Barbara and Deirdre were leaving us at that point for the hotel, so more goodbyes had to be said. Then Nigel stormed down Nathan Road to the pub he was bringing to. It took a lot of storming, but eventually we arrived at P.J. Murphy's Irish Bar. Having told Chin Chin of all things Irish, I had to buy her a glass of Guinness. By and large Chinese women do not drink or smoke (both male habits). I therefore tempered the Guinness with a shot of blackcurrant, blasphemy for some, I know, but it does cut the bitterness a little. Surprisingly enough she liked it, though naturally a glass was well beyond her limits.

Carry On China

The bus journey to our train ride was on a public bus. Very different to our last public bus experience, this nevertheless had its own strangeness. On a tv they played a Hong Kong comedy, apparently from the 60's. It looked and played like a very bad 'Carry On' or 'Confessions of...' movie and, for a public bus in the afternoon, bordered on softcore porn at times. Certainly I didn't realise foot fetishism was so big in China. Having said that, the movie had such a scattershot approach that it managed to take in elements that might appeal to every member of the family, veering from Capraesque Monty Python sketches (an ad exec tries to convince a man to commit suicide for a commercial and ends up doing it himself) to 'Three Men and a Baby' (or two men in this case). We made it to the station just as it ended.

This train trip too was in sharp contrast to our last ride. We were all together this time, and few were in the mood for drinking. I read and listened to music. We had an unnecessary hour-long wait outside the station, but outside of a little grumbling, we were all too wrapped up in the impending end of our trip to really care. When we finally got off we had to pass through customs to leave China and enter the special place that is Hong Kong.

Have Wok, will travel

The next morning I had a cookery class. First we met our teacher to browse through the local market. There was very little there that looked familiar from home, but much that recalled our recent meals. Strange mushrooms, peculiar herbs, smoked ducks; it was a delicious scene, but the real eyeopener was the meat section. Slabs of meat were nailed to wooden chopping boards for dissection, while a whole row of stalls was devoted to that most Asian of meats, dog. Hair removed, they hung from hooks like a ghastly collection of waxworks. Not content with the canine though, I saw a skinned cat on one table (they didn't care much for the variety of ways to skin it), while at my feet, its own legs tied, was a young kid, very much alive, if not for very long. The seafood area too was colourful, if a little disconcerting. Basins and tanks everywhere held masses of catfish, frogs and turtles. We made our purchases and left for the cookery school.

The cookery school is owned by an ex-pat Australian. She hovered around on the fringes while a young Chinese girl led the class. We each had a wok, a gas cooker and an assortment of ingredients. Among the dishes we learnt were duck with ginger, steamed chicken with ginseng, and egg pork dumplings. I can't say my skills were perfect, I needed to really grasp the changes of temperature required for skillful wok cooking, but my dishes were perfectly edible and I had a good lunch.

Getting back to town in the early afternoon, I went to an internet cafe to catch up on email etc.. I had an email from Anabel, from the Indochina trip, to say she was in Yangshuo and to ask where was I. The mail had been sent the day before. I made my reply, sent it and turned to a tap on my shoulder. There she was. She too had come in to catch up on mail. We went for coffee and compared notes. By and large our experiences had been similar. It was good to meet, but we were both a little sad, I think, that it was so close to the end of our stay in Yangshuo. I was leaving that afternoon.

A Light upon China

Barbara, Deirdre, Pat and Jill had gone for a bamboo boat ride that afternoon, but by seven, when the rest of us met for the show, Deirdre, who was meant to be coming, still had not gotten back. We waited, and waited, until we were in danger of missing the show, then headed off in two groups. As it happened they found Deirdre in time, but it was very close.

The show (I think it was called 'Impressions'), coming so near the end of our travels, was a fitting finale. We arrived in our taxi to find a place jammed with coaches and people. As I say we were rushing, but so seemed everyone else and the walk to the 'theatre' was a long one. A very long one. We had been told there would be spotlights on the karst and dancers, but nothing prepared us for what we actually arrived at. Getting there as the show began we had perfect seats, one row away from the water. I say water, because the 'stage' was a vast lake with around five karst hills behind. A woman floated towards us on a boat singing; it took her minutes to get close. Then the spotlights went on to show the karst. This was on a truly huge scale and in many ways summed up my Chinese experience, for not only was this huge stage impressive, but the hundreds of dancers and boatmen who next appeared simply astounded. It was hard to conceive of such organisation. Towards the end, for instance, hundreds of girls in illuminated costumes began to walk from a far corner of the lake across a path that had not been there before, the lights on their dresses glowing like one long, snakey constellation in the dark. It was breathtaking. I believe the show's director is working on the opening for the Beijing Olympics. If so I will be looking forward to that event.

Biking to the Moon

Next day we had a lengthy bike ride scheduled and few people expected me to turn up. I confounded the nay-sayers, however, leaving Daniel behind to be the one casualty of the morning. Perhaps I am being too hasty there, for the truth of the matter was that Ger and Deborah got progressively sicker as the day unfolded, eventually departing early, while I didn't feel too great myself. In my case, I suspect the power of Long Island Iced Tea rather than the innocuous rat. Despite some woozy moments, I persisted; indeed I felt best while I cycled. And I was glad of the cycle. We went out into the countryside, travelling among the huge limestone columns. Our local guide, who naturally led the way, could not grasp the concept of speeding up though, and repeatedly we bunched up together, each cyclist trying to avoid bumping into the one in front. The fact is that at heart I hate to be manacled and this frustrated me no end. Eventually I turned on the speed and passed the guide out, enjoying the air and the sight of no one in front of me. Of course, a turning would turn up and I would have to be reined in repeatedly, but a constant slow avoidance of people in front would have killed me.

The guide was not always on top of the situation either. We stopped to take pictures of a weir, for instance, and as we walked a road down to the water, some locals started screaming at us. Apparently their family had built the road and their was a one dollar fee for using it. We begged ignorance and directed them to the guide, but she did little to placate them. To my hungover mind this was stress and I was glad when we saddled up and went on.

Part of this ride involved the option of climbing Moon Hill. This outcrop boasts a semicircular window at its summit and a wonderful view of the surrounding countryside. To get to it, however, requires climbing more STEPS. A lot of steps. The Chinese art of step-stepping. Deborah and Ger couldn't face it and took this opportunity to head back to the hotel. I too baulked, at least initially. I felt sick and hot, unable and unwilling to climb any more Chinese steps. However, there was that view, I was in Yangshuo and I would probably never be here again, so overcoming my reluctance I paid my fee and climbed with the rest of them. Pat, who had nearly said no too, led the way for the start of the climb. We had our souvenir sellers following us too, but thankfully the steep climb proved too much even for them and we soon left them behind. Eventually I did reach the top and took my stare. The land stretched out like a curving chessboard, the karst pieces in earnest war with each other, and I was thankful I had endured the climb. We had gotten a beautiful day too, so the green, brown and grey of it all shone before us.

Lunch was in an out of the way place, among orchards and serviced by two people. The food was fine, even exceptional in the case of the beer fish, but the iced tea, which I avoided, evidently went down the wrong way for Barbara who rushed into the trees to vomit almost immediately.

The cycle home was a lot faster as we left the guide behind and stuck to the main road. Crossing over a bridge, I was struck dumb by the beauty of it all. Long bamboo boats ferried couples down the mellow river, a river that gleamed merrily in the strong sunlight. Crowded though the scene was, it was glorious with colour and life. And I was on a bicycle. I was happy. Of course, when we got close to the town the traffic caused me to lose some of my grin. One roundabout in particular had most of us struggling to get safely across to our homeward road, but we made it.

I felt a good deal better and did a little shopping in the marketplace before heading back. That night we were to meet for a lightshow.

Rodent with Relish

Unsurprisingly our rooms were not ready when we arrived in Yangshuo, but at least we could leave our bags and head off for some breakfast. Early that misty morning, it was difficult to see the karst formations that this town is famous for, but every so often a peak would appear through the surrounding cloud to give us a taste. People were thin on the ground at that time, though one or two sellers were persistent in offering us umbrellas. After the oppression of the train, none of us minded the drizzle though.

As the day wore on the sun, and the people, began to come out. In fact it soon was warmer than it had been for ages. The town metamorphosed into a crowded, but laidback, backpacker place, with more Westerners per square inch than we had seen on our whole tour. The limestone outcrops were soon clearly visible too. Of course it is this scenery that brings everyone here. It is truly stunning with karst formations similar to Halong Bay backdopping the busy streets (apparently there are over 20,000 karsts in this region). We soon found ourselves settling back into the flow of the place.

When our rooms were ready I went straight to bed and didn't surface until 1. Duck in beer for lunch improved my mood still more and by the time we all met for happy hour in a local bar I was in the mood to do damage to their cocktails. Settling on Long Island Ice Teas I ended up doing a lot of damage to myself instead. The bar also served food and one thing they sold was snake. Apparently they would bring the snake out for the customer to hold (a photo opportunity), then slit its throat, pour the blood into a glass of rice wine for the customer to drink, then cook it up. This was all fine by me, though I wondered why the snake was not printed on the menu. It turned out the Government had banned eating snake and I could only presume it was because it was endangered. Certainly that was Haike's view and if there was such a possibility, I was going to refuse it. I wouldn't eat an endangered animal. Next on the list was dog. Much as I wouldn't have minded eating it, I suspected I would suffer guilt later as the man who ate Lassie. No, in the end I settled on the third exotic option on the list; Bamboo Rat. The waitress came out to me three times asking if I'd reconsider the snake and I should have taken that as a hint. Haike too tried to convince me that rat was an intelligent animal, though by that reckoning I'd have to give up all hope of one day eating squirrel. I stuck to my guns.

When the stir fried rat did appear, it didn't look particularly special. As with most meats in China, they had simply taken a cleaver to the skinned animal. The brown and green mess was laced with little paws and spectacularly a jawbone with some jutting teeth. The problem was that every single bit of meat - which didn't taste a million miles away from beef or pork - encased a bone or bones forcing me to suck and gnaw the meat off every bite, rather like a rat might do. Palatable though the meat was, this was just too much work.

Food notwithstanding, the drink continued to go down very well, and before very long I was a lot less than sober. I headed off in my messianic way to find new bars to explore and eventually ended up alone in a bar filled exclusively with Chinese. Munching on sunflower seeds, not bothering to remove the shells, I decided to bridge the Asia-Europe divide and began a stilted conversation with a lovely Chinese student. At least I think she was lovely; I know I told her so. Perhaps it was the lack of Mandarin, or the sunflower crunch, but all I got was a brief and happy conversation with smiles. I made my way back to the original bar where Nigel was chatting to some Scottish guy. Everyone else had gone, so I had another drink, saw few opportunities around me and headed back.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Dam Trains!

After our dragon boat victory we had an afternoon to marvel at the technical achievement that is the Three Gorges Dam. The nicest thing that can be said is that it does the job; certainly, despite the parks and viewing platforms all around, it is hardly beautiful. The five shipping locks, again impressive in scale and utility, bolster up the general greyness of the whole project. I think it's taken thirteen years to get to this point with most of the generators now in place and generating. Some still need to be installed however and will be before 2009 when the dam will generate 10% of all China's power needs. The water in the gorges will then have risen to around 175 metres. After being driven from one viewing place to another to take in the sight, we were all soon blase about the whole deal. As the Thai say, same same but different.

To counter this oppressive lack of invention, that night we had one of the finest meals yet in the nearby city of Yichang. Eel, pork ribs in sticky rice, etc., etc.. Lovely. Later, after getting settled into our hotel, Pat, Jill, Daniel and I went in search of internet. Our hotel had one pc and Andy got there first, so we headed off with some hazy directions from the concierge. Finding an Internet cafe was not easy, although if we were seeking a 'hairdresser' our search would have been finished pretty quickly. Yichang, a city of broken pavements, is awash with hairdressing boutiques, though at night hair-cutting is not something they specialise in. Instead, to earn a little extra money, the red lights go on and the lovely ladies stare out longingly at passing males. In at least one place we passed there was a massage going on. We moved along quickly.

True to culinary form, the hotel offered a splendid breakfast the next morning. As I wrote Yichang wasn't the prettiest place we'd been to - it has gained a lot of its current prominence from shipbuilding and its proximity to the dam - but then we didn't have much time there to really see it. Having arrived late the night before, a minibus was to take us away at nine. A five hour bus journey then a 16 hour hard sleeper train journey. Just a not on the hard sleeper/soft sleeper distinction. Chinese trains cannot make a distinction like first and second class; it goes against the Communist grain. Instead then there are hard and soft sleepers. A soft sleeper is a compartment with a door and four beds. A hard sleeper has no door (the carriage is all the one) with six berths. Naturally we were in a hard sleeper. What's more a Chinese tour group of some hundred people had booked up all the lower berths. Nigel, Daniel, and I, separated from the others, were to have top bunks. After struggling with my backpack for twenty minutes, I finally pushed my way through to my assigned bunk to find four Chinese guys playing poker and smoking on the bottom bunks. They were as un-overjoyed to see me as I them. Daniel, who has asthma, was not too keen on the smoking aspect, and Nigel, with Daniel's best interest at heart, was of a similar view. Again let me stress that Nigel, the tour leader, is big, very big, 7 foot tall and bearded big. Storming in to the carriage he bellowed out, 'No smoking! No smoking!'. The Chinese thought this very amusing until he lifted one of them out of his seat to show the 'No smoking' sign behind him. Before we knew it a whole carriage load of Chinese were yelling at him, while Nigel yelled back. I thought we would be lynched. To be fair, it stopped the smoking, but we did have 16 hours to spend with these people and only for a soft-spoken train inspector coming along things could have gotten nasty. In the end the four guys swapped berths with four female members of their group and peace of a sort was restored. The inspector still took our passport numbers though.

In contrast to the carriages of the other members of our group, our carriage was a bit of a dive. Children urinated on the floor, card games clogged up the passage and our bed area, while every so often the general noise was punctuated by someone hawking up phlegm. Don't ask me where they spat. Not anticipating a lot of sleep Nigel, Daniel and I adopted a strategy of alcoholic anaesthesia. Getting off the train at stops, we managed to sample a large variety of beers (all of low volume) before the lights went off at 10 and we were forced to take our bunks. Given the circumstances I was surprised to sleep at all, but I did, even though it was up at 4 am to get off at our next location, Yangshuo.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Dragon Power

After the Gorges shenanigans of the day, Harry persuaded everyone to indulge in karaoke that night. The English language songlist stretched to a page, and half the songs on that were just music videos with no words shown onscreen. It was a little strange to see songs, written for movies, being shown to videos of other movies (for example, Starship's 'Nothing's Gonna Stop Us' from 'Mannequin' being shown to 'True Lies'). Nothing could disquise the quality or absence thereof, and when I saw Chinese passengers performing ballet to some of the tracks (a thin Chinese grandfather, for instance), I felt like I was at a bad wedding. Perhaps it wasn't the most sociable thing to do, but I begged off sick and had an early night.

The next day, Harry suggested Dragon Racing! To the beat of a drum we would row a dragon prowed boat against another dragon prowed boat manned by tourists. The others went to the local temple beforehand, presumably to beg the gods for good fortune. I stuck by the boats and stared at the refuse floating around. I know we have people who litter back home, but it pains me to see Chinese carelessly soil their great river. A fat tracksuited idiot flicked his water bottle over his should and into the Yangtse while I watched. He then threw some more plastic at his girlfriend and missed. I felt heartened when I saw her go over to the plastic. Unfortunately it was only so she could kick it into the water. Meanwhile the toilets by the jetty flushed into the rubbish.

Eventually we got into our dragon boat. I had Ger behind me and a Chinese guy in front and no one could really paddle to the drumbeat. We paddled forth nevertheless wondering to ourselves whether this was a practice run. The other boat was evidently on a practice run too, and before we knew it the beat had quickened and we were winning the race! In fact, we won, easily, too easily. The other boat came in ten minutes later. It was all over far too quickly.

Row, row, row your Boat

We passed through the first of the Three Gorges the next day("The most beautiful," said Harry; they always were "the most beautiful"). After Milford Sound, I was not impressed. Indeed Kiwi Adele voiced it well. "I've been lucky to grow up in New Zealand. This is par for the course to me." And it was to me too. Having said that the water level is70 to a hundred metres above what it once was (thanks to the dam). I would imagine that then they were something to behold. Anyhow we passed through monkey territory and by 'Hanging Coffins' (a coffin in a cave), before we made a stop for a cruise on a smaller boat through the Little Gorges.

The smaller vessel was packed with Chinese and the loudspeaker (as on the waterfall bus) was incessantly streaming out commentary at an unbearable volume. Everyone in our group despaired of this noise. How one woman can talk so long without drawing breath amazed us all. And her commentary went on for the six hours we were on the trip. The exceptional breaks we had from this noise pollution were when we stopped to visit a small village market, and when we disembarked to board smaller boats again for a trip down some smaller gorges. Then we had some noise of a very different nature. First off some mountain people played pipes and sang, serenading us from the banks. Then our pilot was convinced by our Chinese contingent to burst into song. Once he sang the Chinese themselves broke into football supporter choruses. When my group began "Row, row row your boat", I nearly jumped overboard, but it was great fun. It was painful to go back to Iron Lung Woman on the main vessel.

Tempering my good humour all this time, was a cold I'd caught at the monasteries. Without my usual barrage of vitamin c supplements, I felt it getting worse.

Number 12

The boat company we sailed with had 12 ships. We had been warned that anything under 6 was bad, and indeed another Intrepid trip we had met at Emei Shan, had moaned about the quality of the boat. We were to pray for a high number ship. We got Ship Number 12.

Travelling down the Yangtse, we had reasonable rooms and good quality food. We were to pass through the famous Three Gorges, but for most of us this was a time to sleep in late and relax after the harsh pace of the previous week. Harry's laugh woke me up at 6, but I got out John Fowle's 'The Magus' and began reading that. He can write. The afternoon of that first day on the water, I took up the option of a trip to "Asia's biggest waterfall". No one else was tempted, in fact when they heard it would involve a hour's bus ride on a Chinese bus, they were a lot less than not tempted, so it was just Nigel and me. We were some of the only Westerners on the trip. We sat up the front, so we got the benefit of a non-stop loudspeaker commentary (all in Chinese obviously), a commentary sometimes interspersed with song.

When we got to the waterfall, after the usual scary driving, we obviously had some steps to contend with. Why the Chinese with all their genius could not have invented the elevator in the Middle Ages I will never know. Anyhow as I walked down the steps, I could hear the sound of water getting louder. Suddenly through the tree branches, there it was, Huangguoshu Waterfall, and it did make a grand entrance. Having said that once I got close to the fall itself, it looked a little more mundane. I suppose there hasn't been too much water of late, but it seemed domestic in some way. Nigel even voiced the suspicion that it would manmade (''I wouldn't put it past them"). We walked behind the fall, took our pictures and happy to have seen it, went back to the bus. I think we both felt the same way; not disappointed, but not over-awed either.

We stopped into a comb factory on the way back to let the tour guide earn her commission.

Toilets, Towels and Ice Nine

Nearing the end of things here, but let's get things up-to-date.

When last I wrote I was in Emei Shan, and right after writing I went to the local museum. Daniel had the key to the monastery room, my Giant Buddha ticket got me in free and I needed to go to the bathroom. A lot of money has been spent on this place, money that made the most of what was at heart a fairly small collection. Small or not it covered everything from calligraphy to art, history to geology, and fauna to flora. What I was really looking for though was a Western-style loo, and I found many, all clean and empty. Unfortunately too empty; toilet paper was not in evidence. The moral of the story, one I have never learnt in China is always have some with you.

Dinner in the monastery was very cabbagy. Remember monasteries are exclusively vegetarian in their food and this was no exception. Much as I like my greens, this was too green for me.

Next the bar. We drank some weak beer until the monastery curfew drove us home; 9.00.

We left at 9.00 the next day for our Yangtse river trip, and to get there we were using public transport. Public transport is a little less flexible than private transport, so when Donna announced ten minutes into the journey that she'd left her mobile phone under her pillow, we were bound to experience a little more hassle than usual. To be fair the bus driver turned things around and drove us back to the starting point, but then he left Donna, Nigel and Chin Chin to their nown devices. Luckily we had Haika still on board and she learnt that we meet the others at the next town, thankfully only twenty minutes away. After an anxious wait there, we did indeed meet up with them. That was only the beginning of the nastiness though, at least for the others.

I was fairly near the front, so I got a good view of all the oncoming traffic we were narrowly avoiding. Despite nearly crashing into an oncoming truck when overtaking going around a corner, our driver insisted on trying the same maneuver repeatedly. In the end I gave up and concentrated on my reading. Behind me though the others were faring far worse. One woman was eating boiled eggs and apparently this wasn't agreeing with another passenger who began throwing up incessantly. There were sick bags on hand, but they can only take so much and one of them ripped. I smelt very little of the result, but Deborah and Ger weren't crazy about the situation. Stopping for a toilet break hardly helped matters. The public toilet lived up to its name; it was very, very public. Toilets were holes dropping down on to grass and a lot of what was meant to drop hadn't. I confess to laughing more than crying.

Anyhow this gave me plenty of time to catch up on some reading. I had finished 'A Maze of Death', a novel almost redeemed by its bleak tone at the finish, but not quite. Now I started Vonnegut's 'Cat's Cradle'. For th first time in quite a while I also finished it that very day.

Vonnegut is like a more frugal version of Pynchon; they deal with a lot of the same issues (I am thinking of 'Gravity's Rainbow' here), and often with the same black humour. I remember thinking Vonnegut was the author who should have written 'Catch 22' (how Heller came up with that masterpiece I'll never know). Anyhow 'Cat's Cradle' is a little too lightweight for me, though in it, with Ice Nine, he comes up with a truly chilling (in all senses of the word) Doomsday device. It is enjoyable, but the characters are charicatures (Mona, for example), and the plot, though explained in large part by the Bokonon philosophy, far too ramshackle. Worthwhile though, and certainly of a piece with the vision of humanity one develops in Indochina.

The conductress believing Chin Chin to be the tour leader tried to convince her that there were roadworks that would stop us getting off at our scheduled stop and that we would have to get off early, hitching taxis instead. This, of course, was a sham. She had a deal with the taxi drivers and we, as foolish westerners should know no better. Thankfully Nigel was wise to the con and we stayed on, getting off at the right stop as we should have.

We got into Chongqing on schedule and had to make our way to the boat. Naturally this meant more steps, this time down to the water. I am resigned to my fate as the monster carrier. When I get home I shall burn my backpack.

Harry, our new local guide, met us on board. He was all smiles and I instantly hated his guts. He was the kind of officious git who laughs continually when with the customer, and scowls when somewhere else. He would really earn my ire when at 11.30 that night, as we all tried to sleep after a long day, he knocked around with towels. Necessary, but aggravating. Anyhow, because we were on time, we had time to get back off the boat and visit the nearest Carrefour supermarket. And KFC. Not a place I would go to normally,but we all felt like something familar for dinner. I ate a family bucket, that's how familar that was. Once fed, we got lost in the huge supermarket, bought our chocolate and water and went back to the boat, for a late evening meeting on the next day's itinerary.

Ah, for bed! We were all exhausted. When Harry threatened to ramble on (laughing all the way, "Yes!"), Nigel cut him short. But then we all needed towels. Vengence was Harry's!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Some China Pictures - Chengdu

Some China Pictures - Pandas



Some China Pictures - Xi'An

Some China Pictures - Beijing

Niall in Tianamen Square

Niall O'Leary

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

All Buddhas, Great and Small...and Sweaty

I haven't exactly being doing China justice with this blog. Having said that we are travelling like crazy, and what sights we see are big enough to take up a lot of time. Some reminiscences then:

In case I didn't say it before, Beijing is almost more West than the West. Fashion labels litter the main shopping streets, and we are not talking fakes here. It was as close to one vast temple in honour of consumerism as I have ever encountered.

After Tianamen Square and the Forbidden City (the latter sadly marred by an occasional - large - renovation canvas), we went to a workshop kind of like the charity cafes I visited in Cambodia etc.. This was a small cafe and workshop for mentally challenged Chinese. Teaching them some of the basic lifeskills they might not get in state institutions, it also gets some of its interest from (Intrepid) tourists, cooking a nice dumpling lunch and then putting on a show. I felt uneasy. This reeked just a little bit of the old English habit of going to the asylum for entertainment. However, the show put on by the pupils was obviously a great source of joy to them and, funnily enough, they did entertain, and for all the right reasons. One very serious accordionist gave a very credible rendition of a Khatchaturian ballet piece. Later they showed us how to do a little calligraphy. I am proud to say I wasn't too bad for my first go.

Xi'an, again, was wonderful. Our first night there we went to a huge plaza. Up the middle of this plaza was a tiered set of squares, each sown with fountain after fountain, and each fountain flush with the ground and turned off by day. Naturally this was to allow a wonderful water and light show at night, a rival (though an unsuccessful one, in my eyes) to Barcelona's Montjunc. Our restaurant was right beside it the plaza. We tend to order banquets for dinner, everybody sharing and all paying an equal portion of the bill by the end, in true communistic spirit (well, someone has to; the Chinese don't). Just as we ended our feast, the show began. It was a lazy amble out to a nice seat by the water. At one point Deborah and Chin Chin (Rachael's Chinese name), following the lead of some of the locals, went ambling among the water. Deborah slipped and got a tad wet. Still I ducked a few fountains myself. It was when we got back to the hotel that Chin Chin and I went to the hostel.

As one of China's oldest and longest running capitals, Xi'an is a big place, encircled by a huge wall. We hired bikes and cycled the wall, all 14 km of it. Andy and Jane, seeing the romance of the occasion, hired a tandem, and for a while it seemed like a good idea. They powered along with their four-leg powered chain. Unfortunately that chain soon broke down, and then again, and again, and again. eventually they were stranded and a rescue tandem had to be sent out. A good way to see the success and decay of the city though. I remember vividly a busy junction with a traffic cop on an island at the North Wall, a fluid, active place, while by the West Wall around fifty old people huddled around some ruined houses at a kind of makeshift market.

The main street of Xi'an is South Street and our hotel was just off it. With its huge KFC signs (isn't there something absurd about Colonel Sanders, or whatever his name is, grinning inanely down on a huge Chinese thoroughfare?) and impressive width I was crazily reminded of Dublin's O'Connell Street (it's a hell of a lot more impressive than that homely alley though). Neon signs were a fixture everywhere in that city, as indeed every Chinese city we have encountered, but Xi'an an a large number of giant video screens too. With the obvious orientalism of the place, and this constant barrage of light, Xi'an by night was like nothing less than the LA of 'Bladerunner'. What had been given as an image of the future has become the present of urban China.

Chengdu: our first stop in Chengdu was a visit to the giant pandas at a research facility dedicated to their preservation. Give them a few bamboo shoots and they'll sell their souls to the camera, which they did. They are remarkably photogenic. This is especially true of the infant pandas, who roll around with footballs, wrestle each other, climb ropes etc., etc.. Whether they are chewing, playing or crapping, you cannot but ooh and ahh. I sought in vain for their presence on a menu.

After the pandas we had a "I can't believe it's not meat" vegetarian meal in a monastery. The ersatz beef tasted like beef, the fake chicken tasted like chicken, the false tofu, er, tasted like tofu. Actually it was all tofu, and though I won't be giving up my t-bone quite yet, it was a credit to them what they could do with non-meat stuff.

I joined Pat, Jill and Barbara on a trip to 'Computer City' on 'Computer Street' then. There are quite a lot of Computer Cities on more than one Computer Street in Chengdu, but our one did the job. Despite looking like something from a Christmas cracker, I managed to get a 1 G MP3 player for 200 Yuan (20 euro). Also a text reader, voice recorder, a telephone book, I later thought I'd really gotten what I'd paid for when the voices on my songs started to warble. A small twist of the headphones and all was well though. The crackerjack prize is a real winner. I might have gotten more than I bargained for though. The sales guy, with minimal English, said he wanted to be my friend to improve his English and insisted on getting an email address. Given that having English might possibly boost your income (education is very controlled here), this is not as creepy as it sounds.

In Beijing, I had gone to the opera, and thoroughly enjoyed the catwailing of it all (the stories were great). Chengdu Opera is regarded as a little less high-brow and a little more 'flamboyant'. One way or the other we went along to a variety style night that night. Our initial impression was one of disappointment as the front row seats with tea and biscuits (something we had gotten in Beijing) was not on the programme this night. In fact we had back of the hall seats. However, once the curtain went up and the pretty compere came out, we forgave them a lot. For one, they had a backdrop, and something approaching an orchestra (as opposed to the Beijing quartet). Then we had foot jugglers, a 'comedy' (very S and M), hand shadows, stick puppets, a Richard Clayderman-esque two-string erhu player (playing a rock version of Sarasate's Gypsy Themes), fire-breathers and, a local speciality, face-changers. Before our very eyes the masks of the performers would suddenly change. I figured there was some contraption in their hats that slid them up and down, but it was very impressive. Yes, the catwailing worked again!

When we got back to the hotel, Haika, Chin Chin, Daniel and I headed off in search of food, venturing into a local shopping area. With the old style woodwork, red lanterns and buzz, it was a pleasant stroll, but Chin Chin saw some jewellry, the stalls were closing, and in the end a lukewarm beef mess in a banana leaf was all I got to eat.

We were to go by bus to our next destination the next morning, but as we awaited everyone in the hotel lobby, I decided I needed toothpaste. Our hotel faced a supermarket, so by running I could easily make my purchase and get back in time. So I ran. And so I fell, right in front of four very amused old Chinese. I did a 'Ta-da' pose when I got up, but I still looked stupid.

We had three days to spend in two monasteries, but to get us in the religious frame of mind we stopped by the Giant Buddha of Leshan. At 71 metres (and that's sitting), he has never been in danger of being called short. First to take the sight in, we got on a ferry and sailed down the river that runs by him. Fair enough. Back for lunch (another wonderful banquet), then into the park to see the big guy, indeed to climb down the stairs beside him. Fair enough. (The painted face actually reminds me of an old college friend of mine). By this stage, most of our four hour stopover was used up. We had one hour left. As a by the way, Nigel mentioned the 'Buddha Park', a park with thousands of sculptures depicting the many and varied ways in which the Buddha is depicted. I'll give that ago, I thought, but was the only one to think so. heading off I climbed the omnipresent stairs up and down into the Buddha park. I regretted all the time spent with the Big Guy. This was far more impressive and ironically enough features a Buddha even bigger, a lot bigger. So big in fact that the Buddha has to recline, all 170 metres of him! And there were other big Buddhas, and small Buddhas, and a cave of Ten Thousand Buddhas, a many armed Buddha, an Indian Buddha with some very fetching dancers, some female Buddhas, some wise Buddhas, some fat Buddhas, in fact quite a lot of Buddhas. One very big Buddha graced the top of a very big stairway (two icons of China together at last!). With fifteen minutes to rejoin the others I scaled this stairway (resolutely not looking down) and ran, ran, ran as fast as my little heart would let me. When I finally got back to the bus, only 5 minutes late, my sweat was such that I was told where the washrrom was and my lovely chocolate bar was politely refused by all group members to which it was offered. Thank Buddha!

We reached the monastery in Ban Guo an hour or so later. Close to Mt Emei, Nigel had been downplaying the accommodation all through the trip. It was a bit of a surprise then to find a tv in our room. Of course, good and all as our room was, the down side was the nasty squat toilets (around the corner of our building) and the 'slimy', basic shower. Not too much of a problem really. As it was we were to spend this night and another a day later in this monastery. The next day we were to travel to another monastery, high above us, in monkey ridden jungle heights.

Our guide the next day, was a hyperactive 57 year-old, with a few hairs for a moustache and an English name of Zebidee (named by an Englishwoman who presumably watched too much Magic Roundabout). He looked and acted like a Zebidee. In the morning, he brought us into town to the public bus station, from which we drove far up Mt Emei. It had snowed near the top. Snowed. Having been in sweltering heat only two weeks back, this was a little bit of a shock to the system. Mac in a Sac made a surprise reappearance, to complement little black jacket and shiny new sweater. At the top we discovered it wasn't the top and we had to get a crowded cablecar to the real top. Once there we saw the huge gold Buddha (another one) on the four gold elephants which you no doubt always see at oxygen deprived heights of 3000 feet. I could certainly feel the thin air. I needed sustenance. Taking the opportunity to tick another one of the culinary list, and to warm my poor hands, I bought and ate a boiled thousand-year old egg from a vendor. Just like a normal bolied egg only tangy. Quite okay, though I might not make a habit of them. Taking the cablecar down we soon reached more breathable heights.

More air though meant more activity and, after yet another fabulous banquet (I love the green veg in garlic), we set off on a two hour hike to the next monastery. Part of the way would be through monkey territory. We had been hearing stories of their thieving ways for ages and now we sealed up all our edibles in our day packs. Monkeys understand that food comes in plastic bags and can open crisp and nut bags easily. They will grab what they can from your hands. Nigel even saw one open a can of cola once (they love it apparently), so red was to be avoided if possible. Also we had each been given a walking stick, ostensibly to help in the climb, but at least partly to fend off monkeys. We were not to hit them, just to strike the ground, the action being sufficient to keep them off. We walked in anticipation.

Finally after some stunning scenery with pagodas, waterfalls and all the other paraphenalia you associate with China, we entered enemy land. They were everywhere, on fences, in the trees, on roofs. And they were bigger than I expected, not quite baboons, but not far off. We oohed and ahhed and cried out at the Monkey Police, park attendants who supervise the area, who frequently threw stones and hit at the animals. We were very easy as we walked, I more than anyone, quietly shooting everything on my video camera. The group has split into two and I found myself at the head on the second posse. A monkey
policewoman was walking ahead of me when we came to three large monkeys. She approached them, they approached her, and funnily enough this time they weren't scared by her stick. She retreated back, but I just stayed filming it all. It was then I noticed I had hissing monkeys in front of me and behind me and they were hissing at me. Apparently one large mother had a baby and we had come too close. She and the other two now menaced me. I am sorry to say I let my camera drop to my side as I tackled them with my stick, so it is only on the soundtrack that you get my monkey threats ('You're one monkey that's not getting by me!'). They backed off. It was only when I lifted my camera again and I notice the shake in my hand, that I realised how dangerous it actually had been (they can be violent, hence the monkey police). We moved on out of scalping territory.

My abiding memory of China shall always be bound up with that of steps and stairways. There was the Great Wall, the Xi'an Wall, the Giant Buddha, getting to the cablecar; everywhere we go we encountered steps. As we neared the end of this particular journey, we came again to some pretty evil step work. 1200 steps led steeply up to the monastery.

Deirdre had a back operation a few months back and a day or so before she left England tripped on a paving slab and damaged it again. Add to that that she is in her sixties and you can imagine that steps don't do her any good Nevertheless she has gamely tackled every activity we have tackled. And yet again she proved her mettle. Marvellous, particularly given that I had second thoughts about climbing more than once. We climbed and climbed. My sweat flowed over my glasses until I had to take them off for the blindness. On and on. Eventually I crossed the top stop to be greeted by a monkey eating pot noodle. I took up my camera again with a sigh.

This monastery was a little more basic, and deserted, than the last one, but the communal showers, at least that evening, were hot, and the communal toilet was not as communal as we had feared. We were at a great height though and it did get cold. After dinner in the Hard Wok Cafe (100 steps down from the monastery), we all went to bed after 8.00 (there's a 9 pm curfew in these places anyway).
I spent an hour reading most of the end of 'A Maze of Death' before consideration for my roommate made me turn out the light. Not one of Dick's finest novels I am afraid. After some interesting theological stuff, he ends an intriguing, though very flawed novel, with two fairly lame chapters (still a few pages to go though), calling in what to him is a standard device, and one which he used to far greater effect in 'Ubik', and the unfairly disregarded 'Eye in the Sky'. A 'for the money' book, methinks.

The night was freezing and I got a chance to use my silk sleeping bag from Laos. It didn't contribute too much, acting more as a sheet, but I was warm enough. Seeing frost on the roof this morning though wasn't a great incentive to getting up.

At 7.30 Zebidee led the others in a Tai Chi session. Scorning that for a deserted toilet and shower room, I got a pretty cold shower instead. My choice of pork noodles too, ordered because I like them, but also because they usually take little time here, ended up coming last after all the banana pancakes, an inconvenience that at least built up my appetite. Still it was pleasant watching the steam from my noodles complemented by the mist rising from the valley beside the cafe.

We met the monkeys again on the way down, but, two warring factions having been split up, they were more docile today. The walk back then was pleasant, particularly the latter half when the main bunch went on a longer route, while Zebidee, Daniel, Chin Chin and I took the short one. I really enjoyed the quiet and fresh air. It also gave me time to get back, eat and write this.

A bit of trivia: the monastery room I am sleeping in was once the office of the Chinese nationalist leader, the one who fled and set up Taiwan. His former boardroom is just around the corner.

And finally for all those looking for gossip on nightclubs etc., I am very sorry to report nightclubs have not been on the itinerary. I wish they were (there looked to be some interesting ones in Xi'an), but this isn't really the group for dancing, drinking or otherwise giving the local police cause for concern. Add to that the fact that though a 600 ml bottle of Chinese beer costs only 4 or 5 yuan (40 or 50 cents), it is only 3.3% volume. It is a funny place, is China.