Warning: This guest post is not for those who are easily offended, don’t get British humour or can’t cope with high levels of profanity and tales of toilet troubles.
I met Brian in Vietnam in March 2010. We instantly bonded over neon pink cocktails at the top of the Sheraton Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City. There’s no denying the drink looked peculiar in the hands of a 6″4 man who otherwise poses as a retired school teacher but with stomach troubles and a kill or cure approach to life, Brian provided my first valuable travel lesson – don’t judge a book by its cover.
Since those drinks, I’ve followed Brian’s stories as he has travelled around the world completing one epic and explorative journey after another. I previously posted his trip notes from India and now I’m sharing tales of his latest adventure from China to Burma. Bursting with British humour, what follows is Brian’s brutally honest insights into a five week trip that defies anybody to claim that a) you need to be young to enjoy travel and b) there is no fun to be had on group trips.
Starting in Shanghai
Well, 3 days of acclimatisation over and the ‘group phase’ due to start tomorrow. This will be most welcome, due to the fact that operating as a single bloke in Shanghai is akin to walking the streets, carrying a huge, brightly lit billboard which states that one is desperately in need of either a new effing wristwatch or the kind of massage, delivered by a spotty Chinese girl, that would render me a whole lot more senseless than the bloody beer on offer!
The sad message, as opposed to massage, to one so old, is that I fear an ominous link betwixt watch and massage: i.e. having declined the massage one is then encouraged to purchase the watch. In other words, as much as to say “Bloody hell mate …. have you seen what time it is?!” Or to put it more crudely “Get it while you still can, Dad!”. Added to this has been the equally frequent suggestion that I equip myself with a pair of brightly lit roller skates – now if that’s not taking the piss I don’t know what is! My revenge is to be found below.
Getting to the hotel was interesting. I was adopted by a young Chinese couple on the metro into the city centre, the two of them having clearly witnessed a level of geriatric confusion in me that reminded them of their bloody grandparents. Their offer to help with the final taxi leg proved unsuccessful but we did, quite literally, manage to dragoon a young Chinese lad on his way to the chip shop. He was happy to accept Y30 (just over £3) to get me sorted … a full 500 yards down the bloody street which explained why all other local cabbies were not interested! It was, though, one of the best £3’s I’ve ever spent!
The last couple of days have been spent doing the sights, of which there are precious few. There is, though, a hugely impressive water(river) front area – The Bund – with spectacular views across to the hugely impressive towers and skyscrapers of the financial district. The Bund is lined – greatly out of keeping with what surrounds it – with a marvellous array of Neoclassical and Art Deco buildings, a truly stunning sight when lit at night. Have done other stuff but not of this quality. Highlight planned for tomorrow is to take the Maglev high speed train on its 7 MINUTE journey from the financial district to the airport. Doesn’t sound much, until you discover that this is done at speeds of up to 430Kph ….. that’s about 270 mph for the 30Km/20mile trip, which is, coincidentally, a very close approximation to the speed at which the sellers of watches and roller skates are encouraged to fuck off!
The rest of the time has been spent callously invading the privacy of the very local and equally humble “cafés” …. in search of beer. It’s very cheap and, actually, not as bad as previously indicated. What is obvious though, is that it is deemed extremely odd behaviour to drink without eating! Locals and proprietors alike sit with bemused amazement as the beers disappear, rapidly followed by the deft removal of the labels from the bottles. They’re never quite sure what to say or do but I have, over a number of years now, pretty much perfected the “Mad but dangerous” act. And it works a bloody treat here too!
For those of you who have been to China, I’m sure you’d agree that the pace of change has been cataclysmically too fast rocketing a tiny minority to fantastic wealth, whilst leaving a massive underclass that is struggling like fuck to keep up. I’ve seen it in so many places now. Well, I’m happy to join the ranks of the underprivileged here, even if I have taken my first step up the social ladder by, tonight, swigging cheap beer from a steel mug in the comfort of my hotel room!
On to Xi’an
I met up with the group I’m travelling with last Sunday. It totals 7; 5 blokes (including me), a married couple, 4 Australian’s, 2 from the UK and the ever present Irishman. Not a bad bunch but yes, I am the oldest yet again and no, it doesn’t seem to matter a toss, not unless you let it.
As proof or this, we started with 7 confirmed and certificated drinkers out of the 8, but we are currently, thanks to a combination of the efforts of the Chinese Sanitary Department and the presence of either the spit of a Chinaman or the droppings of a Yak on most things that one either handles, inhales or eats, down to just the 1. I will not tell you the name of the current wearer of underwear that is neither tied at the knees or connected by tube to the nearest squat toilet, but I AM able to report that I have just returned from the shop next door to the hotel, having purchased 4 pints of beer with a £2 note (they go as low as a 1p note) and having received 80p change!
There were two more days in Shanghai before setting off on the overnight train to Xi’an, on Tuesday night. This was, as you can imagine, a bizarre experience – another sanitary disaster area. At least the authorities have had both the good grace and amazing grasp of all that is current, to provide a neat little net bag (nailed, for all perpetuity, to the back of the bog door) that is, according to the picture, for depositing ones mobile phone into before you deposit the contents of both bowel and bladder onto the tracks. Nice touch China!
Xi’an is also the place I have discovered the next craze to hit the UK fast food market. Namely: Big Yak and fries. One can have their yak fried, boiled, roasted, grilled, poached or stuffed but there really is no better way than to have it incinerated and wedged between two slices of moist cardboard. The recommended accompaniment to this gourmet’s delight is to swill it down with at least three pints of finest Yak’s piss beer. This has the benefit of both killing the taste of incinerated yak whist, at the same time, preparing ones arse for the roughest of times on the next day’s choice of squat toilet. Delicious!
Terracotta Warriors were great. Some amazing facts, including (1 ), that 720,000 workers/slaves were also entombed in order to preserve the various secrets of the tomb and (2), that just ONE of the 8,000+ warriors/horses/chariots thus far discovered was found intact, all of the others having been smashed as a result of the uprisings that followed. What you see now is the result of an incredible restoration programme, which has (with other excavation work) another 85 years to run. Now that really is a nice touch China!
The New Show In Town
This was followed by another overnight train to Xiahe, a mere 10,000 feet above sea level and on the very edge of the Tibetan plateau – sub-zero overnight. A brilliant place and one in which the Chinese people (although you could very easily argue that they are more Tibetan, with a touch of Mongolian) are at their very best.
It’s all saffron-robed monks here – literally 100’s and 100’s of them. Great place to stroll around and to lose, as I did, a number of Yuan betting on the wrong bloody animal in the various street games that abound. This was much to the amusement of the locals… a statement which takes me back to the title of this piece. It would appear that being a 6’4” streak of white piss is something of a novelty in these parts (as it is in most places, to be fair). A fact that has rocketed me to a point of some celebrity with, among many others, the younger monks of this fair city. Being accosted by bloody monks and locals alike, demanding a photograph, is pretty rich even by my standards. I have obliged with the normal sweet humour and good grace for which I am famed !?!? Yup, the New Show In Town!
Well, I will continue to fly the flag for all that is English; old and adored by monks and Tibetans alike. A number of my fellow travellers are now on the mend, so it is to be hoped that I will not have to continue attempting to drink China dry on my own. On a statistical note, it is also very interesting to note that I am also the only bugger in the group who has not mastered the art of chopsticks …… nor do I bloody well intend to. The link between those who are unable to control their bowels and the ability to use chopsticks is now obvious, as is the bloody reverse! If man was intended to eat his food with pieces of wood then God would not have guided me to purchase the titanium knife and fork that I carry in my back pocket at all times.
The next few days took us to Tongren (a complete waste of time) and here in Xining. To reach the former, we had to negotiate a very high mountain pass, which was both snow and ice covered. Our driver lost control of our mini bus and, with some good fortune, we managed to stop just three feet away from a fifty foot drop. Our supply of brown trousers and disposable underwear came in handy here …… as did our spontaneous, unanimous and freely offered advice to our driver, which – fully understood in ANY language – was; “Stop the fucking bus you idiot!”.
Upwards of 40 vehicles (mostly large trucks) shared in our carnage and we all waited patiently, for nearly 2 hours, for the bloody ice to melt in the midday sun! Had there not been sunshine, I daresay that we would by now have started tucking into the tastier morsels of each other. I would not wish to alarm any of you with this totally true account but it is not as bad as it sounds… for it is with absolute certainty that I can report that human flesh must taste a fuck of a lot better than Yak Burger!
From China to Burma
Travelled to Beijing by overnight train. This was a 23 hour epic, through countryside that was as barren as The Shakespeare on a Monday night. As was to be expected, a group decision was taken that this would involve cards and alcohol in equal proportions. The man doing the beer trolley (or the ambulance as I would prefer to call it) rapidly interpreted the enormity of his task, abandoning his trolley and simply delivering entire cases of beer to The UK Cabin. The night passed without incident, save one of our fold hammering down the door of the wrong cabin… much to the alarm of the resident Chinaman.
Beijing was good. Did all the normal tourist things, including a trip up to The Olympic Stadium/’Bird’s nest’. The trip out to The Great Wall was a highlight, although hard to understand the thinking behind how building a wall 4/5,000 miles long might be a good idea – bit like separating chickens and feed by a three foot long fence…even the bloody chickens will eventually brainstorm the solution that going round, under or over it might just work!
Then flew from Beijing to Rangoon, in Burma… or Yangon in Myanmar as they now have it. Got the hotel shuttle bus to the hotel, despite the fact the daft sod driving it had no idea where my hotel was. We drove around Downtown Rangoon for a couple of hours, became great friends as we went and then, by a process of elimination, eventually stumbled upon the correct place.
Downtown Rangoon is a shit tip at night, and not a great deal better by day it has to be said. Record high temperatures for November – in the mid/high 90’s – did little to enhance the delicate perfume of rotting meat, urine and pools of spat out beetle nut…that which turns the teeth of the cheery locals a stunningly beautiful crimson colour! To be fair, the place is steeped in the history of the recent fight against oppression, particularly The Saffron Revolution of 2007.
My attempt to buy a few small oranges resulted in enough of the buggers to solve the third word famine problem and the hiring of two medium sized trucks in which to haul them back to the hotel. Some confusion here between the words ‘three’ and ‘tons’, but at least they only cost me the price of half a pint! Suffice it to say, two weeks later and eating oranges as if my very life depended on it, I’ve now reached the lower slopes of said mountain.
Ended up at The Strand Hotel – one of the few remaining Colonial buildings in the city and the only building in town that allowed one the dignity of flushing with confidence. The opulence of this beer experience was not matched by my later experience when, in a far less salubrious establishment, the contents of the spit bucket saw me fleeing for cover after pint number one.
One of the more amazing things about Rangoon, or at least the location of the hotel, is that you are treated to extraordinarily loud, round the clock chanting via a whole plethora of loud speakers! It really does go on 24 hours of the day… loud enough, it has to be said, to drive me back to the spit bucket dive for the required anaesthetic/sleeping draft.
There’s a form of Buddhism here that defies understanding. Not the gentle stuff of, for example, Thailand or Nepal, but a full blooded, in your face, bling filled experience. A cracking example of this is when the group (more of this later) visited THE Buddhist shrine here in Burma: The Shwedagon Pagoda/Paya. All was good until it got to dusk. At this point every Buddha was lit with flashing neon lights or, as was agreed by all, a surreal version of Buddha Vegas! It really did look as if a long metal arm should be attached to the right hand side of each which, when pulled down, might just succeed in achieving 3 oranges!
Met the travelling group – the full complement of 12 this time.
Clinging to the Rigging
Flew to Bagan, mid-Burma – the land of literally thousands of stupas and temples (which we did by bike), an amazing sight by any standards. Then spent 36 hours on the Ayerarwaddy River en-route to Mandalay. This was excellent stuff and slept under the stars in a mosquito net. Problem here was that the ‘toilet’ (yes, yet another toilet story!) was on the deck below. I solved this problem… or at least I though I had… by attempting to piss over the back (or stern as the Popeye’s amongst you would have it) of the boat when caught short at 4 am. Picture if you can, a very inebriated giraffe, knob in one hand and clinging to the rigging with the other, attempting to slash from a height of 10 metres! Suffice it to say this cunning plan was a failure on all fronts – projection, quantity and decorum all falling woefully short of the mark… as did the contents of my bladder.
The Road to Mandalay
From here it was on to Mandalay – a disappointment for all concerned. The only major sight actually IN the city is The Royal Palace. This vast area has now been taken over as a semi-military compound and the palace itself rebuilt (although we did not see it) in a shambolic fashion, following it’s WW2 destruction.
My final toilet story (I promise) comes from high on Mandalay Hill, overlooking this complex. As is the custom, one has to remove footwear when entering this, yet another sacred/temple area. We spent some time on the top, waiting for sunset. When the call of nature eventually came we were treated to the delights of yet another squat toilet, completely awash with the obvious. So yes, we entered, bare foot and emerged with not only our feet exquisitely marinated in Burmese urine but also a bill for 30p for the bloody pleasure!
From here is was on to Kalaw, for a bit of trekking and then to here, on Inle Lake, both of these being superb places to visit.
So, it’s home on Wednesday, five weeks to the day from setting out. It’s all, as expected, been an eye opener. My innards and outards have survived from, among many others, the onslaught by searing heat, rice, curry, urine, smog, cheap beer, snow and landslide. Would recommend it to all concerned. Not for the faint of heart but hey, where else on earth can one enjoy the delights of Yak & Chips, urine marinated feet AND the prospect of plunging to one’s death whilst holding the very appendage from which many now call him a complete version of!!