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Saturday, September 29, 2007



I visited Bahn Don Mun recently with friends from Mahasarakham University when they went to workshop the villagers on the transition from chemical to organic rice farming.

While there, I got an invitation to stay and they promise that in three months I'll be able to speak Thai fluently. They even offered me a house. One of the villagers seemed to take a shine to me and followed me around trying to teach me a little Thai.

When we sat down to relax before lunch we got talking about ourselves with the help of a teacher who translated. He is a couple of years younger than me and has two daughters in their late twenties. Each has one child. I told him about my family and that I was divorced. He asked how I feel about women. I said that I like women but also like my freedom. He told me that one of his daughters was divorced and he would love to have me as a son-in-law. I don't know if the daughter has any say in the matter.

I'm not sure I'll be rushing back there but still it's nice to get the odd proposal. I haven't had one for over a year and I was wondering if I was looking past it or something.

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Organic rice grower

Boon Them shows his rice field in Bahn Don Mun in Mahasarakham province, north-east Thailand.

Khun Boon has been growing rice organically for about ten years. He claims his field has a yield 2.7 times that of his neighbours. He is also unconventional in his choice of times for planting and harvesting. He works this out astrologically. Scientific? Who knows, but he's happy with his crop and now his neighbours are starting to emulate him.

The neighbours land has been so depleted by chemicals over the years that they can not make the switch overnight. There needs to be a transition time, so they called in the biotechnology experts from Mahasarakham University to give a demonstration on blending the chemicals with organic fertilizers. Over the next few years they'll gradually reduce the chemical fertilizers and increase the organic ones until they become 100% organic.

Bahn Don Mun is already a demonstration village for self sufficiency. Walking through the village, one sees pots converted from old tyres growing a range of herbs by the roadside. They breed chickens, ducks, pigs, frogs and crickets as sources of protein. Little if any food needs to be imported from outside and whatever they produce over their needs is sold. Often the buyers come to them so they don't have to worry about getting their crops to the market.



The hidden message of choko

I love vegetables but it hasn't always been that way. As a kid I probably agreed with most of my peers that vegetables were yucky. Even now, while I'm happy to eat the occasional choko I admit to finding them a little boring.

One morning Ead appeared wearing a t-shirt that I'd never seen before. On the front was a picture of two chokos and a Thai word that I could not read. He read it for me. It says 'fukmau' which is the Thai word for choko.

'So why wear a choko t-shirt?' I asked.

He explained that the shirt was created back in the days when Mr Thaksin was still Prime Minister of Thailand, ie before the coup. Many were dissatisfied with his leadership and there were protests. This shirt was created to be worn by the protesters. Of course this still doesn't make sense until you know that 'Mau' is Mr Thaksin's nickname.

The message on the back of the shirt says, 'We don't like fukmau. It's an endangered species.'



Why Thailand?

On my first weekend back in Thailand I arranged to meet a friend and spend a day visiting Koh Kret, an island in the Chao Phraya River. I had been to Koh Kret once before a few years back. On that occasion I was taken by friends in a car. This time I travelled alone on a public bus.

Tong told me how to ask in Thai for my fare (easy) and then how to ask to be put off at the right stop for Koh Kret (more complex). When I asked the conductor for my fare she could not understand me and another passenger interpreted for us. I decided there was no point in putting the second request to her.

I sat on the back seat and towards the end of the journey the conductor came back and tried to ask me where I wanted to go but we could not understand each other very well. She went and got another passenger who came back to my seat and said, in English, 'Where do you want to go?' Between the two of them they made sure I got off at the right stop and had directions to the ferry wharf. They could have left me to my own devices but that is not the way of Thai people.

The next day I wandered down the street to a stall selling BBQ chicken. I ordered in Thai and the two stall holders chatted away to me in Thai while I was waiting for my order. Half of what they said I could not understand but that seemed irrelevant to them. When they became busy with another customer a young woman waiting for her food said, in English, 'Where do you come from?' Once again a conversation ensued. I don't think there was any purpose in either conversation except it was a pleasant way to spend a little time. This is what commonly happens in Thailand.

Another afternoon I got off the BTS Skytrain at Ari station where I was to meet my friends. I was feeling a little peckish so stopped at a stall to buy a pack of cookies. They were very cleverly packed and by time I'd gone about 50 metres I had still not managed to open them. I stopped to give the challenge a better look. I was thinking of returning to the stall when the young woman from the stall turned up beside me and opened them for me. She had noticed I was having trouble and had left her stall unattended while she came to help me.

Perhaps as single incidents none of these is a big deal. However, I include them here because in Thailand this sort of thing happens all the time. These simple incidents are examples of the friendliness and helpfulness that is so common in Thailand—the land of smiles.

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Friday, September 28, 2007


Dalai Lama

Having had an interest in Buddhism for most of my adult life I have read one or two books by the Dalai Lama. The essence of his message seems to be that we should care for each other. I can understand that such subversive teachings are considered dangerous by the Chinese government. They are indeed wise to filter him from their internet. Who knows what might happen in China if people started caring for each other.

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Is there censorship in China? I can't really say but I have experienced filtration.

To quote Lonely Planet: '...Internet operations were already under scrutiny by the government and in the summer of 2001, 2,000 operations were closed and 6,000 suspended. Cafes that are allowed to operate have to use filters to strain out irregular content.'

I'm not sure how much this concerns local users. Most of the Chinese people I saw in internet cafes were playing games. Perhaps those who want access to politically sensitive material go elsewhere.

My personal experience was this. I could access the blogger Dashboard and blog creation pages to post my blogs. After I post the blog I get a page telling me, 'Your blog has been successfully uploaded. View blog.' This with a link. When I click this link the page never downloads. Apparently you are able to read my blog in Australia, Thailand, Malaysia and elsewhere but in China I can't read my own blog.

I had a similar problem with flickr. I had no trouble uploading my photos but viewing them was at best hit and miss. The pages download but the pictures almost always are represented by broken links. I made contact with another flickr user who lives in China. He put me onto an add-on program for Firefox which allows me to bypass the filter. It worked on my own computer. Most of the time the pictures showed up. The program was created in Iran where there are apparently similar problems. It didn't make any difference to blogger.

In Hangzhou I never solved the problem of connecting my own computer. I made use of a university computer instead. I installed Firefox on that computer and the add-on program. It helped a little but I still could not see most of my own photos on flickr.

One day someone sent me the name of a Tibetan Buddhist teacher who had escaped from Tibet when the Chinese invaded in 1959. I decided to do a search of his name 'Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche'. This led me to his homepage which downloaded successfully. When I went to Wikipedia and did a search of his name the page started to download. It was half way there when it disappeared and I got an almost blank page instead. I decided to try 'Dalai Lama'. The result was the same.

I'm not sure what happens using a personal computer from someone's home. I didn't have that opportunity. But from internet cafes and at the university I experienced filtration.

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Monday, September 24, 2007


Leaving Xiamen

I came to Xiamen because I had booked a flight by AirAsia to Bangkok. AirAsia flies in and out of only two cities in China and Xiamen is one of them.

As I had an evening flight I left my bags in storage at the hotel for a few hours while I took one final look around town. I was quite early getting to the airport, perhaps my first mistake, but I figured I had a few things to do once I got there. I am used to international airports that have many facilities. At Xiamen I got a surprise.

On entering the terminal there are service counters and also a restaurant. There were customs forms for departing passengers that basically required you to declare that you weren't carrying anything that was detrimental to the reputation of the People's Republic of China. I figured I should get that out of the way and move inside the international section, perhaps my second mistake.

No problems getting through customs. They accepted my form and ushered me on. I was then faced with a couple of hours waiting for the AirAsia staff to arrive so I could check in. There was not much to do in this section. There was an overpriced souvenir shop and some very basic seats.

Yep, this is all there was to sit on and that's the souvenir shop in the background. If you ever fly out of China from Xiamen don't, I repeat don't, come early—not unless you want to be bored out of your mind until the check-in crew arrive.

There are always bookshops in airport lounges, right? (Sorry, lounge just doesn't ring true.) I figured I'd be able to buy something to read while I waited and to amuse myself on the plane. I guess that was another mistake. I'd sure had a dearth of reading material while I was in China. I couldn't even read 99% of the signs. I was looking forward to finding an interesting book or magazine but once again I was wrong.

I don't usually use my computer in public places. I know many people are comfortable with this but I figure there is no point in making myself a target for would-be thieves. This time I made an exception. I found one of these bench seats that was against a wall, got out my laptop and answered a few emails. It was a good decision. It made the time go much faster.

Got through check-in without any hassles. That got me entry to the next section of the airport. I got to go up an escalator, fill in a departure form and show my passport to immigration. No hassles.

I had a minor problem going through the security check. I had a little bottle of a herbal mixture that I've been carrying since I left Australia. I have not been able to buy this stuff anywhere in Asia. I forgot that there is now a ban on bringing liquids in with hand baggage (another mistake) unless they are in a sealed plastic bag. When I flew from KL to Hanoi this requirement had just come in and the security staff were providing the bags so that no one had to throw out anything important. They weren't providing this service at Xiamen.

I gave up my water bottle and pleaded to keep my herbal mix. They relented and let me bring it on board. Fortunately I wasn't a terrorist with some explosive mixture.

There was another lounge to wait out the rest of the time. This one really was a lounge but nothing special. It was dinner time and I hadn't eaten. The restaurant in this section had sandwiches that looked like they'd been sitting there all day for which they were charging (from memory) about 35 yuan. I had no intention of paying over $A5 for a stale sandwich that had no appeal at all. I decided to wait and see what was offering on the plane. (Perhaps not a mistake.)

I sat in a reasonably comfortable lounge, got out my computer again and wrote a few more emails. An announcement came saying that the plane was delayed due to late arrival. When it finally did arrive all the Chinese people got up to grab their spot in the queue for getting on. AirAsia has a policy of free seating. First in best dressed. I guess they all wanted to get the best seat. After a minute they were sent back to their seats. The arriving passengers had to get off first. I was surprised, they actually came through the same door that we were departing from. After about half of the arriving passengers had come through the door the Chinese once again got up and formed their queue. Don't they realize that we were not going to be allowed on until the others were all off and the plane was cleaned? They might as well sit in comfort.

There seemed to be three groups of passengers. Those in the queue, those in the restaurant and three others who were still sitting in the lounge. The three others included a monk, one Asian man and me.

Finally they allowed us to board. First those in the queue hurried on and the people in the restaurant were now coming to join the queue. The man sitting not far from me got up at this point, wandered over to a point about half way along the queue and calmly pushed his way in. No one said anything.

I joined the queue when almost everyone had gone through the door. A few stragglers from the restaurant and the monk followed at the end.

When we reached the plane the front half was full, chock-a-block. And the back half was almost empty. I was able to get three seats to myself and spread out. After the plane took off a few of the people squeezed into the front realized they could move down the back and spread out. They didn't even wait for the fasten-seat-belt light to be switched off. Staff ignored them.

Once we were on our way the cabin crew came through to offer us meals, an optional extra on AirAsia. I was happy to accept some jok even though the price was ridiculously high. Jok is Thai rice porridge, perhaps pretty boring as far as Thai foods go. But it really tasted Thai, way better than that sandwich I rejected. It was worth every baht I paid for it.

The flight was pretty boring, much longer than I had expected. There are no movies on this budget airline and I still had nothing to read. Despite spreading out I couldn't sleep. I arrived in Bangkok a little before midnight feeling very tired but pleased. Home sweet home.

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Sunday, September 23, 2007


Prostituting the Buddha

In many Asian Buddhist countries it is the custom for people to make donations to the temple. Many practise Buddhism by creating merit (good karma) to benefit themselves in future lives. Personally I believe this misses the point of what the Buddha was really about. Never-the-less this is what happens. I found temples in Thailand, for example, to be beautiful but extravagant and in light of poverty in the country perhaps this is not the best way for people to make merit.

Temples in China are a different story again. Perhaps many of the people lost their Buddhist roots during the communist years and the Cultural Revolution. It seems now that most temples are a tourist attraction. There is invariably a fee to enter and it is usually quite high. Sometimes there is one fee to enter the complex and another to get into the most relevant part. In this fledgling capitalist society the people are queuing to see these temples and I should add that most tourists in China are Chinese.

When I had not been long in Hangzhou I spent a day or two visiting a few of the sights listed in the local guide book which included a few temples. One temple seemed different from the rest. There was no admission fee. They were serving food in one area outside the main part of the temple. When I enquired about the cost a monk came and helped me to order. The price was reasonable and the food simple but good.

Many of the temples are promoted as having a history dating back many centuries. However the building you see has probably been rebuilt in fairly recent times. They are well preserved and look beautiful but how much real Buddhism is practised there I am uncertain.

People pay their money, come in, touch the statue of the Buddha and leave. The Buddha has been made into a prostitute. I wonder what would happen in such a temple if you went in and asked for a dharma lesson.

I gave up visiting temples in Hangzhou but had some time to kill in Xiamen and decided to visit one there. Most of the complex looked to be reasonably old and not recently painted. There is a hill behind, which I climbed and when I returned I discovered a much newer large pagoda-style building. There were many monks and nuns entering. Obviously something was happening there.

I got chatting to a monk outside who spoke English and asked him what was going on. He said they were holding a forum on commercialization of Buddhism. I told him of my observations. He said that businessmen were investing in temples so that they could be restored and attract tourists. The businessmen then take a return from the entrance fees paid by the tourists.

So much for the teachings of the Buddha.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007


Gulang Yu

As I mentioned a few blogs back, Xiamen is an island joined to mainland China by a bridge. Not quite attached to Xiamen is another island called Gulang Yu. It is reached by a regular ferry from the downtown area.

When I got to Gulang Yu I was invited to take a ride on an electric golf-cart-styled bus. It does a circuit of the island perimeter stopping at interesting points so you can get off and take a look around. My advice to anyone who is reasonably fit and has at least half a day is to explore the island by foot.

Those golf-cart buses are the only motorized vehicles I encountered on the whole island. There were a few bicycles but not many and thankfully none of them were motorized. This made for pleasant wandering around the laneways that take you wherever you want to go.

The only other vehicles I encountered were carts drawn by human power. I guess if anyone wants anything delivered that’s the only way to get it there. One rather flash house was having several cartloads of furniture delivered when I walked past.

Most of the buildings on the island were built by Europeans in the colonial era. Generally they are kept in good condition. You would probably not think you were in China if you were deposited there unknowingly. The island is hilly and there are many spots to find an enjoyable view.

There are also a few beaches on the far side of the island for those who want to swim or sunbake. Even though it was a hot day when I visited, not many Chinese were taking advantage of the water.

The ferry ride over is free but it costs eight yuan (not expensive) to get back to the mainland. I stayed pretty late in the afternoon and was seeing fewer people as the day went on but there were still many waiting to catch the ferry back to Xiaman.

More photos of Gulang Yu can be found on my flickr pages (see sidebar).

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Friday, September 21, 2007


Bad habits

When I was in Malaysia one of my Chinese Malaysian friends warned me about two things in China, disgusting toilets and spitting. I had to say at the time that Malaysia had the worst record on both counts in my experience. To be fair, on my last visit to Malaysia perhaps the situation had improved.

So how does China rate? I can only speak of my own experience. In Nanning, Wuzhou, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Xiamen I found the overall standard of toilets to be good. They were generally both free and clean. I occasionally found something objectionable but this seemed to be an exception. It may be different in the countryside. Travelling between cities the bus would occasionally pull in for a toilet stop. While I didn’t encounter anything as bad as the worst in Malaysia I did consider these toilets to be below an acceptable standard and perhaps a little uncivilized.

As for spitting, in Nanning, Wuzhou, Guanzhou, Hangzhou and Shanghai I did not encounter this practice more commonly than in Malaysia. I understand the Chinese government has had a campaign to eradicate spitting since the scares of SARS and bird flu. It seems to be reasonably successful in these cities. Xiamen was the exception. Generally it was more common there. The worst example was the driver of a bus I caught one night. I had the misfortune to sit close to the front of the bus. The driver sounded like he had the flu. I would hate to think that I had the responsibility for the lives of all those passengers if I felt as bad as he sounded. He was constantly clearing his throat in a very noisy manner. Every half-minute or so he would stick his head out the window and noisily dispose of whatever he had collected. I’m glad I wasn’t driving a car, or worse still a motorcycle, alongside.

So Yilan, if you get the opportunity to visit China again, hopefully you will find it more pleasant than before. Just be careful if you go to Xiamen.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007


Exploring Xiamen

Readers who live in Brisbane (I trust there are a few) will understand when I say that Xiamen is an island, like Bribie, joined to the mainland by a bridge. Unlike Bribie, Xiamen appears to be totally developed, much with high-rise.

The city of 1 million + is perhaps small by Chinese standards. It is not unpleasant. I stayed for two nights but got to spend most of three days exploring the place. Much of the city is being redeveloped.

In the shadow of the unfinished buildings in this picture are narrow laneways which contain homes of the ordinary people who live in the city centre.

I spent a few hours wandering along alleys like this not knowing where they were leading. Eventually I came out into a street and was able to get my bearings again.

I found a friendlier vibe in Xiamen than I did in Hangzhou. I also noticed that it was common for people to stand up on the bus for older people—I didn't qualify : )—and for a woman with a baby. In the middle of summer apparently it is also cooler than Hangzhou being by the sea.

When I woke on my second morning in the city I sat as I usually do to meditate. Not long after seven AM, I was disturbed by this:

The machine you see here was demolishing the buildings next door. The noise was unbearable. I suspect that in China there are no restrictions on noise levels as we have in Australia. You'll also notice the guy in the picture working on the site is not wearing earmuffs.

I packed up as quickly as I could and headed off to explore the town. On the way out I let them know at reception that I was not very happy with the situation. They offered me another room. I asked if it would be any quieter and they said 'no' so I didn't bother. I didn't return until about 8 pm and the machine was still operating. I wonder what the operator's hearing is like. Fortunately he knocked off soon after I returned to my room. The noise started again early the next morning but didn't seem to be quite so bad.

Did I use my earplugs you ask? Yes, I did. The seemed to make no difference.

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Monday, September 17, 2007


Journey to Xiamen

I had decided to move on from China and booked my flight through AirAsia to leave from Xiamen. I knew nothing about Xiamen, not even how to say it (Sha-men), so checked Lonely Planet and it looked interesting. Decided to spend a few days there to look around.

There are flights from Hangzhou to Xiamen that would save a lot of fuss but I enjoy the train journeys in China. It is one way I can get to see a little of the Chinese countryside. This journey takes 24 hours. When it came time to buy my ticket I got someone to write the details of what I wanted in Chinese on a piece of paper. At the station there are 29 ticket windows each of which usually has a long queue. I noticed a separate section with just a couple of windows and almost no queues. The only English sign said 'CRH'. I didn't have a clue what that meant at the time but it was worth a try. Presented my note at the counter and got my ticket, no trouble.

On the morning of my journey, I got up early, finished packing and got a taxi to the station. I pointed to the word for railway station in my dictionary to let the driver know where I wanted to go. Got there with plenty of time to spare. Because of my journey to Shanghai with Liu Ping I knew what to do at the station. The waiting room was very full. When boarding was announced, as I expected, almost everyone got up at once and rushed to the entrance. I sat for another five or ten minutes waiting for the masses to move on.

I had booked a soft sleeper the same as I had for my journey from Guangzhou to Hangzhou. These cabins have four berths. Once again I had chosen a top berth. The lower berths tend to be used as seats during the day. At least I had mine to myself. There was one young guy, say twenty-something, in the cabin when I got there. I said 'nihau'. He replied and we smiled at each other. We were joined shortly by two of his friends. They didn't say anything.

These guys were no trouble. They played cards for most of the journey and chatted quietly. I spent my time watching the scenery, taking a few photos of the towns we passed through and the countryside. On the first day of the journey it was much the same as I'd seen before.

I discovered that CRH stands for China Rail High-speed which this certainly was not. We stopped at many stations and from the information I'd got off the internet we seemed to be travelling at up to 90 minutes behind schedule. When I went to bed that night my room mates were still chatting quietly so I plugged my ears and went to sleep. This also deadened the train noises and I slept right through until about 7 am.

When I got out of bed I could see that the scenery had changed dramatically. We were following a river through a gorge. It was quite spectacular. I got out my camera. There was no charge left in the battery. I had a spare but had unthinkingly packed it way down the bottom of my backpack. I also contemplated getting out the fz20 but both of these options would have required lots of unpacking and repacking that I was not keen on especially while my cabinmates were sleeping. I decided to just enjoy the view. Sorry, you don't get to see the pictures. But I'll make sure that next time I pack the spare battery somewhere more accessible. Not so smart—buying a spare battery for just this sort of situation and then packing it in an inconvenient place.

We continued to follow the river and the gorge for several hours and at times there were towns and villages. Most of these places don't get a listing in Lonely Planet but if I ever return to China, somewhere like this is where I'd like to stay but only if I've improved my communication ability in Mandarin language—or perhaps whatever local dialect is spoken there.

I was standing in the passageway outside the cabin enjoying this scenery when one of my cabinmates got up ahead of his friends. He said 'good morning' in English and we chatted. He came from Beijing and asked if I had visited. He was disappointed when I told him I hadn't, especially when I mentioned that I'd been to Shanghai. He said that people from Beijing and Shanghai hate each other. I suggested this might be like the rivalry that exists in Australia between Sydney and Melbourne—mostly tongue in cheek. He said 'no we hate each other'. He insisted that the people were very different culturally. I asked about manners and how, for example, Beijingers board public transport. He admitted that they were the same as I'd encountered elsewhere. But he said that younger people will stand for older and people do stand for a pregnant woman. We chatted for some time. He was pleasant company and I learned a little more about Chinese culture.

We arrived in Xiamen more or less on time. Overall the journey was a pleasant one.

You'll find a few more pictures from the early part of the journey on my flickr page, see sidebar.

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Sunday, September 16, 2007


No one wants me, buy me a house

I learned recently of another consequence of China's one-child policy. Some parents feel they are obliged to buy a house for their sons.

Being able to have only one child, parents tend to prefer a boy over a girl as traditionally in China sons look after the parents when they get old. The daughter marries into a new family and helps to look after her husband's parents. If parents are aware of the gender of the baby before birth, girls are at times aborted. This has led to an imbalance and there are not enough women to go around. I even heard a story of a remote village where some women have two husbands.

Many parents are concerned that their sons may remain unmarried. They feel obliged to buy them a house to make them more attractive to prospective brides. I heard this discussed (in English) by a group of around twenty adults, both men and women. It seemed that a majority accepted this as they way it should be.

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Saturday, September 15, 2007


Beautiful Hangzhou

Marco Polo was obviously impressed by Hangzhou he called it 'the most beautiful and splendid city in the world.' Has Hangzhou kept this reputation over the years? Well, the Chinese, or perhaps the Hangzhouians, more modestly claim it as 'the most beautiful city in China'. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I feel sure that Walt Disney would have been impressed. As a photographer, I found Hangzhou to be extremely photogenic. Traditional Chinese design is indeed charming and it wasn't difficult to keep elevators and other modern touches out of my pictures.

Hangzhou is certainly a popular tourist destination for Chinese people. The first week in October is a week-long national holiday. By then the weather should be cooler than I have experienced for most of my seven-week stay. I'm told that Hangzhou people mostly stay indoors that week because visitors to West Lake number between 100,000 and 200,000 each day.

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Monday, September 10, 2007



I have been attending 'English Corner' several times a week in various locations around Hangzhou. People get together to practise speaking in English. This is an opportunity for me to participate in a community activity and get to know a few people.

The first I attended is held Sunday mornings in a park at West Lake. There is no structure. People are there and you chat. Any westerner is quickly surrounded and badgered with questions often several people at a time. I found it exhausting, especially in the heat. However this has led me to being invited to evening sessions at different venues.

These have been more structured and for me a more pleasurable activity. In one setting they choose a member each week to speak to the group on a subject of their choice. I witnessed a presentation on one-child policy in China. The speaker had researched his subject thoroughly and certainly made up for his lack of knowledge of English with his enthusiasm for his views. I was impressed by the depth of his knowledge but perhaps not by his one-sidedness.

At another venue they have made use of my presence over two weeks to learn a little about Australia. This time I was impressed by the depth of the questions asked. Considering that they don't get to vote they certainly take an interest in political issues. We talked openly about their situation in China and compared it to political systems in other countries. They were particularly interested in taxation and economic issues.

As I write this, 'impressed' is the word that keeps coming to mind.

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Saturday, September 08, 2007


Cultural differences

The university in Hangzhou hosts international students from many countries. Generally I find the African students to be quite friendly. In the restaurant one day a group of students sat at the table next to me and started chatting. Two were undergraduates from Seychelles. They were new here and seemed to be having similar difficulties to me in relation to language and culture. One said, 'I don't know why the guys here are always staring at us. I want the girls to stare at us but it's always the guys.'

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Friday, September 07, 2007


Breaking the ice

Spending time with Liu Ping has given me the opportunity to learn a little about cultural differences. In the light of what I have written in recent blogs, here is some of what I have learned.

I explained to her that in Australia and perhaps most western countries when ones routine brings us into close proximity with another person on a regular basis that polite conversation will usually ensue. The process usually starts with eye contact, perhaps a nod of acknowledgement and in time a friendly 'hello'. To me the eye contact is important. If someone is prepared to eyeball you it indicates that they will respond to the above process. If they don't want to be friendly then they won't make eye contact. I have found that this works much the same everywhere I have travelled in south-east Asia.

Before I switched buildings at the university here in Hangzhou I found several staff members would not make eye contact even though I would see them several times each day. Eventually I came to the conclusion that things must work differently here. When I switched buildings I decided to say 'nihao' anyway even though staff might not make eye contact. And I got a response. Having been in the building now for a few weeks I find I have a friendly relationship with staff and some regular guests.

Liu Ping agreed that people in China do not make eye contact the way we do in the west and that taking the initiative the way I have is appropriate.

There are exceptions. One notable one happened one day when I was walking in the park beside West Lake. There was a small group of young people walking almost parallel to me. One guy was staring at me quite obviously. 'Nihao,' I said, hoping to ease the discomfort this created in me. He just kept on staring, no smile, no sign of recognition, just a blank staring face.

I didn't know any appropriate Chinese to follow up with but wondered if he might recognise one or two words of English. 'Where I come from, it's rude to stare.'

No response.

'And it's polite to say "hello".'

Eventually he turned away. I got the feeling his friends found the situation embarrassing.

When I related this anecdote to Liu Ping she said that his behaviour was rude here in China too. She had no further explanation for it

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Thursday, September 06, 2007


Drifting to heaven

Alex is an Italian student who is spending three months in Hangzhou researching fungus in peanuts. He is keen to experience white-water rafting. The closest thing to that in this area is 'Drifting in Shuangxi River', 30 km out of Hangzhou. Not exactly white-water rafting but perhaps a pleasant way to see some of rural China.

We had agreed to go together last Sunday but on the day it was raining and it looked like it had set in for the day. (It had.) We looked at some other options and agreed on 'Chuiyun River to Heaven' which was a boat ride into a cave. At least I figured we'd be out of the rain. Unfortunately the free guide book that is readily available in Hangzhou gives only scant information and locals are rarely able to fill the gaps.

I have a map of Hangzhou that is in Chinese but it does have the bus routes marked in Arabic numerals. There is a bus route not far from the university that takes you to the West Bus Terminal, from the information we had this looked promising. At the terminal we found a staff member who could speak English and was very helpful. She helped us buy our tickets and put us on the right bus.

'How do we know when to get off?' I asked.

'Stop at bus terminal.'

It was a pleasant drive through the rural areas with very green views not unlike those I'd seen before through bus and train windows. (See my flickr pages.) Eventually we stopped in a town, not at a bus terminal but a T intersection. The bus conductor called us and beckoned to us to get off. She pointed down the side street which ended at the foot of a mountain, maybe 500 metres away. Obviously the terminal staff member had asked her to let us off.

After we'd gone a couple of blocks we found a restaurant and decided to have some lunch before we took our boat ride. They had no English menu and spoke no English. Both of us had learned our Chinese in the same university restaurant and we ordered 'dan chau fan' (egg fried rice) which seems to be a staple that is available everywhere.

When we came out the rain was heavier. I had an umbrella but Alex had no protection. As we passed a store on the roadside the vendor called out and waved an umbrella. Alex decided he needed one so nodded. The vendor wrote '50' down on a piece of paper. After I bought mine in Vietnam a local friend told me it was cheap and nasty and I had paid too much. While Alex is reaching for his money, I'm doing some sums in my head and figured he should offer ten in hope of getting it for about 20. By time I'd figured this out he'd already parted with his 50 so I decided to stay silent.

Along the road to the boat-ride entrance were many stalls selling souvenirs, snacks and umbrellas. There was plenty of competition. I'm sure he could have got a better price. But he bought from the first vendor without knowing how plentiful the supply was.

The entrance to the boat trip was quite grand. China sure makes the most of its tourist attractions. We bought our tickets. When we went through the gates we were told that we could not use umbrellas but needed to buy a raincoat, 5 yuan please. These raincoats were really cheap and nasty, designed to last for this trip and not much more. Even 5 yuan was too much for them but we had little choice.

There is a walkway to the river bank and then it's into the boat. The ride to the cave lasts about 50 metres and then we were under cover for the rest of the journey, except for the occasional drip from the ceiling. The umbrellas might have damaged the cave formations - but only if we left them up.

The cave was attractive but not spectacular. The ride was pleasant. There was also the opportunity to disembark here and there, explore and take a few photos. In contrast to much of China, there was non-slip flooring in these areas for which I was grateful. The river is on two levels and at one point the boat is taken up to the next level on an 'escalator'.

The ride ended somewhere in the middle of the mountain. There was a long flight of stairs that took us to the exit. When we came out into daylight there were two options to get back to the starting point. We could walk or take a toboggan ride.

The pitch we were given to encourage us to take the ride was that the walk took 45 minutes and the ride 5 minutes. To walk was free and the ride was another 40 yuan. Alex was keen to take the toboggan ride just for the fun of it. I was indifferent to it however I was not excited by the idea of walking through the bush and pushing past wet bushes for 45 minutes so I agreed to take the toboggan.

The sales pitch was a gross exaggeration. The toboggan ride was over almost as soon as it started, closer to one minute rather than five. For 40 yuan I feel we should have had unlimited access to it for an hour. As for the walk, I estimate it would have taken about five minutes. There was a well-made concrete path and it would not have been the least challenging even in the rain.

I took a few photos of the mist covered mountain and town and then we walked back to the highway. There was no bus station but it looked like there were a few people waiting for a bus opposite where we'd been dropped off. We pointed to an approaching bus and asked 'Hangzhou?'. We were given hand signals to indicate 'no'. After a few buses we were ushered onto one. There wasn't much space left. Alex sat with a few others on a hard bench seat at the back while I got to sit on a wooden box.

The trip out had cost us 46 yuan for the two of us. I gave the conductor 50 yuan. He gave no change and issued no tickets. When we were about three quarters of the way back to Hangzhou the bus pulled into a service station for a toilet stop. (Without going inside I could smell it.) There was another bus pulled up there, one that we had previously been told to not take. The conductor gestured for us to change to that bus. We did.

Eventually we were dropped alongside a river at a bus stop. Neither of us knew where we were. Opposite, on a hill was a tall pagoda. A nearby sign, in English as well as Chinese, told us it was the Pagoda of Six Harmonies. I was ready to get out my map with the bus routes and figure out which bus would take us back home. Alex was less adventurous. He hailed the first taxi to pass and it took us the rest of the way home.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007


Losing myself in Shanghai

Liu Ping is a student staying in the same university hotel as I am. Until recently our conversations were a polite 'Nihao' as we passed each other in the hall. We got chatting the other evening after she broke the ice by speaking to me in English. She mentioned she was going to Shanghai the next day for an interview. This was just the opportunity I had been hoping for as with my limited Chinese language, the thought of buying a ticket and getting around Shanghai was daunting. It really is a big city. The population of Shanghai is over 20 million. Compare that to the whole of Australia at a little over 21 million.

It was a wet day. We left our hotel at 6.45 am. Schools have gone back now and the bus we took to the station was crowded with school children. I was the last one on at our stop (because I don't push my way to the front of the queue like the Chinese do) and the driver had several attempts to close the door before I got all my bits and pieces inside. The kids all got off at the next stop and it became more civilized.

Once at the station we had almost an hour to wait before the next train. It was 8.55 by time we were on our way. We sat in a waiting room first and were allowed onto the platform a little before the train arrived. The entrance points for each carriage were marked on the platform and people were actually queuing. I was impressed. When the train arrived the doors did not align with the queues. There was a rush for the doors and the neat queues were lost. I'm not sure what the rush was for as all seats were allocated and no one was left standing. The trip was comfortable. Liu Ping told me that this was what was known as 'hard seat'. I had thought that meant boards but in fact it was a comfortable padded seat.

When we arrived at Shanghai both Liu Ping and I needed to catch a train on the underground to reach our respective destinations. I had chosen from my Lonely Planet guidebook to head for Henan Zhonglu station on the underground. We both started on the same train but I needed to get off and change before she was getting off. She had never been to Shanghai before either but at least she spoke the language. On the platform and on the train she asked several people for guidance about where I wanted to go. She got three different answers.

Liu Ping told me which station to get off and which line number I needed to switch to. When I got to the platform I realized I had to figure which direction I was going. Trains from either side of the platform go in opposite directions. On one side I could see nothing like 'Henan Zhonglu'. Bear in mind that I did not have the guide book out and was relying on the pronunciation in my head. Pinyin (romanized spelling of Chinese words) does not always provide a reliable pronunciation guide for English speakers. 'Henan Zhonglu' perhaps sounds more like 'Hernun Janglu' (but don't quote me on this). On one platform I could not see anything that appeared to fit. BTW, the station names are, thankfully, shown in both Pinyin and Chinese characters. On the other platform I saw one called 'Jiangsu Road'. 'Perhaps I've got my pronunciation mixed up,' I thought. This looks more promising than anything else. 'Ching wen,' I said to a couple on the platform. 'Excuse me' is one of the few bits of Chinese I am able to remember and it does get attention, after that my conversation is limited. Having got their attention, I then added, 'Hernan Janglu.'

'May I help you?' the guy asked in perfect English.

This gave me confidence. I told him I was trying to reach Henan Zhonglu. He confirmed that Jiangsu Road was correct and that it was seven stations. I explained to him where I was heading and what I was doing but in retrospect I doubt that he understood me. His English was certainly better than my Chinese but perhaps to some extent he was bluffing.

I counted the stations and got off the train. By now it was lunchtime. Out in the street I tried one restaurant. The menu was in Chinese and no one spoke English. I'd been told when I got to Shanghai many people could speak English. Yeah? That's what they said before I reached Hangzhou. The language was no better in the next restaurant but at least the staff was more helpful so I got a bowl of noodles there. It probably had a few ingredients that I'd rather not eat but I was too hungry to be fussy.

I headed back down the main road in the direction I was sure would take me to the Bund. After a few blocks there was a major intersection with, thankfully, a four-way pedestrian overpass.

On one of the pillars of this overpass there was a map of the area and on inspecting it I could see that I was nowhere near the Bund. Rather than waste more time trying to find my way I decided to make the most of where I was.

I spent a few hours wandering the streets. There was a lot of high rise but there was also the odd pleasant tree-lined street and interesting laneway with old houses.

I passed a few 'barber' shops with pretty girls wearing lots of makeup inside. I found one small art gallery and then returned to Jiangsu Road station. Perhaps it wasn't as exciting as Shanghai is supposed to be, then again, perhaps I was seeing the real Shanghai.

I had a new challenge now because we had bought tickets to return to Hangzhou from Shanghai South station. It was on a different line again. I spent several minutes studying the route map above the ticket counter but was still confused. 'Shanghai Nan' I said to the ticket seller.

'Where do you want to go?' he said in perfect English.

'Shanghai South' I replied and asked him at which station I changed trains. He really did seem to be able to communicate in English and gave me the appropriate advice. Fortunately there was no one else queuing a that time. Before I was quite finished a guy barged up, shoved his face in front of mine at the ticket window and started speaking loudly to the ticket seller. I resisted the urge to hit him.

Got to Shanghai South with no trouble. It is a very modern station. Quite impressive. I had plenty of time before the train left so I got out the Lonely Planet and figured where I'd gone wrong. Liu Ping was on the train when I boarded. She said she'd been worried about whether I'd find my way there.

The return train was quite impressive too. It travelled at up to 170 kph but it felt like 60. We had comfortable seats and were back in Hangzhou in about an hour.

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Monday, September 03, 2007


Feeling loved

Since making comments in earlier blogs on my observations of the lack of friendliness of the people I am meeting in China I have been asking myself what it is that I am needing. It seems that just about everywhere I go in the world I feel that I am loved. I ask myself is this feeling so fragile that when no love is being expressed towards me I feel unloved? I don't know if I have changed since thinking this through however on several occasions since, people here in Hangzhou have gone out of their way to show kindness towards me. I'm not sure what all this means but in the interest of balance I must say that there are friendly people here in Hangzhou as well as those who appear to be indifferent.

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