Saturday, 30 June 2007
with a good little bunch we saw little shop of horrors in it's new home in the ambassador's theatre. i love independant film, there is a soul that goes into a labour of love. it doesn't matter that there isn't enough money or the backing of a big studio or list of enormous hollywood stars begging to be a part of it. sometimes it's a little shoddy, sometimes one of the characters is played by one of the carpenters (wood, not folk), but the film is all the better for it. more homey. more joyful.
little shop cradled that idea in it's arms and let it free on stage. a bit rough around the edges, a bit loose on some of the performances, but presented with so much charm that all is immediately forgiven. by far the stars of the show were:
sheridan smith - the girl from 2 pints of lager and a packet of crisps, who despite her background in that show is completely engaging and sweet and convincing. even my hard-hearted bro-in-law said he'd lost track of the world around him in her performance of "somewhere that's green."
the three chorus girls - who stole the stage from anyone whenever they were on it.
mike mcshane and andy heath - between them turning a polystyrene and fabric prop into an hilarious living character.
sometimes you can really tell that the cast love being in a production, that they loved making it and they love performing it. the last big thing i saw was we will rock you and the cast looked bored the entire way through, with good reason actually. not so with the little shop cast. they were definitely having a whale of a time, and letting us in on their big in-joke.
wicked, so it was.
the one major downfall was alistair mcgowan. his dentist character was intent on causing pain to his on stage patients and any discerning theatre goer. i'll be nice and say he was fine. many of the audience seemed to enjoy his bits, but i guess they haven't seen steve martin do it. or my friend alex.
Monday, 25 June 2007
my boss and i felt it right that we should construct hats for them out of gaffertape. here are the results
Saturday, 23 June 2007
i'm trying to buy a car. i don't have a car, so i want to buy one. there aren't any car showrooms in walking distance, so you need a car to get to them. but i don't have a car. i want to buy one, but i need one to get to a place where i can buy one. then i will have one so i can drive to a place where i can buy one.
car sellers missed a trick there. they should build showrooms in town. they might even get a few impulse buyers.
it's times like this i think i shouldn't have crashed my motorbike.
today i learnt about the existence of this:
i wish i could do it. i've been to some of the places, but i'd gladly go again.
it's for charity, and it'll be incredible. i'm both impressed and jealous.
Friday, 22 June 2007
Monday, 18 June 2007
so it's pretty weird being back. we finally got home on saturday night after about 20 hours of flying. jet lagged is what i am. my eyes feel like flappy bits of heavy curtain fabric and i would love to sleep. but if i give in... the jet-bugs will get me and eat my limbs or something.
people said the holiday would change my whole outlook on life, that i will come back a different person. i imagined a hunched hobo-like creature with a long beard and a gnarled walking stick. perhaps a bat would live in my hair.
this is unlike what actually happened.
i don't feel changed particularly. i was pretty chilled out before the trip and i'm pretty chilled out now. i did learn a few things about the world around me. i learned that electricity pylons will ruin a good photo in every country. i learned that the word 'toilet' can also refer to a hole in the ground and two planks of wood. i learned that under the right circumstances i will get a bit of a tan.
i was presented with questions about the life i lead. in this country we have a bloomin' privileged life with luxurious options at every turn. is that necessarily better than a buddhist lama who has little or no worldly possessions or home comforts, but lives in a state of complete mental satisfaction and clarity?
are our home comforts necessarily better than a man who moves his home around one of the most beautiful countries in the world, eats the vegetables and meat that he grows himself and spends his free time riding a horse through the scenery?
i guess i look at my nintendo and my dvd collection and think, "yes, they are better."
and running water is awesome.
but at least i now wonder about it.
i think of the world as a smaller place now. looking at a map of the journey i see that we traveled a quarter of the distance around the globe, on land. before, it seemed a ridiculous idea, too far for sensibility. but now i've done it. and it was quite easy. the world is a smaller and a more accessible place. not just geographically; but because we went into the middle of nowhere, to some stupidly remote places and still we met people who we shared a common understanding. we might not share a language or way of life, but we all share the same needs. we all need food, we all need a place to lay our head at night and we all need the company of other people. or goats.
i learned that i can grow a serious beard.
i learned that 5 gigabytes of photographs is a lot to go through at the end of a holiday.
i learned that i can sleep on a moving vehicle after all.
it's funny the things you forget when you go far away for a long time. there are things you miss that you don't realise until you get back. the smell of rain on hot tarmac, takeaways, a proper cold beer, women's perfume, high speed internet, the feeling as you walk through your door at home after work, english radio, cars approaching from the right.
i think it's good to be back, but i don't know yet.
Friday, 15 June 2007
our final day, our final evening, our final clutch to hold on to the holiday, the trip, the journey, one last amazing memory to take with us back home.
we wanted to go out on a high so we arranged for a night tour of beijing on a motorbike and sidecar. when it turned up it was a beautiful black chinese-made vintage bike with a 750cc engine and old thick-spoked wheels. within moments we were belting through the busy nightscape with the wind in our hair. matt nestled into the sidecar and i sat perched on the old style spring saddle a head higher than the rider. neon lights and traffic blurred beside us; i have no idea how fast we were going, but it was fast. whipping beside us: hutongs, temples, rickshaws, tienanmen square, the government building.... almost * ... grinding to a halt by the rust coloured walls of beijing's (so, china's) central government building i look down to see a flat tyre. ah.
in hesitant english and hand signals the biker told us he would phone a friend who'd come and rescue us. so we waited as passing traffic coated us in a thick paste of beijing grime and exhaust fumes. 5 minutes passed, then out of nowhere appears a police riot van and car. a scrabbled conversation quickly follows between our rider and the sergeant which i'm sure involved the question "what are two young westerners doing pulled up against the walls of the government complex with a world war II motorbike then, eh?" it was probably about this moment that matt and i turned to each other and realised that this was the first time on The Big Trip that neither of us had our passport with us. or any form of identification for that matter.
gulp. maybe we'll be on an earlier flight home than we planned we thought. like, y'know, being deported. um. well, we'll see what happens...
"passport please," says the main cop. (the chinese don't use plurals in their language.)
in our very best british colonial voices we say "i'm dreadfully sorry old chap, but we don't have them. they're back at our hostel. i'm. afraid."
he looks us up and down.
"which hostel?" firmly.
i try to remember.
"templeside number two," matt stammers, "xincheng hutong."
i'm trying to think whether this is the name of the hostel or just the street name. or even the general area.
"why no passport?" he narrows his eyes. we point at the bike and shrug. he makes eye contact. he has a notebook out. over his shoulder i see a van full of riot police eyes staring at us. his eppilette badges sparkle in the neon lights; i thought about mentioning it, y'know to butter him up; but a niggling sketchy history of communist regime in the back of my head suggests that might be a bad idea.
"okay," he says, "next time bring a passport."
we breathe out.
they drive off.
our biker makes a 'yikes' face.
another ten minutes later and our second motorbike & sidecar arrives. this time a real WWII one in khaki green livery and ammunition panniers. perhaps it would've been a different story if we'd started with this one and the police had arrived to see it, but onward we went. this rider is faster. and he has a helmet on. i wonder if this was wise.
tearing up the beijing tarmac, dust in our hair and exhaust fumes in our eyes; but nothing could cover the huge beaming smiles across our faces. this was absolutely the most perfect way of finishing The Big Trip. with a flourish.
so the holiday ended with a screech of tyres as we pulled up outside the hostel nearly 3 hours later. superb.
we nodded at each other, smiled, opened a beer and sat on the step outside our room drowning in adrenalin and memories.
a good one. that smile will stay plastered over my face for a long time and reappear every time i recollect friday 15th of june 2007. people will look at me and think i'm weird.
the great wall of china was constructed in 1993 under the rule of emperor Keni Ke the stin king. as the final and last in the blood chain of the mun-ting dynasty he was given unlimited funds and even more slaves and told to do something "pretty darn special." he did two things. one was to buy ten thousand tonnes of lego bricks and command two teams of five men to work round the clock and build the tallest statue of a piggy'wiggy the world has ever seen. they can still be found working on it in the fuk mee si dwai ze district, south beijing. they have completed a toe.
the second thing Kenickie did was build the great wall =>
we climbed it yesterday and we couldn't have picked a better day; warm, moist and clear. we chose the simatai section because the other local sections sounded flat and touristy and, most probably, recently refurbished. we wanted old and steep and - if possible - a bit unsafe and broken. which is what we did get.
there's not much to say about the wall further than what you can see in the pictures. it's long, it's a wall, it has towers two bow-shots apart for easy defense, some of the climbs and descents are as much as 80° steep and much like climbing a cliff face. 'twas rather treacherous, to be sure. for the first half i was accompanied by an old mongolian lady who latched onto me and talked constantly in semi-understandable engrish about the history of the wall and how she had no job and would i buy some of her great wall souvenirs. she called me 'beautiful' and fanned me from the heat and humidity whenever i stopped for a break. i bought a t-shirt.
did you know the great wall is ever-so-slightly sloped towards china (away from mongolia) so that any rainfall fell on chinese farmland?
it is a wonderful sight to see; certainly something that everyone should make time for. one of those 'must do before you die' type things, like swimming with dolphins or owning the shawshank redemption on dvd. it's a hard walk, so steep on occasions we were convinced we'd see a sticky end. it's hard to believe that the old warriors used to march the wall in full armour, and in the summer too. they must've been built like tyrannosaurus rexes.
very oddly, the 10km walk along the simatai section of the wall culminated in a 1km death-slide from halfway up a mountain over a reservoir and onto a small boat that took us to a bar. a perfect and authentic end thought i.
and so today. The Last Day. tomorrow all we will do is get up, get a taxi and go to beijing international airport for a 15 hour flight back home.
we took it easy. caught another temple; the white cloud temple, thus named for the busy crowds of people burning incense and paper birds. incense sticks fat as parsnips creating a low laying mist over the grounds, you could smell it from a block away.
then to silk street, where market stall holders whistle and shout and poke and pinch and grab you just to get your attention, once done they immediately expect you to buy something: a leather jacket, trainers, a lacy thong. i have quite tired of this marketing technique. advertising doesn't work on me back home where university trained minds put adverts out to play with my emotive responses, so minor injuries attempting to bully me into parting with my money stand very little chance of working. with my patience gone i have taken to any or all of the following retorts:
- shouting "NO" while walking swiftly away
- shouting "NO" in their face
- raising a fist as though to lamp them one
- trying to sell them my t-shirt/trainers/underwear (a firm favourite)
- telling them i am an art student and inviting them to my gallery
two slightly odd observations i have made about the difference of the chinese culture to the british. in brit-land lorry drivers put brightly coloured bits of plastic on their wheel nuts so they can see if any are coming loose and immediately tighten them. this avoids a quarter-ton wheel flying off on the motorway and killing someone. in china they tie a red ribbon to the wheel for the 'good fortune' of it not falling off.
secondly. in beijing it is not only acceptable for a couple to wear matching clothing, but t-shirts are produced to allow a couple to adorn themselves with two separate halves of the same picture. when they walk arm in arm, the picture is complete. we saw one couple (young 'trendy' people too) each wearing a complimentary side of a big red love heart. ohmygod. if only they had been walking the wrong way round i could have put it down to irony but oh no, this was serious.
Thursday, 14 June 2007
Wednesday, 13 June 2007
in london they say that you're only a true londoner if you regularly use the bus service. an even higher accolade goes to anyone who actually commutes on a bus every day.
today we commuted (sort of) with the beijing masses. in the morning rush hour we forced our way onto a bus with about 200 other beijingers and endured mental traffic and crowded streets with the best of them. buses here have a driver & conductor. the driver just drove. the conductor on the other hand wailed constantly into a microphone and all anyone could hear was her whiny irritating voice, piercing through any thoughts that you might be attempting to have. it was so loud even the limiter kicked in a few times and cut her out. not enough times to be honest. the same couple of phrases were repeated to infinity. i imagine she was wailing something like, "I AM THE QUEEN OF THE BUS, I HATE MY JOB, YOU WILL ALL SUFFER MY DISCONTENT!" or similar. god she was annoying. i'm surprised nobody decked her. with decking.
the purpose of the journey was to get to the summer palace, way up in north beijing. the palace is basically a pretty version of alton towers for the ancient royals of older dynasties. but without any roller-coasters. it was a tranquil place today (for a place that contained approximately a gerzillion tourists). however i am getting to the point of thinking 'once you've seen one beautifully crafted, expertly carved, intricately painted pagoda - you've seen them all.' the wizard looking man made our day. and the guy ambidextrously painting mirrored water calligraphy on the pathway round the lake was blimmin' impressive.
the afternoon was devoted to meandering slowly amongst the street markets and hutongs of downtown beijing. the marketeers are insane and desperate and literally grab your clothing to try and drag you into their shop. i played with many different ways of saying 'no,' at one point i wondered what would happen if i threatened to punch one of them, but was moderately frightened of potential stealthy kung fu magic.
(that kid ran full pelt to get up there)
this evening was where the real excitement of the day happened. the wan sheng theatre is where many of the amazing acrobats in the famous chinese state circus begin their training. we saw a bunch of kids put on a show that literally astounded me and had my jaw involuntarily drop open repeatedly throughout. no normal circus performer will impress me now. for example, to give you a level of skill please now attempt the following:
- ride an 8ft unicycle.
- now, do it balancing a bowl on your head.
- now, balance a few bowls on your head; let's say eight.
- now, do all of that one-footed.
- now, balance a bowl on your foot and without missing a beat kick the bowl from your foot and catch it on your head.
- now.... seriously... while riding a unicycle with one foot, balance 6 bowls on your other foot and in time to music kick all the bowls in the air, catch them all piled up on top of your head, the whole time synchronised with 7 other people doing the same thing.
- and make it look really easy.
that wasn't even the finale. that was only half way in.
i did actually get to a point where i went way past marvel and astonishment and simply gave up my entire belief structure. the natural laws of physics had been made null & void, gravity was a fallacy, newton a madman. i have no idea why hollywood wasted millions of dollars on special effects for The Matrix and Spiderman, they could've just got these kids to do all the stunts for real. although even after seeing it for real today in front of my very eyes, i don't think the audience would've been convinced. it was far too surreal to be real. utterly amazing.
- two vertical poles.
- climb one one-handed.
- jump off it.
- double somersault and land on the other one about 20 feet up.
- jump again, flip, land on the same pole, back-flip off it, bounce from the other pole and back onto the first one grabbing hold with your feet, upside down.
- now, three of you do it together on alternating poles a few times before simultaneously sliding head-first down to the stage with your arms outstretched, plunging at breakneck speed and slowing only just before death using only the grip of your toes.
Tuesday, 12 June 2007
i could very easily and quickly null and void the last food comment in the previous entry, due to an experience today. i will tell you about it shortly, but chronological tendencies take me elsewhere first.
there were certain touristy things that needed doing during our beijing time. today covered two of them, namely tienanmen square and the forbidden city. the square is largely indistinguishable (nice word to write, try it) against other squares i've seen. a large area of hard grey. perhaps if we'd been able to go into mao's mausoleum then it might've been a tad more remarkable. unfortunately as we were to find with much of The Real Chinatown, the preparation for the 2008 olympics has resulted in shutting lots of monumental buildings so they can be tarted up. shame, we could have started and ended the trip with seeing an old dead communist in a box (certainly everyone's dream holiday).
the most interesting thing about this square for me, could be the fact that most of the rest of the world hear the name "tienanmen" and - at the very least - know something bad happened involving some students and a pro-democracy demonstration and some guns. some of us might even remember hearing about it at the time, though proven evidential details are rather scarce. while the rest of the world is aware of some fishy history, ask any beijinger under 20 about it and they'll most probably look at you blankly. and not for the language barrier. it will be as though you've made up history right there in front of them. the power of propaganda and censorship, eh? the evidence of communist dictatorship? who knows, but today we walked past the heavily guarded building where they print china's history books. you might find them in the fiction section in waterstone's.
north of the square you pass through the red outer walls and into the forbidden city. i'm not sure why it qualified for that name, it was seriously easy to sneak into. all i needed was a 60¥ ticket and a confident stride. it's a breathtaking sight/site, mainly due to the amount of tourists its walls could contain without splitting (though you can't tell from our patiently waited for photos). and we're not even in the busy season yet. highlights included The West Wing, where some of the old emperors used to live, and reminder of the best american tv series ever made. we whistled the theme tune all afternoon. also a remarkable sight was the old consummation chamber, less the chamber itself and more the huge crowd of chinese tourists peering through the glass at the old royal hanky-panky bed, and ignoring the rest of that particular building.
the penultimate highlight was a spectacular pair of glasses worn by an old chinese man. i would've killed to get a photo but he disappeared into the throng too quickly. they were like two glass plates held together with a brass cupboard hinge and held onto his head with a leather belt. they ruled.
the best part of the whole city were the gardens at the northern end. very tranquil, full of colour and texture. particularly the rockery right near the north gate which was beautiful and fascinating; a barmy rock sculpture which looked like only nature in all its randomness could've created it in some freak accident, but actually is entirely man made.
and so to the food. this evening after hours of walking we headed to a night market, famous for its unusual cuisine. rumour had it that if you can think of it, you will be able to buy it there skewered on a wooden stick and fried for your culinary enjoyment. not far wrong, the rumour is.
of course, the more normal sheep, lamb, beef, octopus, squid, banana, sugar-coated tomato...
beetle, scorpion, grasshopper, testicle, bigger scorpion, snake, centipede, cock (yes that kind), some sort of large millipede, whole starfish... you get the picture.
we ate snake. like salty chewy gristle. it seemed like the lesser of many evils. a local delicacy though, five times more expensive that anything else! i couldn't finish my jellied mango and tomato, but a man listening to an ipod and fishing through bins for food hungrily took the remains off my hands. odd moment.
a group of australian kids were daring each other to eat progressively more disgusting things, starting (yes, starting) at sheep balls and culminating in regurgitating crunchy grasshoppers. most were loving it but i did overhear the following enjoyable dialog:
ANOTHER BOY: [nervous] but... i do bungee jumping
on the way home we got chatted up by two rather drunk chinese girls. they were lovely but i think they just wanted us to buy them more drink. always a welcome addition to an evening though.
we walked for about 10 hours today. my feet feel like vodka-melons.
a couple of briefly remembered mini adventures of the day:
- bowling at the guotin 100, a hundred lane bowling alley. only 50 were working though, the rest were being refurbished. rubbish.
Monday, 11 June 2007
beijing. we haven't been here long, but already we've begun to see just how far removed from life as we know it it is. russia is run from an essentially european cosmopolitan city and the influence echoes across the country; though muted, even to the distant reaches of siberia. ulan baatar and the mongolians pride themselves on their westernism and in the countryside they were so open and welcoming you immediately felt part of the life... but now there's beijing.
not least is the language gap. elsewhere you can see and hear similarities to english even if you aren't close to fluent, but chinese? no way josé. to a westerner such as myself a conversation between two chinese people sounds largely like a series of high-pitched yelps interspersed with an exploration of the vowel sounds. and i'm sure you've seen the mystifying collection of chinese boxes and swirls which make up the written language. even a well educated beijinger will only know about 12% of the 56,000 recorded chinese symbols, so i have a duck's chance in peking of getting it.
with the help of a chinese girl who conversed on our behalf with the taxi driver we made it to the hostel, a lovely little courtyard abode in a hutong on the north-west of the inner city. hutongs are the remaining areas of old beijing, pokey collections of tight alleyways, unchanged in years and holding their own amongst the boom invasion of modern life.
we took a walk. about 40 minutes to the entrance of the famous forbidden city and climbed to the top of a nearby park, a pagoda that overlooks the city. there were tourists here. lots of them. we've managed to avoid such bursts of the blighters so far. euch.
the walk back was where it really hit home how different the chinese culture is and how lost we could get. signposts are illegible, overheard speech is a labyrinth. sometimes you could tell what a shop was by peering inside, but not always. road rules here remain as ambiguous as the other countries we've seen, no less than a game of frogger every time we crossed a street. it's hard to really put a finger on it, but it's just different. very very different.
and as for the food. in the places we went to... absolutely no way of knowing what anything is. even visually it's impossible to identify a lot of it, like nothing we've ever seen before. we've experimented a lot today, and so far it's been a bit 'hit & miss.' when you miss, it's bad. really bad. but when you hit, it shows signs that actual proper chinese food is some of the best damn food in the world.
i trimmed my beard as a reaction to the heat here. it took ages as the amount of hair kept clogging up the plastic guard on my trimmer. i think i took about half an inch off. it feels wonderful.
when we pass small train stations, guards stand to attention on the platforms in pin-sharp militaristic uniforms.
in the foreground some homes and shops front onto the rails, as if all these tons of train, engine and 16 carriages were rolling down a friendly neighbourhood street.
in the background it's becoming more and more urban. high rise apartment blocks grow beside 10 lane highways, shopping malls, car salesrooms - all mirrored glass and chrome and strangely muted sun-drenched neon. a glimpse of what awaits us in a few hours, and the city of beijing... home to more than 14 million people.
a few hours later it turns out that all of this was beijing, the outskirts, and it really is that big.
the train bustles with activity, as does the skyline. the chinese countryside looks how i imagined.
this morning we trundled through low-lying flat land. infinite paddy fields tended to by crouched locals in wide-brimmed hats, their bicycle or moped propped up somewhere nearby. just like in the films. frequently the flat expanse gave way to a small town or enormous factory. it was reminiscent of the siberian landscape, but inhabited and working. the factory yards filled with wooden structures and concrete items, stocked full, ready to be loaded onto trucks and trains and whisked away to inordinate cities.
i'm in fucking china!
the dry gobi desert air has gone and dissolved into humidity.
after a meal from the restaurant car that looked and tasted familiar, even down to the cardboard takeaway style packaging, we're headed deep into a mountain range. it looks like the other chinese countryside i anticipated. we carve our way through high and steep rocky mountains, almost vertical cliff-faces in all directions. a deep, thin valley glides below us with a trickle of a river feeding the homemade disheveled allotments that occupy every square morsel of flat space. on the other side of the river another railway regularly carries goods: timber, containers and brand new diggers, their yellow paint the brightest thing against the grey rock. trees and shrubs grow out of boulders, all the same shade of warm, moist, deep green. the whole scene constantly disappears when we honk honk into a tunnel, replaced only by the sound of rushing air.
now the trickle has become a huge river. now a docile blue-green depth of water softens the sharp interlocking crags that rise up either side. it's deep too, until a dam across the valley stops it in its tracks and it suddenly returns to the dry sorry flow.
now an industrial town appears like a badly made jigsaw puzzle in the rocks. the houses and garages overshadowed by an enormous soviet style factory perched halfway up a cliff. millions of tons of coal are mined in this area every year and are sent out into china. the only way in or out of each of these pockets of civilization must be by rail. it's quite beyond me how the tracks got there though.
the air is warm and wet.
i'm in china.
we're through! we're in china, with a clash of cymbals and a fizzle of old fairy lights we charge forward into the chinese night.
an odd sensation: the changing of the bogies put us into the position of a product on a production line. our train was divided into 2 parallel sections and shunted into a huge warehouse. over a period of about 3 hours each carraige was lifted up on bright orange hydraulic lifts, right off their wheels and about 8 feet in the air; all passengers remaining on board. the wheels wheeled off one way and a whole new set came from the other. 5 inches shorter, all you train geeks. afterwards we were lowered back down again.
while this was going on, passport control continued their inspections. the best thing was watching the ingenious ways they climbed on and off carriages suspended 8 feet in the air. it seemed a new challenge for them each time, as if they don't do this day in, day out. the most success was by combining an upturned bucket with a bunk-up and someone's shoulder as the final step. go team red!
we missed a trick by forgetting to play a game of 'bogies' while all this was going on. shame.
Sunday, 10 June 2007
i know we'll be fine, but there's a sense of loss, or being lost that comes with not having my passport firmly in my pocket.
by all accounts, this crossing should be quicker than the russia/mongolia one. even with the additional process of swapping all the wheels on the carriages for the different gauge tracks in china. that should be entertaining. apparently they belt out the viennese waltz through dodgy speakers as you enter chinese territory. over and over again.
we stop at a train station surrounded by sand. wind whips across the platform making our clothes and hair and beard fill with fine dry sand. vendors on the platform sell us molten chocolate and bottles of water filled with ice that stay cold only for a moment. someone knocks a jar of preserved cherries from a table and it smashes open launching warm looking entrails outwards across the concrete. i imagine they cook instantly.
we eat squidgy chocolate sweets that slide from the wrapper like mud hose-piped from a car bonnet. a thermometer outside tells us 34°c, but we're in an airless metal tin-can.
our next stop is the mongolia-china border in 200 miles.