Sunday, 20 September 2009

The Three Gorges - Day 2

Frankly Madam, I Don't Give a Damn if this Dam is Damn Massive
semi-overcast 31 °C
I was woke up by the voice of a German speaking lady in das schiff! After that, she repeated everything in English. Everything is then repeated in Chinese by a fella. I struggled to lift my heavy eyelids, found myself lying in a bed of ship's cabin, and when looking outside the window, I didn't see landscape of the world renown The Three Gorges (TTG), I saw a grey wall. For a brief moment before I regained my full senses, I thought this is a false awakening.

No. I was very much awake. It's a wall of a lock at the Geshouba Dam - the 1st dam that was built on the Yangtze - and we're queueing up beside a sand barge to go through it as I looked over my cabin's balcony.

As usual on a cruise ship, the organiser tries to map out every minute of your day and filled it with activities. For people who prefer a leisurely pace - standing still - you don't have to do anything. For the active, the ship's full schedule will keep you too busy to complain about the lack of goings-on.
The German frau informed us on the PA that there is Tai-Chi practise on the Sun Deck before breakfast. Of course, I prefer to do it my head in my bed. Give me a good mental workout to work up an appetite.

The breakfast at 7:30 on the Main Deck let us meet all the passengers on this ship for the first time. There was an almost exact 50/50 ethnic divide between the passengers of the East and West in the dining room. Westerners occupied tables on the starboard bow, and the Chinese (looking) passengers on the port bow with buffet tables in the middle. You know which side the ship is tilted towards.

Walked past the reception counter after breakfast, a standard currency exchange rates board showing names of a dozen of countries, but only three currencies have rates indicated: USD, GBP & Euro. It makes sense that most of the (Westerner) passengers would be Yanks because Victoria Cruises is an US management company. Going by the lady in the PA, I guess the passengers from Deutschland would be the ones swapping the Euros for RMBs. Well, didn't have to organise a séance session to summon Agatha Christie from beyond to figure this one out. Another way was simply to eavesdrop them as you walk past the dining tables to pick up the accents - that would be cheating (and slightly creepy; won't be if you do it with a touch of finesse).

Going by the accents of the Chinese looking tourists (ok, I cheat, didn't know how to ask them to show me their passports), they are motley bunch of locals, Taiwanese, and HK citizens (whom I'm with). There you have it, not enough to form an UN assembly, but far from a monolingual horde.
I'm no spring chicken, but the ship of geriatrics does make me feel overwhelmingly like fresh meat. The occidental group averaged, say, circa 55 years old; the oriental gang is younger, especially some Chinese teeny bopper (original marketers usage of the term) skewed the average in our favour. Their parents probably decided to ground them on a ship - best ground ever even if it was unstable.
Ok, back from the rigamarole. After the passing through the lock, we entered the 1st of the 3 Gorges - the Xiling Gorge (西陵峡) - the easternmost of the 3 big gorges as we traversed the Yangtze from east to west. Around 9AM, we disembarked at Sandouping (三斗坪) to visit The DAM - The Three Gorges Dam. It was a misty day, and the visibility was low, the far side of the dam wall was swallowed by the mist, which I supposed would amplify its enormity. When I saw the Aswan Dam in Egypt, which was the biggest dam then, now superseded by this one.

Speaking of Egypt, dam and Agatha Christie, it's only natural to compare this trip with the Egyptian trip I took a few years back - there're more similarities than I can poke a stick at. Both trips are taken on a river cruise ship (the only two I have been to) on a river that is the longest in their own countries (the Nile is the world's longest, and Yangtze the world's third, and Asia's longest), and both famous rivers were crucial to the development of the two great ancient civilisations and it just so happened that they have the world largest dams erected in them (at the time they were built) to overcome the same problem: flooding. Oh yeah, both of these trips are relatively expensive, either comparing to ocean cruises or land travels.

There was one major difference between the two river cruises, though. With the cruise down the Nile, once the ship sailed beyond the cities, there weren't even so much as a palm tree to gawk at outside the cabin windows. The ship was just the best way to get to the many destinations that dotted the Nile. The reverse is true with this trip. Onshore excursions are few, and the destinations come to you. Just crane your neck out of the cabin window. You can watch it from the comfort of your bed or cocktail lounge over a cigar with your feet up and your hair down (or comb-over down like Donald Trump). Perfect for a couple of couch potatoes like us. And perfect after the Guilin trip. This ship is better than the Egyptian one in every way, from its spaciousness, condition, entertainment to food, and last but not least, prices. Well, it's Chinese prices.

The Hutchens Brothers (Peter & Jeff) are right in saying that when the Chinese built this dam, it's as if they sat down and work out how many records they can break with this project, from being the tallest, largest amount of concrete poured to the largest hydroelectricity station, etc. Record breaking infrastructures are common in China these days. If you look up the Guinness Book of Records for the largest trans-oceanic bridge (Hangzhou Bay Bridge), longest arch bridge (Lupu Bridge[1], Shanghai), biggest dam and hydroelectric station (The Three Gorges Dam), fastest trains (Guangzhou to Wuhan averaging 312.5 km/hr on the 922km track), largest cargo port (Shanghai port), largest man-made deep water port (Tianjin), largest Metro System (Shanghai Metro with 420km of tracks and counting), longest high-speed rail (HSR) network with about 6,552km to date, longest river railroad bridge (Beipanjiang, Guizhou), etc, etc, etc - a list that used to take up mostly by the West. The maglev train, developed by Siemens and Thyssenkrupp, operated (and more importantly showcasing) only in Shanghai. This is the kinda infrastructure statement that China is making. The Germans have to come to Shanghai to experience the ride. Not too shabby for a developing economy. Size matters. Absolute size matters absolutely.

This isn't the first time Chinese worked on vast infrastructure project. The US Transcontinental Railroad in USA, considered by some as the 8th Wonder of the World in the 19th Century, was worked on by many Chinese workers that head-hunted from California gold fields ('Gold Mountain') and many more were imported from China. Hired by Central Pacific Railroad, they tunnelled through hard granite of Sierra Nevada mountains, braving the elements like snowstorms. Some of these scenes were recreated in Shanghai Noon (Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson. The Chinese rail workers were uncredited in this movie as they were centuries ago in US history).

The two companies, Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroad had a competition to see who could build the fastest, and Central Union, the company that hired most of the Chinese workers won. The UP didn't believe Chinese workers can deliver with such speed (sore loser!), and CP's director reminded UP that the Chinese ancestors built the Great Wall many centuries before. I guess this railroad's terrain is considerably easy compare to the tortuous mountain terrains where the Great Wall slithered on. Still, hundreds, if not thousands, died in building the railway (as were the building of the Wall).

China's GDP is approaching as the 2nd biggest economy in the world this year, surpassing Japan. Thus some people say China should drop its developing or emergent economy status, I say not so fast. Its GDP per capita ranks about 100, roughly similar to the living standard to El Salvador. So if El Salvador has the same population size of China, it too will be the 2nd biggest economy in the world. Sure, China has top-notched infrastructures that are envy of the West, and the modernity of their first tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai, but it's in the social sphere that this developing economy status sticks: income disparity, low GDP per capita, rampant official corruption, degradation of environment, etc. All the hallmark of a developing economy with social and environmental issues that country like USA faced in the early 20th century and Japan in the post WW2 period where China is now in. The bright side to all of these is that these topics take up the most air time on TV, the most space in newspapers, the most hard rive space on the Internet blogs in China. And the government is putting high priority on these issues. China has to listen to its people as it wants to stay in power. Giving what people want is their only legitimacy. The Communist party doesn't want another Tianamen Square's type of Pro-Democracy Protest.

Because of the size of China, both in terms of population and geography, building big things are second nature. When they build something, in order to satisfy the needs of the population and the land, it simply ends up building the biggest even without trying to break record. If you build a fortification wall across England, take the Hadrian's Wall, it won't end up being be the longest in the world because of Britain's size. China builds the biggest things out of necessity.

I guess the buildings of infrastructures is not only essential, but a great leverage to this stage of China's economic development. Transporting goods is the bottleneck of the world's largest factory, and efficient transport of goods is so crucial to China's industrialisation, and transporting of people is critical to China's urbanisation - the two twin developments go hand in hand, and transportation infrastructures is the vital link (pun intended). Don't think China could achieve an average of 10% GDP growth in the last 3 decades without these cutting-edged infrastructures (another first in the world record). Some of the growth came from the buildings of these infrastructures itself.
Many bonuses (or is it boni?) coming out of these world-class infrastructures, take tourism, can't do it any damn harm. And what about winning the bid to host Olympics Game, and World Expo. Credits have to go to these infrastructures.

All These shouldn't come as a surprise then that many high-level party officials in the Politburo are scientists and engineers. I sleep more soundly when I know the nerdom runs a country like China. Geeks by their very nature are not interested in power, they're more occupied in building things. They're bridge builders, not empire builders. They build bridges, not blowing up bridges. Since 1978, theses technocrats built friendship bridges to the West, not walls. For scaredy cats who freaked out by the current rise of China, please take note, China has the most technocratic government in the world today, and the infrastructures are screaming this fact. Of course when China begins to shift their gears into a developed economy status, the engineers and scientists might be replaced by lawyers and bureaucrats like those in the West. Maybe not. Not in the near future. In the West (at least country with a British system), the lawyers are trained to persuade jury to their sides in the courtrooms, and as a politician, the same skills can be applied to win the voters to their sides in the living rooms (via TV). I guess Hollywood actors (Ronald Reagan, Big Arnie, etc) win over voters using their looks, charms and celebrity status. They already have a fan base, which morphs naturally into supporters. Since there's no one-person-one-vote system, don't know exactly what criteria do they base to vote a political candidate into the communist party. "Geeks rules ok!" although you won't see that graffiti in China. But you might be surprise.

Technocracy was a popular movement in USA in the 1930, perhaps also because China is in a similar stage of the USA's economic development then. Many problems are needed to be solved by technology. Only when all these technological problems are addressed would China get their handle on the social problems. Of course, these things can and are occurring concurrently, it's just one is receiving more focus than the other. "One thing at a time, please. I only have two hands!"

The idea of this dam went as far back as Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, who came up with the idea. With the financial, engineering and technical issues it faced at the time, the construction is nothing but a pipe dream (The 'pipe' refers to the opium pipe). By the 1990's, the vision is no longer a piped dream, and the construction begun in earnest.

This damn dam is the largest in the world, matched only by its potential challenges - silt buildup, garbage pile-up (because it's now a lake, not a river), ecological damage, etc, etc. Actually we tend to think of dam as being infrastructure, and it is because of its navigational function and the hydroelectric scheme. But more than any reason, the dam was built to control the flood. People complaint that many village had been relocated. When (not if) the flood comes, many villages would be devastated. Relocation by man is preferable than devastation by nature.

Back to the ship, the lull of a lazy afternoon was interrupted with activities like information sessions on the history and geography of the Yangtze, followed by presentations of snuff bottle, silk embroidery, and Chinese painting, and especially how these arts and crafts were made.

After dinner, a Dynasties Parade was shown where the "crew models a variety of Chinese costumes from the Han Dynasty to the present". This should be interesting for Sinophiles and fashionistas/fashionistos alike. It's right up my runway/alley. Even if you these things don't appeal to you, the eye candies might be sights for your sore eyes. In addition to a few selected dynasties, the crew also strutted down the stage in costumes of the Chinese ethnic minorities (sometimes is referred to as 'nationalities'). 'Nationality' in some cases sometimes spot on by the traditional use of the word. Koreans who live on the west side of the Yalu River[2] are considered an ethnic Chinese minority or nationality. True can be said about many other minorities who have their own independent countries until they decided to take over China, and became a Chinese minority as an outcome. When a snake tries to swallow an elephant, it ends up being an elephant (no negative connotation of a snake is intended). I've seen this done in a cartoon. I blabbed about this minority business in great length in my Guilin (Days 3 & 4) diary entry from last week. I'm glad that I've clued up further about the Chinese minorities during these two consecutive trips.

50B_5539PD.jpg
I've always find the young Tang male costume so dandy, and so befitting of the young playboys of these ancient times. The playboys are learned scholars who sought to indulge in fine rice wine and reciting poems (with cup in one hand and fan another. Let's say they have busy hands), sometimes in the company (or for the sake) of beautiful maidens.

50B_5557PD.jpg
When this lovely young maiden (I presumptuously presumed) strutted in the Tibetan traditional costume, I heard cries of "Look, cowboy hat!" in the audience in American accent. If the same girl walks in Texas (or swaggers as ex-president George W. Bush said that was how Texans walk - the 'The Duke' John Wayne's way), I think the cries becomes "Look, Tibetan costume!". Now that they were in China, the familiar becomes surprising.

50B_5574PD.jpg
I'm not 100% sure that this girl modelled an Uyghur costume. It was too dark, and I was too busy taking photos and notes the same time. This conclusion was based on my home-brew research afterwards (can be of top-class quality). The round cap, the two long ponytails, and the embroidered black vest nails it for me. ID it is never easy as there're umpteen variations in any genre of clothing fashion, may it be of a particular ethnic group or period. But this particular piece isn't too hard to ID - it was chosen to typify the costume of the Uyghur people. What I'm 100% certain is that she's no Uyghur, but a Han girl (99.5% definite without the aid of DNA testing (which won't give you 100% accuracy anyway). Eyeballing is a very old schooled technique, sometimes it does the job nicely). There are also other ethnic minority people in Xinjiang who wear similar traditional costumes, but I'll stick to my gun on this.

You can easily tell that these models are obviously amateurs. They all wore cheerful grins on their faces. A professional model strictly wears a poker face that says, "all the millions won't make me crack a smile to you poor slobs below".
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[1] For my Sydney mates, Lupu Bridge, just like the Sydney Harbour Bridge, is a single arch bridge. And just like the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Lupu Bridge is a tourist attraction. That is, tourists can climb up the bridge and have a panoramic view of the Huangpu River and Shanghai city. The one major architectural difference between the two bridges is this. The two arches in the Sydney Harbour Bridge run parallel to each other while the Lupu Bridge ones lean towards one another at the top.

[2] The Korean called Yalu River Amnok River. It's the river that forms part of the border between China and Korean. A bit like the Murray River that makes up part of the boundary between New South Wales and Victoria (most of it anyway) states of Australia.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

The Three Gorges - Day 1

The Emporer's New Clothes

semi-overcast 30 °C
                      
We were flown by Dragon Air in the early afternoon and arrived Yichang (宜昌) - a city of Hubei Province (湖北) - in the late afternoon. For Chinese history bluff, Yichang is made famous by the Warring States Period, and the Three Kingdoms Era. And just when my bums are nicely tenderised from all the seating, we get on a coach that took us from Yichang to the capital city of Hubei - Wuhan (武汉). The coach wasn't the top of the line, but it was kind enough to my backside and the rump area for me to last about 5 hours when we reached Wuhan at the wee hours in the morning.
This is where we boarded Victoria Anna on the Yangtze. This is also not so far from where Emperor Mao took his historic swim - a piece of theatre he performed during the onset of the Cultural Revolution - to show that he was still in tiptop shape and still can run the country (into the ground, one more time) at the age of 72 in 1966. In short, to show that he still got it - the right stuff. A show that he pulled off to fire up the testosterone of the adolescent suckers that otherwise better known as the Red Guards into doing some killings and shaming spree of their elders, between the demolition of priceless cultural relics, and arson rampage. The country went nuts because some people just didn't know the art of retiring gracefully and enjoy their twilight years in some tropical idyllic island like Hainan, sipping a colourful glass of pina colada or oolong tea.

"A man's got to know his limitations" - Dirty Harry in Magnum Force (1973).

Yes, I'm mad at the madness. Livid with bulging veins that ready to pop and short out the keyboard! Ummm...it's good to get that diatribe out of the system.

Mao.jpg
Look at him stand there like a Mount Tai, so imposing and larger than life. I can't stay mad at him. It's all forgotten and forgiven. Truly, from the bottom of my fickle heart.

Red_Guard.jpg

Look at that cute baby face, my heart has just melted. Who can get angry at a face like that? I love the Red Guards.

One noted event of the Cultural Revolution was the Wuhan Incident that was the closest thing to a civil war. These two cities are full of interesting histories, both ancient and modern (all Chinese kids know about the stories of The Three Kingdoms). Not that we can see much in this light, or have the opportunity to do so. It's a shame.

I'm totally knackered from the whole day of resting on plane and coach, I'm so relieved I can finally stretch my body out flat as nature intended me to rest, not in a 'L', or 'C' or 'V' shape, or other letters in the alphabets

Friday, 18 September 2009

HK - Day 2 - Mini Paris

of Swines and men

semi-overcast 34 °C
                      
We returned HK for the second day, stay the night, and fly out tomorrow for our second package tour (also with Wing On) of the Three Gorges. This Wing On packaged tour is considerably more expensive than the previous Guilin tour we just took last week. Much more, in fact, it costs us close to 11,860 HKD while the Guilin package costs 3,600. It is 11860/3600 = 3.3 times dearer. (just like Guilin package, the price is all inclusive, no more to pay). This package cost more because the accommodation for this trip is entirely confined on Victoria Anna - the largest cruise ship sailing on The Three Gorges. A bigger and newer Victoria cruise ship is going to be launched next week, but we've just missed the booking. Victoria Anna is rated 5-star, and what's more, it's run by a company of the US of A, hence the stiff price tag relative to the local operators. You pay for what you get.

Because of scare of yet another flu pandemic hitting HK - last time was bird flu (H5N1), and this time mutant swine flu (H1N1) - HK was put on high alert from the thermal scanning of passengers, and the availability of free facemasks in the airport to the various hygienic measures that are put in place in Fraser's Suites. The buttons in lifts are taped over with a thick clear plastic to facilitate cleaning and disinfecting, and anti-microbial station that dispensing hand gel is provided freely in the reception for hotel guests wanting to disinfecting their hands. After the last SARS panic, it looks like HK is better equipped for another attack of the pandemic flu (than some, say, Mexico). People are wearing facemasks in droves in the crowded streets of HK, one group of primary school children are all wearing facemasks while holding hands as they crossed the streets - the kinda images I've only seen on TV news or Steven King's movies, and not quite travel brochure photo materials.
An interesting side note: the origins of both pandemic outbreaks occurred on similar latitudes (Guangdong, Southern China, and Mexico).

We barely has half a day left in HK, so only the most basic necessities of life can be entertained, and that automatically means an encore visit to Sunny Paradise (yeepee!), and dinner. After some discussions on the bewildering choices of restaurants in this food paradise of the Pearl of the Orient, we decided to try out the third Vietnamese restaurant we discovered in Wanchai because it's only 3 tram stops away (150 m) from the stop right outside Fraser's Suites, Wanchai.

This city block on Hennessy Road (bordering western Causeway Bay) probably has the highest concentration of Vietnamese restaurants. (Fraser's Suites actually locates on Johnston Rd, but when Johnston Rd merges into Hennessy Rd, so does the tramline). We have checked out Pho Tai (275-285 Hennessy Rd) and Pho Saigon (319 Hennessy Rd) a few months back, and have talked about sampling the third, Mini Paris (333-335 Hennessy Rd) for completeness. Opinions about these other two pho eateries was immortalised in my previous diary entry "Quests for Authenticity" dated 2 months ago.

Mini Paris is smacked bang almost in the middle of the two others in terms of authenticity, and standard of tastes (but not geographically). My advice is simple: stick with the good old Pho Saigon if you want to try out reasonable genuine Vietnamese food in this nick of HK Island. Like Pho Saigon, There are a few other Mini Paris' around HK. Don't know if they're chain stores or franchises. So you still can get to one if you aren't around Wanchai.

Of course, if you want the best and authentic Vietnamese food, either go to Vietnam, or one of the many Vietnamese 'enclaves' in Australia. Cabramatta in Sydney tops the list for me. I'm sure USA has similar places, but forget Paris (not a typo, nor a Hollywood romantic comedy title with Billy Crystal)!!! I mean it! It's an unpleasant surprise, in fact, a SHOCKER! Why the shock?
1. Paris is the food capital of Europe. So I believe.
2. France was a former colony of Vietnam. I grew up on Chinese, Vietnamese, and French food.
It just makes no sense! Actually I have an explanation in the above mentioned action and boring rambling packed diary entry "Quests for Authenticity" (Come on, I double dare you to read it. It's sure beat a sleep pill hands down if you suffer from insomnia. That's my iron-clad guarantee, and best of all, it's free of charge).

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Thursday, 17 September 2009

Guilin - Day 4 - Peach Blossom Garden, Crown Cave

Region Where Minority is the Majority. Strong As Zhuang.

 
semi-overcast 30 °C
                      
Our first stop this morning is a ethnic cultural theme park. This kinda ethnic park almost always included in a Guangxi province tour package. After all, Guangxi official name is Guangxi Zhang Autonomous Region. China has 5 autonomous regions. A casual glance at the map of China would have detected that all these autonomous regions are on the landlocked fringes of China, bordering with other countires, naturally. Because once upon a time, some of them were other countries. Except for Ningxia, which in a sense borders with another country as Inner Mongolia was not part of China before Gengis Khan.

Another Chinese ethnic minority was the Manchu (or Manchurian) who ruled China, and are absorbed into China like Inner Mongolia. Where's Manchuria Autonomous Region? The Manchuria 'autonomous region' is composed of three dumplings-eating provinces that sits at the north east corner of China, which border Inner Mongolia, Russia, and Korea. It's a cultural diverse region.

Another province that inhabited by a large population of ethnic minority group is Yunnan and it borders with Thailand, Myanma, Loas and Vietnam. So why Yunnan and the provinces in the north east most of China aren't autonomous regions? They should be. But they are not. I could only speculate that it's due to the complex Chinese historical and political background. With the Manchu, its people and culture are being assimilated into China. Or to be precise, when the Manchus conquered China, they desperately wanted to be integrated into Chinese culture to bring harmoby (and thus stability) to the Qing Dynasty (and the policy worked out well).

Think of Catherine The Great who was a German princess. In the funny days of old, she didn't have to learn Russian to rule Russia. But she chose to taught herself the Russian language, and even joined the Russian Orthodox to go an extra mile to show her faith (in God and country). This won her brownie points with the Russian people.

The Manchu emperors actively adopted the Han-Manchu One-Family policy. The Manchu-Han Imperial Feast (滿漢全席) is one of the grandest meals ever documented in history that consisted of 108 unique dishes to cement this idea/relationship. Qing Dynasty wasn't overthrown the way Yuan Dynasty was because the ruling elits of the imperial court weren't Han Chinese. The Manchurian Qing Dynasty crumbled because the dynastic era has past its used-by date. Way passed. Not just because since 18th century saw monarchies in all corners of the world handing power over to the people's representatives, but over the long stretch of Chinese history (the longest in the world), there wasn't a single dynasty that have survived more 3.5 centuries, and the last dynasty of China was pushing this envelop, and had proved to be an unbreakable barrier.

Ever since I watched Klingon on Star Trek in the 1980's (never heard of them before that), thoughts of Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire would just pop up in my head (the way I can't hear Strass' Also Sprach Zarathustra without thinking of the famous scene from Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. These two items are inexplicably linked like two peas in a pod). I'm certain that the Klingon Empire is a thin veil of the Mongol Empire - a highly civilized, militaristic, disciplined, empire-building barbarians.

Maybe 'Klingon' should be called 'Molgon', but that would be way too obvious, and an insult to the Trekkie's intelligence (and they're a bunch of M & M). I speculate the 'K' in 'Klingon' may have reference to 'Khan'. So we should get Klangon, but Klingon sounds better, and it also sounds like 'cling on' or 'Clinton'. Trekkie should also be a very tolerant bunch too. After all, if they are accepting of many ET races, they would have no problem embracing terrestrial intelligences or otherwise. I suspect Trekkie loves all thing foreign and strange.

When the Klingons live among human (or Humaan as the Ferengi's derogatory term for us or Earthlings by Klingons), I'm thinking Worf or B'Elanna Torres, they would become (not 'assimulated' like the Borg's method) one of us. So too was what happen to Mongolian living among Chinese.

I can't imagine anyone enjoys travelling aren't also Trekkers (Star Trek fans) unless they are thinking Star Trek is about science and have no interest in such thing (nope, you don't have to be a 40 year-old virgin or hold a passport to nerdom to enjoy it). Star Trek is sci-fi, to be sure, oh Danny Boy, to be sure. Or you can be a closet Trekker and watch it in the basement (more like a dungoen Trekkie). But there's more (don't you want more?), Star Trek is about different groups of people (be it alien or not) interacting with one another.

The myriad alien races in Star Trek are modelled on different groups of people on Earth. Klingon are based on Mongols; Vulcan are likely to have drawn from the Indian and Greek's Ascetics whose worldly pleasures and emotions are abstained and given way to the pursuit of spiritual intellect; the Borg are modelled on the bee and/or ant colony, and the use of terms like hive and drone removes all doubts. The closest human society could be a totalitarian extreme left or right wing Communist/Fascist nationalistiic regime where the collective conformity overrides individuality, the good of the state far outweighs the rights of the individuals; the Ferangi is inspired by the Carpetbaggers circa 19th century USA, and so forth, limited by only the imagination. The international cast/intergalactic crew of the USS Enterprise isn't just a cosmic coincidence. This international crew that includes Afro-American and Asian was light-years ahead in Hollywood lore.

Journey to the West (西游记) - a 16th Chinese literature classic - is probably the original Star Trek.
It's inspired by the harsh pilgrimage of the famous Chinese Buddhist monk Tang Sanzang[1] to India.
Instead of a trek to the far reaches of space, it's an arduous and perilous journey to the remote West over the Himalayas. In fact, the West in this magnum opus refers not so much to the geographical compass point but the West Heaven in India or sky (aka space).

Instead of a diverse international crew that led by a ship captain, it's a band of motley disciples - Monkey, Sandy and Pigsy - headed by the Buddhist monk Tang Sanzang. Instead of exploring and gathering knowledge, the Chinese gang are fetching the holy scriptures (both are 'fact finding' missions). Instead of fantastical alien encounters in far-flung space, the Chinese version has far-fetched, whimsical encounters in distant land. Instead of fantastic, bizzare alien races and creatrues, this Ming's novel has wacky, weird and outlandish demons, goblins, and creatrues of all sorts. Both are stuffed with adventures into the depth of unknowns.

Since the band of guardians in Journey to the West are reluctant followers who are flawed and disreputable characters at the start of the story. In this 'plot line', it's most akin to Star Trek: Voyager where most of the senior crews are made up of the the Marquis who consists of disreputable characters in the beginning, and are grudgingly serving under Captain Janeway (the counterpart of Tang Sanzhang). In both cases, a mutiny are constantly brewing under the surface as they are unwillingly follow their leaders to the end of the earth/universe while harbouring their own hidden agendas. At the end of the journey (home/West), Janeway/Tripitaka has helped the crews/disciples to resovle their hostilities and differences, redeem them, turn them into good guys, and into two happy family/ies.

Ah yes, Journey to the West story is peppered with all manner of things like spartial manipulation, time travel and temporal discrepancies between Heaven and Earth, teleportation, and many out-of-this-world concepts that have became the standard bag of tricks in today sci-fi, all these are entertained in the this inventive 16th century tome. I was enthralled by Journey to the West as a kid the way I'm captivated by Star Trek as an adult (kid at heart).

It's no wonder why Star Trek is so popular, its theme and storyline mirrors to a literature masterpiece that has tested and survived after 5 centuries with its timeless quality and theme. This topic of heroic journey of spiritual growth and of self-discovery is popular of late as evident in TV programs like Lost and Heroes. (Heroes - what an orginal names in a retro-classic kinda way). Parrelles of Lost and Star Trek exists on many dimensions (pun intended). Lost could well have been written by Star Trek writers. We are suckers for this kinda heroic, spiritual pilgrimage, retold ad infinitum (Recycling is very fashionable nowadays).

For readers who are fascinated by the conflicts among various Chinese ethnic groups might want to read this travel article as well.

Where was I? Oh yeah, back to China. This ethnic cultural park, Peach Blossom Garden (桃花源), showcases the cultural architectures, artefacts and peoples of various major ethnic minority groups in Guangxi. If you ask me, I would prefer to see one real ethnic village than a dozen ethnic tourist display villages. I think the name for this park in the similar westerner tour packages might have been called "Peach Blossom Shangri-la", but I'm not sure.

Female Zhuang minority group playing traditional stringed musical instrument ,Yangshuo, Guangxi, ChinaAs we were free to explore the park, the tour guide didn't accompany us to do running commentaries (like a tennis match). So we were left clueless about the various minority groups roaming around the park. I took this photo and left to my own device to find out who these lovely gals were. The research can be a formidable task when you considering how many minority groups there are in China. Officially there 55 minority groups in China, give or take. This number is a very broad stroke, and the actually number can be a lot higher depending on the classification criteria.

Take Taiwan, it has approx 26 known Taiwanese Aborigines languages, which implies the Formosa Island has at least 26 ethnic groups, and the number should likely be higher. But PRC government count all Taiwanese Aborigines as one group. Think of a country like Vietnam, which has only a fraction the size of China has recognized 54 distinct ethnic groups. Some of the groups like the Yao that you met in my last diary entry, and the Miao, etc live in both countries. If Chinese authority sorts its ethnic groupings the way the Vietnamese or Taiwanese government does, the figure would get bumped up several times over. Indeed, there are many sub-divisions within the Yao people that Chinese authority simply lumps them into as one. Maybe it's a good thing because the diversity simply boggles the mind.

Undaunted, I thought I do the research by narrowly the research with some deliberation. First, not all ethnic minorities in China live in Guangxi. Duh. Even then, there still left with quite a number of minority groups (probably more than 20). I further narrowed it to the largest and most familiar groups - the Zhuangs (壮族), Yaos (瑶族), Miaos (苗族), and Dongs (侗族). I actually heard about the Miao people of Vietnam way back when I was still in my primary school in Vietnam, but didn't know that they also live in China. Starting with my first search of Zhuang, I hit the jackpot right away - I was able to identify costumes of the girls in the photo as the Zhuang people. After all, the official name for this province is "Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region". The Zhuang is not only the largest group in this province, but in fact, the largest in China - some 16 millions strong (Zhuang = 'Strong' in Chinese).

Most minorities have very colourful and flamboyant costumes, the Zhuang traditional dresses are quite simple, typically black and blue. The top looks like a top half of a short-sleeved qipao that are ever so popular in the West.

The unique wooden architecture is the famous Drum Tower of the Dong people. If you have already read my diary entry on "Guilin - Day 2", you would have thought this is a Yao costume (with slight variation), but in fact a Dong costume. That's the thing about this sort of ethnic park, there're different ethnic people walking around different places leaving the tourists like me can't make heads or tails - actually Yaos or Dongs - out of this place. This tower has 5 tiers of roofs, some have many more - as many as 20.

We headed for yet another cave in the arvo. 3 caves in 3 days in a row. I have never been so caved out, especially that I'm not a cave man - I mean a cave person (a civilised cave man). Don't bore me with another set of calcium carbonate formations, I said to myself. This one called the Crown Cave. Having seen Silver Cave 2 days ago, it takes a great deal to win me over.

The Crown Cave didn't top Silver Cave, but it has its own charm. I wasn't as disappointed as I have with Fengyu Cave that I went yesterday. Instead of trekking the cave in more or less horizontally, we ascend as we proceed deep into the cave. As we entered the cave's centre piece, standing at the bottom, the steep stairs led our eyes skyward towards the tall and impressive limestone columns on top of the stairs. It reached the top of a very high cave ceiling, with its limestones structures adorn the columns like intricate, exquisite carvings of some Renaissance genius sculptors. For an European, this probably reminds them of a cathedral with soaring columns and vaults. To me, it looks almost exactly like the underwater palace of the Dragon King of the East Sea (東海龍王) that I remember from Chinese movies. Quite spooky and stunning.

We finished the night with the watching of "Impression Liu Sanjie" ("Liu's 3rd Sister" 刘三姐). The show takes place in the open with the backdrop of the picturesque Guilin limestone karsts. The 'stage' is an inlet surrounded by seven limestone hills. Because it takes place at night, several karsts were light up with flood lights. They took on an eerily magical and translucent quality - imagine shine a torch light onto your face from below your chin in the dark. Yep, that same eerily ambience of a ghost story telling writ large provides the backdrop for the show. Most of the dancers perform in water, and I was told they do this all year round. My guide told me that one of his Harbin tourist member told him that winter here is colder than Harbin - the famous City of Ice Festival in the North (in 'Manchuria'). I find it hard to swallow, but what is even more incrediable is that the actors do their performances in water scantily clad. Many performers are fishermen by day, which explains their constitution of an ox that we mere mortals can only admire them from afar in quiet awe, followed by some loud applause. As impressive as these feats of physical endurance, these kinda things come natural to them, what is impressive is asking the farmers and fishermen to turn into performers, which is not something that come natural to them. Isn't this the developing story of China today? While China is trying to turn farmers into factory hands, Zhang turn them into stage performers.

Because the show was done in open air, the audience is susceptible to weather elements and other not so pleasant random Acts of God. It showered before the show started and we were given raincoats at the entrance. Our spirits weren't dampened. Our guide cheered us up by saying that the light rain adds atmosphere. He wasn't too far off the mark.

This show was created and directed by the ever so popular Zhang Yimou. Anyone who had sampled his movies and watched the 2008 Beijing Opening Ceremony knows about his handiworks. I watched the Opening Ceremony and nearly all his subsequent movies starting from "Raise The Red Lantern"2 (Gong Li gave a commanding performance), which introduced me to his cinemas. So I held high expectation of this show, and it was was met with resounding success; it delivered one visually stunning images after another of the highest calibre. Stylish, visual poetry. You don't have to be a part-time stock photgrapher turned casual shutterbug like me to appreciate the sumptuous feast for the eyes, and an awe matched only by the physical fortitude of the performers. Not surprisingly it was photography that save Zhang from slipping into oblivion. Truth be told, as a short-attention-span movie watcher, I found the absence of narrative a bit slow going. But this is just me, and it also explains my general boredom with staged performances of several kinds. Overall, the show is a must-see (despite my attention deficit). If you can stay focus, the performance is quite captivating and magical, the atmosphere dreamy, transporting you to another world. It costs $50 SGD/AUD if my memory serves. It's a China price.
This Chinese tourist operator website should offer clues on what I was talking about. Open the images on the left hand side of the webpage to get a better view. http://www.yxlsj.com/chinese/dt_first.asp?id=媒体

Zhang also created 3 other similar shows at 3 other Chinese tourist icons. According to the guide, "Impression Liu Sanjie" is the first and still the best. This show reminds me of the Light and Sound show at the Pyramid of Giza. Perhaps, Zhang got the idea from there3. The Pyramid and the Sphinx was light up with multicolour light and given it that translucent feel, not dissmilar to the limestone karst. The lightup of these Egyptian icons was spectacular and impressive, but the rest of the 'show' consisted of a giant video screen showing some dramatised doco. This part is a bit passe and when compare the Liu Sanjie performnces, it's quite lame. The narrator of the video sounded too 1930's with its over-the-top theatrical voice. Sorry! It was quite embarrassing. Replace the narrator with a Shakespearean actor and it would tone down its theatrical decibles by a few notches. Providing some live performances like Impression Liu Sanjie would have been better. Of course, you don't go to Egypt to see this lame show. But as some world tourism official suggest, if there's one show you should fly there to see, it would be "Impression Liu Sanjie". I wouldn't. But then stage performance isn't my cup of tea.
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[1] Tang Sanzang (or Xuanzang) 唐三藏, Tripitaka in Sanskrit. 'Tri' = 3 = 三 = san in Chinese. In Japanese, 3 = san as in "San Yo" = "3 oceans". In Korean, 3 = Sam, as in "Sam Sung" = "3 stars". 'Zang' is a category in Buddhist Canon.
'San' (山) can also be 'montain' in Chinese, Japanese or Korean. Although the character '山' is written the same, Chinese pinyin uses 'shan', not 'san'.

Learning Chinese is useful in learning other Sinopheric countries like Japan, Korea and Vietnam the way knowing Latin is helpful in learning European languages in general. To put it another way, Chinese language provides roots to these East Asian countries just as Latin does for European nations.
Examples:
釜山 = Busan, also spelled Pusan, is a city in the south of South Korea.
泰山 = Taishan or Mount Tai, is an important sacred montain in China's Shandong province (yes, 'Shan' in 'Shandong' = mountain. 'Shandong' is mount in the East).
富士山 = Fujisan or Mount Fuji - the icon of Japan. Also can be written as Fujiyama where 'yama' = 'mountain' in Japanese demotic. In English, you get the word 'liberty' from French and the word
'freedom' from some other language, which I'm too lazy to look up. Look it up yourself.

[2] This movie is considered one of 25 movies you must watch before you die. And Guilin HAS to be one of the 25 destinations you must visit before you die. So 2 birds with 1 stone when you visit Guilin.

[3] Actually, I don't believe Zhang got his inspiration from the Light and Sound show from Egypt, at least, not just from that. In the 1960 China made a musical called "Liu Sanjie", and it was as popular among the Chinese population as "The Sound of Music" is to the West, which, by the way was made only one year earlier in 1959. These 2 classics affected the same generation of musical lovers in both hemispheres. Like "The Sound of Music" where anyone who watched it can sing the show tune by hearts (I can, and I only watched it 3 times. A record low number by comparison), the songs in "Liu Sanjie" are familiar by all Chinese who watched it. Of course, this "Liu Sanjie" is made in the 1960, and so it's a pure propaganda film. One should be able to watch a movie purely from its artistic standpoint, and ignore its ideological message (especially that you're already aware of its intention). What was the story of "The Sound of Music" anyway? Something to do with some Von Trapp family?

I'm going to get myself a copy of "Liu Sanjie" to watch to complete my experience. I suspect it's not going to be easy (unlike "The Sound of Music"). The backdrops of these two musicals are enough reason to watch them. This "Liu Sanjie" nusical was shot in 1960 probably free of the pollution from the industrialization that both saving and ruining China today.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Guilin - Day 3 - Fengyu Cave, Yao Minority

A picture that worths 20 Yuan

semi-overcast 30 °C
                      
When we say we're going to Guilin to see the world renown limestone karst landscapes, we actually mean Yangshuo where most of these geological wonders are heavily jostled one another for attention of wide-eyed, mouth-gaping admirers. The coach trip allowed us to have a whirlwind view of these amazing landscape as we entered deep into the Yangshuo country and finally to the Li River for a trip on the bamboo raft. The trip can't be considered complete without being floated across the Lijiang on a bamboo raft.

The 2005 edition of RMB banknotes contain heads of people on one side, and famous scenic spots on the reverse side. The drawing of Guilin karsts with its mirror reflections on Li River (don't forget the fisherman on the raft) is on the reverse side of a 20 Yuan banknote. The picture of the national treasure of Guilin hence worths 20 Yuan multiplies by the number of issued notes in circulation = a few billion Yuans. Bill Clinton once commented that the scenery of Guilin reminded him of the Chinese brush painting the most while he dropped into this place (by Air Force One) during his premature presidency.

Speaking of RMB banknotes, it has been few months since I heard the news about the counterfeit 100 Yuan notes with serial numbers beginning with HD90. It was said to have first appeared in Yangjiang and Guangdong and was suspected that they made their way from Taiwan. But the counterfeit ring has yet to be apprehended. We decided to swap some RMBs before we departed Singapore in a money changer in Pearl Centre in Chinatown (Singapore is one of the few countries where bank branches don't do forex). We were told that this money changer gives good rates, and I don't doubt that as Chinatown is a haven for bargain. There are a few money changers here, a few were run by Indians. The long queue at one of the money changers signalled me that this must be the one, and a few quick enquiries confirmed that they do give very competitive exchange rates. When I was handed a stack of 100 Yuan notes, I asked if I can have other denominations. The staff said they ran out of other denominations and re-assured me by putting it through a money counting machine. She explained that this machine can detect the fake 100 Yuan notes. I saw a label on the machine that says, "this machine detects counterfeit 100 Yuan notes". Of course I trust the shop as it's an old shop and this is Singapore after all! Just out of curiosity, I checked the serial numbers and none started with HD90.

When we bought some souvenirs in Yangshuo, our 100 Yuan note get a free forensic treatment: it was held up in the sky to check for watermarks and looked at from different angles for the holograms and other built-in counterfeit measures. And the vendor didn't show any favouritism, every note from a 100 down to 5 Yuan get a thorough strip search with her detective eyes.

They can solve all these problem by simply adopting plastic banknotes - a technology from a Melbourne firm Note Printing Australia, invented by professor David Solomon of CSIRO (nothing to do with CSI). NPA also applies similar technology to the Australian passport. To forge these plastic banknotes requires cutting edge propriety technology, and not to mention the very expensive hardware. The start up cost is very high. It's that, and not just the polymer technology that minimises if not prevents counterfeiting entirely. It's practically impossible to forge. Some of the counterfeiters of US currencies in S. America run their operations in their basement or garage. I don't think they can do that with polymer money.

Singapore already has its SGD polymerised. My wallet now contains a curious mixture of paper and polymer cash, sitting side by side in my wallet in perfect harmony like Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder. The mixture of paper banknotes and its polymer alter-ego suggests that the new plastic notes are introduced relatively recent and the paper SGD bills haven't completely been removed from the circulation just yet. As far as I can tell, no polymer 50 SGD banknotes have yet been printed (not that there're a whole of 50's flying through my hot little hands). Polymer money has all the advantages over paper ones except for the traditional smell of money (some would say another advantage). More than 15 countries are already on board with this polymer banknotes the last time I heard. The countries taken up these polymer trend should be on the up and up.

Okie dokie, back to my trip. As more and more local villagers in China are migrating to the cities - the largest human migration in history - for a better living, they are leaving their traditional ways of life behind. Many traditional way of life is surviving because of tourism. The Guilin cormorant fisherman of is an example. They now perform for the tourists as they fish (or as their file of cormorant soldiers fish). Some people say this kind of survival is superficial. You either put the tradition on artificial life support or let it die. Most people prefer the drips ("Pull the plug and let me RIP, come on papa!", "Over my cold dead body, sorry my lil'uns! Over my cryogenic body...")

Fisherman lifing a cormorant from water after its catch, Yangshuo, Guangxi, China

Fisherman lifts a cormorant from water after its catch, Yangshuo, Guangxi, China
This fisherman has 4 sidekicks. He lifted one of the foot soldier that just caught a fish in its throat with his bamboo pole. Cormorants - several species - are quite common in Sydney (probably a common bird around the world). You can find them anywhere near water in Sydney. I even spotted a few of them in the artificial pond just outside Sega World building in Darling Harbour. But I've never seen a white one. When I spotted this white one on the left of the raft, I jumped the gun and thought it's a lazy, sitting duck getting a free ride on the raft. A zooming in of the photo revealed that it's a cormorant. If I'm not wrong, this is a youngling, and after moulting its white feathers (as seen by the snow flakes all over its feet) it would turn into a black adult (Michael Jackson in reverse. Moon walking?). Some speckles of black feather already appear on its neck.

Fisherman removing a fish from the cormorant's throat, Yangshuo, Guangxi, China
Fisherman removing a fish from the cormorant's throat, Yangshuo, Guangxi, China
A fish is being removed from the cormorant's throat. He then put the fish back into water, not his basket. He's not fishing, but performing. In fact, no basket on his raft to be seen.

We destined Fengyu ("Abundant Fish") Cave, about 95km from Guilin in the afternoon. The cave was nice, but it didn't top what I saw yesterday in Silver Cave. Far from it. So you get fed a dose of anti-climax. Since the cave spans 9 hills, I dildn't think we were going to cover its whole length on foot (for the sake of a few of elderlies in our tour group. OK, for my sake, I was overtaken by few sexagenarians and even a septuagenarian on more than one occasions. Should have tailed them closely to take advantage of their slipstream. Swoosh). After an hour or so of spelunking on foot, we arrived at a cave harbour to board a canoe, which traversed a subterranean river for the rest of the trip. There was no light and we were given torches to shine on the cave walls as we cruised along. The darkness adds some mystery and thrill. Some parts of the cave are so low that if we didn't have the torches we would suffer severe headaches several times before we exited the cave. Only kowtowing to these million years old stalactites saved us from having freshly bruised heads.

After dinner, our hotel provide some evening entertainment performed by the Yao (瑤族) minority people. Numbered in 2.6 million, they are mountain people, tree lovers.

Yao women performing their traditional dance, Yangshuo, Guangxi, China
Yao women performing their traditional dance, Yangshuo, Guangxi, China.

The Yaos' costume is quite diverse, but the blue and black is quite popular. These little black numbers that these girls are wearing consists of collarless jackets with plaited skirts, fringed by beautiful Yao's traditional silk embroidery and brocades. These dresses are good for dancing, knitting, sewing, working, shopping, dating or simply for a leisurely walk in the English countryside, available at all good Yao households.

Speaking of dating, a lot of these Yao gals (and a few other minorities) get dates (boys, not fruits) by singing, usually across the river. The tourists would get to see these in action as mountain songs are being sung while we floated gently across the river. Other times, we were asked to belt our these folk ballads ourselves, killing the songs and the tranquil ambience the same time - 2 birds with 1 stone (or the equivalent Chinese expression "2 condors with 1 arrow". Hang on a cotton picking minute, they're both Chinese expressions!).

Most Yao people live in the south west regions of China spanning Yunnan, Guangxi and Guangdong, but heavily concentrated in Guangxi. They also live in Vietnam, Thailand, and Loas, not surprisingly as these countries bordering south and south west China where Yao people dwell. In Vietnam, the Yao is called Dao (and pronounced the same as Yao. 'D' in Vietnamese is pronounced identically to 'y' in English). As the consequences of the Vietname War (meself is one such inconsequential individual in such historical consequence), some Yaos are now living in USA. Most live in the west coast of the U.S. in the states of Washington (not D.C.), Oregon and California, making California more diverse than one can possibly imagine.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Guilin - Day 2 - Jingjiang Palace, Silver Cave

If I speak Mandarin, Look Like a Mandarin, Walk Like a Duck...Am I a Mandarin Duck?

semi-overcast 34 °C

Jingjiang Palace/Castle and Mausoleum was our first morning stop. This is one of the optional tour.
This palace belonged to King Jingjiang (not Emperor, of the Ming Dynasty, but his brother). During the 257 years from the building of the palace to the end of Ming Dynasty, 14 kings from 12 generations lived here.

One of the buildings in this palace complex that I didn't expect to find here was the Imperial Examination House (Gongyuan 贡院). I'm somewhat surprise because Guangxi is essential a political backwater (it's as far away from Beijing as it can get). Here lies one of the great Chinese invention. While the ancient Greek invented Democracy, Chinese come up with Meritocracy, which is embodied by the Imperial Exam for Civil Service. This Civil Service Exam created a level playing field, allowing the son of even a lowly blacksmith the opportunity to advance to the highest rank in the land: military general or chief minister of the imperial court (except for the top job). Birth-rights and social classes are irrelevant, only hard work and talents is counted for something. This idea originated by Confucius (circa 500 BC), and put into practise in the Sui Dynasty in 605 DC (existed a few centuries earlier in lesser forms). This is the 7th century Chinese version of the modern day Equal Job Opportunity Movement.

Confucianism empathises hierarchical relationship and harmony[1] (vertical power structure) while Democracy favours individual rights and expressions, competition and conflict (horizontal power structure), democracy wouldn't take off in China as long as Confucianism thrives. This is why the East never meets the West, or would they? I hope I see the day when they have a rendezvous in my lifetime. I hope so because I just want to live to 300 years old. Actually many societies of former British colonies like HK and Singapore already shows such marriage of the East and West, and gives birth to many interesting hybrid, colourful forms of government. Even China herself is changing. She's changing from a Mao suit into a business power suit lately. If you ask me (I know you won't, so I just ask you to ask me), I prefer her in an alluring qipao. Now has many suits and dresses in her humongous closet (plus a few dusty, spiderweb covered skeletons). The business suits may not look as fetching as qipao or as together as the Mao suit, but it puts 3 square meals on the table for all her kids. Get real, Mao suits don't work on China, or anyone else. You simply can't knock a decent power suit, can you? Call me company man, I like the suit.

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Ok, back from the tangent. The tour guide put our tour group members into the individual Examination Cubicle (see photo); they even handed us with Examination Papers. On the side of fold-up Examination Table (it opens like those in a beer bar counter) is the calligraphy brush and ink plots. The Imperial Exam Papers contains many questions that tested the scholar of his general knowledge. In our mock paper, it contained general trivia regarding Guilin and our tour.
In the ancient time, for the three day gruelling exercise, this cubicle will be your examination room, dining room, bed room, and toilet. Yep, they provided the scholars the chamberpots for their not so literary, but substantial outputs. That's why there's an oil lamp in the niche of the back wall so the scholars wouldn't step into the chamberpots at night. Or allowed them to burn the mid-night oil, literally, to the original meaning of the expression.

This is the first time I hold a calligraphy brush in more than 30 years, with trembling hands, I thought I scribbled as much as I can on the papers and take it home as souvenir. I should enjoy looking back my calligraphic doodles that only I can read (much worse than the doctors'). Half way through my papers, the Imperial Examiner Clerk snatched it away as he yelled "Brushes down! Brushes down!"
As it turned out, they took the Imperial Exam Papers of the whole tour group (25 people) for assessment. They graded my papers with the highest mark and therefore passed this exam. I guess while others are busily posing for photos, I was busy writing. What's new?

They dressed me up in an official uniform of a newly appointed bureaucrat - a Mandarin (not a fruit. I'm not fruity) of the Imperial Ming Dynasty. As Guilin and this area is a county-level district, I was officiated the rank of licentiate (xiucai 秀才 - loosely translated as Budding Talent) in passing this exam - the lowest rank of the scholar-official. This instant-noodle-time public fame might just make the trip worthwhile. I kid. The photo ops just put meaning into my pathetic life. I jest. About the meaning, not the pathetic comment. That remains true as gold.


Dressed in my smart, sunday-best Mandarin gown I thanked the 'public' for congratulating me. To complete the make up, I would have to shave the front half of my scalp into half moon shape and wear a queue that was stipulated by law in the Ming Dynasty. Leave the queue or lose the head. Your call.

We headed for the Yinzi or Silver Cave in the afternoon, passing through the amazing scenery of Yangshuo. The satellite picture shows 20,000 limestone peaks in the Guilin/Yangshuo area. With so many limestone peaks, it's not hard to imagine the number of limestone caves exist. The Silver Cave is one of the popular one.

The first cave I visited was a cave in Sydney (near Wollongong city) back when I was in the later stage of growing taller, and more pimply. The visit didn't leave me with a good impression. First (bad) impression lasts and it lasted for a few decades. Nothing wrong with that cave, I guess caving is just not my cup of tea. Needless to say, my reaction of going to visit another cave is somewhere between lukewarm and tepid (I don't care for lukewarm tea or beer for that matter).

Don't know if it was the low expectation, the Silver Cave wowed me all the way with its myriad of limestone formations, one feature outdid another, and its size is far exceeded that of my first cave (as far as I can remember. And we tend to remember things much larger and fancier than they actually are when we are small). Just when I thought nothing could top what I had seen so far as we came to near the end of the cave, something quite unexpected appeared. A group of soaring limestone columns and formations around a bend were as good as anything I have seen so far, but what makes this spot so unexpected and unique was a pool of water in front of this formation. The pool of water isn't very large (small than an Olympic swimming pool), and is only few inches deep. It's the perfect mirror reflection of limestone formations above it that is really bumped it up a notch to a new league of uniqueness. As I looked down into the pool of water, the plunging depth of limestone structures is reflected as deep as its soaring height, its ceiling becomes its floor. The illusion is so complete that I felt woozy from vertigo - the same deal I get when looking down onto a street from, say, a 15 storey window. I instinctually stepped back from the water edge, fearing that I may plummet into a pool of a few inches of water. The whole effect is eerily magical. Surreal. Actually quite frightening. Judging from other awe-struck looking, jaw-dropped tourists passing through here, I knew I didn't mistaken vertigo for awe-inspiring. Maybe we all do.

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This photo could hardly justify with what I depicted above. It does a good job in serving as an example to budding photographers of how one can fail miserably to capture the grandeur of the scenery. The cave limits how far I can stand away to take in the whole thing. A fish lens would do a better job (with a nice distortion). Also in order to capture both the limestone formations and the water reflection, a portrait (or vertical) orientation is called for, but it also ensures that it will lose out on the width/breadth of this thing. Even with the vertical format, I managed to only take in about 2/3 of the view above water, and less than 1/5 of the mirror reflection. In any event, no technology allows you to encapsulate the haunting quality of this place. In the words of the youth, real kewl...(don't forget to nod while swaying your bod when you say that, for max effect).

After dinner in our hotel in Yangshuo, we made our way to West Street. This street is also known as "Yangshuo's Lan Kwai Fong". LKF (Lan Kwai Fong) has became synonymous with a district in Asia (typically Chinese) that has a concentration of trendy, westernised types of cafe, beer bars, and restaurants that draws Western customers, tourists and expats alike. Holland Village, also called a Singaporean LKF, is another victim of such name calling. The following KTV bar (common in Asia) decides to cement this idea and call their business LKF, which is obviously a saleable brand name.

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It's actually more than a Yangshuo's LKF. Besides drinking, eating and dining, there are large number of souvenir shops, and accommodation, which makes it much larger than your typical LKF. "Chinatown" would be a more apt description.

One of the local speciality is the beer fish, and it isn't hard to find in Yangshuo and even easier in West Street. We didn't get to try as all our meals are provided. You can also hire a bike here to watch the drop dead gorgeous scenery, and judging from what drove past me, tandem bikes are quite popular.
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[1] In the Beijing Olympic Game Opening Ceremony, in the conceptual performance of the Chinese invention of the movable type printing, a Chinese character popped up. In case you wonder, the Chinese word is '和' or 'Harmony'. Of all the words in the Chinese dictionary, this one is chosen. This also fits in well with what I said about East and West, and the 2 Chinese religions in my entry "Two Chinese Ancestral Festivals"

The West believes that out of competitions comes progress. The (Far) East is interested in harmony more than progress. In fact, they value tradition, which is antipathetic to progress. This is the two cultural features.

But let's look at history. In the 18th to 20th Centuries sees the ascent of the West accompanied by much conflicts in the forms of social upheavals, Industrial Revolution, colonialism, nationalism, 2 world wars, ideological struggles, and Cold war. These are all expressions of competitions and conflicts. 21st Century sees the rise of Asia, and it's a century of globalisation where cooperation (aka harmony), not competitions, is a better way to go.

Of course, competitions and cooperation both occur hand in hand in all cultures and eras, I'm just talking about the broad strokes, the main themes, the big drivers.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Guilin - Day 1 - Touch Down, Check in

Seven Star Hotel

semi-overcast 37 °C
                    
Our carrier was HongKong Airline and we arrived Guilin ("Osmanthus Forest" 桂林) about 2PM.
A cruise boat took us to our hotel .

Instead of the usual road transportation in tourist coaches, We boarded a cruise on Li River (Lijiang. 'Jiang' is 'river' in Chinese) heading for our hotel. There were many genuine sights where locals carrying on their daily lives, totally oblivious to our presence.

Here's a quentissential fisherman wither his working partners commorants. This wasn't done for the benefits of the tourists (although that would be arranged for our benefits in the trip).

Fisherman with cormorants, Lijiang, Guilin, Guangxi, China
Fisherman with cormorants
After an hour of sailing and passing a local beach, we were graced by the city's most famous landmark - the Elephant (Trunk) Hill, which looks like an elephant (with a Mohawk) dipping its snout into the Lijiang. Not a great leap of the imagination, especially if you're a hair stylist.


Angler, unconventional fishing withhout
 the help of cormorant



Too many anglers spoil the sport ?


Sydney time, takes me right back home

The water level on this part of the Li River was quite shallow, I could spot the beautiful pebbled riverbed quite well. Most locals sail on this Li River on bamboo rafts with bamboo poles, which propels the raft by pushing it against the river bed than using like an oar to push it against the water.
 
Raftsman pushing his raft, Lijiang, Guilin
Raftsman pushing his raft
Guilin is often covered in mist, but the view in the river bottom is clear. This shallowness produced the most cliché image of the Li River of Guilin - the fisherman on the bamboo raft with or without a file of soldiers of cormorants.

The tour guide told us that during low tide, he has to ask the tour group to get off the boat on shallow section of the river to walk along the river bank in order to lift the boat, and return to the boat in deeper section of the river. It didn't happen today.

The Elephant (Trunk) Hill is a major tourist attraction of the Guilin city where you can get there and walk around and through the cave and touch the elephant trunk and take cliche picture of you inside the hole. Unfortunately, it wasn't on our itinerary, and we could only contend to watch it afar from the river. Our hotel turned out to be less 10 minutes by boat after The Elephant (Trunk) Hill and 5 minutes from the Liberation Bridge, which spans the Li River in the city centre.


Elephant Hill, Guilin, Guangxi, China
Elephant Hill

The hotel locates in Qixing ("Seven Stars") district in Guilin city (actually county) and was 5-star by Guilin standard. It would probably only be rated a 3.5 stars by international standard.

After dinner, we went on the famous Two-Rivers Four-Lakes Cruise. It would be more enjoyable if it was not so hot and humid. I packed only early autumn clothes, not a pair of shorts in sight. What was I thinking? Why not pack a couple of shorts? Not that it will break my bag or back. HK was more hot and humid than Singapore, and Guilin is more so than HK. It was unexpected (for me). As soon as the cruise was over, I went for shopping for a pair of shorts. The hot spells must come rather sudden, the locals was walking topless in pants while holding their shirts. That was a sight not mentioned in the brochure.


Live performance in a theatre by the lake, Guilin, China
Live performance in a theatre by the lake
Pagoda by the lake, Guilin, Guangxi, China
Pagoda by the lake


Sunday, 13 September 2009

HK - Day 1 - Sunny Paradise

Lady...walk all over me, please! Get my meat all tenderised.

sunny 32 °C
                      
We decided to join a HK tour to China for 3 reasons:
1. Everything in Singapore is about 30% more expensive than HK, and tour packages are no exception.
2. Hongkongers are very picky about Chinese food, and the tour operators know it all too well.
3. We don't have time to organise the trip ourselves.

The Wing On's 4-day Guilin tour costs about 1800 HKD + tips for tour guides + various other service charges, the total damage came to 3600 HKD. These costs include all '5-star' accommodation, airfares, airport transfers, drivers, tour guides, hiring and admission charges (if applicable), meals and an optional tour. El cheapo. This is the best time to travel to China as their cost of living moves in double digit growth while tourist facilities have been reasonably developed.

We used the Aussie budget airline Jetstar and costs 150 SGD from Singapore to HK. The price of cheap airfare is inconvenience in flight time which occurs at the graveyard hour of 4AM.
As the taxi drove past the casino work site on our way to the airport where a tangled mass of steel cranes and the skeletons of buildings are telling me that the December deadline is impossible to meet unless the project is taken over by alien from outer space - the ones who were allegedly built the Great Pyramid of Giza with anti-gravity devices to lift the huge blocks. Quite a few of the construction workers are actually alien from India.

We landed in HK and got to Fraser Suites in Wanchai about 12PM. Two things that we missed about HK that outshine above all else: one is food that HK is well known for, and the other is massage.
As soon as we dropped our bags in the hotel, we wasted no time and went straight to one of our fave eating joint locates only two streets from our hotel in Spring Garden Lane.

50B_4513PD.jpg

This noodle house is not only unassuming in its outlook, it has even less space than it looks. Because of its popularity, you are almost expected to share table with other customers and are literally rubbing elbows with your neighbours as you eat (HK people are used to this, and their personal space is a hairy wider than battery hens'). Leaving your backpack in your hotel before entering this restaurant is a good idea. They are famous for their beef cake noodle soup. The sign on the shop says this is a Teochew noodle shop and when we think of Teochew food, we think of fish balls (and tofu or bean curd dishes when you think of Hakka cuisine). But their speciality is actually beef cakes.
Their beef cakes are essentially beef balls flattened into a disc shaped cake. Its savoury soup is difficult to put into words. The noodle is very springy, and the beef cakes are bouncy enough to use it to play table tennis with (just don't eat it after you play with it without washing it, your hands, that is. Always wash your hands before a meal). I always took away a couple of bags of fried fish skins after my meal here. This fried fish skins are sealed in Gladwrap bags and are placed strategically at the door next to the cash register so you don't have any excuse for forgetting to do some take-out snacks. Quite a few places in HK sell this delicious local snack and I would say it's a lot tastier if not healthier than potato chips. It's 10 HKD a pop.

After brunch, we hit Sunny Paradise in Wanchai (could be Causeway Bay) on Lockhart St on the double. The establishment is well over 30 years, and has a decent hot and cold spas, and a well-oiled staff that you expect from HK. And it even has a Turkish steam room that emit steam infused with Chinese medicinal herbs (one of them that I can detect is peppermint, the other is a blur). The sign says this steam is good cure for colds and other minor ailments. There is also an oxygenation room that I have never used (Michael Jackson would call this home). The large number of senior clientele makes this addition sensible. They also provide both men and women sections (on separate floors). As in Bahrain, Sunny Paradise charges women at a lower rate, but not as much a discount as in Bahrain. We have tried other places, but our search has ended in The Paradise as we ride into the sunset (on a tram).

Swedish, Chinese acupressure (aka tui-na) and Japanese shiatsu is fine if your muscular knots aren't as tights as car tyres. Mine are, and not at all an exaggeration. As we age, Calcification of muscle increases. My unusually tight muscles has a lot to do with my CFS/fibromyalgia condition, although I don't know which is the cause and which is the effect. I suspect these muscular knots results from CFS. The above mentioned massage techniques just won't cut it for me. Something stronger is called for.

The application of Japanese shiatsu is strictly limited to messuers' hands - thumbs, fingers, and palms, which is fine for normal healthy people for tension removal. Tui-na does a better job for me because it also has an element of deep tissue massage that involves the use of masseuses' elbow, which is stronger than any hand in applying pressure to the tension points. The deep tissue massage associates with sport/athlete therapy. I need it not because I do a lot of exercise, but because I do little (due to fibromyalgia).

Thai Traditional/ancient massage that developed by Thai monks is good for loosing joints, and has more to do with stretching than reducing muscular tension. Good Thai masseuses also crack your backs and necks, which save me fewer visits to chiropractor for spinal adjustments (much more expensive). It has its place and I do use them, but it isn't solving the problem of dissolving my stubborn knots.

Thai oil massage and Balinese massage are almost identical in that they make use of aromatherapy oil and the application of broad, gentle stroke, tapping and kneading. They are quite relaxing, and are more sensual (not sexual) than physio therapeutic like those massage techniques above. I squeezed as many sessions of Balinese massages when we were in Bali. Although it isn't perfect for me, but the low rates (10 AUD/hr) made me do it.

Regardless if they are Swedish (not started in Sweden), Thai oil, traditional Thai, Balinese, Chinese Tui-Na, Japanese shiatsu massage, they all can provide relaxation to body and mind to different degrees, and detoxification, an increased energy level due to an improved blood circulation. A body with tight muscles is a recipe for insomnia. "Hello darkness my old friend".

Massage is a good pain management for fibromyalgia, which dogged me for decades. Too bad I'm not a Blues musician, these pains would come in very handy and may make me a celebrity. To relief this royal pain that covers from my face to feet most of the time, I was encouraged to search constantly for the last a score or so years for a good natural pain relief therapy that right for me (Popping pills just isn't my thing). I have tried all of above 'therapies' on umpteen occasions and places (and probably single handed put many kids to college). They all provide me benefits in various ways and levels. But the massage that I find most suitable for me is the barefoot deep tissue massage. Deep tissue are the operative words. This form of massage is the most common in HK, and Sunny Paradise's masseuses are all quite decent practitioners of this wonderful art of back walking.
Elbows are stronger than hands, but feet are even stronger than elbows. As the masseuse walks on your back, she is applying the weight of her whole body to your acupressure points. Steel bars are installed in the ceiling so the masseuse can hold it while balancing themselves as they walk all over you.

I asked the reception of the spa for a strong massuese, and they sent me a middle-aged lady that was built somewhat like a Chinese Olympic female discus thrower. This broad has arms broader than my thighs. Jackpot! Of course, I didn't tell her that fearing that she may throw me away like a dwarf at an Olympic record breaking distance in a Pygmy throwing competition. When she stood on her tippy toe (sans pointe shoe) like a Russian Bolshoi ballerina in Nutcracker performing her balancing art on my back, the thoughts that my rib case may collapse crossed my mind on two occasions. But I re-assured myself that I have done this on numerous times and my torso was still reasonably intact. As I looked at my upper back in the bathroom mirror (upper back, I said, look higher), highly visible bruises that embossed in the shape of footprints appeared between my shoulder blades. These bruises is a stamp of her job well done, an effort of a lovely hard massage. My calcium deposits produced knots are loosened by a pair of 60 kg concentrated feet. My readily bruised epidermis is also symptomatic of my fibromyalgia condition, I suspect. The masseuse call this, according to Chinese traditional medicine (TCM), I have too much fire. I guess I do, in other ways, too. We may disagree on the terminology (bruise or fire), but not that something has gone awry with this body.

Of course, you don't have to be walked all over to enjoy the massage. The masseuses always ask if you prefer to be massaged by hands instead of feet as not everyone would like their backs to be squashed like grapes in the process of turning them into vino in a vineyard in Bordeaux. Some prefer to have their backs kneaded like dough in the process of turning them into a pizza base like pizzerias in Naples. FYI, any form of massage is only a management of fibromyalgia pain and not a cure. The only cure is treating the cause of a dysfunctional immune system.


Deep tissue massage is just one of the many management tools (all natural) in my arsenal in combating my fibromyalgia - PMR (Progressive Muscle Relaxation), meditation, rest, jacuzzi, mineral baths, magnesium supplement, and stretches all play a part, and have their pluses and minuses. None of above is an end to end all, or an substitute to another. In terms of fast 'recovery rate', I find massage is the most effective in relieving pains, and with all kinds of wonderful positive side effects like lifting energy level, mood, and deepen sleep. And of course, it's the most costly and inconvenient of them all. Meditation is the cheapest (free) and most convenient.

This place is more than a couple of spas with massages. It provided a galaxy of services. A customer sat across me on the lounge was worked on by an army of manicurists and pedicurists like tentacles of an octopus. Another had his ears being cleaned, and swept. The Korean guy whose ear being serviced lying on his lounge, tilting his head and his eyes closed with an expression that I saw in a Chinese opium smoker in a movie once. It goes without saying that you can also get the sole of your feet poked and squeezed until you squeal or are driven to tears in agony by a reflexologist, begging them to stop. Of course, they won't. You pay them to inflict maximum pain on you. Fantastic stuff! You should try it. Typically, you can also get your back scrubbed by stiff and rough sponge. From what I can see (just a sidewards glance as I walked past the scrub room), every nook and cranny in your body will be scrubbed by a fat old topless man. Every crack and crevice. Pass!

Not that HK is the only place where I can find this barefoot deep tissue massage, they are also available whenever health spas with HK management are operated. Combining a massage with a spa is like having Vietnamese food with fish sauce, the sauce simply enhance the experience.

To my surprise, this type of barefoot massage is not at all common in Singapore, while the day spas scene that especially catered for women with a alot of attention on good ambiance are quite popular. At least more visible, you shouldn't have problem come across one in some shopping malls or hotels, or just about everywhere. These girlie spas do very little hard massage for me except hitting my hip pocket hard. Somebody has to pay for those posh decor. These day spa doesn't actually has a singular spa in sight (what a jacussi is usually referred to). I have visited these places a few times to keep Atta's company (very few men come to these places alone, I imagine. I could be wrong). Packages start with foot bath, followed by massages and facials in a relaxing aromatherapy scents and slow instrumental music. It may not be ideal for me as I only dig heavy-duty industrial strength masseuse with minimum packaging, but this day spa can provide a very relaxing experience overall. Great for de-stressing. Fitness/Health centres in Singapore, on the other hand, provide spas despite the missing 'spa' in its name. Depending on the health centres, its facilities can range from cold/hot spas, shower, even gym in the bigger ones. I think they all provide massages. The hard-working (Chinese) Malaysian dominates this trade (before the invasion of PRC Chinese) in Singapore and they work in both day spas and fitness/health centres as masseuse.

In my search for a place to deflate my rubber-tyre muscle, I came across only one walk-on-your-back massage joint in Singapore, but have yet to try it.

After the visit to the Paradise, I felt like a new old man. She had put the spring back into my steps with her magic feet. And I can sleep like a 30 year old tonight ('baby' would have been an overly exaggeration). Guilin, I'm ready for ye.

P.S. 25 Oct 2009. I have finally tried out Kafuyu Reflexology Clinic in Jurong East in Singapore for the HK style barefoot massage. The footwork is almost identical to that of HK, right down to the odd custom of insisting to call a 45 minute massage an hour massage. In other words, if you say you ask for a 2 hour massage, you end up getting 1.5 hours. Noone has yet able to explain to me this twilight zone logic. The masseuse is a little lightweight for my liking though, and there is no spa pools here.