Day 600: Bad Day At Black Rock

25.08.10

SIX HUNDRED DAYS ON THE ROAD!! Do I win a fiver?

And so the train pulled into Calcutta’s Howrah train station around 11am.  The plan was to head to the border with Bangladesh, do a quick border hop and then come back in time for tea and a train up towards Bhutan and Nepal.

However, my first problem was that (after queuing up a five different booths) the guy in the ticket office told me that the late train that left at 11pm was full.  I would find out later this was a lie, but never mind, I’m getting used to it now.  Therefore the only option was the Darjeeling Mail train which left at 7.35pm.  This meant my trip to Bangladesh was going to be a bit of a race to say the least.

Sonu accompanied me across the Hooghly River that runs through Calcutta and together we went to investigate options for taking the bus to the border.  It took us a good two hours just to get to the bus ‘station’, and when we arrived, I was informed that all the buses for today had left, and that even if they hadn’t, I couldn’t get on board as the buses went all the way to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, and passengers weren’t allowed to get off early.

Or something.

I don’t quite know why India feels it must be so infuriating, but somewhere along the line somebody must have mooted it as ‘a good idea’.

So Bangladesh was a no, then.  In any case, I might not have got over the border, considering how much India’s security has been ramped up in the wake of the Mumbai Massacre.  The last time I was at the western border of Bangladesh, I could have just walked straight through and nobody would have noticed.

So Sonu and I grabbed some lunch and Sonu invited me back to his house so I could scrub up and go and see his local church.  The journey to his on a local train was so typically Indian it almost seemed farcical – far too many people squeezed into a carriage that hadn’t been cleaned since… well, ever.  And that’s something that blows my mind about India, the relationship with dirt.  I’m not one for living in a sterile bubble, but this place is the equivalent of my dad’s old carburetter shop in Liverpool only times 1.2 billion.  Everything – from the streets to the buildings to the trains to the temples – must must must be grubby as hell.  But the weird thing is how everything is meticulously ordered, like a freak who hoards his rubbish in his living room, but sorts it into neat piles first.

Sweeping up in India requires you to push the dirt somewhere else, the concept of litter bins are as alien here as being a vegan is to an Argentinean.  The mounds of rubbish, rubbish everywhere and the public health menace they pose would make anywhere else rise up and incarcerate the powers that be, but not in India.  Like Ethiopia, the concept of germ theory is an undiscovered country, if you get ill well you mutter something about it being the will of the god(s) and quietly die without complaint – after all, you’re going to get reincarnated… right?

One thing I just can’t fathom about the concept of reincarnation is this: what’s the point?  In Battlestar Galactica, the Cylons could download their memories – and consciousness – to a new identical body whenever they died.  That seems perfectly sensible (within the realms of science fiction) and I don’t see why not.  But to be downloaded into a completely new body (or even one of a completely separate species) but not retain your consciousness nor indeed any memories whatsoever seems, well, a little pointless does it not?

What exactly is being downloaded?  And what lessons can be learnt, given you don’t remember anything from your previous life?

Anyways, I’m going off-topic a little here, but after grabbing a quick shower and sending a couple of emails at Sonu’s gaff, he drove me back to Calcutta.  Unfortunately for me, his ludicrously optimistic view that he could get back to the city in 45 minutes was exactly that – ludicrously optimistic.  Even twice that time would be gilding the lily somewhat.  Try three hours, that would be a safer bet.

Needless to say, I missed my train.

As I had bought an ‘emergency’ ticket (at a 200rupee markup) my ticket was completely non-refundable.  My discontent at this situation wasn’t helped by Sonu’s reckless driving – when there is a heady mixture of cars, rickshaws, cyclists, pedestrians, potholes, trucks, buses and cows vying for space one would tend not to drive like Toad of Toad Hall – doubly so when there are no streetlights.  But Sonu’s over-optimistic appraisal of the time situation also translated into an over-optimistic sentiment that God was protecting his car and therefore it was impossible for him to crash.

I did point out that as a (rather militant) atheist, that if he did actually exist, this God fella has probably got it in for me, and that would seem to be the case as after a hair-raising two hours, Sonu managed to drop me at the wrong train station.  Thankfully, a guardian angel called George came to my rescue.  He worked for the trains and was on his way home when I ran into him running with all my bags along an unlit railway line.  “You’re at the wrong station”, he told me – “but don’t worry I’ll get you on the later train”.

“I was told it was sold out”.

“They always say that.  Come with me.”

So George and I hopped in a taxi and sped over to the correct train station.  It took the best part of an hour to get there, but when we did, he sorted me out with a ticket on the 22.35 up to Siliguri in the north of West Bengal – not far from the borders of Bangladesh and Bhutan.  The possibly of ticking off two countries in one day was a particularly sweet idea at this time.

With a hour or so to kill before I got on the train, I said my hearty thank-yous to George and bought myself a copy of Newsweek, very interested to read their list of the best 100 countries in the world and see how much it tallied with mine.

As they didn’t include rock n’ roll, lemurs or ladyboys in their criteria of what made a country ‘best’, the list was somewhat different from my League of Nations – with their top three nations being Finland, Switzerland and Luxembourg – three of the most boring places on Earth.  India is a lot of things, and I could go on all night about how nuts it is, but at the end of the day, at least it’s never dull – and that counts for a lot in my book, yes India – you’re that lousy friend that we can’t help forgive because they make us laugh, you’re the nasty spiteful Dr. House who we admire because he’s always frickin’ right and the vacuous blonde we tolerate because she’s got a cracking pair of norks.

My League is based on places that excite or surprise me – I guess that’s why the top ten includes the likes of Egypt, Bolivia, Thailand and Iran.  Finland, Switzerland or Luxembourg – godbless’em – are all very sensible and nice, but sometimes you need a little madness just to keep things interesting.

Day 602: Easy Peasy Nepalesy

27.08.10:

Duff information can be a real pain in this line of work, but it’s hard to know who you can trust.  Yesterday’s taxi driver was right about getting to the borders of Bangladesh and Bhutan, so when he told me that buses left from the Nepalese border for Kathmandu in the morning and would arrive in the evening, I saw no reason to doubt it.

I wasn’t too happy with having to drag my arse out of bed at 6am, but, well – if I meant I could get to Kathmandu before midnight, I was game.  I grabbed by backpack out of the NJP station cloakroom and jumped onto the first shared taxi jeep to the border.  We got there so quickly it didn’t even occur to me that I might have to go back a kilometre to get my passport stamped out of India.

My last little piece of Indian bureaucracy, and what a way to sum it all up.  I’m already out of India (the jeep didn’t stop!), but for the sake of godknowswhat I head back to the Indian immigration post.  I was the ONLY person there.  It still took an HOUR to get the stamp out.  Not only did the stamp nazi go through every word of my (two) exit forms – he went through every letter.

Oh, bugger!  You caught me!  I was illegally sneaking out of India using a fake British Passport and a fake Indian Visa in order to go to Nepal and sell all of India’s nuclear secrets to the highest bidder. AND I WOULD HAVE GOT AWAY WITH IT TOO if it wasn’t for you pesky kids – LUCKY you spotted the spelling mistake on the part of the form in which you enquired about my maternal grandfather’s middle name WHICH GAVE THE GAME AWAY.

You wily little f——.

Indeed.

So (marvellously enough) they stamped me out after making me wait for an hour and I headed back to the Nepalese side of the border.

India, my friend, I’m sure you’ll always draw me back, there is something magical about you that none of the blaring car horns, vociferous rickshaw wallahs, malodorous drains or screeching Hindi musak can drown out.  For a country whose fortunes were built on the West’s insatiable appetite for condiments and tea, I guess it makes sense that you should take India with a pinch of – let’s say – spice; and once you learn to laugh at the unfathomableness of it all, it could be your new best mate too.  Goodbye, I’ll see you soon.

And so to Nepal…

I’ve always had a soft spot for Nepal.  It’s hard to put my finger on what it is about the place I like so much, but I’m sure it will come to me very soon.  My prejudices that I would continue to like Nepal were very much confirmed when, having cheerfully PURCHASED MY VISA ON THE BORDER (FANCY THAT – the ONLY country between North Iraq and South Korea where that is possible) I was recognised off the telly by a chap called Dawshan.

“National Geographic Adventure!” he shouted, before welcoming me to his country with a hearty handshake and the offer of a cup of tea.  Don’t mind if I do old chap.  I jumped on the back of Dawshan’s motorbike and we headed off to his family’s hotel.

I soon found out that my taxi driver was making stuff up about a bus leaving every hour of the morning for Kathmandu…. They don’t leave until the afternoon, and they are all overnighters – something I wanted to avoid, especially given the difficult conditions presented by the monsoon rains.  Never mind, it gave me the opportunity to hang out with Dawshan for the day.

“This is so weird… I had a vision that I’d meet you” he told me over breakfast, “I knew you would be going to every country and if you were going to Bangladesh and Bhutan you’d be coming into Nepal this way.”  I explained to Dawshan that I’d be trying to get to China via Tibet from Kathmandu – I figured it would take a fortnight to get the Chinese visa, Tibet pass and train ticket.  In fact, a tour company in Tibet had quoted me a whopping $2,500 just to get from the Chinese border to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.

“That can’t be right” said Dawshan and while I had a go at riding his mate’s brand new Royal Enfield motorbike (I haven’t ridden a bike since I was a wee nipper, with Dawshan’s mate on the back and the streets all but flooded, it was wonderfully terrifying) Dawshan got on the phone and organised my trip all the way from Kathmandu to Beijing LEAVING NEXT TUESDAY.

I couldn’t believe my luck.

Thank you Dawshan, you excellent excellent chap you!

Dawshan also organised my bus ticket to Kathmandu, my Nepalese SIM card and the tastiest samosas I have ever (and possibly will ever) eat.

It was at this point that I remembered why I like Nepal so much – it’s like India, but ten times easier.

At five o’clock I was on the bus and hurtling towards the capital at a great rate of knots.  That was until we came to a bridge that looked like it was about to fall through as a result of last night’s floods.  You would think that the notion of a bridge collapsing would ward everyone off the bridge, but conversely it attracted rubberneckers and slack-jawed lollygaggers from all over the place to congregate on the very bridge.  We would have to take a detour that would add an hour onto the journey time.

Well, we would have if our driver wasn’t a gung-ho maniac and COLLAPSING BRIDGE BE DAMNED he looked like he was going to go for it.  Myself and my fellow passengers had about thirty seconds to exit the bus before he floored it and shot across the bridge – the one with the cracks and the big hole in the middle.  Thankfully, the bridge stayed up.  We all had to run to get back on the bus, this driver had ants in his pants – we all boarded it (yes and that includes the old ladies) while it was moving – once we were all on board (perhaps) we thundered off into the night.

I found out the next day that later on the bridge did indeed collapse.

What (Not) To Take Backpacking!

Planning a trip to every country in the world? Worried about what you should and shouldn’t pack? My advice? TRAVEL LIGHT! It’s best to have too little and purchase stuff on the way than to have too much stuff and have to carry things that you never use for the best part of a year.

Here’s A Bunch of Stuff You Can Leave At Home:

1. A Towel
Don’t do it. PLEASE! DON’T TAKE A TOWEL. Despite what The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide tells you, you DON’T need it. You’ll dry yourself with it in the morning then stuff it in your bag (soaking wet) and get on the bus/train/whatever and it will STINK. It will also double the weight of your bag. FORGET IT. Ask at the hostel you are staying at, they’ll give you a nice clean dry one for like 5p. Failing that, use your bedsheets. Or if you’re really desperate, your t-shirt. Then put it on.

2. Extra Shoes
You need ONE pair of shoes. Comfortable, light, trainer (sneaker) shoes. You are not going to be visiting any swanky restaurants or attending any film premieres in Bolivia, so LEAVE YOUR GOOD SHOES AT HOME. They will weigh you down, dig into your back and you will wear them once. Maybe.

3. Travellers Cheques
Utterly utterly useless. Just give American Express twenty quid for no reason and then spend the night in a bus-shelter. Nobody will swap the little blighters, and on the few occasions that they do, you get walloped for commission when you buy them AND when you use them. Avoid like the plague. Take some emergency US dollars instead and hide them in your shoe or something.

4. Rough Guide
Impenetrable, counter intuitive and the thinnest bloody paper in the world make carrying a Rough Guide a frigging nightmare. Trying to suss out how much the local hostel costs in the middle of the night in the monsoon rain while touts are pulling at your arms, stray dogs are biting your ankles and all they give in the book are ‘codes’ which are explained on page 132 (instead of JUST SAYING HOW MUCH IT COSTS) will have you soon using the book for something more useful. Like wiping your bum.

5. Optical Camera
Alright, I know you want to take the photos you see in National Geographic, but please, for the sake of all that is holy, TAKE A DIGITAL CAMERA. Download your pics as often as you can and put them on facebook, flickr, shutterfly or something, because somewhere, at sometime you are almost guaranteed to LOSE your rolls of film and even if you don’t, they cost a fortune to develop.

6. Anything you cannot afford to lose
Seriously, if you want to take something precious around the world with you, make it your better half. Otherwise, LEAVE IT AT HOME. It’s not just the fact that you might lose it, it’s the fact that you will spend every moment of every day worrying about it.

7. Bar of Soap
The traveller’s worst enemy, next to malaria. It’s slippy, it’s slimy and there is never a good place for it in your bag. Take liquid soap instead, or just use your wet-wipes.

8. Beauty Products
While you’re travelling, you’ll look the worst you ever have in your life. But paradoxically, you’ll also look the coolest you ever have in your life. SO WHO NEEDS BEAUTY PRODUCTS?! If you need a bit of make-up, go to a big pharmacy and ask to ‘try out’ a few of the products. Works for me 😉

9. Jewellery
When you’ve quite finished being mad… IT WILL GET NICKED! DON’T TAKE IT, leave it AT HOME. I’m looking at YOU, girls.

10. Somebody who doesn’t really want to go
This is the biggest no-no there is. You will have a miserable time, any difficulties or problems will be amplified fifty-fold, the constant whinging and whining will make you consider stabbing orphans in the face just to make it stop, and you could end up destroying a great friendship. If none of your mates want to do it, don’t drag them along against their will, go on your own instead – you’ll have a much better time. Trust me, you’re never alone for long!!

Stuff I Never Travel Without:

If you’re going to be getting on and off a ton of planes, trains and automobiles, your combined luggage shouldn’t weigh more than 10kg.  Seriously!  If you need a new pair of trousers, buy them on the way. If you finish your book, swap it with somebody for something else. All the rest is needless baggage. Now go pack your…

1. Lonely Planet
Anyone who claims that Rough Guide/Footprint/Time Out is better is a liar and a thief.

2. Sleeping Bag
Even in hot countries, a sleeping bag can be a lifesaver on overnight buses where the AC is set to zero Kelvin.

3. Anti-Malaria Pills
Malaria is one of the biggest killers in the world and one that should not be taken lightly – once you get it, you’ll have it for life.  It’s no laughing matter, take your damn pills.  Although Larium does make you go crazy.  I use Doxycycline.

4. Wetwipes
A total essential anywhere you go.  Flushable wetwipes are the best.

5. Laptop
Seriously, buy a small cheap laptop off eBay.  You won’t know how you survived without it.

6. Debit and Credit cards
The traveller’s best friend.  So far I’ve only been to three countries (Liberia, Comoros and Iran) where I had a problem using my cards – not bad out of 175!!

7. A cheap (unlocked) mobile phone
Eager and willing to have weird and wonderful foreign SIM cards slipped into it. You want one with a little torch in the top of it.

8. A decent camera/camcorder
You don’t want to come home with fuzzy shots of the Taj Mahal now do you?

9. A hat
Seriously.

10. Deodorant
Shower in a can!

11. Enough undies/socks
Critical.

12. iPod
As much as I hate the cult of the dirty Mac, music is essential and Sony have wasted the last 9 years on a FAIL of biblical proportions, monumentally failing to come up with an alternative.

13. Compass watch
Yeah I know it’s geeky but it’s great for sussing out what’s up and what’s down when you first arrive somewhere where the streets have no name.  Like New York.

14. A Secret Money Pouch
Preferably one that you stuff into your underwear – after a few days on the road, nobody’s going to search you there…!

15. A Deck of Cards
And learn a couple of magic tricks while you’re at it 😉

Hope this helps… and… oh yeah: don’t forget your toothbrush…!

Days 606-616: Seven Days In Tibet

31.08.10-09.09.10:

As I knew what I’d be like in the morning, I took a shower the night before because even though Kathmandu does offer hot showers (IN YOUR FACE, INDIA!) I decided it would be best to squeeze every last second out of sleeping as I could.  I’m not a morning person.  So up up bright and early (well not that bright, it was still dark, but it was early) and onto the minibus that would be taking me and a handful of fellow wayfarers over the border to the Forbidden Kingdom of Tibet.

Now as you know, I’m a bit of an independent traveller, but the Chinese government don’t take kindly to westerners mooching around Tibet without a chaperone.  As a consequence and as there is simply NO OTHER WAY to get from India into China, I had to join a tour group.  It would take us a week to get to and explore Lhasa, but I guess I might as well stop to smell the roses as I don’t have a choice and the guy waving the roses under my nose I need to keep sweet as I jump back and forth into Mongolia, Korea, Japan and Taiwan over the coming weeks.

My comrades on this journey were none other than politics graduates Tobin, Stuart and Sam, Sam’s girlfriend Nikki, a Dutch couple called Jerhan and Sarah, a guy from Nepal called Brukas and a woman from Thailand called Newe.

The Tibet Massive.

The journey to the border was one of typical Nepalese madness – potholes, crazy drivers, blind corners and perilous pitfalls, but we made it as far as we could before the gods of the mountains well and truly blocked our path with a kick-ass landslide which had taken out half a kilometre of road – and one that stopped just inches from some dude’s house.  He must have been praying to the right gods that night.

So our bus stopped and we had to pick our way on foot across the hazardous terrain, getting our feet wet crossing two rivers on the way.  We then took a couple of shared taxi jeeps the rest of the way to the frontier.  The Nepalese side of the border was the usual – easy as hell – they didn’t even check our luggage.  The Chinese side, though – eek! – if the guards standing sentry at the border gates wasn’t enough to put the willies up you, then the seventeen x-ray machines and small army of bag-checkers certainly were.

But were they interested in looking for guns, or drugs, or explosives?  Nah – they were all on the hunt for something MUCH more dangerous – pictures of the 14th Dalai Lama.  So much so that my comrades had to rifle through their Lonely Planet, ripping out references to any (and all) of the three ‘T’s – Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen.  China in a way reminds me of a little girl who thinks that by shutting its eyes, sticking its fingers in it’s ears and going LALALALALALALALALALALALALALALA it can drown out the sound of anything it doesn’t want to hear.

The sad thing is, China’s probably right.  I mean, I’m too scared to upload this blog until I am well and truly out of this place – you know, just in case.  And every other nation is terrified of incurring the wrath of the People’s Republic by inferring that, well, maybe China could work a little on making the place a People’s Republic (I guess the Autocratic Dictatorship of China just doesn’t have the same ring to it).

So I was the only one left with the Tibet chapter of my China Lonely Planet intact.  This was because I had taken my cue from the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and downloaded the damn thing onto my damn iPod “the bad” Touch.  Didn’t think of THAT now, did you, Lao Che?

One thing that I found quite disturbing as I crossed the border was the Everest expedition gang that was also crossing over at the same time.  Healthy young men in their 20s and 30s, with octogenarian grandmothers ferrying their equipment (heavy blue barrels on their backs, held up by a strap worn across the forehead) over the border for them.  Un-be-f—ing-lievable.  What the hell were they thinking?  I mean, it’s $25,000 just for the permit to attempt Everest, surely they weren’t short of a few readies to pay some local teenagers to help them?  Or, you know, carry the damn stuff themselves?  Lazy buggers.

Anyway, I said ta-ta to our Nepalese guide and said nee-how to our Tibetan guide on the other side.  Her name was Doma and yes she was Tibetan.  Her brother (whose name I never discovered) drove our minibus.

That night we stayed in the microscopically small town of Tingri, just over the border from Nepal.  This is when I found out that most of the lads on the tour were politics students.  Vive le Revolution, Agent Calavera! If there’s one thing Tibet’s got to talk about, it’s lots of politics.

Forward Tibet!

Wednesday started early with us all bungling ourselves onto the minibus for a long drive – we were all suffering from altitude sickness so some degree, but some were worse than others.  Newe, the nice Thai lady, was looking the worst out of us all and it was decided that today we would press on all the way to Shigatse, Tibet’s second city, as there was a hospital there if need be.  Altitude sickness is rather unpleasant – your head feels like it’s going to split in two, your joints ache, you feel nauseous and sick.

Yakaddy Yak

It was all a bit too cloudy to see Everest as we raced by, but we did get out of the bus for the Gyatso-la Pass, at 5220 metres above sea level, you might just be able to guess why everyone was feeling a little dizzy – a week ago I was in Calcutta – pretty much at sea level.  This was the highest I had been since this journey started back in January last year (as this trip does not involve aeroplanes!) and boy my head was letting me know it – the prayer flags strung out across the landscape looked like bunting from a 1970s street party.  I liked it.

MY BRAIN ACHES!

We covered another few passes before hitting Shigatse in the afternoon.  We all went out for a bite to eat and were left up to our own devices until the following morning.  Shigatse being a sleepy town there wasn’t much to do, but we ate dinner together and I stupidly drank beer which did nothing good for my hangover.

Thursday morning we headed out with our guide to the fabulous Tashilhunpo monastery – one that takes up half the mountainside.  There we learn about the two Lamas – the Dalai Lama and the Penchen Lama.  The Penchen Lama doesn’t get as much press as the Dalai – the latest one (number 11) is a teenager living in Beijing.  But if he ever wants to come back to his temple in Shigatse, I’m sure the locals would be overjoyed to have him.

One thing we came across in the monastery complex (it’s like a small town) was a courtyard filled with monks debating, Tibetan style.  This involves the teacher quizzing the younger monks about scripture and if they get the answer wrong the teacher rocks back on one leg, steps forward as if to throw a cricket ball and then SLAP! he claps his hands together like this:

Happy Clapper.

It’s all very choreographed and all very cool.

The Tibetan Debating Team

That night was a little more interesting than the last, as we hit the karaoke bar and watched a string of (remarkably talented) local singers belting out Tibetan classics and receiving white silk scarves as a accolade depending on their popularity.  One kid with a magna hairdo and shiny shoes got four scarves. He must have been the local Elvis.  I have to say I did get a little jealous – where was my scarf?  But I doubt they would have let me do my world famous Total Eclipse of the Heart in the style of Louis Armstrong anyway.

A Nice Pair of Knockers.

The next day we headed out to Gyanste, a slight detour from the road to Lhasa, but a welcome one.  More authentically Tibetan than the Han-infused capital, it’s the home of the Pelkhor Chöde Monastery – notable for housing the biggest Stupa I’ve ever seen.  A Stupa is a religious monument that you see in many Buddhist countries, they usually look like a marshmellow cake with big brother eyes painted at the top.  Only this marshmellow was big enough to house 10,000 Images of Buddha.  Crikey!

Tibetan Buddhism is deeply infused with influences from Hinduism, and nowhere was this more obvious than the many many statues and pictures depicting various ‘aspects’ of Buddha, ranging from the chilled out type familiar to us in the west to angry bad black mofo Buddha breathing fire and stomping his enemies into dust.  Our tour guide kept calling this one ‘Buddha of Much More Powers’ but the parallels to the Hindu black goddess Cali were strikingly obvious – right down to the necklace of human skulls…!

Danger - Don't feed the Buddha

On Saturday we finally rolled into Lhasa. A strikingly modern city, which was a little unexpected (although I was pre-warned), this is not some ramshackle Shangri-La in the mountains.  Our hotel was amazing though and I would heartily recommend it to anyone – not only run by Tibetans, it was the most boutique boutique hotel I’ve ever stayed in – over 300 years old (mind your head!) the attention to detail was amazing.

The next day was the big one – the utterly stunning Potala Palace – the winter residence of the erstwhile Dalai Lama. Opulent but brimming with character, this massive edifice dominates the Lhasa skyline – 13 stories high, over 1000 rooms and once home to tens of thousands of monks, it’s just a list of superlatives followed by the word NICE in large friendly letters.

NICE!

I tell you what though, one thing that may not sit well with your westernised view of Tibetan Buddhism (but something that is the damnation of all religion) is just how much gold, money and wealth these temples enjoy.  The tombs of the previous Dalai Lamas (housed in the Potala Place itself) were only just short of the ostentatious dead wealth of King Tut – solid gold caskets as big as a house bedecked with fabulous jewels.  Jeepers!  And you’re telling me that religion – all religion – isn’t just about the readies?  But Buddhism is all about improving yourself, right?  Hmm, well if stuffing fivers into the cold indifferent hands of golden statues to bring yourself good fortune is improving yourself, then go for your life, mate!

Didn't know Gonzo was a Buddhist...

Another thing that spun me out were the people around the temples doing their worshipping.  Jeez, I thought Muslims made a meal of it!  But in Tibet you see people launching themselves at the floor head first as though there’s a madman on a shooting spree across the street – resulting in massive whelks and bruising to the forehead.  And, just to make things extra nonsensical, some of them are doing it for money. Weird, just weird.

Anyway, Lhasa was a sweet place – lovely people, lovely scenery and lots of stuff to see and do.  And no, visiting Tibet does not ‘prop up’ the big meany Chinese government: trust me, the pennies they get from handing out visiting permits are buttons compared with how much they are earning from international trade.  Going to Tibet primarily helps local Tibetans – it strengthens their culture, gives them money in their pockets and – best of all – makes it difficult for the Chinese to commit atrocities when there are thousands of tourists swanning about with camcorders (although having said that, I often think of a certain Super Furry Animals song when it comes to the Chinese government).

With Bells On

I’m not counting Tibet as a separate country on this journey.  Sorry.  I suppose I could do, but at the end of the day, unlike Palestine, Kosovo or Western Sahara, I can never see it becoming a real independent and sovereign nation – even the Dalai Lama has given up on that dream – he’s now resigned to requesting greater autonomy from the Chinese.  Yeah I know it’s sad.  But it could be worse… they could have been annexed by India.  Sikkim, anyone?

Well with our tour of Tibet drawing to a close, Tobin and I jumped on the Tuesday morning skytrain to Beijing.  For me this meant two nights on a ‘hard seat’ (exactly what it said on the tin) as the highest train in the world (and engineering masterpiece) snaked its way down from the rooftop of the world.  Lots of card games and banter helped pass the time, but the fact that my computer (once again) went do-lally meant I couldn’t catch up with my blog and my pictures of Tibet on the hard-drive hung in the balance.  I would just have to wait and see what the capital of China held in store when I arrived on Thursday morning…

This Wheel Shall Explode...

Days 618-620: Weekend at Bare Knees

10.09.10-12.09.10:

I can’t tell you how much I’ve missed the sight of legs.  Girls legs, to be precise, pins that go all the way up, if you know what I mean.  Brutally and unfairly covered since I left Europe, damn I’ve missed them.  You guys in the Middle East and India must be like completely retarded or something, it’s all well and good saying it’s your culture to deny me a glimpse of a teenage hottie in hot pants but at the end of the day, you guys are like total idiots.  It’s like going to a houseparty to discover there’s no booze, all the girls have left and everyone is sitting around quietly reading Dostoyevsky. And tutting.

Then again, if my daughter/sister/wife had an inch-thick monobrow and a moustache that rivalled Lord Kitchener’s, I’ll probably cover her up like some latter-day Elephant Man too.

China, on the other hand, has chosen to embrace the world of sexy legs and it’s skimpy shorts all the way to the Forbidden City.  Yes, I’m a wretched old perv and if there is a hell then I’m racing towards it on a jet-powered handcart, but Mao-o-Mao they’re good to see.

On Friday I picked up my Mongolian visa and would have been well on my way to the land of da Geng had it not been for somebody emailing me to ask how come I haven’t got food poisoning yet.  I mean, 20 months and 167 countries is a bit long to go without a dose of Montezuma’s revenge.  As if the food poisoning Gods spotted this mistake and sought to instantly rectify it accordingly, I was stricken down with a monumental case of 24 hour squits.  Best off sitting in and watching Entourage on DVD (which is nowhere near as dark and unsettling as it could or damn well should be… let’s face it, it’s Ugly Betty but for boys) and being just a few metres from the nearest flushable western style toilet and plenty of toilet paper.  Carl’s flatmate, Jeff helped me get my computer back on it’s feet (damn you Sony – you SUCK!) and the break from Chinese food for a few hours probably did me the world of good.

Carl was a very good sport for putting up with the SMELL OF TARTARUS that wafted around his flat for the best part of Friday and on Friday night we went out for din-dins with a group of his Beijing-y mates.  I didn’t stay out late, though… with Armitage Shanks calling me, I thought it best for everyone concerned (not least my jeans) to not keep him waiting.

On Saturday my back passage was back in tip-top order and again, I could have disappeared north to go see Kublai Khan’s stately pleasure dome, but Carl was attending the divorce (yes) party of one of his CouchSurfing chums and it sounded like far too much fun to miss.  And indeed it was – there were bridesmaids, there was cake, there were speeches (well, one speech) and it was at least 100 times more fun than a wedding, simply on the grounds that none of us had to go to a friggin’ boring old wedding before we started drinking.

I’d heartily recommend it to anyone who has made the cardinal error of thinking that once you get married he/she/it will ‘change’.  Ha!  Good luck with that, baby!  I’m with the Jesuits with this one – show me the child at seven years old and I’ll show you the man.  You can’t change ’em!  Once a dick, always a dick.  Get divorced!  Have a party!  Go out and see the world!

Afterwards, Carl took me to a Russian bar to watch some eye-poppingly lovely belly-dancing (sadly lacking in the Middle East these days – except on the King of Saudi Arabia’s yacht of course), a bit of sensational acrobatics on the old dancing poles (Anna you would have loved it) followed by a Russian OOMPH OOMPH band.

Needless to say, when the OOMPH OOMPH band came on, we bid a hasty retreat and found ourselves a nighty-nightclub in which to dance the night away.  I didn’t stay out as late as Carl (I wussed out at 3am) and on the Sunday morning I arose and made a determined effort to actually leave for Mongolia as soon as humanly possible and hit the snooze alarm for the thirteenth time.  By 5pm I was just about ready to leave for the border and after making my way across town to the bus station I was horrified to discover that the last bus left at 4pm.  This made little sense as it took 12 hours to get to the border and who in their right mind wants to get to the Mongolian border at 4am…??  Especially considering the damn thing doesn’t open until nine.

But as I stared up at the departure board in dismay and bewilderment (there on the board was a bus scheduled to leave at 8.30pm – something wasn’t right here) a random guy asked me where I was going.  I explained I wanted to go to Mongolia, but Hohhot in Inner Mongolia (halfway there) would do.  Always taking the opportunity to follow strange random men down darkened alleyways, I followed this strange random man down a darkened alleyway away from the bus station and soon found myself in a tiny convenience store buying a ticket for Hohhot.  The guy wanted 22 quid, but I laughed and said I’d pay 15, just for the cheek.  We agreed and he wrote out my ticket (local Chinese would probably pay 8 quid for the same ticket, but I’m well used to paying whitey tax by now) and I sat on a plastic chair outside the shop for an hour before I was bundled into a car (this doesn’t look like a bus!) and driven to the edge of town.  Luckily for me, I wasn’t forced to dig my own grave in a desert/corn field/pine forest, I was in fact dropped off behind the welcome sight of the overnight coach to Hohhot.

Day 621: Innies and Outies

13.09.10:

So there’s Inner Mongolia and there’s Outer Mongolia.  What’s the difference? I hear you cry… Well, it’s like this, see: half of the historic area of Mongolia is in China (that half being Inner Mongolia) and half of it is an independent and sovereign state which used to be called Outer Mongolia, but is now known by the more snappy and dynamic title of Mongolia.

The same thing has happened thousands of miles away in the country of Macedonia, made famous as the birthplace of a certain Alexander who was apparently (like Peter, Britain and Frosties) GR-GR-GR-GREAT!  Unfortunately for the Macedonians, the Greeks who control the southern part of historic Macedonia won’t allow Macedonia the snappy and dynamic title of Macedonia (on the grounds that they own the lower half and they don’t want hapless holiday makers getting confused) nor will they allow the name ‘Outer Macedonia’, no, what the Greeks have decreed (with all the common sense of a bunch of Trojans happily pulling a giant wooden horse into town) is that we all call Macedonia ‘The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.’  Yup, they want us to kinda explain everything in the title.  I mean, why call it ‘The Odyssey’ when they could have called it ‘The Journey Home from Troy Of The Greek Adventurer Known By The Greeks As Odysseus But By The Romans as Ulysses’?

Did I mention how much I love Chinese long distance buses?  Damn I had completely forgotten how unbelievably ace they are.  And now that I’ve caught the bus (or whatever happens to pass for a bus) in pretty much EVERY country in the world, and since you didn’t ask for it, here is my top 3 in reverse order.

3. Turkey: Free cups of tea, free internet, costs about 1 penny a mile.  Awesome.

2. Central America: Free food, BIG seats and unbelievably good films on the telly.

1. China. You don’t get a reclining seat, you get a BED. A real BED. Win!

And the worst?

3. Guinea: Two nights along a potholed dirt track in the jungle crammed into a shared taxi designed to fit 8 that somehow fits 16 sitting on the handbrake and handing out money AT GUNPOINT to every horrible policeman who demands it. But still infinitely more pleasant than:

2. UK (National Express): Overpriced nightmares of discomfort and horror. Take the overnighter from Liverpool to London at your peril. The driver will probably be drunk.

1. USA (Greyhound): Appropriate name as they treat their customer like dogs.  I would rather spend a night in a Congolese jail than on one of these horrible, filthy, wretched and insidious buses ever ever again.  This so called ‘public’ transport company is an embarrassment to the good name of America on a par with George W. Bush and Scientology.  I speak with utter authority on this matter: GREYHOUND BUSES ARE THE WORST IN THE WORLD.  AVOID LIKE THE PLAGUE and if all else fails, walk.

Ah, that feels better.  Now, where was I?  Oh yeah – Mongolia.  So I arrived at the capital of Inner Mongolia, Hohhot, at some ungodly hour of the morning.  There I changed buses and headed to the bordertown of Erenhot.

The bus ride there was rather uneventful, except for the fact that some brilliant mind had decided that the otherwise dull fields of nowt that mark the approach to Mongolia should be livened up with the addition of hundreds of large metal dinosaurs.  And as every manchild knows, dinosaurs ROCK.

I was kind of expecting there to be a bus leaving Erenhot for Beijing around 8pm, which would allow me bags of time to cross the border, eat some Mongol Cuisine (yum!) hang out with the locals and then get the bus back to the capital of China – after all, this was going to be a border-hop: there and back again.

So imagine my horror when I arrive in Erenhot to discover that the last bus leaves at 4.30pm.  I looked at my watch.  It was 2pm.  No time for love, Dr. Jones.  This was going to be all business.

Unfortunately for the sake of my sanity, it took me TWO HOURS just to cross the border.  The Chinese and the Mongols have a mad system (which also exists in a few countries: the border between Romania and Moldova being a good example) in which it’s illegal to cross the border on foot.  This creates a NICE LITTLE EARNER for the owners of the clapped out jeeps that ply the 500 meters between the border posts.  Ten quid to be crammed into the boot of a 4×4 (I sat on a large tin of beans) and driven half a kilometre across no man’s land is not something I would usually pay for, but time was short and I had little choice.  I decided to make up the loss by forgoing dinner.

The trip across the border was also prolonged by confusing stemming from my Chinese visa, which, as I had come through Tibet, was not stamped in my passport, but printed on a sheet of paper.

But eventually (being the operative word) and after much smiling and nodding, I made it into Mongolia: COUNTRY NUMBER 168.  By now it was 4pm – the last bus back to Beijing was leaving in half an hour and then I learned that this Mickey Mouse border that separates two of the biggest countries in the world closes at 5pm anyway, so unless I wanted to spend the night in Mongolia, I had to get truckin’.

So I turned around and walked back into China.  As I was the ONLY PERSON in the entire frickin’ world who seemed to want to go to China at that exact moment in time, you would think it would be a quick and painless procedure, even if the border guard was a little perplexed about why I would leave China to just come back again five minutes later on a different passport.

But no, the process ended up taking 45 minutes, by which point, the chances of me getting on this damn bus seemed slimmer than an anorexic stick insect that’s just been run over by a steamroller, since it should have left 15 minutes ago, but I still charged pell mell into the Erenhot bus station shouting Beijing! Beijing!

A plump middle aged lady came to my assistance.  ‘Beijing?’

I nodded frantically.

‘Come.’

And with that I was again bundled into a car and driven to the edge of town.  There seemed be a pattern emerging here.  Anyway, all aboard the night bus to Beijing!  As I watched the dinosaurs pass by, posed majestically against the setting sun, I was content in the knowledge that Mongolia could be ticked off the list and I was on schedule to get the ferry to country number 169, South Korea, on Wednesday.

Day 622: The Great Wall

14.09.10:

Sometimes I had good days, sometimes I have bad days, sometimes I have days that are madder than Mad Jack McMad of the clan McMad.  Today was one of the mad days.  It all started at 2am when my bus pulled over at the side of the road and the driver’s mate gesticulated for me to get off.  Are we in Beijing already?  We’re four hours early…

Sleepy-eyed and completely not with it, I got off (hoping I had grabbed all my stuff) and was herded onto another bus.  You see, my bus wasn’t full enough to justify going all the way to Beijing, so I was to get on another bus that was a little more full.  Well, make that TOTALLY FULL.  Which meant that for the next hour while all around me slept the sleep of angels in their little Chinese bunk beds, I was unhappily STANDING IN THE GODDAMN AISLE.  When it became abundantly clear that there was no way out of this situation, I took the executive decision to make an arse of myself and demand my money back.  So I barged my way to the front of the bus and started shouting at the driver, at which point (possibly because the Chinese HATE to ‘lose face’) the driver’s mate clambered down from his bunk and offered me his bed.

I didn’t need to be offered twice.  I snapped up the bed and fell fast asleep.  Then at 5.30am the driver’s mate decided that he wanted to have a conversation with somebody at the very back of the bus (or on the roof, I don’t know) and as the Chinese are blessed with the highest toleration of noise this side of a howler monkey, the ensuing racket woke me up.  Convinced that there was either a fire or we had arrived, I put my socks on and got ready to disembark.  Oh yeah: there’s the Beijing West train station, I know where I am.

Some people got off the bus, so I thrust my shoes onto my feet and headed for the door, at which point the driver’s mate pushed me physically back onboard.  WTF?  I wasn’t in the mood for this, not after last night’s shenanigans.  I pushed him back and told him in no uncertain terms that I was getting off the bus.  Bizarrely, the driver then told me that I had to pay to get off the bus here.  How much?  10 Yuan (that’s about a quid).

FINE.

I took a 10 yuan note from my wallet, threw it on the floor and marched off the bus.  I was doubly pissed off because I had decided that I really liked Chinese buses as well.  Now I didn’t like them so much, but until somebody else puts beds on buses then I’m afraid they’re going to remain the best, even if they suffer from occasional Greyhound syndrome.

Anyway, it was now 6am and the day was yet young.  The bus to Qingdao, the coastal port from which I could get the ferry to Korea, would be leaving Beijing sometime in the evening (I hoped) and so I had a day to kill, and I had a promise to keep with an old friend…

The Great Wall of China is a masterpiece of human endeavour.  Even if it never really worked (it didn’t keep Genghis out) it still stands out as an artistic and engineering triumph, winding its way in now broken sections from the Jade Gate in the far West all the way to North Korea in the East.  The Lonely Planet recommended against visiting the bit of the wall in Badaling (which is where I visited) on the grounds that it’s full of tourists.  Silly pretentious Lonely Planet, I AM a tourist.  Lemon.  What’s with people wanting places all to themselves anyway?  Are all the girls in bikinis spoiling your beach?  Are all the people having a good time in your living room ruining your party?  If all the people in the world camped out in your back garden, would you write and tell the king?

Or would you grab a tent and join ’em?

Tell you what, though, I wish other people would learn to take a photograph.  When I throw you my camera, DON’T PUT MY HEAD IN THE LOWER MIDDLE OF THE GODDAMN PICTURE!!  I’m sure the sky is lovely and one day I might take a picture of it myself, but for the love of God: HEADS, UPPER THIRD OF PICTURE, PLEASE.  ALWAYS.

THANK YOU.

Anyway, the crowds were an added bit of entertainment and it was nice to be around lots of people who were enjoying themselves.  The wall was great, although it was a stinking hot day and with my backpack and my laptop/camcorder etc. to carry, boy it was a killer climbing up that hill.

In a bit I had to climb down, and the fact that I desperately need a new pair of shoes became painfully obvious as the shiny polished stones were like an ice rink: one that is disturbingly vertical.  Anyone who has braved Dubrovnik in Croatia in high heels (and who hasn’t?!) will know exactly what I’m talking about.  I slid all the way down, clinging onto the handrail for dear life.

Fun!

Anyway, enough walling for one day, I headed back to Beijing to meet with Carl and pick up my gear that he had kindly let me leave at his.  After a (much needed) shower I was raring to go to the Forbidden City and see Tiananmen Square for myself.  Carl was up for it, so we took the metro down to the very middle – figuratively and geographically – of Beijing.  Tiananmen was a little meh; too big, too surrounded by yawn and, well let’s just say it – it looked a little like a carpark.

The Forbidden City, on the other hand, was exceptionally groovy from the outside and, like St Peter’s Basilica and Samarkand, I made the executive decision to save the inside for another day: to leave some more stones unturned.  Climbing the Great Wall was enough for one day.  Beijing: I like you.  I’ll be back.

Everybody knows that the best place to get travel information is at a backpackers.  Luckily for me, Carl had been staying at a nearby hostel before he moved into his current flat. Like the Major in Fawlty Towers.  So he knew the staff pretty well and we were their to pick their brains about bus times to Qingdao.  Happily, there was a bus leaving at 7.30pm, which was the time I was hoping the bus would leave.  Carl and I celebrated with the biggest glass of beer you have EVER seen.  It was so big it had its own tap.  And a tube of ice in the middle to keep it cool (the Chinese man, they think of EVERYTHING!).

Unfortunately, it was so big it took us an hour to drink the damn thing and by then it was looking a little late for me to get to the bus in time, considering I still had to go back to Carl’s, pack my bags up and head halfway across town.  But we gave it a red hot go.

I said goodbye to Carl on the steps of the Dongzhimen Station (I wonder if Chinese people find ‘Dong’ and ‘Wang’ as hilarious as I do – then again, nobody thinks the ‘turd’ in Saturday is even remotely funny except for me and the less said about Scunthorpe the better).  Carl’s a good egg, and if you’re ever in need of a couch in Beijing, I couldn’t recommend a more generous host.  Cheers man!

So it was a heart-pounding RACE to the bus station.  It would have been good to have an hour to make the journey.  As it was, I had half an hour.  The first metro line train came straight away, which was great, however the second train I had to transfer onto was a) miles of winding tunnels away and b) just pulling out of the station when I got there.

So I had to wait for the next one.  But even when I had got to the destination station, the bus station was still a while away.  It was 7.25 and things were not looking good.  I needed a taxi and none were stopping.  At 7.33 I arrived at the bus station, but the driver dropped me on the other side of a massive dual carriageway which meant I had to RUN up the stairs (with all my bags which are now collectively weighing a TON), cross the bridge and come down the other side.  And then…

And then….

Where the HELL is the bus station??  One thing about China that’s worth worrying about: hardly anybody speaks English.  Yes, hurray for the Chinese they are just as completely inept at learning other languages as I am.  Which is great.  If you’re Chinese.

I asked a few passers-by, but to actually get the one English professor in the whole of China who actually understands the words ‘Bus Station’ was going to be the statistical equivalent of winning the Lotto.  Without actually buying a ticket.

I had two choices: left or right.  I went left.  Within 50 yards there was a narrow driveway.  A coach was entering it.  I ran after the coach down the dark and forbidden driveway of doom.  And there it was: the bus station, inexplicably hidden from the outside world by a bunch of noodle shops.  I ran inside.  The place was empty.  The lights were off.

There were two women at a small counter by coach bay door number 16 who were packing up for the night.  Like the previous two nights I ran towards the women shouting the name of my destination.  One women shook her head.  “Tomorrow”.

Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!! I said, doing my best Vader and banging my head on the counter.

The women then started talking to her friend in Chinese.  They looked at me, saw the despair, the longing, the joy they knew that only they could bring with those three magic words…

“Come with me…”

A broad smile cracked across my face.  I had beaten the system.  Again.  Hurray for China, man, THREE CHEERS, BRAVO.  These guys know something that the less mentally agile denizens of Planet Earth do not: rules are made to be bent.  I was put on a bus that was leaving that very moment, but before I had even managed to sit down I was put on another bus which I assumed was the bus to Qingdao, but wasn’t – it was the bus that was taking me to the bus to Qingdao.  I assume that they were taking the same route out of town and that they called ahead to ask the Qingdao bus to wait for me.

Anyway, one way or the other, I was soon curled up on my amazing Chinese bus bed dreaming my way to Qingdao and beyond.

Day 623: Guten Tag!

15.09.10:

So Qingdao , what are you famous for?  Ah, you were a German concession town were you?  And you’re where the Tsingtao brewery is based?  Excellent.  I’ll have a pint.  What’s that?  It’s 50p? I’ll take two.  Ahh…

My love affair with China (so much easier to navigate than anywhere in Africa, the Middle East or India ) undiminished, I arrived in Qingdao hoping to take the ferry to Korea today.  Seriously, if this was India, I would have had to give five months notice, spent three days trying to find the correct window and drafted a memo the length of the Gettysburg address to explain exactly why I wanted to get on the ferry (as well as supplying the mortal remains of my great grandfather to prove I’m not of Pakistani descent).  But this is China , so I just asked for a ticket, paid the money and got the ticket.

Super.

So I had a day to mooch around Qingdao .  Nice little seaside town.  Like Llandudno.  If it was German.  And in China .  A couple of nice churches that somehow survived Mao’s Cultural Revolution and a pier with a splendid pagoda at the end of it.  All pretty damn sweet.  Oh and did I mention that a pint of beer is 50p?  Actually, that’s if you buy it in a restaurant.  You can get it at the 7 Eleven for like buttons.  In fact, I think they pay you.

Strangely enough though, no bars.  Or at least no bars that I could find.  I found a couple, but they were closed.  Maybe the beer-cheaper-than-water policy only works because the pubs aren’t open all day.  They don’t want the Ibiza crowd turning up, do they?

It was lovely to see the old Pacific again, according to Andy in The Shawshank Redemption, the Pacific has no memory.  Which may be bad for homeopathy, but it was good for me, as last time I saw it I was drunkenly mouthing obscenities at it from a beach in El Salvador .  Although the fact that it purposely wet my shoes makes me think that Andy might have been taking out of his arse.

Soon enough I was embarking on the overnight ferry to Incheon,  South Korea .  The only other westie on board was a guy from all over the shop (as was his accent) called Dane.  He had lived in the UK , South Africa , Hong Kong … you name it, he’d probably hung his hat there for a good while.  We teamed up and got drinking with the locals.  I was introduced to the HORROR that is Kimchi – Korean fermented cabbage (yes it tastes as bad as it sounds – and smells) as well as Cheongju – fermented rice wine.  After giving both a try, I decided to stick with the beer.  You always know where you are with beer. Did I mention it was 50p?

Days 624-629: How Do We Solve A Problem Like Korea?

DAY 624: DISMEMBERMENT

16.09.10:

So I disembarked (hilariously described on the ferry’s website as ‘dismemberment’)…

Ouch!

…onto the native soil of country number 169, South Korea – a place at pains to remind you that it’s the only divided country in the world.  Which it is.  If you ignore Cyprus/Northern Cyprus. And Ireland/Northern Ireland. And Israel/Palestine. And North Sudan/South Sudan. And Somalia/Somaliland. And China/Taiwan. And Pakistan/Bangladesh. And Mongolia/Inner Mongolia. And Macedonia/Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. And Georgia/South Ossetia/Abkhazia. And Azerbaijan/Nagorno-Karabakh. And…

A Divided Nation, Yesterday

But pedantry aside, North and South Korea have been officially at war for over fifty years now (there was only a ceasefire, not a peace treaty) and now we have a crazy situation in which the southern half of the country is one of the richest and most progressive in the world, while the northern half is a basketcase and something akin to George Orwell’s 1984, if 1984 had been even more weird and depressing than it already is.

DO IT TO JULIA!!!

In 1980, South Korea had an economic output on a par with Afghanistan.  Now it’s in the G20.  Meanwhile, North Korea hasn’t just gone backwards, it has regressed to the point where it is needs to have its nappy changed by China every two hours.  With a short-arsed madman in charge (and his freakishly similar-looking son poised to take over as soon as he croaks), the future is not bright for the poor bastards living in one of the last strongholds of (a-hem) ‘communism’.  Or as I like to call it, ‘autocratic fasci-commie-nutty-meanie-bollocks’.

But the big question (that I hoped to answer this week) was this: How The Hell Are You Going To Visit North Korea?

I get asked this a lot, just as I used to get asked about Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq (why does nobody ask me how I’m going to get to the Marshall Islands eh? Now for that question I have NO answer).  My usual response would be ‘er… by stepping over the border…?’, but I guess I owe something of a more detailed explanation.  In my research (yes, I did research this odyssey, believe it or not), I sussed out two ways of doing it.

Plan A:

There is a company called Young Pioneers Tour which runs trips from Beijing that enter North Korea on the train and spend three days shepherding you around Pyongyang before taking the train back to China.  This trip would take five days in total and cost up to $1000.

Plan B:

I could visit the ‘Peace Village’ set up in the middle of the Demilitarised Zone (the DMZ) and enter one of the five white huts that literally straddle the border between the North and South Korea.  Half the hut is in the sovereign territory of North Korea, so as long as I manage to walk to the far side of the hut, I can quite legitimately cross North Korea off my list.  As I was going to be in Seoul anyway, this trip would take less than a day and cost $50.

For reasons that are glaringly obvious, I went for Plan B.  Anyone who has a problem with this can meet me behind the bikesheds after school for a damn good kicking.  Be the first person to visit every capital city without flying why dontcha?  At the moment I’m a year over schedule and stupidly over budget: I’ve got bigger fish to fry.

So before this fish frying could begin in earnest, I had some housekeeping to do.  Taiwan was giving me headaches as I had originally planned to take the ferry from Japan to Taiwan and then take a cargo ship or something back to China (probably Hong Kong).  The bad news is that the Japan-Taiwan ferry stopped in 2007, yet another victim of low-priced flights.  The good news is… well, I’ll tell you next week, but it meant that I needed yet ANOTHER Chinese visa (why oh why didn’t I just get a multiple entry one I’ll never know).

So I accompanied Dane off the ferry and onto the Seoul metro (nice!) to his backpackers (Inside Backpackers, would recommend) and there I booked a trip to the DMZ for the next day.  The nice lady on reception found a visa agent for me to use – the Chinese Embassy in South Korea no longer accepts visa applications by real people.  I headed over to the office and gave in my passport.  But there was a problem.  In order to get the visa by the earliest date (which would be next Monday) I would have to give proof that I had already been granted a Chinese visa.

And my Chinese visa was in my other passport.  The group visa I got in Nepal was on a separate piece of paper, not in my passport.  This meant I would have to hand in both passports.  As I wanted to visit Japan this weekend, this was something of an arse.  Eventually I got the guy to agree to give me one passport back tomorrow so I could still do the Japanese thing.  Yet another bit of unforeseeable Odyssey madness.

To add a little flavour to proceedings, next Tuesday is a big public holiday in South Korea, so if I didn’t pick up my visa then, I would be waiting until the end of the month.

I headed back to the nice backpackers to pick up my stuff, but I would not be staying there: once a CouchSurfer, always a CouchSurfer.  My host in Korea was a guy called John from Atlanta, Georgia who quite possibly qualifies as the coolest CouchSurf host of all time (up there with Gui in Mozambique), I mean, this guy WAS the Big Lebowski.  He will be henceforth referred to as The Dude.

THE DUDE (left). Abiding.

He had a tiny flat which managed to cram in at least five CouchSurfers Tardis-style, at any one time.  When I arrived he was already hosting a couple who had been biking it from France all the way here to Seoul, which was mighty impressive.  I mapped out a spot on the floor and cast out my worries.

The Dude wanted to go out on the raz, something I cannot for the life of me fathom why anyone would think was a bad idea, aside from the fact I had to be at the backpackers for 7.15am to do the DMZ tour.  I’ve made tighter deadlines than that, and so The Dude and I hit the streets of Seoul looking for Seoul food and a place to eat.

We didn’t have to look very far.  The Dude treated me to some authentic Korean barbecue (where you cook the meat yourself on a circular hotplate in the middle of the table) and then we hit the city.

Seoul is flashy, it’s lively, it’s neon, it’s welcoming, it’s loud – and, best of all, it’s pretty cheap (compared with other capital cities).  We went to a string of different places, meeting up with The Dude’s rather large set of ex-pat mates from all over the world and getting progressively more and more intoxicated until at 3am I decided it might be time to come home for at least a couple of hours kip.

DAY 625: You Don’t Need To See His Identification

17.09.10:

So after a literal 40 winks I was up again at 6am and heading across town on the excellent metro system (Liverpool, goddamn it, when I get back, you and me are having WORDS) to get to the backpackers.  With nothing else to read, I was perusing the DMZ tour brochure when something rather ugly and red on the back page caught my eye: the words YOU MUST CARRY YOUR PASSPORT AT ALL TIMES.

I ran to the backpackers, but it was not going to happen.  No chance.  Forget it.  Goddamn it – this is one of the reasons I have two passports, so I can go places while one is in an embassy – and both of them where with the bloody visa agent.

Grr…

But I can go tomorrow, right?

Wrong.  The tour was full tomorrow.  There was no tour on Sunday or Monday and Tuesday was the beginning of this holiday – there wouldn’t be another tour for the next ten days.

So after a fit of swearing that would make Roger Mellie blush, I stormed back to The Dude’s flat with my tail between my legs.  When the going gets tough, the tough get onto Google.  They couldn’t be the only tour company in town, they couldn’t…

They weren’t.

Thank the maker, I found another tour company and this one was nowhere near as unreasonable when it came to what time I had to get up in the morning: the tour left at 10.40am.  I booked the trip, headed over to the visa agents, picked up my passport and Happy Days.

Friday night was a bit of a repeat of last night.  It involved Seoul, a city I now love, some tasty goddamn food and something to do with beer.  And possibly some dancing.  We stayed out way past your bedtime, but I can do that because, contrary to what my teachers would have had you believe, I am big and I am clever.

What wasn’t clever was the fact that, on the eve of what would be a great victory (and great television) my camera, Javier, threw another of it’s periodic spazzes and this wasn’t a simple fix or even a cunning workaround: the cartridge that holds the video tape had completely gone la-la.  Even if I did make it to North Korea tomorrow, there would be no High-Definition evidence.  I bet on the TV show they say ‘Graham was told not to film, so he captured the experience on his phone’ or something.  That’d work.

DAY 626: Through Early Morning Fog I See

18.09.10:

This morning was infinitely more pleasant.  I had time for a shower and everything.

I was even early getting to the hotel from which the tour departed: an unusual occurrence for me as I generally like to show up 30 seconds before anything departs, much in the manner of Sherlock Holmes.  Just to put the willies up me, somebody had written something on my website along the lines of “they sometimes don’t let you walk to the far end of the peace hut”.  That weighed heavy on my mind, but hey-ho, whatcha gonna do?  If all else failed, there was always Plan A.

My bus buddy on the trip was a British guy called Mark Who worked in the video games industry.  At LAST!  Somebody with an interesting job!  And if you don’t think working in the video games industry is interesting, then you are a fool and a bigot, you smell of turnips and your dog thinks you’re an idiot.  The video games industry is bigger than Hollywood and, unlike Britain’s (ha!) television industry and our (oh dear god no!) film ‘industry’, our video game makers are some of the best (and most successful) in the world.  Did I mention that the Grand Theft Auto series is Scottish?  I probably should have.  It’s made more money than the Lord of the Rings films, although you won’t hear anyone from the Scottish Tourist Board harping on about it, sadly enough.

Anyway, me and Mark got on like the proverbial house on fire as we chatted about Zero Punctuation and the upcoming Goldeneye remake.  We were taken to places called things like The Bridge of No Return and then deep into the DMZ itself, a place where you can be refused entry for looking too scruffy or even – eek! – having long hair.

Luckily for me, the guy with the shotgun from Easy Rider wasn’t on duty today.

So before long we were in the ‘Peace Village’ where negotiations take place between representatives of the two Koreas.  A line runs down the middle of the village, much in the manner of Felix Unger’s line in The Odd Couple.  This is the line that may not be crossed: to do so would be an act of War.  However, there are five small huts that straddle this line.  During meetings between the north and south, the representatives sit on their respective side of a table which is positioned right in the middle of the room: the line of demarcation runs down the middle of it.  I guess they have to be careful not to stretch out their feet: North Korea is, after all, a nuclear power (a fact that is truly terrifying).

Gravel Good, Concrete Bad

We entered the middle hut and before anyone could tell me not to, I ran around the table and to the far side: Kim Jong-Il be damned, I was in North Korea!!  Here’s a secret video I shot whilst in the Peace Hut:

...And Bob's Yer Uncle

A massive ONE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY countries now officially visited and just THIRTY to go (fifteen of which should be a cakewalk), I felt like cracking open the champagne, but the guards in this area looked a little stern for some reason, so I thought I’d best leave it until later.  All too easy…

Half of this table is in South Korea, half is in North Korea.

On the way back from the village I bought my ‘I went to North Korea and all I got was this lousy T-shirt’ T-shirt while Mark got himself some North Korean money.  You could buy DMZ teddy bears and everything: I wonder if they have them on the North side?

Kitch!

When I got back to The Dude’s, my fellow CouchSurfers had been replaced by a couple of Turkish girls called Asli and Selma and a guy from Germany called Paul.  Baffled at the prospect of why anyone would willingly stay in on a Saturday night, we headed out, drawn like moths to a flame to the flashy neon lights and scrummy scran that the streets had to offer.

Along the way we met drifters, strangers, vagabonds, rapscallions, ne’er-do-wells, scallywags, ruffians, thieves, princesses, courtesans, belly-dancers, disco-dancers, crusties, greebos, sex-kittens, pie-eyed galoots, slack-jawed gawkers and flannel-footed mugwumps.

Needless to say, we had a blast. I LOVE COUCHSURFING!!!

Surf's Up!

Day 627: The South of The South

19.06.10:

Shaking a hangover off is an undisputed talent of mine, but making up for lost hours of sleep is another matter entire.  This being the case I refrained from picking myself up off the floor (as was the plan) for a very, very long time.  But now I needed to head to country number 171 – Japan – post haste.  Now I had one of my passports I needed to get there and back before end of play tomorrow or else I would be more stuffed than a stuffed toy that’s just eaten a seven-course meal which consisted entirely of stuffing.

The plan was to head down to Busan the south of South Korea, get the last ferry over to the Japanese city of Fukuoka (please don’t ask me how that is pronounced, I’m told it’s Fu-Coke-Ah, but the way I say it would have me banished from the dinner table), spend the night and then return in the morning.  However, by the time I got to the train station something happened that I hadn’t considered – the trains were sold out for the next few hours.  Ah.  As it only took a few hours to get to Busan (excellent, excellent trains BTW Korea – give yourself a pat on the back), I hadn’t really considered that possibility.  As it was, and given the best laid plans of mice and men, I didn’t get to Busan until 9pm – too late for the ferry (or so I thought… I think they actually run until eleven).

So I checked into the nearest backpackers (the Indy hostel – seemed appropriate somehow) and resolved to get up at the crack of dawn the next morning.  This resolve was slightly compromised by the other resolution I had set myself – find a KFC.  After 4 days of nothing but Korean food, I was hankering for something that wasn’t weird or slimy or alive.  I walked until well past midnight, but the flashy neon-lit streets of Busan hummed only one tune: my way or the highway.  I made do with a burger from a street stall.

Day 628: Nonsense On Stilts

20.09.10:

Would you believe that I not only managed to haul myself out of bed at 6am, but that I also managed to get a ticket for the first crazy ferry over to Japan – and man, was it a crazy ferry.  Like nothing I’ve EVER seen before, the Beetle is a boat that does away with the age-old problem of the hull having to part all that water by simply (and seemingly impossibly) driving through the water ON STILTS.

No, really.

ON. STILTS.

Weeee-ird

Whoever invented this abomination of aquadynamics should be lauded and feared in equal measure.  I take my hat off to you sir.

The journey was smoother than a silk cigar and before I really knew what was going on I was in Country 171, or Japan as people who aren’t on The Odyssey like to call it.

How do you say that again?

Because I needed to get back for my passport, Fukuoka only got a cursory glance, I’m afraid.  But there wasn’t much to see.  My friend Stringer tells me this is a big Yakuza city – the mayor was recently assassinated – but from where I was standing, it looked like a big Ya-loser city: all concrete and overpasses and dull.  I had an hour before the return journey, so I thought I’d give the place the benefit of the doubt and go for a walk – I also needed to find an ATM – my departure tax could only be paid in yen.

A Yearning for Yen

I didn’t find much.  Just some streets and some buildings and a 7-Eleven.  Maybe the port area is just poo and the rest of the town is ‘happening’, as the kids say.  Had I more time and more money, I would have loved to head up to Tokyo on the bullet train and hang out with Stringer, but not this trip, I’m afraid.  I took my Yen and headed back to the ferry terminal.

Biff bash bosh I was back in Busan (man that Beetle is FAST) and within an hour I was hurtling north on a train.  I guess because I’ve never been to Japan before, and it’s one of the few countries that I hadn’t been to before The Odyssey began that I really really wanted to see, I felt like I owed Japan an explanation.

The yachting season around the Pacific ends in December.  If I don’t get to The Marshall Islands before then, there is little chance of me getting there before NEXT MAY.  Sorry Japan, I really, really need to get them there skates on.  But don’t worry: I’ll be back.

I arrived in Seoul just before 6pm and I ran like the wind to the passport agency, praying to Bacchus that it was still open.  I knocked on the door.  No answer.  I knocked again and opened the door… thank the god of wine… it was still open.  But my passport wasn’t there.  It had been picked up by the German guy and the Turkish girls that were CouchSurfing at The Dudes.

You fookin’ LEGENDS!

I headed back to The Dudes he took me out on his motorbike (did I mention he was a DUDE?) razzing it about town like we weren’t made of squishy human bodyparts.  Weeeeeee!

Day 629: Octopussy Galore

21.09.10:

With my passport in hand and North Korea and Japan in the bag, there was nothing keeping me in Korea save the craic.  As I mentioned a couple of days ago, today was the start of a big festival here in Korea, so I was worried that I might not get a space on tonight’s ferry back to Qingdao in China.

Luckily for me, Asli and Selma, the Turkish girls, had got the very same ferry as me a couple of days ago and had befriended the captain and the first mate (very resourceful – I should have brought them with me).  Selma gave the first mate a call on The Dude’s phone and he said he’d meet me at the terminal at 4pm and sort me out with a ticket.

What a guy!

So we headed out for lunch, and since this was going to be my last Korean meal, The Dude wanted it to be special: so, inspired by Oldboy, we headed out to eat some traditional Korean LIVE OCTOPUS.  Stupidly, I took all my bags with me, which was a BAD CALL as no sooner had we left the flat but the heavens opened and it rained down so much it made the Niagara Falls look like a light shower.  Everything (especially my shoes) got SOAKED.  Rats!

But eventually we made it to the fish market, bought the –ahem- merchandise and headed over to a nearby restaurant (accessed by wading through a torrent of hooky overflowing drain water) and sat down for the coolest meal I’ve ever partaken in, if only because I felt like I was Captain Kirk having to eat the crazy alien food on some crazy alien planet and – let’s face it – octopuses look like crazy alien beings.

The tentacles squirmed around in my plate.  You have to dip them in oil so the suckers don’t fix themselves to your oesophagus on the way down.  Then chew it well (you don’t want it attaching itself to your stomach lining) and it’s down the hatch.  GULP!

Lovely!

As somebody once said; you should try everything in life at least once, with the exception of incest and country dancing.

I got to the ferry terminal in Incheon bang on time (thanks to The Dude paying my fare – we were all out of working cash machines) and to my surprise there were still tickets available for the ferry so I didn’t have to bother the first mate.  I got stamped out and clambered aboard: back to China, for the third time.

So then, South Korea: you’re a great little place ain’t yah?  Not as autocratic as China and not as expensive as Japan.  Gastronomically and culturally a nice mix of the two.  Could do with a few more cash machines that take foreign cards, but other than that, you’re doing a great job, carry on.

All hail the Mighty SK!

Next Month >>>

Days 630-639: Shanghaied In Shanghai

Day 630: A Moment of Terror

22.09.10

You know that stomach-dropping moment of terror you have when you realise that you’ve just, like really, really messed up?  I had one of those this morning.  Last week, when I did this trip in reverse, I put my GPS tracking device on the window sill next to my bed (economy class gives you a bunk bed in a room with 32 other people) as it likes to have a window to look out of in order to get a signal.  Nowt wrong with that, I collected it in the morning and all was dandy.

However, on the return leg my bed was nowhere near the window.  I didn’t want to leave my GPS thing there overnight as if some light-fingered gentleman did grab it, I would lose all my GPS tracks for the last couple of weeks: including the proof that I had actually stepped foot in North Korea.  This would not be a good thing.

So I did what I sometimes do and got a reading before I went to bed and then turned the damn thing off until I got up in the morning.  This is why you sometimes see a dead straight line connecting two places on the map (see the ‘Proof’ link above^).  As I’m going over the sea, it doesn’t look too bad and who is seriously going to think I took a helicopter from one point in the middle of the ocean to an other?  As I tried to explain to the police in Congo, I’m not James Bond.  More irritating was the fact that even though the GPS was on for the entire 48 hour journey from Lhasa in Tibet to Beijing, it didn’t pick up a SINGLE signal.  On the GPS map it’s just a straight line – madness.  It seems to be a problem with trains: I had the same experience in Europe and in Korea; my GPS just doesn’t like them.

ANYWAY, in the morning I woke up at 7am and put my GPS device on the windowsill.  I was awake and sitting on a nearby bunk writing up my blog.  At 8am the ship had docked and I got up to grab my GPS… and it was GONE!

I panicked.  I threw my stuff in my bag like a madman and ran out of the cabin, completely freaked: I had lost my GPS, but worse: I had lost the proof I had been to the DMZ.  Without my camcorder, it was going to be pretty tricky convincing The Guinness World Records to just take my word for it.

Thoughts flashed through my mind: maybe I could get them to search everyone’s bags and pockets as they disembarked.  Really Graham?  They’re going to do that for you and a thirty quid GPS tracker?  Maybe not.

Damnit.  I had held onto that little critter since Day 1 – along with my iPod and my backpack it’s one of the few things that I’ve carried with me every single day for the clast 600 odd days of travel.

As I rushed down the stairs to the ship’s reception area, I was greeted by a stewardess holding out in both hands (as they do when giving here – something I really like) my bloody GPS.  A passenger had thought everyone had left the cabin and taken it.

I’ve never been so relieved in my life.

I felt like hugging her, but I thought it might not go down too well in this part of the world.

After that little drama was over, it was skip skip skip hop hop hop to the bus station in Qingdao.  There were no buses to Shanghai this morning, but there were a ton this afternoon.  I bought a ticket, dropped my backpack off in a locker and went out to find somewhere with wi-fi and beer.

Hmm… easier said than done.

Strangely enough for the place where Tsingtao beer is made (Tsingtao is the old pre-pinyin spelling of Qingdao – pinyin being the new spelling standard brought in by the communists – hence ‘Beijing’ instead of ‘Peking’), it was all but impossible to find a bar.  But I shouldn’t have been so surprised.  In China, and in Korea for that matter, the Western concept of drinking-for-the-sake-of-drinking hasn’t really stuck: meaning that unless you go to a dedicated ‘Irish’ or ‘American’ bar, the only place you can sit down and enjoy a swift half is in a restaurant: and you’re expected to order food with your drink.

I pounded the streets for hours looking for my Holy Grail, but it remained elusive.  I made do with a restaurant: there was no wi-fi, but at least there was beer.  And gloriously GLORIOUSLY cheep beer at that: 50p a litre.  Seriously.  I bought two.

But time and tide and blah blah blah soon I was saying tatty-bye to the remarkably pleasant German concession town of Qingdao and heading FULL STEAM to the Chinese Megacity One: Shanghai.

Day 631: Jew Loo Loo

23.09.10:

I arrived in Shanghai at 5am, got into a taxi and told him to go to ‘Jew Loo Loo’ (downward tones, like you’re angry) as per Chris’s text message.

Chris and Debbie are old chums of mine from Liverpool.  Chris was the quiet kid who got my bus (while I was busy swinging from the stair banister like a orang-utan and failing to impress Kate Nelson with my zany antics) and Debbie was my ex’s mate who used to go to the Krazy House and ignore me (that’s what the vast majority of girls did at that time of my life, so I don’t hold it against her). They’ve been living in Shanghai for a couple of years now, teaching at a local English school.

So, another couch to surf, only this time they couldn’t leave me a negative reference.  Ha!!  Chris and Deb work as teachers here in Shanghai, and as they left for work, I set out to get myself a Vietnamese visa, which (with any luck) should be the LAST GODDAMN VISA I NEED TO BUY BEFORE I ARRIVE IN A COUNTRY.  And that, my friends, sets my pants on fire with glee.

What doesn’t set my pants on fire is when I waste two hours getting to the Vietnam Consulate (I made a couple of bad choices when it came to which trainlines to take), only to find that the DAMN thing is closed until Monday because of a Vietnamese holiday.

Given my camcorder is bust, my laptop screen is cracked, all my clothes STINK after being drenched in Korea, my shoes are on the verge of being banned by the UN inspectorate of chemical weapons and there’s going to be no way I’ll be out of here before this weekend, I was beginning to think that the gods had it in for me.  But Chris and Debbie’s gaff was really lovely, situated in the leafy French Concession part of town.

As much fun as it is for an Englishman to take the piss out of the French, I do respect their tree-lined avenues: Britain and Australia could really do with taking a leaf (literally) out of the Frenchie’s book on this one: they look great, they keep you and your car in the shade and when the sunshine filters through the branches, the lighting would make Terrance Malik dance.

Back at Chris and Deb’s flat I found out that the wonderful David Collins from Lonely Planet TV was up for lending me a replacement camcorder (second series anyone?!) while mine got fixed.  Better still, he would have it in the post tomorrow: which meant (if I was really lucky) I could be back online on Monday.  Hallelujah!

Days 632-634: Rounding The Bund

24.09.10-26.09.10:

The next day I set off to the part of town that had all the laptop hawkers and fixers, aiming to get Sony Jim sorted out – the large black blob to the right of the screen where the crack emanates is growing like Venom, and will very soon engulf the LCD entire.  Quite what Sony where thinking when they designed a computer with a hard glass screen with a backing of floppy plastic I’ll never know.

Anyway, I scouted around for a price thinking oh this is China it’s bound to be cheap.  Ha.  No.  The best price I got was 200 quid.  Considering I paid 300 quid for the damn laptop in the first place, I, like Queen Victoria, was not amused.  I resolved to plough on with the crack until it stops my ability to write my blogs, mess around with Photoshop and make nice videos for YouTube.

On Friday night Chris and Deb and I went out for an awesomely cheap curry-and-all-you-can-drink bonanza with their teacher mates.  On Saturday, quickly shaking off the resulting hangover, we headed out to see The Bund – the Shanghai waterfront, complete with this HILARIOUS building:

Two large balls and one massive erection.

My word – and I thought I had a dirty mind!!

Anyway, the OTHER side of the river (our side, the side of The Bund) is just peachy: very, very reminiscent of my hometown of Liverpool, well the nice bits – you know down by the Pier Head before they built that shed next door.

Ce n'est pas Liverpool

Next up I needed to replace my Vans.  Wading through the hooky drain water in Seoul had left them incapable of ever smelling normal ever again: I had tried washing them TWICE in Chris’s washing machine and they still had the power to melt my face like the Nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Think wet dog with a soupcon of rendered fat and a sprinkling of sweat from a sumo’s butt-crack and you’re still not anywhere near.

We found the shoe supermarket, but as it’s China, there is pretty no way of guessing whether anything is real or not.  But that wasn’t my biggest problem: that was getting my size.  I’m by no means Sideshow Bob when it comes to my shoe size, but I guess that even years after foot-binding was made illegal, the Chinese have still got a love-affair with dinky feet and therefore resolutely refuse to cater for anyone who has feet any larger than Bilbo Baggins.

Eventually I found a pair that fit, the only problem being they were BRIGHT RED (should have figured on that – this being China and all).  Oh well, maybe if I click the heels together three times… no, that doesn’t work either.

But given the Hobson’s choice on offer, I plummed for the scarlet slippers.  Then I haggled the price down from 55 quid to 15.  I’m good at stuff like that these days.  We headed back to the flat with Sonic’s hand-me-downs and we watched British box-office flop ‘The Infidel’ which is about as funny as finding a lump on your testicle.  In fact, it’s probably the least funny ‘funny’ film I’ve ever seen.  Seriously: it was sub-Wayan brothers.  If I ever met David Baddiel (the writer) I may have to break his hands with a hammer lest he attempt to write any more similar dirge, I would be doing the world a favour.

Days 635-639: A Fiery Dish of Hades

27.09.10-01.10.10:

By Monday I was up and full of beans: the Vietnam consulate would be open.  I headed down there and queued up for over an hour, only for them to stop taking applications when I was one person away from the desk.  Come back after lunch.  And the bad news didn’t end there.  Chinese customs where holding my replacement camcorder.  And they wanted – wait for it – 400 POUNDS in tax to release it from customs.

And it got worse: customs in China takes 5-7 days to clear incoming goods.  Next Thursday is a ten-day holiday in China.  Yes: not only did customs was 400 quid, they would also be keeping the camera for at least TWO WEEKS.

I did what any other swaggering squashbuckler would do in this situation: I went to the pub.  I took along an American guy called James who had also just been knocked back from the Vietnam consulate.  After a couple of jars of the amber nectar, we headed back to the consulate and got our applications handed in: the visas would be ready tomorrow.

Fair enough.  Now: what the HELL was I going to do about this bloody camcorder?  I decided it would be a Bully’s Special Prize of a good idea to take it down to laptop city (where the grass is green and the girls are pretty) and see if one of the many Sony shops down there could do a number on my camcorder in just a couple of days.

You have to understand: I’ve had camcorders fixed in the UK before and it’s taken them WEEKS just to diagnose the problem and MONTHS to fix the damn thing.  But this is China, and I guess people are a bit more handy.  James came with me and, unbelievably, there was a place that said they could have it fixed on Wednesday.  I love the UK, but at some things it totally sucks the big one: this being a great example.  Hurrah for China!  The price they charged for parts and labour came to about the same as what they charge back home just to look at the bloody thing.

Much happier about the situation, James and I joined Chris and Debbie for a meal at which I stupidly ordered the pepper beef.  Eek.

No, seriously, eek!

Amongst my other not-inconsiderable achievements in my life is the fact that I managed to complete the Curry Hell challenge at the Rupali restaurant in Newcastle, as seen in the Viz.  I got a certificate and a trophy and man did it hurt to go to the toilet for days afterwards: for poos and wees.

But this pepper beef must have been concocted by nothing short of a madman.  I’ve never seen so many chilli peppers, except when I visited that chilli pepper factory.  And as we struggled to eat this fiery dish of Hades, the air-conditioning could not do anything to stop the sweat pouring from our brows, much in the manner of Ted Stryker.

The next day James and I picked up our visas and on Wednesday I went to pick up my camcorder only to find that when I tested it, there was a problem.  It wasn’t recording or playing back right: dropping frames like the goddamn Chuckle Brothers.  Can you come back on Friday?

Chris and Debbie were leaving on holiday tomorrow for Laos.  That would be a no, then.

Eventually he said it could be done for six o’ clock in the evening tomorrow.  Debbie, the legend that she is, said I could stay at their flat until I got the camera back, even though they wouldn’t be there.  Cool!  A Shanghai flat to myself.  House Party!

No, Graham, that wouldn’t be very nice now would it?

So after a final meal (mmm…. pizza) together, Chris and Debbie left me on my Billy Lonesome the next day.  They were having administration nightmares of their own: their school still hadn’t given Debbie her passport back (she had given it to them over a month ago to get her visa renewed).  In the end (and at the 11th hour) Debbie did finally get her passport and they set off for the airport.

Bah!  Wish I could fly.

Later on Thursday I picked up my camera and (joy of joys!) it was working again.  I thanked the guys and headed home to put the growing mountain of video tapes from Nepal, Tibet, China, Korea etc on my hard-drive.  Boring, but someone had to do it.

On Friday, I met up with James and we went to the Shanghai Expo together.  I would have gone earlier, but I wanted to get it on camera, but to be honest I shouldn’t have bothered: the architecture on display just set me up for a full on rant which I’ll post in the Featured Column when it’s finished.

That night, Chris and Debbie’s mate Matt came over for a few beers and action movies while I backed-up the last lot of tapes onto my computer.  Matt has done a rather spanking overland adventure of his own: Manchester to Sydney, and unlike the Oz Bus, he didn’t cheat by flying.  I may need to pick his brains if I’m going to get from East Timor to Australia in one piece.

So that’s it: a week of errands and housekeeping.  But now I was set on the blocks, ready for the starter’s pistol.  I have everything I need to race through the countries of SE Asia in double megaquick time: just one hurdle remained: Taiwan.  Given that Taiwan and China are mortal enemies, how on Earth did I expect to go from one to the other and back?