Xin Jiang – Riding Camels In The Taklamakan Desert

After we had safely regained Kashgar after our wanderings up to and back from the glacier (see earlier post on this topic – link below).   We decided to go wandering on our own (my wife Lotty, and I) for the rest of our summer break from our work in Beijing.   So to this end, we thought it might be pleasant to start off by taking a camel trip into the Taklamakan Desert which was right next to Kashgar.

Like most people outside China, we had never heard of this desert, even though it is one of the largest sand deserts in the world, at some 130 000 square miles in size (337 000 square kilometers), so we were interested to have a look at it while we were there.

So we hunted up a company who organised camel trips into the desert, made all the necessary arrangements, and took off by car to the starting point of our epic journey into this huge desert.

By the way, they had only just built a road across it a couple of years earlier, and no one much had crossed it yet.   Also the Chinese used it for their atomic bomb testing apparently…  Ho hum.

And of course, the famous Silk Road went around it too, one arm going to the north of it, the other going around the western edge.   We, to be different, intended to go straight into it, and see what happened..

We arrived at the setting off point, which turned out to be a sort of bus station on the edge of the desert. A simple building with a glass roof, long rows of plastic chairs and a short length of road outside it.  And beyond that, a vista of enormous sand dunes, so we couldn’t see very far into the desert.   Just enough to whet our appetites.  Oh and of course a lot of disdainful looking Bactrian camels (the sort with two humps).

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Continue reading “Xin Jiang – Riding Camels In The Taklamakan Desert”

Camels – Pamir Mountains – Joys of Xin Jiang

One holiday while we were working in Beijing it was decided that we would go and have a look at Xin Jiang Province – the most northern and westerly of China’s provinces.   In case you have never heard of Xin Jiang (nor had we!) it lies in the top corner of China, nestling against Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and a load of other Stans.   And was the part of China where the Silk first entered China.  It is also an area inhabited by a race of people called Uigars, who are not Chinese, but of Turkish descent, and who speak a language that is nearer to Turkish than Chinese.

It is also an area that is Muslim, and at that time (2008) not in any real way involved with Islamic fundamentalism, but owing to the idiotic actions of the Chinese government, it was rapidly become so – sadly.

Anyhow, we were not bothered with such matters, simply wishing to have a look at the place and walk around in it.

To which end we went to Kashgar, a city that at that time was an enchanting mix of mud houses in winding little streets, amazing markets and generally appealing aspect.   Full of friendly Uigars selling tea and snacks in delightful street cafes and such like.  Amazing food too of course.  An intriguing mix of Arab and Chinese cuisine and to finish it off properly, the one remaining statue of Mao in China, an enormous one too, about 18 meters tall and for some inexplicable reason seems to be giving a Hitler salute.

800px-Mao_statue_in_Kashgar

So, once we had arrived there, and spent a couple of days wandering around and enjoying this really  fine small city, it was time to head off to the Pamir mountains where we had arranged to go for a long walk up to a glacier at about 5500 meters above sea level.

This was my first sight of Central Asia, and I was at once knocked out by the sweeping shape of the landscape that had been formed by the advancing and retreating glaciers during the various Ice Ages.  That wondrous collection of gentle curves that are so typical of such landscapes, much the same as in the Scottish Highlands and similar places, pleased me no end.

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We drove for hours along the river valley in the bottom of one such smooth channel with the very shallow, but wide and winding river beside the road as we went along, slowly getting higher and higher, which given that the altitude of Kashgar is already pretty high at about 1300 meters,  I began to wonder if I might have perhaps been a bit silly in going directly from Beijing, which is about 50 meters above sea level to such a hight.    However all seemed well, and no signs of altitude sickness made themselves apparent.

Continue reading “Camels – Pamir Mountains – Joys of Xin Jiang”

How To Survive In A French Village

When we got to Fontenoy le Chateau ( a small village in the low Vosges) in 1997, we knew absolutely no one, and to be honest we had moments of wondering what on earth we were doing, coming to a small community in a country we really only knew from holidays (and in my case, a rather large number of relatives clustered in Paris and around Lyons).  We did more or less speak French, and had gone to a lot of trouble to try and find out about banking, bureaucrats and other “official” things.  But simply living, making friends and becoming part of the community, well that was quite a different set of problems.

 A short video to give you an idea what Fontenoy looks like

After we had been there for a few months, I became aware of the existence in the village of what in France are called “Associations”, which are groups of people who have got together, formed a club of sorts in order to pursue some common aim.  These Associations have a legal existence and are all properly registered in the head office of the Departement, which in the case of Fontenoy meant Epinal, a nearby city of some 100 000 souls.

Anyhow, I thought that by joining one or more of these Associations, I might be able to sort of break into the village community and become part of the daily life there, and almost more importantly, make some friends.

In the event, I achieved all those aims and much, much more, and ended up being a very central part of the life and soul of Fontenoy along with a fair number of other highly active (both physically and organizationally) local citizens.

Thus I first joined an Association with the resounding name of Des Amis du Vieux Fontenoy, which devoted itself chiefly to the restoration of the ruined 11th Century castle that explained  the “Chateau” part of Fontenoy le Chateau’s name.

This restoration mainly consisted of keeping the grass and weeds in and around the very thoroughly ruined castle under control, and organising a student work camp each summer holiday, where students came, lived in one of the remaining sections of the medieval wall that used to surround Fontenoy and slowly carried out a mix of archeology and restoration work on the castle.. But to be honest, this is really a 100 year project as the castle was very big in its hey day, and is pretty conclusively ruined now.  And most of the stones that originally constituted the castle have over the centuries been stolen and used to build the houses in Fontenoy itself.  Including the imposing church too, by the way.

And whilst the more fanatical members of the Association were fully prepared to demolish all those houses and even the church to get the castle’s stones back, there was a certain reluctance on the part of the good citizens of Fontenoy to allow that to happen.  Stalemate thus.

Actually the castle became a ruin not by the jaws of time, but was captured by, of  all  things, a Swedish army that happened to be operating in that area during the 100 years war, and who upon capturing the castle, forced the good burgers of Fontenoy to pretty conclusively demolish the castle.

When I joined this Association, it’s Chairperson was the highly energetic and impressive Veronique Andre, a good soul who became a very good friend over the roughly 10 years we spent in Fontenoy.   Vero, being the sort of person she was, I also found very much in evidence in the several other Associations I joined shortly after becoming active in the Friends of Fontenoy.

In the course of my Fontenoy period, I was a very active member of as above, the Friends of Old Fontenoy, also of Les Amis de L’Ecole, an association who busied themselves chiefly with fund raising for the local primary school in the village through all manner of events, chief being the now famous all over France Feu de St. Jean and making and processing the float for Saint Nicholas on 5th December every year, and last but by no means least, sending that float to the Carnival procession in the nearby town of Bains les Bains where all the local villages and small towns processed through the town on their various floats with bands and all other good things as part of the Catholic Carnival (Mardi Gras).

The creative and organisational driving force in that association in those days was another truly good friend of ours, Jean Pierre Remond, who was a real jack of all trades, could design constructions superbly, understood the mechanics of large constructions, and was a very good organiser of labour and material suppliers too.

Being of a creative bent I also joined the Association called Village de l”Ecrit, which as its name would suggest, busied itself with all manner of literary matters, including giving an annual prize to what their jury considered to be the best book of the year written by a Vosgean writer.   Sort of local equivalent of the Booker Prize really.

This one was lead by an equally energetic soul, the good Michou, who used to be a teacher but was by then retired.  She also became a pretty good friend over the years I worked with her for that Association.  This work consisted mainly of creating an enormous number of plywood “Speech Bubbles” each year on which we carefully painted quotes from all manner of authors, in French (of course) but also in honour of the considerable number of Dutch folk in the area, and who passed through on their holidays, in Dutch and as a sort of small gesture to those Brits, such as Lotty, Roger Oscar et.al who were hanging around, in English.  And occasionally in German too.  Particularly the heavier and darker of the Germanic philosophers.

These we hung up all over the village, so almost every house, shop and public building had at least one of these panels decorating it for the entire summer.   It is indicative of the cohesive nature of such a village that everyone was very happy to have one or more of these panels hanging on their house or fence, and as Michou, Daniel (another village stalwart who became a real friend over the years) and I hung these panels, we had long and enjoyable conversations about the quote that was being hung up.   Like all good villagers all over the world, most people in Fontenoy always had time to stop and chat.

Occasionally this could be mildly irritating to me, as they were perfectly happy to do this when driving their cars through the village going in opposite directions, if they came upon each other, they would cheerfully stop, blocking the road completely and chat amiably away for a quarter hour or more… And no one worried.

People around there lived very long lives by and large.. And I suspect that this very relaxed approach to life had a lot to do with that.  That and the way they always recognised each others existence.   Walking though the town could take time, as one had to greet almost everyone by name, and at least pass a couple of minutes discussing the weather or whatever… I liked this a lot.

The procession of floats through Bains les bains each year was a sort of social high point in the wider area around Fontenoy.  As I said above, all the local villages built some sort of a float for this very important and much loved event in the yearly calender.   I took part in this for most of the roughly 10 years I lived in Fontenoy, dressed in a variety of costumes appropriate to that year’s float.   One of my favourite ones was when I was pulled behind a tractor in a huge double four poster which I was sharing with a splendid old lady, who was notably short of teeth, called Antoinette.   Rural France is remarkably prudish sometimes, and the sight of the two of us happily in that bed pleasantly scandalized the public who stood beside the road as we passed by….  I was teased about my romantic and erotic involvement with Antoinette for many years after that one.  Another very happy memory, and Antoinette was a simply delightful woman to talk to, and as I discovered, to share a bed with….   Even if all we did was talk to each other.

Daniel and Gerard ready for Carnival

Antoinette and I in the famous four poster

 Me lurking beside a Chinese dragon one year

Anyway, by means of my very active involvement in the Associations in Fontenoy, and by being prepared to help anyone who needed a bit of help – going up onto the forest to gather their allocation of winter firewood, helping repair a roof, whatever was needed, I rapidly became accepted as one of them, a real honour I felt.

In the course of all of this, I made some extremely good friends, as Fontenoy seemed to have more than its share of good hearted people in it.  People such as Gerard, who used to own the one garage in the village, and was a rather rotund and red faced but utterly likable and reliable man, all the various active members of the Associations I belonged to.  Also there was Roger (Monk) Llewellyn-Smith and Marion his wife who arrived after us, and who became great and important friends to us, which they still are.. And of course Jean Pierre’s wife, Marianne.  The list of friends we made there is simply too long really to put here, but there were many of them.. and the friendships we made mattered to us, and still do in many cases. Actually while Fontenoy had its less pleasant inhabitants, as everywhere does, the great majority of the people there were actually remarkably pleasant and friendly to us.

When it came time for us to leave France and go off to work in Angola, I was given a surprise farewell party and honour  in the town hall.   How they managed to keep that a secret from me was a minor miracle, as in such a village, the saying that “if you dropped your hammer at the eastern end of the village, people were talking about it at the western end before it had even got to the ground” really did apply.

Anyway, I was sort of tricked into going to the town hall that night by Oscar, who told me that there was a special meeting of the town’s folk to discuss something or other of importance, which I should take part in.  So as he had grabbed me while I was still working, I was in my dirty work clothes when we arrived at the town hall, and I was surprised to see that just about everyone I knew in the village was there, all dressed in their Sunday best.

On entering the hall I was grabbed, pushed out to the front, and the good lady Mayoress – Francoise – started to make a speech aimed at me….  And to announce that I was to be given the Fontenoy Medal – and honour that Fontenoy had instituted to show appreciation to people who had really contributed in a very notable fashion to the community in some way or other…And that apparently was me!

After which a number of friends made speeches extolling my many virtues (in their eyes at least).   I was totally overcome by the entire thing.  Never having been at the receiving end of such public acclaim in my entire life.  I was also doubly honoured by the fact that I was not a native of the village, and not even French for God’s sake, but of all things, an Englishman….!

I am overwhelmed as The Mayoress tells us all how wonderful I am…

Not sure I believe what they are saying about me

An astonished me, with the Fontenoy medal in my hand.  Note that I am leaning on the table. I needed to.

Lotty was working in Geneva at the time, so it was arranged that she would phone during the ceremony to give me her thoughts as well…

That is  a memory I will cherish for the rest of my life.   It had real significance to me, as I truly loved Fontenoy, those people who had befriended and helped me while we were there and I was actually very sad to be leaving a place in which we had invested so much work, thought, dreams and hopes.   But, that party at the end was amazing, wonderful and unforgettable.

Continue reading “How To Survive In A French Village”

WE VISIT THE FIRST OIL FIELD IN ANGOLA

Some years ago, Lotty and I worked in Angola, arriving about three months after the 30 year civil war had ended, and found ourselves in a ruined country, in which travel was tricky to put it mildly.  However, we were invited one day to go and look at the very first oil source in Angola.

This trip was organised by a couple who had been in Angola for a very long time, and both of whom worked in the oil industry there, as do almost all non-Portuguese expats.

Four of us from the International School of Luanda (where we worked) went on this trip, which meant leaving the school at 6:15 am! After recovering from this early start, we rumbled through a surprisingly active Luanda (This was a Sunday morning, by the way) to a section of Luanda called Mirimar, which I have never visited before, and appears to be the part where the rich and Embassies have their being… streets of very expensive looking houses, and the sure sign of wealthy people, lots of broken car window glass along the pavements (the Break the Window of the BMW and Steal Everything from Inside it syndrome). From here, we had a superb view of the port of Luanda, but we were warned not to take any photos of it, as it is considered to be a security risk if someone such as I should happen to have any snap shots of mountains of containers and lots of rusty ships… oh well……

Anyhow, there were about 50 of us, spread over some 25 huge 4×4’s, and after a short lecture beside the road about what we were going to see…… Off we headed, in a most imposing convoy.

It would have made the Mayor of London happy to have seen us, all those 2 ton SUV’s roaring along a perfectly good road. Oh well, you are nothing around here if you don’t have a monstrous 4×4.

We were heading north of Luanda, to a part of Angola that neither Lotty or I have yet seen, so we were very curious about what it would look like. It turned out to be flat….extremely flat, which is one reason there is oil to be found there… the land there is made up of sedimentary rocks, which are soft, and thus weather easily, unlike the granite which makes up about 90% of Africa (We were told all of this by the guy organising the trip).

Anyhow, we rumbled along happily in our convoy, causing people in the various villages and small towns we went through to wonder what the hell was going on, reasonably enough…. we were the event of the day for a lot of them, I reckon.

After a while, we stopped at a bridge over one of the regions main rivers to admire the view across the flat country to the mountains in the distance, but were warned not to stray too far from the cars, owing to the recently discovered presence of landmines all around this bridge (I was worried about how they had discovered them!) We sort of stood nervously around, taking photos of each other for a while, whilst the leader of our intrepid group told us a wee bit of war history, relating to this bridge and road. It seems that owing to the marshy quality of the land in this part of Angola, the only way for tanks to get across it was via this road and bridge. As the enemy (FNLA) neared this bridge, the gallant defenders of Luanda (MPLA) had posted a whole group of Stalin Organs (Multiple rocket launchers mounted on trucks) on top of a nearby ridge with the intention of blowing the FLNA tanks and soldiers to hell and back as they neared this bridge along the road. However, there was one problem… No one had a clue how to use the things!

Continue reading “WE VISIT THE FIRST OIL FIELD IN ANGOLA”

Borneo – Strange Place – Strange Reminders Of Time Past

Recently my wife had work for the Malaysian Ministry of Education, which entailed her dashing around Malaysia like a mad thing – a few days here, a few days there.  I accompanied her on her peregrinations of course, even though I had retired by that time, so I was a gentleman of leisure, and happily passed my time in these places writing a blog I had in those days, and gently absorbing the pleasures of the places we were in.

Two of these places really appealed to me – for different reasons.

Kutching:  Singapore as it was.

The first was Kutching in Sarawak.   A small but active little city on the banks of a river.  I was wandering around it on my first visit there, and had a strong feeling of deja vu, which to begin with I couldn’t understand.

Kuching Street Scene
Kuching Street Scene

And then it came to me.   Kutching today is almost exactly how Singapore was in 1950 when I lived there.   Generally low buildings, very dirty and cheerfully chaotic, each ethnic group living and working in their own section of the city and the greater part of the street commerce taking place on the street rather than closed-off in shops.   It was a strange and mildly disturbing experience finding myself back in the word I had lived in when I was about 9 years old.

And it brought home to me strongly how much Singapore has changed since it belonged to us Brits.   For the better?   Not sure.  In some ways, certainly, but at the cost of the loss of its character I feel.

Labuan – Small but fine

The other place that intrigued me was the small island of Labuan, which is off the north western tip of Borneo, and is chiefly notable for being a free port and for being in the middle of an oil field.

The first means that it is full of “duty free” shops, so a great place to buy booze and smokes, the second means it is entirely surrounded by drilling rigs and full of oil workers of all nationalities.

It also had it curious characters too.  We stayed in one hotel on the sea front, which was about 200 meters from one of the other main hotels there, which belonged to two very rich young men.  Each of whom had a luxury sports car, one a Lamborghini, the other a Ferrari, (or something similar, not very good on car models) which they kept parked on the forecourt of their hotel.  Each evening, at about 7 pm, they leapt into their respective cars, and with much roaring and spinning of wheels, drove to our hotel, where they spent the evening drinking gently and talking to their friends, and then at about 11 pm, they leapt back into their monster cars and roared back to their hotel.  As far as I could tell that was the extent of the use they put those two cars to.

The two sports cars..... with one of the proud owners
The two sports cars….. with one of the proud owners

I came across another intriguing thing there.  In the centre of the town is a small grass covered square, with two small stone monuments in the centre, the first a memorial to a Japanese General who died in a plane crash during the war, the second being a statement of imperial arrogance that I found quite breath-taking.

It stated that Captain so and so had arrived on this island in about 1828 (or thereabouts) and that he had claimed the island for Queen Victoria in the name of his Admiral.  Wonderful arrogance indeed, the damn place as already inhabited by its own owners after all.  Howsoever, it remained British until some time in the early 1950’s I believe.

The other curious thing was a small graveyard in the botanical gardens, which was reserved for pirates!

Odd place – the world.

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If you have wandered in these two places and have any thoughts about either of them, do share them here with us.

Chinglish – One Of The Joys Of Living In China

While we were living and working in Beijing, I became totally besotted with the wonderful ways in which Chinese was often translated into English – Something we ex-pats called Chinglish, and which all of us loved with a passion, and made a hobby out of collecting examples of this form of English.

I shall probably post occasional small jewels of this art form for your pleasure, but here to start with is a sticker I saw in the back window of a very large SUV in Beijing.

BABY ON ROAD

Alarming I think you will agree……  (O:

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Do you have any examples of this art form?  From China or anywhere?  Do share them with us here please to spread the joy.

Angola, Land Mines and Dead Tanks.

Some years ago My wife and I got work at an international school in Luanda (Angola).  A country that made a huge impression on us.
When we arrived in Angola, the civil war that had been raging in that country for about 30 years had just ended with the shooting to death of Savimbi – the leader of one of the three waring factions, (UNITA) and a sort of uneasy peace was being observed by all the various parties to that terrible war.
The end of Savimbi, and thus of the war
It had started as a war of independence against the Portuguese who had colonised the country in the late 19th century, and then once they had gone, it turned into yet another of those wars in which the USSR and the USA fought each other using surrogate armies. In this case it was the Cubans being the strong arm of the Russians, and the South Africans doing the USA’s dirty work for them.
The net result of all of this was a country that had an estimated 17 million land mines scattered around and endless shot up towns and villages, and a more or less totally destroyed infrastructure. Vast numbers of war injured people and an internal refugee problem of gigantic proportions – A real mess in other words.
In our work contracts with the International School of Luanda we were obliged to go away from the school compound during all our holidays, so most of our colleagues went off to South Africa, Namibia or further afield during the school holidays. Lotty and I on the other hand used those breaks mainly to explore Angola a bit, as Luanda itself is, or was, a horrible, slum ridden smelly dirty place. Relatively untouched by the war in the sense of not having any shot up buildings or other physical signs of the war, simply the millions of refugees living in unbelievable squalor around the city in vast slums.
We went off to towns such as Huambo, Lobango and Benguela which showed us a very different side of Angola. Huambo was a rather pleasant small city up country, which hadn’t been particularly damaged by the war, even though it was the city that Savimbi used as his main base, so there were some sections that had been seriously bombed and damaged. Most notably the house where Savimbi had lived, this was a total ruin, with what was all too typical of Angola back then, several dead tanks in the garden. Angola was notable for an almost total lack of garden gnomes, but lots of burnt out tanks in people’s gardens instead.
Impressive what you can do with a heavy machine gun
Bigger and better than any garden gnome, a T60 tank in the back yard
Savimbi’s bombed house
This was also the base from which the good folk of the Halo Trust set out to clear up all of those land mines the country was so plagued with. This work was being carried out by (among others) two young friends of ours from the UK, Nathaniel and Ali. So on one of our several visits to Huambo, they organised a visit to a mine field for us. This was in a small village nearby, where a largish mine field had been planted around a military base, just on the edge of the playground of the village school.
 What landmines actually look like….  Small and inoffensive mostly…  But……………………..
We arrived there and were taken under the arm of the Angolan guy who was in charge of this particular bit of mine clearing. He explained to us exactly the whats and hows of this particular mine field,and then kitted us out with the same sort of body armour that Princess Diana had so famously worn during her visit to these mine fields in Angola.
Us walking in the middle of the minefield
Me pretending to be Princess Diana – But in drag obviously
Another view of the minefield, the green bit is it.
Not surprisingly this armour is extremely heavy, hot and uncomfortable….. But thinking of the alternative made us extremely happy to be so protected. We also had the labourious process of mine clearing explained to us in fine detail. It is a very slow and painstaking process, and can only be done effectively by means of men digging narrow trenches through the mine field with small hand trowels, and thus locating each individual landmine, and removing it carefully and exploding it later in a pit.
We had earlier been shown some landmines, and the thing that stood out for me was how small they tended to be. Logical enough as the idea is not to kill but to maim. A dead soldier is sad, but not a problem, a severely wounded soldier on the other hand is lousy for moral, and requires other soldiers to help him to an aid station…
The only really effective way to clear mines, and this in a temperature in the high 30’s as well

Continue reading “Angola, Land Mines and Dead Tanks.”