June in Thailand: Elephants and Other Modes of Transport

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It was our last day in Ayutthaya and I went wandering the streets on my own while Tom recuperated from the heat. Along a shady area between wats, I found a little food stand and sat down to a simplet yet fabulous lunch of braised chicken with preserved salted vegetables, lots of herbs and incredible chilli sauce. Of course, all the ordering was done in sign language and it helped that I peeked at what other people were having before sitting down. There is nothing like street food for tasting what the locals eat and nothing like street food to have the true taste of a country.

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I wandered past the temples again, this time slowing down to take in the views.

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Outside one of the bigger temples, I spied a group of elephants from afar. The getup of the elephants was supremely touristy but somehow apt and nicely atmospheric for this city.

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The elephants looked so grand in their brocade and tassels.

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The mahouts perched on the elephants’ heads wore matching red costumes.

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And the tourists (Japanese?) posed cheerfully for my shots.

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They formed a very grand retinue, such a lovely sight all together.

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Soon, they ambled off as a group and it was time for me to go. I approached a nearby motorcycle-taxi driver, negotiated my price, and off I went back to the guest house to meet Tom and get to our next destination.

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August in China: Doing the Conventional Tourist Thing in Chengdu

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At Chongqing train station, I jumped straight into the local experience with a rather harrowing argument in shrill foreign-accented Mandarin with queue-jumping locals. Dismayed to find the ticket hall packed to the brim at 7am, I grimly joined a queue and hoped I’d catch either the 7.30 or 8 am train. Following the queue into the bowels of the hall, I soon missed the 7.30 and got increasingly anxious. Luckily I was nearing the ticket booth but unluckily, there were way too many people hanging around either asking to cut the queue or outright butting in. When someone approached me to jump queue, I finally lost my temper and yelled that everyone here queues from the end of the queue and that no one has the right to jump queue. If he wanted to cut queue he’d have to ask the person behind me. The stress got to me and somehow my Mandarin got more fluent than normal when I lost it. I shouted that their drive for a civil society in time for the Olympics wasn’t working. The rumbling in the crowd suddenly turned into a hush and as if by magic, the path opened up for me and all the queue jumpers let me through to buy tickets. By then it was 7.45 am and the ticket seller asked if I was sure I could make it. I nodded gratefully, grabbed the tickets and ran out the ticket hall to catch my train, thankful that Chongqing people were nice enough not to lynch this crazy foreign shrew.

In Chengdu, the inimitable Mr Bunglez met me at the train station. It was great to see a familiar face after all that winging it on my own. To my Chongqing train station story, he said that he was surprised I arrived alive. After dumping my stuff at his pad he whisked me off to do the touristy thing. I was surprised to find it a nice change to let someone else decide what to do and where to go even though it was to the overexposed places.

First stop was Jingli, an “ancient” street, where Mr Bunglez whinged about all the bloody tourists who insisted on taking a picture with them  hanging on to the door knockers at the main doors. He cringed when not only did I insist on taking the cheesy picture, I also did it with what I thought was the jaunty foot kick. OK sure, it is teh failz and looks really stupid but I guess that’s the point.

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Even though it’s heavily restored and reminds me of an old lady with far too much cakey makeup, Jingli has a certain charm to it. Mind you, Jingli was a rather elegant overly madeup old matriarch. I liked the delicate styling of the overly lacquered wooden facades.

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There were also the pretty stylings of the walls and doorways. All very atmospheric. We explored the little stalls selling things from chuanshao (barbecued meat on sticks) to handicrafts to cute souvenirs like tiny plush pandas with magnetic paws.

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After dinner, we went to Tianfu Square to check out the Mao statue. I’m ashamed to confess that I chickened out of Mr Bunglez dare to take a picture in the same Mao pose. I figured that I was fortunate enough not to get lynched at the train station already, there really wasn’t any point pushing my luck further.

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At night, there’s nothing better to do than to people watch at one of the many pubs in Chengdu. Mr Bunglez knew the staff at one of the coolest places in Jingli, which is how I got this amazing set of drinks for free. Check out the fantastic sparkler accessory! We were too busy oohing and aahing over it the first time we forgot to take pictures and cheekily asked the staff to get us another sparkler. Everyone in the bar must’ve thought it was my birthday!

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In every Chinese pub, the de rigueur game is dice. I can’t quite remember how the game went but I kept losing to Mr Bunglez obvious experience and finesse, which meant that I ended up losing my coordination so much that he banned me from making fancy dice shakes. We’d lost way too many dice to the dance floor this way.

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And finally after a long day of having fun, the best thing to do is to check into a 24-hour massage/leisure centre. We got there at 1 am and there were still plenty of people milling around in coordinated pyjamas. Some of them were playing ping-pong in them, while others in the same garb were played pool while chain smoking. It was all highly amusing. We ended the day with a great foot massage and watched Kungfu Panda on DVD at the same time. What a way to spend the day!

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August in China: Yangshuo

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Tortoise and I headed over to Yangshuo, which was about a couple of hours away by coach. While still touristy, this place certainly has a lot more charm than Guilin. It has slightly cheesy but very atmospheric restored ancient street, complete with old-style inns and dining places. It was fantastic walking down the street and looking up to see the hills looming above.

Still, there was no escaping the tourists. Check out the number of tour buses and coaches in the small tourist parking area.

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We made arrangements through our guest house for a trip on the Li River. After about an hour on public transport in a packed minibus and then a modified jumbo tuk-tuk of sorts, we came face to face with one of the most famous images in China.

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This appears on the back of a ¥20 note so we had no choice but to follow the lead of the domestic tourists to whip out our prepared notes for a photo!

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We then got onto our private bamboo raft and chugged up the river. It’s a pity that the sun was in our eyes and the light wasn’t good for photos. You’ll just have to make do with the ones here.

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The limestone formations here covered the gamut of weird and wonderful. Our map described a good 10 names of features we could hardly make out. After a couple of times shouting over the phut-phut of the engine to our raft driver, we gave up trying to figure out which name corresponded to which spot. It was all starting to look the same kinds of weird to us.

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Before long, other rafts carrying domestic tourists came by and starting spraying water on us. They’d bought plastic spray guns from street vendors and indiscriminately drenched passing rafts. We beseeched our bewildered raftman to avoid them as far as possible. He probably wondered why we didn’t want to have fun playing in the magical murky waters. No good pictures of the water fights for fear of getting too close and then being caught in the crossfire!

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August in China: Guilin City

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Tortoise had flown into Guilin with me. She’d have her weekend getaway after which I’d part ways with her and head northwest.

Guilin is one of those places whose name alone evokes so many romantic images of beautiful shan shui (literally: water and mountain) landscapes. Even those who’ve not been to Guilin before wax lyrical about the beauty of the place. However, the city itself is a bit of a letdown as there’s no escape from the grey monoliths of commerce. Granted, it’s prettier than the average second tier city in China, with tree-lined avenues and parks dotting the city. Aside from the few parks, there’s not much else to Guilin city.

One such park is the famous Xiang Bi Shan (literally: elephant trunk hill). One of the bizarre rock formations looks exactly like the side profile of an elephant half-immersed in the water. Tortoise and I weren’t too keen on paying the ridiculous entrance fees just to see a lump of rock. If memory serves me right, it cost ¥60 here.

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The park designers were devilishly smart in planning this place. We managed to spy the rock formation through the gate and past lush trees and shrubbery. We could just about see it with the naked eye, but it was impossible to snap a picture from the outside at all. We gave up and sat at the outside, instead snapping a picture of this tiny elephant holding up the concrete railing.

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A minor attraction in the area are the Sun and Moon Pavilions (ri yue ta). They’re prettily set in a lake and the reflection from the recent rain made it rather pretty.

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Tortoise and I sat at the park for a while just observing the numerous domestic tour groups passing through the area. There was an elevated platform in front of the pavilions on which groups like to pose for pictures. Here’s one of a group from Hainan University.

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And here’s another of a family with two very bouncy and thoroughly spoilt little girls. We were fascinated by new dynamics in family structure. The function of the adults were just to dispense money and attention. The kids seemed to run the show and had every whim met. They were also experts in acting cute. Check out the heart pose in the picture below.

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After dinner, we passed by the pavilions again. I think it’s a lot prettier in the dark. No prizes for guessing which pavilion is which!

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November in China: Nanjing and Sun Yat-sen’s Memorial

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Nanjing proper is another one of those modern second tier cities with too many new buildings sprouting towards the sky. The sameness coincided with the dull weather. Aside from a little morning adventure in the side streets searching for local breakfast (the biggest bowl of noodles in beef broth I’ve never finished and some odd little tandoor pastries), there wasn’t much to Nanjing city. Most of its sad history has been buried in the pilings of the new skyscrapers.

After a visit to the very credible (and free in 2008!) Nanjing Museum, we headed out to Zijing Shan (literally: purple gold mountain) to visit Sun Yat-sen’s Mausoleum and Memorial. Sun Yat-sen was one of the fathers of the revolution against the Qing Dynasty and highly revered by both China and Taiwan. The first notable sight of the Memorial is the Bo Ai Gate (literally: love for humanity). It being a weekend, there was no escaping the tourist horde that we were a part of. I amused myself by taking pictures of people taking pictures. It was fun to see how everyone posed in exactly the same way exactly the same distance away from the gate!

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Going past the gate, we entered the massive complex and climbed up the many steps. Apparently the number of steps matched the number of county-level cities in China at the time of construction. How did I know? I eavesdropped on the local guides taking groups around! There were so many of them going past with their matching caps. There’d be a horde of red caps, then fluorescent green, then yellow. Now I wish I got a snap of them.

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Right at the top was the Mausoleum. I’m not sure if Sun Yat-sen’s body was really inside. Still, the done thing was to join the milling crowds and go in whenever the guard outside whistled the next group in. It was all as orderly as China got, and very Communist. People stared at me for taking this shot. I felt quite the paparazzo.

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Of course, once in, we were quickly herded round the room. The guards yelled at those snapping photos, but I don’t know whether they were yelling for people to get a move on, or not to use flash, or not to take photos at all. Such being the chaos, I ignored it all and hung back to take the flash photos I wanted. No one stopped me. It’s funny how all these people (myself included) were so fascinated by a marble sculpture of a dead man.

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Now the ceiling is far more fascinating because this was the standard Sun Yat-sen created. It’s one of the only places in China you can find this. The image is retained in honour of Sun. Outside of Sun-related memorials, this symbol is pretty much prohibited because Taiwan uses it as its national flag.

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Very soon we were spat out of the place as the next group was waved in.

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Heading down from the hill, I took in the romantic view of the countryside shrouded in late autumn mist.

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