Blog News

1. Comments are still disabled though I am thinking of enabling them again.

2. There are now several extra pages - Poetry Index, Travel, Education, Childish Things - accessible at the top of the page. They index entires before October 2013.

3. I will, in the next few weeks, be adding new pages with other indexes.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

10 Things I've done in China...

...that I didn't do in England (and the reasons I did them).

In no particular order.

Play dice games in bars.  (Because everybody does)

Drink tasteless 3% lager.  (Because there's nothing else available.)

Eat out more than half the time (Because there are at least twenty good restaurants within five minutes walk of my front door... and all of them are cheap.)

Take taxis everywhere. (Because they range from fifty pence to a pound for anywhere in the city.)

Walk out in front of cars and hope that they will stop. (Because if you don't it is impossible to cross the street.)

Use Facebook (Because it's the only way to communicate with SOME of my friends.)

Take a 140 km round trip for a pizza. (Because sometimes you just gotta have pizza.)

Sing in KTV - the Chinese version of Karaoke (Because entertainment possibilities in Baiyin are limited.)

Dress up as Gene Simmons for a Halloween Part. (Because it seemed like a good idea at the time.)

Eat "century eggs" which are green, black and slimy. (Because I was at dinner at someone's house and it seemed impolite not to.)

Saturday, 23 November 2013

To (Never) Put Away Childish Things: Doctor Who

I have to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Doctor's travels somehow - no self-respecting fan with a blog could do otherwise... but how? 
Ah, that's the question isn't it?
I've watched a few of the tribute programs - or, to be more accurate, watched a few minutes of some of the tribute programs and discovered in all but one case that a few minutes was about all I could take. The exception was An Adventure In Space And Time - the dramatisation of the Hartnell years. It was pretty good though I thought the Matt Smith cameo was self-indulgent and pointless and the casting of Reece Shearsmith was no more than blatant and ludicrous croneyism. Still he was only onscreen for about thirty seconds and it was, all in all, a decent showing.

But what about me? How should I mark the anniversary?
I could point out that I am old enough to have watched it from the start and that, indeed, since that start I have never missed an episode (apart from the whole of  The Season That Does Not Exist - some of you know the one I mean).
I could arbitrarily choose a doctor as fans are wont to do and say "this was my doctor", but I like them all. They are all "my doctor" from Hartnell to Smith. 
I could choose a few favourite stories and praise them above all others but throughout the entirety of the show there have been good stories, indifferent stories and bad stories and on the whole I've enjoyed all of it.
I could search my memory for anything that is specific to me as a fan but I have never really been into the whole fandom scene and so my memories of the show are the general public's memories of the show and there are no stand out memories for me. Never did want to be a talking head for the show anyway.
I could tell you that I have been having my own private celebration for the last couple of weeks, listening to a bunch of Big Finish audios for all the various incarnations available. Some of them are very good indeed with the sixth and eighth doctors being especially well served by the audio format.
I could, I suppose, write a poem.

But I shan't do any of those things.

Instead I shall just say that I hope to live to be 106 and to repost, trembling geriatric fingers permitting, this entry on the hundredth anniversary.

I wonder who the doctor will be then. Perhaps the actor who will be playing the role has yet to even be born. I have no doubt that the show will still be around.

Happy Birthday Doctor.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Thailand And Laos 1998: Day Nine

The Road to Laos was rough and unpaved for much of its length and we bounced along it uncomfortably for several hours, with only a very brief stop to buy drinks and stretch our legs, before reaching the border post at Chiang Khong. Here we went through the rituals of getting our exit documents stamped before the tiny ferries took us over the river and into Laos where we disembarked at Ban Huay Xai which was another border town, not unlike the one we were leaving. We went through the rituals of getting our entry documents stamped. These formalities were a little more time consuming. Laos has only a short history of allowing tourists into its borders and the communist government still likes to keep a reasonable check on who they are and where they are going. This means that every time you pass from one of the seventeen provinces into another your documents must be endorsed on both sides of the 'border'. Those of us who managed to get through the queues quickly said goodbye to Wit and hello to our new guide, the remarkably named Lamb Pie before wandering down to the tiny window where the local money changer was struggling to cope with this sudden rush.. There were a large number of backpackers about, the first independent travellers I had really noticed and we chatted to them for a while until everyone was ready and then hauled ourselves up the hill to the nameless thoroughfare that forms Huay Xai's only street and along it to the most flea ridden and disgusting hotel that it has ever been my misfortune to encounter.
As we entered the 'lobby' - which was open to the street as were all of the buildings along the road, words failed almost everyone. It felt like being in a film about a group of ill-matched forsaken characters meeting in a shabby hotel at the ends of the Earth. There was a wooden desk upon which the room keys were scattered like dead leaves. In the corner a television set flickered without sound, its picture breaking up and reforming in random cascades of static. A threadbare and torn leather sofa sat at the bottom of a wooden staircase. I could imagine Sidney Greenstreet sitting on it mopping sweat from his brow with a grimy handkerchief as the wind from the street stirred the dust up around his feet. It simply oozed with the feeling that we must be real travellers because no tourist would ever put up with this.
If the lobby made us into travellers then the rooms made us into explorers. I was sharing with Robert. Entering our ground floor room was like entering a prison cell in a third world gaol. The only window was boarded up with a piece of dirty wood and covered by an ineffectual metal mosquito mesh admitting a minimal amount of light through a gap of only a couple of inches at the top, too high for us to see through. The furnishings consisted of two beds that were both dirty and uncomfortable and a small metal table. One corner had had a wall built separating off the 'bathroom'.
"En suite, I see". I commented with what I deluded myself was a world weary and sardonic tone.
The 'bathroom' consisted of a toilet bowl and a sink both of which would have been considered a health hazard by the dirtiest rat in the filthiest sewer in the world. The walls in there were even filthier than the ones in the bedroom. I would have suggested that even the bugs would refuse to live there if not for the fact that so much of the wall was covered in spiders' web.
I entered and prodded at the bed.
"I wouldn't sleep in this if I could boil it in disinfectant first."
Robert, who had had more foresight than I, was already digging his sleeping bag out. I had no bag but my plastic rain cape formed a suitable insulating barrier and I determined immediately that I would rather sleep in my clothes than risk the blankets.
Having made our preparations for later we went out for lunch. Across the street was the restaurant. This too was a dirty and fly blown establishment. I joined the unenthusiastic group already there and ordered Basillic Chicken. While I was waiting I examined the bizarre array of condiments on the table. These consisted mainly of pastes and sauces. Each newly opened jar or bottle revealed an even more disgusting concoction than the previous one. One proved to contain a thick brown paste with probably the most revolting smell on Earth. This I decided was most likely Naam Paa Daek, a disgusting concoction made from fermented anchovies. A similar smelling bottle of a thick clear liquid was Naam Paa which is the most commonly used condiment in the country. By the time my food arrived I had lost all appetite.
Ban Huay Xai is described by the Lonely Planet Guide as

'...a bustling riverside town whose main commercial
district centres around the passenger and vehicle
ferry landings for boats to Chiang Khong.'

I noted with interest that it was boats to Chiang Khong not boats from Chiang Khong.
After my unappealing lunch I went to see how far I agreed with the rest of the assessment and was surprised to find that it was not all that far from reality. Although it consisted only of one main street running parallel to the Mekong it did boast a fairly large school and a post office and a market. On the other hand as it bore only the vaguest resemblance to the map in the guide I wasn't sure that we weren't actually in some completely different town with a coincidental name.

I watched the volleyball game at the school for a while, then went up to see the obligatory Wat before heading back to the hotel to read and to position my camera ready for the 'sunset over the Mekong' photograph that was just screaming out to be taken.
We all reassembled for Lamb Pie to give us the run down on the exciting prospects for a night on the town. They amounted to exactly two. As we had already sampled the delightful bistro across the road we ventured north to the town's other restaurant. On the street were dozens of people selling various roasted meats from grills over hot coals. Although the source of the meat was probably better imagined than known they smelled delicious and soon we had an appetite. The restaurant turned out to look surprisingly good and we sat down, ordered our drinks and consulted the menu. Nothing was very appetising and we all chose our own strategies for dealing with it. Robert took the bold gamble strategy and ordered Sukiyaki. I chose the cowards route of the vegetable omelette. The most amazing strategy of all though was Frances'. She read once through the list and decided, not unreasonably, that she didn't like any of it. She summoned a waitress and with Lamb Pie's help explained that what she wanted was for the waitress to go down the road to one of the food sellers and buy her half a roast chicken. Ellen, having seen that this was going to be successful asked for the same and the waitress duly trotted off. I was amazed. It struck me as like going into MacDonald's and asking for them to nip next door for a thin and crispy pepperoni from Pizza Hut. When the food arrived my opinion altered. While their Chicken looked delicious my omelette was pale and bland and the condiments included nothing at all that I would be prepared to eat with which I could spice it up. Robert's Sukiyaki though was the piece de resistance. It bore no resemblance to the usual version of the dish, indeed it bore scant resemblance to anything usually defined as food. It was a bowl of grey greasy water with assorted unidentifiable bits floating in it. He dipped in the fork and fished out something green and vaguely organic. A second attempt speared something that might once have been alive but left strange strands of an almost transparent slime dangling back into the liquid. These may or may not have been the clear noodles that are usually a part of the dish but, if they were, they had been cooked to a very unlikely consistency.Bravely he tried to eat it but after only a few forkfuls pushed it away. I could imagine the waitress in the back saying quietly
"Got somebody with the old Sukiyaki gag again"

Monday, 18 November 2013

Thailand And Laos 1998: Day Eight

Had I realised that today's excursion would turn out to be a series of shopping opportunities I might well have chosen to stay in the hotel again. As it was I was misled by the descriptions and went along with everyone else. It started promisingly enough with a visit to a stupa which was old and grey and not vastly interesting to look at in spite of its impressive size. The accompanying Wat was, unlike others I had seen, open on three sides and had inside a kind of raised platform at the closed end upon which various images of the Buddha were standing. This was a little more interesting as we sat cross legged and shoeless on the floor while Wit tried to teach us the basics of meditation and to explain something to us of Buddhism.
The posture was uncomfortable but Wit spoke entertainingly of the concept of Karma, good deeds being rewarded and bad deeds being punished. I had assumed previously that the punishments and rewards would be delayed until the next life but from Wit's description I gathered that they might be a little more quickly forthcoming.
"Perhaps," he said with the slight hesitancy and bobbing of the head that we had come to know, "If I do good things everything will go well. Uh-huh. Or perhaps if I do bad things my trips will not go so well. You see."
I considered the concept.
"So," I asked eventually "You do bad things on one trip and the next trip doesn't go so well ?"
He nodded at my simplistic explanation.
"I wish you had behaved better on your last trip."
He looked puzzled.
"You drink a little too much whisky last time and I fall down the stairs this time. It doesn't seem very fair does it ?"
After a few moments he worked it out and howled with laughter.
"Uh-huh" he said "Yes perhaps I will not drink too much whisky again."

Outside the stupa was a small market which, had I but realised it, was to be the most minor shopping opportunity of the day. I looked around for a while but found little of interest and soon we were on our way to the Golden Triangle. This is the name given to the region where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet at the confluence of the Mekong, the Ruak and the Sai Rivers. Of course the Golden Triangle is famous in the west for just one thing, Opium. Although the Thai government have spent enormous amounts of money on trying to destroy the opium trade and introduce other crops this has largely resulted in pushing it more and more into Myanmar and Laos. The annual output of the region, mostly from Myanmar, amounts to about 4000 tonnes. Much of the crop from Thailand and Myanmar simply crosses the border into northern Laos where there are many Heroin refineries.

We arrived at a one street town whose name I didn't catch which, in addition to its street had a steep climb up past a Wat to a viewpoint overlooking the river. Once there only two choices of entertainment presented themselves - standing under a sign saying Golden Triangle and having your picture taken with the river in the background or shopping in the row of stalls selling carved goods and clothes. Having climbed painfully up the hill I arrived just in time to climb painfully back down to eat lunch in one of the riverside cafes. Then it was back into the bus to drive on to Mae Sai. The descent into a shopping trip continued unabated as we had a ten minute tour of a jade factory followed by a compulsory visit to the very large and, to my mind rather expensive, factory shop. Clearly other people didn't share my aversion to enforced shopping as almost without exception the group started to bargain for goods. I left them to it and wandered up the road to have a look at the border post. Perhaps my perceptions were being coloured by my aching foot and sour mood but I found it to be an uninteresting feature in an uninteresting town. After about half an hour, with some considerable time left before we were due back at the buses I was getting bored and fed up and starting to wish that I had stayed in Chiang Rai. It was a considerable relief when it was time to go and even more of a relief to realise that we were heading straight back to the hotel.
Back in my room I massaged half a tube of anti-inflammatory gel into my foot in the hope that it might relieve the swelling and ease the pain and then went to the bar for a couple of beers with exactly the same intention.

Having been less than impressed with both the quality and the service during last nights meal tonight I went with Robert, Paula and James in search of a restaurant from the guide called La Cantina. The building where it was marked on the map proved to be opposite a garishly lit and blatantly sleazy sex club. It also proved to be closed. As we had been intending to meet quite a few others at the restaurant we decided to look around in case we had missed it somehow. We had hardly turned the corner when a plump man came running from his pavement restaurant and by sheer force of his salesmanship hauled us in. It was a pleasant enough place even if the TV was playing a Spice Girls concert (thankfully with the sound turned off). We all ordered pizzas from the menu and we were already tucking in when the manager came running over again with a large bowl of cooked diced tomatoes apologising for having forgotten to include them when making the pizzas.
Afterwards we went to an almost empty bar (not one of the sleazy ones) which Paula and James had visited the previous night. Here we met up with all of the others we had been supposed to meet in the restaurant. They informed us that had we walked another twenty yards we would have discovered that La Cantina was simply marked in the wrong place on the map and had a much better, although perhaps a little pricier, meal. While we drank and chatted a band played more bland versions of western pop songs. It had been a depressing, dull and unsuccessful day and after a very short time I decided to cry off and head back to bed. Tomorrow we were going to Laos. I wondered exactly what changes that would herald.


I sometimes have a lunchtime coffee with Megan, one of the other foreign teachers, at the Scha coffee shop on the way home from school. Today as we were drinking the owner walked in carrying a Pizza Hut bag with a pizza in it. We lookde at it and speculated where it might have come from - the only foreign food outlet in Baiyin is a branch of KFC.
Seeing our curiosity the owner gave us both a slice of free pizza. With the aid of the translator on the phone we asked where she had got it.
Sadly the answer was as expected - Lanzhou, the provincial capital which is seventy km away.

It was a nice surprise lunch though.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Thailand And Laos 1998: Day 7

Mr Tah, it turned out was quite an important man locally. He had been leading or assisting with treks for many years as the photographs all over the walls of his home could attest. I was getting the star guest treatment having once more travelled by truck with him. We had about an hour to wait before the others arrived and he was showing me his house. Even as we had driven up it was clear that he was very prosperous by hill tribe standards. It was built on the same basic principle as the huts with the main living area off the ground and reached by steps but that was as far as the resemblance went. Instead of a bamboo construction it was built mainly of wood and whereas the huts were raised about a yard this was more than double that providing what amounted to garage and shed space beneath it. It was also about six times as large as the largest hut I had seen. He invited me in and showed me the mementos of his years as a guide. The earliest showed him as a much younger man in a black T-shirt and sporting shoulder length hair.
"You used to be a hippy then." I commented.
He grinned.
"Yes. Hippy. That was me." he said happily.

All of the walls of the largest room were covered in photographs of him and his family. A couple of closed doors led off - presumably into bedrooms - and a third open one led out onto a balcony which from my brief examination seemed to be the kitchen. I went back downstairs, putting back on my shoes which I had left at the door as is the polite custom. We were only a few yards from the town and I walked down to find the others arriving. Soon everyone was there and we had transferred to minibuses to take us back to civilised lodgings in Chiang Rai.
The hotel, the Lan Kum, was large modern and comfortable and - most important of all - with a shower in every room.. The door of the room displayed a puzzling notice in Thai and eccentric English.

wellcome to Ian kum hotel quests are requested to co operate
withthe hotel's directions here under

1. please deposite the valve belongings with our hotel safty box-
2. we will not be responsible for any artesies lost or stolen ~
in the room
3. iffleage arties are not allowed in the room or within the
premises of the hotel
4. any danger caused to thehotel property during the pestrol of
stay shall be responsible by guests
5. gambling are prohibited in the room
6. please do not disturb your heighbours
7. check out time in 12 hours

thank you
I pondered for a while what an 'iffleage arty' might be, worried in case I might have inadvertently brought one into the room. If not for rule six I might have gone next door to ask the heighbours. 

Showered and changed into clean clothes I left the room, heedless of the artesies that I might lose and went down to the bar to ponder what I might have for lunch. Robert joined me and we decided to go on a quest for western food. Forty five minutes later we were back having failed spectacularly to find any. We had however seen the King Mengrai Monument. As King Mengrai is mostly known for moving his capital out of Chiang Rai and setting up in Chiang Mai it's curious that they honour him here so prominently. More curious still is the vast number of elephant statues that surround his likeness. I can only imagine that he was fond of them in life for he has at least a couple of dozen on hand filling up the end of the street where the monument is located.
Back at the hotel Robert and I decided to eat in and we discovered that they did western food of a sort. I had tomato soup - which was sort of pale pink and creamy but had no obvious tomatoes in it - and ham and eggs which was okay if a little nouvelle cuisine in its portions. Afterwards we wandered around the town fairly aimlessly before splitting up, Robert back to the hotel and me to continue my wanderings in the market. This was mainly a food market and had eggs and meat and bread as well as more esoteric dishes the only easily identifiable one being whole dried frogs. I paid a quick visit to a pharmacy where, with the aid of a note in Thai that I had had Wit write out for me earlier, I replenished the dwindling supplies in my first aid box but by now my foot was throbbing badly and a retreat to the hotel seemed in order so that's what I did and retired to my room with some painkillers and a paperback to spend the rest of the evening doing nothing at all.

Bored of the Dance

My girlfriend loves dancing.
She goes to dance class three evenings and one morning each week. She would really like me to love dancing too but anyone who knows me can take a guess at the likelihood of that happening. To say that I have two left feet would be to ludicrously understate the matter. I am - there is no getting away from it - one of life's clumsy buggers. Nature blessed me with the normal quantity of good qualities but a sense of rhythm and a sense of balance aren't among them. At the age of fifty-six I have barely mastered the skill of walking. I walk into things (and people), trip over paving stones, fall down holes and generally stumble through life with the grace and elegance of a three-legged hippopotamus.

Still, one does what one must and when she asks me to go along and sit in the corner and watch - almost certainly in the hope that I will be moved to join in - I go and sit in the corner and watch and then we go for a drink afterwards.

It's relatively painless, though pretty boring. She did it again last night - asked me to go with her to her dance class at the dance studio I haven't been to before. It was a small room and I stood (there being no chairs) at the back and waited. Occasionally I took a stroll down the dimly lit ninth floor corridor or spent a few minutes gazing out of the window at the lights of Baiyin* but the time passed slowly.

As I mused on the concept of time, I came to a realisation. While you are waiting for the expected end time of something tedious the boredom is of a manageable order. You look frequently at the clock and note with satisfaction that it is moving inexorably  towards the end of the ordeal.
From one second after the expected end time things are a hundred times worse. Now the time drags like a lead weight around your neck. You have nothing to aim for. You cannot mentally say "twenty minutes to go" and ten minutes later say "well, half way there then". They might continue dancing for another five minutes or another five hours. So last nights lesson was, in theory to finish at nine and when it passed nine I found that I was pacing like a caged animal, restlessly marching up and down that corridor, sitting on the sofa that I found tucked in an alcove halfway along, staring uncomprehending at posters written in Chinese and generally wondering what I was doing there at all.
At nine twenty she came and asked me if I was bored. I admitted that I was but assured her that I would be happy to go on waiting as long as was necessary. She said that she would be a few more minutes - twenty more to be precise and even then she was leaving primarily because she had taken pity on me - the others in her group were still dancing.

I don't think I could dance if my life depended on it so I'm hoping that eventually she'll accept that my watching her practice in a group is unlikely to change the situation.

To Put Away Childish Things: Alpine

A facebook page dedicated to seventies and eighties nostalgia posted a picture of an Alpine pop bottle. Until I saw it I had completely forgotten about those. They used to be delivered regularly on a lorry (just as milk always used to be, and still is in some places) and the pop man would take away the empties and leave the new selection. We always got through our bottles (three each week, if memory serves) by the middle of the week and eagerly awaited the next delivery like the little sugar junkies we were.
When he came we would go out and look at the array of improbably coloured liquids on offer, choose this week's flavours and my mother would pay for them. Though the page is about the seventies and eighties I remember them well back into the sixties and according to a little internet research they continued trading, though rather desperately, into the nineties.
I remember some of the flavours - the vivid pink cherryade, the not-quite-clear lemonade, the even-more-not-quite-clear cream soda, the startling yellow pineappleade and, of course the almost black dandelion  and burdock.
I'm sure that they were full of ghastly chemicals that made us into hyperactive monsters and the flavours were as bright and unlikely as the colours. The cream soda (which I think was called Ice Cream Soda) and the dandelion and burdock were, at least in my memory, particularly odd-tasting.
I can still imagine the tastes now.
What I remember especially is that it came in large chunky bottles that were too big for the fridge and were lined up on the shelf in the corner of the kitchen making a psychedelic light show of rippling stripes when the sun shone through them.
I have a vague recollection that we also bought squashes and mixers from the same lorry in the run up to Christmas, but that may just be my imagination.

Seeing it on someone else's nostalgia page brought all the memories back.

Well that's different #12: Crime And Punishment

I had a particularly bad class last week. They were noisy, difficult to control and generally badly behaved. As I sometimes do I gave them some homework as a punishment. They had to write fifty words about "Why I was bad in class today" (they're only eleven!).
On Friday the class monitor handed me a pile of papers. Later glancing through them before I threw them out (well I'm not going to punish myself by marking them, am I) I came across this in one of them

"Teacher, I am sorry I am naughty. If I am naughty again please hit me."

Interesting mindset these children have.