Saturday, 26 December 2009

A letter from Vic Chesnutt

Back in May, I did a feature on Constellation Records for what turned out to be the last ever edition of Plan B mag. One of the people I interviewed (by email) was Vic Chesnutt, an artist I guess I'd always been a fan of by association more than I was actually a straightforward devotee of the music; Kristin Hersh and Michael Stipe were huge fans, he was signed to Constellation... anyway, he was clearly a remarkable man, but he did get his answers in late and I never used them, and now he's dead under horrible circumstances, for which there is the full story here and a very moving tribute from Kristin here.

Anyway, I feel a bit weird just having said answers lying in a dusty corner of my inbox, unused, like I'm hoarding a microscopic portion of his soul or something, so I'm going to delete the mail but put the contents up here, as it feels equally wrong to erase them forever. Er. Yes. A 'normal' blog will be along soon, I think... um, but yeah, I'm not sure if I've really put this up to be read, or just so it exists outside of my responsibility... Anyway, it's here now.

Vic Chesnutt

to me
show details 10 May
i lost your email
if i missed the deadline i apologize
i hope i didn’t

On 5/1/09 1:38 PM, "Andrzej Lukowski" <> wrote:

Hi Vic

This is Andrzej from Plan B - sure Ian has explained this all to you, but we're doing a big piece on Constellation records, its past and its present, and it would be super great to get your input as I guess somebody pretty emblematic of the changing face of the label.

Here's a list of questions - I understand that you'd rather not answer by email, if we can set up a time early next week to go over this then that'd be great. Questions pasted below and attached.



1. So first off, when did you first become aware of Constellation? Was post-rock (for wont of a better term) something that you were into as it happened? Care to name a favourite Constellation band?

jem cohen was my entree into constellation. he showed me his godspeed cd, it was beautiful, he said he would give it to me of course but it was too precious, so i taped it on cassette and i used to rock that thing so loud in my studio when i needed inspiration. years later on their last tour, i saw godspeed maybe on their last tour, wow, it was unforgettable.

2. And then who made overtures to who vis a vis your signing to the label? It’s a ways to go, I’m assuming somebody must have lured you there? Who did you know already..?

when jem cohen produced my album at hotel2tango north star deserter we thought it was for new west records, but instead, they dropped me so that we could keep it in they family, my new found montreal family.

3. Had you heard of Hotel2Tango already?

hotel2tango is famous outside of constellation, yes, i knew of it, well. and i’d heard tales from jem.

4. How was recording North Star Deserter there? You got some pretty good Constellation collaborators, there...

it was magical. i was scared because i didn’t know any of these people except guy picciotto. but the whole constellation reputation from cohen had me terrified. i didn’t think i was up to the task. but immediately from the time howard bilerman, the engineer from hotel2tango picked me up from the airport i felt welcome and inspired and among comrades.

5. Obviously it’s early-ish days yet, but how does Constellation seem to be different to others labels you’ve been with? Do you feel they understand your needs better?

constellation is the best thing that ever happened to me.

6. I don’t need to point out that as an American whose work is located in the folk idiom, you’re rather an anomaly at Constellation... what’s your take on that? A conversation along the lines of ‘this isn’t what we usually do’ must have taken part at some point?

i don’t think about that, at all, really, with a good hunk of the heart of constellation characters surrounding me in the band, it feels like the only place for these albums.

7. It strikes me that community is probably quite key to Constellation... do you feel removed from that at all? Or not? Would it be journalistic wishful thinking if you could draw some amazing parallel between it and the early Eighties Athens scene?

well, constellation crew seems a lot more put together than the wild early 80’s athens scene.

8. Are you friends with Carla Bozulich at all? I guess you’re in a similar boat as ‘veteran’ US recording artists who’ve found their way to Constellation...

i know carla, of course. she’s amazing. but i haven’t thought about the constellation thing with us.

9. How do you politics stack up with the label’s politics? Are you as left leaning? Is it an issue?

oh yeah, i’m a lefty, alright. and we talk politics.

10. I gather there’s a new album due September... what can we expect? Was it done at Hotel2Tango again? Who were the personnel?

yes, we recorded at the new hotel2tango and it is silver mt zion sans sophie, guy picciotto, and
two-thirds of the witchies, single lp length. i can’t give away anymore details.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Yeah, I guess I was present when musical history happened

Er, very minor musical history. I was reading something about Final Fantasy and on a whim decided to see if I could find his version of Arcade Fire's 'No Cars Go' online, as it was pretty much the highlight of his AMAZING Louisiana gig getting on for three years ago.

A relatively cursory YouTube search suggests this is the only instance of him playing it in the presence of a camera. So let's just say he only did it once, and I was there, and you weren't. Er, apart from Holly Williamson, she was there.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Friday nights with Ward and Lukowski

So on Wednesday my friend Flea (not THAT Flea) takes me to this bar in Soho. It is awesome, like a sort of shabby member's club down some anonymous steps. Even pretty cheap for Soho. I spend the next 48 hours telling people how good it is.

Come Friday me and Ward happen to be drinking in Soho, like the two cocks of the walk that we are.

Ward suggests we get some tinnies in and throw them at the people on the plinth in Trafalgar Square. This was, in retrospect, the right suggestion. But I, filled with piss and vinegar and the desire to share this new bar with the world, insist we head to a place I envisage to become a regular town centre haunt.

The following is more a paraphrase than a transcript, but is basically accurate.

Ward comes back from bar. He is angry, but then he is always angry

Ward: Fucking bar woman. Fuck fuck fuck. I fucking watched her make our drinks and she didn't fucking put any fucking spirits in them. So said so and asked her to taste them and she just got really angry with me and said she was pregnant, so I didn't fucking pay for them. Fuck fuck.
Me: Oh. Well I'll just go over and order again.
Ward: Fuck. Okay. Fuck.

I walk to the bar, and rather foolishly make EXACTLY the same order

Barwoman: [brightly] Oh, actually I have some of those pre-made! [pulls out what are obviously the drinks from before]
Me: Oh, I think I'd rather you made me some new ones if that's okay.
Barwoman: You're with HIM, aren't you?
Me: Um, no, I really don't know what you're talking about, is it okay if I get some new ones.

The barwoman sulkily makes them, this time adding spirits

Me: Thankyou!

The barwoman slams my change down, furiously. I rejoin Mark. He is scribbling notes on pieces of paper saying something like 'this place is shit'

Ward: [sipping his drink] This is fucking weak.
Me: Oh, it's okay. At least we got served.

The manager walks over, looks at Ward's notes, grabs our drinks and furiously tells us to get out, more or less hauling Ward bodily with the aid of a rather apologetic bouncer. I sort of vaguely try to reason with them/get my drink back, but the manager has worked himself up into one of those irrational rages where he simply won't engage. Which seems to more or less be the hiring policy of this place

Me: Fuck.
Bouncer: I'm really sorry.
Ward: [On phone] Hello, police? Yeah, I've been assualted.
Me: Hmm.
Ward: Right. I've called the fucking police, they can't fucking do that.
Me: Yeah, they're kind of dicks. Though the bouncer is quite apologetic.
Ward: Can you punch me in the back?
Me: Sure [punches Ward in back]. Why?
Ward: Need bruises for when the police arrive.
Me: Um.

Time elapses. The manager comes out and sort of growls at us from a distance at one point. Mark calls the police back

Ward: [on phone] Yeah, alright, well I'll be coming into Stoke Newington police station tomorrow to make a complaint.

We head home, bar duly ruined


Me - MW: So how was the police station?
MW - me: Just about to head over there...
Me - MW: Brilliant! Can't believe you're honestly going to do this!
MW - me: Yeah, I feel like chickening out but they were so unjustifiably cuntish
MW - me: Massive waste of time. You can't make a complaint unless you file for assault, which I'm not going to do. Oh well.
MW - me: Predicatably the barbecue I was going to has been cancelled. Where are you and McD? I'm ready to kill some braincells.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Lukowski and Powell's Greatest Hits remastered Vol 1: Las Vegas

So while writing that last blog about the Vegas of the East, I idly wondered if I still had the massive email I wrote some four and a half years ago about mine and Powell's stupid holiday to the real Vegas. I do. It's kind of interesting... to me, anyway. Weird when you write professionally to look back at your old stuff, even an email... I suppose you hope your writing has improved exponentially, which it clearly hasn't, though I did change a few of the more excruciating turns of phrase in the first half (before simply getting bored and not bothering to read the second half - bodes well for you eh?). Anyway, should anybody be even slightly interested in this, then, er, it's here...

Thu, Sep 16, 2004 at 8:45 PM

So the last days of Starbucks were occasionally stressful, climaxing in a period where I did about nine really long, really early shifts in a row, leaving me in such a state of sleep deprivation that I ended up getting irrationally angry, with, I dunno, everything. Plus after three months of perfect weather these things called 'rain' and 'cloud' came and got in my way, damn them, which didn't help.
Thus I was possibly not in the perfect frame of mind to receive Mark who had come out to visit, sadly a problem that probably haunted him throughout his entire stay; nonetheless me barking at clouds is not exactly the strangest sight in the world, and despite my still being an employee of Starbucks we started off pretty well: beers, gossip, and as a useful side-effect of his jet-lag, he was wanting to go to bed at pretty much the same time as I needed to get my head down for my Starbucks wake-up calls. We also got to fulfil what I can only describe as a year-long dream of mine, which was to celebrate the departure of Sonia and Jane (who went off on a road trip across Canada) by means of a meal at the Afghan Horseman, Vancouver’s premier/only Afghan restaurant. I’d become slowly obsessed with it over the year, probably due to some irrational belief of mine that chowing down on pita bread in an Afghan restaurant would get back to the Department of Homeland Security and perturb them somehow. (Hmm... does an email containing the words ‘Afghan’ and ‘Department of Homeland Security’ get read by surly American agents? Probably not. Hello if you’re reading.)

Anyway the restaurant was very nice indeed.

Well, it was okay.

We watched a movie called The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra; it’s like a pastiche of 50s B-movies, but not in the post-modern Tim Burton type way… it’s incredibly cheap and the humour entirely derives from the fact that the script and acting are intentionally awful. It’s genius, but the very fact they actually did have no money meant that there was no budget for advertising so no bugger saw it. So it needs word of mouth. So this is word of mouth. Seriously, me and Mark were quoting it like nobody’s business and, er, we’ve both won stuff from THE GUARDIAN!!!

Things took a turn for the worse the day after Sonia and Jane left, when I embarked upon a three day semi-mental breakdown during which I wandered around feeling sick in the stomach, incapable of any sort of genuine cheeriness, and ultimately, as is both the British and Polish way, I just had to get drunk to even be able to eat anything, let alone keep up my normal standard of erudite and witty conversation. That probably sounds really bad, and it was pretty horrible, but, um, well, the very fact I felt so awful helped me resolve various issues that had been going through my head, and I probably lost a pound or two, so the fact I had done no exercise at any point in the previous year was probably slightly made up for. Anyway, luckily for Mark I’d kind of already organised a series of people we had to do stuff with in the evenings, so he was spared whatever I’d have done if we’d had no fixed plans (probably sit in a darkened corner and rock backwards and forwards). In fact the only serious problem we had was that I realised that in four days I had completely failed to inform Mark of what my actual address was, let alone what my cell phone number was, and left alone to his devices on one of my days at work he perfectly reasonably got himself hideously lost and it took him three hours to make the 20 minute trip home… oops.

We also had the slight indignity of being booted out of our apartment on the first of the month… essentially me and Mike had been a bit vague about what we were planning on doing for September, but when in July I had informed our landlady that Sonia would definitely be leaving at the end of August but me and Mike weren’t sure yet this was apparently construed as me handing in notice for all three of us for the end of August. Which was kind of a drag, though I guess it worked out a bit cheaper for us in the end than renting the place between two of us for all of September. What wasn’t so cheap was our crazy Russian landlord Victor casually informing us that our carpets were ‘dirty’, which, er, they weren’t, and docking us $200 of deposit for ‘steam-cleaning’ purposes. If he’d just said “look, frankly as my wife and I have been saying all year, we’ve probably undercharged you for heating and electricity, so we’re just going to take some money off your deposit to make up for it, you still got a damn good deal” it would have been a bit less annoying than him wandering into the apartment to ‘inspect’ it, and within the space of about a minute saying “yes, the carpets are dirty, we will need to take off $200 of deposit for steam-cleaning, you have been great tenants we wish you could stay for another year, oh look, here is exactly $350 in cash, well that’s useful, I don’t know what I’d have done if I’d needed to give you the full $550, good bye”. And to think we walked their bloody dog. Meh. Well, it was still about a gazillion times nicer than any of the crumbling hovels I ever haunted in Leeds.

This all left me Mike and Mark needing somewhere to stay, and though we’d received various offers of floors to sleep on, we decided to abandon dignity for the sake of comfort and stay at the Jericho Beach Hostel, which was at least not as touristy as downtown, and was also a minute away from Mike’s work, which was a bonus. Well, not for me. Leaving your own apartment for the sake of somewhere with no privacy and no sense of it being your own is kind of a drag, and loving Vancouver as much as I do it was a bit unpleasant feeling like a tourist there, but, y’know there are worse things in the world, and actually it wasn’t really too awful because we were all so busy in the last couple of weeks that we didn’t have much more to do with the place than sleep.

After seeing the Killers play the Commodore (they’re fun, their album has good songs and bad songs and their set was pretty much just energetically straightforward interpretations of their good and bad songs) I finally concluded my last two shifts at Starbucks and then off to Las Vegas. Um, hmm, what to say about Starbucks? Well, I don’t really trust ‘the corporation’ any more than I did at the beginning, but that’s pretty irrelevant really, because after a bit of propaganda at the start a Starbucks is just a coffee shop with very little to do with corporate politics; I wanted to spend a year working in the customer service industry, I met some amazing people who I hope to remain friends with for the rest of my life, and I really do know a lot about coffee now. I gave my parents a stern ticking off for keeping ground coffee in the fridge as soon as I got back… I hope none of you are guilty of this most heinous of crimes.

Vegas is weird. Quite honestly I’d have thought it was less weird if it had been closer to something from Fear and Loathing, as at least Hunter was basically just seeing a really fascinating place through a drug addled lens. I think the first thing that struck both myself and Mark about the place was the fact that there are ash-trays EVERYWHERE… I know that’s probably an odd statement to make, but it’s really reflective of the fact that it’s the most aggressively consumerist place I’ve ever been… it’s impossible to find anywhere where you’re not been persuaded subtly or unsubtly to buy something, smoke something, eat something, drink something, or, obviously, throw your money at something. To give you an idea, our room had FIVE ashtrays in it… you have to go outside to smoke in most of North America, but in Vegas we had three in our room, one on our balcony, and one in the bathroom… and there was one outside the door as well. The frickin' urinals had ashtrays on top of them.

I can't be dicked to comment on the inherent consumerism of western society as a whole, but y’know, the odds are in most cities you can find a park or something to sit down in and read a book without getting pressured to do anything more than sit down and read a book. In Vegas there’s so much damn PRESSURE just walking through your hotel. And at the same time the place is a lot more boring than you expect… a lot of the hotels are quite impressive on the outside, and in the case of the bigger ones the shopping areas are pretty special, but once you’ve got over the fact that one place looks like a medieval castle, another has a fake volcano, one looks like Venice complete with gondola, another has a 400ft replica of the Eiffel Tower, etc, etc, all you can really do about it is kind of shake your head, go ‘wow’ and move on… they’re all facades, casinos that look like other things: once you get inside, pretty much every casino looks identical, whether the theme is an Arabian village or New York City.. Like Treasure Island kind of appears like a coastal pirate village from the outside, but you can’t go into the ships or pirate buildings, because they’re all a show, they don’t have interiors; either that or you have to do stuff like pay more money to go up a fake Eiffel Tower than the real one.

That’s not really to complain, as we weren’t going to Vegas because we wanted to load up on fresh air and clean morals… I suppose what I’m trying to say is that you kind of think Vegas will be so endlessly spectacular that if you don’t want to gamble you can just wander around and take in the glorious vulgarity of it all… but it really isn’t like that; you either pay for an expensive show or else the thrills are totally skin-deep… you look at the exterior of a place, you go ‘wow’, but then inside it’s a casino that looks like all the other casinos and the same shops that are in all the other shopping arcades… ultimately everybody gets dragged down to the same lowest common denominator: all you can do is gamble or get drunk, and if you get drunk you’re more likely to gamble, or smoke, or buy a steak at one in the morning. Well, I don’t smoke or eat meat, I’m a lousy gambler, and I drink a lot less than I did before I moved to Vancouver… I think I’d kind of hoped that dabbling in Vegas would have been as much fun to a first timer (well I came here when I was 19 and looked at some shops a bit) as totally living it up, purely on novelty grounds, but Vegas just ain’t built that way.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy myself… I think one less night there wouldn’t have been a huge blow, but we did have fun, but realistically my advice for going to Vegas would be to only spend two nights there tops, or else take so much money that you can afford to be spending money CONSTANTLY – eat really nice food, see expensive shows, and have the disposable cash to gamble for, like, four hours a night, whether you win or lose. Having spent the previous year living in the most naturally beautiful city on the planet it was certainly a contrast…
Jesus this is getting long. Well, to try and summarise our time there: the first night was actually really good because it was the Labour Day holiday the next day, and so there were a lot of people in town to party… essentially we hopped between the bars in our hotel dabbling in a little video blackjack and flirting with the numerous attractive drunk American girls, including one incredibly insistent lass who demanded that we both feel her boobs just to prove that they were real (not that anybody had actually suggested they weren’t). Possibly if we’d known it wasn’t going to be like that every night (and I haven’t been so emotionally scarred/’enlightened’ by the prodigious quantities of hardcore feminism I was exposed to during my degree) we’d maybe have tried somewhat harder that night to bag ourselves a couple of confused Yank girls and share our sweet, sweet candy with them.

The next couple of days were weird… Vegas was still busy, but there was no party atmosphere anymore… there were QUITE a lot of people in our hotel, enough to keep the gambling tables busy, but not really enough to have surplus of drunkards wanting to disco. The time was not without its highlights… we spent a pleasant afternoon talking to a bartender about how strange it was for her to actually live in Vegas, and in the Arabian casino we drank these massive margaritas while listening a guy on piano whack out these insane, actually pretty scary, chamber music type versions of 50s pop songs, and er, literally the most sinister thing I’ve ever heard, a really sparse, echoey version of ‘Play That Funky Music White Boy’ – it’s probably what they all get down to after the Republican convention. We also went to the wrongest karaoke in the world… it was all pastel lights and middle aged people in pastels gently singing along to mid-tempo 50s-70s ballads… I have a feeling that it felt exactly the same as a lobotomy – like, really soothing and quite pleasant, but there was certainly part of both our minds alerting us that there was something seriously wrong here. They had ‘Spin The Black Circle’ by Pearl Jam as a selection – I wish I’d had the balls to do it, Christ knows what the reaction of the other customers would have been.

But what it all came down to was that all we could REALLY do was drink and gamble – not so good when you’re on $50 a day… fortunately I’m a really crap gambler in the normal sense, I just enjoy being in the game, so I always last quite a long time due to the fact that I just persist in making really tiny conservative bets… I ain’t ever gonna bet it all on red. Er, which we couldn’t do because we were playing blackjack. Our casino also had the novelty of the dealers being dressed up as singers, and there was a certain pleasure to having one’s cards dealt by a surgery-enhanced Gloria Estefan or a Buddy Holly whose shtick seemed to be that he was playing Buddy Holly as a post plane crash-zombie. As I said I’m not really a very heavy drinker anymore so I never really got so out of it that I thought it would be a good idea to gamble away all the money I had to my name.

Mark, on the other hand… He admitted to me that the reason he didn’t have much money when he came out to Vancouver was because he’d “drank it all”, and thus I was only half surprised when upon having left him at a bar downstairs at six in the evening, he wandered in looking somewhat dishevelled about an hour later and informed me that he’d gambled away all of his money. His exact words in fact were “you might be buying tonight”. He then proceeded to get so drunk that he had a quite amusing freakout which culminated in him collaring two pretty girls who lived in Vegas and launching into an impassioned rant about how stupid it was that anybody could possibly enjoy living in this city. They left. As it turned out he’s been under the belief that he was chatting them up, bless.

Finally our last night was actually really good – we got off the strip and went downtown and it was much more like the fun Vegas you see in the movie – no monster casino hotels, but atmospheric, slightly wacky little casinos that were infinitely less sanitary and infinitely more fun just to wander around with the preposterously alcoholic margaritas they all seemed to sell, occasionally playing the slots rather than losing all your money at a table. If you go to Vegas on anything like a budget then seriously, try and do one night on the Strip just to see it and then all the rest of your time downtown, and then get the hell out of there.

Er, and by and large that’s it. My last days in Vancouver were pretty good, er, if you were there you were there, special thanks go out to Deb, Britt, Matt and Mike for being such a good posse at the end. Home is okay – as you’re probably all too aware it’s great to have a computer again, and it’s also odd to discover I own a lot more stuff than I remembered, and inevitably seeing the folks is nice, though dad is buggering off to Lithuania (of all places) tomorrow. Also my parents appear to have purchased a dishwasher, which in my slightly warped mind is synonymous with selling out.

Macau-ver and out

It feels somehow disingenuous writing about the trip now that I'm not actually on it, but eh, what the hey, I got into this for the bitches and the rides, not the integrity.

So you all know about Macau, yeah? Portuguese China? Hmm. You know, I don't think I could have picked it out on a map until it happened to fall open at the correct page of my Lonely Planet China and I was like 'THAT'S what Macau is, now I can pretend I knew all along'. And I did, to everyone in China, but now I don't care. I simply don't care.

Sorry, this is all sounding a bit nihilistic. I do care. Somewhat. Actually while drinking at the weekend I discovered that at least ten people have been reading my blog, some of then concerned from what might best be described as 'the general tone' that I was not having a good time on this trip.

I would like to clarify that I had an amazing time. When not vomiting. Or doubled over with stomach cramps. Or working up a racist lather about the Chinese. It's just that one - who wants to read about some twat saying what an amazing time he's having, especially in reference to someplace the reader will like as not ever go? (Oh hold on, that's basically all of travel journalism. Oh dear). Er, two - I can't really write about things in an enthusiastic way without sounding like one of my own reviews. And three - there is a lot of money to be made in misery memoirs, surely that can be made to dovetail with travel journalism... 'and then A FOREIGNER touched me. Touched me with burning things. AND I COULDN'T UNDERSTAND WHAT HE WAS SAYING.'

Oh god, this is turning into the blog equivalent of the last day of term.

Macau. A word that strikes a skeptical look onto the face of EVERY SINGLE BACKPACKER in Asia who I told I was going there. Reports varied from 'it's full of violent drifters' to 'it's quite boring'. Neither were ideal, but at the very least it would be worth it for the sheer ease with which I could accumulate exit and entry stamps on my passport via the medium of the 45 minute boat trip from Hong Kong. Accumulating ink marks in your passport is what travel is all about, don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Anyway, Macau. Is a city of two halves. There is the nicely preserved Portuguese Old Town. It is very lovely and almost freakishly reminiscent of Mediterranean Europe, and were it not for the fact everyone is Chinese and there is virtually no Portuguese spoken at all, it would probably be quite a freaky experience - while Hong Kong is visually unique, Macau centre is like somebody obstinately transplanted a bit of Europe halfway across the globe. Seems to be a thing that the Spanish/Portugeuse favoured when it came to Empire building. Is it arrogant? Or a sweet (if you can apply that term to sociopathic conquistadors) desire to be surrounded by the familiar. Anyway, it is nice, I guess there isn't a lot to do in the town itself, but it's pretty and there are some old churches and it's got a nice, bustling feel to it... the sheer novelty of the atmosphere was enough to soak up a day of my admittedly easy to win attention span.

And then there are the casinos. The old town is a little island, with giant, Vegas-scale megacasinos ringing it. The twain never actually meet, though there are still some profoundly odd juxtapositions.

Anyway, as I've all informed you ad nauseum, I went to Vegas once and it was quite the experience... though Vegas Of The East is a term applied to Macau with about 1,000,000% more accuracy than Vegas Of The North to Blackpool, it is very different; aesthetically the hotel-casinos are very similar, from the outside some are virtually identical (The Venetian literally so), but inside things are a bit more serious-minded. No Gloria Estefan-alikes, but also very few bars - drinking is not a major part of Chinese culture, but seemingly gambling is a-okay. Apparently the tables are on average TEN TIMES more profitable than those in Vegas. I'm not sure what that really means - does booze make you a better gambler?

Anyway, I had a few flutters (just on the slots), and with crushing inevitability I won money, but my utter lack of any gambling instinct precluded me winning big money. I was not a target for any violent drifters. I do not think there were any. Though wandering around as a single white man (I stayed in a guesthouse, there aren't really any hostels) perhaps invariably made me a target for the local sex worker population. One girl smiled at me with a look that said "Great! You're here, let's get this show on the road" and I briefly felt guilty for being the wrong type of single white traveller. Ah, that's a milestone gone past. My last observation about sex workers on this trip.

And that was just about it. I went to a pretty little village where I bought amazing egg custard tarts, essentially the village's main industry, and a thriving one. Then I went back to Hong Kong for one night, pondered vaguely with some people at the hostel that this was my final evening and it seemed objectively peculiar I had no inclination to do anything beyond loiter at the hostel with a couple of beers. But they weren't really people I knew, and maybe that's it - if you're on your own and you don't have a job/routine to go to, you don't have a travelling party that's about to disband, then I suppose it's hard to say what actually constitutes 'the trip' emotionally.

Blah blah blah. I got on a plane, watched some films, got drunk with my amazing friends, went home to parents' house, wrote a blog about it.

Moving to London soon. Excited, despite lack of job prospects at the moment. I don't know - travelling on your own (yes, I am sort of attempting to wrestle a moral in here, sorry) is all about being temporary about yourself, and I do feel particularly temporary now. After years where it was getting to the point of my being slightly embarrassed I ever told anybody I'd applied for permanent Canadian residency on grounds it appeared to be taking such a pisstake length of time ('So what happened to that idea of you going to Canada, Andrzej?' 'I STILL AM' 'Er, but wh-' 'THE APPLICATION TAKES A VERY LONG TIME, THAT'S ALL. AND GOD HATES ME') then it looks likely I'll have a 'yes' or 'no' by September. So yeah, I don't know what this move to London really signifies, other than a period of time where I'll somehow manage to get pissed with Laura McDermott and Mark Ward EVEN MORE, but it's something new, and that's all you can ask for, really.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

How I got even with Johnny Swanson, and other Hong Kong related stories

So you know how it is: you're sitting on the Trans-Siberian Express, trying to work out what fiendish time-based ruse the Russians will use to stop you buying a beer THIS time, feeling vaguely sorry for yourself about the fact that your long-cherished dream of going to Japan is in tatters thanks to the bloody Japanese not playing ball with the whole 'global economic collapse' thing, and then you get a text from your Canadian ex-girlfriend informing you she has a three day stopover in Hong Kong on her way to visit her Malaysian family, and she wonders if you want to meet up.
Oh hold on, you don't.
Because you're not a totally chill traveller like me.
Bet none of you cunts have even found yourselves.
Anyway, I said yes, as you do, as I figured that a) it would be awesome to see Deb again, b) Japan was just financially psychotic, c) Hong Kong is a pretty cheap place to fly back to the UK from, and perhaps most important- d) this would be my chance to get even with my erstwhile best friend Johnny Swanson.
As I've probably explained to all of you all ad nauseum, one of the bugbears of my childhood was that despite my parents being totally middle class, a couple of bad financial decisions meant that I ended up with all the liberal guilt and none of the fringe perks of middle-classdom. Or to put it more plainly, aged one to,I dunno, 18, my summer holidays involved caravaning in Wales; Johnny Swanson, meanwhile, went on holiday to Hong Kong in order to visit some relative or other presiding over the final dismantling of the British Empire.
It would be fair to say that other than the above stated reasons, I have never particularly wanted to go to Hong Kong, and my enthusiasm wasn't exactly knocked up a gear by my main man David Byne's blogs about his experiences there, which makes it sound like the soulless mess of ex-pat-filled skyscrapers I was afeared of.
But actually, I really liked it.
It's very different... logically you should be able to break it down to 'Chinese + British + extra dash of capitalism', but it doesn't feel like anywhere I've ever been to. The fact these were Cantonese Chinese obviously counted for something, but I think more relevant is the fact that the ravages of the Mao never happened here, which I'm sure must explain why people are generally friendly and will try to help you, regardless of language barriers.
At the same time the British influence is not that of today's Britain, but the late Victorian/early-Georgian period. Which may sound gristly, but it's mostly manifest in the nostalgic but functional paraphernalia of times past - the 100-year-old double decker trams that plough Hong Kong Island, slow and kinda steampunk, but cheap and efficient; a funicular up to Victoria Peak that actually dates back to the reign of Victoria and blitzes uphill at a faintly terrifying 45 degree angle; the faintly anachronistic names of streets and shops.
Otherwise it just feels like Hong Kong, a mass of improbably tall skyscrapers (the highest is 88 stories and 415m high, the top wreathed in clouds the whole time I was there) sprouting out of what is basically a jungle, while a vibrant city gets on with its business below.
So trip almost over, but a few things...
It was good to see Deb; last saw her in 2007, which was cool if a bit odd for a couple of reasons, and then we had (what I thought was) a slightly stilted phone call last year, but face to face it was all the good again, and much fun was had with minimum Dawson's Creek-style moments of soul-searching. Unbelievably she'd read some of my travel blogs, and being of Chinese extraction, she sort of wanted me to explain myself a bit on my grumblings. I think maybe the conclusion we came to was "you can think that stuff but surely there must be a better way to say it"*. Or something. But then we were idly looking at CCTV of a lift while waiting for said lift to come down, and Deb mistook the Asian girl in the lift for herself. Yes, Deb thinks all Asians look the same. Arguably this makes her a self-hating racist, but I choose to believe she actually broke racism.
And what is more beautifully symbolic of the way things have changed than a wealthy Asian family taking a scruffy white Englishman out to a members' club? NOTHING. And that is exactly what happened. Deb has an aunt out here, and her husband's some sort of high-powered lawyer, and they took us out for lunch to self-explanatorially-titled Foreign Correspondents' Club. It kind of had its heyday during Vietnam, when it was the principle pitstop for war reporters taking a break from the frontline, but it still has dedicated computer terminals set up with newswire feeds, and a couple of interviews appeared to be taking place in the bar. It was very grand, and kind of made me feel fleetingly inadequate at not having become a 'real' journalist. Then I reflected that thinking of myself as any sort of journalist at present was essentially self-aggrandising,and balance was restored. Anyway, it was nice, and when the bill came it was so eye-wateringly expensive that me and Deb wordlessly abandoned a half-hearted scheme to offer to chip in. I may never see its like again.
We went to see a Philippine drum and bass band, along with a couple of local acts, as part of a night called HK! Live. It was by far the most meritorious live music I've seen on this whole trip (admittedly competition = low), and I vaguely reflected 'oh, maybe I could live out here'.
I probably couldn't, though. A music geek cannot live on Philippine drum and bass alone.
Rightyho, two more observations and then we're done, if you're lucky I might never even get around to writing the Macau blog. That'd be pretty lucky, though.
As Mr Byrne observed, there are a lot of Philippine workers out here, and on their one day off (Sunday) they congregate together in large concrete spaces for a sit down and a chinwag, Hong Kong not really having any grassy areas suitable for gathering. It's actually been nice to see ethnic diversity again, even though I can't imagine it's exactly living la vida loca for them, as they're predominantly employed as domestic help. Also they were almost all women, which surely has to have some sort of negative impact somewhere along the line. I guess 'lost generation' would be exaggerating things, but still, given the fact they more or less seemed to be their own hermetically-sealed community, socially-speaking, I do wonder how they get their jollies. Maybe they are all gay. Heartening as it is to see black people, white people, subcontinent people and Asian people palling around out here - in a way that most definitely did not happen in China or Korea - it does seem that the creation of a new underclass was maybe required in order to achieve this. Someone's gotta go bottom.
But not to end on a sour note, after Deb had left I got a ferry out to the island of Lantau, which is twice the size of Hong Kong Island, but has only 50,000 inhabitants, plus a smattering of free-roaming cattle, and one gigantic mountaintop Buddha statue. It was very lovely, the only real, peaceful, honest to god countryside I've had this whole trip, and I suppose it was some sort of a reminder that you should always approach places with an open mind. Maaaan.
I bet Johnny Swanson never went to Lantau.
His favourite bit was the escalator up a hill.
The escalator is RUBBISH.
I won Johnny, I won.
That's it.
Apart from that threatened blog about Macau.
Also the asterisked bit below.

*Oh yes, I put an asterisk in - deal. Er, yeah, I dunno, having talked it through with Deb and pondered on what I said about 'the Chinese', I'd perhaps like to layer on some self-justification for my other blog: 1. Chinese people aren't allowed to vote, and the government limits physical and intellectual freedoms, and inevitably that makes for a gulf with the average backpacker; 2. Over the last 60 years they've been subjected to the most extreme series of cultural upheavals imaginable; I'm pretty sure this has impacted on them additionally; 3. Nightlife is not part of the culture, which makes it harder for said average backpacker to blow off steam, and though there are bars, you don't get chatting to random Chinese there as they only exist for the benefit of foreigners;4. Yeah yeah, I know we've all read Orientalism, but srsly, I'm only saying 'the Chinese' in the way I'd say 'the French'. AND WE ALL KNOW ABOUT THE FRENCH, EH?

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Bong to rights

Right... the rest of South Korea, then. Hmmm. Let's do a list, eh?

1. It was quite the relief after China.

Despite the fact Koreans are apparently famous for their lack of smiling, a lot of them seemed to smile at ME. Maybe they thought my face was funny, or I reminded them of a popular TV clown, I don't know. Maybe it was just in comparison to the Chinese; whatever, it is nice when people are nice to you. It was also nice from a lazy Westerner perspective to return to a culture that embraces (or has come to embrace) bars and coffee shops; in China these things exist, but only to cater for/rip off foreigners, and you kind of feel rather boorish visiting them. This doesn't mean Korea's a particularly Westernised culture, or at least not on a psychological level (SEE POINT 10. YES, THERE ARE TEN POINTS. SOME ARE SHORTER THAN OTHERS, THOUGH), but it was nice to see the existence of that social element. They also have sandwiches. Kind of weird ones (they're invariably on the sweet side), but that's not really the point... they have sandwiches. Can the itinerant Englishman be confronted by sweeter sight? Yes. The MASSIVE BEERS (1.6l) that were on sale for about two quid in every convenience store going. They were 6% plus and essentially quite nice, though somewhat freakishly they never lost their fizz (not even the morning after).

2. I stayed at a place called The Bong House

No, this Seoul hostel's name had nothing to do with the chronic (does anyone still call it that?), and everything to do with it being run by the odd double act of Mr Bong and his assistant Kevin. Weirdly Mr Bong wouldn't tell us his first name and Kevin wouldn't tell us his last. Though nobody in their right mind takes drugs in Asia (here is a fun way you can apparently take revenge on somebody working in South Korea or Japan on a foreign visa: post them a bit of weed and they will be shoved in jail for 30 days and then deported from the country with no chance to protest their innocence), the fact the hostel tended to lure in people who thought the name was funny made for a good crowd and I had A Delightful Time here with sundry Americans and a Danish born, Norway-then-Spain-then-Manchester-raised girl with the amusingly terse name Gry.
Plans were often made to go out in the evenings, but they never really came to much, largely because after two MASSIVE BEERS apiece nobody could really see properly and we ended up sitting in and watching Jason Statham films. Lock Stock... aside I had never seen a Jason Statham film prior to coming to Korea. Now I have seen three. I'd be cool calling it quits, I think I get the impression now.

3. I got eaten by fish.

So we heard tell of a bar called Doctor Fish... some Americans at the hostel had been tipped off to it and returned with feverish excitement in their eyes, improbable tales of adventure on their lips, and before leaving they gravely passed on the handwritten Korean cab directions to me and Gry like some sort of solemn heirloom.
Um, so yeah, Doctor Fish is on the sixth floor of a random skyscraper, you pay just over a quid's entry fee, and you basically sit with your feet in one of two tepid aquariums, each of which contains a type of fish that gets its jollies from sucking the dead skin of your feet. The larger, Chinese model, inspires a sensation like being violently tickled, while the smaller, Turkish edition is rather like shoving your feet in a bubble pool. And you drink beer while it's going on, and for the first half an hour your entire conversation basically runs "We're doing WHAT?", but, y'know, human beings can more or less get used to anything, and after a while you simply get on with the business of being in a bar, your perspective on life adjusted to accept that being slightly eaten by fish is now what you do. This is probably how Hitler got away with what he did.

4. I was reunited with former housemate Mike 'Wallsy' Walls

So the reason I decided to come to Korea in the first place was that my ex-housemate from Vancouver was teaching there and, y'know, I was in the neighbourhood. Um. Ish. So I went to stay with him for a bit and it was good. For those of you who have met him: he is very well and has a very nice girlfriend called Emma and they're moving to Portugal together in September. They live on Jeju, a big island to the the south of the Korean peninsula that rather erroneously tries to bill itself as "the Hawaii of Korea". Erroneous because Hawaii is warm, I have been led to believe. But still, it was nice.

5. I did ex-pat things with ex-pats

Well, the teacher population of Jeju, I think English teachers only ever qualify as semi-ex-pat really, what they lack in prospects they gain in personality.
Er, yeah, so I participated in a three hour long football game. If you've ever met me and your name is not Mike Walls, you will never have seen such an occurrence, but it was quite fun, I was arguably better than a couple of the girls. Arguably.
I was even vaguely impressed by my own fitness, or at least until the next day, when every single muscle in the lower half of my body decided to aggressively boycott my brain's commands. I also went out drinking with Mike and Emma's ex-pat associates in various ex-pat associated bars, and what a lovely bunch they were. I guess it's the small island sense of community, but everybody was super-easy to talk to, I could impress strangers by essentially repeating the exact same story of how how I sat on a Russian train for a bit, and people seemed relatively tolerant of y'know, me when I'm drunk.
Like when I saw two girls who I thought were lesbians and said "so I bet you're, like, the only lesbians on the island". Unlike in 99% of equivalent situations I've been in in my life, it turns out they WERE lesbians, and were in fact happy to talk to me about the rigours of queer island living. Which I'm sure was fascinating, I can't remember, I was pissed.
Also good to note: the fact Korea is, like, the most internetted place on Earth has the fun side effect that when you request a song from a DJ, they just cheerily download it. I got I Wish I Was A Polar Bear by Ted + Francis played, which made me absurdly happy and unjustifiably impressed with myself. More justifiably impressed with myself.

6. Went to an erotic sculpture park

Yeah... the thing is, the Koreans aren't exactly what you'd call a hyper-sexed bunch, so the existence of Jeju Love Land, a pleasant outdoor park full of massive plastic sculptures of penises is something of an anomaly. Maybe they have it to maintain the balance, I dunno. Um, in any case, it was a bewildering experience; initially it inspired hilarity but after half an hour or so we were stumbling around dazedly, unable to really work out why anybody had thought quite this volume of oddly sexless smut was necessary. Photos will wend their way onto Facebook in due time, but perhaps the best way of summing up the effect is that for the next two hours I kept semi-hallucinating that more or less every object I saw in the shadows was in fact going a large plastic penis. AND NOT IN A GOOD WAY.

7. I went snowblind.
I was never exactly sure what this involved until the day I climbed Mount Hallasan- South Korea's tallest mountain - at the same time as a rather enterprising snowcloud. The fact EVERYTHING WAS WHITE was actually okay, but when I stepped into the non-white innards of the noodle hut at the top of the mountain, it was sort of like somebody had punched me in both eyes. Fortunately some middle aged Koreans were so concerned that I was doing something on my own (see Confucianism) that they gave me a half bottle of popular Korean saki-equivalent soju, which sorted me out reet.

8. There are quite a lot of Dunkin' Donuts here.
Like, a gazillion on every street. In fact you could probably invent a law of probability as to the likelihood of walking in any given direction in South Korea and wandering into a Dunkin' Donuts. And the law would state: unless you've walked into the DMZ or the sea, you will definitely, definitely, definitely walk into a Dunkin' Donuts. Weirdly Koreans don't especially seem to like donuts.

9. They have shamans.
Apparently. I dunno, I went up a hill and heard some eerie chanting and Lonely Planet said it was the shamans. They were probably casting sex magick and shit. Or whatever it is that shamans do. What DO shamans do?

10. I came to a greater understanding of Confucianism. Maybe.
AS YOU ALL KNOW, Korea is probably the most Confucian country on Earth, a title it sort of claimed by default after Mau mostly persecuted said philosophy out of China. It's big and complex and vastly different from the Western belief in the individual, and I'm only talking about it insofar as I witnessed it firsthand, but it sort of boils down to a desire to be be part of a group, as opposed to the Western veneratioon of individuality.
From the point of view of the Westerners I met, it's kind of the number one frustration with Korean life, as acceptance of somebody from a radically different background - ie a non-Korean - into a Korean friendship circle is pretty much unheard of. Basically there are three types of social group: a business group (which is where Westerners do get to socialise with Korean workmates), a uni-gendered set of friends, or a couple. I saw a lot of the last two and it's very weird - to some extent it happens everywhere, but people really do dress and style themselves in a VERY similar way, couples often identically so.
At the same time, they're often dressed amazingly (the women especially so) - people are extremely stylish, they just feel no desire to express (or pretend to express) themselves as individuals within that. It does often go to extremes, mind: this is the first country where I actually saw signs warning you not to wear high heels on a MOUNTAIN, practicality tending to get a little left by the wayside. The weirdest quirk of all this is that if you go anywhere touristy, at least one member of any group of Koreans will have a camera tripod on them so they can take self-timed group photos, as being left out of an image of the group would be intolerable.
Actually the real weirdest quirk is one I only heard about: Jeju is super-hot in the summer, but the official beach season only encompasses July and August. This has no legal meaning, but a profound psychological one, insofar as regardless of the weather, Koreans apparently will simply not go to the beach if it's the wrong time of year.
It is all rather odd, though I have to say I've got an admiration of sorts - how much of Western society is based on hypocritical or insincere assertions of individualism, when really so many people are just desperate to conform? And I'm pretty sure Korea's absurdly low crime rate must mostly be due to the fact people believe to the root of that conforming shouldn't be to do with joining a gang or whatever, but striving to maintain society's integrity. Sure it could be corrupted, and sure it's fairly apparent that the stifling of individualism isn't great for the arts, but whatever the case, enough weird shit has slipped through the net to give Korea a very definite personality, and one I rather liked, on casual meeting.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Q. What is more funny than a national tragedy that has cost thousands of lives and still sunders a once-proud nation? A. Why nothing, of course

Ah, Korea, Korea, Korea... what a demented country.

I shall begin with the oddest part, which really does deserve its own blog, and then I'll try and sum up the numerous other 'my beautiful sanity, it appears to be ruined' moments in a second.

So as even the most apathetic of you are doubtless aware (and lord knows an apathy-off between my nearest and dearest would be a grizzly thing), Korea is a divided country, with South Korea basically doing a very strange impersonation of America and North Korea no doubt being EXACTLY how they portray it in Team America. I dunno, I didn't go, it costs an absurd sum of money and requires one to take a quite breathtakingly circuitous route in. Y'see, you're not allowed to cross the North-South border, aka the DMZ.
This is not necessarily something somebody unaware of the political situation would necessarily glean from a tour of the DMZ and surrounds, as the whole area is essentially fine-tuned to give off what I believe they call 'mixed signals'.
The first place one visits is Gyeongui station, aka Reunification Station. It is a big, glistening, metallic, very well kept railway station that marks the building of a train line between North and South some ten years ago. The two principle reasons why it is a massively stupid idea are that one, no trains go along it because the North Korea and South Korea really, really hate each other, have done so for the last 50 years, probably will do so for at least the next 20, and two, THE STATION IS IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE AND THUS WERE ANY REUNIFICATION TO HAPPEN IT'D BE ENTIRELY USELESS TO EVERYONE.
This does not stop it from having a ticket desk (presumably the most work the guy there has ever done is say 'no' to a few over enthusiastic tourists), souvenir passport stamps inferring that you'd been to Pyongyang without a visa (you're sternly told you should definitely, definitely stamp anything other than your passport with them), a sign by the solitary platform saying 'To Pyongyang' (no 'To Seoul', obviously, because that wouldn't be MAKING A POINT), and with tragicomic (but mostly comic) emphasis, a large sign saying 'Not The Last Station From The South, But The First Station Towards The North'. Um. Sure.
Then we went to an observatory, where we could look at North Korea from afar. North Korea looks like some scrubland in which nothing much is happening. Oh, besides the flags of the two countries: for years North and South were engaged in a dick-measuring contest of epic proportions, in which every so often one would build a bigger and higher flag than the other. The net result was that the South finally got bored, and the North have the biggest flag in the world. So big it needs an absolute shitload of wind to get it to do anything, and thus hangs there, enormous but utterly flaccid. Oh yeah, so the North. It looks like some dry scrubland with a big flag in it. Weirdly you're not allowed to take photos within two metres of the edge of the observation platform, though further back is fine. I took some photos anyway. They are not exciting.
Finally, we went to the third tunnel, so named because it is the third of four infiltration tunnels the North built into the South for some sort of hypothetical invasion. The actual tunnel itself was not that exciting if you're generally familiar with the concept of tunnels, but amusingly the North's attempt to pretend the MASSIVE TUNNEL running from their country into that of their sworn enemies' was entirely innocuous was to paint sections of the wall black and say it was coal, and that the tunnel was a coalmine. That takes a special kind of genius.
The best, however, was saved 'til last. Above the tunnel there was a cinema showing a film purporting to explain the war. It had every sign of being a propaganda film, though propaganda for whom or saying what I cannot answer. Anyway, this is loosely the plot.
1. 24-style cameras flicker and flash, predominantly focusing on a little Korean girl, who is crying. Why are you crying, little girl?
2. Massively butch American voice over answers question: she is crying because of the Korean War. Cue archive footage of tanks, troops, shit blowing up. Sad music is playing.
3. We are treated to a summary of everything bad that happened following the war. It is a bit The Day Today. Families are sundered. This makes them cry a lot. Unfortunately a Rick Astley song appears to be playing as the backing bed.
4. The voice over thunders on to the 21st century. Oh, this sounds promising... apparently there is some sort of train line between North and South Korea, but simultaneously the fact nobody goes to the DMZ means there is loads of wildlife there now... that's nice.
5. A badly CGI'd butterfly is now touching down on the various fences, military positions and landmines of the DMZ and turning them into badly CGI'd woodland. Oooh, that's wonderful. And Van Halen's 'Jump' is playing in the background. Excellent!
6. Ah, it's the little girl again. And she's happy! Happy because, according to heavy inference of this film, the entire conflict has been resolved. Um. Um. Um.
Yeah. And that's not even getting into the Man U shirt signed by Bobby Charlton that somehow has pride of place just outside the screening room. Not getting into it because for the life of me I can't work out why the fuck it's there.
The ridiculous thing about the whole situation is that if you actually speak to a South Korean about it, they're pretty sussed, and are happy to ruefully point out the comic elements of both the DMZ tour and the conflict itself. The sense of denial is not a national one, it may not even be anything more than a slightly optimistic governmental PR campaign, but all it's really succeeded in doing is make a national tragedy more of a joke than Trey Parker and Mat Stone ever could. Should I feel bad for my hysterical laughter during the film? Um. Maybe. But seriously... you gotta see this film.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Some other places I went to in China

So my knowledge of what's currently rockin' in the UK basically extends to the fact Jade Goody is at death's door, but is somewhat ironically the only person who still has any money left, meaning 21st modern Britain as we know it will in a literal sense finally die with her (or is the credit crunch actually what made her ill???)

But also I am quite certain that the other question on everybody's lips is "yeah, but what's going on with Andrzej in Korea?"

Patience my lovelies, patience. It's a sprint, not a marathon. Out of an urge for good housekeeping, I am going to cover the last three places I went to in China, and do it quickly. However, I suspect I may end up writing some sort of summary of my feelings on China that'll sort of drag it into overlong territory, but you can ignore that, if you'd like, especially as it'll probably turn out massively racist.

"But er, why exactly do you want to go to Shanghai?" Was a question I asked people quite a lot. Nobody really came up with a good answer beyond "it's the only other place I've heard of in China besides Beijing". Which is fair enough, I suppose. Anyway, given all I knew about it was that it has a lot of skyscrapers and was apparently quite fun 80 years ago if you were a wealthy European imperialist, I was going to skip it, but then my own lack of knowledge of places in China came to the fore, and I was sternly told my near enough everybody who'd spent more than five minutes in the country that I was an idiot if I didn't go to Hangzhou, which is only an hour away. Plus the Swedes would allegedly be in town so, y'know...
Anyway, Shanghai: there are lots of skyscrapers there, and it's quite fun for Westerners/wealthy European imperialists now, if it's a knockoff watch, a whore, or an overpriced beer you're after. Sadly I partook in none, though not for the want of various locals' offering - around The Bund (where all the skyscrapers are) you can't move more than a metre without some dude trying to sell you illicit stuff, with most of them repeating the mantra "watch, bag", which I spent at my first night thinking was a warning of some sort. A very persistent guy attempted to haggle down through sexual possibilities, so convinced was he that I wanted a "nice Shanghai lady", concluding by adopting a decisive 'alright, I'm doing you a favour mate' final offer of "just blowjob, then". I realise a lot of these posts seem to relate to my undue fascination with the global sex trade, but I do wonder if that was technically really the best way to go about sex-haggling.
Anyway, I wasn't blown away by Shanghai, but I wasn't expecting to be, really, which sort of took the pressure off, but matters somewhat salvaged by cool girl at my hostel called Lou, who I spent a fairly entertaining evening grumbling about Chinese queuing with; a really nice old traditional garden in the old town which ticked all sorts of Orientalist tourist boxes; and the belated arrival of the Swedes, who I got tipsy with for one final time on what may well have been the cheapest beers in town. A special mention to one guy in the bar we were drinking in, a wigger from some sort of indeterminate spot in Europe who was, rather brilliantly, dressed up in the various insignias of both the Crips AND the Bloods. It could have been a plea for an end to the violence, but in any case I suspect an afternoon in Compton wouldn't go so well for him.

I would like to think that only in China could there be a city of six million people topped off with a centuries-old tourist attraction that I'd never heard of, but I'm probably wrong. Anyway, Hangzhou is home to West Lake, a really, really lovely lake (obv) topped off with varying pagodas and manicured gardens of several thousand years pedigree. Somehow it hasn't been bollocksed up too much via the medium of smog and concrete, so much so that I even spotted some wildlife, a sort of indeterminate chipmunk/squirrel thingy. Relaxing, though I am reliably informed that there is NOTHING to do there once you've worked your lake fetish out of your system.

So I got stuck here. And almost all the time I DID spend here was dedicated to trying to leave. And the one tourist attraction I wanted to go to beyond a morbid examination of the out of season beaches (they had the water portion of the Olympics here - fuck knows how polluted the seas closer to Beijing must be for that decision to have been made) and a place called Beer Street (Qingdao is home Tsingtao, China's closest approximation of good beer) was something called Myths Of The Chinese Underworld, a semi-dilapidated underground animatronic exhibition of ghouls and demons. Allegedly. Nobody in Qingdao had heard of it and it wasn't mentioned in any guides, but Qingdao is where Lou (from Shanghai) had been teaching and she showed me pictures and I was vaguely obsessed with finding it. Unfortunately I was shafted by a taxi driver's bafflement at her written (in Chinese) directions. In any other town I'd have probably blamed her, but given another Qingdao taxi driver took five minutes to understand me when I pointed out the ferry port on my very large, very bilingual tourist map, I'm not so sure. THAT ALL SAID I am not especially down on Qingdao, mostly because in retrospect I can accept that I was to a large extent the architect of my own downfall and BTW did I mention that I stayed in an old observatory? I didn't? It was good. Very good.

What I am self-aggrandisingly calling an epilogue
Um, yeah, China is a weird place... I had a great time there, but am a little troubled by the fact that a lot of it did not involve doing as the Chinese do (ie I did tourist stuff only). And it's also true that any attempt to view China as a homogeneous whole (as opposed a visit to six cities so different and far apart they might as well have been in their own countries), or to give any sort of pithy answer to the question "what are the Chinese like?" tends to result in a shrug. 
Certainly as somebody who tries to be politically correctness and that, it was a bit disconcerting to finding myself occasionally grumbling about 'the Chinese' in conversation - many, particularly hostel staff, were totally awesome individuals (hence why Beijing was a comparatively relaxing experience), but as a rule people weren't very friendly, viewed foreigners as a curiousity, and culturally there's a lack of relaxing social spaces (bars, coffee shops) as we understand them. 
You could of course  easily say the British are unfriendly and intolerant of foreigners, but whatever the case, despite the fact I'd most definitely like to go back and check out the south of the country, Tibet, etc, there was a definite guilty relief in leaving. But I guess travelling isn't necessarily meant to be relaxing, plus the fact is awesome times were had and awesome people were met, and given Hong Kong and Macau are still ahead of me, I have two bits of semi-China to come on this little jaunt, and I'm excited.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Chinese bureacracy

This is how I left China.

I read I could get a ferry from the port city of Qingdao to Incheon in Korea. Having entirely predictable liberal guilt about flights, I vowed months in advance that I would do this. Lonely Planet,, etc had no real concrete information about how one might book the ferries that they casually flagged up, and the website was only in Chinese and Korean, but I figured I could sort stuff out on arrival in Qingdao.

I didn't think to ask any Chinese people to look at the website for me during any of the three weeks I spent in popular Chinese-reading country China.

I arrived in Qingdao and asked at the hostel if they knew the best way to get ferry ticket. They did not.

I went along to the ferry terminal to try and buy a ticket in advance. They told me I couldn't buy a ticket in advance and I should come back at 2pm the next day (i.e. the day of sailing).

That evening I got quite drunk with an Irishman who had an advance ticket.

At 1.30pm the next day I returned to the ferry terminal. I queued at the ticket desk for about quarter of an hour, before being informed I should definitely go to the building next door.

I went to the building next door. You know how people tell their kids that their pets have 'gone next door'? But they mean they're dead? Probably meaning hell? I think they just meant this place. It took me two hours to move one metre in the queue, mostly because there were zit-encrusted Chinese adolescents constantly pushing in front of me, each bearing the passports of at least ten of their friends of their friends. Eventually these would be processed by the three members of staff on duty, one of whom left after an hour and never came back. Every single petty gripe about the Chinese I'd accumulated over the past month came flooding bitterly up through my gut, and might well have been proverbially spewed over the giggling hordes around me, had it not been for the presence of Simon the Irish guy, of getting drunk with the previous night fame. We contented ourselves with quietly hurling abuse at everyone around us.
He was there because despite already owning a ticket back, he had to get it validated in order to claim a cabin on the ferry.
Alarm bells rang.
With no small amount of violence, I finally got to the front of the queue.
There were no ferry tickets available for another week.
Simon mumbled a few kindly words, but at the end of the day he had to get onto his fucking ferry.
Having come down with my massive backpack, I decided to get a taxi back to the hostel, where I would fume.
For some stupid reason I got in an unmarked cab, driven by a guy who spoke okay English. This is a bad sign, as most people in China who've learned English and don't work in hostels appear to have done so in order to con foreigners (this is obviously a sweeping generalisation, but I only met about three Chinese people who didn't work in hostels, and they all tried to con me).
He tried to con me. I was in such a bad mood that told him how much I thought it should be, realised I'd have to ask him for change if I tried to pay him that much, so actually paid him quite a lot less than for my taxi out there.
I went on a website and reluctantly booked 250 quid flight from Qingdao to Seoul.
At least I was leaving.
Several hours later I got a message from the agency I'd booked the flight with, telling me that in order to confirm the booking and process payment, I'd have to send a photocopy of my credit card to them by scan or fax.
The hostel had neither a scanner nor a fax machine.
I sent the agency a pleading email explaining my situation, got really drunk, then went to bed.
Woke up at 6am, very hungover, checked my emails, found I did not have a flight. I had essentially come to the fairly average town of Qingdao for no reason, and should probably have stayed in Shanghai drinking with my Swedish friends, and got a cheap flight from there.
I threw myself at the feet of Maxwell, a member of staff at the hostel, who - unusually for a member of staff at a Chinese hostel - didn't really speak any English.
He went to the Chinese-language version of the EXACT website I'd been on the day before, where the flight I'd attempted to book for 250 quid in English was on offer for a princely 53 quid for speakers of Mandarin.
The agency was going to send over a man, to the hostel, within the next two hours, who I would pay for my ticket in cash.
The man turned up with my receipt, which was for a 300 pound ticket. Alarm bells rang.
I went to the airport, which I'd probably guess cost more than everything else in all of Qingdao. It was four quid for a beer that cost 20p in town, and there was a string quartet playing in the airy but largely deserted departures hall.
I went to the Korea Air counter. Alarm bells were wrong. They gave me a ticket. I got on a flight, where - somewhat suspiciously - I was sat next to the only other white guy, a Dutch man developing a yacht powered entirely by wind and sun. For some reason I found him entirely loathsome, despite (though actually perhaps BECAUSE) of the fact that he was clearly going to do far more to improve the planet than I ever will.
Arrived in Korea. It was like going forward in time about 200 years. I got to my hostel, met some rowdy Americans, drank several beers bigger than my head, and three days later wrote a blog that probably inferred I had a bit more trouble getting to Korea than, let's be honest, I actually did.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

None of you are getting a toy soldier. Sorry

So I've recently been beset by the thought that I might be a bad tourist.

Obviously this doesn't particularly bother me (don't worry, this isn't a blog about my feelings, I'm not some sort of girl). But still.

I've just been in Xi'an, which is an awesome town in its own right, but certainly the only reason two thirds of middle England appears to be camped up here at any given time is that Xi'an is the city nearest popular tourist attraction The Terracotta Army.

So anyways, I went to see said Army, and it was good, though I suppose I shared the same sense of anticlimax a lot of people report; it's a stunning spectacle, but at the same time it's neither better or worse than what you expect: it's a very large room filled with two thousand year old clay figurines in various states of disrepair, and I suppose the sheer fact of its existence is the most remarkable thing, not so much the form that existence takes.

Nonetheless, it's kind of mind-blowing regardless, but whatever your feelings it doesn't technically take that long to see, so inevitably there are some shopping opportunities. You can buy:

1) Innumerable replica figurines of the Warriors

2) Stuff made of jade

3) Warriors picturebooks, signed by the peasant who first discovered them (incidentally there are two peasants in two different rooms, who as far as I can tell are purporting to be exactly the same guy. When asked about this hitherto decent English-speaking museum staff appear not to understand the question. Which I found utterly delightful)

Anyway, my tourguide/all staff in the shops genuinely appeared to be confused and maybe a little hurt about the fact I didn't want to buy any of these items, a tactic that induced pretty much everybody else from my hostel who went along to cave in and at least purchase a small trinket. The logic often being 'if they really want to sell me four small replica soldiers for the equivalent of 50p, who am I to turn them down?' And yet turn them down I did. I don't know, for all the shameless cash-ins, blah blah blah, this is the only place in the world where I can get four small replica soldiers for the equivalent of 50p (I mean, have you seen the prices in Games Workshop these days?), would it really have hurt so much to buy something I didn't really think was very nice and had it over to parents at the end of the trip? They'd like the THOUGHT, at least. I dunno, I had a vague moment when it occurred to me I might be doing tourism wrong? I don't even pose in pictures next to noted monuments to prove I was there or whatever. Maybe this is what I SHOULD be doing? Hmm. Actually I did toy with the idea of buying a 4ft soldier as I think that would look quite cool in a house... maybe I should have just gone for it. I could have been like that guy who went round Ireland with a fridge, only way more awesome.

Yeah, arguably travelling on my own makes my mind drift somewhat obtusely.

Anyway, I suppose the Terracotta guides aren't really ones to look for on advice; basically these clay dudes were buried for 2,000 years without anybody having a clue about it, yet the (mostly freelance) individuals showing tourists around all speak with total authority about it, frequently to hilariously contradictory effect; most notably my guide said the human bones found around the Warriors were just from graves that had been dug above it by unsuspecting future generations of peasants (reasonable, you have to admit); my friend's guide claimed with utter certainty that they were the bodies of ALL 700,000 workers involved in the project. Which is, I suppose, the more fun idea.

Anyway, I won't bore you too much more, but for the sake of my own self-aggrandising piece of mind, here are some other things I did in Xi'an.

Xi'an's centre is dominated by its ancient Drum Tower and Bell Towers; short concert demonstrations of said - very old - instruments were on throughout the day; saw them both and they were unexpectedly awesome, primal, booming thuds and tings, vicious bass bells and drums post-rock thunderous one second, springy as a techno beat the next. All conducted by people dressed in mildly twee medieval dress; basically it's China's version of Morris dancing, and it would probably fit in quite well at an ATP.
Had to wait an hour and a half for the bell demonstration, not yet particularly certain it would be any good or not - sundry western tourists went in to look at the tower and left without being arsed to wait for the music, and I was occasionally tempted to join them, but one mantra resoundingly beat through my head: "what would Laura McDermott do?" Probably nota great mantra in EVERY situation, mind.
Also a classic Chinese moment at the drum concert: man waits maybe 45 minutes to get a frontrow seat for the ten minutes of music, gets a phonecall halfway through said music, spends the remainder of the concert shrieking into his phone in a - mercifully futile - attempt to be heard over the cacophony. Nobody apart from me finds this even slightly rude/odd.
I spent most of my evenings getting drunk with a guy from North Carolina called John. He's sort of like a slightly toned down real life version of Earl Hickey, in that he doesn't have a moustache or a criminal record, but he does have a faintly shady past in the US Navy and is a MASSIVE believer in karma - he profited from selling his house just before the entire global economy did its thang and appears to feel terrible about it, for some reason. This was good for anyone in his vicinity, as purchased rounds with almost superhuman alacrity; when I occasionally managed to sidle off and buy one myself he'd (with increasing seriousness) roar "you tryin' to steal mah KARMA!?"
And lastly, a shout out to Xi'an's Muslim quarter, a thoroughly awesome district of town - about two miles of windy streets full of old guys on ancient motor trikes weaving imperiously through what was in principle a pedestrianised area, vendors hawking foodstuffs that seemed to exist only here (you'd be at least mildly surprised at what these guys'n'gals are willing to do with a kiwi fruit), and birdsong everywhere, thanks to the cage on cage stung up as musical ornament. Vibrant old school awesomeness, and thoroughly worth the three mornings of crippling 6am stomach pains that elementary deduction would suggest was the direct result of gorging oneself on said experimental streetfood.

But it's good, and so big you spend a long time gawping at it

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Propaganda, smog and high explosives

So in my last blog I made some generalisations about the Chinese. I am surprised there have not been protests from my Chinese fans, because as it turns out most of my generalisations were reasonably inaccurate. I said the Chinese find it near impossible to communicate with the likes of me. I said they stared at Westerners in blank-faced fashion. I said they were poor at driving. I metaphorically pulled my eyelids into slits and bellowed 'HA-ROW!'

What I had done was assumed that as Harbin had a population of four million people, it was probably quite cosmopolitan. Nah. Having been to Beijing, what I can say quite safely is that the people of Harbin are a bunch of peasants and I spit on their stupid peasant ways, the peasant fuckers, fuck them.

Actually it was probably best to get the most provincial place done first, because that way we could go "wow, isn't China different?"in a vaguely patronising way, without yet having had the chance to take a good long look at our mucky Western souls and admit understanding what was going on around us and crossing the road without needing counselling afterwards might be a nice thing. In quick summary: Beijing has an awesome public transport system, people don't gawp at you, you can usually make yourself understood via gesture (which seemed beyond the folks in Harbin), and the traffic rates more like a Nightmare on Elm Street on the scareometer, as opposed to Harbin, which rates a robust The Descent.

In long summary - somebody asked me on my last night in Beijing what I actually thought of the place. Some two hours later I'd burbled out an over-earnest and entirely incoherent reply, which can be boiled down to the following: what I really liked about Beijing was that every time you get off the metro, it felt like you were in a different city, often a different country, and definitely a different time in history, meaning I can't really say what I thought Beijing was like. But it was fun. Here is a list of some things I did.

Slobbed around in a former prison

Our hostel was a place called the P Loft, which was formerly a Japanese run prison. It hadn't been cleaned a lot since, but was awesome in all other respects, mostly because the staff were a bunch of impractical wasters who discounted everything to meaninglessness the moment they decided they didn't hate you. Combined with the gargantuan common area this was all the good, especially when I arrived, as victims of my Twitter feed will have long ago been bored to tears by the epic description of the battle of wills waged by me and my stomach following my arrival in Beijing. In summary: I eventually won, my victory assuaged by a steady diet of sitting on the sofa doing nothing and Will Smith films.

Went to the Olympic site

I hate the Olympics for all sorts of reasons: they used to interrupt the smooth passage of children's' TV when I was a wee 'un; the games are all totally gay; it is shit compared to the comic genius that is the Winter Olympics; it has the temerity to occur at the same time as the Edinburgh festival; some sort of right on blah about ethics/corruption. But the Swedes (from the train, we'd caught up with them) wanted to go see the site and I felt guilty about having spent the day being ill, so I went along and, y'know, it was impressive in a sort of pointless-as-anything-other-than-a-tourist-attraction way. I mean, there's The Bird's Nest, the massive, spectacular, glowing sci-fi hulk of a stadium... in real life the only sports the Chinese are really into are ping pong and kite flying. This leaves it a bit redundant. There's a hotel in the shape of the Olympic flame. This is quite cool, but it is only near brightly lit but disused sports buildings... in ten years' time will this really make anybody happy? Not for me to say, but as a fan of things that require an enormous amount of effort while serving no practical purposes, I was enchanted.

Attempted to see from one side of Tianamen Square to the other.

Difficult, mostly because there is still so much smog in Beijing that the air is on the wrong side of opaque, even on a technically clear day (when you sneeze, black comes out, bit eeew). Went along to watch the flag-lowering ceremony, mostly by accident. What you'd expect really, a little Soviet kitsch, a little overblown, but basically some men with weapons going to elaborate lengths to move a piece of cloth. Kept trying to take surreptitious pictures of toddlers waving China flags. Wonder if this makes me a paedophile on a technicality?

Saw the Great Wall Of China

Yeah, it's good. Part of me assumed that it would maybe be a big con, and that just off shot in every promo photo there was, like, a Woolworths or something. But it is really stunning, and, indeed, just like the pictures - there were quite a few tourists about, but less that one might think, and a lot of them filtered out after the first few hundred metres, as in an admirable piece of bloody-mindedness, the Wall was built over terrain that no invading army was ever going to be stupid enough to march through in the first place. You're walking on slopes that really can't be too far off 45 degrees, and after spending two hours getting there, you do get the rogue thought after about ten minutes that maybe it'd be just nice to get a coffee and admire the thing from afar. A kilometre or so along it was just me, five of the Swedes and one Chinese guy on his own, running along inadvisable slopes at inadvisable speeds, a souvenir medallion around his neck, stopping at ever high point to how out what I can only assume to be the Chinese for "I'm the king of the world".

Lived the expat dream

Sort of. Met up with friend of a friend Jim, a cool (i.e. poor) expat, who broadened my horizons and blew my mind by taking me into a world of bars, English-speaking staff, and beers that cost more than 40p. A different side of the city to our hostel's shack-tastic 'hood, though felt slightly absurd having a stilted conversation about Vegas with an affable American who could probably pound me to death with the weight of money in his back pocket alone.
This was nothing compared to the evening excursion conducted by the three English guys and seven Swedes to a club named Propaganda (as these places tend to be named). Upon arrival in Beijing Louis and Joe had, bless 'em, simply started drinking 'til 7am every day and sleeping until it got dark. This does make me wonder if there's something in the water in Sheffield. Though flagging a little, they were happy to show me and the Swedes the Beijing clubbing ropes when everybody else was ready for a dose of Propaganda. Basically you pay the equivalent of eight quid for an open bar, and try to still be alive and hooker-free by 5am. Whether its a sign of getting old or the fact journalism has taught me a free bar is a marathon, not a sprint, I was relatively lucid by the night's end. This defaulted me to the utterly fraudulent position of offering relationship advice to the Swedes, four of whom are coupled up - very wise when on a nine month backpacking trip. I waffled some shit at them, and somehow everything worked out okay, the night ending with me and one Swede having a mildly xenophobic conversation in really, really, really bad German.

Almost blew myself up

Chinese New Year ended last Monday, which basically meant every single person in Beijing devoted their evening to the detonation of explosives. Chinese fireworks can broadly be divided into three types: stick of dynamite-sized bangers that serve no aesthetic purpose, but if you stand within about ten metres it's like being punched in the ears; long red strings of bangers that sound like somebody going on a lengthy spree with a machine gun; and paintbox-sized tins that you set fire to, causing red rockets to often (if not exclusively) shoot upwards. It's not pretty, but is it kind of captivating, and beckoned down from our balcony by some enthused locals, we were given a handful of bombs each to dispose of as we would. We pulled it off without hurting ourselves, which prompted Joe to launch into a drunken spiel to a bewildered Chinese guy about how he thought letting three years olds chuck about high explosives was a much more prudent and safe system than the rather more repressive approach adopted in the UK. It was at about this time that an ambulance turned up to cart off some shell scarred local. I sort of found this more satisfying than is appropriate.

Other stuff

This could go on indefinitely, really... I liked Beijing. I was sorry to leave. Everybody else is still there. Probably they'll still be there in a month. Maybe even a year. I have succumbed to the number one traveller cliche and gone off travelling someplace. How exciting.