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.