Shoes and Shanghai national museum

On my final day (Monday) in Shanghai I first had to buy some new shoes. My “bargain” shoes from New Zealand which cost NZ$25 (£8) turned out to be not so great and they were still so wet in the morning that I had to borrow the orange plastic flip flops from my hostel to go across People’s square to the shanghai department store to pick up some shoes as I wanted to have dry socks to try them on.

It might have been a fun challenge to try and complete the whole trip with a pair of flip-flops but it wouldn’t have been fun in Siberia where I head next for sure! I first headed upstairs to the outlet section where they had real (but old) Nike and Adidas shoes. Unfortunately they were all very trainery and unsurprisingly few of them looked particularly good though the quality looked fine. So instead I headed to the lower floor to pick up some smart shoes as I need some and the Chinese don’t seem to have many shoes in the middle ground between trainers and smart shoes – I’ll have to pick some up back in the UK. There I got some good quality shoes for ¥420 but they are rubbing a little at the back so I think it was probably my least bargainous Shanghai buy.

Then after returning the flip-flops and picking up some insoles for my new shoes (which was difficult actually as they weren’t generally sold by shoe shops.) I headed to the shanghai museum. This had some interesting Buddhist statues and some excellent and really detailed bronze and jade work that was worth seeing as well as some interesting Chinese art – they seem to be keen on greyish nature pictures which makes an interesting change and is very different from European landscapes. There was also some good pottery but it was no more impressive than any other I’ve seen in other places. Overall it’s worth visiting but it’s not amazing and it is difficult because everything is catergorized to get a feel for the history. Credit though is due as virtually all the descriptions were in English as well as Mandarin.

After that I returned to my hostel and we went for a traditional Chinese Mcdonalds before I went and caught my train to Xi’An. The train was uneventful though IMO not as comfortable as the Vietnamese first class trains we took there as the beds are a little narrow. It was pretty quick though taking 13.5 hours to cover the 1200km from Shanghai to Xi’An.

OH MY GOD: Jurung Bird Park

On Wednesday I caught the MRT out towards the Jurong bird park. First I had some lunch in the mall at Boon Lay – the far end of the east west line. I had a chicken curry noodles. This was really tasty and also pretty damn spicy -a nice random dish. It also wasn’t too expensive at S$4.60 – at least it was a better price than I’ve been paying over the Chinese New Year holiday while the food courts were shut.

After that I caught the bus from the MRT station to the bird park itself. The bird park is run in a similar style to Singapore zoo and while it isn’t as impressive it’s still pretty good. I got to see lots of birds – most of which are in large cages from Barn Owls to Crested-woodpigeons. There are also lots of tropical animals like Macaws and a lot of smaller birds too. After that I saw a hawk display that was pretty good but not totally brilliant to be honest.

One problem with the zoos and wildlife areas in Singapore is that there is a sizeable minority who don’t know how to behave in venues like this – and I’m not talking about the children. They seem to think it’s acceptable to shout like they are in a crowded bar and bang on the glass – there are no signs telling you not to but it’s obviously unacceptable behaviour. It’s sad that they don’t have the common sense not to do stuff like this when it isn’t explicitly forbidden. Of course even then they do jaywalk :p.

After the birdpark I headed back to my hostel where I had a cheap supper before settling down for an early night before my early flight to Siem Rep in the morning.

Islam in KL

On my first full day in KL I went to the Islamic Arts museum. I did this by public transport which involved first taking the monorail from Times Squsre shopping centre to KL Sentral station which went past a lot of interesting architecture.

From KL station I then took a damp (probably from the air conditioning) commuter train north to the old Kuala Lumpur station. This was apparently reminisant inside of an old London railway station but if so it was like Fenchurch street or something – not Paddington. The outside of the station was suitably impressive however as was the KL rail headquarters across the road which were built in a cross between British and Islamic style. I’m starting to understand Islamic style more now I’m in Malaysia and it seems to be very mathematical and geometric. This is because you aren’t able to display pictures of people in mosques you have a lot of beautiful patterns instead.

After seeing this I went to the Malaysian national mosque which was fairly attractive though not particularly impressive. There they were supporting a boycott of American companies as their government supports Israel. This was of course highly ironic as the posters were probably made on computers manufactured by an American company using American chips (possibly even chips made and designed in Israel as Intel has a multi-billion dollar microchip factory there – source: Arstechnica.) running American software and researched using an American search engine and hosted by an American webhost.

Prehaps a boycott of Intel (use AMD instead) would be in order to show that people feel Israel acts appallingly (which frankly they do – though the Palestinean terrorists also behave badly towards Israel.) and that would also severely affect the Israeli economy.

After this I went to the Islamic arts museum just up the road. This had a couple of special exhibitions on including one on Islams role in Britain. This was very interesting photographic exhibition funded in part by the British High Commission (the equivalent of an embassy in a commonwealth country.) here in Malaysia. The exhibition included pictures of a lot of British Muslims including a white, female Judge (this was occompanied by the punnish title never judge a book by it’s cover – probably only funny if you have been away from puns for a while.). I think the pun is a piece of humour that only the British do and it is part of our culture. This exhibition was a very interesting look at my culture at least partially from the outside – the exhibition would do well to be shown in the UK as well.

Although Britain took Islam into account as far ago as 1911 when Halal meat was allowed most of the progress has occurred within the last 10-15 years. I do think that the London central mosque should be demolished and rebuilt as it is a concrete monstrosity and is undoubtably one of the ugliest mosques in the world. From further looking at the museum this seems to be typical as Chinese and South East Asian mosques seem to take a traditional local style – though the mosques I’ve seen in Malaysia seem to be styled as you’d expect.

After seeing the exhibition on Islam in Britain I went to a local street stall for lunch as the museum restaurant was too expensive for me (45RM – £9) and after this I returned to the museum. The next exhibition I saw was on Islamic architecture which was interesting and even included the mathematic significance of it including the golden ratio which is apparently also the ratio between the sides and radius of a pentagon as well as linking the terms in the Fibonacci sequence. These relate to many things in nature as well as music and buildings like the Taj Mahal also has a lot of mathematics in it’s construction.

After this I saw the main exhibtion galleries which included some Islamic history as well as beautiful ceramics, metalwork and cloth. The ceramics especially looked very European as 19th century European pottery took a lot from Islamic pottery. These were also very interesting to see – it is clear there is a lot more to Islamic art than Persian rugs! There was also some more stuff on several of the Islamic empires including the Mughals in India – there apparently wealth and power had to be displayed.

After that I had a wander around before getting a new cover for my Nokia 6230i to replace the old and busted cover. After that I went to a food court for dinner which was excellent; except for the main course which was average. Then it started absolutely pouring down with rain so I went indoors to McDonalds for some chips.

Taj Mahal and Agra

On Wednesday I took a tour from my hostel to the Taj Mahal. We left early at 7:30am and made our way on the 5 hour bus journey to Agra. This was fairly uneventful if slow. I chatted to an Indian from Mumbai (Bombay) who spoke excellent English on the journey.

After arriving in Agra we first went to the very impressive Agra fort which was built around the same time as the Taj Mahal itself. Though the fort was actually built by four different kings and the Taj was built by a single king in the middle of this period. After this we headed to get some lunch and for a shopping opportunity where I got a marble Taj mahal model for 1100 rupees (US$23) – whether it is real or not I’m not 100% sure but as the tour was booked by the Indian YHA it should have been kosher (though actually there were some issues later). After this we headed to the Taj itself where we got to spend an hour looking at it’s stunning beauty. It actually really is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen and is up there with the Grand Canyon, Maccu Pichu and Iguazu Falls. The building is literally completely built out of marble and even after seeing all the photographs it still took my breath away. Even the gates surrounding it are impressive. We got views of it from far away and up close and even got reflections. We also went inside the maulsoleum itself to see the stone coffins inside. They are probably the only thing not built of marble.

The other interesting thing about the Taj Mahal was that even though it is a wonder of the world there were far less European and American tourists than at the other sites I mentioned. Probably even including the Iguazu falls which is far less well known than the other three. It wasn’t exactly unbusy though – lots of Indians had made the journey there. It was good that that didn’t spoil it however.

After this we headed back to the bus quickly but it was in vain and we managed to be first back (though it’s the Taj so I’m not convinced that is a good thing!) and we headed to the birthplace of Hindu god Krishna which was very interesting to see I also had some delicious warm milk and sweets before returning to the bus once more.

This time it wasn’t so great and we headed to a dodgy set of 5500 temples nearby. I went with the English speaking group and we were asked to donate large sums of money to the temple we were taken to. I basically told them to fuck off though not using those words so we didn’t lose any cash. What was more shocking was that the main group of Indians got this treatment which although this isn’t that dodgy as my experience in India went it’s something I’ve never experienced on a coach tour before in any country. Even the tour was fairy cheap at US$9.50 that is comparable to what Sinh Cafe charge in Viet Nam for one day tours and they offer far better service as they have more comfortable fully AC buses and give you loads of information enroute about Viet Nam as well. It was also booked through the Indian YHA so should have been 100% ledgitimate.

After this diversion we got back to Delhi very late and I only got a couple of hours sleep before my flight to Chennai in the morning.

New Delhi

After a lazy morning I went out on Tuesday afternoon to see some of the sites of New Delhi. First I went to Safdarjung’s tomb which is a beautiful building a bit like the Taj Mahal. After having a wander around the beautiful gardens and after seeing this I headed to the excellent Indra Gandhi museum which described her and her sons life very well. It was better than the other museums I’ve seen. After this I went to the Nehru museum which was more anti-British retoric.

It does seem from reading the wikipedia articles on Indian economics that the British probably did damage the economy as growth was only an average of 0.1% a year from 1700 until 1925. Though I’m sure the continued resistance as well as changes in the world economy as probably hurt India more than most. The British restriction of trade to the empire and their lack of granting of Dominion status (which made states largely independent of the UK) for a long time as well as not moving the currency to the gold standard were all errors by the British which would have damaged the Indian economy.

There is also the fact that even today over 800 million people live on less than US$0.50 (20 rupees is the figure given) a day which is shockingly low.

I should note that none of the museums that I have visited quoted any of these facts.

PS sorry for getting all political. I’m not used to seeing such critism of the UK that I knew nothing about the issues of.

All information sourced from Wikipedia.

Delhi

So I flew into Delhi on Friday evening and then went straight to bed and got up moderately late on Saturday morning after checking my email and breakfast I headed out for the day. Unfortunately first I got waylaid by touts including one with fake government ID but no harm came of me aside from the time wasted and I then headed to Old Delhi and the Jama Masjid mosque. I basically fell for it as I was walking in the same direction as this other guy “towards” Delhi railway station according to my hotel (but we were actually going in the other direction.) I managed to take the wrong road from the metro station so I had to walk about 3 times further than necessary but I did eventually make it. Old Delhi is an interesting place. The streets are completely full so although the fastest way through them is by scooter or bicycle, walking manages to beat every other type of transport. So eventually the mosque poked it’s head out from the Delhi smog but by the time I got there it was time for lunchtime prayers so I went off to a nearby restaurant to grab some food. Then I headed into the mosque itself and had a look around the fairly beautiful building before heading off on foot to the nearby Red Fort. This is a giant Mughal fort right in the centre of Old Delhi and it was a beautiful place to relax. As it wasn’t free to get in there were no touts which was relaxing. A woman walking down the stairs with a small child was very happy that I was prepared to wait and let them go down first.

There were some museums in the grounds as well but they weren’t very good. The grounds also included a museum on the history of British rule which was full of hatred for the British. It whined that we hung their people who failed to uprise against the British at various stages as well as complaining we weren’t fair on the poor and we didn’t educate them. As we behaved the same in our own country at that time I don’t really see the problem – obviously the killing of 1000 innocents by General Dyer just after WW1 was covered and that was one of the few genuine complaints mentioned. I’m sure if the museum had kept things in perspective it would have been great like the war museum in Sai Gon talking about the Viet Nam war and especially Agent Orange. I’m not totally sure on what most Indians feel about British Raj rule (though I’m sure they are glad to be independent) though clearly the government resents it a lot due to museums like this and the places that have had their names “de-Rajified” (I am more than happy to be corrected on this if the British really were terrible people to India and were worse than other rulers.)

After returning to my accommodation at Smyle Inn to be threatened about not using their tour company I changed my accommodation to somewhere else where I slept much better and the people running it were some of the few people in the tourist industry who were friendly like most other Indians seem to be.

The next day I headed off to New Delhi for the day. First I headed to the National Museum which looked like it had a lot of great stuff though the information was either inadequate or like a University essay and far too long and boring. It was also fairly dirty and dusty like the rest of the country. I wish they spent the money they gained from the tourists paying 10x higher entry fees (though I got on with student discount so only paid 1 rupee or £0.02 which gave me access 300x cheaper than other tourists.) on cleaning the museum up the as well as summerising the museum text better. Sadly though I suspect the extra money from tourists is mostly wasted.

Anyhow after that I walked to see the nearby India gate, along the day I was hassled by taxi drivers who I think were very surprised to see a white tourist walking. The gate is beautiful but was surrounded in fog/smog from the pollution. After seeing this I took an auto-rickshaw to Connaught Place where I tried to get into the park but wasn’t allowed due to having a camera but I still managed to see a lot from the outside. I also managed to get shit dropped on my shoes (the scam is that they rob you while cleaning it off -according to the Rough Guide and other Indians). I ran off so I didn’t lose anything and went to clean it off. After this I returned to my room for the night.

The next day I arranged to leave India earlier than expected and went to stay in a hostel in the embassy district away from most of my fellow travellers. This enabled me to have lots of conversations with Indian travellers staying there, all of whom were very friendly. I first talked with some students who were very surprised I didn’t know any Hindi. I suppose one of the issues is that it is expensive for Indians to travel abroad as well as difficult for them to get visas (apparently for the UK and the Shengen EU region they require an interview like you need for the US unless you are on visa waiver.) so they don’t see other perspectives on the world.

It is definitely great to get to talk to the locals here but it is sad that in the tourist areas that they always seem to want more than conversation. There are also a lot of travel shops and others claiming to be official government bodies. I think the Indians should invest in tourist police and street sweepers for these areas to clean them up to remove the worse of the scanners and make it more healthy to bring the standard up to that of other developing countries that I have visited.

It would enable them to charge more too as although the accommodation in Delhi is cheap it is also of poor quality given what it costs compared to other countries I have visited. This would also allow the shops and restaurants to be more overt with selling there wares as often it is difficult to find what is available as you are closed off. This reduces me to going to Western Restaurants even though I like Indian food. It also means I haven’t enjoyed myself in the tourist areas and it looks like most of the honest locals there resent that we are aloof and distant towards them as we can’t easily tell who is honest and who isn’t. it’s only been in the YHA away from most other foreigners and the scammers that I am able to interact with the interesting people around me. I am sad that I need to leave early as it is clearly a great country with a huge amount of great stuff to see (I think it is probably comparable to Italy if not more interesting.).

Hopefully with some work Delhi and probably other parts of the country could be more welcoming to tourists because if it doesn’t improve sadly I don’t think I will return.

PS Tomorrow I am off to Agra (where the Taj Mahal is) which looks like it’ll be a long day. I leave at 7am and return late in the evening.

Marriage in “the West”

I was having an interesting coversation with the mother of the Japanese family I was staying with in Tokyo about marriage. She was talking about how the divorce rate in Japan is rising. She was shocked when I mentioned that the divorce rate in England was currently approximately 50% (update: just checked the government figures, they don’t give figures per marriage but comparing the number of divorces this year to the number of marriages this year and the average since 1951 gives a probable divorce rate of between 40% and 50% – of course this only counts official marriages and not couples who live together unmarried.); I’m sure the situation is just as bad in the US and the rest of Europe. I suddenly realized that the reason for this is the lack of available advice about whether the person you are with is really “the one” or not. Given the vast quantity of stuff we were officially taught about relationships is less in amount to my knowledge of Vietnamese. For something that is so important; children who grow up with only one parent perform worse in all sorts of ways. And ancidotally children of parents who stayed together “for the children” wished their parents would split up.

Of course the sensible solution at this point would be to ask someone older and wiser who has had more life experience and who knows you well. So for the majority of young people without older friends to turn to that would leave their parents (of course this depends on your parents not being keen to marry you off to formulate an alliance or for power or something like that.) or other members of your family but asking for their approval of a relationship isnt really something you would do.

Of course you can always base it on the relatively small amount of life experience of long term relationships that you and your friends have (and the longer you wait the more likely that your friends have that experience.) or the media. But they will say practically anything to sell their publications on something that is fairly subjective, and obviously popular to discuss, like relationships.

So the current western model doesn’t seem to work that well but I suppose it is better than arranged marriage as at least you are free to make your own decisions. Thoughts and comments?

Franz Josef and more

After a long coach journey I arrived into Franz Josef on Tuesday evening. That evening I went for a few drinks and learnt that the town is completely dependent on tourists. It’s population is only 100 but swells to approximately 3000/day in the summer which is absolutely massive. I also found that in appreciation the bars charge less to those small number of locals than the tourists by giving them discounts off the menu price.

The next day I went to the visitors centre in the morning and saw an interesting video on the southland area and some further exhibitions. The video was especially good as it included commentary as well as epic scenery. In the afternoon I headed out onto the Franz Josef glacier (access to the nearby Fox Glacier and many of the walks nearby are currently closed due to being washed out in the rains while I was in Mount Cook.) and I got to use crampons and walk on the ice of the glacier which was really cool, especially when we walked through a narrow crack that reminded me of te Cu Chi tunnels in Viet Nam. Also this was all for a bargain price of NZ$92 (£33) so I was pleased to do something for under NZ$100 for once. It was a good day and even though I was in the “advanced” group it wasn’t too difficult though there were ropes to hold onto in places.

In the evening I watched the repeat of a British ITV program called “ladette to lady” which was about converting “the worst” young women in the UK from drunken whores into ladies at an old fashioned finishing school the show itself was entertaining but not that great as it was fairly sexist and old fashioned (though as it was ITV from 2005 it was probably the best show broadcast at the time!). Basically they got them to learn all the stuff you might learn in finishing school such as embroidary, flower arranging, sarcasm and of course playing hard to get. That is at least seems ill-advised – I mean the chances to win someone actually worth having are few and far between (and besides there are the inevitable accidental mistakes.), games don’t help and I can’t believe that if you were serious about someone you’d care about whether they were “easy” to win or not – it doesn’t reflect on them as if you a good match for them are the exception not the rule.

Though this does lead to alcohol abuse which is probably the most serious problem in the UK at the moment*. Now I certainly enjoy a few drinks occassionally but the general culture of drinking in the UK in unacceptable. Currently 800,000 people a year go to hospital for alcohol related issues (which is approximately 1.3% of the population) and the number is increasing so unfortunately the government is going to need to regulate it and step in as it must cost the economy billions of pounds a year in lost productivity and wasted police and hospital time. Maybe we’d grow as fast as Viet Nam does instead of resession if we sorted it by the end of the year, but unfortunately it’s an embedded part of our culture so will take a long time to fix (like 5 to 10 years or more).

* = I’m sure some people are thinking our trains are worse but they aren’t really that bad: probably only France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, China and Singapore and maybe Russia, Finland, Sweden, Italy and India (not for reliability but because they make huge profits – I believe £2 billion in 2007.) have better systems. So out of 190 odd countries in the world only 11-16 have better train systems. Whereas probably only 10-15 countries have worse alcohol problems and I can’t think of any of them.

The valley of the moon and the Tatio geysers

Over the past couple of days I’ve been busy here in San Pedro. Firstly two days ago I went to the valley of the moon. The valley of the moon is a deserty valley that is around 10km from San Pedro, as it is so close I decided to avoid the tour companies and go myself on a hired mountain bike.

I set off after lunch to do this, so I’d hopefully have a chance to see the sunset. After cycling down the fairly flat road to the valley itself, the road was the emptiest I’d ever seen and mostly you could see any cars in either direction. Then after paying the entrance fee I got to the first explanation point. From there they explained that there was a cave and canyon nearby to explore and for the cave I’d need a torch. Fortunately I had one with me and I set off to explore the cave, that let you crawl under rocks, and at times I had to take off my bag to make it underneath the rocks. In places you reemmerged into the light and got to see some strange but cool scenery.

After that I headed down the canyon where I had some fun with the timer and tripod for my camera, it took about 6 shots to get it straight and me in the picture, the insane brightness in the canyon doesn’t help you see the display on the camera. After that I headed further into the valley up a steep hill on my boke to see the great dune, the view from the top was incredible. Afterwards I headed onto see some more stuff but that wasn’t that interesting. By the time I headed back the sun was starting to set giving great shadows on the rocks, but as I was getting up at 4am the next day I thought I should be getting back and as I’ve seen more epic sunsets than I’ve had hot dinners on this trip I thought I’d give this one a miss.

Anyhow so the next day I got up at 3.45am and headed out of my hostel to head over to the geysers. We had to get up so early as geysers are more impressive when there is a large temperature difference between the water in the ground and the air temperature, and coupled with pressure below ground that is what causes them to spray water all over the place, as we were so high up and in the desert as soon as the sun appeared from behind the mountains the air suddenly heated up by several degrees so it was good that we had got there so early. After that I had a lazy afternoon and went to bed early at about 10pm. Today I’ve also had a fairly lazy morning as I was still tired, and I’ve had a few too many disturbed nights recently. Later today I’m off on the bus to Iquipe.

Machu Picchu

Firstly a note. This is a double post and the story on the rest of the Sacred Valley was posted at the same time.

After breakfast at the train station we got ok the train. The train didn’t have much legroom (little more than the bus yesterday) but we did get a window positioned next to every seat. At first we got to see the rubbish produced by the citizens of Cusco. I wish they’d add a US$1 surcharge to the US$48 each way ticket price and pay people to clean it up as it’s disgusting. After that we got to see the tight valley the train winds through to reach the Sacred Valley including several switchbacks; especially as we left Cusco. After about 2 hours we again reached Ollyatambo and afterwards headed through the lush farmland of the Sacred Valley. After a while this gave way to the most virgin jungle I had yet seen as we wound our way along the track to Machu Picchu station.

After our journey we arrived into London Paddington Machu Picchu station (if you treat it like London and march straight through you can get the first waiting bus. Keep your guidebook handy for the route through the inevitable Market.) then you are taken to Machu Pichu itself. This meant we got to the top very quickly so we got a lot of time at the top.

It doesn’t exactly have a wow moment like Iguazu does but overall it is incredible and an amazing location to build a city surrounded by mountain peaks and also very challenging to reach. The bus up has to practically hug the cliff on the 30 minute journey to Machu Picchu itself. The highlight for me was the absolutely spectacular views in all directions of the surrounding mountains.

In the city itself we had a wander around and saw the usual half constructed buildings that are present at the other inca sites. The city also is clearly unfinished in places and large boulders take their place among the buildings. Basically the Spanish conquered the incas at the height of their empire so the city wasn’t finished. The centre of the city was a slanted rock which had no shadow on the equinox days which everyone seemed to want to pretend to touch.

After seeing most of the city which includes ledges for growing food for around a 3 hour trip we walked up a path for 30 minutes to get amazing views of Machu Picchu from above. It was as high as the mountain limited to 400 people so the view was pretty amazing, probably as good to be honest. Overall Machu Picchu was definitely well worth seeing and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

PS there are lots of trains from Ollyatambo to Machu Pichu. If you want to spend longer on the mountain but still do it in one day get the bus to Ollyatambo the previous evening and stay in a hotel there and then get the train to Machu Picchu from there and then get the train all the way back to Cusco in the evening. If you don’t stay there you’ll have to get up even earlier as it takes 2 hours to get there from Cusco however you do it. Alternatively you can get a late train from Ollyatambo to the village at the end of the train line which lets you walk up one of the mountains to overlook Machu Picchu whose numbers are limited to 400/day and you have to get entry at 7am.

PPS I’ll be adding photos in the next few days of the site to Flickr and I’ll link them from the story.