Northern Mexico

Dec. 1999

rick_mugThis was my first time traveling in … Mexico. The first time to see Mexican cowboys in their white shirts & cowboy hats; school girls in their incongruous but apropos Scottish plaid skirts; the colourful indigenous Indian peoples; the Catholic canoodling in public places.

Sure I’d flown many times to Mazatlan; partied it up in my 4-star Condo, dined in great restaurants filled with Gringos, danced on Joe’s Oyster Bar. That’s not Mexico, of course.

Actually, I never had much interest in backpacking Mexico. What little I knew of Spain & the Spanish speaking world left me “no sympatico”. (I later, after a trip to Madrid, softened this position).

mexmap

Spanish contributions to world culture? I could name Don Quixote, El Greco, Gypsy Kings, Picasso, Bull Fighting, Tapa bars, Tequila.

But Mexico seemed a land devoured by the cruel & rapacious “conquistadors” & the always ruthless but sometimes noble Catholic Church.

Cortés, young & ambitions, on arrival there, had all his ships but one destroyed. It was conquer or die. There was no retreat.

The Spanish colonial legacy, their “Black Legend”, is not a proud one. Historians are quick to point out that while heretics were being burned in Europe by the Spanish Inquisition, thousands of innocents in Mexico were having their hearts ripped out still beating.

Some of the Mexican tribes were blood-thirsty. I don’t think that mitigates Spanish sadism.

In the end, European disease was the main genocidal killer in Mexico, same as in Canada.

“New Spain” was a rich & fertile land: agriculture, fishing, mining. Gold & silver! I was struck that Mexico is geographically identical to Arizona & Texas, yet the U.S. is the richest country in the world & Mexico still a developing nation? How to explain that?

If California had remained part of Mexico would illegal “Coyotes” be today trying to cross the border into Oregon?

Mexico City

I loved Guadalahara, a terrific & scenic tourist town. But Mexico City was even better. I stayed near the central plaza, the hub of everything.

church

25 million+, a quarter of the national population. Some say it is a violent and dangerous city. Certainly I’ve never seen so many cops, soldiers, bullet-proof vests, & weapons.

Despite the reputation, Mexico is getting pretty civilized these days. The hard-core backpackers are mostly in central America where the road is wilder & travel currently less expensive.

I did meet one American who was robbed in Mexico. His night bus was stopped, men with machetes & guns boarded, they took everything including his passport.

Last year during a train robbery, a German tourist who resisted was shot dead.

Mexican heroes mount insurrections. That’s part of the problem. I got caught-up in a massive traffic jam / parade. Was the Pope in town? Or that other religious icon, Santa Claus?

No, it was a reenactment of the ride of Pancho Villa who, eulogized as a hero of the Revolution, is even better known as a bandit, murderer, & womanizer.

A bigger concern to me than thievery is that Mexico is loud & polluted. Can you believe that recycling STILL hasn’t come to most of Mexico? The litter is dreadful.

Yet myself & everyone I met really enjoyed Mexico City. No problems. It’s quick & easy to get around on the world’s 3rd largest metro system (after Moscow & Tokyo) to the many well-run tourist attractions; museums, huge murals, Voladores, the Indians who fly suspended from a tall pole, tied-on by ropes.

pyramids

Just north of the city is “Teotihuacán”, the impressive ancient capital. It was larger than Rome in its imperial heyday”.

The Pyramid of the Sun has the same base as the Great Pyramid in Egypt, but reaches only about 40% as high. Still, it’s the 3rd highest pyramid in the world & a long climb up.

I enjoyed the holiest of Mexican shrines, the Basilica de Guadelupe, abuzz with pilgrims, tourists, & pickpockets.

maryMexico’s “most binding symbol” is the dark-skinned Virgin of Guadelupe, a manifestation of Mary who magically appeared to a Mexican Indian in 1531. Her cloaked image is everywhere.

At the marvelous Museum of Anthropology I finally got to see the famous, mysterious giant stone Olmec heads; mysterious because (carved about 1000 B.C.) they have Negroid features, famous because Homer Simpson has one in his basement.

(By the way, “Los Simpsons” is a big hit here.)

San Miguel de Allende

Near everyone loves this charming colonial town. Cobbled streets, public squares, classy restaurants. An arty & crafty treat.

It used to have quite a Bohemian reputation — Neal Cassady, the real-life hero of Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road” died here.

Later San Miguel attracted artisans from all over the world. The quality of the art is high. If you’re into hoarding useless possessions — I mean, collecting inspiring ethnic art — you should rush down here.

Me? I’ve almost completely given-up on travel trophies. But I did attend the Taiwan Ballet in one of the beautiful historic theatres. Lovely.

Guanajuato

guan

Accompanied by Anna & Chris; tall, slim, raven-haired identical twins from Brazil, I went next to Guanajuato. Gorgeous mansions, colourful houses, excellent restaurants — one of Mexico’s most fascinating colonial cities.

Not a single street runs along a straight line; this is a town crammed into a steep ravine. Why the impossible topography? Because one of the richest veins of silver was discovered here in 1558. For 200 years it produced about 35% of the world’s silver.

Most zany of all, the city traffic passes underfoot through a confusing maze of tunnels. That made for a nice pedestrian tourist experience.

The wealthy silver barons built fantastic cathedrals in which they could repent their guilt — in some mines as many as 5 workers / day died of accident or illness.

Copper Canyon

I was keen to HIKE in Mexico though hiking as a recreational pursuit is astonishingly undeveloped there.

High up on the continental divide is Creel, population 4000. Saturday night. As in any other cowboy town, there’s nothing to do but drive the truck up & down the main street with windows open, Mexican music blaring.

Sunday was “tranquillo”. As I climbed up to welcoming Jesus on the hill, I reflected that I like Creel. It turned-out to be my favourite town in Mexico.

I was befriended (that can’t be the right word) by a Mexican con-man named Rene. Over Huevos Mexicanos he told me a version of his life story. Rene’s a vagabond wandering Mexico without money or possessions, living day-to-day by his wits and charismatic personality. He learned his English working illegally in Brownsville, Texas transferring goods from Mexican to American trucks — $20 / truck. He made it sound easy to cross the border.

Creel is not much more than a little whistle-stop lumberyard & outfitting town. The trains rocked my little Hotel room beside the tracks. But this is the jumping-off-point for the slightly famous Copper Canyon.

The Copper Canyon is deeper in places than the Grand Canyon & covers 6 times more territory as the rivers carve through Mexican highlands to the sea.

Batopilas

canyonFrom Creel we took a spectacular 7 hour drive down into the bottom of the canyon to the quaint, photogenic village of Batopilas. Here you’ll find more horses on the street than motor vehicles. One hombre rode by reins in one hand, a grande beer in the other.

Down in the canyon, most of the population are indigenous Tarahumara Indians. The girls & women look wonderful in their traditional costume of brightly coloured pleated skirts & accessories. (They adopted this from the fine Spanish ladies they first saw 300 years ago.) Most of the men have assumed the Western uniform of jeans & baseball cap.

Traveling I’m generally not much interested in the native peoples. It’s usually the same sad story we’ve seen in Canada.

But the Tarahumara (the “People who Run Fast”) are fascinating. Traditional hunters, the men run down deer for food — literally run deer ‘til exhausted. The men can’t run faster but they can run much, much longer.

The Tarahumara first appeared at the Mexico City Olympics marathon. Later boostering Americans started bringing them up for ultra-marathons. The big race is in Colorado, the “Leadville 100” miles. In 1993 Tarahumara finished 1st, 2nd, & 5th though they run in home-made sandals.

Next I climbed on to the famous Copper Canyon Train; 655 kms, 39 bridges, 86 tunnels, fantastic scenery. It’s an amazing ride, one of the great railway journeys of the world.

Good trip.

But how will I get home for Millennium Eve? I have no ticket, no plan.

Adios!

– Ricardo

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mucho gusto! – Mexico

Nov. 1999

rick_mugHola from Mexico!

Land of the Catholic Church, strong family ties, music, fiesta, sentimentality. And Tequila!

My parents are retired, “snowbirds” for the past 10 years. They summer in Crawford Bay, B.C. & winter in the States. They’ve been wanting to try Mexico instead of the U.S. for a couple of years, but had some concerns, especially regarding taking their Jack Russell, “Pete”, across the Mexican border.

We did some research on Mexico, then finally decided to head for Lake Chapala, near Guadalajara. I drove down with them.

mapal

This year my Dad had a cataract removed, and an “intraocular” (IOL) artificial lens attached to his good eye. The doctor was reluctant to do the procedure since my Dad is blind in the other eye (hockey accident). However, the operation was a great success, his vision restored to near 20-20. He’s much more confident behind the steering wheel.

We shared the driving, rolling down to Mexico in my Dad’s home-made fishing camper.

Driving in Mexico is interesting. We alternated modern 4-lane toll roads with narrow 2-lane “free” highways where huge trucks pass each other full-speed, no more than a hand width between them. The detours, unmarked speed bumps, and unexpected potholes are even more dangerous.

I love the deserts. But the best scenery was south of Puerto Vallarta where the narrow road snaked through lush jungle-covered canyons. Many rivers, beautiful waterfalls. Little yellow butterflies blew “like confetti” (Ronald Wright) around the truck.

We advanced steadily from RV Park to RV Park. The most modern was spectacular “El Mirador” in San Carlos, a yachtsman’s paradise. Here we watched Canada geese still flying south. I scrambled the rocky upthrusting one morning.

sancar

I liked, too, a tiny well-run Mexican place in Lo de Marcos with its earth-shuddering breakers. Pelicans, sandpipers, & hermit crabs.

And the next night at Boca de Iguana, near Barre de Navidad, where the beach had a haunted, shipwrecked feel. I found a shore cave with a shrine to the Virgin, empty but obviously still used by the faithful. The votive candles were still burning. On the other end of the beach was a deserted, crumbling wreck of a Hotel. Was it destroyed by earthquake? The ghosts couldn’t tell me.

Our immersion in the RV lifestyle was a bit of a shock — I shouldn’t have been surprised — we LIKED it. You meet people from all over North America & Europe. They are even more friendly & helpful than backpackers.

Retired folks join “Caravan Clubs” with names like “Tracks” & “Escapees“, read magazines like “Coast to Coast” & “Family Motor Coaching”. Many are fanatically devoted to their high-tech motor homes. It seems they all travel with their pets.

Still, RVers have too much time. In one park we saw a Swiss couple cranking out German beer-drinking tunes on mechanical music boxes which they’ve hauled all over North America. Everyone brought lawn chairs over to watch. The highlight of the day. It was surreal.

We aren’t RVers. My folks want to rent. We were headed to the most popular retirement destination in this country, Lake Chapala, near Guadalajara. High on the Mexican plateau, Chapala is claimed to have the best climate in the world, though the lake itself is polluted & receding.

En route, I was looking forward to seeing, but then disappointed by, the usually spectacular “Volcan de Fuego de Colima”. The smoke & lava wasn’t visible when we drove by.

They’ve got great volcanoes in Mexico, though. In nearby Pariutin, in 1943, a farmer discovered a new sinkhole in one of his cornfields. He tried to fill it in. Ten months later it was an active volcano, 1700 feet high. As I speak, at least 2 other Mexican volcanoes threaten.

Reaching Chapala took us a week in Mexico. That was long enough in a cramped camper. Even the dog was going a little crazy.

When we reached the popular “Pal RV Park” in scenic Ajijic village, near Lake Chapala, we were all happy to have arrived. (Note: The Park was converted to owned condos in 2004.)

Here I had hoped to help search-out a nice rental unit at a reasonable price; to ensconce my parents in a satisfactory hidey-hole; to be the “Great White Son”. I anticipated about 3 days of pounding the cobblestones, hard bargaining, savvy negotiation, pushing the limits of my Spanglish.

Yup, you guessed it. My parents rented the first place they saw — while I was gone walking the dog. We hadn’t been there more than 40 minutes.

Even worse for my ego, they made an excellent choice. Couldn’t be better. A perfect spot in the very epicenter of gringo Mexico.

They rented a Casita (“little home”); very Mexican, fully-furnished, fireplace, private garden patio with fish pond as well as a roof-top patio with a view of Lake Chapala.

pal_1999

The RV Park provides swimming pool, Laundromat, clubhouse, 24-hour security, cable T.V., telephone. All mod cons.

The Park is littered with fallen oranges & limes. Cows browse just over the fence. At dusk the bird bath is asplash with noisy customers. The bougainvillea and other flowering trees in the yard are spectacular.

pal_1999bChapalla is a lovely town. I could retire here!

My Mom is a little paranoid regarding scorpions, though, especially the “deadly little white ones”. We’ve already met 2 people who have been stung.

I’ll set-off for home tomorrow. It may take 2 or 3 weeks. I’ll let you know how it goes.

But it’s been great spending time, taking an adventure holiday, with my parents.

Hey, my Mom actually has an email address for the new millennium. How about that?

Adios!

– Ricardo

Deprivation ‘tanks’ – Jasper Skyline Trail

Aug. 1999

Jasper Skyline Trail is listed by Gadd the best hike in the Canadian Rockies. But, to me, it seemed a disaster loomed. These jots were first posted in a friendship newsletter called the red-eye.

red-eye_logo

rick_mugTruth is, I’m a city boy. I like a VCR, recliner rocker, comforter, “munching high up the food chain”.

I used to ridicule my Saskatoon friends when they dragged back into town, hypothermic & mosquito-welted from their latest canoeing fiasco.

In those days I didn’t like to walk any farther than from my car to the 7-11.

This summer, back from the under-indulgences of Asia, I’ve been overindulging bagels, ice-cream, & hot tubs. Forget my philosophy of “Voluntary Simplicity”. Deprivation tanks!

I tried a compromise once, joining my Calgary hiking buddies on a Waterton Park trip — while carrying a Sony “Watchman”. As we “trekked”, I gleefully called out the golf leader board to my grumbling companions. Greg Norman was winning the British Open!

Yet during the summer of ‘99 I spent as much time in the wild as I could, returning from overseas specifically to hike.

Actually, there’s more adventure to be had in Canada than Asia.

I had been enthusiastically anticipating the JASPER SKYLINE TRAIL; “the best hike in the Canadian Rockies”, asserts Ben Gadd, our premiere mountain naturalist.

The Skyline is high, over half above the tree line, with some long ridge walks. Panoramic vistas!

We could see Mt. Robson, the “biggest” mountain in the Rockies (from base to peak) though not highest in elevation.

However, recall our miserable “late” Spring. When we phoned from Calgary to see if the hiking trails were clear of snow we were advised that “ski conditions were poor”. (This was mid-July!)

The Skyline problem looming was “The Notch”, a high, steep, windy mountain pass. If snowed-in, it would probably be impassable due to avalanche risk.

I was the most vocal nay-sayer; beefing all the way up during the drive from Banff, complaining in the toilet at the trailhead where we fussed with our packs out of the drizzling rain.

(I only agreed to participate because I couldn’t resist the chance to hike with a manly ice ax. Picture the “blue haze of testosterone”.

We rented those axes. We didn’t actually know how to use them.

One of the guys had lifesaving instructions scribbled on a napkin. But those of us who had seen IMAX “Everest” preferred to innovate in the manner demonstrated by the Jr. Tenzing Norguay. It was great fun “glissading”, boot skiing, steep slopes then falling into an ice ax brake-stop just before the jagged rocks at the bottom.

The rain turned to snow. We slogged through slush. Waded creeks.

My spirits improved when we pulled-out the Tequila & lemon-lime Crystal Lite, clearly superior to the 100 proof Vodka & powdered Gatorade.

The Skyline is a marvelous hike. Wild and beautiful, the mountains somehow more rugged this far north.

We saw mountain sheep, a statuesque mountain goat, and even glimpsed a moose dash across the path ahead.

By the time we reached “The Notch” the weather had cleared, the morning sunshine brilliant.

This was more bad news. The sun softens the snow. We’d been strongly advised to ascend by noon latest.

No matter. It was obvious the snowy pass “would not go”. Winnibago-sized chunks of ice poised ready to come crashing down from the overhanging cornice.

No one had ascended yet this year. The only 2 other hikers (Gita & Lars from Denmark) were dissuaded to “Notch” by an unwelcoming resident wrangler. Instead they proposed to bushwhack AROUND the mountain. This stratagem was seriously crazy, as we told them.

We loitered, indecisively debating our options, watching marmots duke it out (“The Rumble in the Rubble”).

025_marmot_attack

Suddenly John Long charged up the slope. He had had enough gab. I couldn’t catch him — “he was that damn fast”.

I have to commend John (a bachelor) for route-finding, kicking steps into the snow up the entire uncertain and potentially dangerous climb. We had consensus that one of the married men should lead. A single guy still has too much to live for.

We made it!

At the pass we were euphoric, scrambling to the top of the dry adjacent peak, posing for “outrider” cliff-edge photos.

Then — the most outrageous thing I’ve ever seen in the mountains. Two tiny specks appeared on top of the even more monstrous icy cornice on the opposite side of the pass.

It was Lars & Gita, the couple who had disdained to follow us. They had short-cut to the very worst possible spot on the mountain!

Somehow, by continued improbable dumb-ass luck, they were able to descend to the pass.

We back-slapped, had a big lunch boil-up in the sunshine.

The big, bad “Notch” was conquered. But, like many other victors, we suffered more hurt at the post-hike celebration than in battle.

travelogue – this is the end – Asia

I’m back.

Back in the best country in the world.

Where better be than a sunny Canadian summer?

I’m a year older than when I left home — 41, and still clinging to life.

Actually, I feel good. Undiminished. Not yet a “Silver-back packer“. I was buoyed by the “New Passages” research that found, over the last generation, people are thinking and doing 10 years younger.

It has been a bad hair decade, though.

And I’m still unadorned as a Mahatma — lacking rings, tattoos, jewels, chains and piercings all which, as I understand it, make a face handsomer. (apologies to Count Leo)

The highpoint of my trip?

Definitely the wild frontier of the Himalayan plateau in China between Chengdu and Lanzhao; horseback mountain trek, endless grasslands, hundreds of thousands of yaks and goats, the largest Tibetan monastery in the world. Amazing sights. Great times.

That was Sept. ’98 when I was still euphoric. I lay awake nights planning multi-year, worldwide itineraries.

Travel euphoria exhausted itself by Christmas. I learned that 4 months is the longest I would want to be away in future.

Wandering the world for amusement; escaping the tangles of “reality” at home; meeting and travelling with people from all over the world might sound good … It is! I recommend it.

But not for TOO long.

What are my future plans?

I’m thinking of shaving off my beard. Beyond that? I guess a year wasn’t long enough to answer that question.

When considering my future, first priority is a simple, healthy, happy lifestyle.

I want to be able to “follow my bliss“. Spend my time doing those things that I most enjoy; those things that enervate me, compel me; interest me in a sustained way. And still earn a modest living.

The Internet attracts me. I’d love to find some way to work on the Web and do gymnastics as a hobby.

I still want to travel.

And you? Dreaming of an adventure holiday?

If you go to Asia I’d first recommend Nepal; fantastic ancient and modern attractions, Buddhist and Hindu cultures, the Himalayas — almost hassle free. (My friend Liba is going on the Annapurna Circuit trek in October.)

If you crave more excitement then definitely Cambodia, Laos, or Myanmar.

The most under-rated country? Malaysia. It’s an Islamic version of how Thailand used to be.

Finally, to challenge yourself, test your limits, “change your life” — go to India.

Did this trip change my life? I don’t think so. No transformation. Perhaps I’m slightly less deluded. Perhaps slightly more appreciative of the magic moments in life.

No great romance to report. There’s a lot of sex on the backpacker circuit, but mostly for chickens, dogs, goats, monkeys and (most frantically) yaks.

Gandhi shoulderWithout question the most meaningful experience was the week at Gandhi’s ashram. I was really inspired by Gandhi and his follower Vinoba, their philosophy of service to mankind. I’m still ruminating on how that inspiration might change my life.

Vinoba said that the established religions will continue to decline, replaced by personal “spirituality” (which can certainly be practiced with others). We need some new mechanism with which to educate youth in ethics and morality.

As for me, I have firm principles that I occasionally stick to. I admit it. I’m a compromiser. The utilitarian formula (“greatest good for the greatest number“) is good enough for me. I sleep great.

Suspect extremism. Look for a middle path.

Almost all backpackers in Asia are attracted to Buddhism. That philosophy challenges many of our ingrained cultural preconceptions. It has something to teach us.

Most of the press goes to colourful Tibetan Buddhism, mainly, I think, because the Dalai Lama is a great world spiritual leader.

For the record, “real” Buddhism to me is that practiced in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia. There they are more disciplined and more closely live the philosophy.

Buddha factoryBuddha factory, Cambodia

I took no camera on this trip. It’s much more relaxing to travel without being slave to the photo-op. It helps me, a little, to “live in the moment“.

And there is something wasteful about photography. Maybe I’ll go digital when the resolution gets good enough. (I’m conflicted. I love looking at photos, but hate taking them.)

I keep notes on my travels but fewer, I noticed, this trip than ever before. And I never even glance at junky tourist souvenirs.

Since I have a terrible memory, as time passes only these e-mails will remain.

Actually, I’m fairly happy with them. They’ve touched on most of the important themes of the trip. Given a glimpse into where my head’s been.

Warren Long has been posting them on his personal web site. I’ll clean them up a little, add some additional photos, and then let you know where you can find it on the web. (If I’m smart I’ll use some pseudonym. Can you think of an anagram of my name?)

Web-based email (e.g. Hotmail) is a glad revolution for travellers. Even the brokest backpacker is lavish, often spending more on computer time than on food and accommodation combined.

You can imagine how notoriously unreliable Internet Cafe computers in the developing world would be. And Hotmail, software from the evil empire of Microsoft, makes many, including myself, break down and cry at times.

(I just read that 1/4 of all Internet users are registered in Hotmail. Over 50 million! It’s time I get out.)

I’ve totally enjoyed writing these e-mails, though. It’s a selfish pleasure. I hope I haven’t offended too often. I can rarely resist the vanity of a smart-ass remark. As a traveller I’m not nearly as arrogant and condescending as I sometimes sound in these missives.

I worry that sometimes my canons have been aimed at my allies. Have you suffered friendly fire?

If so, I apologize for my offence. Just trying to keep the monologue lively.

A very special apology if you are a Communist, smoke, support the Chinese liberation of Tibet, speak French, are a beggar or other societal parasite, own a suitcase, or drive a Mercedes.

Like a reporter, I admit I sensationalized at times, highlighting the freakish, pathetic, extreme, hyperbolic.

But the beauty of e-mail is that you can skim and delete. I know that terrible sinking feeling of opening a loooooong e-mail when you’re very, very busy. I’ve got an itchy (delete) trigger finger myself.

I would never have sent you these e-mails as letters. You would have felt obliged to actually read them.

Cost of the trip?

I’ve yet to calculate it but, wild guess, no more than C$600 / month plus airfares. That’s about average, I would think, for the typical Lonely Planet backpacker in Asia. It’s very inexpensive.

This is not the end. I’m booked for most of the summer hiking, camping, visiting.

Hope to see you soon!

travelogue – The Great Leap Homeward – China

May, 1999

The first time entering China I was justified in being paranoid. It is a challenging country for backpackers.

This time, coming from Laos, I was oddly at ease though I had no guidebook and could only remember a few words of Mandarin.

The only bignose at the remote border crossing, I rode a sleeper bus north for 23 hours, never sure of my final destination.

It was, indeed, Kunming, (pronounced “Kunming”) the funky booming capital of Yunnan province. No matter how I pronounced “Kunming”, no one on my bus could understand where I wanted to go.

I had heard glowing reports of Yunnan; “more like Laos than China”, “friendly, honest people”.

I was glad to have returned to civilized China — perhaps “civilized” is misleading. Organized. Structured. Uncompromising.

At the Chinese border, as if on cue, men began spitting on the floor of our open truck taxi. I was back in a land of hawking, gobbing, chain-smoking, shouters. (Lung disease is the leading cause of death in China. High rates of TB directly linked to the habit of spitting in close quarters.) Still, I was happy to be back.

Quickly to Dali, a travellers haven, cool and breezy ‘tween picturesque mountains and lake.

The Chinese are pumping mucho RMB (“people’s money”) into Yunnan to fast-track it into a “famous” tourist destination. Entire blah-nd neglected cities are being Frankensteined into Sino-California — palm tree lined streets, western-style parks, fountains, “modern” statues.

In Dali the “old” city looks brand new, rebuilt to the taste of hordes of Chinese tourists. Much is contrived. And I’m convinced there is no Mandarin equivalent for “tacky” — they’ve highlighted the ancient city walls in green neon, for example.

Everyone loves Dali anyway, forgiving the excesses.

We moved up to Lijiang (Land of Horses), even prettier with 5500 m Jade Dragon Snow Mountain looming.
Lijiang town is “everything China should be, but isn’t”; a delightful maze of twisting, turning, cobbled streets and gushing canals.

In 1996 a Richter 7+ quake struck causing $500 million U.S. damage. They seem well on their way to recouping that investment. Flag-waving guides lead armies of Chinese tourists, each careful not to bend the brim of their identifying yellow tour group baseball cap.

Old Lijiang is run by a species of Tibetan called the Naxi. It’s an interesting matriarchal society where women run the town. They have their own language and fascinating pictographic script.

We had assembled a mini-Commonwealth (Brit, Kiwis, Ausies, Canucklehead) by the time we reached the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek.

You may have guessed that a fantastically talented tiger escaped pursuit here. At least that’s the story the hunters told.

It was a scenic, flat and dusty tramp though, by the time we reached the halfway guesthouse we needed the Chinese recovery medicine provided — a spray to “dispel wind-evil and water-evil”.

A wonderful nightfall looking up 4 km from river to peak. And we didn’t have to sleep alone. A teddy bear was provided for each bed.

So far I had avoided big-city Eastern China, travelling mainly in frontier areas. I reluctantly bought a plane ticket to Beijing where half the attractions of China are still to be found — even though Mao’s minions destroyed much of old Peking. In 1940 you could visit 8000 monuments. By 1960 only 150 remained. The “Temple of the God of Fire” was converted to a lightbulb factory, for example.

I expected Beijing to be another cosmopolitan “world city” like Bangkok, Delhi, or Toronto. Not. It might be Cosmopolis someday — if they ever finish the construction. It’s a city of cranes and girders. There are perhaps a dozen projects on the scale of Canary Wharf in London.

Beijing has been described as “soulless and functional”; “an inhuman vastness”; “an endless sprawl of apartment buildings”.

I’d add “shoddy” and “anonymous”. Even now I can’t “picture” Beijing.

Perhaps the most appropriate adjective for the “Soviet Realist” architecture — “rectalinear”.

Beijing is THE place to make money. It dawned on me here that the Chinese are at an earlier stage of the Cultural Evolution than we. Status symbols are all important.

Even in Beijing, girls are still impressed if you rev the motor of your 100cc motorbike and swagger like James Dean, cigarette dangling from your lips. (Why do smokers always look like posers?)

One in every 3 cigarettes is inhaled in China. Yet none of the women smoke. (Except a few slutty city girls with their tight stretch pants and their padded bras, they MUST be padded … sorry, this is more than a parenthetic digression.)

I yearned for western Canada where smokers are properly reviled and ostracized.

Beijing was not at all a write-off destination, though. I enjoyed my daily STARBUCKS coffee. And the backpacker hotel there is a hit. Recently westernized with a dirty, freezing pool and a 24-hour bar, it’s located out in the middle of desolate urbania, an hour from anywhere, beside a reeking, fetid canal. From the parking lot cafe I watched the welders assemble another apartment.

But the showers are hot; the cold beer the cheapest! in Asia so, on balance, this hotel is a winner.

I reunited with my cadres from the Tiger Leaping Gorge long march. More fun topped-off with a Chinese feast of Beijing Duck, all you can eat and drink. $4!

Rod, a prototype hard-travelling Aussie, reminded me of the ad slogan, “Think like an Australian. Drink like an Australian.”

Some of the sights of Beijing are world class. I loved the “Temple of Heaven” and its marvelous quiet park.

The “Summer Palace” is touristy but well worth the 3 hour bus struggle to get there.

Summer Palace

This Beijing spring, Tianamen Square was a disappointment, closed for a face-lift. Story is that the Chinese wanted it unusable on the anniversary of the Tianamen massacre and the Tibetan Uprising massacre, but ready for the 50th anniversary of the PRC on Oct. 1st.

They’ve planted some grass! This is progressive thinking in a town where, over the years, authorities ordered all dogs killed (eaten), all sparrows, then grass was banned.

Mao’s mausoleum seemed to be closed. That murderer, personally responsible for the deaths of tens of millions, is hip again. Officially he was “70% good, 30% bad”. But Mao memorabilia is 100% cool.

There is even a nostalgia food craze. I tried to find the “Compare Present Happiness with Past Misery” restaurant but, like everything else, it had been torn down.

I was keen to visit the People’s Liberation Army Military Museum, keen to see the doctored photos of the army being fired upon by rioters at Tianamen in 1988.

On arrival I was waved over to a special photo exhibit. Genocide! A bloodbath! An outrage! It was made clear to me that these aggressors were murdering butchers. Still, even though it was discounted on the street, I didn’t buy the t-shirt, “NATO = Nazi-American Terrorist Organization”.

The “Forbidden Palace” is, of course, a must-see. Watch “The Last Emperor” before you go. Huge, impressive, but, for some reason, it left me a little cold.

I dropped in on the Chinese Gymnastics National Team Training Centre. Unfortunately, some of the top gymnasts and coaches had just left for a meet in Korea. The gym was functional but surprisingly run-down. I was also surprised at the relaxed training atmosphere. The coaches were very quiet. The youngest group of boys played — no coach appeared.

Two main stories here:

China will host the World Championships in a few months.
A terrible accident. One of the girls was partly paralyzed in ’98 during a meet in the States. Personable and well-spoken, she’s become something of a national celebrity. I watched an hour long T.V. special on her recovery.

We side-tripped to Datong, home of more huge Buddhas content in their caves.

Nearby is the “Hanging Monastery”, constructed impossibly on a cliff face. Tourists must buy insurance before they scale the rickety plank walkways.

Datong produces 1/3 of China’s coal. The landscape is black, scored, blasted, and desolate. My sandaled feet were coal-stained for days.

I should offer-up filthy coal pollution statistics and report long caravans of coal trucks. I won’t because (I think) some of my own ancestors came to Canada to mine coal.

Don’t worry. When the Chinese are “rich”, then they will clean-up the environment. Surely when the mega-controversial 3 Gorges Dam is completed they will reduce coal consumption.

Lastly, of course we climbed the Very Good Wall (at rugged, remote Simatai).

As that instant Sinophile Tricky Dicky put it, “This is a Great Wall and only a great people with a great past could have a great wall and such a great people with such a great wall will surely have a great future.”

High hopes for Shanghai. For one thing, I had heard they have 1500 Internet cafes, something rarely spotted in the uptight government town Beijing.

The Internet is key to the coming Sino-century. What they desperately need is near instantaneous language translation software.

Yet the Internet may be the Tianamen Square which finally topples this totalitarian house of cards. When intellectuals have access to “free” information they can quickly organize on-line.

The government would love to restrict access to the Web (as in Myanmar) but they are far too greedy to resist the huge profits. China Telecom seems to have a telephone monopoly selling access to me in most cities for 10 “glotneys” / hour. Legal private enterprisers need charge about 30 / hour.

But illegal computers offer access for as little as 4 / hour.

In Shanghai we couldn’t find any of the hidden, mostly illegal services.

This is the kind of efficiency which flourishes under communism.

My guess is that China can persist for about 10 more years before true democratic reforms will be voluntarily introduced. They’ve had no Gorbachev to speed the process. (The only argument left defending one party rule is that STABILITY is the priority. They want to avoid what’s happened to democratic Russia.)

Shanghai is stunning. On one side of the river is “The Bund”, an impressive promenade of solid colonial buildings. You might be in Europe.

Across the water is Padong, the “New Bund”, an outrageous (trillion dollar?) mega-project conceived so Shanghai might recapture its position as East Asia’s leading city, a status it held before WW II.

Rather than pay C$20 to ride the elevator to the top of the space age Oriental Pearl Tower, I wandered the construction sites of Padong. Wow!

Partly built, the New Bund already offers more office space than all of Singapore. Wild sky-scrapers in mirrored yellow, purple, green — you’re going to love or hate Shanghai.
I love it. One of the great cityscapes of the world on par with Manhattan, Chicago, and Hong Kong.

Backpackers stay at the historic Richard’s Hotel, expensive at $12 / dorm bed but almost worth it to experience an ambience described as “Victorian insane asylum” — polished wood floors, echoing corridors, high ceilings, huge rooms. Indifferent employees barge in anytime, day or night.

Shanghai’s rep. is “hip”. The best (whoopee) nightlife in China. The most business savvy. Cutting edge clothing. I did find many broke fashion victims, the ladies worried what to do when their really high shoes come plummeting out of style.

(One bizarre Shanghai fashion trend is to wear your silk PJs out in the street.)

Shanghai was the “Whore of the East”, the Paris of China, the playground of the rich. It was the home of the most infamous mobster, “Big-eared Du”. (No wonder he was so mean.)

The Chinese would have Shanghai vault past Hong Kong as quickly as possible.

Don’t hold your breath, Mr. Zemin.

After China, even after Shanghai, you feel you’ve died and gone to traveller’s Heaven when you arrive in Hong Kong. It’s ultra-modern, compact, beautiful. Public transportation is a dream. There is much to see and do including a side-trip to Portugal. (The colony of Macao. For a few more months anyway, then it reverts to China.)

“Hong Kong is too expensive.” I hear that a lot. You can piss money away here as fast as anywhere in the world. But I always speciously argue that it is POSSIBLE to do Hong Kong on the cheap. Nobody ever does, of course. The temptations are too enticing.

Back to where I started this trip, high on Mount Davis.

I sat up with a bottle of red wine; admiring gorgeous Hong Kong harbour; reflecting on my trip, my life, my fate.

I didn’t get anywhere — just drunk and sleepy. 🙂

Rick McCharles in Laos

my trip report from Apr, 1999

Every backpacker is on their way to Laos. Some are already speaking of (shudder) “Thailand North“.
 

Actually, “Visit Laos Year” begins November 1999. It is being orchestrated by General Cheng whose tourism credentials include French Paratrooper school and Russian Military Academy.

Just a few years ago everyone avoided Laos. I was frightened off by malaria stories. There is malaria, but don’t worry — I’m one of the few actually taking his malaria tablets. Mefloquine. The same fine preventative used by our boys in Somalia. I washed the last pill down with whiskey, just before bed.

Laos has been the under-populated, forgotten backwater (though landlocked) of Asia, developing at a snail’s pace in relative isolation after near 300 years of war.

So why Laos? Why now?

I don’t know. Transportation is impossible. It’s a dusty land. The most unique of the few tourist attractions, the Plain of Jars (giant, mysterious stone jars) most don’t visit because the road is infested with bandit rebels. In fact the entire infrastructure for tourism is sorely lacking. E-mail is recently available but never seems to work.

Yet everyone loves Laos. Everyone loves Cafe Lao — fantastic strong, tasty coffee mixed with sweetened condensed milk. ($.20) Match that with a fresh baguette veggie omelette sandwich ($.80) and you’re off to a happy day.

After the coffee, people are the principal draw of Laos. I would guess that half the photos taken here are of cute children.

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Lao people are laughing, joking, goofing. They don’t take themselves (or tourists) too seriously. They’ve been generously protected from tourism and Western culture by communism and bad roads. And (formerly) a maximum 15-day tourist visa. You can’t go far in Laos in 2 weeks.

 

I arrived from Thailand via the “Friendship Bridge“, built 1994. Amazingly, this is only the second span over the Mekong, the river that dominates so much of S.E. Asia.

Soft entry. Vientiane, the capital. Though it’s no longer a sleepy French colonial city of wide boulevards filled with bicycles, it’s still walkable and likeable, especially in the evening.

I quickly got “kipped” — 710,000 kip for a $100 U.S. traveller’s cheque — and set out to try to spend it. I had to carry the stacks of cash in my daypack. The largest denomination note is 5000K.

And Vientiane is just about the only place in the country where you can get unkipped. Life is not at all uncomfortable for the many conspicuous “expats“; diplomats, NGO representatives, business men.

I hung-out at the Canadian run “Healthy and Fresh Bakery“, chatting with a young guy from Cranbrook working the counter, listening in on the conversations of expat wives who all, obviously, have maids back cleaning their huge homes.

You can party Friday night at the Australian Embassy. Play rugby, touch football, bridge. Run with the Hash House Harriers on Monday night.

You can fine dine though you need an expat salary to eat at the French restaurants (menu priced in dollars not kip). All the imported luxuries are available. There’s a better selection of French wine than in Saskatoon.

I met a Calgary cowboy experimenting with different cattle breeds on the local grasses. He’s got a better chance of success than those working “crop substitution” — convincing opium poppy farmers to switch to mulberry trees (for silk).

3 sights not to miss in Vientiane:

1. A wonderfully weird Lao-style “Arc de Triomph“. The Americans sent concrete and cash so the military could build another runway for U.S. jets. The general, instead, completed the “Arc” as a memorial for Lao war dead.

0362. The symbol of Laos (replacing the hammer and sickle on the national emblem in 1992 is the wonderfully weird “Great Stupa” which looks like some kind of gilded missile cluster. It was peacefully deserted when I was there. I never saw anything like it in all my Buddhist travels.

3. Best for last, the entertaining “Revolutionary Museum“. Here I learned how French soldiers drowned children by throwing them into wells and the evils of running-dog-imperialist American warmongers. (Napalm victims, bombed-out pagodas) No mention of the North Vietnamese 1975 invasion which installed the communist Pathet Lao government which remains in power today.

 

History is indeed written by the victors.

Unlike everywhere else, I rarely heard a bad word about the government. The dissenters have mostly left. They cross the Mekong into Thailand, which actually has more Lao speakers than Laos.

You can still find a portrait of Vladimir Ilyich in the library but Marxist-Leninist ideology was abandoned in about 1991. The regime talks of “new thinking” not capitalism. The soviet-modelled one party system persists.

When I heard of an “eco-resort” 55 kms away, I hopped a local bus. I was seated on the floor on my padded day pack. Even close to Vientienne, this was already the “real” Laos full of happy, curious rural folk & their animals travelling to or from the market.

Even better was the boat trip down a remote tributary. Disembarking, swarmed by butterflies, climbing the muddy bank, I was still unsure I was in the right place until I saw the sign, “Bar 106 metres“.

Up on a scenic bluff an Austrian had converted an experimental eucalyptus reforestation plantation to a resort where one can “nature walk through monsoonal forest” and then enjoy a solar chilled beer.

Me and a Swedish guy, the only other guest, sat up on the terrace watching singing locals paddle their sampans home at dusk, using rubber flip-flops as paddles.

Ecology is a new concept in Laos. You rarely see a bird. But you see men and boys walking every road with ancient muskets. Any meat is fair game. One dusty village shop had a dead marmot in a basket. Skewered bar-b-q rat is enjoyed in every market. (tastes like chicken, I’m told.)

I’d advise go vegetarian in Laos. There’s mystery meat in the traditional noodle soup.

North on highway 13, the only “good” road in the country, to Vang Vieng. What a great place.

A string of recently-improvised guesthouses converted from traditional wooden homes. It’s a new Mecca for trail-blazing backpackers. The Lao people, many struggling to learn their first words of English, are enthusiastic and eager to please. One joint even serves-up French toast with Canadian maple syrup!

It’s not hard to keep our rabble happy. Tiny Vang Vieng is fronted by pretty tree covered limestone hills, shrouded in cloud, honeycombed with caves and tunnels. I joined a “tour” (me and a Kiwi travel agent) to an underground river which can be walked (and swum) 4 km under the mountain. We sloshed perhaps 800 m before our guide turned us back. Great experience!

After an authentic Lao lunch (a gamble gastrointestinal) we climbed on to inner-tubes for the 3 hour float back to town. It’s timed so we would arrive back at sunset. At the “sunset pub“.

Beerlao flows freely. But a surprising number of tourists later in the evening try opium. It’s easy. Find an “opium den” (any house on the side street), lie down in the fetal position, affect a vacant stare, and, as if you are already helpless, a woman will minister the long pipe to your lips. You only need enough energy to inhale.

You hear stories of disappeared tourists who finally wake-up in some mountain village after a couple of weeks, nothing left but a passport. At $.40 / pipe, that’s a lot of smoke.

When Paul Thoroux visited Vientienne in the early ’70s, he observed, “The brothels are cleaner than the hotels, marijuana is cheaper than pipe tobacco, and opium easier to find than a cold beer.”

Those were crazy days. The rickshaw pullers were mostly addicts. They would smoke all night then drink “cafe electrique” (black coffee laced with amphetamines) to work.

Fortunately, a morally-principled communist regime put an end to the flagrant sinfulness, driving it into back alleys where it belongs. On taking power in 1975 the Pathet Lao rounded-up about 3000 prostitutes and petty criminals banishing all the men to one penal island and all the women to another.

Back to Vang Vieng. I suspect the cheap opium tourists are puffing is pretty weak stuff (to keep them out of real trouble). Nobody was much affected.

The big problem isn’t tourists but rather in the villages. Opium is a vice traditionally condoned only for elderly men. But with the bad example of tourists, now young people are trying it and even heroin. The number of young Lao addicts is increasing.

North to the highlight destination of Laos, Luang Prabang. It’s the kind of place “people forget to leave.”

Oh! What a delightful paradise … Will Luang Prabang be in our century of exact sciences, of quick profits, of victory by money, be the refuge of the last dreamers …?

– Marthe Bassene, French doctor’s wife, 1909

The U.N. recently designated this city a World Heritage site as “the best preserved (colonial) city in S.E. Asia.” The 32 historic temples are being restored furiously. It may soon actually deserve that recognition.

 

The excellent museum was the former palace of the Royal Family. (Who the Pathet Lao re-educated in a cave until dead, one-by-one, by starvation. Slow learners, I assume.)

Laos is a real social trip. Rugged conditions make for camaraderie.

“Bad roads, good people. Good roads, all kinds of people.”

– Mexican roadside tourist vendor

Mornings people would straggle into the bakery for Cafe Lao and delectables. And to be organized by Natalie (Berlin). One day we went up the Mekong to the much promoted Pak Ou caves where the devout deposit Buddha statues. Hundreds lay jumbled, disintegrating, broken.

 

I thought it was interesting and unique but most others were disappointed.

Then the Kwang Si waterfall! Scrambling muddy paths to the top, walking the calcified lip like a balance beam. (one guy dropped his expensive sunglasses) Below we swam and showered in the bracing falls.

Nights I usually sat up sipping CC with Ramona (Edmonton) and Malcolm (Belfast) who are getting married. They met while working in Korea.

Another interesting guy (Chicago) was victim of one of my full-blown, half-educated sermons on the blunders of U.S. foreign policy. Turned out he was a Navy diver, trained with the SEALS, and served in the Gulf. He didn’t disagree (or hit me), though I noted he preferred George Jr. over Al.

Where did the U.S. go wrong? Where to start?

  • Of course. John Kennedy enunciating the “Domino Theory” of Communist take-over in Asia. Today it looks more like a “Domino’s Pizza” capitalist take-over. I heard the Kennedy argument again on CNN recently. An American give-war-a-chance advocate declaring that “he won’t leave an unstable Europe to his grandchildren“.
  • The “Secret War” in Laos where, in contravention of the 1962 Geneva Accord, U.S. pilots (code named “Ravens“) dressed as civilians and flew dangerously obsolete planes into battle. Each Raven carried a suicide pill especially created by the CIA in case he fell into enemy hands.
  • Air America” — CIA running opium and heroin on U.S. aircraft to finance a covert anti-communist guerilla army
  • Use of defoliants containing dioxin (e.g. Agent Orange) and not admitting their use until 1982
  • The illegal bombing of Laos, especially the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Eventually the U.S. dropped more tonnage on this tiny country (about half a tonne / person) than they did in all of WW II. Unexploded ordinance (UXO) still kills about 130 people / year, about 40% children. (In Cambodia the number might be closer to 800 / year.)

The States has a lot to answer for in this part of the world. Yet U.S. travellers, I’m told, are treated well. (Though in China, after the Belgrade Chinese Embassy “mistake“, Americans were borrowing maple leaf tags for their packs.)

Luang Prabang is the end of civilization. I found myself on the departing “bus” (Chinese cargo truck with 2 impossibly narrow side benches) with a crazy italian suitcase tourist. Actually he had 4 bags! and muddy designer leather shoes.

 

How did he get here? I don’t know. He’s one of those guys who speaks machine gun unintelligible English. I do know he was on a world tour using only a travel agency promotional brochure for a guidebook. His next stop was a city in China, but he was unsure which. Then he would fly to Mexico. Or Brazil.

We got stuck in some dark Lao smuggling town.

I canno stay here-a no!“, he said, when he saw the Chinese hotel toilet. He cheered up when I took him to the Red Cross traditional Lao herbal steam bath.

Next morning I saw him safely on the truck to the border. He’ll be eaten alive in China, of course.

The end of the line for me was Muang Sing, a sleepy little village right in the middle of the Golden Triangle. In fact, the muddy, messy square was once the greatest opium market in the world (under French sanction).

It’s mainly known now as an exit point for automobiles being smuggled from Thailand to China. I saw huge convoys of (supposedly protected) hardwood too, heading north.

Because it’s remote and weird, backpackers have taken a liking to Muang Sing. They chill here though there is absolutely nothing to see or do.

049Actually, some come because this is a nexus of tribal peoples. Colourful costumes, metallic headgear, fascinating customs. Hill tribes practice “swidden” (slash and burn) agriculture. Not pretty, but apparently the environment can sustain the low population.

A guesthouse has opened up 8 km out of town so I spent a couple of rural days. I could have trekked to different minority villages. I did walk to one but found the experience awkward.

What to do when the old woman runs out shouting, “Money, money, MONEY“?

I prefer to see the tribal people in the market. No more villages for me.

Disclaimer: I did do the required Thai Hill tribe Trek (elephant ride, bamboo river raft, stay in ethnic villages). It was great. All 1 million! tourists who go each year enjoy it.

Goodbye Laos.

I’ll remember all the black pot-bellied pigs, the nursing sows dragging in the dirt. (How do the pregnant ones walk?)

I’ll remember the ancient, hunched tribal woman bathing at the highway standing pipe, naked but for the tattoos that completely covered her torso.

I’ll remember the greenery and scenery.

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PS

 

After advising everyone I’ve met for the past 6 months NOT to backpack in China (unless they speak Mandarin), I’m really looking forward to the Middle Kingdom. It’s so much more … “civilized“.

I’ll head for Yunnan, the tropical southern Province.

I’ll head for Tiger Leaping Gorge…