“Holdin’ it in” and practicing Putonghua in Northern Xinjiang during October 2012

“Holdin’ it in” and practicing Putonghua in Northern Xinjiang during October 2012

All pictures here.

Holdin’ what in?
Read on and you will be enlightened. But until then, here’s the story.

Strange departure from the original plan
The original plan called for a trip to Vietnam in October 2012. The group was supposed to consist of 6 of us. That number first went down to 5, then 4, then 3, then eventually … 2. We could have still gone to Vietnam but then came one of our brainwaves. Why not do something MORE adventurous?

Enter Xinjiang in Northwest China. Picture Muslim music playing in the background. Then picture eating some nans (bread). Picture kebab and lamb. Picture thousands of square kilometers of desert and contrasting grasslands and majestic mountains. That’s Xinjiang. It occupies 1/6th of the total land in China. It’s home to several distinct tribes. It’s a mysterious land – a land far, far away geographically, ecologically and, of course, spiritually to Central in Hong Kong!

So, Martijn and I decided to be brave and explore Xinjiang. “Brave” because, of the two of us, only I could speak the best Mandarin. And my Mandarin was unfortunately largely limited to “Wo bu ji dou Read more

Discovering ass saving gel bike seats in Yangshao, May 2012

Discovering ass-saving gel bike seats in Yangshao, May 2012

Geotagged photos are here (yes, I am showing off my techie skills)

Ridin’ with the crisis
” A crisis of epic proportion looms over the entire European Union”, screamed the newspaper headline. Financial “pundits” were warning of spillover effects all over Asia. They were forecasting plenty of gloom and doom ahead. Stocks markets were said to be poised for the biggest crash. Banks were predicting a crisis “far worse” than the 2008 crisis. Everybody was busy manufacturing reasons to feel worried.

There is only one thing that one should do in times like these. Go for a bike ride in Guilin!

And so, Dominic Rigby, in a bid to make the most of his multiple-entry China visa, decided to go on an exploratory biking trip in nature to Guilin in China. Drawing inspiration from the beauty of nature and intrigued by the challenges of biking, I decided to join him. I was also growing increasingly tired of reading the same old news on the papers about the boring cliché “impending European crisis”. And, my other friend Hannes “Robocop” Niggli, who recently made an almost-full recovery from his long-lasting foot injury, decided to join us on Read more

Bum Slidin’, Stair Climbin’ and Army Watchin’ in Xian during Easter 2012

Bum Slidin’, Stair Climbin’ and Army Watchin’ in Xian during Easter 2012

Photos are here. Videos courtesy of Martijn Doekes.

I looked at the calendar. I saw April 4th, 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th in dark red color. So many red dates on the calendar could only mean one thing. It was time for a vacation!

The who and the where?
And so, Easter vacation 2012 was on the cards. Next item on the agenda was to decide on a kick ass destination. Enter Dominic Rigby, my well-traveled friend who aims to master the language of Putonghua (i.e. Mandarin) someday. Some seriously clever and intense boardroom like discussions took place between me and him. We eventually (somehow) heard the calling of several buried terracotta army soldiers all the way from Xian in China. They were beckoning at us to pay them homage.

There was also a more practical purpose to the visit. Dominic wanted to bring out the linguistic warrior in him to woo the Xian girls with his newfound Putonghua linguistic skills. He even enrolled himself in a one-month Putonghua crash course for this purpose. And as if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, we also decided to climb two of the highest mountains in Xian during the trip, i.e. Mount Huashan and Mount Taibei.

Then, like the climax of a suspense movie, it hit me. What if, during the trip, Dominic would end up finding the Xian woman of his dreams and refuse to return to Hong Kong? How would I manage to return to Hong Kong without the benefit of his Putonghua skills? Enter Vic So, my high-speed running teammate who has many great qualities, the most relevant one to this occasion being the ability to speak fluent Mandarin. And, like a clever politician, I concealed my true fears about Dominic and convinced Vic to join us on this trip by selling him solely on the beauty of Xian and its mountains and its women. It worked. Then I had a déjà vu. What if Vic would also end up finding the Xian woman of his life and refuse to return to Hong Kong? Enter Martijn Doekes and Maggie, my two other friends who speak the 3rd and 4th best Mandarin respectively (read: speak zilch Mandarin). But, that didn’t matter. My problem was solved by virtue of the fact that it was shared by 3 other people. Misery loves company and it was enough of a relief to know that there were other people who would have the same problem as me should my fears materialize.

The plan was this:
(a) 5th April 2012: Fly China Eastern to Xian at 2.30pm
(b) 6th April 2012: Climb all the 4 peaks of Huashuan in Xian
(c) 7th April 2012: Get to Taibei Shan from Xian. Celebrate my birthday 3000m above sea-level
(d) 8th April 2012: Hoist the Hong Kong Trail Runners flag on the summit of Taibei Shan
(e) 9th April 2012: Pay homage to the buried terracotta soldiers, climb Li Shan, visit the City Wall and end the trip with a kick ass sumptuous dinner in Xian
(f) 10th April 2012: Return to the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong

Read more

Vacation, Christmas 2008, Ha Fu village (Shaoguan, China)

Pictures are at the hiking page..

Mission: To save RMB 150 each by infiltrating into the paid area of Dan Ha Saan National Park through a top secret, dangerous trail known only to a surviving few.
The final squad carrying out this mission consisted of four elite Trampers only:

Fashionable leader Francis Lee who puts the likes of Giorgio Armani and Vivienne Westwood to shame through his fashion innovations,

Francis modeling in his new flexible flap cap

the clever Carrie Lok who has a knack for solving complex problems using simple tools,

(she is known for discovering another great use for the hiking stick – to rise again easily from using a squat toilet)

debutante Lisa Alvino joining the ranks of the elite for the first time

and yours truly, who needs no introduction.

Typical HK-GZ travel

We followed the usual China mission protocol by assembling at Sheung Shui KCR station at 1830hrs on Christmas Eve and made our way to the great PRC capital (People’s Republic of Cigarettes capital – Smoky Shenzhen). And from there, we took a bus to the Guangzhou railway station reaching GZ at around 2200hrs.

The last train to depart from Guangzhou to Shaoguan was scheduled for 2300hrs. Unwilling to wait one hour, we rushed from one adjacent station to another in search of an earlier train that was to depart at 2230hrs. Of course, as to be expected, there was that occasion where the boarding gate was suddenly changed to another at the very last moment, causing several hundred passengers to suddenly make a beeline for the new gate. Luckily for those of us scurrying along the station’s low ceilings, the railway authorities had several informative signboards installed in strategic locations. They correctly read “MIND YOUR HERD” warning those of us rearing our sheep, goats and other cattle in the station to tread carefully.

Wo Shi Ouigwo ren – wah! (I am a foreigner – yes!)

We reached the platform seconds before the train was scheduled to depart. The only small problem was that we didn’t have any train tickets, BUT, wait, we had me!! A foreigner! Yes, China is probably the only place where foreigners are treated better than locals and it must have been either that or my charming looks that got us in the train, albeit in the corner of a stand-only, smoking compartment where we had to spend the next 1.5hrs traveling to Shaoguan. Well, out came the wine opener and two wine bottles! We were having a Merry Christmas in the unreserved compartment of a China train traveling to Shaoguan in the middle of the night!

Us partying in a smoky unreserved compartment on Christmas eve

The resourceful Carrie wasted no time exploring potential relationships with a Mister Someone; I’ll call him ‘Poser’, yes, Mr. Poser.

Carrie and Mr. Poser

Try, try, try again – till you succeed

We reached a cold, pitch-dark Shaoguan at 1.30hrs on Christmas day and treated ourselves to some excellent Lai Mean (some kind of noodles) at a Muslim restaurant.

Hello Shaoguan at 1.30AM on Christmas day

Excellent noodles available here

At around 2AM, we checked into a hotel and got up at 7AM to enjoy our Christmas present – Yum Cha at a decent restaurant with a good toilet! (the best meal and the best toilet we were forecast to have until the end of the journey). The thought of a clean toilet sent an excited Carrie and Lisa to the bathroom more frequently than ever. Each time they went, they were back a couple of minutes later claiming ‘Mission Accomplished’ but only to return to the loo the next minute, trying to outdo each other’s success in emptying their bowels!

The journey continued with a bus ride from Shaoguan to Yen Fa and another bus ride from Yen Fa to our village called Ha Fu. Mr. Lee, our guide, greeted us there with a great big smile. We then traveled to our host’s house in style – standing powerfully on a tricycle.

Ha Fu, here we come!

Our host, the village head, was also a Mr. Lee. His house was an enormous 3000+ square foot (2-storeys + rooftop + garden + Mahjong room) and appeared to be sparking new. To top it off, he had a dish antenna and two 40” TVs that could get more channels than I knew existed. The neighboring houses in the village were in stark contrast. They were mud houses and looked old, dilapidated and poor. Now, who says China is a communist country??

Wish I had that in Hong Kong

The neighboring houses. Who says China is communist?

Mr. Lee’s villa was surrounded by high hills that were home to some majestic rock formations. We spent this Christmas day settling down and going on a stroll to familiarize ourselves with the neighborhood.

It’s just your imagination

The next day, we were off to explore some majestic rock formations that Dan Ha Saan is famous for. Now, imagination is a beautiful thing. Much like beauty, it primarily lies in the eyes of the beholder. For instance, first we saw the formidable Bar Castle which definitely did look like an old European castle. Then we saw the 1000-faces rock which was supposed to depict the pain and suffering of many people during war times. Then there was the ‘Teapot’ rock. I thought that looked like the Taj Mahal but Mr. Lee insisted it was a teapot as he pointed to one extreme that was supposed to be the stout of the teapot. And then we saw the Camel-kneeling-down rock (?!) At that point, I realized that the Emperor had no clothes on and my brain started imagining every other rock as the ‘$’ rock. Well, you had to stretch your imagination to see the ‘$’ sign. And then, there’s my favorite rock – Frog-bending-down-trying-to-drink-water-from-the-river rock. Yeah, sure, but Mr. Lee insisted there was one!! Of course, when everyone else was able to “see” it, I had no choice but to be able to see it too which is when I let out the usual “Aaaaah-THERE-IT-IS” sigh of relief and misguided belief!

Bar Castle rock

Teapot rock

1000-faces rock

But then again, sometimes there is no need or no room for imagination.

Francis “imagining” at the site of the ‘Female’ rock

The whole day was spent navigating around beautiful trails and exploring different rock formations. Our guide was as enthusiastic about rock formations as he was about his international clientele. He greeted every other villager in town with a ‘I-got-one-Indian-dude-and-a-Filipino-chick-with-me’ message. We were his prized booty. In fact, he even impressed me by singing an Indian song in his version of Hindi (‘ah’ would become ‘lah’ and ‘ra’ would become ‘lah’ and ‘hoon’ would become ‘Fu’). The song in Hindi is called ‘Aa Va Ra Hoon’ and in his ‘Hindi’ it translates to ‘Lah Pa Lah Fu’. Here it is:

Mission Dan Ha Saan

December 27th 2008 was the D-Day. It was time for Operation Dan Ha Saan. On this drizzly Saturday morning, we set off on a lonely trail fraught with thorny trees and unexplored caves to the ‘backdoor’ entrance of Dan Ha Saan.

The dangerous backdoor trail to Dan Ha Saan

Smiling in the face of danger

We were ordered by our Commander Lee to walk quietly. Pin drop silence. Carrie slipped a few times but recovered quickly enough to carry out the mission. After around 2 hours of surreptitious hiking, we were inside the Dan Ha Saan territory and we hadn’t paid a dime. Woohoo! Mission Accomplished! (and that’s the real ‘Mission Accomplished’ NOT the George Bush version!)

The paid area of Dan Ha Saan had an international touch to it. The Government encourages every visitor to take utmost care around the park. You have to eat with care, walk with care and if you happen to slip, you’ve certainly gotta “Slip With Care!” And that’s what the signboards said!

If you want to slip, you’ve gotta slip with care

We explored more rock formations and temples and eventually treated ourselves to an excellent, well deserved dinner at a classy restaurant in Yen Fa.

Great dinner after accomplishing our mission

On the 28th of December, 3 members of the hiking squad – Carrie, Lisa and I returned to Hong Kong while squad leader Francis decided to stay on to pursue further adventures (I have a feeling he wanted to go back to Dan Ha Saan to rekindle his imagination).

Great trip! Thanks to Francis for organizing it and for any mainland Chinese Government official reading this, we did *not* get into Dan Ha Saan illegally. I repeat – we did *not* get into Dan Ha Saan illegally. It was just our imagination.

Hiking: Shui Hao, March 21-23 2008

All the pictures are here. They are a must see.

It starts
On 28th March 2008 at 1900hrs, 8 prominent players -Chris, Ben, Vince, Suzanne, Claire, Winnie, Carrie and Andy- gathered on the tail end of the Sheung Shui KCR platform to embark on a China hiking mission. Team leader Francis showed up 30 minutes late at 1930hrs with a high-capacity, voluminous styrofoam cooling box specified to carry at least 20 bottles of beer and plenty of attitude.

Before reading further, I suggest you soak up some of our attitude by admiring this photograph (hint: the message is in our fingers)

The journey
We crossed the border over to the cigarette capital of China (sleazy and smoky Shenzhen) at 2000hrs and rendezvoused with the captain of our chartered car to Qingyuan. The rest of the day was spent in traveling to Qingyuan and resting for the night at a 58-bucker hotel.

On 29th March 2008 at 0910hrs, we boarded a deluxe bus to Yeung Shaan in Northern Guangdong. Resourceful as ever, Francis was drying his wet towel on a makeshift clothe hanger on the bus.

Knowledge unlimited
The more rustic feel to the journey began when we boarded a rickety bus from Yeung Shaan to Shui Hao with rock hard seats. Greenery and acres of fields started filling the views on all windows. Francis engaged himself in a local geography debate with a so-called ‘local’ on the bus and stripped her of any credibility over her knowledge of the terrain and neighboring mountains. Francis was more local there than any other person on the bus!

The place
We reached Shui Hao in the afternoon and took a boat across to Tai Tong Tsuen to meet our host, Mr. Fung. The muddy river was flanked by ancestral houses on one side and fields on the other. Tall, majestic, zigzag-shaped mountain ranges surrounded the village giving it an awe-striking look. The overcast weather left the peaks swathed with smooth strands of mist.

Mr. Fung greeted us with open arms and he was soon joined by his older-looking wife. Francis appeared a little nervous since he had mistakenly addressed her as his mother instead of spouse the last time we visited! She looked even older this time but there was no need for reconciliation or apologies since she didn’t seem to recall the insult. Time (or amnesia) must have erased unpleasant memories!

The poets
Gathering at the rooftop, all 9 players were full of spunk and many of us wanted to sleep on the rooftops to appreciate nature in its true form. Carrie, Claire, Francis, Ken, Ben and I voted ‘rooftop’. Each of us also played weatherman and predicted clear and sunny weather for the following days. Carrie was so touched by the views and the rustic feel that it brought out the poet hiding in her.

[I’ll sleep on the rooftop] “With chickens as my neighbors and sky as my blanket!” she exclaimed.

We embarked on a beautiful self-guided hike on Friday walking through several flower orchids and bamboo forests. Francis emphatically explained how we could look for a white coating on the tree to ascertain the quality of the surrounding air. “I bullshit all the time, but this time I am serious”, he said to establish his bulletproof credibility.

The views were captivating. Francis was so overwhelmed by the beauty that he stopped at each magnificent view and exclaimed – “If I die, bury me here”.
“No, bury me there”.
“Bury me here”.
I put his fears to rest and assured him that we would slice him into many different pieces and disperse his remains in places as we saw fit.
“But, take my heart back to Hong Kong”, he said sentimentally, letting all our emotions pour!

We got back in the evening to do some shopping –and shopping on these trips means buying beer & peanuts-. The styrofoam box was carefully placed inside the Tai Tong Tsuen version of the Welcome supermarket trolley and off we went. Claire, Ben and I had the honors of navigating the ‘trolley’ to the other side of the village. A local girl was kind enough to assist in maneuvering by shining her torch (or ‘flash light’ according to Suzanne) on the road ahead.

To Sleep Or Not To Sleep?
After dinner on Friday, I headed straight for the rooftop to eagerly join our rooftop party. The admission fee was, of course, a beer. 1 hour passed. Francis joined me. 1 hour passed. Ben joined us. Time struck 12 and there was no one else! All the spunk from the morning had vanished! The remaining players were too tired and went to sleep leaving only 2 of us, Ben and yours truly, to sleep on the rooftop! Brave and undeterred, Ben and I got out our sleeping mats and made our makeshift beds underneath the overcast sky. Another hour passed. I think I almost fell asleep. I was picturing a lush garden being watered by a gardener with a water hose. The fresh smell of the first drops of water falling on land and the sprinkles from the water hose were falling on me.

Something didn’t seem right. My eyes opened. It was raining! I woke Ben up and we headed indoors finding ourselves whatever space we could to escape the rain.

It’s Friday
The next day morning we woke up to find the ‘weatherman’ inside each one of us shamed. It was raining. Moods soured. Francis was about to call off our long walk planned for the day but we took a vote. I voted ‘aye’ for continuing with the walk. Claire did too. 1 more hand went up. Soon, majority won and we unanimously predicted that the overcast/rainy weather would last a couple of days so it wouldn’t make sense to postpone anyway. However, it was time to equip ourselves with raingear. This awakened the fashion giants inside each one of us.

Suzanne’s Secret – The Sexy Attire
The rain brought us geniuses to a grocery store which also sold 23-bucker Jianglu raincoats. I went for a blue raincoat. So did everyone else except Francis, who was sporting an imported 7-11 poncho. On that topic, Francis was explaining to us how he recently discovered another use for the poncho. I have heard about a barf bag but never before had I imagined a ‘turd’ bag! Francis explained that he would take the poncho with him to the top of a mountain, do his business and have the evidence neatly wrapped up in a plastic bag for easy disposal. I am sure there’s an environmentally friendly way involved as well but I will refrain from going into details. I am sure great inventors like Thomas Edison would have looked at Francis Lee with great envy had they been alive!

Anyway, going back to the subject of raincoats, Suzanne wanted to be different and cooler than the rest of us. She went for a red astronaut suit. No kidding, she really did.

Initially, Chris and I decided to ostracize her for trying to be different. We disallowed her from getting into the tricycle we were going to take next to the start of the hike. But, we eventually forgave her and let her on board when she finally confessed – “I look like an Easter bunny”, she said. At least the next day was Easter Sunday.

Super Mr. Fung
Mr. Fung had a ‘super’ attire himself. I’d like to call it the up-up-and-away attire. The gifted Superman wears a red cape and red boots. Super Mr. Fung wore a shower curtain for a cape and blue boots. Superman wears his underwear on top of his pants. Super Mr. Fung might be from the village, but he still knows how to wear his underwear properly. Super Mr. Fung also sported a sexy fisherman style hat and raced up and down the mountains effortlessly. Suzanne couldn’t help but falling for him. And fall she did, albeit literally, and many times at that because of the slippery terrain. The rest of us weren’t spared either. We all slipped, fell and woke up to find our raincoats turn brown from the wet mud.

The Hike
Beautiful! Undulating mountain ranges, lush green fields, gorgeous terraces, pure air, natural trails and friendly villagers welcomed us. Pictures speak a thousand words, so check this out.

The Fight
The long walk made us all hungry and the goats on the trail triggered Francis’ several thoughts. First he was talking about lamb roast and how tasty it was. But, suddenly during a group picture, unable to control his emotions, he blurted out to Claire – “You are my lamb!” I am not sure if that meant he wanted to eat her or if he fancied her or both!

After that, the group broke into a Chinese style Kung Fu fight. I was armed with my umbrella and the rest of the troupe was using their hiking sticks as lethal weapons.

Saturday, 2008-03-23, what’s with the weather?
Much to our surprise, we woke up to a sunny day and again, we were completely wrong about the weather! We embarked on another exotic Francis-led hike on foreign soil. We started by boarding a bus to Yueng Shaan and taking another bus to the start of our biking trail. Yes, ‘biking’ trail. We hired motorcycles from there to the start of our hiking trail. The motorcycle ride was picturesque. We whizzed past beautiful lush fields on our chauffer-driven Yamahas.

Francis used his navigational skills to guide us towards Shui Hao crossing a village called Seui Chum Tsuen on the way. Our guiding star was a “V” shaped mountain range that we had to walk towards. Surprisingly, in spite of using only primitive navigational methods, we had no problems reaching Shui Hao. In fact, we even found a minivan driver who offered to drive us back to Yeung Shaan for free!

Could Chris have been abducted?
5 of us -Chris, Suzanne, Claire, Ben and I- were to leave for Hong Kong on Saturday evening. Francis flagged down a bus for Qing Yuen and helped us get on board. Luckily, during the journey, we transferred to another bus bound for Guangzhou. Chris mentioned how he had thoughts about spending one night at GZ to check the place out.

At about 2100hrs on Saturday night, we reached the great city of Guangzhou. I immediately got us on 2 taxis and we headed straight for the Fo Che Dung Chaam (GZ East Station). After dinner at KFC, we bought tickets on the 2256hrs train to Shenzhen and made our way to the platform.

I boarded the train. Claire followed. Suzanne was next. Ben came in as well. Then Suzanne and I sang in chorus, “where’s Chris?” The train doors shut tight. The 4 of us wore a worried look on our faces. Suzanne and I decided to run the length of the train to look for him. No luck. We played scenarios in our heads. Short of an alien abduction and falling through the toilet onto the tracks, we exhausted all other scenarios on Chris’ whereabouts.

My phone rang. Much to our relief, it was Chris. “I got separated and now I am at a room in Xiangnan hotel next to GZ station”, he said. He explained that he stepped out of the train to ask a security guard on the platform about seating arrangements and the doors shut on him. He then decided to get himself a room in a hotel instead of making the trip on the next train. Well, his wish for spending a night in GZ had come true!

All the worry about Chris suddenly turned to amusement! Suzanne was imagining a cartoon character running to the doors only to see it shut. Ben joked that at least we had the chips that he left behind!

And the time is…
We looked at our watches. It was 11.56PM (4 minutes before the Lo Wu border to HK was to close). Thus, began our cross border marathon.

Unfortunately, other than building our physique, the running didn’t quite help! The China border was closed when we reached there at 12:04AM. We then had to go to the border at Huang Gang which is open 24hrs. We reached Hong Kong at about 1.30AM.

This was a fantastic trip. Just one thing left to say – Mr. Fung is under the impression that this gesture means “Very Good”.

So, the next time one of you visits Mr. Fung and he gives you the middle finger, please say ‘thank you very much’.

Thanks to Francis for organizing this memorable trip.