Posted in travel

Nanjing Craft Beer Festival

China isn’t exactly known for its quality beer. Its biggest-selling beers are Snow and Tsingdao, which are both pretty awful. When I first came to China in 2010, living in Hefei, the most exotic beers around were Tiger and Budweiser. Out in the sticks – where I’m currently living – people still prefer their beer warm and with a maximum of 2.5% abv.

Yet in recent years there’s been an explosion of interest in craft beer, which has caused the bar scene in cities like Hefei to grow at an incredible pace. In 2010 there were only one or two poor quality bars and now there are dozens of great ones. It seems a new bar opens every week. You can go places where they have twenty or more beers on tap and fridges with endless stocks of obscure beers from around the world. (The best bar in Hefei, if you find yourself in the area, is Shipyard on Shuguang Road.)

It’s not just imported brews that are quenching the Chinese thirst for good beer, though. As the Chinese have gained a taste for good beer, they’re getting into homebrewing and companies are popping up all over the place. Right now the brewing scene in China is incredible, and I hope that China is soon recognized for its excellent beers. Mostly, I hope that the fondness for cold IPAs spreads into the small cities so that I don’t have to travel for a few hours just to get a beer below room temperature!

The biggest Chinese craft brewer is Master Gao, who operates out of Nanjing. He organizes beer festivals which are attended by brewers from around the country, who come to show off their creations. This year the regular beer festival was replaced by a homebrew competition, where people from all over the country sent in their best brews to be tasted by a panel of experts. An assortment of brewers showed up, too, to sell their beers. Sadly, this year’s festival was hit hard by the rain and attendance was low, but the event still proved fun.

I went along with the Calvin Beer Company from Hefei. Despite the rain, we managed to keep the crowds entertained with with two great beers – the I Pledge Allegiance IPA and the Liquid Sunshine APA – and taught the locals how to play beer pong. Is there anything that breaks down cultural barriers like beer? I don’t think so.

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Posted in update

Beatdom #17

To date, all the posts on this website have been travel-related. This one bucks that trend in that it’s about a journal which I recently published. For nine years I’ve been editing Beatdom literary journal and we just put out our seventeenth issue last week. It is, as always, about the men and women of the Beat Generation (this time around it’s more focused on the women) and the theme for this issue is politics – meaning that all the essays relate in some way to both Beat literature and political thought.

Here’s the cover:

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This cool cover was designed by Waylon Bacon, who has drawn many of our previous covers. Check out his website here. You can find Beatdom #17 on Amazon as a regular printed book and also on Kindle.

Below you can see the covers of all our previous issues. Most of these titles can be found on Amazon. A few of them, however, have sadly been lost over the years and only occasionally pop up on eBay and elsewhere. allbeatdoms small

My company, Beatdom Books, which prints Beatdom literary journal, also publishes books. We recently put out Eliot Katz’s The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg and prior to that we’ve released another of books focused on the Beat Generation, including my own Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult.’ You can see our Beat covers below: All these books can also be found by searching “Beatdom” on Amazon.

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Posted in travel

How to Travel Southern Africa on a Budget

If you’ve ever looked into travelling around Southern Africa, you’ve probably found it’s a bit expensive. Everyone wants to go on safari, but who can afford to pay $1,000 per day? There are, however, ways to see this part of the world on a budget, and without sacrificing too much in the way of comfort, adventure, or experience.

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Pick your locations carefully

Botswana is a notoriously expensive place. It’s hard to complain about it, because they do a great job of using tourist money to protect their wildlife. However, it’s one of the hardest countries to see on a shoestring. Zimbabwe is also pretty pricey, especially around the Victoria Falls area, which gets a lot of tourists.

Right now almost all of South Africa is cheap to visit because the economy is doing so poorly. Changing foreign currency will buy you huge amounts of rand. It’s cheap to sleep, to eat, or to rent a car. Even Kruger National Park – one of the greatest tourist destinations on earth – is cheap to visit.

If you’re planning a long visit, you might want to spend more time in South Africa and Swaziland, and less time in Botswana and Zimbabwe.

Hostel all the way

Even in the more expensive parts of Southern Africa, hostels are affordable. Moreover, Africa has some of the greatest hostels in the world. Whereas in other places they’re often rundown and dingy, throughout most of Southern Africa you’ll find absolutely brilliant hostels. In South Africa in particular they rank really highly – with many of them featuring swimming pools!

Remember to check online before to see prices and ratings. Despite all the great hostels, there are obviously a number of ones to avoid. In places like Cape Town you’re really spoiled for choice. Because of the competition, every hostel goes out of its way to impress its guests. Out in the sticks, however, you might need to look a little harder, and prices might be higher.

Go off-season

The same rules apply as elsewhere in the world – peak season in the most expensive time to visit. In Southern Africa, summer (that’s winter in the northern hemisphere, so think January-February) is considered a bit of an off-season. At this time, hostels are quiet and the national parks are empty of visitors. If you’re looking for vibrant nightlife, this really isn’t the time to go, but if you’re looking for peace, quiet, and budget travel, it’s perfect.

At this time of year, most backpackers are heading to Southeast Asia, which is going through its peak season in Jan-Feb. Southern Africa, on the other hand, is largely ignored at this time. I got great deals on safaris, accommodation, and transport because there was simply no one else around. What’s more, even flights to and around the area are cheaper than at other times.

Use public transport

In South Africa, renting a car is very cheap, but elsewhere it’s neither cheap nor particularly safe. There are long-distance luxury buses that will cart you around the area, or grossly overpriced trains, but these don’t go everywhere and they miss out on the important experiences.

Through Southern Africa the mode of transport most people use is the combi bus – that’s a small minivan that is crammed full of people. You can go anywhere if you ask in advance, and it’s dirt cheap. I travelled all over the place in these vans and met the friendliest people on the way. I seldom paid more than a dollar or two for long rides, and even though sometimes it was crammed and slow, I always enjoyed the journey.

Personally, I hitch-hiked a lot around South Africa and Botswana, although I’m reluctant to recommend it to others. I never felt in danger but of course it is always a risk. In certain places, however, hitch-hiking is quite common and a great way to get where buses won’t go.

Eat local

For my first money in Southern Africa I never spent more than $3 per day on food because wherever I went there was a small kitchen to prepare. I’d just find the local supermarket and buy the basics. If I came upon a restaurant I’d eat the local food, whatever that was. It was always cheap and it’s great to try new things.

When I first arrived in Zimbabwe I ended up in a steakhouse in Bulawayo. It was a western restaurant – the first I’d eaten at in a month – and they had the most amazing steaks I’ve ever eaten in my life. My bill, though, was $25. Now in the West that’s not a bad total, but when you’re used to paying $3 per day for all your food combined, $25 for a steak and a beer suddenly seems a bit steep. Still, one has to spoil oneself sometimes.

 

Finally, be flexible, open-minded, and always travelling intelligently. Make sure that you’re insured, do your research ahead of time, don’t be afraid to try new things. This is one of the greatest places on earth and right now you can see it on a shoestring if you really want.

Posted in travel

Pyongyang War Museum

In my previous posts about North Korea I’ve stayed away from the touristy parts and spoken about Paekdusan, watching a football game, and some of the hidden bits you don’t usually see. Today I’ll talk about one place that almost every visitor gets dragged to: The Victorious Fatherland Liberation Museum.

When people talk about tourism in North Korea, one complaint is that you get dragged around to all the places the government wants you to see, which is largely true. You do get to see other stuff, of course, but you have to put up with doing the touristy bits. Thankfully, because it’s North Korea, even the touristy stuff is fascinating and weird.

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One my second day in North Korea I woke up somewhat hungover from the local (rather delicious) beer, and went for a 5am run. If you want a unique view of North Korea, trying running around the city in the wee hours. But then again, Pyongyang’s always pretty unique.

After breakfast my group was taken to participate in the obligatory tour of the museum dedicated to the Korean war. The museum is stunning and the guides unfailingly friendly, although their rhetoric grows tiresome. The whole thing is almost parodic. At no point could our friendly guide (above) say, “Americans.” She would always refer to “the Imperialist dogs” and talk about “the evil Japs.”

Even worse were the pictures of dead US soldiers proudly hanging here and there. Evidently, it wasn’t enough to have a collection of downed US places and the entire seized USS Pueblo pored over by countless visitors – they needed to have the actual bodies of young American men on display.

Throughout the visit, we are told the history of the Korean War from the North Korean side, obviously. It is fascinating and, quite frankly, refreshing to here a different perspective on history. What amazed me was that their narrative differs only slightly from ours. Although this country is famous for its bizarre propaganda, they tell more or less the same story about the Korean War, only with emphasis in slightly different places. They completely omit the fact, for example, that the war with Japan came to an end because of their sworn enemies, the US.

We were made to watch several ludicrous videos and listen to lots of stories. It was all a bit silly, and often it seemed the guides were embarrassed by holes in their own plots. Interestingly, they never told us this was “the truth” or that what we in the West believe is wrong. All they said is, “This is what we believe and we want to present our side.”

The museum seems to be visited by a lot of North Korean citizens. It is hardly surprising, as a healthy dose of indoctrination helps keep the populace in line. It felt a bit awkward, though, walking around amidst all the North Korean people, who were at that moment being told of foreign devils who raped their lands and want to come back and do it again. We did wonder whether our presence sent another message: At every junction, when there were lots of people, all the North Koreans would be held back and the foreign tourists allowed to go first… Perhaps the museum is sending a message about rude foreigners… Or perhaps they’re showing these people that the foreign devil has come to learn of his peoples’ evil and repent. Who knows.

Altogether, as bizarre as it was, North Korea’s museum was enlightening and, like everywhere else in the country, as pleasant adventure.

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Posted in travel

Climbing Table Mountain

After an amazing five weeks touring Southern Africa I found myself in Cape Town with one day left before my flight back to China. What would I do? There were so many things from which to choose – touring the wine lands, paragliding, surfing… or climbing Table Mountain.

I love to hike, and throughout my African adventure I averaged 12.5km per day. That’s an average of 12.5km per day for about 40 days. I had bought a new pair of hiking boots before arriving and worn them nearly into the ground over some 500km of walking across some of the most amazing landscapes on earth. In Swaziland in one single day I hiked 53km. I genuinely believe it’s the best way to see a new place, in spite of any potential dangers.

So really it was a no-brainer when Table Mountain stacked up against the other options. I’d already seen the sharks and the penguins. Besides, it was visible from my hostel, from the road from the airport, from the train to Simon’s Town… everywhere I went I could see this behemoth looming large and inviting me, nay, daring me to climb it. I couldn’t resist the challenge.

I set off from my hostel on Kloof Street and headed towards the mountain with only the GPS program on my iPhone and the intention of getting to the top. I’d tried to Google hiking trails and failed due to a lack of wifi. Oh well. Exploring is more fun.

At the bottom of the mountain, in the pass between Table Mountain and the Lion’s Head, I took a small path leading along the bottom of the mountain, on the east side. I didn’t want to trudge along busy paths or take the cableway. I sauntered along quietly for almost an hour, seeing not a single person, just enjoying the views out over the Atlantic as I slowly wound up the side of the mountain, following a gentle incline.

Things turned from pleasant to difficult when the path came to an abrupt end. I looked about and couldn’t see where it led, and then I realized that I was meant to climb. There was a small sheer cliff face of maybe two and a half meters. I couldn’t see that the path continued above, but there appeared to be a gap in the vegetation, so I assume that it did. I tossed my bag up and climbed to the next level.

I’m not great with heights. I love climbing, ironically, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve found it harder to cope with heights and so I don’t really climb any more. I find that my balance is now poor and I fear falling. Thus, climbing that small cliff posed a real challenge, and when I got to the top and continued on the path, I was elated. I’d conquered that small obstacle.

As I continued along, it dawned on me that I really needed the path to continue in its present state, with no more cliffs. If I came to one that I couldn’t climb, I’d be in trouble. At the top of the previous one I realized I wouldn’t be able to get back down without real difficulty, and maybe a broken ankle.

Unfortunately, I soon came to another small but tricky climb. Hoping it was the last one, I climbed it and persevered. Then there was another. And another. With each climb I realized the chances of me going back were slimmer and slimmer. I didn’t want to risk climbing down because it seemed so much more difficult and dangerous than climbing up, and also it would take so long that I’d likely never reach the summit.

Pretty soon my hike ceased to be a hike interspersed with little rocky faces to climb, and became a serious climb up a seriously difficult rocky escarpment. Every fifteen meters or so my knees buckled from vertigo and my head spun. I was, for the first time on the whole trip, terrified. I became certain I would die on that cliff face.

And that’s when it started to rain.

I continued on slowly, on the slick wet rock. I kept taking my backpack off and throwing it up to the next level, then climbing up myself, leaning in as closely as possible, aware that any slip by my hands or feet, or any loose rock, would result in me falling not just a few feet and breaking an ankle. Now the stakes were higher – I’d surely go a few hundred meters to my death.

Finally I could see the top. The path, however, branched in two. One way was steep and the other gentle. I chose the gentle path. I followed it as best I could, but it wound its way around the side of the mountain, on thin, worn paths above giant drops, to yet another stupidly difficult climb. Time and again I stopped to get my head together. I was so dizzy that even standing still I felt I’d likely topple over the edge, and each climb became harder and harder.

It was only when I saw the lip at the top of the mountain and knew finally that I’d made it that I got my act together and climbed harder and faster. When I finally reached the summit I was exhausted, having done hundreds of meters on my hands and feet.

I staggered around the top of Table Mountain and then headed down Skeleton Gorge to the Kirstenbosch Gardens. I tried to walk home but by that point I’d walked 20km on a completely empty stomach, had long since run out of water, and ended up finding a taxi back to town.