Posted in Photography

Back in China… again

This morning I was teaching a lesson when a piercing noise began not far from my class. It quickly rose in volume to the extent that it hurt my ears, and I could see from my students that it pained them, too. I have been in Asia long enough not to panic at incredibly loud, sudden noises, but as the sound got louder and louder, I began to feel rather uncomfortable. Not only was it interrupting my classes, but I wondered if it was also damaging my hearing. My eyes began to water. Could this be some sort of sonic attack? Were we at war? Of course not. No one seemed particularly surprised. Life went on as normal outside my classroom window, except that people were covering their ears as they continued walking about.

Many hours later, I learned that this siren marked the anniversary of the beginning of the Japanese invasion. Apparently it happens every year, so I suppose I must have forgotten that, or maybe it just wasn’t so loud last year. It’s easily done. After all, teaching in China – or in fact just living here – involves a great amount of tolerance for idiotic bullshit like eardrum-destroying sirens. In fact, every day I feel as though I’m subjected to a sonic assault. If it is not a siren, it is surely fireworks or someone drilling into a wall.

China is a place where nothing really happens for a good reason. There is a phrase here – “meiyouweishenme.” It literally means “there is no why”. More idiomatically, it means “just because.” It is a good answer for anything that goes on in China.

“Why are you walking down the middle of a busy road with your child in a stroller?”

“Meiyouweishenme.”

“Why are you lighting fireworks outside my window at 5am?”

“Meiyouweishenme.”

“Why are you encouraging your child to take a shit in the middle of this supermarket?”

“Meiyouweishenme.”

“Why is that large butcher’s knife lying in the middle of a playground?”

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A knife drying in a kids’ play park.

“Meiyouweishenme.”

And so on.

So, the hell with it: This is China. The Chinese will do as they have always done, which is to act in a way that is utterly baffling to the rest of the world. They will commemorate the Japanese invasion by inflicting more pain and suffering on their own people. Anyone who tries to find reason in this will be driven mad, for there really is none. It’s just China as it always has been and always will be.

*

I got back to this odd place three weeks ago. When I left in early July, I wasn’t even sure whether I would come back at all. Part of me was so sick of it that I thought I might just wander off into the world and find somewhere new. Could there really be a place as terrible as Chinese Tier 3 city? Surely not, although perhaps certain warzones or malarial swamps might come close. And, no I think about it, Cleveland was pretty unbearable. But the last thing I saw before setting off for Thailand was a woman holding her baby out to defecate on the floor of Hefei International Airport…

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There is nowhere in China you can go to escape the scourge of public defecation… even the international airports.

…ahe first thing I saw when I arrived back in Hefei was a man lying over two “courtesy seats” that are reserved for disabled people, the elderly, or pregnant women.

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I suppose in China, it is extremely polite to remove your shoes before taking up two courtesy seats. 

I think you could safely hashtag these #onlyinchina. Hell, you could probably study these pictures in a Chinese culture class, as they are utterly representative of the good citizens of the Middle Kingdom, for whom no act is too selfish to commit.

Coming back, then, was a sort of resignation: an admission that I will do literally anything for a paycheque. After all, what is more demeaning than living among a billion and a half chronic public defecators?

Well, whatever. I am back, and like I said last year: “This is my last year.”

And, as I say every year: “This time I mean it.”

When you live someplace, you have to find ways to cope with the unfortunate elements, no matter how overwhelming they seem to be. You can find a hobby, throw yourself into your work, or maybe take up meditating. Different people cope in different ways.

I chose to get out into the countryside on pleasant evenings once the sun began to go down, and practice photography. This forced me to look for something beautiful in an otherwise grey and smoggy landscape:

In addition to that, I hit the gym four days a week and spend most of the rest of my time working. It keeps me sane until the next time I escape…

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Posted in travel

Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

Back in 2012, I visited Cambodia for the first time and immediately fell in love. It was Sihanoukville and the nearby coastline that captivated me, but I managed to squeeze in a day at Angkor Wat before heading to the airport and leaving the country. I loved it, and knew that one day I’d return. Indeed, I’ve been back to Cambodia several times since then (once to run a bar/hotel for a year) but last week was my first time back at Angkor Wat.

The bus ride from Bangkok was long and difficult, ultimately taking 14 hours instead of the 7 that was promised. Oh well. No harm done, except to my spine and sanity – and who needs those?

When I arrived at my hotel, the wonderful Tropical Breeze Guesthouse in the quiet southeast of the town of Siem Reap, the friendly lady at the front desk asked me if it was my first time in Cambodia. Skipping over my days in Sihanoukville and a visit to Kratie, I told her that yes, I had visited Siem Reap and Angkor Wat about 7 years earlier.

She replied, “Oh, you lucky. You come before Chinese destroy everything. They so noisy and rude!”

I laughed hard because it’s so true, and yet so few people are willing to say it out loud. The Chinese are awful. They behave like animals back in China but hey, that’s their country and that’s their prerogative. If your culture permits spitting on tables in a restaurant and then shitting on the floor, so be it. If it permits beating children, pushing strangers out of a queue, and shouting at the top of your lungs as a means of conversation, then fine. It’s your country, it’s your rules.

But when they bring their despicable ways with them when they travel, it crosses a line. And boy, do the Chinese like to travel now… Well, maybe like is the wrong word. Travelling is just something they now have to do. They are miserable most of the time, but Chinese society is all about checking the boxes and being seen to do certain things.

But I digress.

I was talking about Siem Reap…

The next day, I set about exploring Siem Reap, which is actually a nice little town. Many people overlook it entirely in order to see more of Angkor Wat, but Siem Reap is not without its charm:

After a day of exploring town, I got a good night’s rest and then woke up early for a full day at Angkor Wat. I rented a bicycle this time, whereas on the first visit I took the more conventional approach of hiring a tuk-tuk and driver.

I set off about 6am, although I had originally planned on 4am in order to see the sunrise. Upon waking, it occurred to me that – A) It’s dark out and cycling with no lights would be dangerous, and B) It’s cloud so the sunrise wouldn’t be that great.

Instead, I cycled and got there about 7am, when there was still good light. It was also pleasantly quiet then. At least, it was quiet for a while. I wandered around Angkor Wat first (confusingly, Angkor Wat is the name of the entire park area, as well as one of the many temples), and then headed on to the other temples.

Here are some of my photos:

I spent the whole day cycling and walking, cycling and walking… According to my phone, I cycled almost 40km and walked nearly 15km! Not a bad day’s exercise.

I was delighted to get some beautiful photos and it is always lovely to see a place of such massive historical importance, but honestly the woman at the hotel had been right – the Chinese ruined it.

There are several “main” temples around the Angkor Wat Archaeological Park and at each of the big ones, the Chinese swarmed like mosquitoes. They were loud and rude and disgusting. They spat in the temples and stuffed rubbish into cracks in the walls. They refused to speak a word of Khmer or English, and instead just screamed Chinese at the baffled Khmer staff, and then threw fistfuls of Chinese money at waitresses after their meals, even though that is not an accepted currency here.

At the temples, they pushed and shoved and acted like idiots. They even insisted on calling everyone around them, “foreigners”!!! One Chinese woman even had the audacity to speak to me in Chinese and then use “foreigner” in English. I refrained myself from using the wide arsenal of Chinese swearwords that I know.

Oh well.

This wasn’t meant to be a rant about Chinese people.

I got stuck in the rain for several hours, which rather hindered my exploration, and then at five-thirty the park closed and I headed back for Siem Reap. It was meant to be a relaxing, happy day, but in the end it was stressful and often unpleasant. Still, there were peaceful moments. There were quiet, lesser-known temples with no Chinese, and moments of serenity in the morning before it was hot and busy. And cycling there early in the morning reminded me of why I loved Cambodia in the first place – the red dirt roads and thick jungles, and kids zipping around on old bicycles.

Back in Siem Reap, I made the most of my hotel’s pool:

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It’s not a bad hotel for $4 a night! Check it out if you’re in town – Tropical Breeze.

Then I explored the town some more, finding wonderful little restaurants selling incredible dishes for dirt cheap prices… not to mention the ubiquitous $0.50 beers.

In the end, it’s good to be back in one of my favourite countries. I’ll just have to be careful and avoid those places the Chinese gravitate towards.

And so… next up is Kampot.

Posted in essay

The Absurdity of “Cultural Appropriation”

Yesterday I watched a series of presentations by young Chinese businesspeople. Their task was to find a product or service from China, then choose a target market abroad, and figure out how to break into that market. It was an exercise in culture, as much as anything. Their assigned reading included various essays on the failures of businesses attempting to enter the Chinese market and vice versa. My job was to pick apart their presentations and find flaws in their plans, and then challenge them to defend or change their presentation.

Most of the groups picked various Chinese foods that have not yet penetrated international markets, but two of them looked at Chinese clothing. In particular, they decided to pick the qipao, and market it to consumers in the United Kingdom. One of the groups intended to hybridize the qipao with Victorian-style clothing, which I think is just a horrible idea that profoundly misunderstands modern British tastes, whereas the other thought they could simply sell the qipao as it is to British women.

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A woman wearing a Qipao (Source: Wikipedia)

My question to them went a little like this:

“I think that most people in the UK and other Western countries would agree that the qipao is a beautiful and elegant item of clothing, and maybe fifty or a hundred years ago they would love to wear it. But these days people would be afraid of receiving criticism for cultural appropriation. How do you intend to get past this obstacle?”

The students were unfamiliar with the concept of cultural appropriation. In fact, if you try to explain this issue to just about anyone here in China – or, for that matter, much of Asia – they look at you as if you were insane. And I would tend to agree. To me, the whole concept is indeed insane.

The Chinese, like the Japanese and Koreans, mostly wear Western-style clothes. Their idols are American pop stars, movie stars, and basketball players, and, each year, their diets are comprised of more and more Western-style food. Their cultures are utterly permeated with American and European influences. It is hardly surprising, then, that people from this part of the world dream of the day that Westerners walk about in Asian clothing, listen to Asian music, watch Asian movies, and eat Asian foods. The idea that this could somehow be offensive to them is absurd.

The issue of cultural appropriation was widely discussed a few weeks ago after an American girl wore a qipao to her prom, and incurred the wrath of America’s liberal trolls, who said she was offending the Chinese. Meanwhile, in China, people agreed that she had done nothing wrong.

qipao
Keziah Daum in a qipao

My girlfriend has asked me about this before. Last year, she was looking for a dress to bring to Scotland, and she suggested I buy something Chinese for myself. She thought it would be nice if we both wore Chinese-style clothes when we visited. I tried to explain that British people would think I was stealing from her culture and being offensive to Chinese people.

“But it’s my idea! I’m Chinese and I want you to wear Chinese clothes!”

“You don’t understand,” I said. “It doesn’t matter what you want. There are a bunch of people who think they know best, and they decide what’s right and wrong, and they’ve decided that this is offensive to you.”

We “argue” about it sometimes, although I’m entirely on her side. I am merely trying to explain what cultural appropriation is. I have no interest in defending it. I can certainly understand why it’s wrong for kids to wear offensive Halloween costumes, and that there’s a difference between respecting someone’s culture and mocking someone’s culture, but it seems that too many PC folks cannot understand these nuances.

When pressed, these critics will argue that cultural appropriation is a matter of power. The argument goes that Western countries have pushed their culture on the rest of the world for so long that it is impossible for them to steal from us. However, when Westerners take an element of another culture and incorporate it into their own, it is a form of theft. This is reasonable, except that is usually a form of respect to see something worthwhile in another culture, not to mention a natural part of intercultural exchange throughout human history. Surely it would be far worse to dismiss that other culture entirely, saying, “I’d never wear Chinese clothes! I have more class than they do!” As for the power dynamic, as my girlfriend pointed out, surely by now China has far more power and wealth than, say, Scotland, and yet no one would complain about a Chinese man playing the bagpipes.

In Asia, despite the sudden influx of Western fashion, people remain fiercely proud of their traditions, even when they don’t engage with them much themselves. A Chinese person who has never done kung-fu or played the er-hu will nonetheless tell you of the subtle sophistication of these cultural artifacts and, whenever a picture of a white person engaging with either makes it onto social media, they are not offended. On the contrary, people are filled with pride that something from their part of the world has made an impact on someone from another part of the world.

If you ask them about it, they’ll say, “Well, we have x from your country; why shouldn’t you have y from ours?” And that is exactly the point. It is precisely why cultural appropriation is a deeply ignorant concept, even if it is, in some cases, well-meaning.

To be honest, I have no interest in wearing Chinese clothes when I go back to Scotland. It’s just not my style. However, I have been in Asia for more than ten years now, and in that time I have travelled through dozens of countries. I attempt to see and experience the culture in each place I visit, and it always makes me sick to look at the limited perspectives of the people who get riled up on social media about cultural sensitivity. These folks are mostly from the US, and their entire worldview is shaped by American society and politics. They attempt to apply their morality on the globe, whilst at the same time decrying ethno- or geocentrism. The things that they say make no real sense from a global perspective. Their hearts are, mostly, in the right place, but their heads are firmly lodged inside their own rectums. They make me embarrassed to call myself liberal.

Posted in travel

Final Stop in India: Varkala

My trip through India took me from the east coast (Chennai, Auroville, and Pondicherrry) through the temples and hill stations of the central south, to stop finally on the west coast at Kochi and then Varkala.

Along the way, I had many adventures. India is a great country and I saw some incredible sights. I also met many very cool people everywhere I went. However, it is an exhausting place to travel, especially when you travel – as I do – very cheaply, going by local bus and staying in hostels. Although I had enjoyed seeing the country, by the time I  got into my final week there, I had lost the interest to venture further. I had had my fill of temples, of mountains, of culture. I was ready to sit by the beach and relax.

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Varkala Beach

Fortunately, the beaches on India’s west coast are far nicer than the ones on its east coast. On my journey, a few travellers suggested I visit Varkala (emphasis, contrary to what you might think, is on the final syllable). I took my last long bus journey south from Kochi to Varkala, and holed up for two nights at Pagan’s hostel, not far from the beach. It was very nice but I soon switched to a private room at Sunrise Guesthouse on the cliffs.

Varkala is a tiny town on a series of cliffs, with a few small beaches dotted here and there. Getting down to them means finding the steep steps, if there are any, cut into the sides of the red cliffs, or walking until the land naturally slopes down to meet the sea. The main part of town is located above a nice white sand beach and  divided into North Cliff and South Cliff. Most of the businesses there are run by Tibetan exiles and a few folks from Kashmir or Nepal. Stretching out along the eroding coastline are rocky beaches and little fishing villages that meet stagnant backwaters – a famed type of scenery in Kerala state.

Backwaters north of Varkala
The backwaters.

The wildlife captivated me from my first day to the last. Where in Scotland you might see seagulls or pigeons, in Kerala there are huge brahminy and black kites swooping overhead. They are majestic animals, yet common enough to almost be pests. You simply can’t go anywhere without seeing them. I spent much of my time shooting photos of them along the cliffs:

In addition to these huge birds of prey, I saw a number of other cool animals. While watching the birds one day, a dolphin jumped clear out of the sea in front of me! I spent the next days hoping it would happen again so I could shoot a photo, but it never did. I did, however, repeatedly see up to 15 dolphins swimming near the beach. While swimming at a beach five kilometers north of town, I also saw a small shark being washed onto the beach by a large wave. Thankfully, it managed to wriggle back into the sea without my help.

Mostly, though, I walked around town meeting nice people, admiring the scenery, watching the fantastic sunsets, and reading my books.

I also enjoyed big breakfasts looking out over the sea each morning:

Although it was tempting to push on and explore further, once I arrived in Varkala I realized I would be there until my time in India came to an end. India is a huge country, just amazingly vast in physical size as well as cultural diversity. I’d only seen a small part, but it really does take a lot of time and effort to get about. Besides, as I’ve said in previous posts, sometimes when you travel, you need to leave things behind for your next trip.

And so, early one morning, I set off in a taxi (no more buses for me) to the airport at Trivandrum, heading for my next destination: Sri Lanka.

Posted in travel

Madurai

After seeing the stunning Brihadeshwara temple at Thanjavur, I hopped on another bus, this time headed for Madurai – a larger city to the southwest. The journey was not as bad as the one from Puducherry to Thanjavur, but it wasn’t great, and I was already growing weary of public transport in India. I amused myself along the route by looking at the various traffic signs (all of which were in English, strangely) that warned drivers not to drink and drive. They generally fell into three categories:

  1. Bad puns: “Safety on road is safe tea at home”
  2. Bad rhymes: “Drink whisky, Drive risky”
  3. Bad English: “Don’t drink, Don’t drive”

At Madurai, the bus dropped me outside the city and I reluctantly took a rickshaw into town. The driver offered to show me some hotels, and again I reluctantly accepted, as I hadn’t booked anything in advance.

The first place we looked at was on the sixth floor of an ugly building on a narrow street that was mostly used as a toilet by rickshaw drivers. The room itself had clearly just been vacated, and there were empty crisp packets lying everywhere, and crumbs all over the bed. The young man who showed me the room casually brushed some of the crumbs off the bed and gestured at the room as if to say, “Ta-Da! Isn’t it wonderful?” I turned and left without saying a word.

The next place was a little better, and I took it rather than spend the rest of my day looking at ugly hotel rooms. I then went out to explore the city on foot, walking around the large Meenakshi Temple in the middle of the city. They didn’t allow cameras inside and I didn’t trust leaving my new Nikon at the front desk, so I walked around and admired the building from the outside. To be honest, it was nothing special after Brihadeshwara. In fact, the whole city seemed rather drab and dusty, not to mention absolutely filthy. Still, I was determined to avoid getting on another bus and so, when I finally got online, I found a hostel a few kilometers to the east and the following morning I made my way to the Lost Hostel, in the west of the city.

Although there was even less to see in the west of Madurai, I paid for two nights and planned on resting during my second day. After too much walking, I had huge and painful blisters on my feet, and a day spent reading was just what the doctor ordered.

However, I’m no good at resting and so by nightfall I’d already walked right back into the city for another look at the temple. Meenakshi Temple may not have looked very impressive from the outside, but I’d heard that inside it was spectacular. And I had not been misled.

In the late evening, when most of the tourists had vanished, I ventured inside what turned out to be a giant Hindu temple. It was the first time in my life that a religious building caused me to feel absolutely overwhelmed. In the first section of the temple that I entered, incredibly high ceilings and huge, carved pillars took my breath away. Then, venturing further inside, I saw an area with more than a thousand uniquely carved pillars and other statues of Ganesh, Krishna, and Shiva. Further inside, the temple was even more impressive, with every surface covered with some ancient inscription or depiction of a deity, from tiny and barely noticeable to vast and powerful. Some even seemed to come alive as you looked at them. The air was thick with the smell of incense and burning ghee, all of which actually smelled a lot like ground cloves. I could, for the first time in my life, actually understand the religious mind for a few moments. I could hardly imagine the effect it would all have had on visitors long ago, before they’d installed electric lights and bright signs.

The reason I’d come to visit in the evening was that there was a ceremony that supposedly happened around eight o’clock each day. The temple is devoted to Meenakshi, the wife of Shiva. In the inner sanctum of the temple lies a statue of the Lord Shiva that is removed each night and led by a parade of chanting monks and pilgrims to the temple of Meenakshi. All this is done by flaming torch-light and in a flurry of wild music, and the people go into a frenzy. I waited for hours to see it as all the other tourists left, but around ten o’clock it began with the ringing of a bell, and then people were following the statue to its resting place for the night. It was an incredible sight to behold.

The following morning, when I left Madurai, I felt glad that I’d made the effort to revisit the Meenakshi Temple and wait so long for the ceremony to begin. It had been another fascinating insight into Hindu culture.

Posted in Photography, travel

Brihadishwara Temple, Thanjavur

After just an evening in Pondicherry, I was happy to move on to my next destination – Thanjavur. Located about 150km southwest, it is one of the most important destinations in Southern India because of its temple, Brihadishwara, which is also appropriately known as “Big Temple.” Thanjavur was once the capital of the Chola Kingdom, and was popular also with subsequent rulers in Indian history.

From Pondicherry bus station, I managed to get a bus to Chidampuram, and then onwards to Thanjavur. The journey was, honestly, quite difficult. The public bus was crowded and hot, and the noise from the constant sounding of the driver’s horn was difficult to tolerate. Indians are as bad at driving as people are in neighboring countries, and will overtake straight into oncoming traffic with absolutely no thought to the consequences.

After what seemed like an eternity, but what was actually more like six hours, the bus arrived in Thanjavur, and on the way in I could already see the history of the city. Ancient walls merged with slightly less ancient bus stops and shops. Thanjavur is interesting in that way, yet it is also a typical modern Indian town – busy, dusty, dirty. I stepped off the bus and went looking for a hotel. They weren’t in short supply but it did take a while to find a suitable one, which I did eventually on the main drag.

After checking in, I went out to see the “Big Temple” as I’d heard it was best to see when the sun was going down. I raced to get there but it was crowded and checking my shoes at the entrance took some time, so by the time I arrived, I had missed the sunset by a few minutes. Still, the sky was red and it cast a beautiful red light on the already impressive stonework. I managed to plug in the wrong settings to my new camera and so quite a few potentially good photos turned out not so great.

I stuck around the temple until well after dark, taking in the atmosphere. I was amazed how many people kept arriving. From all over India, folks in all sorts of traditional dress appeared. Most of them lined up to go into the main temple itself, while others prayed to the giant cow statue, or the smaller cow statues, and some just sat and talked with their families. Many lit candles or incense, and it felt incredible to stand in the middle of it all and just watch.

In the morning, I returned again. I wanted to take some better photos and to see the temple in the light of day. The magic of the previous night had vanished, but it was now easier to see the intricate designs on the temple walls.

After spending another hour and a half looking around Brihadishwara, I took a brief walk around the rest of Thanjavur and then jumped on another bus, this time heading further south to Madurai.

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Posted in travel

Two Days in Antwerp

After a short, pleasant ride on the Flixbus from Amsterdam to Antwerp, I hopped off in the main square by the train station, and made my way towards Kabas – my new hostel. As I walked through the city, it felt as though I’d travelled more than two hours. Here, things were completely different. For a start, everyone was Jewish! All the men wore long black cloaks and wide-brimmed hats, and even the little boys had huge curls of hair at the sides of their faces.

I didn’t really know what to expect from Antwerp. It was a city I knew little about, except for a small amount of time spent on Wikitravel. My first instinct was to walk about and simply take in the new city, but hopefully to look at some museums or art galleries. I’d also heard that it had the highest concentration of bars and pubs anywhere on the planet… But first, to check in at my new hostel.

Kabas Hostel

I found Kabas by using my maps.me app, which guided me along the two kilometer journey from the train station. Kabas is a relatively new hostel, and it’s located in a quiet residential neighbourhood. In fact, the hostel itself used to be just a normal house, but with a few minor renovations it became a place for backpackers to stop off in Antwerp.

Inside, there are a few different rooms on three floors, with a garden out back that’s full of chickens. A friendly young man checked me in and showed me to the third floor, where I got a bed under a skylight. The house is very simple, but comfortable. The floors are wooden and creeky, with narrow hallways, which all gives it character, and there’s a pretty good free breakfast each morning. There are towels, decent showers, lockers in the room, and wifi. The wifi, unfortunately, is atrocious, but the rest of it is pretty good.

Exploring Antwerp on Foot

I rested up the first night as, after walking some 50km in Amsterdam, my feet were blistered and I thought it best to give them a break. The next morning, however, I set out to explore the whole of the city by foot, armed with my GPS and a tourist map I got at reception. After less than thirty minutes wandering through the old residential area of town to the south of the city center, the skies erupted into an almighty downpour, and I was forced to take cover in a bus shelter for the next hour. The weather forecast had said there was no chance of rain, but the hostel owner warned me, “In Belgium, it can rain at any time with no warning.” Not unlike Scotland, I thought.

When the rain let up a little, I set out in my raincoat to explore further, walking up the bank of the River Scheldt to Het Steen (a small and very old castle), and further to a harbor, at which point I turned back towards town and began meandering aimlessly along the winding, narrow streets. There seemed little point in consulting a map of any kind now; Antwerp’s streets are notoriously disorienting. Unless you can see one of the big church or cathedral spires, you are not able to navigate.

The old town of Antwerp is really quite beautiful, even under dark skies and a fine rain. The old cobbled streets and tall, narrow buildings have a unique charm, and every so often there are really incredible old brick buildings of various sorts. The most imposing, of course, are the churches and cathedrals. The city has just grown around them, so you stumbled upon them and they seem sort of out of place, despite having been there so long. There are also hundreds of bars, restaurants, and cafes with little tables and chairs out on the streets. It all feels very… European. I’m tempted, actually, to say that it feels “French” because that’s what one thinks of when sitting at a café in the sun (yes, it eventually came out), sipping a beer and listening to an old man on an accordion. But this is Flemish Belgium. They very definitely don’t speak French here, nor do they want to speak anything but Dutch. Asking for anything in English gets a derisive snort. Which again seems rather French to me…

One of the highlights of my aimless rambling was stumbling upon yet another red light district. Everyone knows of Amsterdam’s famous streets with girls behind windows with red light pouring out into the evening sky. However, lesser known is that Antwerp also has a small zone where prostitution is tolerated… and evidently it’s open all hours. When I walked through it was ten o’clock in the morning and things were very different from Amsterdam’s red light district on a busy summer’s evening. In Amsterdam, beautiful young women tapped gently to get the attention of men passing by; in Antwerp, gigantic fat old women pounded on the glass and pointed at big red signs saying, “ANAL 50% DISCOUNT.” I suppose there’s no call for subtlety in the cut-throat world of mid-morning discount prostitution.

After yet more walking around and admiring the old buildings and exploring some beautiful parks, I settled at table outside a café on the edge of a bustling little square and nursed a few beers as the world passed by. Belgium is one of the world’s beer capitals and even the cheapest thing on the menu – a De Koninck – made for an excellent afternoon beverage… or two. The menus can be overwhelming, but it’s comforting to realize that you’re unlikely to go too far wrong. These people have been making beer for millennia and they’re pretty much perfected it.

I staggered home in the early evening not from drunkenness but from pain in my feet. I’d racked up about twenty kilometers in my wanderings, and my feet were suffering badly.

Antwerp’s Museums

During my only full day in Antwerp, I mostly walked about and drank in the scenery (and the beers, of course). However, the next day my bus out of Antwerp didn’t leave until nine in the evening, and so I essentially had another full day to explore. The thought of walking much more made my poor feet ache, so I planned a day of museums and beers.

First off, I hefted my giant rucksack to the train station and stored it in a locker under the main stairs for €4.5, which seemed an exorbitant fee, yet one I was more than happy to pay give the choice between that and dragging a 15kg bag around for the next nine hours. Then I set out for the Rubenshuis – a house that once belonged to the great artist, Peter Paul Rubens. I’d anticipated paying an entrance fee of some kind, but apparently on the final Wednesday of each month, entrance is free!

The Rubenshuis was designed by Rubens himself, and today is set up as a museum of sorts. There aren’t actually that many of Rubens’ own paintings there, but rather a collection of paintings he owned by other artists. There was an abundance of information in English and the house itself was fantastically preserved, making for a wonderful excursion. Afterwards, I sat out in the garden for a while as people came and went, and admired the beautiful old building that hardly seemed it was in the middle of a big city.

Next, I found what was billed in certain travel guides as a “Brueghel Museum,” but which was actually another old house filled with art – this time the collection once owned by Mayer van den Bergh. There were several Brueghels there, which I suppose is why it was listed as a Brueghel museum, even though it clearly wasn’t. Still, it was another interesting old building with different styles of paintings hanging on its walls. Yet again it was free, although this time I was glad I didn’t have to pay as I left pretty quickly. There wasn’t much information in English and the paintings weren’t particularly interesting.

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Flixbus to Bratislava

After my museum visits, my feet were once again in agony and I sought out a pub near the Cathedral of Our Lady, where I sampled the local beers and listened to an old man play on an accordion. After all the walking and museums, this was the highlight of my Antwerp trip. Sitting there and watching people stop by to sing with the accordionist, under the imposing figure of that giant spire, was exactly what I wanted from my Belgian trip, even if I hadn’t known it until then.

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(Here’s a video, shot on my iPhone:)

Eventually, it was time to go. I hobbled across the city to the train station to retrieve my bag, and then waited for the Flixbus.

Then I waited some more.

And some more.

And longer.

The Flixbus showed up 35 minutes late, which wouldn’t be a big deal at all if there were any way to let its customers know. However, at a random bus stop, you have no idea whether the bus will show or not, or – what’s worse – that perhaps you are in the wrong place and the bus already arrived somewhere else.

Eventually, I got on board and tried to make myself comfortable. It was, however, to be a difficult journey. I travelled through Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Austria, and into Slovakia, where my final destination was Bratislava. It was cheap, yes, but not the pleasant trip I’d hoped for. The wifi didn’t work, the seat was uncomfortable, and the bus only stopped for passengers to rest three times. I would highly recommend Flixbus for short trips of up to five hours, but for a twenty-two hour journey it’s a really, really bad choice.

Oh well… travel is nothing if not an adventure, and I did get to watch the green fields and even the stunning slopes of the Alps go by as we made our slow way towards the next destination, Bratislava.

Posted in travel

A Weekend in Amsterdam

I recently spent two days exploring Amsterdam on foot, clocking up nearly fifty kilometers as I wandered the ancient cobbled streets that line the canals which make up this odd and beautiful city. Staying at the ClinkNOORD Hostel, I circumambulated much of the city (a good test for my new Brasher hiking boots, purchased just before leaving Scotland) taking in the atmosphere, architecture, and artwork – or as much as I could fit in.

 

Amsterdam on Foot

Although Amsterdam is a massive city, most of what you want to see as a tourist is, technically speaking, in walking distance. Granted, most people probably wouldn’t want to walk twenty kilometers in a day, but you still don’t have to do as much as that to get around if you plan carefully. The narrow streets can be disorienting, though, and it’s easy to tread more ground than anticipated.

When I first arrived, I went out for a walk just as darkness was beginning to fall. Amsterdam is, of course, famous for its nightlife. I walked around rather aimlessly, not having a map at this point, and found in equal measure quiet streets, sophisticated restaurants and cafes, lively bars full of drunk Brits, and, of course, the city’s famed (or infamous) red light district.

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A crowded red light district.

In Amsterdam, prostitution is perfectly legal, and here you will find women in their underwear standing behind windows, attempting to get the attention of the men who pass by. This is all staggeringly out in the open. Evidently, the red light district is not some seedy out-of-the-way location that creepy guys look for, but rather it’s right in the heart of the city, among the bars and restaurants and tourist sights. Sometimes it’s just one single window in the middle of an otherwise “normal” street.

In addition, Amsterdam is also known for its legal marijuana, dispensed at “coffeeshops” (I don’t imagine they sell much coffee) around the city. However, although the tourist books say it’s only to be smoked in these designated areas, in fact people smoke pot everywhere. On every street, the pungent odor drifts in the breeze, and the police walk around without any interest in it.

The following morning, I set out for a much longer walk and attempted to see Amsterdam by daylight. It certainly did have a different character with the red lights turned off, although people still walked happily about the streets smoking joints and the coffeeshops appeared to be among the first businesses open. In the soft morning light, the canals looked much more beautiful, and I was able to appreciate the ornate old buildings that lined the cobbled streets. People flew about on bicycles, making walking sometimes treacherous. A few times it would rain suddenly for five minutes and then just stop, making the cobbled streets slippery.

Over the next two days I continued my more or less aimless walking, zig-zagging back and forth between the little streets, stopping in bookstores and museums, exploring parks and admiring statues, and people-watching from outside a few beers when I got tired and stopped for beers. A particular highlight was Vondelpark, a huge sprawling area of greenery where people engaged in a vast array of sports and a few fascinating birds flew around the trees.

Rijksmuseum

My main objective in visiting Amsterdam was to take in some art. Back in China, I’d been working on a book about the travels of Allen Ginsberg, and during his trips through Europe he obsessively visited museums and art galleries, taking in the great works of art. Naturally, he visited Amsterdam and saw works by Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and Vermeer. Reading his vivid descriptions and seeing how inspirational these works were on him as a person and an artist, I felt eager to do some museum-hopping.

I’d read online about a few passes one can buy before visiting Amsterdam to get discounts and possibly skip queues, but when I actually looked into it, it didn’t seem worthwhile. The two museums I really wanted to visit were €17 each and a pass was about €60-80. I didn’t think I’d realistically have time to see enough to make it worthwhile. (I had wanted to see the Banksy/Dali exhibit at the Moco gallery, but the queue was too long.)

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Rijksmuseum.

So on the Saturday (my first full day), I bought a ticket for the Rijksmuseum and ventured inside to explore. The museum is housed in a beautiful building in the “museum quarter” of Amsterdam, and is very well presented, although somewhat complex in its layout. It is divided into countless rooms covering different artists or movements over the history of Dutch art. The centerpiece, of sorts, is Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch.” This giant painting by arguably the country’s greatest artist even has its own special hall, allowing for adequate views of the immense masterpiece.

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Rembrandt’s “Night Watch”

The volume of art in the Rijksmuseum is overwhelming and after nearly five hours I left, exhausted. I hadn’t seen everything – or if I had, I hadn’t given it all the time it deserved – but I felt satisfied that I had engaged with a thousand years of Dutch history through its staggering artwork.

Van Gogh Museum

The next day I returned to the museum quarter to visit the Van Gogh Museum. At the Rijksmuseum I had seen at least one Van Gogh, but there was a whole museum next door devoted perhaps the world’s most famous painter.

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Ok, actually this was in the Rijksmuseum…

Much smaller than the Rijksmuseum, it only took me two hours to walk around the Van Gogh Museum and appreciate what there was to see. It was amazing to visit the original works of which I’d seen so many prints during my life, and to learn about his tragic life. However, I was far more taken with the paintings I saw during the previous day.

Perhaps the problem was here that the museum was also just too crowded. While a huge queue awaiting staggered entrance times kept it under control, it was just too hard to appreciate the art with so many people standing around. The Rijksmuseum had been big enough to accommodate its visitors, but the Van Gogh Museum got claustrophobic quickly, and after I’d seen everything, I didn’t feel like going back to take a second look.

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ClinkNOORD Hostel

During my short visit in Amsterdam, I stayed at the ClinkNOORD Hostel. On the surface, its location appears quite unfortunate, as one has to take a ferry from Amsterdam Centraal to get there. However, the ferry runs 24/7 and is completely free, so it was not a problem. Besides, being away from the chaos of the town center is no bad thing.

I’ve been staying in hostels for many years, but this was the biggest I’ve ever seen. It’s set in a giant laboratory once owned by the Shell company, but turned over and renovated into a surprisingly classy hostel experience with what seems like a million rooms.

The place was immaculately clean, with a decent bar, 24/7 reception, super-fast WiFi all over the place, and several USB chargers in the dorms in case you forgot your adaptor. How handy is that? It can get a bit noisy at night, of course, being a big and lively hostel, but they have free ear plugs at reception.

Flixbus

On Monday morning, when it came time to leave Amsterdam, I headed for Amsterdam Sloterdijk, from where I took a Flixbus to my next destination, Antwerpt, in Belgium.

Flixbus is a relatively new transportation company offering cheap bus rides around Europe. I’d stumbled upon them by chance online last week while planning out my trip and was seriously impressed by the prices. My journey from Amsterdam was just €8, and a trip I’ll take in a few days to Bratislava – a 20+ hour bus ride – only cost me €50. What a deal!

I was not sure what to expect, but when I got to the bus depot – thoroughly soaked after a long walk in the rain – I found a line of very new green buses with friendly drivers, comfortable seats, USB chargers, reasonable WiFi, and air conditioning. Travelling Europe just got a lot more affordable.