Saturday 30 April 2011

PENGYAN – 30th April 2011

On our last evening in Xi-an we went to the fountain light show. It was much like others I’ve seen at The Bellagio, Las Vegas or the Barcelona Olympics but what must be one of the most underestimated spectaculars of all times is the setting of the event which is in the most magnificent park. We were dropped off at the end of the avenue that leads up to the park and I can honestly say that the Las Vegas strip is tacky compared to this avenue, but I guess that wouldn’t be difficult! Words cannot describe how beautiful it is. Well I guess one overused word CAN describe it – awesome.

And the park is surrounded by interesting little shops. We all said “how come we’ve never been here before”. It would have been much nicer than walking on the city wall in the heat of the day. And the icing on the cake is that there are American food outlets there too, like Baskin Robins, Pizza Hut, Subway, etc. We could have had a brilliant day wandering through this area shopping and eating fast food! Oh well, next time.

Another thing worth mentioning about Xi’an is the traffic. It’s horrendous, much like Beijing, but in Beijing they do at least obey traffic lights. In Xi’an they totally ignore them! It’s quite frightening really. They are lunatics. Our guide Ann ominously told us “next year this will change”! What did she mean I wonder? Will the bad drivers be subject to “criticism” and put to death just as in the days of the Cultural Revolution?

This morning we reluctantly said goodbye to Xi-an to take the 7 hour drive to Pengyang. Our Guide whiled away the time by telling us more about the Cultural Revolution. It lasted from 1966 to 1978 and was Chairman Mau’s dream of handing power over to the “workers”. Anyone who had been successful, either commercially, intellectually or, even worse, was a landlord, was considered to be an enemy of the state. Gary’s father had been a factory owner.

Gary and his family were considered to be a second class citizens his father had owned a factory. Pre revolution he had been popular but post revolution none of his classmates would play or socialise with him. He said the education system virtually collapsed because to show intellect was to become an outcast. The students that completely failed were the ones who were praised. It wasn’t until his father eventually found work as a manual labourer on a very poor wage that they were accepted back into society again.

He said it was Mau’s greatest mistake. He had been greatly influenced by his strange wife and her mad ideas. The social experiment was eventually deemed to have been a spectacular failure. It took years to overcome all the harm it caused.
One way to improve yourself in those days was to join the Army because if you served 3 years without pay you were guaranteed a good job with the government at the end of this term and you could join the communist party which was a sure way of gaining promotion. Unfortunately, because of Gary’s background he was rejected for Army service but managed to acquire a position as a language student. He then became a victim of the “criticism” as it was called because he was reported to the Red Guard for listening to foreign radio stations. His claims that his only reason for doing this was to help improve his English. By this time getting toward the end of the Cultural Revolution but if it had been a few years earlier he would have been imprisoned for this offence. As it was he was subjected to the “criticism” and excluded from the communist party, the result of which was that any future promotion was blocked.

He then went to work as a teacher but the children were completely disruptive because of the failure of education and he found it difficult to control them. Eventually he resigned and managed to get a job as a travel guide which he does to this day. It’s a job ideally suited to him and he loves it. He said that the present government is good, although, as a dictatorship, it has its problems.

Again, we were full of trepidation about moving to new accommodation because we had had such bad experiences in Eastern Europe and Russia. But we needn’t have worried. Our new accommodation was a beautifully preserved 400 year old wooden courtyard building in the middle of town. “Town” is small and medieval, very busy and very “Chinese”. We were happy.

Wednesday 27 April 2011

Beijing, China. 25th - 27th April

We were met off of the train in the early afternoon by a very personable guide who will stay with us during our visit to China. He is Chinese and introduced himself as Gary! On the bus to the hotel (which, incidentally, is brand new) he apologised that we would not be staying at best hotel, but that it was in the best location, just off of Tian’an men Square. His opinion was that we weren’t in China to stay in the best hotels, but to see the best things! My heart sank. This sounded like the pre-amble to us staying in another crumbling, sub-standard, dirty hostel!

On the way to the hotel we passed Tian-an Square. Gary asked us what we knew of the “incident” there. He said unfortunately a “few” people had died but the student standing in front of the tank had not been one of them. No-one knew what had happened to him. He assumed that he now lived in another country under another name!
Imagine our delight when we pulled into the parking area of a very modern looking hotel. But we have been fooled like this before. The one we stayed in in Novgorod had a beautiful reception area, great location, but was basically a hovel. However, this hotel was great. Good en-suite rooms, wonderful customer service, first class restaurant facilities and, above all, it was clean.

During our stay in China most of our meals are included and on the first night Gary took us to a local restaurant and we had what I can only describe as a Chinese feast. It was fantastic.

On Tuesday we had an all day tour of The Temple of Heaven, Tian’an men Square, The Forbidden City, buffet lunch and then a tour of the old city and Hutongs (back streets) by rickshaw. We were also taken into a typical Hutong dwelling which was several hundred years old and occupied by three generations of the same family. Housing like this that was pulled down to build new roads for the Beijing Olympics and one of our group asked if there was a danger of this house being pulled down too. Our host Mr ???? shrugged. He didn’t know.

Gary explained that if it was pulled down he would be offered enough money to buy another house further out of the city or a subsidised flat in the same area. He said the same had happened to him.

He had chosen the subsidised purchase at £28,000, which in 3 years has risen in value to £300,000. But, as he said, where would I go? I have lived here all my life.
Being hosted by Mr Wa (at least I think that’s his name) in his courtyard Hutong shack home shared with his family alongside a multitude of cats, birds and fish was a really bizarre situation. His entrepreneurial spirit had devised a way to make a few bucks for his family by showing us how they live.

Here was this neat, angelic little man with dyed hair maybe in his 60’s, talking to a bunch of foreigners in his sparsely furnished, dusty home with absolutely no amenities whatsoever, about the benefits of feng shui! Mad. Even our nomad hosts in the middle of the Mongolian dessert had flat a screen TV in their Ger. I suspect that the family accommodation that he didn’t show us was probably furnished to perfection and may even be in another building! He smiled all the time and every now and again gave out a contented little sigh – hmmmm! But I’ve noticed that all Chinese seem to do that. Very enigmatic.

There was a silly moment when his son (at least I assumed it was his son) dashed in and gabbered excitedly to his dad. Seemingly Mr Wa had double booked and there was another party waiting to be entertained. Our visit came to an abrupt end, we were politely ushered out and the new group was show into the Mr Wa’s home to be enlightened by this delightful gentleman.

It was a full day, very tiring but what an introduction to China. Last night we went to see a Kung Fo Show at the theatre. Afterwards a few of us had sandwiches and wine in the hotel restaurant and agreed that it had really felt like being on holiday (at last).

Sunday 24 April 2011

Trans-Mongolian Express

Well, here we are again, literally on a slow train to China. Express is obviously a misnomer because this train ain’t going no-where fast! We set off at 7.20 am and 12 hours later arrived at the Mongolian/Chinese border where our wheels were changed! The two customs processes and the complicated procedure to uncouple our carriages, shunt them into a workshop, lift them up on hydraulic lifts, uncouple the wheels and replace took 5 hours. More to the point, 5 hours with no toilet facilities. Apart, that is, on the 15 minute journey in no mans’ land between Mongolia and China when our kindly Chinese attendant opened the loos and allowed us 1 minute each to go about our business. It was hectic but very helpful. He was contravening the regulation which states that the loos should be locked for 20 minutes before until 20 minutes after each station because it flushes straight onto the track.

As a general observation we have so far found that Russia was the most challenging, particularly the people who were unfriendly, unhelpful and neurotic. The Siberians however were far more friendly and the weather, strangely enough, was better too. They claim to have blue skies most of the year and very little precipitation. They don’t like the Russians either. The Mongolians are delightful smiley people who like everyone. 75% of Mongolians are Buddhists and I think the gentleness of their religion shines through into their daily lives. Our only contact with the Chinese so far has been on this train and at the border control and the first impression is that they are also friendly. We shall see.

Saturday 23 April 2011

A quick status update...

Hi all

Ann is currently in China and unable to blog or update the travel pod but once aboard the cruise ship from Beiging she willl add updates from China

Lots of love,

From Ann's little helpers

Saturday 16 April 2011


This is interesting. At the time of writing we had been on the road for 17 days (only and was already becoming clear that we are travelling in an almost "Animal Farm" type bubble. We seem to have created our own form of micro-environment and have thus far split into 4 groups which I will categorize as boys, girls, girls that can't tolerate snoring and the Aussies.

The guys are very straightforward and all inclusively party, enjoying the experience. Some are more sensible than others and it seems that they all look out for each other. They are a great bunch, no hang-ups with, hopefully, great friendships forming.

On the other hand the girls that cannot tolerate snoring and the other girls seem a tad more complex, forming smaller groups. I remember from my own school days and observing my daughters/granddaughters and great-granddaughters that girls form friendships, fall out and move on to other friendships. Will this be the same? Only time will tell.

The Aussies consist of two boys and a girl who have known each other for years and because we have sometimes been allocated 4 bedded rooms another girl has been drawn into their group. They all fit together perfectly, are good fun, straightforward and easy to get along with and very personable. No sweat there then mates!

The interesting thing is that when we boarded the Trans-Sinerian Express on the train all inhibitions disappeared. Within a couple of hours of departure a few bottles of vodka had been consumed and everyone was very merry. I went to lunch with a few of the ladies. We had 3 bottles of champagne (£7.50) and a bottle of white wine. Very refined! Until it was time to pay the bill. Pat T and I had paid our food bill and given Michele (our esteemed leader) our share of the champagne money It deteriorated into chaos.

Basically, everyone was too “exhausted and tired” to make much sense and then a very helpful, but very drunk English speaking Russian who’s father had been an Army officer in the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, decided to help! It then deteriorated even further until the restaurant was finally closed. I had the funniest time.

Then we had a 27 minute stop at one of the stations at which everyone could take a break, stretch their legs and buy food from station vendors etc. Our group got off the train in their t-shirts and flip flops in sub-zero temperatures and hauled each other around on trolleys. The local population was very bemused, called the cops who advised that it was inappropriate to cause local consternation.

And this all on day one! We heard later that the Russians had in fact been soldiers, out of uniform in a restaurant that was out of bounds to them fraternising with foreigners. Rumour has it that they were severely punished. One of them was even beaten. But you can’t believe all you hear.

To read the unfolding journey click on the side bar “Retired and Crazy epic adventure!”

Monday 4 April 2011


Anyone following my travel blog will have read that I was interviewed for Des Spiegel who commissioned a photographer to take some photographs. I was intrigued by the photographer who took far too many pictures for the one shot needed for the article. This is what my collegue and friend Emma read about him:-
Never discount the role of luck in creative endeavours. One evening in October 1988, just after the successful launch of the Independent Magazine in London, I decided to tidy my desk, a more-or-less hopeless task. It was late and I should have been at home, The phone rang and the man at reception told me there was a foreign gentleman downstairs who wanted to show me some photographs. My heart sank; I asked to speak to him. He told me he was from Poland, and I relented, For some reason, I have always been fascinated by Poland, by its turbulent history, by the sardonic edge to its national character, by its films and its graphic design. Krassowski, as I often refer to him, entered. He was taller than me, and I am tall. His moustache was thinner than mine; I thought he looked like a Polish cavalry officer. He produced a small, rather unimpressive-looking portfolio, full of modest-sized prints. The images were all about life in Poland, many of them dark and brooding, others very witty indeed. Every picture I looked at was immediately interesting, revealing, and beyond all that, clearly the product of one consistent creative "eye". I asked this tall talented stranger what he was doing in London. He told me with a straight face that he was painting houses, I was flabbergasted - this was shortly after a film called "Moonlighting" had been shown in London, about a group of illegal Polish immigrants who get smuggled into England to paint houses, I told Krassowski it was ridiculous for him to work as a decorator - he had to take photographs. But my cunning picture editor's reflexes were at work, late though the hour was. Mrs Thatcher, our esteemed Prime Minister at that time, was about to make another of her "royal" visits, to Poland no less, Bingo ! - we could publish a selection of Krassowski's work to give our readers a very personal flavour of the country and its people. Not only that, but the magazine wouldn't have to spend money sending a photographer, because the story had fallen right into our lap. Such are the machinations that dominate the lives of even the best photo editors, Nonchalantly, I asked Krassowski to leave his work with me for a couple of days, and it wasn't difficult to persuade my editor to agree to publish the photographs. Everyone on the magazine was excited by their freshness of vision. But I do recall having some difficulty in tracking down this elusive house painter to tell him the good news, And though in our subsequent eight-year friendship, I don't remember Witek ever expressing anything you might mistake for excitement, I swear I detected a fractional intake of breath when I told him on the phone what he would be paid for the reproduction rights to his work, a substantial sum which amounted to an awful lot of house painting in 1988. We published the photo essay on Poland and it was a great success. I instructed Krassowski to hang up his painting brush and return to his Leica. Soon afterwards, I commissioned him to photograph an area of England called The Fens. This was a sneaky, underhand trick on my part, because this region has a reputation for being flat, dull and populated by suspicious, unfriendly and possibly inbred inhabitants, Most British photographers would laugh derisively if you suggested they do a photo story on The Fens. Witek, of course, knew nothing of this, and I did not propose to enlighten him. I'told him he would have to drive to The Fens because public transport was virtually non-existent, I believe this is the only time I have ever seen him disconcerted, indeed the shadow of a frown crossed his brow. Driving out of London is a nightmare even for Londoners. "Impossible", he stated with finality. I cajoled, he haggled. Eventually, we compromised; he would take the train to Cambridge and then hire a car at the station. A long time afterwards, I discovered that he had only recently passed his driving test in Poland, and had never really driven anywhere at all. I was going to throw him into the deep end.
Of course, the story on The Fens went well. Krassowski produced some excellent photographs, including one of my favourites, a man who grows vegetables in a graveyard. He survived Britain's roads, and as far as I know, the hire car survived him.
When Witek is working, he is serious, intense, probably obsessed. And he knows when he's got a good picture. I've never met anyone who is as hard on himself, and on others, too. "It's just anecdote" or "It's boring" - the ultimate put-down, with a slight curl of his moustached lips. He can afford this arrogance, because when he's on song, his work touches the soul. Looking at his photographs on Britain, I know exactly where I am; I recognise straight away their authenticity, their accuracy. But the power of Krassowski's work is in its simplicity, its distilled impact. He does not seek to place his ego between the viewer and what is viewed, making clever constructions or "significant" interpretations. He observes, pounces and portrays, presenting the altogether familiar in a completely fresh and surprising way. He makes it all look so effortless, the sign of a true artist.
Colin Jacobson
If you aren't following my travel blog and would like to follow the whole story you can either simply click on the link on the side bar of this blog or go to