Bear Witness

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This was always going to be a tough day, but a necessary one. Every visitor to Cambodia denounces the capital Phnom Penh as a dirty city that has no redeeming features other than the necessity of visiting the two most well known relics of its brutal history: the Killing Fields and the notorious torture prison Tuong Sleng or S21. For what it’s worth, I found the city to be perfectly decent although by no means a wonderful place. There are decent cafes, restaurants and good hostels. Nevertheless, I was really only here for one reason and that was a painful one. Continue reading

Leaping Tiger, Snapping Tourists: On The Fringes Of Tibet

DSCF1807 (Copy)Chinese tourists just love Lijiang. When I arrived you couldn’t move for them and the winding alleyways and narrow lanes clogged with humanity as a result, which is a great shame and a perfect example of the behemoth that is the burgeoning middle class of China. It has been said that more than 50% of China’s entire population is middle class, and they want a holiday! The small city receives 5 million domestic tourists every year, all of them convening in the old town. With me. Continue reading

Panda Eyes in Chengdu

DSCF1695 (Copy)You hear tales of the sleeper trains in China. Jam packed with noisy noodle slurping locals stealing your seat, or in this case, bed. Smoking in the corridors. Spitting in the corridors… Happily this was untrue for me, and the night passed in a quiet, gently rocking style as the train trundled at a leisurely 60 mph to its final destination at Chengdu at a very sensible time of 10am. Cheaper than a hotel! Continue reading

Army In Darkness: Xian And The Terracotta Warriors

DSCF1584 (Copy)With smog so thick in Beijing you could spoon it over yoghurt, I was looking forward to getting out to clearer climes. How naive. Getting the train to the ancient walled city of Xian from Beijing allows you to experience the narrow end of China’s explosive development and how it is embracing technology as quickly as possible. The bullet train is every bit as sleek and clean as its Japanese cousin and is by far the simplest way to get to the central western city of a thousand stone soldiers. Five hours in a comfortable clean train or thirteen hours in a rickety old sleeper berth. It’s not really a choice is it? Continue reading

Five Days In Beijing (Is Not Enough)

DSCF1208 (Copy)The crossing in to China was a painless affair, assisted with beer purchased at the border from the convenient supermarket. A quick look at the shelves and it was clear we were no longer in Kansas. Vacuum packed pickled pig trotter anyone? And that was one of the few items that were identifiable. Many more nondescript but-almost-certainly-some-kind-of-offal lined the shop, and the fruit juices became all the more esoteric. Beer, thankfully, was easy to spot and with nary a crazy fruit or animal organ to be found in the bottle, it was about all I needed to take me to Beijing. Continue reading

Marauding Through Mongolia

DSCF1147 (Copy)With a happy quirk that only Russian bureaucrats can possibly make sense of, I boarded the train to Mongolia to be greeted by three other westerners. It seemed that as the only foreigners on board we were to be quarantined to our own carriage, in what turned out to be the nicest carriage on the train. The décor was bright and mostly new; the air was clear and there was no noise at all. Upon exploring the rest of the train, it was clear that we were given better than the rest with the other carriages being a melange of 70s brown veneer walls, smoky corridors and crowded compartments. What a shame. Continue reading

Russian Ark to Gorky Park

DSCF0913 (Copy)Less an iron curtain and more of a veil these days, nonetheless there are distinct differences to the rest of Europe once you land in what once called itself the USSR (or CCCP if you are being pedantic). Not least of these is the Soviet levels of service that greet you in the (greying, crumbling) airport at St Petersburg. “Hey. You. Look at camera”. I look at the camera. She raps impatiently on the glass to my right. Am I supposed to not look at the camera now? Ah, it seems I am to look at her so she can ascertain I am who I say I am according to my passport photo. I pass muster. I get the stamp, the sound of which echoes around the terminal. “NEXT!” Service with a smile is a phenomenon that did not make it in to the approved government processes once Glasnost took effect. Continue reading

Corrupt Cops and Not Quite Ready To Stop

DSCF0633_1920_1440Pigs. Scum. Filth. Epithets all befitting of the police force in Cartagena. Perhaps in a country still in in the hangover of Escobar’s reign one might expect a touch of corruption amongst the authorities but I must say I was surprised to encounter their immorality quite so in the open. Stop and searches are in effect – Gringos only! – and these are tinted with a great deal of nervousness. Who knows what they might “find” on your person. Any drugs they may “find” on you will lead to an on the spot fine, sometimes for a modest amount, say, £15, but if you are unlucky enough to find yourself at the mercy of the worst of these unpleasant people, you may be marched to an ATM to withdraw whatever you can. I don’t think I need to mention that this cash goes straight in to their pockets. Cartagena is the only place I have been to that the police are more worrisome than the criminals and that they are to be avoided wherever possible. But I am getting ahead of myself. Continue reading