Archives for posts with tag: travel

Pyongyang’s Pizza Connection

The Dear Leader Kim Jong Il apparently is so fond of pizza that he decided, in his vast magnanimity, to ensure that the North Korean populace could also enjoy the privilege of having a pizza while in Pyongyang. He thus provided for the establishment of not one but two pizza restaurants in Pyongyang. We visited one and we learned that once a year two Italian chefs are flown in for refresher training for the staff. The restaurant we visited had a totally legitimate Italian feel with limoncello bottles for sale at 17 US$ and a margherita around 5 US$. I worked out that in comparison to the purchasing power of local salaries, a pizza and a beer cost the equivalent of 30 or 40 US$ in terms of European prices, so pizza is pretty much a luxury (shocker for a country with chronic food shortages), more or less like a sushi dinner in a fancy place is in Europe.

One of the guides asked about my opinion about the unfolding fiscal melt-down in Italy. I had caught the news on the BBC the night before so I explained the various measures that my beloved government has been taking to avert fiscal implosion. Leaving aside the slightly disconcerting fact that news of the Italian debt crisis had reached North Korea basically in real time, I will never forget the worried looks of our guide who, while living in the second happiest country in the world (according to Korean sources), seemed genuinely preoccupied with the prosperity of Italy and genuinely wished my country a speedy recovery from insolvency.

Revolutionary Art

Out of body experience. Feat. The Great Leader, Comrade Kim Il Sung
As instructed by our travel company, we wore our best clothes for the visit to the Mausoleum where the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung lies in state in Pyongyang. The dress code requires a shirt, tie and smart-ish shoes for the gents and a long skirts for the ladies. I had to purchase a shirt in China before leaving for the DPRK, which has now become my Kim Il Sung shirt. We were slightly disappointed to find out that the rigid rules did not seem to apply to two Russian tourists who showed up in their blue batik shirts and sandals. The horror, the horror. When we pointed out the fashion faux pas, our guide shrugged and mumbled something along the lines of ‘Russians, they are like that’.

You leave cameras and all other belongings at the cloak room of the mausoleum, before walking the one kilometre that separates you from the glass coffin of the Father of Our Nation, the Great Leader Kim Il Sung. Like tin soldiers we march with other visitors, mostly Koreans brought in by their collective farms and factories to pay tribute to the Father of Our Nation, the Great Leader, Comrade Kim il Sung. We enter a big room with a marble (or is it plaster?) larger-than-life statue of the Great Leader, Sun and Father of Our Nation, Comrade Kim Il Sung against a pink and sky-blue background (recreating sunset, we gathered). The faux-plaster/faux-marble statue is lit with a light coming from above and a celestial sound is spat out by the speakers in the room. As told, we march in groups of four, get to a line marked on the floor, where we bow in front of the statue of the Great Leader etc. etc. Kim Il Sung. Thus we proceeded towards the Hall of Lamentation, where we are handed Sony MP3 players (made by the Imperialist Swines in Japan) whereby we can hear the mourning sounds (translated in English) of crowds of Korean lamenting the death of the Leader Maximo. The Koreans are luckier than us because they get a live rendition of the sorrows of the Korean people, courtesy of one of the guides of the mausoleum with indefatigable performance skills (As an aside, imagine having a business card that reads “So and So, Live Performer at the Hall of Lamentations of the Kim Il Sung Mausoleum. Just a thought for your next high school reunion). We are then showed a big collection of honours and awards received by Our Great Leader Father of the … you get the idea Kim Il Sung. These include, inter alia, certificates of honorary citizenships from Italy, France, Belgium and various other Western nations. We learn that those have been bestowed in acknowledgment of the Great Leader’s contribution to modern tought through his Juche idea (in case you haven’t yet, you can educate yourself about Juche here).

Finally we reach the Sancta Sanctorum of the Mausoleum. We pass a door that is like a mini car wash booth, where the soles of our shoes are brushed and we are sprayed some air (containing disinfectant? or perhaps it is communist holy water from Leningrad?). Ahead of us, lies the mummified body of Our Great Leader, perfectly preserved in a glass coffin. We march in rows of four, like little toy soldiers, in what is a spectacle of choreographed mourning. After forty minutes of interminable corridors, halls of lamentations, celestial visions of plaster statues the propaganda machine starts to work its magic. As we bow four times (one time for each of the sides of the coffin), I am only one step away from thinking to myself  “Thank you Great Leader, Comrade Kim Il Sung, Sun of Our Nation. Thank you for being the  Liberator and Father of the Second-Happiest Country in the World. Our Glorious Nation. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”

Outside the Kim Il Sung Mausoleum, Pyongyang

Customs of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea

Upon going back to my seat after lunch on the Pyongyang-Beijing train I found that my fellow travellers had indulged in a weird sort of packed lunch which included clams, bananas and pumpkin seeds. Pretending to find the crustacean lunch explosion and the remains thereof absolutely in tune with my expectations of what a Chinese packed lunch on a train might entail, I sat on my seat while filling the exit card and the custom declaration form of the DPRK.

I prepared myself for the two hours it would take to complete formalities. First an officer came, took all of our passports and walked away. As he left, I realised that my passport was now entrusted in the tender loving care of Korean authorities, much like it had been for most of my time in Korea. I had become again member of the international brotherhood and sisterhood of people whose passports are taken away from them and who are thus at the mercy of their sponsors or guardians such as minors and domestic workers in Saudi Arabia.

A second official came and our compartment began the hectic process of luggage inspection that had already caused considerable chaos all over our carriage. The process started shortly after the officer  expressed some mild disgust at the manner with which the lunch leftovers had taken over most of the space on the table where the paperwork would have to take place. Perhaps hoping to get over the painful bit first the officer started with me. I opened both of my bags for the officer to have a look while also fishing out the electronic items I had declared on my form. The officer took my camera and tried to place it in the narrow empty space between the gaping carcasses of clams and the carpet of spat-out pumpkin seeds and banana peals. Then he proceeded to unwrap my phone which had been sealed in a paper envelope, stamped across the seal and wrapped in tape before being entrusted to my guide upon arrival at Pyongyang airport. Upon seeing a keyboard-less mobile not bigger than 5×7 cm the officer made a perplexed face and called a colleague over to show how Sony had managed to produce a Lego toy that can handle internet browsing and international roaming.

After that, the other passengers went through their customs checks. The numerous suitcases of the two Chinese business men were opened while the rest of us watched the process for its sheer entertainment value (incidentally, based on a nationally-representative sample of two people, I have decided that all Chinese traders are messy packers). Everything went smoothly until an undeclared phone was found in one of the bags. Some commotion ensued as the real owner of the suitcase was brought in from the other compartment. A calm exchange ensued via a Chinese passenger who was also fluent in Korean. More officers were summoned and a thorough search of the compartment took place as the mobile phone smuggler was sweating profusely. While I was wondering if we would be regaled with a body cavity search performed live on the train, the officer found some souvenir posters of mine which I was asked to unpack. Those were replicas of propaganda posters that we were told not to parade around customs. A perplexed look later the officer carefully packed the posters away and dished out my camera from the food-ocean and handed it over to a colleague who would go through all my photos to ensure they were all kosher. As the officer went through my holiday artsy fartsy pictures absent-mindedly some kind of solution had been found to the sino-korean mobile phone debacle, although what exactly happened is unclear to me. I noticed that the officer suddenly a 100 Chinese yuan (10 euro) note had appeared inside the pocket of the officer.

Eventually the customs inspection process came to an end and we received our passports back as well. We thus completed the 10 minute journey to  Dandong, China where a life of free mobile phone usage and a bright future of clam lunches awaited us.

Get your vote out. It’s the DEMOCRATIC People’s Republic after all…

For more photos from the DPRK, check my Flickr account

Even a cosmopolitan bullshitter like me had reservations about travelling to China. I have heard horror stories from friends involving compulsive spitting en plein air, generalised abrasiveness and a country-wide latrine situation that would make your knees tremble. So when I decided to make my way from Northern Laos to China’s Yunnan province I prepared myself for a trip to hell, no more no less.

I booked a ticket from Luang Namtha in Laos to Jing Hong in Yunnan and was favourably surprised when instead of a run-down truck with chickens flapping about and their entourage of boisterous peasants we were ushered on a fairly new microbus with three backpacker and a few Laotian and Chinese travellers.

After one hour we were stamped out of Laos and approaching the Chinese border. I was envisaging a couple of buildings and paperwork nightmare but was instead met by a four-lane motorway and a state of the art, two-storey immigration compound that screamed ‘welcome to the third millennium motherfuckers’. You can check the picture below.

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I realised that the Chinese had shamed the Laotians into building something a bit more grandiose than their usual shack-by-the-road-with-Lao-flag border post, hence the stupa-shaped gate on their side (see pics below).

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Being stamped into China was a painless affair. Each counter had a little remote-type thingy whereby you could rate the performance of the immigration officer. And this is when I learnt that  the People’s Republic of China is very much concerned with its customers’ satisfaction. I got only mildly ripped off when changing Laotian kips into yuan, which made me realise that the stars must have aligned in my favour on that day.

And off we went, on a three-hour motorway journey through lush vegetation, surrounded by rice paddies caressing the gentle slopes of Yunnan’s hills.

After my surreal and spooky experience during a three-hour lay over in Guangzhou (Canton) on my way to Saigon, I had very low expectations about Jing Hong: a third-tier city at the edges of the last province of the Chinese empire. I imagined a concrete fest in the midst of China’s capitalist Wild Wild West, a ruthless inferno of smog and cut-throat consumerism. Instead we landed in a sunny town on the Mekong, with manicured lawns, broad avenues with cycling lanes, lined with palm trees and blossoming buganvilleas. It looked like a slice of Californian suburbia had been airlifted to the Middle Kingdom.
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It was then that I realised how much the fear of China pushing the West into economic oblivion was the source of my prejudices. I am pretty ignorant about China so my two days in the country do not give me much of an authority to comment (but I shall nonetheless) and I am sure that there are plenty of places in China that are a concrete jungle of industrial misery, but I had been swallowing this monochrome idea of China as hell on earth fed to us by our governments without thinking. We are sometimes led to see Chinese as threatening hordes of barbarians, a terracotta army of speculators and hoarders of US T-bills, hell-bent on buying out the remaining bits of Western hegemony. The Jing Hongans were instead a friendly and smiley bunch, busy building their way into middle class comfort. If the city had been on the sea, it would have been the kind of place where you take the kids and the mother-in-law for a summer vacation, definitely not the location for a 21st century version of Oliver Twist.

I indulged myself in the city, had lunch, an almond milk tea and an early dinner (constantly eating is the Chinese national sport, I have decided, so when in China…). Before getting on the sleeper bus, I lost myself for a bit in the Burmese Jade market, even bought a couple of souvenirs (yearly contribution to money laundering of the Burmese opium trade: CHECK!).

On the way to Kunming, as I was trying to find a comfortable position on the sleeper bus (I am Western-short/Asian-almost-tall but the seats were designed for Chinese midgets) our bus was pulled over by the police. Chinese police wears camouflage uniforms, helmets and white gloves, which I found a bit surreal. Everyone’s documents were inspected, random pillows and bags inspected, a few passengers were asked to get off. I thought this was standard procedure, but two sleeper buses came and went without going through the same things at us. When all the passengers started getting off and all the luggage was taken out of the bus I stared to get a bit worried. A woman’s bag was opened and searched. It looked like the police had been tipped off about some drug smugglers. In the end we all got back on the bus with no disruption and the whole search took no more than 20 minutes. Of course all of this happened in Chinese so I kept a clueless face during the ordeal, because this is what white people in China do best. A policeman came on board and gave a little speech, of which I understood nothing because I am only fluent in medieval Cantonese and he was speaking Mandarin. The speech ended with xie xie, which Lonely Planet tells me is Mandarin for thank you. The Chinese Public Security bureau must also care a lot about customer satisfaction, I concluded.

If there is one thing that I have learnt in the past ten years cavorting with the homosexuals, is that gay bars sort of look the same everywhere. Like entering a Mark and Spencer’s department store anywhere in the world, you can have some confidence about what you will find and what you won’t. Cheap-ish polyester and cotton clothes and huge snack selection shall be waiting for you regardless of whether you are in Milton Keynes or Kuala Lumpor (although I hope for you, dear reader, that you are not in Milton Keynes).

Stepping into a gay bar you can expect decent music (usually either 70s and 80s vintage disco or more contemporary pop beats, which nowadays will alas involve some Lady Gaga crap). Patrons will most likely fall in the either good, the beautiful and the bad type; there will be people that realised they were in a gay bar only after having been seated (and its corollary of straight men partly flattered by the attention and partly freaked out). Drinks won’t be too expensive, some guy will be wearing a sleeveless t-shirt even though it’s January and around midnight all the single men will turn into post-modern cinderellas waiting for a charming prince to take them home, for nothing is more bitter to a dapper gay man than enduring hours of bad pop music only to end up going home alone.

Save for a pool table (boy have I seen weird stuff in gay clubs, but a pool table??!), I didn’t feel like I was venturing out of my comfort zone. Weird if you consider that Luang Prabang is yes the tourist capital of Northern Laos, but is also in a place that until 1990 was linked with the outside world by unpaved roads. It was the only bar in Luang Prabang where there were as many locals as foreigners, maybe because the Lao customers were not expected to get a drink but could just hang out in a gay friendly space.

The owner, a very friendly Laotian in his 20s, explained to me that he had left his business in Vientiane to move to Luang Prabang because he liked the vibe. He said he expects to open a wine bar on the main street, a bar that would be ‘same same but spicier’. I looked around: a clingy couple holding hands and sighing at one table, a girl kicking everyone’s ass at the pool table and wondered how such a welcoming space could exist in a town of 26000 inhabitants, in one of the poorest Asian countries (Laos is supposed to graduate from low- to middle-income country by 2020, insh’allah). Laos simply defies all explanations I have for its tolerant attitude towards homosexuals. You tend to associate the gay rights movement with affluence (but some countries that are twice as rich as Laos are not nearly half as open), religion ( nearby China shares the same religion and even the same one-party communist system, but it is not a champion of gay rights), political pluralism (did I mention that Laos is a one-party state?) or social fabric (Laos is a multi ethnic society where ethnic affiliations can be important). Also, Laos is not a freewheeling place on the sexual side of things: sexual relations between a foreigner and a Lao can only happen through marriage and public display of affection is frowned upon. Laos does not seen to have as bad a prostitution problem as nearby Vietnam, Cambodia or Thailand (and trust me, as a single white male travelling solo you don’t have to do much effort to find some ‘part-time companion’).

I cannot claim that my short visit allows me to speculate as to why Laos society is so accepting and where the exceptionalism comes from. I can only wish that more sleepy provincial towns (in developed and developing countries alike) had more places like the bar I went to in Luang Prabang.

The night bus ride from Vientiane, the capital of Laos to Luang Prabang was supposed to take eleven hours. It took seventeen. The distance is approximately 400 km.
The rainy season had caused landslides and various other shenanigans while also coating some parts of the road (the main road leading to the North of the country) with thick red mud.
Around 4 am we stopped because a truck was stuck in the mud and it could not be unstuck until there would be more sunlight.
Eventually we got going again, climbing steep and curvy roads, following the course of rivers, driving through hills with patches of vegetation missing, a sort of ecological alopecia induced by the illegal logging that feeds into the Chinese and Vietnamese manufacturing industry, for Laos is so poor it does not really have any industry.
As I was thinking back at my two days in Vientiane, catching up with a friend and soaking in the city’s sleepiness and provincial bonhomie, our bus eased its way on a road that had cracked up into half and seen an entire lane washed into the river. After barely pushing through and seeing the murky waters opening their arms to us, we arrived at a rest stop.
Some of the Laotian passengers went for their noodle soup break and I bought some sliced pineapple. I noticed a sign advertising clean toilets (with western seats!) and was waved in by this old woman who perhaps had the sharpest business acumen in a 50 km radius and managed to spot a great business opportunity while leaving basically in the middle of nowhere. I thought that if she hadn’t been born in a little village, but somewhere suburban in the West she would have probably graduated top of her MBA class.
Upon exiting the toilet (with western seat!) I looked to my left and saw the most breathtaking landscape opening up in front of me, something for which the woman could have charged an admission ticket: endless hills, with nothing built on them, soaked in mist and clouds.

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While most of my journey has been of the make-it-up-as-you-go-along type, I occasionally end up signing for a one-day or half day tour to attractions that require a lot of hassle or a car to get to.

So here I was again at 8 am boarding a minibus to Halong bay. The day was off to a weird start: the driver could not locate me at the agreed meeting point (even though he had my Vietnamese phone number) and once he did find me he went ahead and vented out some of his frustration in Vietnamese. I don’t know how you say `you motherfucking idiot` in Vietnamese but if I listened more attentively I would probably do by now. After we dropped off a couple that had mistakenly been picked up by our company (angry remarks were given in English this time) we were briefed by our guide (Mr Mit 1) about the schedule for the day before introducing us to the other guide (Mr Mit 2) and the driver (Mr Mit 3). If stereotypes are anything to go by, the contrast between this tour and the one I took to My Son (see previous post) proved the stereotypes about Northern Vietnamese and Southern Vietnamese right. Compared to their freewheeling, smiling countrymen in the South, the Northern Vietnamese are less prone to smiling and can be abrupt (being yelled at by a senior Hanoi citizen in the street for not getting out of the way can feel like being shat on by a dinosaur, based on my experience). Compared to our army general turned Chinese opera actor with his salacious jokes about My Son’s phallic statues (see previous post), our guide to Halong acted like a strict Austrian nanny and spoke with the same enthusiasm of an accountant doing your tax audit. Just like for all stereotypes about people from the North and people from the South of many countries (Italy, the US, France etc.), numerous theories have been formulated about the N vs S Vietnam debate ranging from climatic (colder North) to geographic (north’s proximity with China) to historic (contact and or conflict with foreigners) to political (tighter and more entrenched grip of a certain party).

As I was pondering about these various meaningless theories, we stopped at a rest house for the inevitable pee stop with a drive-through souvenir shopping extension (never seen so much lacquerware in my entire life). Looking at the fellow tourists from our minibus and the six others in the parking lot (all Halong-bound), I also realised that the tourists were also a poorly dressed travelling circus of global stereotypes: the chainsmoking Frenchman, the Sandals&Socks Inc. Vikings, English ladies with skin complexions turned red like ham, hyper-accessorised Singaporian and Hong Kongese men with their handbags etc… Perhaps distancing myself from the stereotype of Italian tourist on the loose (or perhaps not), I was sporting an equally dubious garb of Jesus Christ leather sandals (from Jerusalem, circa 2007) and an electric blue wifebeater and jeans short from my Plastic Fantastic in Hong Kong 2011 summer collection.

After the cathartic rituals of the emptying of the bladder were concluded, off we went towards the promised land of Halong bay, our Vietnamese Shepherd and firm believer in the power of tough love guiding his ill-assorted herd of lost souls of the Lonely Planet towards landscapes of astonishing beauty.

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While in Hoi An I booked a half a day tour to the archaeological town of Mi Son.
So there I was, at 8.30 am on a lime green bus surrounded by equally sleepy tourists in shorts and sandals.
As soon as we left, our guide, Mr Dong, introduced himself with military-like demeanour and detailed the schedule for the day, before conducting a head count of us useless people. So that we would not lose people to other groups visiting the site, we will hencefort be referred to as the tiger group and he would be our self-appointed tiger king, Gen. Dong informed us. He proceeded to explain in a martial voice that Mi Son had been established as a trade empire by Javanese merchants well before Angor Wat was built (so much for all that Khmer swagger, Cambodia).
Once arrived at the site, Gen. Dong briefed us in front of the map, his body language a mix of military demeanour and moves from a Chinese Opera.
He informed us that the site, now a world heritage site, was first vandalised by French explorers that cut the heads off all the Hindu statues so that they could be exhibited at the Louvre and then by the Americans that thought that the proximity of My Son to the Saigon trail meant that the Viet Cong were using the ruins as a base (they weren’t). You can see the hole in the ground caused by one of the bombs in the picture below. Not trying to suggest any comparison, but the only other people that cut off head of statues in the region where the Khmer Rouge and Mao’s cultural revolutionaries. A proof that in terms of idiocy our (in)civilisation can be on par with any other.

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I accidentally booked a seat on the 6 sleeper part of the train, instead of the more tourist friendly 4 sleeper part. It would have not been so much of a problem if it weren’t for the fact that I am claustrophobic and once you lay on the top bed your nose is only 30 cm away from the cieling. As I was contemplating survival strategies for the 17 hour long journey, a boisterous Vietnamese family of 4 arrived.
They were better prepared for their 33 hour journey to Ha Noi, the kids playing on their I phone and portable Play Station, the father on his I Pad and the mother administering a seemingly endless supply of snacks and food.
They were cleary wondering what sort of scam I must have gotten into that sold me over priced second class tickets en lieu of first class. Nonetheless, they were as gracious as only the Vietnamese can be and while we chatted away in broken English, they made sure I partook in the food fest. All of a sudden I remembered long overnight train journeys as a child  with my family in Italy. A continuous supply of rice cakes, spicy dry meat, pickles, cured pork, pop corn, sandwiches, rice porridge, bananas and even wine was offered (I volunteered my cookies).
In the end the journey wasn’t as painful as it could have been, I got the opportunity to spend 17 hours with a boisterous and lovely upper middle class Vietnamese family, got my heart warmed to see their interaction and left with a great memory of the people that are projecting the country head-first into the 21st century.

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I took advantage of a three-hour layover in Bangkok to get a nice shoulder massage. At the cost of 18$ for 50 minutes it is perhaps the best investment I have made during the fiscal year 2011.
I came to realise two things: first Thai masseuses, skinny and tiny as they may be, have more muscle power than a ukrainian weight-lifter or an Egyptian lion-tamer. Secondly, after 50 mins of gracious and uninterrupted chat, I realised that they have the small talk stamina of a New York professional socialite.