Bruce Stainsby's Blog: Muttering from the mo

Rivers, lakes and mountains.

November 27th, 2014

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Surrounded by spectacular Karst mountains and spread over two rivers and four lakes, Guilin certainly made an attractive start to our Chinese adventure.

The rivers and lakes are joined by a series of canals. Some of these were started over a thousand years ago during the Han Dynasty.

In fact Guilin has a history dating back to 300 BC.

With so much water it’s not surprising that bridges are a big feature of the cityscape.

Guilin was all but destroyed by the Japanese during WWII and there has a been a lot of reconstruction since then. The bridges were originally planned to be Chinese in design but that was regarded as impractical, as they are too steep for contemporary vehicles.

The answer was to design each bridge as a copy of fa amous bridge around the world. There is Neoclassical Roman, Classical Venetian, San Francisco’s Golden Gate and London Bridge. There’s even a bridge that goes nowhere, that’s not even based on a bridge at all but a replica of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

During the day the space beneath many of the bridges becomes impromptu rehearsal rooms for the local Guilin musicians and singers. The spounds of flute and Chinese opera can often be heard as you walk along the river banks.

The other unique feature of the Guilin landscape is the surrounding Karst mountains. These geological formations are so important that UNESCO have set up a centre for Karst research in Guilin. Building regulations in Guilin prohibits the construction of tall buildings, within the city centre, so as not to interfere with the views of these, all important, tourist attractions.

So important are the karst mountains, and the unique landscape that they create, that heavy industry has been moved out of Guilin. The result is a green, pollution free city that relies on tourism for its survival.

We very quickly discovered from our tour guide John, that due of the sheer size of the population, everything in China is a measured in millions. For example, Catholics make up a tiny minority of all religions, yet there are over 10 million of them. We also discovered that there are four million farmers living in the mountains outside of Guilin.

This is a very rural area and homes are built three stories high to accommodate three generations of one family.

The old people live on the ground floor because they can’t climb the stairs. The middle generation live on level two and their kids live on the top floor. That way they have to go past their parents if they want to leave the house.

John took us on a city tour of Guilin, however it was more a tour of natural sites close to the city than a tour of the city itself. That we did the day and evening before, walking around the lakes, rivers and canals.

Our first stop on the City Tour was the Reed Fute Caves. These are enormous limestone caves, set in a karst mountain, with stalagmites and stalagtites so thin that they are reminiscent of flute reeds. In fact we found that imagination, in interpreting shapes, was part of the game tourist are asked to play in this area. John was constantly asking us to see an owl here or a flower there in the limestone formations.

The cave tour concluded with a rather amazing sound and light show. Projections onto the ceiling of the cave were used to visualise its geological history.

Elephant Trunk Cave was our next stop, again we were asked to imagine an elephant drinking from the river.

This wasn’t hard as the similarity was very obvious.

Our final activity for the day was to climb to the top of Fubo Hill to get a good view of Guilin. It was a good view and a hard climb, especially in the 30 degree heat with 80 percent humidity.

Electric scooters are the main mode of transport for the Guilin locals. They are so quiet that you can’t hear them coming, so we very quickly learnt that traffic drives on the right in China. Well that’s the plan, most of the time they drive on whatever side they like.

The next day we took the Li River Cruise to Yangshuo. The river winds its way through a spectacular karst mountain landscape, the sort depicted on the 20 Yuen note.

The skies were typically hazy but this just added to the atmosphere of the area.

As soon as we arrived in Yangshuo John hired three bikes so we could go cycling around the countryside. Without hesitation we were launched into the middle of the Yangshuo traffic. This was light compared to what we had experienced in Guilin and nothing compared to what we had been told about in Beijing.

We very quickly escaped the the urban area and found ourselves in rural China. We visited an old farmhouse and a lake where the locals go punting on bamboo rafts.

Many of the tourist activites are run by the local farmers. They are the only group who own land. The plots are so small they can’t support the family, so they supplement the farm income with other ventures.

After two hours in 30 degree heat we were exhausted – and thirsty. We found a quiet bar that served cold beer and rested our tired legs and numb bums.

In the evening we were taken to see a local performance. ‘Impressions of Sanjie Liu’ is a spectacular open air live show, set against the backdrop of the Li River and surrounding kasrst mountains.

Six hundred local children and farmers perform on this picturesque outdoor stage. It’s reminiscent of an Olympic games opening ceremony. This isn’t surprising considering the director of this production also created the opening extravaganza for the Beijing games.

Thus spake Zarathustra.

November 19th, 2014

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Zarathustra, or Zoroaster, whether real or mythical, was the founder of the faith that preceded Islam in Central Asia and Iran.

He possibly lived sometime between 1000 BC and 1500 BC but no one really knows.

Zoroastrianism was the first faith to propose the concept of an invisible, omnipotent god.

It is also known as a fire worshipping faith, as the followers were asked to pray towards the direction of light.

Fire was a light that they could control, more than the sun or moon, so their temples always contained continually burning fires.

We have seen many examples of Zoroastrianism throughout our travels in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran and we have heard many interesting ideas about its origins.

This faith is still practiced covertly in Iran and more openly in India.

Many Zoroastrian temples and buildings are adorned with a base-relief carving of a winged figure known as Fravashi or Guardian Spirit. He was regarded as the spirit who reached their deity Ahura Mazda.

Zoroastrianism is also known as Mazdaism and as Magism from the name of their ancient priests, the Magi.

The Three Wise Men were thought to be Zoroastrian and to come from Kashan, south of Tehran.

Zoroastrianism is said to have influenced Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

I find it amazing that all these religions appear to be at odds with each other, yet they have so much in common.

A land of shopkeepers.

November 13th, 2014

A shopkeeper in Buhara

Uzbekistan and to a greater extent, all the former Soviet states along the Silk Road have a huge unemployment problem.

After the breakup of the USSR in 1990 the fabric of the socialist system started to disintegrate. The one thing the Socialists did was provide employment. The work may have been hard, mundane and poorly paid but it was work and it did put plov on the table.

Many of the indigenous inhabitants were nomads, who had been encouraged to come into the cities to work in the Russian and then Soviet factories. Once the factories closed they had no way of earning an income. They were untrained, all but illiterate and no longer had land or stock.

They turned to small business.

Many of the markets we visited are the main supplier of goods to these small family owned businesses.

If you have a table, a chair and something to sell you are in business. You don’t even need a table, as we saw one chap selling bottles of soft drink from a ground floor window.

Another enterprising woman had set her stall up, on one side of a pedestrian crossing, just across the road from a supermarket. She was selling cigarettes and her customers were those who had forgotten to buy their fags when they were shopping for groceries.

In Bukhara there’s a chap who rides the streets with a bike load of bread. He doesn’t make his money from selling the bread but from tourists who pay to take his photo.

On all the main roads leading in and out of cities and towns, vendors line the way. Close to the towns are the main markets with well presented stalls. The further you move out, the more you find the opportunists selling a lesser quality product at a cheaper price.

Then you have the black market money changers, buying foreign currency at a far better rate than you can get in the banks. Their profit comes from on-selling Dollars and Euros to the locals. They prefer to have their savings in a currency that’s not wildly fluctuating like their own.

You also have the Gypsies who make their living by holding their hand out. One of the pillars of Islam is giving to the poor, so they are always assured of a handout.

It was once said that Britain was a land of shopkeepers, I think that mantle has now move to Central Asia.

The tastes of Central Asia.

October 30th, 2014

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The food in this part of the world is unique, not just the recipes but also the ingredients.

The Silk Road was the melting pot of eastern and western cultures so it’s only to be expected that their cuisines also amalgamated to create something distinctive.

Lagma, a dish of noodles and meat, really begs the question as to where Spaghetti Bolognese came from and did pasta come from the east or west?

We ate dumplings that looked more like ravioli and Plov that’t somewhere between fried rice and Risotto.

The vegetables, herbs and spices combine to reward the palate in a way that I have not experienced before.

I am sure that this comes down to the fact that most of the food here, especially in the country areas, is unspoiled by herbicides, pesticides and other man made interventions.

We have been to countless markets and been overwhelmed by the aromas of the spice stalls and the faultless fruits and vegetables.

This perfect storm of taste and aesthetics results in meals that are both simple and remarkable in their delivery.

Their salads have been influenced by Chinese, Korean, Russian and European cuisines, yet they are nothing like you would find in Shanghai, Seoul, Moscow or Madrid.

The tomatoes are deep red and so full of flavor that all you need is a touch of salt and a drop of oil to create a mouth watering delight.

We were told by our guide in Khiva that it’s due to the high salt content of the soil that the Uzbek tomatoes are so sweet and flavorsome.

The herbs come fresh from the market, where they are expertly blended by the stall holders to your exact requirements.

Fruits, both fresh and dried, are in abundance.

Sultanas, apricots, raisins, melons, plums, figs, dates, pomegranates and berries are piled high in the market stalls. The vendors are very happy for you to try whatever you like and rarely pressure you to buy.

We were offered walnuts straight from the tree and strawberries fresh from the field.

The delightful result of this bountiful harvest ends up in the local restaurants, so you don’t just get to see and smell it in the markets, you get to taste it on your plate.

A fly on the wall.

October 27th, 2014

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We are tourists and no matter how hard we try to integrate into a new culture or country we are still sitting in the audience – we are never on the stage.

We were in Uzbekistan for sixteen days and had been invited to at least five weddings.

Our guide in Samarkand told us that it was common for foreigners to be invited to join the celebrations.

It’s easy to understand why, as you are treated like a celebrity, wherever you go. This isn’t because you are, it’s just that the Uzbeks want to make you feel welcome.

Weddings play an enormous part in social life and are grand affairs. A small one might have 300 guests but it’s not uncommon to have more than a thousand. This is a huge expense, for all concerned, yet there is no hesitation in inviting a few more, especially if they’re Westerners.

Groups of school and university age kids want to be photographed with you and also want to take your snap.

The same groups are just as happy to spend time practicing their English.

Even when you approach older citizens they rarely refuse the opportunity to have their photo taken.

We can only sit on the sidelines and enjoy the view, but what a great and entertaining view it is.

On our last night in Samarkand we went to one of their best restaurants. This wasn’t full of tour groups but packed with locals, determined to have a great night out.

One of the by-products of the Russian, Soviet eras was the introduction of alcohol into a predominately Muslim society. On the whole they choose moderation over excessiveness, unlike their former colonial masters. The result is good humoured fun.

The venue was a huge palace with a large ground floor area full of party goers. The band was loud and the atmosphere vibrant.

There were no seats on the main floor so we went up to the first floor, where there were small rooms on a surrounding balcony.

The waiter thought that we wanted peace and quiet and insisted on shutting the door.

We opened the doors and had a wonderful Dress Circle view of the spectacle below.

At the end of the night we returned to our hotel and the locals went home.

The show was over for us but for the people of Samarkand, it was just another Friday night.

Adventurers not tourists.

October 20th, 2014

Alone but not lonely

In Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan we met two travellers who proved to me just how easily we do our touring.

One was at the Ala-Archa Gorge. He was a Spaniard, from Alicante, who was cycling, yes riding a bicycle, from South East Asia to Spain, via the Silk Road.

He had set up his tent and was settling down for the night, with a bottle of water and some food.

The temperature was dropping and we were heading back to our warm car that was taking us back to our warm hotel, where we would be able to get a cold beer.

We must have looked worried, because as we walked away he called after us:

“I am alone but I’m not lonely.”

The other was a Brit, who had just ridden a motorcycle from Bergen in Norway to Osh in Kyrgyzstan.

We met him at dinner and he was celebrating having a comfortable bed, a good meal and a cold beer.

Something we take for granted most nights.

He had left his bike in Osh with the intent of returning next year to continue his travels.

I am absolutely humbled by their spirit.

They are adventurers, we are just tourists.

Our trip so far.

October 12th, 2014

I have written 14 blogs and taken over 3,000 snaps, but not been able to publish a thing.

The internet has been so poor in Hong Kong, Guilin, Chongqing, Hangzhou, Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Lanzhou, Jiayuguan, Yangshuo, Turpan, Urumqi, Almaty, Bishkek, Cholpon-Ata, Arslanbob, Osh, Fergana and now Tashkent, that I will have to resort to this map, from iPhoto, showing where we have been.

Hopefully we will get a good connection soon and I can start to post for real.

Our trip so far

You have to start somewhere.

September 29th, 2014

Our next big adventure is underway and the starting point was Hong Kong. After being on the road for over eight weeks, I now have enough bandwidth to publish a post, with photos.

After the hectic activity of packing our Melbourne life away, we needed a quiet start to what we hope will be six to nine months on the road.

The Big Buddha was the only thing we had planned for our one day in Honkers.

We took the train from near our hotel in Kowloon to Tung Chung, then the Ngong Ping Cable Car to  Ngong Ping Village.

The village is more a shopping mall than a cultural attraction with ‘opportunities to buy’ at every turn.

The central attraction is the Tian Tan Buddha or Big Buddha that was constructed in 1993. It is indeed big, standing 34 meters high and weighing 250 metric tonnes. It dominates the skyline on Lantau Island.

The cable car was a unique experience, as we opted to take the ‘Crystal’ cabins. These have glass bottoms, so you get an amazing view, both looking out and down, as you wend your way over the 5.7km journey from the Tung Chung terminal to the Ngong Ping terminal.

The highlight for me wasn’t the Buddha but the walk along the Wisdom Path, a winding track that runs behind the big fella.

The commercialism of the Ngong Ping Village had overtaken a small teahouse, that was at the start of the Wisdom Path. It had been abandoned and the the forrest was reclaiming the site.

Cow pads were everywhere but no sign of the bovines themselves. That was until later in the afternoon when we discovered the heard strung out along the track, eating their way towards the Big Buddha.

Hong Kong is a very commercial city and the Big Buddha is typical of that commercialism. I had a feeling that nature, and the cows were fighting back.

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Beers of our travels.

August 26th, 2014

As we are about to head off on another trip, I thought it might be worth publishing this list.

It’s by no means a complete inventory of the brews I have tried over the last couple of years, but it does cover many of them.

The one thing I’ve noticed, each time I return to Australia, is that there’s an increasing number of craft beers on offer. For that reason I have added some of these to my file.

My rating system is arbitrary.

It’s based as much on the time, the place and my mood at that time and place, than the quality of the beer.

I intend to continue building the list, as we slowly make our way west from China through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and into Iran, where there will be no beer at all.

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Colour.

August 10th, 2014

Colour or color

When I first became involved in graphic design, colour was all about print and the Pantone Matching System (PMS) was my bible.

We either used the four colour process (CMYK) or what were called ‘Specials’ or Spot Colours. These were colours mixed by the printer to PMS specifications.

I then found an abandoned book in an agency and it became an indispensable tool for developing colour schemes.

Now most of my design work is done on screen, using Red, Green and Blue (RGB) or Hexadecimal colours (Hex) for web.

Like conventionally printed work, design for the screen is restricted to what appears best on the web.

Now my colour bibles aren’t books but websites.

Here are a couple of sites that Hayden and Evan alerted me to. They are extremely clever in the way they develop screen friendly colour schemes.

 

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