Jiajia, JD and I are off to Dali today. It used to take some eight hours to get there by sleeper train, but now this beast can do in two. We are having a fortnight away - our first trip outside Kunming for three years - and JD is keen to relive his last visit here when he and I went horse-riding, cruising on the lake, cable-car up the mountain etc. We are staying in a friend's house while she is away on her holidays, so we can spread out and have a comfortable base to explore from.
Electric cars are becoming a more and more common sight on Kunming's roads. You can easily tell them by their green registration plates. Just this morning, JD spotted 6 Teslas on our trip to school, plus there are a lot of Chinese-brand e-cars too. I would say 10% of Kunming's cars are electric these days, and 90% of the bikes, too. Hopefully this will help reduce the pollution, both fuel and noise.
JD and I got up at 6am yesterday in order to catch the 7.30am train to WangJiaYing and back. We've taken the 10.30am train to ShiZui and back many times - a shorter journey with a more convenient start time - so this one was something of an adventure. There were only about 20 people on the whole five coach train, so plenty of seats to choose from. It took us just over an hour to get there, through city, suburbs and countryside. Then a 50 minute wait while the engine decoupled and moved to the "back" of the train [see below]. And then the hour journey back. The highlight for JD was the many construction sites along the way.
This is now my way of getting to work every weekend. My new little e-bike can do 60kmh and zips past traffic jams and through closed off alleyways like there's no tomorrow! Ava bought it for me last week, nominally as a half-birthday present (...plus main birthday and Christmas!). The gaffer tape is to put would-be thieves off trying to steal it, as are the TWO wheel clamp locks and built in lock and alarm. E-bike theft is a huge problem in Kunming and barely a month goes by when you don't hear of a friend or colleague having had one stolen. It means I can scoot to work in ten minutes instead of the normal 30-40 minutes by bus and I don't have to walk up the 200+ steps of our neighbourhood to get to our flat. I may be putting on weight rather soon!
We are staying with my youngest brother Andy and his family now after a wonderful time with Dave and family in Hereford. Andy has a few surprises up his sleeve for our time and the first was for JD - a fantastic "Thomas the Tank Engine" model steam train ride in a nearby park. JD is a big fan of the TV series and could barely contain his excitement at the trip. We walked around the lake and played in the playground first, to build the anticipation levels and then straddled the engine and puffed our way back to the car park.
My latest published article in the "Chinese Cultural Group - Merton" newsletter is about the increasing mobility of the Chinese...
We took JD on his first train journey today. The narrow gauge track sees only one train a day, making a 50 minute run to the outskirts of the city before decoupling the engine from the front, re-attaching it to the back and making the return trip. As usual there were more workers than passengers on board and the dozen or so people taking the ride were all parents with small children or train-spotters.
It would be nice to report that JD was rivetted by all this locomotive action but, if I'm honest, after ten minutes or so he found the water bottles far more interesting and preferred running up and down the carriage with the other toddlers to any of the window views! The most fun part of the trip is actually watching all the traffic that gets stopped to let our honking train cross various roads. Some onlookers even managed to exchange friendly waves.
The station master was really friendly and said that the railway was built by the French about 100 years ago. From the look of the station's instrumentation [see below] I would imagine that's right! It's hard to see how it can survive much longer though with Kunming's subway system starting to come online, and the cost of a return ticket for our journey being only 2RMB (20p). They must make a huge loss on running the service, so I think we've been wise to jump aboard when we have, before it gets cancelled for good. And, now that we know the time of the train, we may just make the trip again someday soon.
The photo above right from Bangladesh appears in my Christmas Newsletter this year. But as my UK friend Jo pointed out, it's not the first picture of me on a boat she's received. The one on the left was taken some 15 years ago in China. I don't think I've aged too badly, although the boatman seems to have!
For anyone who didn't get my Christmas Newsletter 2012 e-mailed through to them, do click below to download a copy.
Our plans to return to Dhaka by "gentle river paddle boat" have again been quashed when we went to buy tickets yesterday and were told the boat no longer reaches Khulna due to the rainy season. We opted instead for an overnight train back. We paid for a first class carriage and at first were pleasantly surprised to find we were the only two in a sleeper with 6 beds. But, at the first station, we were joined by a Muslim guy and his two women (wives?). He proceeded to sing his prayers on the floor throughout the night as one "wife" was being sick in the toilet and the other fell out of bed (and amazingly didn't even wake up).
We arrived in Dhaka at 6am to find the city flooded... [see below]
Jiajia and I have been tied to the bathroom for the last day or so! Today we were determined to get out and see "a sight" before leaving Khulna tomorrow. My guidebook described a pleasant rickshaw/ferry/bus trip to an ancient mosque. We took a rough hour-long rick ride to where the ferry should have been, only to find a huge bridge there now [see top left]. Undeterred, we found a way to get up onto the bridge and started to walk across. Half way, the heavens opened and we were getting drenched, when a motorised "baby-taxi" stopped and offered to take us to the old mosque. The roads quickly turned to mud [see top right] and it took us over an hour to complete the "30 minute trip".
The mosque was quite old, quite attractive [see above] and quite interesting. Nothing very impressive! Despite buying tickets to enter, and being very sensitive about those praying and not eating, we were quickly approached by the Imam (Head Muslim) who told us to please leave as soon as we had seen what we had to. Not the welcome we had expected - if you don't want visitors, don't advertise or sell tickets!
A nearby (dull) mosque held an unexpected surprise. Behind the building was a large man-made lake (built for water storage). As Jiajia and I sat there cooling off in the breeze, a man approached carrying a live chicken. "I wonder if chickens can swim?" I joked, and then to our surprise we watched as the man lobbed the chicken into the lake! And what do you know - chickens CAN swim! As the soaked and exhausted chicken reached the bank, the man picked it up and headed back to the mosque [see photo above left]. I suspect it was a ritual cleansing before a sacrifice ...or perhaps just a prelude to dinner? The journey back was by two big buses in torrential rain [see photo above right]. Ava raised plenty of glances as ever - it has been quite rare to see women in public here, and foreigners even more so.
Our planned "gentle river trip" down to Khulna in the south of Bangladesh changed into a bumpy 7 hour bus ride due to a ticket office having a long holiday. The bus trip included a ferry crossing over a wide river which broke up the monotony. Khulna is Bangladesh's third biggest city, and less frantic than Dhaka. Our hotel is better too, which at least enables us to relax and enjoy some air-conditioning after our excursions into the 35°C, 95% humidity weather.
One of the big bonuses of our time here is access to satellite TV and coverage of the Olympics with English commentary. There is still a 5 hour time difference with the UK, so watching events "live" is limited, but it sure beats the Chinese coverage which barely featured any sports outside, badminton, table-tennis or diving!
Bangladesh is a country half the size of the UK but with twice the population. Ava and I arrived here yesterday after having our first flight cancelled and the second - a day later - delayed by two further hours. We arrived at 4am and, after few sly backhanders, I managed to get my visa. Since then we've been somewhat overwhelmed by the heat, the noise, the humidity, the begging, the traffic and the pollution of Dhaka - the country's 10 million strong capital city. We've arrived in the rainy season and amidst Ramadan - the Islamic month of fasting. With 85% of the country being Muslims, few restaurants are open and we have to be careful where to sip our bottles of water so as not to give offence. Our pre-booked hotel is filthy and broken, so we hope to move to a better one tomorrow. We had planned to take a 36 hour river boat to the south of the country, but we found the ticket office shut today and not due to open for 3 more days. So we'll try a bus.
Past blog entries