Tuesday, December 18, 2007

New Khmer Architecture

In the last few years in Cambodia I have come to really enjoy photographing some of the many buildings that were designed in the late 1950's and 1960's - a movement that has been dubbed the ‘New Khmer Architecture’. This was a period of dynamic cultural and political ambition in Cambodia, and saw an extensive programme of urban renewal and construction across the country.

The architectural style pioneered by leading figures such as Vann Molyvann was an innovative blend of contemporary French and classic Angkorian styles. The works that they designed are slowly becoming recognised as some of the most important artistic milestone in 20th century Cambodian culture. These buildings are particularly precious now, as the majority of contemporary architecture mimics classic traditions or the worst traits of the Thai and Chinese “villa” styles with copious quantities of tiles, mirrored windows and faux columns.

Sadly some of the most impressive buildings have been destroyed or restored in ways that show a complete disregard for their original form and beauty (I’m typing this at work in one of the worst offenders). Ironically, some buildings are still well preserved due to their lengthy abandonment after the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975.

Anth and I have been on several of the excellent architecture tours that visit some of the key sites. There is also a fabulous book published last year called Building Cambodia - New Khmer Architecture that Anth gave me for my birthday yesterday.

To celebrate my birthday, we went out to the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities campus near the airport – which I presume was designed by Vann Molyvann. One of my biggest regrets leaving Cambodia last year was that we never took the time to visit this campus – and I would always look forlornly out the airplane window whenever we flew over it.

Fortunately we were able to make amends yesterday and there were no security guards on campus – although some members of the sparse student population were puzzled as to why two foreigners were wandering around their classrooms in the hottest part of the day taking photos. On the way back into the city, we paid a return visit to the last of Vann Molyvann’s 1970’s masterpieces – the Institute of Foreign Languages. Some of the shots from this architectural photo safari are on our Flickr page.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Melbourne 2008

It's official! We are moving back to Melbourne in the new year. I have been offered a position with the Productivity Commission and Andrew has applied for a Masters in Development Studies and Environment Analysis at Monash University. We are both really excited at the prospect of being back in one of our favourite cities, and being closer to family, friends, parks, good pubs and live music.

At the moment though, we are truly enjoying being back in Cambodia. It is wonderful to feel grounded again and surrounded by familiar sights, smells and sounds. Although that said, it is the season of festivals, public holidays and constant construction here - so things at times are almost too lively. Andrew is working full time at Pact as an anti-corruption consultant and I am combining periods of lady-like leisure with some consultancy work with International Development Enterprises, who I have worked with in the past and think are doing excellent work in Cambodia.

Our time in Cambodia and away has given us a bit of perspective, and I think has really shaped how we will work in development again in the future. Seeing the basket case that Cambodia is, with the excesses of international money, foreign consultants, corrupt officials and myopic outlooks can make anyone cynical. We are really looking forward to some time at home and opportunity for further study and experience.

For the moment though, Phnom Penh is great. Whilst some things are changing, much is the same. The Government has embarked on a huge civic beautification project running up to the election and have managed to make one of the most attractive monuments in South East Asia a grand statement to Khmer bling, (I wonder what Vann Molyvann thinks!) with fountains and coloured lights ringing the Independence Monument. There are more and more black Lexus four-wheel drives on the roads and some grand business and residential developments advertised over vacant lots.

I have discovered the joy of food markets before 8am (a stark contrast to 6pm after work and a full day of heat and humidity), and am driving Andrew crazy with my insistence to get up and buy fresh nom acow (sweet rice flour cakes) and fresh fruit for breakfast. It's also wonderful to see Ben and Bec again and resume our place in the house. At times, it's almost as if we hadn't left!

Thursday, October 04, 2007

All good things must....

Tomorrow marks the final day of what has been a long long odyssey for Anth and I. Apologies again for the lack of posting, but we have been busy visiting friends and family in Ireland, the US and Canada for the last 2 months. We have just spent the last 10 days staying at the residence that my grandmother calls home in outer outer Vancouver. Its been a lot of fun hanging out in the local strip malls and eating dinner at 5.30pm, but its a minor contrast from how we started the trip tearing around the freezing streets of Beijing on our bicycles. Tomorrow evening we are flying back to our old home in Phnom Penh for a few months.

So why no South America? I hear you ask. Well, its down to a number of reasons.
  1. No hablamos Espanol - Whilst we were always planning on learning Spanish when we arrived (in fact Anth had successfully devoted time in the past months to preparing) the practical implications of speaking little Spanish became apparent last month when we met with a few of the folks in Washington DC managing the South American programs of my old employer Pact. We also started examining some of the bad attitudes that we picked up in Cambodia of "Hey, we're white - isn't that enough for a job?!" after discussing just how well qualified the people of Ecuador are to fix their own problems (who would have thought huh?).
  2. It's time to go back to school. We both talk about doing more study in the future, but never really deciding when or what. I am going to be first, and am hoping to start a Masters degree in the new year and Anth is planning on doing the same the following year.
  3. Whilst its been an amazing trip, we are tired of being of travelling (see below)

Back to the last few months though - its hard to describe our travels in any other way than incredible. We've been bloody lucky to see the crazy places that we have, and to have caught up with so many wonderful friends and family along the way. As amazing as it has been though, we are both absolutely ready to stop. When you start travelling its easy to underestimate how exhausting it is to be sleeping in different places every night, always trying to find the cheapest way to do things, having virtually no personal space, orienting ourselves to new food, places and langauges and sitting on endless bus journeys (of which there have been many). We are both really looking forward to having a familiar couch to call our own and a kitchen to prepare food in how and when we desire! I don't want to sound like we are complaining, but there is always a risk that when you only show pictures of yourselves looking happy in beautiful places you're not painting the full picture of what its like to travel for this long.

A big thanks to all of you that have met up with us, fed us and sheltered us in the last few months - we are both incredibly grateful. We'll try to keep things a bit more up to date in the next few months in Cambodia and as we find some less-temporary dwellings (sorry - I couldn't help myself).

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

No we are not still in Jordan

Well, it seems we have allowed quite a bit of time to elapse between posts. Despite the fact that we are unemployed, spend our days at our leisure and generally have very few commitments we have been flat out busy since Jordan. It's true!

Our trip has really changed gears, the last month has been a revolving door of friends and family in different countries with a bit of site seeing added in for good measure. After a whirlwind trip through Syria and Jordan and back through Syria again we met up with Kate and Andy (who you may have heard of through the fabulously popular Poundster site) on the west coast of Turkey. It was great to see them, take a cruise down the coast, discover gozleme and other great home cooked Turkish food, talk Australian politics and read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that Kate purchased hot of the press in Greece.

We said goodbye to them in Istanbul after some nights out in Taksim, great ferry rides across the Bosphorous and our fill of beautiful mosques.

Inside the Agha Sofia mosque in Istanbul

From Turkey we flew to London where we met up with a score of friends all who tried to convince us that London was really a great place to live. The weather also joined in on the recruitment job, with the our first day the hottest day to date for that summer and the streets filled with sun seekers heading off to the many summer festivals that were on offer.

Self portrait in Picadilly Circus

We had a great time in London and tried to cram in as many sites as possible whilst still seeing as much of Beth, JLo and Louise, and as many West Wing episodes as possible. My favourite site was probably the Tate Modern with a great exhibition on global cities and urban development and some brilliant surrealism and post war European and Amercian art. Other big highlights were sampling the entire Quorn range (would someone please import this stuff to Australia!!) and seeing the Bolshoi Ballet perform their triple bill at the Colliseum!

Jules, Beth, Anthea and Louise at the Pickle

Since I had never been to the UK before and Andrew had family who he was eager to catch up with, we hired a car and drove to northern Wales to stay with Andrew's Aunt Helen and her family. We also met up with Andrew's uncles Phil and Tim for an extremely indulgent dinner in the Docklands area, which was so good that our final day in London had to be somewhat more relaxed than initially planned.

Helen, Jennifer, Dave and Andrew on the west coast of Wales

From London we joined thousands of others in a queue for an Easyjet flight off the island. We flew into Berlin on the same day that my parents commenced their European jaunt and spent a furious four days of site-seeing with them.

Judith and Anthea in Berlin

It was wonderful to see mum and dad and despite the short time frame we got a good balance of seeing the sites and relaxing drinking whiskey in their hotel. The most discussion provoking place we visited was the Hamburger Bahnhoff which features challenging modern art (or as the curator states in his introduction art that is not clearly art).

The Hamburger Hauptbahnhoff

We bid a sad goodbye to mum and dad and then dashed off to Hamburg to visit my old friend Joerg. It was great to see him, but fleeting with only 28 hours in Hamburg. Still, we managed to get a wet tour of Hamburg (the weather was not so supportive here) and indulge Andrew's great hunger for Bratwurst, sauerkraut and other allegedly typical German foods.

Joerg and Anthea in front of the Spice City in Hamburg

We are now enjoying an "Irish summer" in Dublin. The sun came out on our first day here but I haven't seen it much since. But as we are staying with Andrew's grandparents we are happy enjoying some warmth and home comforts indoors.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Quick update

Hey folks, just a quick update as we haven't been online for a while. Anyone that has been diligently checking our Flickr page will know that we have not been in Turkey for a while. About 6 weeks ago, we decided that we would extend our travels in the Middle East so that we could meet up with Anth's wonderful friends Kate and Andy (who have just embarked on a similar length jaunt) in Turkey and with Anth's parents (who will be hitting Europe in August). All of this has meant that we have been able to "upsize" our itinerary to include Syria and Jordan (both places that Anth has been before but was very happy to re-visit).

I won't bore everyone with an Iran size treatise on having one's expectations completely countered in an "Axis of Evil" country. Suffice to say the week we spent there was great - we ambled a lot in the very charming Old Town in Aleppo, we woke up at 5am to see the stunning Roman ruins at Palmyra, we ate a lot of cheap and fantastic street food, and we met some very interesting young Syrians.

We are currently in Jordan enjoying the wonderful hospitality of a former co-worker of mine from Pact - Dianne - and her son Gabriel. We've been a few great trips out of Amman - including the ruins in Petra and Jerash - but most of all we have LOVED been able to be in a house for the first time in months. The side benefits have included cereal (god I've missed it), access to a washing machine, and television (we watched half of the final season of the West Wing - which has been with us since Islamabad - in one sitting).

Our novel period of relative inertia will be ending in a few days when we head back to Syria and then Turkey. It certainly feels like the next phase of our journey through Europe and North America is much more imminent - as is the need to find gainful employment when we finish up in South America!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Valley of Assassins

We have now been in Turkey for almost a week and still I am finding it strange to feel the wind in my air and the sun on my bare arms. Despite these personal freedoms and the ready availability of beer Iran is still very much in our thoughts. Sure Turkish people are friendly, and we were definitely ready to leave Iran, but I don't think I have ever travelled in a country where I have made so many real connections with everyday, ordinary people. It is this that really made our time in the country so amazing.

Our final destination in Iran was Gazor Khan village which lies at the foot of Hasan-i-Sabbah's Alamut Castle, one of the castles scattered through the Valley of Assassins. Ever since I had read about the legend of the assassins (and yes, came across the SCIII references) I had been keen to visit.

The assassins were Ismaili muslims who were feared throughout the region until they were wiped out by the Mongols in the 13th century. The story goes that Hasan-i-Sabbah would lure young men to his stronghold with promises of the eternal paradise they would attain by training and working as assassins. This pitch was further assissted by drugging the trainees with marijuana (although possibly this last part is not true and the term Assassin - Hashshashin came from other sources) and having them awake in a garden abounding with beautiful virgins and delectable foods. Hassan-i-Sabbah used his army of men to intimidate and manipulate political empires. The assassins would work their way into trusted positions in their victims staff and death would always be by dagger.

It was late afternoon when we began the 40 minute hike up the hill to the ruins of Alamut castle. It was a public holiday in Iran so there were many Iranians making the climb with us. We asked one man what the holiday was for and he told us that it was the anniversary of the death of Fatima (the daughter of Prophet Muhammad). "I am very happy for this holiday and so I say: Allah bless you Fatimah, I wish you long life!" It turns out he is an Iranian with a french passport and as such is able to travel freely. He told us that the previous month when it was the anniversary of the death of Imam Khomeini he went to Thailand and from Krabi uttered similar words of encouragement in Khomeini's name.

At the top of the hill we stopped and sat down to take in the sweeping, stunning views. I could certainly understand how difficult a place this must have been to reach and conquer. I spied a group of people around our age coming our way and at first wondered whether they were Turkish given that the women were wearing clothes that would be normal in Australia. One had a hat on her head, but no scarf! In fact, I started to feel downright dowdy in my hot and demure wimple-like scarf (unbecoming yes, but very practical in terms of staying on your head).

They tripped over to us and were very excited to discover that we were Australian.
"Excellent, now we can ask you a question that we have been thinking about!!"
It turns out that they are very much Tehranis and that they had been drinking some newly home-made red wine in their apartment the other week and decided that they would like to move to Australia so that they could perfect their wine-making skills. We informed them that Australia was just the place and they were very amused with their idea.

We then took some photos, and I was introduced to the interesting fact that when in places of isolated natural beauty particularly bold Iranian women take their headscarves off for photos.
Our new Tehrani friends left after an exchange of emails and we sat on the hill watching the sunlight play over the undulating landscape and musing about Iran now and in the past. In terms of the castle their wasn't much left, making it hard to get a sense of how the assassins really lived. Recently I read one article which credited the assassins as being the first terrorists. However, unlike their 11th century descendants Ismaili muslims now are a very peaceful and tolerant group. Many live in Pakistan, in particular in the north of Pakistan where we travelled recently.

It continually amazes me how wonderfully welcoming and hospitable people in countries such as Pakistan, Iran and Syria are. These are countries which are met with the most fear and concern when we tell people we are travelling there, but in reality they are also some of the places where I have had the most rewarding and unexpected experiences as a tourist. In fact, there almost seems to be a direct relationship between the despoticness and fear of a government and the warmth and hospitality of the people.

Hello Turkey!

Notice anything dıfferent? Bare skin and hair - shocking! Oh, and please note the background evidence of a reputable provider of non-prohibitively expensive SIM cards that we purchased with cash from an ATM. Not exciting I know but you miss these things when they are gone. Oh, and this tasted really good too:

Khodafez Iran!

So after 5 weeks Anth and I are spending our final night in Iran in a lovely little town called Maku about 25km from the Turkish border. There have of course been the inevitable ups and downs as with every country. Firstly the downs:
  • Pretty much anything associated with the moronic mullahs and their puppet government
  • The occasional bouts of narrow mindedness and absence of creativity that come from looking backwards and being shackled to a glorious historical legacy (also see "But we built Angkor Wat!" mentality in Cambodia)
  • The complete lack of vegetarian food for Anth

Despite these factors, we think its safe to say that our time in Iran has been one of the most overwhelmingly positive travel experiences we have ever had. We did quite a bit of research before we came here, but like most people in the West we had our fair share of misconceptions. Based on our experiences in the last 5 weeks, we would like to declare that:

  • Iran is safe (crazy driving on the roads excepted)
  • A large percentage of the population do not go to the mosque regularly
  • Iranians HATE to be grouped with Arabs
  • There are a lot of women that are pushing the limits of hijab (and looking very fashionable to boot)
  • Iranians do not have a blanket hatred for Jews

Socio-cultural and political misconceptions aside, Iran also has some incredibly stunning historical sites and a deep reverence for old fashioned culture (we have never met so many literature and theatre students before) that is almost quaint. From a selfish point of view, the ridiculous oil subsidies (prices have just increased from 8 to 10 cents per litre) that are crippling the government economically (inflation is waaay out of control now) make travelling in Iran VERY cheap on the fantastic trains and buses. Another gift from the government is their crackpot policies and isolationism which has driven other tourists away and made locals even more eager to engage with us.

So, as a final word we would like to ask every reader of this blog to think about one day travelling to Iran or encouraging your friends and family to visit this wonderful place. Its been a privilege for us to witness and experience Iran and its people first hand, and it has further underlined what an absurd tragedy it would be if major sanctions were imposed.

PS - we have a few more Iran posts up our sleeves which we hopefully get to non-chronologically in Turkey.


For some reasons the vast majority of Iranians are convinced that all foreigners are German (a puzzling fact given that we haven't actually met any here). In fact, the most common way for people to ask you where you are from is "Allemagne?" (we often get this in drive by form shouted from a car or motorbike when we are walking on the sidewalks). When we explain that we are from Australian ("No, not Austria!") the response from the interrogator is usually one of the following:
  1. "Mark Bosnich! Harry Kewell!" OR gloating references to this tragic football game at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in 1997 (if I'm in a grumpy mood I'll mention this more recent game in Adelaide)
  2. "Australia good! Iran bad!" (protestations to the contrary are not always successful)
  3. "I have a friend that wants to study in Australia, how can he/she..." OR "I want to study in Australia, how can I..."

Given the current situation economically and politically in Iran, and the bleak prognosis that a lot of people have - its understandable that people have the latter response. After many conversations about moving to Australia or other Western countries, we have become worried about the apparent ignorance that a lot of Iranians seem to have about what they are aspiring too.

We have lost count of the number of times we have explained Australia's restrictive immigration requirements and the bias towards skilled migrants. By far the greatest knowledge sharing that is required in these types of conversations though is associated with cost of living. We commonly get asked "How much does a [insert profession of person asking] make per month in Australia?" What follows is a detailed explanation of our graded taxation system (never %100 comprehension on this one) and the response is normally wide eyed amazement when we reveal the salary estimate in US dollars. Before people then get too excited and try to hop into our backpacks, we try to list off the average prices in Australia and other countries of food, housing, healthcare, petrol etc...

After these conversations most people still seem determined to move out of Iran. The one exception came last week when we were picnicking with the holidaying families of three Azerbaijani (not Iranian - an important point we learnt!) teachers from NW Iran during the drive back to Zanjan from Takht-e-Solomein (they very kindly gave us lifts after our share taxi there (no problems) and different share taxi back (uhhhh...) plan came badly awry). Anth and I were having our usual cost of living in Australia conversation after they told us that teachers only make 300 dollars a month. We then told them that we couldn't afford to buy a house in Australia and that it would probably be a long while before we could. What followed was an awkward pause and a sympathetic "Oh. I see. We are really sorry to hear that!" - this was a very novel Iran/"rich" tourist dynamic for us! About half an hour later one of the teachers admitted quietly to me that "Maybe Iran isn't so bad - I can buy a car, and a house, and we can go for picnics with our friends anywhere, and we have been driving for 3 days and it only cost us 3 dollars!" This was the first and only time an Iranian has said anything like this to us. (Below is a shot of the wonderful families of the three teachers)

We do not live here in Iran and we can only begin to imagine what it must feel like to to have our daily freedoms severely curtailed - but it was still reassuring to hear someone say that Iran is not THAT bad (at least materially). We were having a conversation a few days ago with an Iranian living in France who claimed that Iran and Thailand are third world countries - we expressed incredulity and immediately countered with "If you want to see third world go to [insert name of neighbouring country to Thailand here]!"

Its possible that all of the negativity that Iranians feel about their country, and their inability to make comparative assessments first-hand with other countries (its VERY difficult for them to get visas) has clouded their sense of what is possible and how things can change. We were having a very poignant conversation with a friend of ours over coffee and she told us that all the young people in Iran are leaving as they don't see any hope. She then told us that she and her husband made personal decisions after the Revolution in 1979 to stay and try and make a difference (an important aside: her husband has spent a total of 8 years in jail and was behind bars for the birth of their only child).

Friday, June 15, 2007

Happy Snaps

Thanks to an unusually good internet connection and access to flickr we have put up a range of new photos including some shots from our summer in Australia. Also, all photos have now been arranged into sets and collections for your more organized viewing pleasure.

Shameless Volte Face on Fruity Malt Beverages

Regular readers of our blog will have read my thoughts on the pineapple beer in China. Well, much like one pines for a lover and glosses over their bad points after a long time apart - my tastebuds have become addled by 6 weeks without alcoholic beverages (with a handful of lapses in people's homes). Iran is awash with malt beverages that proudly proclaim "non-alcoholic!". There are some brands that do the pale imitation thing better than others - unsurprisingly "beers" that come from places that produce real beer (like Turkey and Russia) fare marginally better. Inevitably though one is always left with a sense of profound disappointment after the initial malty rush has subsided from one's tastebuds.

In this crazy climate of no public alcohol, I have formed quite a dependance on a local malt beverage called Delster. Delster comes has several common flavours (apple, peach and lemon) and two much rarer types (stawberry and pineapple).

In fact, I have now started a Daily Delster consumption campaign, and have got to know some of the delivery drivers on first name terms:

As most of you will know I am not the biggest drinker - but going without alcohol for so long has been surprisingly tough. In the current atmosphere of potential sanctions on Iran, Anth and I have been thinking about the toughest sanctions you could impose on countries that would attack something fundamental to their culture, and we came up with the following list:

  1. Australia - beer
  2. Cambodia - Khmer rice (a no-brainer!)
  3. Iran - soft serves (see Anth's post here)
  4. UK - tea
  5. USA - doughnuts
  6. Canada - pancakes and maple syrup

Any other thoughts?

Thursday, June 07, 2007


One thing that must really anger overseas Iranians is the depiction of Iran in the Western media. When we were in Islamabad we came across an old Newseek that had a cover story on Iran. To be honest the lead article was quite interesting and portrayed Iran in an occasionally favourable light, but the accompanying photo essay called "Modern Life in Iran" was presented in stark black and white and was HIGHLY selective. The image below for example shows young women in full chadors looking cowed and anxious in front of the infamous murals along the wall of the "US Den of Espionage" (the former US embassy):

We were walking along said wall this afternoon on our way to the Iranian Artists Forum when we snapped this picture which we would like to offer as a counterpoint (note trendy tight fitting manteau, lipstick and fringe - apologies for lack of focus). This is fairly standard attire for Tehrani women and we were wondering today whether the hijab police would even bother patrolling here given the number of potential offenders.

We would also like to offer the following snapshot from one of the galleries inside the fantastic forum:

How did this happen?

In recent months there has been a crackdown on the enforcement of hijab (Islamic dress code) across Iran. Apparently police were given the power to issue warnings for excessive make-up, showing too much hair underneath scarves, tight jackets, and excessively gelled hair or skimpy t-shirts (for men). In Tehran, women are exiled to provincial backwaters after three warnings. In addition, police also have the power to ask men and women socialising in public to prove that they are married. We spoke to one student who's brother was pulled up on the latter offence - and the police spoke to his parents and the relationship had to be immediately broken off.

In the last week, things have apparently become even stricter with the enforcement of hijab. Below is a picture I took yesterday in Kashan of a group of "hijab police" who were furtively going around scolding women for un-Islamic dress. I have tried to circle one of the walkie-talkies which presumably links back to the local police:

One question that has constantly occupied both of us since we arrived in Iran is, how did this happen? We have talked to a lot of people since we arrived - and nearly all of them have been very critical and almost apologetic of the current government very soon into our conversations. Admittedly we have talked to a very skewed sample of people - highly educated English speakers often under 30 - and I'm sure that the opinions of a poor farmer in the conservative rural areas would be quite different. That said though, I think its pretty safe to say that the local elections from late last year (and here) demonstrate that Ahmadinejad's policies aren't massively popular at the moment (if the US were stupid enough to bomb Iran that would of course change overnight).

From what we have seen, Iran is a very different country from either Pakistan, China or Cambodia - it is modernised, with a highly literate well-educated populace that loathes being associated with "backwards" Arabs. From what we have seen in the privacy of people's homes (again a small and skewed sample) - the middle/upper classes in Iran are not overly religious and are quite liberal in what they wear and drink. How then, is the current government getting away with enforcing the application of strict Islamic moral codes in such a draconian fashion?

The people that we have talked to have posited various theories - fear (understandable!), people are "asleep", and the electorate did not know Ahmadinejad's true colours until after he was elected. One potential factor that we have pondered - going by the number of conversations we have had with people of many different ages and occupations about getting visas overseas - is that the part of the population that have the strongest desire for change are leaving en masse. Anth and I walked into a pharmacy in Esfahan, and within seconds the middle aged lady who ran the shop was asking how Anth felt about wearing the scarf. The lady then told us how all the young people are leaving Iran, and that she also wants to leave but that she is too old, and how much she loves her country - pretty heartbreaking stuff.

To be honest we can never fully know the answers to our question given our limited time here and the fact that we are not Iranian- but it is certainly something we will continue to mull over and talk to people about...

Even Sunsmarter?

Memo to the Cancer Council of Australia:

The below image is taken from the Cancer Council website, and is indicative of the types of "sun-smart" behaviour they promote in Australian primary schools:

From our own extensive experience (and the fact that only I - not Anth - have suffered from a sunburnt neck and arms), I would suggest that the following is an example of much more effective "sun-smart" protection:

I would even go so far to advocate that signs like this be place in tuck-shops across the country:

Food for thought...


We had been in Kashan around 1 hour and were walking along a dirt alley with yellow mud bricked houses on all sides. Kashan is a town surrounded by desert, similar to Yazd. We were both grumpy and tired. On arrival, we had walked into a recommended hostel only to meet two Australians who were leaving, they advised us to not take room 8 as it had fleas in the bed. We walked out of the hostel when the price for a room was quoted at double what we had been paying everywhere else and tried a hostel nearby. It too was windowless, unclean and overpriced. We had given in after some strong bargaining and were now pacing the streets trying to find a restaurant to eat dinner and trying not to think about how filthy the beds were in our room. It was the anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Khomeimi and consequently most things were closed. We couldn't find the restaurant, but were told it was closed anyway.

As we walked down the alley the wind picked up and rain started to fall, it felt like a sandstorm was brewing. A car stopped nearby us with a middle-aged couple and their child in it. They called to us and asked where we were from. We told them and the man started to talk to us. Communication was difficult given that they did not speak much english and our farsi is limited to basic travel phrases. We gathered that the man was a doctor, and something about a girl (or was he just confusing genders?), and then he said "home, me" which we took as an invitation to their house. Given our frayed tempers we smiled and declined and kept on walking.

A minute later the car pulls up beside us and the man hands us a cell phone. I take it and a female voice says to me in fluent English "Hello, you have just met my parents and we would like to invite you to our home. Please get in the car and they will drive you here." Andrew and I look at each other and figure that given the difficulty in finding food on a public holiday like this it might be a good idea to accept. Next thing we know we are bundled into their car and driving out of the city to the scraps of urban development on the fringes. Whilst we are driving it occurs to me that the man was not telling us that he was a "doctor", but instead trying to tell us about his "daughter".

As it turns out, Mohammad (the man) is a judge and also holds some position in the mosque. His rented house is made up of a large carpeted room with bedrooms and a kitchen ranging around the central room. There is no other furniture in the room. We sit on the carpet and meet his two daughters and two sons. Eila greets us in english and explains that she is learning english both at school and also at a private institute. The rest of the family speak very little english and so all conversation goes through Eila. The women wear scarves in the house and so I leave my manteau and scarf on as well. I chat to Eila as the members of the household organise themselves and Andrew plays with Eila's younger brother Amia who is four years old.

I very quickly get the impression that Eila is one smart, switched on and motivated woman. She tells me that she really wants to improve her english and that she has instructed her parents to bring home any english speaking foreigners that they see in the street. Which further explains our abduction!

Eila wants to become a doctor and ultimately she would like to live overseas, she likes the idea of moving to Italy as one of her passions is soccer. She tells me that she plays soccor in an all girls team and that they play in matches around Iran. In Iran there are no mixed sports teams - only women can watch women's sporting matches and only men watch men's sporting matches.

Her mother chimes in and says they have already tried to help Eila get overseas but the Iranian officials refused to give her permission as they said she must be married to be able to leave the country. Eila assures me that she does not want to get married as she wants to be a working woman. She says that in Iran it is deemed desirable for women to have a bachelor degree but then when they are married they give up work and look after the house and family (which perhaps explains why the majority of women have less vocationally focussed degrees such as art, poetry and design?). "Do you have any trouble with marriage and work?" she asks me. I pause, so strange is the idea that being "married" to Andrew would in anyway impact on my choice to work. I tell her that it makes no difference. "Well that is good, and you are lucky" she says. "For me, I will just not get married."

At around 10 pm the family gathers for dinner. A plastic mat is placed on the carpeted floor and everyone sits around the mat with the food in front of us. It is at this point that Eila tells us that it is her birthday. We wish her a happy birthday and ask how old she is. 15. I pause surprised. I knew that she must be in high school, but Eila does not look or talk like she is 15.

After dinner Mohammad excuses himself as he must go to work, Eila explains that for his work as a judge he often has appointments with people late at night. Once Mohammad is gone Eila, her mother and myself enter into an intersting conversation about women in Iran. This is one of the first times I have been able to speak openly with women about their situation here, it is also interesting to be in the home of a family outside of Tehran. It seems that whilst Eila and her mother do not like wearing a scarf that they believe it is necessary. They are curious about how free it is for women in Australia and when I tell them they both shake their heads. "oh no, it is not like that in Iran!" They say that in Iran the men are "bad" and that it is not possible to go out for a coffee with a single man as a woman would not be comfortable. They say the man's thoughts would not be good and that the woman would be perceived badly by society.

Eila's mother then talks about problems with women marrying young and then the marriage ending in divorce. We discover the following day that Mohammad is Mitra's second husband and that the two women are Mitra's daughters from her previous marriage. Yet Eila's sister, who is 16, is engaged and will be married in 18 months.

We leave just before midnight. We are exhausted, but the family don't appear at all tired. We arrange to meet again tomorrow as they would like to take us site-seeing around Kashan. A taxi is called and after many thankyous we hop into the taxi. As we pull up to our hotel I offer the taxi driver money for the trip. "Befarme" (you are welcome) he says to me pushing away the money. I insist and again he says "Befarme". Finally at the third insistence he pockets the money and we hop out. I stand on the curb laughing, in what country would you hop into a random strangers car like that! and where else on earth would a taxi driver refuse your money!

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Street Art

Just like the bohemian student filled streets of inner North Melbourne, it would appear that stencil art is pretty hot right now in Iran. Below is one of the local entries to the Melbourne Stencil Festival 2007 :

To be fair (lest we present a dishonest biased portrait) - this kind of iconography has not been massively prevalent from what we have seen so far. Some of the other street art we have seen also gives an idea of some of the many contradictions inherent in Iranian society:

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Photos of Pakistan

Thanks to high speed internet access in Tehran and a nifty proxy website that enables us to get around government blocked sites we have a bucketload of new photos up on flickr, yay! We are very happy to be able to share these with everyone, especially given that Pakistan was so incredibly, gapingly, beautiful. We recommend that when viewing the photos you check them out by album as they are all in a muddle in the recently uploaded photo section.

The photo above is in Karimabad, and below is Rakaposhi base camp in the Hunza Valley.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

36 hours in Tehran (Stumbling from one act of extreme hospitality to another)

It is our second day in Iran, and already we are beginning to discover the difficulty of planning a full day of site seeing. We are in the very impressive national jewels museum when we met Nariman an English teacher at a local private institute and his two students Sarain and Mohammad (a young married couple). All three are keen to move to Adelaide for work and study so immediately they started to talk excitedly to Andrew. Next thing we know we have an invitation to Sarain and Mohammad's house for dinner.

We are met by Mohammad later that evening, he greets me with a bunch of irises and says how happy he is that we are coming to his house. Once in their house Sarain takes me to her room and gives me some time to take off my scarf and any other additional street-wear. Once in an Iranian home there is no need to wear head scarves or big shapeless overcoats.

Sarain's entire family are crammed into their apartment, her mother and sister are busy cooking the meal and her 18 month year old daughter is crawling around on the carpet, looking shyly at the foreigners. Once the meal is prepared Sarain's parents and sister leave with the baby, it seems that they are only here to help make the meal and won't be joining us. We thank them as they leave and then settle down to a lovely meal of fried fish, yoghurt and lots of fresh salads.

As we sit down at the table Mohammad asks Andrew if he would like wine, beer or whiskey. Andrew looks confused and responds that he wasn't aware that you could have any of these in Iran. Our three hosts laughed merrily, "but of course!" they say. We agree on beer and Sarain produces several cans of beer made in Turkey. Apparently alcohol is available on order, you simple make a call and it can be delivered.

Over dinner we talk about Adelaide and Australia. Soheil is extremely keen to know what jobs are in demand in Australia (his brother has already been living there for the last 10 months). All three are well educated with at least one bachelor degree. Sarain wants to study nursing in Australia, despite the fact that her bachelor degree is in business, she has heard that it is much easier to find work and then gain citizenship in Australia with nursing skills. I get the distinct impression that she doesn't really want to become a nurse, but this is outweighed by her wish to move to Australia. Both she and Mohammad are spending the next two months learning English intensively so to prepare for the IELTS (English language test) that they must pass to be able to work or study in Australia.

After dinner the conversation turns to religion and politics. Nariman is very open about his views, he does not see the current situation improving. He tells us that generally most Iranians are not particularly religious people it is just the government who are imposing their religious beliefs on the people. Nariman tells us that only 5% of Iranians attend the mosque regularly (although Sarain believes that it is perhaps around 15%). We suggest that surely where there is a critical mass of well educated young people who are struggling to find work and freedom of expression that perhaps there is hope but he disagrees.

By this time it is very late and our hosts insist on driving us home, not before collecting all the fruit in the house and giving it to us. Our hotel is on the other side of town but we all put on our coverings and bundle into the car. We bid goodbye to them well past 1am and crawl into bed.

We wake up disoriented at 11am and realise that we have one hour to get across town to visit Nariman's English class. We had promised him the night before that we would pop in to give his students an opportunity to converse with native english speakers. We rush about the room getting ready and finally make it to the class ten minutes late. His class is comprised of 15 young, attractive women, all of them have finished university and most are taking the intensive course (like Mohammad and Sarain) to pass the IELTS. We go around the room introducing ourselves and each student indicates whether she wants to go to Canada, Australia or sometimes, that she is studying English for fun.

Andrew and I sit at the front of the classroom and my black headscarf, hurriedly put on, takes on a life of its own. It slithers and slips back across the crown of my head and I fidget and tug at it, attempting to maintain some degree of purdah. One of the women to my left, who has a thick fringe of dark hair displayed and red lipsticked lips, notices my struggle and says "Don't worry yourself about it!" Finally my scarf and my head come to some sort of standing agreement and I manage to concentrate on the conversation. The level of English is high and consequently there is not so much chit chat, our topics range from the treatment of Aboriginals in Australia to the merits of mixed or same-sex education systems.

During the course of conversation it comes out that we would like to hear some live Iranian music and also that I am a vegetarian. Consequently at the end of the class one student offers to drive us to a good vegetarian restaurant near her house and another offers to get us tickets to a performance of traditional Iranian music at a Tehran university that afternoon. We accept both offers.

After a delicious late lunch we dash to meet Samin out front of the university. She waves at us and smiles and then tells us that she must go. It seems that she only turned up to give us the tickets. Before leaving she introduces us to two of her friends, Mustafa and Said, who are put in charge of us. We enjoy the performance and afterwards we discover that the performers are all engineering students who play traditional Iranian instruments in their spare time. Said's brother is one of the performers, he and his two brothers are all musicians. After the performance we mill about outside and Mustafa asks us if we go back to our hotel or if we have any plans. We tell him that we have no plans, maybe we will go for a coffee. "No plans? Well, we will make some plans then." Before we can protest not to go to any trouble Mustafa and Said are organising for us to have dinner with Said's family in their home.

We walk to Valiasr Square and then take a taxi to Said's house. He lives with his parents and two brothers. In Iran children generally live with their parents until they are married. Said and Mustafa both like the idea of the Australian concept of share housing, especially given that Mustafa declares that he does not want to get married. It seems that marriage in Iran is an expensive prospect for the groom with a sizeable financial gift expected for the brides family.

As we walk to the square Mustafa and I enter a no-holds-barred discussion on sex and life in Iran. He tells me how that AIDS is a problem, but that the government refuses to support any major public information campaign as it does not want to accept that sex before marriage occurs. It seems that Iranian society, at least in Tehran for the more wealthy, is not so restrictive and that there is a big diference between one's private life and public life. He gesticulates towards the smartly dressed Tehrani women walking in front of us, "Look at them, they do not want to cover up, they only do so because of the law".

We arrive at Said's house and are sat down in front of a table heaped with pistachios, walnuts, sweets and dried fruits. We chat with Said's parents (his mother is a doctor who manages a large NGO-run hospital for poor people, and his father is an engineer specialising in irrigation) who are incredibly kind and welcoming and then move outside to the balcony where we can sit and admire their garden whilst drinking some of Said's fathers vodka. It is home-made by an Armenian friend, it seems that the Armenians are well known for making high quality vodka. At around 10pm we sit down to a delicious meal cooked by Said's mother. All her son's are present and everyone is so relaxed that we we feel like one of the family. She has prepared a delicious, traditional Iranian eggplant dish for me and everyone else digs into chicken, rice with dill (pulao), salad and flat bread.

Said's mother compliments me on my earrings and I tell her they are made by my father who is a silversmith. She is very interested in this and takes me to her room and gives me a necklace made from natural stones from Iran. I ask at least three times whether this is ok (sometimes in Iran you need to try three times to ensure that the offering is really intended) and she insists. I then thank her profusely.

Back in the living room the boys are settling in around the laptop preparing for a music exhchange. "Iranian Sebastian" (who is Said's brother who performed that evening and who's name I cannot pronounce but sounds something like "Sebastian" and who also reminds me somewhat of my brother) sits with Andrew and the laptop and the two of them confer over respective music tastes. We give them Secret Chiefs III (which sounds strangely familiar to our new Iranian friends - and is a huge hit), Dengue Fever ("This is great, now we can tell our friends we have Cambodian music!") and QotSA and they give us Kurdish traditional music, Iranian rock (a rare breed) and some not so traditional Iranian music using traditional instruments.

I sit on the couch reading a collection of poems by Hafez translated into English given to me by Iranian Sebastian ("you haven't heard of Hafez!? why he is most famous Iranian poet, read this!) and the boys scramble about the place, out to the car and back carrying Iranian rap CDs and other favourite selections for us to rip. Said's cousin even finds me a cd of an Iranian rock group who use Hafez's poems as their lyrics. As we are listening to one Iranian rapper, Said tells us that his lyrics are very controversial. Mustafa pipes in "that is why the government hang him".

Finally the music exchange finishes. We are exhausted and it is once again nearing 1am again. The boys want to know if we are going to be around on Thursday night as there is going to be a dance party but we think that we will be in Yazd then. They insist that we call them when we come back to Tehran and we get everyone's cell phone number and email address. I find my scarf and then Said and Mustafa drive us all the way back to our hotel.

We collapse into bed, second night in a row, exhausted, full of excellent food and warmed by all the wonderful people we have met.

Thursday, May 17, 2007


Hi folks, just a quick post to let you know that we are both well. We've had a fantastic few weeks here in Pakistan - the crossing over the Khunjerab Pass was AMAZING, the scenery in the North was stunning, and the friendliness and hospitality of virtually everyone we have met has been something else. Our only complaints are with the weather down South (we've spent the last week here in Lahore and its been 40 plus degrees), and with the neglected and decaying IT infrastructure (a marked contrast to China). Internet is SLOW and unreliable, so hence the lack of posts and pictures (of which there are many to put up). We've fortunately managed to avoid the alarming troubles in Karachi and Peshawar, alhough there have been a few protests here in Lahore associated with the highly political (and technically un-constitutional) sacking of the Chief Justice - the source of the weekend turmoil in Karachi.

Several months after we got the ball rolling on our Iranian visas, we finally received them Islamabad. We are spoiling ourselves and flying out tomorrow to Tehran (its an arduous 4 days on buses otherwise, through some areas that are not the safest). We'e both been waiting a long time to visit Iran - so we can't wait. Hopefully we will be able to access our blogs there....

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Just Plain Wrong

I'm all for innovation and fusion in the food and beverage industry - but sometimes things go too far. I was innocently ordering a beer on a street stall in Turpan the othe night with a couple we had met travelling, and I yelled out to the chap who was up at the counter purchasing another beer "get the Xiliang!" which I had spied on the shelves. The Xiliang is a nice wheaty beer that tastes much better than the other Xinjiang province drops.

I was the first to taste the new purchase when it arrived at the table, and I immediately noticed that something was badly awry. "This tastes strangely like it has pineapple cordial in its guys!". Sure enough a closer inspection of the label revealed that it was indeed a fruity flavoured beer:

Ice in beer when it is warm (a Cambodian necessity) and shandy I can just tolerate, but not an abonimation like this. As an aside a bloody fight about an unpaid bill involving multiple locales, stools and bloody noses broke out moments after I took this photo at the shop beside ours.

Public Goods

One of the great ironies of travelling in "communist" China is the shameless commodification of anything that could be vaguely construed as a tourist attraction. I will confess that many of the museums and some other sites we have visited have been relative bargains when compared to what you would pay in the West - other sites though have been rather more dubious. The old town area of Kashgar, and an ancient Uighur village outside Turpan have all been slapped with "entrance fees". We quietly noted that the ticket booth for Uighur village (which we did not end up going in to) and all the surrounding souvenir stalls were manned by Han Chinese. Without being too cynical one can be pretty sure that the economic benefit of tourism to the local Uighur minorities is pretty minimal.

My favourite example of commodifaction that we have witnessed so far has to be the dunes of sand outside the small town of Dunhuang:

Sure there is a famous oasis between the dunes that Marco Polo allegedly once visited on his travels - but an 80 yuan (over AUS$13) fee is even steeper than the dunes. Needless to say we cycled alongside the fence until it had fallen down and climbed up with all the locals.

At least we are getting an idea of what some of the money is being used for though. It seems that pretty much everywhere we have visited - regardless of size - has undergone a massive facelift. I won't complain as I'm sure that most locals (at least the ones that haven't been forcibly evicted to make way for shops and apartments) and the massively increasing numbers of domestic tourists are enjoying the country wide building boom, and the associated commodities boom is keeping the Australian economy afloat. Unfortunately Anth and I have frequently been left thinking "I wonder what this place looked like a few years ago..." Its also meant that we've had to work a lot harder to find the unique character of each place we've visited behind the uniform facades of "progress".

Take Dunhuang for example - a town that was described in a guide book from two years ago as "a charming collection of a few dusty streets" now looks like this:

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Tower of Babel

Several days when we were in Lanzhou waiting for the train to Jiayuguan, we watched Babel (a movie that we spent all Summer trying to catch in Melbourne). Given the films's central themes of miscommunication and being a white person in a foreign land - it was quite timely.

The further West we have gone, the more I have been reminded of the China I remember from when I taught English here for 6 months in 1999. The percentage of people who can speak English abiblity has dramatically decreased as we have progressed, and we have found ourselves feeling powerless and staring a mutual wall of incomprehension more and more often. My initial reaction to some of these situations has initially been frustration - especially at some of the major tourist sites, where one would expect at least a minimal level of English to facilitate the smoothe passage of the tourist dollar. But I have to keep reminding myself that I am a guest and that the onus is on me as a guest to speak Chinese (I suspect I have also picked up a few bad habits from Cambodia where everyone tries to speak English and the unhealthy White-man-as-God complex still lingers).

I have also struggled to adjust this time to the Chinese way of social interaction - and how everyday conversation frequently escalates into yelling. Most of the time this is perfectly innocent, but sometimes it is not. The number of fights and scuffles that we have seen over tickets for buses and trains has been quite eye opening. I've often tried to remember whether things were the same when I lived further South in 1999.

Unfortunately, there have also been a few times when someone has spoken to me in what I instinctively perceived to be rude and confrontational and I have reacted in a rather unbecoming fashion - when I probably completely misinterpreted the original intent.

Lest I paint too negative a picture, I should say that the memories that I formed 8 years ago of all the incredibly friendly and hospitable people I met with has not changed at all this time round in China.

Friday, April 20, 2007

International theft, miscommunication and crazy driving

Dunhuang seems like an interesting place, it's certainly warmer than the other places we have been, and it was kind of a relief to get here.

We arrived after a lengthy and somewhat confusing bus ride which involved many of the classic Asian bus journey problems experienced by foreigners. We waited mysteriously at random locations for lengthy periods, we drove at 100km/hr the wrong way down a split laned freeway (which was still under construction), there were heated arguments over passengers tickets, passengers were sick, the bus was overcrowded and we got pulled over by the cops (possibly for overcrowding, possibly for crazy driving). Reasons for much of this were completely unclear to us, and all we could do was sit and wait till we arrived at our final destination. We have been doing a lot of travelling though. Getting from the east of China to the far west is no mean feat public transport wise and so in many ways we took much of this in our stride.

Dunhuang is in the middle of the desert and is famous for the Mogao caves which were first built around 366AD and were developed as places of worship and depositories of books, paintings and sculptures. After being hassled by our hotel we agreed to take their bus out to the caves. At 10am the little minivan, containing us, 3 Chinese businessmen and a driver, sped out of town, took a right turn at the skeleton of the brand new train station and headed out into the desert to the caves.

On arrival we discovered that the ticket office workers didn't speak English and that there wasn't an English tour for another hour and a half which would mean that we couldn't meet back at the minivan at the appointed time. We traipsed back to the gold minivan and tried to explain this to our driver using our little Mandarin phrase book. It wasn't clear that he completely understood so we hauled him over to the ticket office so that they could explain in fluent chinese. Much discussion ensued. The driver kept on addressing us in Chinese, and we kept on smiling and saying (in awful Chinese) "we don't understand chinese!". Finally he gave up and seemed to agree to wait for the end of our tour.

Before the tour, to kill some time we had a look in the museum on site. It had an impressive exhibition of beautiful Tibetan bronze figures obtained by unspecified means.

In a fitting display of the Chinese approach to Tibet, a Chinese security guard in the exhibit room, wandered around leisurely touching the figures and rapping them with his knuckles to hear the resulting reverberations.

The tour itself was good. It started late, but our softly spoken, young Chinese guide kept up a lively discussion on the caves, buddhism and the local weather. The paintings in the caves were interesting, in particular how they showed buddhist art over many dynasties in China. In another part of the caves an exhibit, rather mercilessly detailed the circumstances as to why the ancient books, paintings and sculptures that had been hidden in the caves are now located in museums in England, France, Russia and Japan. It seems there was an all out international raiding, not that this was limited only to foreigners, the local Chinese authorities also took their cut.

Once we had seen our allotment of 10 caves, including one cave which had what is now the second tallest buddha in the world, carved from bottom to top, standing 34 metres, we took a look at the time. We were late. We rushed out of the ticket area and over to the carpark. We stood breathless as the driver angrily gesticulated at his watch and then quickly clambered into the van. The other passengers didn't look to happy either. Dust spraying out behind the tyres we floored it out of the carpark and down the new bitumen road. After an angry exchange with the men at the gate of the in-construction train station the van came to a hasty halt and the 3 businessmen got out.

We had no idea what was going on. The driver kept on speaking Chinese to us, and by now we had given up trying to say that we don't understand Chinese. Were these men catching a train? had we made them miss the train? The driver then asked us if we wanted to go on a tour to some nearby dunes and was all smiles again, whilst loudly honking the horn. Finally the men returned and we drove back into town. Although in doing so, our driver who seemingly was taking out his frustrations through his driving avoided paying a toll at the toll booth by screaming through close at the heels of another car when the toll gate went up. The businessmen seemed to cheer up at this behaviour and happily we made it back to town.

We were dropped off at our hotel and Andrew made pains to fetch one of the hotel staff who spoke english to apologise to the driver for being late and if we had inconvenienced the other passengers. She refused to apologise for us and kept on saying "no problem".

Hmmmm. Confusing, huh. I am enjoying being in China and we have seen some wonderful sights, but I have really felt that our inability to really communicate with people has meant we are really just skimming the surface.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


We came to Xiahe as our substitute for not going to Tibet. However, as it turned out Xiahe is possibly a less touristy window into Tibetan culture and according to the locals this IS Tibet. We couldn't help but stand at the window in our hotel and peer out at the fascinating array of local Tibetan people in traditional dress. The women in colourful skirts, chunky metal belts and large colourful jackets with furred lining which are worn with one arm in and one out; the men with even larger silk and fur lined jackets with large sunglasses and knives at their waists and the children in smaller versions of the above wear with huge rosy red cheeks. During our time in Xiahe we indulged in some serious people watching - and photo taking (link to our Xiahe flickr album). It seems so far that the delicate balance and dynamic between outsiders and the local Tibetans has not been polluted by tourism - yet...

The centrepiece of the Tibetan part of town is the Labrang monastery which today houses around 600 monks. At it's peak there were over 1,200 monks in the monastery community (a large part of the monastery and many monks were victims of the Cultural Revolution). On our first day we went for a tour through the monastery. Despite the fact that it was freezing cold, this was possibly one of the most striking experiences we have had in China so far. We were given a personal tour by one of the local monks who escorted us through the many temples, school rooms and prayer rooms.

We saw amazing, colourful buddhist sculptures made by the monks for the New Year festival. The most interesting thing about these sculptures is that they are made from yaks butter (at least the cold comes in handy in maintaining these art pieces) and then melted down again at the end of the year. It seems yak products are all the rage, in addition to sculpting material, yaks butter is used for candles and yaks milk, cheese and meat are all staples of Tibetan cooking.

Then at 11am, our guide took us into the main prayer hall where many of the resident monks were assembled for prayer session. It was a simply amazing experience to walk around edges of the darkend a hear the low murmerings of the monks, with the tall wooden pillars of the room and the muted colours of the large buddha sculptures and flags from the roof.

We wandered out of the prayer hall into the cold morning air and looked around us. This place really was enchanting. After the tour we grabbed a bite at a local Tibetan restaurant, up on a third floor with a stunning view of the monastery and surrounding mountains this was our restaurant of choice. It is also the best place to sample all the different varieties of yak products - if you're game. According to Andrew yak is tasty and somewhat similar to roast beef.

We woke up on our last morning in Xiahe for our 7am bus back to Lanzhou and discovered the hills covered in snow. It was a sharply cold morning but the prettiness of the scene made up for the cold.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Happy Snaps

We have just set up a Flickr account which will hopefully enable anyone that is interested to see the various temporary dwellings that we will be galavanting around in the coming months. More to come soon - I promise!

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The journey begins....

After months of painstaking preparation we are finally on the road. Our first stop is ...

Well, this is not technically our first stop. The very first thing we did on the trip was to arrive in Bangkok and have our fill of massages, movies and good food. It was all so comforting and familiar and I was loving the humidity!

We then hopped on a plane for the real journey to begin and arrived in Beijing. Things we like about Beijing so far:

  • Wonderful exhibition of American art from the Guggenheim(s) which is currently taking up two thirds of the national gallery.
  • Contemporary Chinese art, such as that displayed at the red gate gallery, and the Liu Qinghe exhibition, at the National Gallery.
  • Dedicated bike lanes.
  • Listening to the Bangles in a McDonalds outside the Summer Palace.
  • Getting the inside story of an expat's life from Stew, an old friend from Cambodia.
  • A plethora of delicious fake meat restaurants. I even stuffed myself at my first Chinese vegetarian buffet.
The city is also nearing the end of a manic beautification phase - which has seemingly transformed the city and supplemented some of the drab Communist era buildings with some very cutting edge contemporary designs. The hidden cost of all of this progress can be found in stories like this subway collapse that happened last week.

It's also really cold here. Thankfully, today we both bought big jackets. Although, according to Stew it is positively tropical at the moment. I guess these things are all relative.

And can I just say, to further elaborate on the faux meat restaurant thing. We have found simply the best vegetarian restaurant in Beijing. And possibly one of the best veg. restaurants I have ever been to. We ate the most "I can't believe it's not pork" sausage in the world tonight - complete with fake fatty bits. Yum! And that was just the entree, for mains we ate deep fried fake chicken covered in cumin and sesame seeds and served with fresh coriander and faux Beijing duck (pictures hopefully pending).

We are currently planning our next steps, which involve a trip to Xi'an to see the terracotta warriors. However, we still have a few more Beijing sites to cover... like the great wall.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Cycle

Its time to very belatedly include Ben's response to a somewhat self-indulgent set of questions I posted a few months ago on this blog. His simple way of portraying what happens to well meaning white folk like ourselves when we get to a place like Cambodia is portrayed below...

Monday, February 26, 2007

Lifes Choices Comic

One of the last projects that I helped to initiate before I left Cambodia was a comic book for school students done by the wonderful people at the NGO Our Books. After a long gestation period, the comic book is now available online (THOUSANDS of copies were also distributed to campuses across the country). I was really proud to be involved in this project, so here's hoping it actually resonates with the target audience!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Togetherness Project

So, as some of you may have noticed I am no longer alleviating middle class guilt (hard to do when you are unemployed and no longer surrounded by poor people in desparate need of your fabulous expertise). The blog has also received a new lick of paint with the 21st century equivalent of re-painting a bachelor pad, removing stains in the carpet and putting up tasteful wall hangings in an attempt to appeal to more feminine sensibilities. As of this post, there are now two authors to this blog. Inspired by Ben and Bec's togetherness project, Anth has shut down her old blog and joined me in what we hopefully be a successful attempt to chronicle our nomadic lives in coming months/years (I will attempt to change the URL accordingly too).

We have now been back in Oz for 2.5 months, and its been a trans-continental bitumen blur of travel to and from Adelaide and Melbourne, and up to Sydney and Canberra. In that time we have managed to sneak in much socialising with our wonderful friends, some sorely missed live music (Midlake, Shihad and Andrew Bird), weddings (Nic and Melissa, Kate and Andy, and Tim and Sal), Anth's first taste of live spectator sport at the Adelaide test, showing Steph around Melbourne, and time in Kangaroo Island before NYE:

We will be spending the next 7 weeks preparing for the next travel chapter (China, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Europe (briefly) and down to South America to find work) which begins at the end of March. Its been great to be home - and to enjoy the freedom of unemployment - but we are looking forward to tackling some of the uncertainties that are currently hovering over our heads.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Leaving in Stages

Apologies to anyone that may actually read this blog on a regular basis, the last few months have been a bit of blur with finishing our lives in Cambodia, traveling for a few weeks, seeing family and friends in Australia and dealing with the inevitable culture shock (“Oh my god! White people! And no-one to wash my clothes!” – the latter is actually patently false given how much we have thus far mooched off our respective parents…)

Despite long held expectations to the contrary, leaving work turned out to be a fairly low key affair. Staff farewell parties at Pact tend to be rather large well scripted affairs where all the staff are hustled into the large meeting room at 4pm for free food (beef jerky was always my favorite and the first to go) and several long speeches are given. Typically when a long serving (more than a year) foreigner leaves there is a rolling series of other engagements. In the past 2 years I have often stood at staff farewells and started composing what would no doubt be the most eloquent and philosophical speech ever given, with deep metaphors about building bridges between East and West and mutual learning. This in turn would cause all staff to realize that they were going to miss me even more than they’d originally thought. As it turned out I ended up in a mass farewell for three staff (as is Pact’s staff turnover at the moment) and received a farewell speech in Khmer from the Deputy Country Representative (an unprecedented event with our Country Representative away). My speech came right at the end of the party after many of the people I had worked closely with had left already, and ended up being rather muddled and short.

All of this didn’t matter too much as I was able to come back several weeks later and say nice low-key goodbyes to everyone. Most importantly, I was able to have dinner with my team just before I left the country. I took note of mistakes that friends have made when leaving the country, and made sure that the evening was on terms that our team would be familiar with (in the past we had ignorantly gone to restaurants the local staff couldn’t afford). And it doesn’t get much more Khmer than a private karaoke room at a barbecue restaurant. To give you an idea of how special the evening was, Anth even broke her iron clad promise NEVER to do karaoke by joining me for a touching rendition of the unofficial Asian anthem – Hotel California.

I will miss all of our team immensely. Working so closely with a small team that is made up of extremely capable and dedicated local staff is something that not many people I know have been able to experience due to time, organizational, position etc. constraints. The awareness of my privilege was far from immediately apparent – and I still vividly remember the night that it finally hit home. It was around 9.30 in the evening at the end of 2005 and I was sitting on the curb by the carpark outside my office waiting for one of the roadside fix-it chaps to mend a flat bicycle tire. I think that up until that point I had still naively believed that on balance my colleagues were benefiting the most from my presence – not vice versa. The immediate past of Cambodia and the dignity and resolve shown by the vast majority of Cambodians in the face of it is almost something that is so obvious and tacitly accepted that I never really thought about it too much – but at that point in time it really hit me, and I recall cycling home feeling immensely humbled. In retrospect I’m glad I didn’t press ahead with my long held intentions to somehow work this anecdote into my farewell speech. But anyways, I digress…

The logistics of leaving work also turned out slightly differently than I had expected. I had begun the preparations for leaving several weeks prior to the event and the calming effect of two public holidays that left office empty in my final week gave the false impression that I was on track. Naturally, I was wrong. My final three nights were spent working till very late and I unfortunately didn’t have time to conduct a proper in-person handover with Ratanak – my replacement. It was quite surreal leaving an organization after almost three years and being the last to lock up the office on a Friday night at 11.30. I peered into the now darkened office just before I left wondering why balloons weren’t falling from the roof with people cheering, and what it felt like to walk through the doors for the first time on my fourth day of being in Cambodia.

There wasn’t much time to comprehend all the emotions and sentiment fueled by lack of sleep, as we were due to begin a new phase precisely 7.5 hours later. I returned home to find the entire contents of Anth’s flat in my room and the need for both of us to pack for several weeks of travel.. The next morning Ben, Bec, Nic, Melissa, Anth and I drove a minivan up to Siem Reap with Yim and her extended family. The results of this most wonderful expedition – which ranks as one of the highlights of the year – are ably chronicled here (eternal gratitude to Bec for all her work in organizing the trip in the face of potential opposition from Yim’s evil matriarch).

After two days in Siem Reap, Anth and I split to go to Bangkok and then onto Burma. A combination of prior experience and discreet (albeit slightly impatient) words in Khmer meant that we shortened the usual interminable (up to 4 hours) wait at the Thai border and we were ushered into a brand new minivan that got us in with sufficient time to dine at our favorite Jordanian restaurant in the Arabic district. Given all that had happened in the preceding days I wasn’t able to comprehend that I was finally about to go to Burma after years of pining and aborted travel plans. When I worked at the development desk job from hell at Monash back in 2003, we were invited by AusAID to bid for a highly unique and prestigious human rights training program. We were successful, but several days before the program was due to launch Aung San Suu Kyi was re-arrested after a brutal attack on her supporters as she toured the country. The bureaucratic hell of AusAID neglect and country desk officer turnover that followed the arrest left the program in limbo – which only heightened the unattainable mystique of Burma. From the moment I arrived in Cambodia I made definite plans to visit Burma and slightly vaguer plans to maybe even try and find work there. My bedside table also always contained books that I had intended to read about Burma but never got round too. Against this backdrop of long-standing ignorance and intrigue, there was only one inevitable result from our brief trip there – disappointment.

Aesthetically Burma is incredibly interesting and the key tourist attractions – Shewedagon Pagoda, Bagan and Inle Lake – are stunning. The old colonial architecture and the unexepectedly strong sub-continental influences in Rangoon were also striking. On a superficial level Anth and I were also taken by many of the considerable differences to Cambodia: cars stopping instantly (and in some cases even reversing at intersections) when the lights went red (amazing what a huge, well resourced and widely feared police presence can do); people selling second hand books in all of the cities we visited (again, it helps not to have your entire middle class wiped out and your TV options drastically limited by the government); the large public parks in Rangoon that had grass that you could actually sit on (along with the railways one of the few obvious legacies of the British); and the ability of Burmese to appreciate multiple styles of music (Anth and I stumbled upon a Green-Day-esque local punk band doing a CD launch in one of the few upmarket shopping centres in Rangoon – our jaws dropped in shock and delight). Despite what I felt were positive differences as a middle class Westerner – we were quickly reminded of something we already knew – despite the seemingly glossy veneer we found in Rangoon, Burma is even more screwed up than Cambodia in its own unique ways.

George Orwell spent five formative years working as a servant of the British Empire in the northern Burma when he was young – and it is tragically fitting that the Burmese government is now one of the few remaining international powers dedicated to implementing the type of hermetically sealed social nightmare found in 1984. With the help of a few brief conversations with locals and members of the local Pact office who very kindly entertained us – we were able to start piecing together the types of extreme restrictions that are placed on the movement of all Burmese. We also saw that all the billboards in Burma advertise consumer goods that are produced by the government (the handful of locally made international brands are all joint ventures) and that the billboards all feature the same small group of government endorsed pop stars. The streets of Rangoon and Mandalay were also clogged with wildly archaic cars and other machinery as the taxes on imports are so ridiculously high. In the 10 days that we were there – Anth and I barely scratched the surface of political and social issues in Burma – but we still got a sense pretty quickly that something wasn’t quite right. This feeling further reinforced the importance of following the independent tourist mantra in Burma – avoid engaging in activities that support the government financially (a losing battle no doubt though given that the package tourists we saw far exceeded independent ones – incidentally, middle aged Germans have recently been declared a new ethnic minority).

Despite all of the above qualifications and reservations – Anth and I found the trip to be immensely rewarding. The only catch is that we were in a constant state of exhaustion (and I was struck down by a flu for several days) due to our complete failure to allow any time to recover after finishing work. Another problem is that the Burmese government had arbitrarily closed all land borders a month prior to our visit (we were incredibly lucky to find this out from a travel agent in Rangoon) – which royally screwed our plans to travel overland to Laos via Chiang Rai in North West Thailand. Faced with only 4-5 days left in our modified itinerary (unfortunately not enough time to get off the beaten trail North of Mandalay – which I’d been hoping to do) we made a snap decision to deal with some other unfinished Indochinese business – the Thai islands. After the stresses of the preceding weeks and with the memories of a 17 hour bus trip to Rangoon (a break down, miniscule leg room, ear-shattering music, virtually all passengers throwing up at some point etc.) fresh in our minds we were ecstatic to prostitute ourselves to the land of 711s (“Look Anth, you can get Diet Coke for less than $3, and I can buy 2 Magnum ice creams!”), well-oiled tourist infrastructure, and scantily clad white folk (who’s ranks we wanted to join). Several ridiculously short days at the beach, and one well-oiled present shopping/movie watching/ fast food eating/ book store loitering 2 day mission in Bangkok later we were back in Phnom Penh.

For some stupid reason we thought that 2.5 days would be enough to pack up our lives and say goodbye to our friends. We just managed the former and barely managed the latter. It was quite surreal coming back after several weeks away – we didn’t realize how much we had already separated ourselves from Cambodia and we were very conscious of leaving several days later – which left us feeling disconnected and transitory as we went through the final motions. Leaving was unfortunately much more stressful that we’d hoped. Including hand luggage Anth and I took back about a combined total of 130 kg – which we somehow managed to sneak past multiple hand luggage checks prior to boarding. All of this was horrifically stressful – and made us unable to deal properly with the incredible emotions of saying goodbye to Yim, Ben and Bec who had all come to the airport. Anth and I miraculously avoided the final baggage inspection and slumped in our seats not knowing quite what had hit us. As soon as the plane started the sharp descent away from the country that had been our home for the last few years, we were finally overcome with emotion (much to the puzzlement of the annoyed looking rich Khmer lady beside us).

12 hours later, after dropping Anth at her grandparents house, I found myself sitting silently in the bedroom that I had last permanently slept in 1996. No matter how many times you go through reverse culture shock, it never gets any easier.