Lots and lots of articles published now - you have to look in the archives if you want to see them all!
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28 May 2003 - Somewhere in the Baltic
Sailing to Stockholm on Viking

I'm sure there's a pun somewhere involving Finland, Sweden and Vikings, but I'm just not able to think of one just now. Never mind, I can tell you that I am taking the ferry from Helsinki to Stockholm, that it's an overnight journey that will dock at 9.30 in the morning (Swedish time) and that it gets bloody cold up and out there on the topmost deck at six in the evening.

There is a certain romance about sea travel in this jet age, just as there is with rail travel. It's looked upon as a luxury, it's like the people are saying "we want to travel like this because we can afford the time and the money to".

Why else would you want to go from point A to point B on something that is slower and usually not much lower in price (and sometimes, more costly)? It's the lure of romance, when travel was adventurous, when men were men and women journeyed on silk sheets and the finest wines.

Well, the truth isn't always like that. You must remember that there is a good reason why you don't always see people ambling about on deck in Nordic seas. It's because the wind is fr&&@ing cold out there, even in springtime. Plastic chairs set out on deck are blown about with abandon, and woe betide any person whose surface area to weight ratio is too large. I have no problems, being short, small and dense, but my mum risks becoming a human kite if she weares the wrong type of jacket.

We braved the weather and the fine sunshine for all of half an hour before combing the decks. For all it's size, cruise liners don't actually offer all that much. Apart from the decks (which included a bar at the stern), there is one floor of restaurants and a casino, and one floor of shops, a children's play area and a café. All the rest are cabins and crew areas.

The cabins range from 'the finest luxury money can buy with incredible views of the ocean' to 'the ones under the car deck that have no windows because all you would see is sea water, with some froth, if you're lucky'.

We actually got ones above the car deck, because it cost about the same for a double-decker bed above the car deck as a side-by-side arrangement under it. Of course, we had no windows. We didn't even have pretend windows like some of the other cabins. At least we could pretend we were in luxury by staring at a mural of an ocean-swept rocky isle, but we were even denied that opportunity. At least we had one shower and a WC with a sink and sheets and towels. I did notice a sign in one of the pamphlets that notified passengers that 'for the first two hours of the journey, channel 8 will be playing a video on safety precaution'. As we didn't have a TV in our room, I assumed that those of us in the inner cabins in deck 5 were to fend on our own and were probably expendable anyway in the event of an emergency.

The main reason why these liners are so cheap to travel on (if you consider paying RM400 for two people in a cramped cabin 'cheap') is because of the amount of duty free they sell and gambling that takes place on board.

You cannot turn a corner on the restaurant or duty free deck without seeing a line of slot and poker machines. The casinos open at 9pm, at about the same time as the performance shows. I didn't witness any of this as I was fast asleep by ten, and didn't want to be seduced by wine, women and gambling chips anyway.

The more amazing thing were the duty-free shops. From the time the shops open (about an hour into the journey), they were full of people carting away as much alcohol as they could. They even sell beer cartons that come with free trolleys so you can pull it off the ship. There are limits as to how much you can bring off, so I wonder exactly how much these guys drink in order to bring the carry-off amount under the limit. Not that customs seem to care too much - I didn't see a single soul pulled over or move through the red lane.


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28 May 2003 - Somewhere in the Baltic
EURail Passes and the Great Helsini-Stockholm Ferry Scam

There are two ferry lines serving the Helsinki-Stockholm route. The Silja line is the more expensive, the nicer one, and the one that clearly gives me a free passage if I use up a day on my EURail pass. Unfortunately, the computer system could not handle a cabin with one EURail passenger and one normal passenger, and so they couldn't offer my mum and me the lowest price possible (about EUR90 ~ RM360 or so).

The Viking line has no such arrangement with EURail to validate passes, but they don't want to be left behind, so they've arranged an offer that says EURail passes get a free journey if they can produce a rail ticket. This, depending on how you read it, results in a way of getting very cheap ferry tickets.

Let me take a little time explaining EURail passes. They are these magic passes that allow you unlimited travel on European rail for a certain period of time in certain countries. For example, you can buy a pass that allows you to travel for 30 days in Europe. Or a pass that you can use for five journeys in Finland, Sweden and Denmark.

You can get one for USD249 for five days worth of travel in three countries within two months, if you are under 26. (If you're interested, mine is the 'ten days worth of travel in all of Europe within two months and I'm not under 26' which costs a whopping USD694.)

The ticket must be used within six months of you buying it, and within two months of the first journey. Before you begin the first train ride/ferry ride, you must get a railway offifcer to validate it. This means that the ticket is now 'live' and will expire within two months.

Now, I think that what Viking mean is that if you have used the EURail pass on the day that you are getting on board the ferry (i.e. it is stamped for that day), you can travel on the ferry for free. Note that 'free' means 'without a cabin', so that is an extra EUR48 if you want a cabin for yourself.

However, the people at the Viking counter didn't really know too much about EURail passes, so when I showed them an unvalidated pass (i.e. it had never been used before and no railway officer had put a stamp on it), they just gave me a free passage. Incredible.

If they're consistent with this, it means that if you're under 26, you can get six months of travel on the Viking ferries for USD249. If you travelled nine times back and forth between Stockholm and Helsinki, you would have already covered the cost of your ticket.

Of course, I'm not going to do that, but it's an idea. But, let me point out one more thing. Although they print your name on the ticket, not once on the journey between Helsinki and Stockholm did they check whether we were the same people as on our tickets. So, these tickets are 'transferable' if you don't get caught. I suppose I could have made some money selling free ferry passes.


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26 May 2003 - Helsinki
What Women Want - Part II

Yet another example of Women Will Get Something They Don't Need Because It Costs Less is when my mum waved me on board a ferry without knowing where it was going.

"It's only two Euros per person!", she said. I had been scouting the port for left luggage lockers where we could stow our bags before hopping on board the ferry. I'm forever doing things like this, scouting out railway stations the day before I leave, so I know where the platforms are, but I only really seem to do it when I'm alone. I hadn't checked out a single train station in Russia, depending on the local guides to get us there. I would have in St Petersburg, because of all the luggage I'm dragging about (that's another story), but I didn't. Anyway, the Russians seem to not have figured out things like Left Luggage yet, so it would have been an exercise in futility.

Anyway, while I was away, my mum had been busy scouting out the ferries, and she had happily decided that since it was so cheap, it was worth hopping on one. Never mind she didn't know where it was going. Or what was there to see.

The irony? Since we had already bought a group 24-hour travel pass, we could have gone on it for free anyway.


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26 May 2003 - Somewhere between St Petersburg and Helsinki
We're Russian to the Finnish line

Hey, it took me minutes to think up of that title, okay? So, cut me some slack.

The Russian phase of our journey will be over once we cross the border into Finland. It has been a... tiring experience. Don't get me wrong - I like Moscow, and St Petersburg was pretty pretty. Mainly, it's because my credit card was stolen, and a lot of time and effort and worrying was spent trying to find out how to call the Visa helpline to get it back.

Also, there's the additional stress (I'm not sure if that's the right word) of not speaking the language, which severely limits what you're able to do.


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27 May 2003 - Kaivopuisto, Helsinki

The train finally got into Helsinki and we made our way to the hotel without much incident, if you don't count me leaving my reporter's jacket and handphone on the train as one. We took a taxi, rode in a Volvo and paid EUR10 for the priveliege. Taxis aren't cheap in Helsinki, but they sure are nice.

Helsinki represents a sort of pitstop for us, followed by another one later in Stockholm. The only reason why I'm zipping through these countries is because of cost. Things are not cheap in Scandanavia, but they sure are nice (just like their taxis).

Their public transport is just the best I've ever seen. It's not that large, especially since Helsinki is such a small place, but they have an intergrated public transportation system. KL City authorities, please take note: Earlier, I talked about a single ticketing system for trains travellling on different lines. Now I shall point out to you that you should actually have a single ticketing system for all forms of transportation.

This is how it works: you buy a ticket, and it lasts for a predetermined amount of time, say, an hour. Within that hour, you can use either the train, metro, bus or tram, and change between them as often as you like. You can travel as many stops as you like. The only thing you can't do is travel outside a pre-determined boundary (you need to pay a supplement to do this).

There are no conducters checking your tickets as you travel. Everything is based on the honour system. If you are caught without a valid ticket, you are fined EUR50 and the cost of the ticket. I haven't travelled the metro here yet, but I assume there are no gates stopping you from geting on or off.

The cost is a little high (EUR2 ~ RM8 for a single ride or EUR4 ~ RM16 for an all day ticket), but it's comparable to, say, the cost of a Big Mac Meal (about EUR5).

Assuming you could get a good job, it would be a nice place to live, if a little staid. However, there must be some sort of adventurous streak in the Finns. Not only have they produced Mika Hakinnen and Kimi Raikonnen, they play ice hockey with a passion, and (just because it must mean something) pornography represents 90% of their film exports. In fact, they just held a world expo on pornography last week.


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20 May 2003 - Moscow
The Moscow Circus

Russia has a great tradition in the circus, and as testament to this, Moscow has not one, but two permanent circuses, imaginatively named The Old Circus and The New Circus.

The Old Circus didn't have a performance on the day we decided to go and have a look, so we went to the new one.

We knew where the circus was when we got out of the metro - just follow the lines of children streaming towards this big domed building. Finding out where to buy the tickets was less straight-forward. The sales booth is underneath the main entrance and not directly accessible from it. To top it all off, the ticket attendents do not speak English. Or maybe they just pretend not to so that they could push the most expensive tickets at us (about 310 Rubles per ticket).

Acts in the circus fall ino basically two types: Those involving human performers doing incredible or funny things; and those involving animal performers doing incredible or funny things.

In the former category, we saw a lady who jumped and twirled hoops while standing on a horse, tightrope walkers, somersaulting and dancing ice skaters, a guy who did one-handed handstands, a guy doing a performance on something like the rings and, of course, clowns.

In the latter category, we had performing goats, performing dogs, trapeze monkeys, horses that trotted to On The Street Where You Live, ice skaters and their boomerang pigeons, elephants and, the most amazing thing I saw, trained performing house cats.

When I told Adik about this later, he assumed that I meant the big cats.

I said, "No, they're house cats. With flaming batons".

"With the cats on the ends?"

Actually, there was a point in the dog show when the lady spun a long pole with poodles hanging off the ends, which was a sight to behold. They seemed quite blasé about the whole thing, which I doubt the cats would have been.

The cats did climb twenty-foot high poles and then jumped off them (or climbed down them again). It was mightily impressive.


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24 May 2003 - St Petersburg
What Women Want

There is this idea that women will spend half as much on something they don't need and men will spend twice as much for something they do. Well, I think the first half of that was demonstrated today.

As part of St Petersburg's birthday celebrations, they are hoding a serie of concernts and performances for a week or so. They have this little guide as to what's on, but they are a little cryptic about what exactly they mean.

For example, on my guide it says: "Solo concert of A. Rosenbaum, Palace Square". Of course, I have no idea who A. Rosenbaum is, or what kind of music he's going to play, or what the 'A' in his name stands for, but it sounds like a good deal, especially since the conert is going to be free.

So we walk into the square at about ten past seven when they are conducting some ceremony about a statue or something, and we sit through (stand, rather) an hour's worth of singing, speeching and general waiting around.

During this time, the crowd ebbed a little, and Mama sidewinded her way towards the front of the audience, fish-like. I had no option but to follow, but because I didn't know where she was going, I had to play catch-up. We snaked our way to within twenty meters of the stage and then stopped, presumably because she couldn't find any more gaps.

All the while, I was thinking, "why is she so keen to get into the crowd and closer to the stage?". I leaned forward and in my best son-asking-mother-curiously voice asked "Why are we getting closer? We don't even know who this guy is". Her answer demonstrated that girlishness is an inherent trait of the female gender: "If he's handsome, we're staying".

Well, presumably A. Rosenbaum is not a patch on Paul Newman, because he was not thirty seconds into his first song, when Mama turned around and wanted to leave.


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23 May 2003 - Patio Pizza
The Hermitage in St Petersburg

Strolling through St Petersburg in May is nice, when the weather is threatening to burst in to Summer. Even though the sun was out, we spent most of our time today indoors at the Hermitage, one of the largest art museums in the world.

The building itself is stupendous, never mind the collection in it. Behind is a large plaza that's set to be a centerpiece for the upcoming 300th birthday celebrations of the city. Strangely enough, it's awfully difficult to find any information about this, but I'm sure any one of the hotels will have a crib sheet.

The hermitage was the brainchild of ... and it's built like a palace. Some of the rooms leave you wondering whether you should be looking at the exhibits or the interior decor itself.

The collection is vast, spanning thousands of years from ancient Egypt all the the way to post-modern European art. It's meant to be bigger than either the Louvre or the British Museum, according to the press in one of the tourist magazines.

The museum is far too large to cover it in half a day, which is what we tried to do, but I think one day of Hermitaging will be more than most people can manage anyway. The key with muuseums of this size is to select which exhibits you plan to see and focus on them, while giving others a cursory glance (in the hope that you'll stumble across something interesting by accident).

Today we focused on a lot of the special exhibitions (Mama's idea), mainly on glasswork, jewellry and, believe it or not, modern art.

It is beyond my comprehension how people can enjoy viewing seemingly random strokes that have as much pattern as spilt paint (certainly less so than the complexity that is formed by clouds or flowing water). The viewer is encouraged to interpret what is before him.

Fine. I can do that with woodgrain and I don't have to pay a fortune to enjoy that.

Somehow, when the pendulum swung back through impressionism, it had to carry on and it swung far too far for my liking.

There is also a 'secret' impressionism gallery that is not marked on the maps. The guides refer to it as a "permanent temporary exhibit". They consist a collection of impressionistic pieces including works of Monet, Renoir and Van Gogh. These works were obtained from Germany (presumably during the war, or the former East Germany), and it's not really clear who they belong to. As a result, the museum has never officially recognised their existance (even though they are very obviously put on display), and visitors are told not, repeat NOT, to take pictures of those paintings (as with any of the temporary exhibits). It was entertaining to watch a tourist getting harangued for taking snaps of what was probably Nazi war treasure looted by the Soviet Union.

They include some interesting early Monet pieces ('interesting' here means 'not as good, I think, as his later work') and some good Van Gogh.

All this is hidden away in a corner far, far away from where the other impressionisms are on display.

It's a very politically charged issue and they say they are trying to resolve it, although it's typically Russian thing to, on one hand, not want to make clear ownership of these paintings to settle the issue once and for all, and on the other hand, to proudly present them as being part of the Hermitage's collection, even if it's in a "permanent temporary exhibition".

It was at this point that my mother encouraged me to test international law and the local police. She pointed out that since the paintings belonged to 'nobody' then it should be all right for me to pick one of them off the wall and walk away with it. After all, I can't steal something that doesn't belong to anyone.

After resisting the temptation to follow my mother's encouragement and walk away with half a million dollar's worth of art we looked around the rest of the museum. We actually missed the Italian Masters, I think, because we were interrupted by a phone call on Mama's phone (which one of the museum attendants used as an opportunity to pointedly inform us of museum do's and dont's - although the amount of noise that the average American tourist group makes is many times louder and more disrupting than a tinny handphone).

I really enjoyed the impressionism collection on the third floor that included, as a bonus, stunning views of the square outside. The one thing that marred the otherwise enthralling experience was that some of the paintings (actually, the more valuable ones) were covered with glass and the poor lighting hindered viewing for the larger pieces.

There is a whole article I want to write about the impressionistic period, but I need to learn more about it I guess. All I know and appreciate about it is that you're meant to 'paint the light' and not of the subject itself. Go figure.


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22 May 2003 - On board the overnight train to St Petersburg
Memories of Moscow

OK, all this is a little back to front, because I am writing my final impressions of Moscow before I write about what I did there, but this is now, and I am being 'in the moment' as it were, and I have writer's prerogative anyway, so I shall write what I want, anyway.

I also reserve the right to ramble.

Anyway, I like Moscow. Really, all I need to do is learn some conversational Russian, and it's a rather pleasant place to spend a month in or so. That is, of course, if you have the money.

Maybe I've been fortunate to catch the city in its transitional state between leader of the communist world and complete embracer of free market economics. Maybe it's because it's spring, and I don't have to face cold, white Russian winters. Maybe it's because anything would seem good after a week when you've fretting over your lost credit card (incidentally, it's still lost, and I'm still fretting).

I think there is a sense of optimism amongst Muscovites. They have the opportunity to live the good life, with all that capitalism has to offer, and they want to grab hold of it. Well, the younger ones, anyway. There is a vibrancy about everyday Moscow that smells of promise and quite unlike the idea of Russia being slow, dismal and run-down.

People are actually genuinely helpful and friendly, if you're straight about needing help, and not overly condenscending. An honest smile and an effort to speak Russian brings out far more than the conventional "Excuse me, do you know...?" in English.

The paradox is that on the flipside, you cannot expect things to be smooth. You must constantly expect the worse, anything from when the girl behind the counter will notice you and give you service to whether or not a telephone you pick up will give you a dial tone. Most things Russian would not win prizes for reliability or quality and you get the impression things were probably more reliable when they were state-run and not privatised (if perhaps it lacked shine).

Our guide who met us in Moscow probably caught it when she said that there was no such thing as a typical Muscovite. It is a potpourri of opposites, when the country welcomes with gusto the reconstruction of cathedrals side by side with the never-ending production line of casinos and "gentlemen's clubs". Where it is possible to send SMS's anywhere in Moscow for less than 1 US cent, and yet nobody anywhere understands the meaning of "reverse charge call". Where tourists are welcomed to the Kremlin with open arms by the state (with organised guided tours, no less) and yet the cashier at the counter cannot (or refuses to) speak English.


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19 May 2003 - On the Trans-Siberian, 9 hours away from Moscow
Personal Hygiene on the Trans-Siberian

Have not shaved since Seoul. Same clothes since Irkutsk. Functional loos on the train. No shower. Toiletry bag containing: toothbrush, toothpaste and deoderant.

I could leave it at that, I suppose, and you would be able to guess my state at the end of three nights and four days on the Trans-Siberian, but memoirs are meant to be more detailed than that.

Each carriage has two toilets, one at each end. Both are meant to be open to all passengers, but the one next to the conductress on the train from Ulan Batar to Irkutsk was locked - it seems they sometimes do that for their own personal use. However, this sort of thing doesn't happen on the first class carriages, and we have pretty much a free use of it. About the only time it's locked is when the train stops at a station, and then if it's for ten minutes or more.

It's what you expect from train loos - a glorified hole in a carriage, although quite a bit of thought has gone into this one. There is a little flap and drain that shoots waste out into the countryside and you're meant to help clean up with the use of a toilet brush that's kept in a small container of water.

The First Class cabins have the addition of disposable toilet seat covers, much to the delight of Mama, who now finds the whole business of using Russian toilets much more palatable after the adventures in Listvyanka.

Mama is shocked and appalled at my attempts to conserve laundry. I see no problem in waiting until Moscow to wash one set of clothes, but she feels I should change more often, despite the sedentary life on board the train. My Gillette ClearGel Pacific Light antiperspirant and deoderant does wonders, I tell you, although that may just be from my point of view.

I also am inadvertantly taking my brother's advice to grow a beard, simply because I haven't been able to get a reliable source of hot water in a non-moving compartment since Seoul, and although I would like to say that my seven-day old stubble has blossomed into a beard, the truth is that it still looks like a half-hearted attempt at manliness with the hair stubs recoiling at the unacustomed sight of light, reluctant to grow into the luxurious spread I know it must be capable of. Perhaps a few months, and we might see something.


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Eating on the Trans-Siberian

There are three ways of eating on the Trans-Siberian.

Firstly, you could bring your own food. Forewarned by me to bring some instant noodles, Mama brought with her the following: six cups instant noodles, one packet serunding, one packet vegetable crackers, one packet candied banana, one box roobois tea, one box Boh Tea, two packets raisins, one packet peanuts, one packet cashewnuts, one packet crystalised ginger and one box powdered milk. All this took up one-third of a bag and lasted approximately three nights.

In Mongolia she did stock up on water, orange juice, bread, tomato sauce and nutella, and that pretty much lasted through Irkutsk and midway towards the Urals, supplemented by the most interesting two lots instant mash potato in a cup (tastes as good as it sounds), a bar of russian chocolate, a packet of cheese, a box of grape juice, four greeny-yellow bananas, oranges, apples and two more bottles of water.

The hot water at the end of the carriage is a godsend, because I have no idea how else we would have gotten the instant noodles up and about, as well as our inexhaustable cups of tea. We finished all our just-add-boiling-water food by the time we reached Taiga, some fifty hours away from Moscow.

In between I had attempted the second way of eating on the Trans-Siberian: The dining car. The dining car on the Trans-Siberian is everything that the guide books claim it to be. I shall suummarise it for you in one word: random. You are given two menus at first, they are in Russian. You are then given a third menu that has English on it. This is less helpful then it seems, because the waitress will immediately point out to you all the things you either can, should or must order, presumably because everything else is out of stock.

The next problem is that the English menu doesn't have prices next to it, and I made the mistake of showing her how much money I had. She took this as a cue to mean "I want to spend all the money I have on me" and proceeded to make up a menu for me that exactly matched the 220 roubles that I showed her. To be fair, she did point at the menu while choosing, but again, it could have just been exaultations of what was available rather than "I will bring you this".

What I got in the end for my 220 roubles (about USD7) was a soup and a main dish. Although this sounds pricey, it's actually on par with restaurants in Moscow, so I don't think I was cheated too badly.

The soup was typical russian, full of sour cream plus olives and onions and lemons. I liked it, because it was sourish, but I burnt my tongue in the process (it's still burnt two days later, if you wanted to know).

The main dish was fried salmon covered in sour cream and vegetables and cheese, served with rice. It was ok, if a little bit small after Galina's efforts, but for the price - the pot noodles were better value for money.

The third option is to get off at the stations and hunt for food there.

For some bizarre reason, we had to travel for the better part of a day before we saw our first railside vendors. What I remember of them best was the strangely-shaped chicken which was dubious enough for me to decide against them, but interesting enough that later I wish I had, just to see if it really was chicken.

The produce sold by vendors seem to vary from station to station, and it's a bit of a pot luck to see what you get. They range from sausages to cucumbers to chicken to fish to ice cream.

The larger stations have their own shops that are basically large windows with a counter built into it.

You walk along the shop-window until something catches your fancy, and then you go up to peer through to the assistant behind the counter and ask for what you want. It is in this way that I have learnt and first used the Russian words for water (akvamineral or voda), bread (khleb), cheese (syr) and Twix (twix), as well as large (bolshoya) and small (malinka). Add "thank you" (sbasiba) and some roubles to this, and you pretty much have all you need for a transaction, despite my lack of Russian (although I have no idea what compelled a shopkeeper to think that I would know what "do you have five rubles for change" was, when I was already struggling with "twix").

Anyway, these shops have provided sustenance in the form of bread, water, cheese, chocolates and - you guessed it - instant pot noodles.
18 May 2003 - On the Trans-Siberian just outside Perm
Life outside the train window

After three days on a train, there really isn't very much outside the window that excites you. Ample evidence of this is given by Mama's enthusiasm that we catch the obelisk that marks the border between Europe and Asia. We spent fifteen minutes and 20 kilometers waiting for the darned thing, and when I snapped a picture of it, a telegraph pole got in the way. Such is life.

The view outside the window depends largely whether you're in the countryside or in the suburbs. The rural portions of the trips are monopolised by trees, either upright or chopped down or as lumber, interupted by the occasional meadow and cow.

As we get closer to towns, the scene changes to either one of idyllic collectives of dachas with a father working on a field while a daughter looks on or lines of rusted goods cars in front of some factory or oil refinery.

Mostly, near the stations, you are greeted by the worst sort of 60's architecture, some of it still under construction. Novobirsk inspired me to tell my mum that I could not do any worse if asked to construct the most dismal examples of inner-city design. Every angle a right angle, with forbidding windows decorated gaily with western-inspired graffitti so thoughtfully put in place by the local teenagers.

Life on a station platform gets a little more interesting. In most stations you see people waiting to get on board trains, some are seeing others off. For some reason, there are a large number of women dragging their weekly shopping behind them, with overstuffed trolley bags. I thought that maybe they were vendors, but the real vendors are a little more alert to potential buyers, their eyes flitting from compartment to compartment waiting for opportunities. Their wares are also a little more obvious.

They compete with the railway-run shops, which are large shopwindows with a little counter set in the middle of it all.

There are other distractions. In Perm, I was witness to three drunks trying to beat up another drunk. It's actually quite funny watching drunks fight, because they're not very good at it and everything moves around in slow motion. Eventually two railway guards, with their butch military-style roll-ups and crewcuts broke it up, mainly by shoving one of them in the back and into a sprawl. Not ten meters away, a railway attendant was blissfully ignoring both the commotion and the trains and was saying hello to a baby in a pram.


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17 May 2003 - On board the Trans-Siberia
This cursed Trans-Siberian

How do I put this? I seem to be under a curse since I got onto the train in Ulan Batar. Just to list them:

Add to that the fact that you're more or less cooped up in this cabin - well, I'm getting a little frustrated.

I'm telling myself bad things happen in threes, and this is the third one, so maybe everything will be good from now on. But I'm not superstitious, so this doesn't really make me feel better. At the moment, I'm retyping everything from my report on the World Cup Stadium in Seoul right through to what's happened on the train. This is something like - well, many, many, many hours of writing, and I'd like to think I'll be better second time around.

Well, unless all this gets deleted too.


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Beautiful, foggy Baikal

Lake Baikal has the world's largest freshwater lake and a fifth of all the freshwater in the world. It is the deepest freshwater lake and the one with the clearest water. It has nearly 2000 species of lake flora and fauna which can only be found there and nowhere else. There are even seals living by the lake. In winter, the ice is anywhere from one to ten meters thick and it's possible to skate on it.

I know all this because we visited the Limnological Museum, which is actually a research institute that happens to have a museum on the ground floor. It's actually undergoing renovation at the moment and when complete it will include an aquarium including a large one for seals.

You can try to see all this for yourself if you go diving in the lake, but with water temperatures of 3 degrees Celcius, it would take someone very persuasive to get me to don an insulated wetsuit at this time of the year.

Mama was actually disappointed by the lack of ice on the lake. I had purposely chosen May to travel in to avoid the winter cold and the summer insects, but she was disappointed that she couldn't skate on a meter of ice. Remind me to take her to Sunway Pyramid when we get home.

It was very foggy most of the days that we were there, so we didn't quite get the magnificent views that I had hoped for. In fact, since the train passed by the lake at three in morning, my first impression of it was "quite dark", and I opted for sleep instead of peering out into the darkness try to differentiate between Siberian grassland and Siberian lakewater.

We did take a ferry across to Port Baikal, but because of the inclement weather, we skipped the picnic by the beach, although there really isn't that much to see out there if you're not going to enjoy the view.

All in all, a relaxing couple of days, but I wished now that I had taken the hiking option - but what would have Mama done in the meantime? I think two days of the outdoor loo was enough for her.


posted on Friday, May 30, 2003 - permalink
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You haven't lived until you've been to an outhouse in Siberia at five in the morning

The only phrase missing in the sentence above is "in winter", but it's good enough.

Although the train stopped in Irkutsk, we actually spent most of our time on the shores of Lake Baikal, in a town called Listvyanka (I have also called this town "Listvankya", but I mean the same thing). No hotel for us while we were there, a genuine Siberian homestay was our reward. Run by a motherly woman named Galina, we spent two nights in a house that had no doors inside (only curtains) and, more importantly for some, no indoor plumbing.

The sinks inside the house all lead into a bucket, so you have to be careful not to use so much water. For more serious needs (what I refer to as "Number 1" and "Number 2") there is an outhouse. It's a very simple thing, there are three walls and a door and a hole in the ground. There are also some toilet rolls for decoration. If you shine a light down the latrine (and you need to use a torch, because there is no bulb) you see the four foot deep hole in all it's glory. It's exactly as you might imagine it to be.

Mama's relationship with this outhouse could be summarised by the fact that she sidled up to Ilyana, our guide, on the second day and whispered confidentially, "I have a small problem". The ensuing conversation (which I politely kept a distance from) ended up with Ilyana and me sharing a coffee in a tourist hotel while my mum enjoyed the conveniences of modern indoor plumbing.

I couldn't help noticing that the outhouse in the homestay was right next to the vegetable patch. Galina grows her own vegetables and chickens, one of which we consumed over a lunch and dinner.

And, oh my, what wonderful meals they were. It gives that phrase "home-cooked" justice. Most of it was quite tasty (if sometimes a little salty) but the main feature was the volume. She cooked for four or five people, even though it was only Mama, me and Ilyana, our local guide. I left each mealtime filled to the gills, wondering how on Earth I could eat any more that day, and somehow manage to get hungry again at the next mealtime.

Breakfast was a combination of eggs in some form (quiched, or fried) and blini, thin Russian pancakes, sometimes small and round, crispy around the edges, yummy with butter, jam or cheese.

Lunch and dinner main courses are interchangable, although there is a soup course before lunch. You get everything from roast chicken (and Galina's chickens are really large, so two pieces are more than enough), chicken cutlets, fried rice with vegtables and fried omul, which is a local fish fresh from the lake. The omul was crispy around the edges and quite yummy.

Most meals were finished off with tea or coffee, and Galina's jam tartlets, which you could top off with sour cream if you wanted.

In fact, you could add sour cream to just about anything: soups, pancakes, mashed potatoes. I like sour cream, so it's not a problem for me.

Galina never joined us during mealtimes, because she said that she wanted to lose weight, but the fact that dinner coincided with her favourite Brazilian soap opera (dubbed in Russian) probably had something to do with it as well.

There's something about me and Siberian food that means that the stuff doesn't reach a critical point in the digestion process until five in the morning. For two nights in a row, it was five in the morning when I suddenly woke up and had to make a decision between trying to quell the feeling in my tummy and get to sleep or to put on warm clothes and trudge down the garden path.

The first night this happened, I woke Mama up. He eyes flicked open and I told her I was going to the loo. She said "good", and proceded to put on her warm clothes. Not a single word was exchanged between then and the front door, and I knew I had been assigned Keeper of the Light on the Path to the Outhouse. I had to go first because I was bursting with something like two cups of coffee, two cups of tea, two bowls of soup and numerouos glasses of water, and so mama had to wait outside. It was the first time in my life that I had heard her use a sentence with the words "pee" and "horse" in it at the same time.


posted on Friday, May 30, 2003 - permalink
Hi Dzof,
I remember this type of loo too, but it was not in Siberia. It was in my grandfather's old shophouse on Leith Street, Penang. It was the scariest thing for a six-year-old to peer into a bucket of unimaginables! It was stinky, it was just a bucket, and it was one of those episodes which scarred me for life. And I have always been thankful for my modern loo ever since! Krista
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12 May 2003 - Ulan Batar, Mongolia

Ahh, it had to happen some time. Bad luck befell me in Ulan Batar as I was getting on board the train and my wallet, along with my credit card and USD20, was pickpocketed.

It was a well set-up thing. One fellow pretended to be a passenger, and the other his friend seeing him off. The passenger was extremely helpful and he kept helping arrange bags and moving things around. At one point, while he was arranging the bed linen, he pushed me aginst his friend in the doorway. This happened while people were doing things in the corridor and so I was jammed against the friend, and that's when he picked my pocket.

I didn't realise it until the train had started moving, and I managed to send off an SMS to get it cancelled, but the next problem now is to replace the credit card.


posted on Friday, May 30, 2003 - permalink
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Brr, Gir

Mongolia in May is desolate. When you're out in the countryside looking around, all you see are brown hills, a few tufts of grass and the odd cow or horse on the horizon. May is springtime, with promise of green in June, or so that's what everybody tells us. Nobody told us it would snow.

But first things first. I met Mama in Incheon airport as planned and we managed to get tickets for the same flight out. We landed in Ulan Batar more or less without incident. My secret fear that my bag would split en route and all my underwear would be strewn in the belly of a Mongolian Airline 737 was unfounded. Ulan Batar International airport ("the only airport in Mongolia") was adequate, if not exactly up to par with respect to quality and comfort in an international airport - think Subang Airport in the 70's, but smaller.

We were whisked around the sights in Ulan Batar and then we headed out into the countryside. I was a bit curious how we could see our sight way out here and then still make dinner at 7pm which our tour guide Crystal (or Boorbar, depending on how much you wanted to twist your tongue calling her) assured us that we were going to meet.

Well, what greet us out in the barren landscape were 20 girs. A gir is a traditional Mongolian tent. It's round, it's made mostly of felt, it has one door, a hole in the roof, and a stove, beds and cupboards inside. Ours had electricity, which kind of jars against the idea of 'traditional' but my mobile phone and palm pilot were happy about it.

Of course, you would have guessed by now that we weren't going to be staying in a hotel in UB, but waaaay out in the boondocks in a gir. It was all a bit of a mix-up, you see. The tour company does 2 night stays in UB, one night in a gir, the next in a hotel. We were only staying one night, so I assumed it was the second night in the hotel.

Well, wrong. We were going to have a traditional Mongolian night's stay whether we liked it or not.

Well, it was a tourist camp, so it had a nice warm restaurant in a building and modern bathrooms attached to it (albeit without reliable hot water). My thoughts immediately drifted as to how Mama would cope with these spartan facilities - one reason we opted for one night was because of the outdoor toilet - and thus began part one of Mama's adventures with outdoor loos.

In retrospect, it wasn't all that bad, because she didn't have to 'go' (you know what that means) in the night. We had our filling dinner of pickled coleslaw and mutton stew, unnpacked, and then spent the evening playing with sheep's knuckles. Mama joined in with gusto, was extremely competitive as usual and I was a little surprised that all the sheep's bones stayed on the table with the enthusiasm she was showing.

Since Sony Playstations are not yet de riguer in girs, they play with sheep's knuckles to pass away the time. Rather, I think the kids play with the knuckles more than adults, but it was good fun nonetheless. They have several games, but the one we spent the most time on involved trying to flick one knuckle against another that was oriented the same way. And mama was happily flicking away. I didn't do too well because of the Mongolian beer swilling around inside me that Ian, a fellow traveller, gave me.

It was gusty when made our way back to the gir, and three things happened between that night and the next morning that pointed to unusual weather: (1) The rain was pelting down hard on the gir, hard enough for it to sound solid (2) Crystal was kind enough to come into the gir two or three times that night to throw more wood onto the fire (I was thinking about doing it myself, but my toesies froze everytime they peeked out from under the blanket) (3) I was woken up the next morning by Mama screaming "wake up, wake up, it's snowing!".

And yes, it indeed was snowing, and by mid-morning the whole countryside was turning brownish-white. I was glad for the hot coffee and two eggs in my belly as we trudged across the whitening landscape to visit a nomadic tribe and to indulge in someone's god-forsaken idea that it would be a wonderful idea to gallop through a snowstorm on a horse. No, it was not mine.

The fog was such that we couldn't see the camp we were heading to when we set off. We got there shivering, but Mama was anxious to mount a Mongolian horse. I wasn't too keen on it, especially since my nose felt icy to the touch, but we gladly accepted the hospitality of a nomad and sat around the stove discussing the finer intricacies of Mongolian nomadic life ("Do they really move about?", "Where do they buy things from", "How do married couples cope living in the same gir?").

My mum immediately got on the horse the first chance we got. It was safe, I suppose, because somebody was leading it around by the reins, and it was more walking pace than a slow trot, but as far as I was concerned, staying outside in that kind of weather for just about any reason whatsoever was bordering on madness or obsessive behaviour.

The only thing that climate was good for was for throwing snowballs. I threw a grand total of five at Mama, three of which missed, and she didn't notice the other two that hit her. Such is life.

When it was my turn to trot in the tundra, I did try, but I left convinced that the next time I sat on a horse, it would be me deciding where we were going and not the darned animal. Mama did give me a good piece of advice: "lean back to make it slow down". Thus, I spent most of the time sitting back on the saddle. Poor horse - it was probably thinking "what kind of madman chooses to ride in a big circle in weather like this?".

The snow hadn't let up by the time we got back for lunch (beautiful meat dumplings with some rather strong Mongolian wine) and the van taking us back to UB struggled up the hill. I had visions of getting out and helping to push, but we finally made it out OK, and about a kilometer out of the camp, the snow lightened up and we were back to the brown hills of springtime Mongolia.


posted on Friday, May 30, 2003 - permalink
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It's a SARious thing

To be honest, a lot of what has been said about SARS and what people are saying and doing about it boils down to one simple thing - "we don't know".

Top of the list of "we don't know"'s is how can you tell if a person has SARS or not. At the moment, people are limited to taking temperatures and checking for sore throats. However, symptoms don't appear for up to 10 days, so you don't really know.

Next on the "we don't know" list is how contagious it is. WHO have reported that the main method of transmission is through fluid droplets (e.g. when someone coughs at you) but they have also shown that the virus can survive on plastic surfaces for up to 24 hours. They don't think that masks are effective, though - I think most people wear one because they feel as if they're doing something about it.

The methods used to determine if you have SARS differ from one country to another. Cambodia, Vietnam and Korea just ask you to fill in a form, which you duly tick 'no' on all sections, although Vietnam also had a doctor checking you visually before you could leave the country. Mongolia utilises a a man in a spacesuit asking you to fill in forms (but nobody else wears one). On the Mongolian-Russian border, a very large woman sticks thermometers under your armpit and looks down your throat. I wasn't arguing with her.

At the end of the day, the danger of contagion is actually very small, and although the countries are right in doing what they're are doing, I am skeptical if most of them are effective enough. The most reliable way would be to ban entry to anyone who has been in a SARS-affected region, and although it is draconian, it is probably the only sure-fire way to be safe.


posted on Friday, May 30, 2003 - permalink
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10 May 2003 - Seoul, Korea
The Seoul World Cup Stadium

The Seoul World Cup Stadium was the site of the opening ceremony for the 2002 World Cup, the place where the South Korean football team played the last game in their stunning World Cup campaign and is, surprisingly, a pretty nice place to spend a Saturday afternoon.

Adik told me that I had to visit the stadium, there was no choice about it, and I'm glad I did. The stadium sits in the midddle of a complex of parks, with a lake and a fresh produce market at one end.

The park was quite active when I was there, full of families running around, roller-blading, chasing pigeons, and generally having a good time.

It's actually several parks, and I didn't cover everything, but it's nice to bask there in the sun.

The market specialises in marine and agricultural produce. You see tanks of live fish and crabs, and beside that you see these large plates of sashimi. If I were a party of four people I would have bought one of those and sat enjoying them in the park.

But the highlight of the area must be the World Cup Stadium. It's large and dominates the skyline from wherever you are. It's really nicely built, and even if it doesn't compare to Bukit Jalil for size, you feel awed by it.

In 2002, South Korea outplayed themselves to finish fourth in the World Cup, eliminating luminaries such as Portugal, Italy, and Spain along the way. They acquited themselves well against Germany and Turkey, and, more importantly in their eyes, surpassed Japan who only managed to get through to the second round. Gus Hidddink the national coach at that time was lionised as a hero and he broke many hearts when he stepped down from his post as manager to accept a job with PSV Eindhoven. To be honest, the only way he could out-do himself was to ensure that South Korea win the Asia Cup and then reach the semi-finals in Germany in 2006. He had the luxury of training with the team day-to-day for six months before the World Cup began and managed to indoctrinate them with the fast-paced, non-stop style that shocked teams into submission.

All this is pasted on the walls outside the entrance to the stadium. Life-sized pictures of Gus and all the players are lined up next to pictures of the fans and their exploits on the field in this shrine to South Korean glory. It really just about brings a tear to the eye to see how an entire nation was brought together in the belief that they were capable of more than others thought.

It only costs W200 to enter the stadium (about 70 sen) and you get to wander around it to your heart's content.

The week that I was there, the stadium was playing host to a performance of Turandot to celebrate the anniversary of the World Cup. Directed by Zhang Yimou who was also responsible for the staging of the same opera at Beijing's Forbidden Palace, it is touted to the be the largest outdoor operatic performance in the world.

And it looks it. The entire one side of the stadium (which is slightly longer than a football pitch) has been transformed to be a set. The audience sits on the field and the seats in the remaining part of the stadium.

Because you are free to walk around, you could walk behind the set of the stadium and see things backstage. All this impressed me so much that I went to inquire about tickets (cheapest ones were going at W50,000) but they were mostly sold out and the ones available that night began at W200,000 (about RM700).


posted on Friday, May 30, 2003 - permalink
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I'm here now in Stockholm for two nights, and then I'll be off to Copenhagen. I still haven't found somewhere I can upload stuff from my Alphawriter!


posted on Wednesday, May 28, 2003 - permalink
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Heyhey! Time to celebrate because Visa have finally come through with the replacement card! Joy!


posted on Tuesday, May 27, 2003 - permalink
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Just to say i am now in Helsinki, despite what it says on top. I'm finding difficulty finding an internet cafe i can uplload my alphawriter to. Will be leaving for Stockholm tomorrow.


posted on Monday, May 26, 2003 - permalink
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O'Leary: I'll give the kids a chance
Well, there we are. The kids are to have a go.

posted on Sunday, May 25, 2003 - permalink
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O'Leary announced as new Villa boss
Just to point out how much I'm incommunicado, I didn't about this until this morning when a friend SMS'ed me about it (Thanks, Fami!). And, yes, I am extremely excited about it!

O'Leary is an excellent choice, I think - he was top on my list for Graham Taylor replacements, if you only consider managers who are not currently employed by a premiership club. Others I would have hoped for include Martin O'Neil and Alan Curbishley, but it would have been unlikely for either one to have left their club for Villa.

I am, however, surprised that O'Leary accepted the post. The truth is that I thought he would have wanted nothing of boardroom wrangling after his experience at Leeds, and the thought of him jousting with Deadly Doug doesn't auger well for the future. However, we must be positive.

He has hoped for European qualification in two years, which I think is extremely realistic, although I am hoping for a top eight finish next year.

Will O'Leary bleed the youngsters like he did at Leeds? Will this be a coming-of-age for kids like Stefan Moore? Villa doesn't want to buy new players (rather, "Doug doesn't") so maybe this will be the policy that has to be enforced.

The other thing that comes to mind is the fate of creative and talented but problematic individuals like Juan Pablo Angel and Alpay, as well as the creating Kachloul and Hadji. What role do they have to play under O'Leary? Angel is a top-notch goal scorer, I think, and it's an utter waste that he didn't play a bigger part in last season. You've got to play him or sell him, there's no two ways about it.

Whatever it is, the future looks brighter now for Aston Villa. I just hope that it's not a false dawn that will end two years down the road (the Villa average lifespan for managers in the last 20 years).
posted on Friday, May 23, 2003 - permalink
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Thanks to all who wrote in about the pickpocket thing. I have written something about it up on the alphawriter, but I haven't had time to upload it.

To answer the questions asked:


posted on Thursday, May 22, 2003 - permalink
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Moscow is big, loud, brash and pretty cool, if only I could speak Russian properly. They also have the worst telephone service I've ever seen in a first world country. Will be going to St Petersburg on Thursday.


posted on Tuesday, May 20, 2003 - permalink
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Pickpocketed and isolated in Russia

Well, some of you out there know that my wallet was pickpocketed in Ulan Batar, and now I have to somehow get my Credit Card replaced. I have been spending the last two nights in Lysvinskya (please excuse the spelling) and there is no handphone signal or Internet and the only place to make an International telephone call is the post office, who take ages to make a connection and charge the world.

I am getting on the train to Moscow this evening, and so will be incommunicado until Monday 19 May. I haven't received a single SMS message since Monday, even though my father assures me that he has sent a few, so to all those who sent SMS's to me since then - I'll probably only get them when I reach Moscow.


posted on Friday, May 16, 2003 - permalink
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Book Review: The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

The Difference Engine is an alternative history book with a difference (pardon a pun) - it is probably the first alternative history book I know that doesn't take a key moment of history to change. The book itself, although it starts normally, it ends up being strange and, actually, quite confusing.

The authors try awfully hard to hide the key changes in history, and if you started reading it without knowing in advance, you might be a little surprised. If you were ignorant of British political history and the history of computing, you might not even realise it was an alternative history book. I'm not too good on it myself, and had to look up many, many things for the purpose of this review. At least I learnt a lot reading it!

The background is that in this era, Babbage's difference engine has been noticed and adopted by industry in Britain and parts of Europe. The key turning point in history seems to be that Lord Byron became Prime Minister, and not Disareli, encouraging the Radicals to implement science and technology at their will. They win over the Luddite anti-technology movement, mostly through force, and establish the use of 'engines' as standard. Everything is run by engines, that are like large, overgrown, steam computers. Citizens are all given an individual number and their every move is recorded on a punch card somewhere.

It is against this that the story unfolds. The basic plot is that somebody has attempted and maybe succeeded to sabotage the Napolean Engine, the computing pride of France. A high-class prostitute gets entangled with a gentleman who promises to make her an adventurer. He has on him, he says, evidence of what has happened to the Napolean engine, even though he doesn't really understand it himself. It's all on a stack of white cards, encoded with some sort of program. Through a series of adventures the cards make their way to Lady Ada Byron (who was in real life a top-notch mathematician, if unrecognised in her time; the ADA computing language was named after her) who gives them to Edward Mallory, a paleantologist, for safe-keeping. Mallory had rescued Lady Byron from the clutches of a notorious Captain Swing, who in turn is now trying to get back the precious program cards through initimidation and general skull-duggery. Mallory is later approached by Oliphant, who is some sort of British secret agent (though no James Bond) and is offered protection. Mallory accepts reluctantly, as he finds himself increasingly out of depth.

The story does begin in this vein for the first two thirds of the book - an adventure, where the reluctant hero (Mallory) is thrust into action and seems out of his depth, until certain events force him to act decisively. It's very well written, and a joy to read, although I would recommend that you do background reading on the following before starting, because otherwise many things will seem confusing: Babbage, difference engines, Luddites, The Great Stink, Lord Byron, Lady Ada Byron, cold-blooded vs warm-blooded dinosaurs. To appreciate the secret of the program cards, you need to understand some mathematics, though saying exactly which areas will give away that part of the story.

But none of this will really help in the last quarter of the book. It becomes increasingly confusing and frustrating to follow. Perhaps its because I don't have enough background knowledge. But it's as if the authors lurch from one ending to another, not wanting to finish on an adventurer's cliche of all's well that ends well and getting entangled in their own confusion. It would have been enough to finish by explaining the secret of the cards, but to do it in this way... page after page of denuouement, I screamed at the book to get over with it already.

All in all, it is an interesting read up to a certain point, and I would recommend it to people who can appreciate the historical subtleties, but if messy endings are not your cup of tea, I would advise you to tear out and throw away the last twenty or so pages of the book before reading it. Trust me, it'll save you a lot of pain.

posted on Sunday, May 11, 2003 - permalink
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9 May 2003 - Seoul Backpacker's Inn, Seoul
X-Men 2

One thing you can say about Koreans is that they try to follow the clock. If a bus is meant to leave at 8.15, it'll leave at 8.15. Just about the only time I haven't seen this happen was when the driver thought there weren't enough people on the bus and he didn't want to leave anyone behind.

So when a film theatre says a show will begin at 1.00pm, you'd better believe that it means it will begin at 1pm, and not at 1.05, which is when I actually got in. OK, on the ticket it says 12.50pm, so there's probably ten minutes of adverts, but at the end of the day, I missed the first five minutes.

X-Men 2 is the sequel to hugely successful and stylish X-Men movie which more than did justice to the comic book series. The original managed to potray the charcters as people with emotions and feelings who happen to have super powers, instead of the other way round. X-Men 2 pretty much carries on in the same vein and succeeds, even though it suffers a little as it pulls some punches in anticipation of X-Men 3.

What I missed was probably a wonderful set-piece when Nightcrawler (the improbably cast Alan Cummings) battles secret service agents in an attempt to assassinate the President.

He fails, and Colonel Stryker uses this as an opportunity to persuade the President that something has to be done about the 'mutant menance'. He has managed to interrogate Magneto (who was captured in the first film) and now knows that Professor Xavier's (Patrick Stewart) school for the gifted is, in fact, a safe harbour for mutants to learn how to control their powers.

Professor Xavier is kidnapped and the school attacked. The colonel reveals himself to have ulterior motives and wants to use the professor to accomplish his mission to rid the world of mutants.

Meanwhile, the X-Men, without their leader, have to somehow regroup and in doing so, they make improbable allies to rescue Professor Xavier and save the world (again).

Because of the number of major characters (I make it 12), there are numerous side-plots. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) attempts to find out more about his past; Jean Grey (the scrumptious Famke Janssen) needs to come to terms with both her powers and her feeling for Wolverine and Cyclops (...); Iceman (...) and Rogue (Anna Paquin) attempt a romantic relationship with minimum physical contact (Rogue temporarily absorbs the power and energy of whomever she touches); Nightcrawler and Storm (Halle Berry) learn from one another the meaning of trust; and Magneto attempts to persuade all, including Pyro (...), that mutants are Homo Superior and should rule over the human race. Surprisingly, Professor Xavier's role is confined to being a McGuffin and only exists to serve the plot.

It is to the movie's credit that it somehow manages to keep it all sensible and to make all the sub-plots drive the main plot.

Some of the cast, as in the first movie, are extremely strong. It is impossible to imagine anybody other than Hugh Jackman as Wolverine - broody, moody and extremely mean, he is the quintisential strong, silent type. Ian McKellen continues to make it cool being bad, and Patrick Stewart is up to the task of being his nemesis. Famke Janssen has to play a woman torn by emotions and hints at the stress she carries underneath.

There are also weaknesses, most notably Cyclops. He was a favourite of mine in comic books, but in the movies - let's face it, he's a wimp. Rogue's role in this movie is less important than the last and it's a shame, given Anna Paquin's talents. They also introduce two new mutants as main characters (Iceman and Pyro) but don't really show too much of them using their powers.

A few more are also hinted at, notably Shadowcat (also briefly in the last movie), Colossus and Beast (who has a subtle appearance as Hank McCoy). There is also Phoenix, but only those that know the comic book will get that one. One fears that the menangerie may grow to be too large in the next movie, especially if there is a sizable Brotherhood of Evil.

Anyway all this is just a prelude to the next movie in the series, and this is the movie's weakness. Threads are left hanging, including character development, and this causes some disatisfaction. It's not that it's bad, but you just feel a little short-changed having paid to watch a movie and only see half of it.

Although the first movie did the same (notably with Wolverine's history), there you were left with a feeling of anticipation. Here it's more a case of, "Well? Is that it?". It was slightly reminiscent of the end of Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring but that one was excusable simply because it was the first third of a long, long story.

In the end though, this is only a small weakness of what is otherwise a very enjoyable movie.


posted on Sunday, May 11, 2003 - permalink
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2 May 2003 - Ho Chi Minh
Floating down the Mekong

The Mekong river and delta is the lifeblood of South Vietnam. Something on the order of 15 million people live in that area, I think. Most are fisherman and live by the river, in houses whose doors literally open to the water.

There are a slew of tours to explore the Mekong. Almost all of them are practically the same, with an emphasis on observing rural life up-close. Since I had a spare day, I spent it on one of these tours.

To be honest, there really isn't very much to it. If you've never seen rural south-east asian living, then it's pretty interesting, I suppose, but it gets pretty same after a while.

Proably the best thing about it is that it's very relaxing, I suppose. It's easy to just chill out as you're lazily chugging down the river.

Only to be done if you have a spare day and want to do nothing strenous.


posted on Sunday, May 11, 2003 - permalink
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Korean girls in adverts and in the entertainment industry are very, very pretty. But the average girl in the street is... well, average.

I wonder what magic they use to make the transformation. Or maybe they just hide them away somewhere so that us foreigners don't gawk at them in the subway.


posted on Sunday, May 11, 2003 - permalink
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9 May 2003 - Lotteria, Yongsan, Seoul
Yongsan Electronics Arcade

This place is so cool. It's basically shop after shop after shop selling everything electronic. There must be literally thousands of them, packed away into crampedd cubes. Handphones, PCs, security cameras, lights, hardware, everything you could possibly think of.

Korea is geek heaven. Everyone here has colour LCD handphones that fit into the palm of your hand with polyphonic ring tones and video conferencing. In fact, this is probably the first time I've seen people use video conferecing on a hand phone as if it was an everyday occurance. Which it probably is. I haven't seen how good or bad the picture is, I'm sure it's a pretty slow frame rate, but it's like Dick Trace Plus or something.

It seems that the rate off technology turnover here is so high that prices of anything that isn't the latest are rock-bottom. Try under USD100 for a second hand Celeron.

Most of the places don't have prices marked out, so I suppose theree has to be a lot of bargaining, but when you have somethig like fifty stores in a line that only sell handphones, you know they have to be pretty competitive.

In order to get an edge some of these stores employ pretty young girls in short skirts and tight tops to stand in front of the stores.

I'm so lucky I'm broke and don't speak Korean.


posted on Sunday, May 11, 2003 - permalink
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Windows Root Kits a Stealthy Threat
An article on Root Kits, which are harder to detect than the usual control/exploit routines.
posted on Saturday, May 10, 2003 - permalink
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BSD 'eliminates' buffer overflow errors/hacks
It seems that the Open BSD guys have tried to eliminate buffer overflow errors/hacks by several methods (randomising where in the memory things should sit, including procedures to detect changes in memory pointers and by separating executable and writable portions).

This should be good, and is an excellent example of how people should and could do things to prevent problems from happening, instead of fixing them after they happen.

The best part of the article? "This really wasn't part of the DARPA grant," he said. "But it happened because the DARPA grant happened, because when you throw a bunch of...guys into a room and get them drunk, this is what you get." De Raadt was careful to point out that the group paid for its own beer.
posted on Saturday, May 10, 2003 - permalink
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Deputy-DG: Virus can't spread through sex
The Malaysian Health Ministry has recently dispelled fears that the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus can be transmitted through sexual acts.

But hang on. I thought that the most likely cause of spreading the disease is via infected droplets. I think if you are infected and you kiss someone then that someone has a very high chance of getting the disease as well.

And now it has been shown that the virus can survive for hours exposed to the air, it must also mean that if, for some reason, it's on your fingers, and you touch someone's hand and then they put their hand in their mouth... well, you see where I'm getting at.

Perhaps sexual intercourse by itself, without any of the accompanying foreplay, has a very low chance of transmission (which I find hard to believe too), but I'd hate to think that husbands and wives of officers in the Health Ministry lead extremely unfulfilled sex lives.
posted on Saturday, May 10, 2003 - permalink
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Hey, The Amazing Race season 4 will premiere on 29 May! I'm going to try and get someone to tape the first five or six episodes for me!
posted on Friday, May 09, 2003 - permalink
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8 May 2003 - Seoul
Korean food

Let me start by saying that Korean food is expensive. It's hard to find roadside snacks for less than W2000 (about RM8), and meals in restaurants begin at about W5000. They are, however, generous with the portions.

I had a snack by the roadside - tteokboki, which is riceflour sticks in spicy sauce. That cost me W2000, but it was enough for a meal. I actually had trouble finishing it, although it was mainly because it was quite rich and heavy. I don't think I'll be eating that much that soon again.

Sweet potato chips were selling at W2000 as well, and although they don't look like much, they're really filling.

They have these little potato pancakes that you dip in soy sauce. Those are yummy.

One of my favourites is bibimbap which is simply rice with vegetables. There are fresh beans and lettuce, mostly heated by the steam of the rice I think, and they top it off with an egg. My only complaint is that they use this really rich tomato sauce-type-thing, and once you've mixed it up with the rice, it gets a little heavy after awhile.

The other famous dish (side-dish, really) is gimichi, which can only be described as fermented pickled chillied vegetables. They basically mix all the stuff up and leave it in a pot for two days. It's got a very, very strong sourish taste. It's like pickles on heat. For me, a few mouthfuls is enough for a whole meal, but they give you buckets at mealtimes. It's the only dish I leave unfinished.

But the coup the grace was the bulgogi I had. I entered a restaurant, because everyone says it's quite nice. It's just barbecued beef with sauces and rice and vege, but I was a little surprised to see it cost W10000 - a little pricey, I thought.

But there was a lot of it. They just kept bringing dish after dish. I looked at it, and looked at the waitress and asked "is this all for me?". It literally covered the table. There was a sizzling wok of beef, and a large plate of lettuce, and the obligatory bowl of gimichi, some sort of tempura, ikan bilis, and some pickles. I was literally bursting at the end of the meal. If they put a hammock there, I would have just rolled over and gone to sleep.

I also tried the sushi in Seoul. I meant to have it in Sokchon, because it's a sea-side resort, and it's really fresh, but I was disorganised one day, and the next was wet, so I missed out on it. Like the bulgogi, they don't do things by half. W10,000 gets you ten small plates of god-knows-what, a plate of bibimbap and a block of wood with about ten slices of sashimi. But really yummy, though. It was all fresh, and probably worth it.

The one thing that happened when I was eating the sashimi was that everything was a little cramped and I kept bumping into things. And the chefs kept trying to show me how to make my own california roll. And I kept dropping things (It's those steel chopsticks, I tell you - although they serve sashimi with wooden chopsticks). But at least I was entertainment for them.


posted on Thursday, May 08, 2003 - permalink
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8 May 2003 - Sokchon Express Bus Terminal
The luck of it all

As I'm typing this, the sun is shining outside, people are going to Seoraksan in droves, and they are probably having a really good time. The birds are probably also singing and spring is in the air. Just my luck.

It's such a difference from yesterday, when the day started gloomy and ended dismal. After reaching the main park office, I dismissed all thoughts of doing the four-hour trek from Oseak, simply because I was wet and cold and feeling rather crummy. The mountain trails I had climbed going up had turned into rivers on my way down.

(I would call them "brooks", but I think of brooks as happy, burbling things, and the stuff I was splashing through was neither happy nor burbling. They were more like foot-soaking, stone-greasing riverlets.)

I even cancelled all plans to hunt for fresh sushi in Sokchon because the weather was so bad. Instead I put on MTV and fell asleep in the afternoon. It really was not a good day at all.

I was worried that there was something wrong with my camera. All the pictures it was taking were fuzzy and underlighted, but the problem seemed to clear up after a while. Well, I was going to use it as an excuse to buy something from Yongsan Electronics market.

All things considered, if I knew the weather was going to be what it was, and the trail was going to be as difficult as it was, I would have not evven bothered getting out of bed yesterday. But, when you try to get in touch with mother nature, she does sometimes give you a tight slap, just to remind you that she's not just a pretty face.

I wish now that I hadn't bought my bus ticket so early. I thought there would be a ton of people going to Seoul today, it being a holiday and all, but the buses seem half-empty. If I had not bought my ticket in advance, I would have had the option of going into the park this morning and then going back to Seoul in the afternoon. Heck, if I'd bought the ticket for the afternoon bus, I could have done the park on a nice morning and had my sushi lunch as well.

Lesson learnt: Always assume you need more time than you think to do things.


posted on Thursday, May 08, 2003 - permalink
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7 May 2003 - In a restaurant/rest stop halfway between Seoraksan and Ulsanbawi
What goes up...

I'm trying to dry out here and to outwait the rain, but I don't think there'll be much chance of that. I'll leave when my clothes dry up a little.

Today must rank as a disappointing day. It's probably the worst on this trip so far, if you consider unfulfilled potentials. I also had the scare of my life. Literally, I think I was this close to breaking an arm, if not my neck.

I'm not quite sure where to begin. For a start, the hiking trail that I wanted to take was closed. My second choice was closed as well. The third choice I made when I lost my first two, I found that to be closed as well when I was part of the way up it.

The cable car is undergoing renovations until July, so one of the best views in the park is out for me.

I decided to hike up to Ulsanbawi rock, which is meant to be a straight-forward climb that anyone can do. Well, that may be true for about nine-tenths of it, but then, for the last half kilometer or so (when you look at it from a map) it starts getting steep, and steps go up at an 45 degree angle. For the last 200m, it gets very steep. The steps are practically tilted ladders at some points. And it was raining. And the steps for the last section are metal. And, yes, they get slippery.

I am not very fit at the moment, but I'm young and healthy, but that last part was a killer for me. I had to stop every twenty steps or so. This is easily the hardest thing I've had to do on this trip so far. Harder than crossing the road in Bangkok, harder than battling heat exhaustion in Cambodia, harder than getting rid of a pesky cyclo driver in Vietnam. Well, maybe not the last one.

And what did I see when I got to the top? Fog. That beautiful view of mountains and valleys that was meant to greet me was covered in a white cotton blanket. I was lucky to see even fifty meters. I did write something about the view when I was up there though, as I'd intended.

What really got me was that on the way down, I met all these 50-something year old pensioners happily climbing away as if it was a two-storey house or something. While carrying umbrellas and wearing leather shoes. And I was pretty close to fainting on the way up. They were also mountain-goat like on the way down, bounding from rock to rock.

Anyway, on the way down, that's when it happened. Scary moments are sometimes really only scary after the fact. When they happen, it's too fast to register, it's only on reflection you realise what a lucky escape you've had.

I was taking a step down a slippery steel step when my foot slipped. It was quite a steep staircase (sixty degrees?), and because I was holding onto the railings I slid, on my hands, lubricated by the rain, down all fifteen steps. By some miracle I landed on my feet, kept my balance and escaped with minor grazes on my thumbs. But I was pretty jittery after that, my hands were trembling, I had to hold on to keep standing up. It was pretty scary.

I was lucky. If that had happened on one of the longer stretches, I might have slid down a hundred feet, and that would have been bad. Or my momentum could have carried me over and past the railing at the end (the stairs made a ninety degree turn at the bottom). If that had happened, I would have fallen fifty feet. I was very lucky.

Further down the mountain, I also slipped on a rock and fell onto my side, but I managed to not bang my head against any of the rocks, and got a mouthful of dirt for my efforts. Small matter after what I'd been through.

I am trying to look at the silver lining in all this. Considering the problems I had with this 'simple' climb, it's probably a good thing that the other hiking trails weren't open. I guess the park rangers know how dangerous it can be when it rains. Otherwise, I could have been writing this from a cold, wet, mountain shelter in the middle of the night with my arm in a make-shift sling.


posted on Thursday, May 08, 2003 - permalink
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7 May 2003 - On top of some godforsaken cliff called Ulsanbawi, Sereoksan, Korea
The view's meant to be pretty good from the top

OK, I've just spent two hours climbing this rock, the last 400m took me an hour, I entertained notions of typing something proasic at the top, but it's foggy here, it's cold, it's wet and I'm freezing my patoonies off, so I'll make this short.

The view's no good when the weather's bad.


posted on Thursday, May 08, 2003 - permalink
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6 May 2003 - Seoul
The cost of SARS

As you know, there was a drastic change in my travel plans when Beijing was declared to be a SARS-affected area and the WHO advised not travelling to and from there unless on urgent business. Instead, what I did was to fly from Ho Chi Minh to Seoul, and then to fly on to Ulan Batar. Although this has allowed me to travel with the minimum of interuptions to my plans, it has cost me plenty, both in money and in opportunity.

So, I have lost out on about USD1000, which all adds to the final bill. I originally estimated a cost of between RM15,000-20,000 for the whole trip, and now it will cost me about 20-25% higher.

I also lost many opportunities, especially the ability to say at the end of it all, "I travelled overland between Singapore and London".

But I did all this for a reason. Let's look at the benefits as well:

So I actually paid an extra USD1000, to basically prevent a loss of about USD1300, which seems like smart economics to me. I'm also getting value for my USD1000, in terms of a trip to Korea, so it's not as if the money is going nowhere. And I get to still go to Russia and Europe in spring.

If you ask me, it sounds like a pretty good deal.


posted on Thursday, May 08, 2003 - permalink
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6 May 2003 - Seoul Express Bus Station
Korea's Golden Oldies

Korea must have the most active senior citizens I have ever seen. You find them all over the place, playing badminton or tennis, or just walking around. Admittedly, they're not sprinting and performing jumping smashes, but they move around quite a bit.

Take, for example, my hike up to the Seoul Tower in Namsan Park. It's about 240m above sea level, and a very good climb, if a bit streneous in places. The Lonely Planet describes it as "exhilarating", which I suppose is shorthand for "can only be climbed at a fair rate without resting by the very fit".

I made the mistake of not bringing my ventolin with me, so when I was half-way up and wheezing slightly, I had to slow down a little or otherwise risk an asthma attack. It's okay, as long as I don't over-exert, and I know my limits, but the ventolin does wonders when it's needed.

Anyway, I wasn't the only one who thought that it was a nice day for a climb. Quite a few over-60's were doing the same thing with me. Of course, being young and fit, I quickly overtook them, clipping along at a rate of about a hundred steps per minute. But then, I started breathing very heavily and really, really, really had to rest along the way. Let me say this: Each time I rested, these golden oldies, with silver hair and a slight step, plodding along at their own pace, overtook me. I'm sure they didn't take any rests on the way to the top.

I beat them to the tower, of course, but only because I'm too proud to do otherwise.


posted on Thursday, May 08, 2003 - permalink
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You know what's really annoyig about Korea? They don't put open opening and closing times on their shops, even the banks. I've been sitting here for an hour, waiting for a bank to open, it's now 9.20, and I have no idea if it's going to open or not.


posted on Thursday, May 08, 2003 - permalink
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6 May 2003 - Seoul Express Bus Station
Internet Intersate Highways

Food may be expensive in Korea, but Internet access must be amongst the cheapest and best in the world. Everywhere I've tried is really fast. I suppose not seeing Internet cafes that advertise "128kbps!!!" must mean that they have pretty good lines already.

And the best thing is, if you know where to look, you can get free access. The place I've settled down at in the Korean National Tourism Office in the centre of town. Fifteen terminals, all with high-speed access, all with floppy disk and CD-ROM and all are free. The only thing is that I can't plug in my Alphasmart or my card-reader, but that is a small matter, really. I've been there over the weekend, and it doesn't even get close to busy. I wonder if it's a really well-kept secret or something.

The only thing I've had diffficulty finding is a CD-ROM writer, but that's because it was the holiday weekend.


posted on Thursday, May 08, 2003 - permalink
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4 May 2003 - Seoul Tower, Seoul
Walking around Seoul

Seoul is a large city. After the compactness of Saigon and Phnom Penh, it comes as a surprise to the senses that it takes an hour to get across the city using the subway. At least, it's a very good and far-reaching subway that pretty much goes anywhere you want to go in the city (unlike subways in some capital cities I could mention that don't even allow you to change lines without exiting the station). And people actually line up when getting on trains. Incredible.

Actually, the main sites are all quite compact and close together, so it does make some sense to walk around parts, but where I'm staying and that part is some distance away.

Seoul is a mix of large highways meshed with narrow, twisting alleyways that zig and zag to nowhere in particular. The more interesting shops seem to be hidden away in the small corners.

Walking around is a rewarding experience. Street vendors dot some of the main thoroughfares where you can buy anything from snacks to plugs to this funny wine that has a centipede in it. Meant to be good for your health, I'm sure.

The only downside is that everything is in Korean, and not too many people speak English well, but sign language works well enough.

There are a number of underground shopping malls hidden away under the street surface. It's a bit of a lottery as to what you'll find there, but it's good fun to dip in and take a look.

Amongst the more interesting thing I saw was Tagpol Park. It's like a normal park whose inhabitants have been suddenly aged by thirty or forty years. Everywhere you look, there are senior citizens dancing, excercising, playing chinese chess or go, orating, arguing. I half-expected to see them zooming around on rollerblades.

If you want to see active young koreans, try the Olympic park, with a large square seemingly tailor-made for roller-blading. Even at night there are people playing roller hockey, or having a go on motorised skateboards.

A big difference between Seoul and the other cities I've been to so far is that people here heed the trafffic signals. Red means stop, green means go, regardless of what the traffic is like at that time. People wait patiently on kerbsides and then move in a mass exodus as soon as they're given the signal. Cars are expected to stop and give way. Makes a big difference from dodging traffic in Saigon, I tell you.


posted on Thursday, May 08, 2003 - permalink
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3 May 2003 - En route to Seoul from Incheon airport
Korea - First Impressions

OK, I'm not that smart a cookie. For some strange reason, I assumed that I was going to land at the Seoul airport, regardless of the fact that the Seoul airport is called Gimpo and all my tickets and what-not say I'm going to Incheon. It didn't click with me that these are two different places, although Incheon is the international airpot serving Seoul.

So I looked like a bit of a twit when I confidentally went up to the nice girl behind the information counter and asked for directions to the subway. Of course, there are no directions to the subway, because the subway goes to Gimpo, not Incheon. Doh.

But, I'm finally here, and my first impression is that the difference between Vietnam and Korea is like the difference between Cambodia and Vietnam. It's obviously from the first look more developed - more comfortable, if you like.

The weather here is cooler than Vietnam. It feels like a nice spring morning in England.

Driving on the highway from Incheon airport is a little surreal. Just about the first thing you see are these massive land reclaimation projects on both sides of the highway. It's like looking out onto an alien landscape. Add to that an early morening fog (smog?) that makes everything more than half a kilometer away look a little hazy.

There are a few oddities, though. The bathrooms actually have a little yellow box where people are meant to wait if all the cubicles and latrines are full.


posted on Thursday, May 08, 2003 - permalink
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3 May 2003 - On the way to Seoul

Bad news. Ulan Batar has been classified as a SARS-affected region, with chains of local transmission. There's no warning from WHO yet to not travel there, but it means the situation is now 'unclear'.

I think it might still be ok to go because we'll be in Ulan Batar for less than 24 hours, but I need to double and triple check all sorts of things (like whether the Russians will block overland travel).

We'll probably want to wear, at least, gloves in Ulan Batar. I think the risk of transmission through "things you touch" is far higher than through fluid directed at the eyes, nose and mouth.

Also, a thermometer would be a good idea. Two, so that we each have a personal one.

I hope this doesn't foul up our plans for the trans-siberian.


posted on Thursday, May 08, 2003 - permalink
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2 May 2003 - Ho Chi Minh airport
A stitch in time...

Something I strongly recommend anyone to bring when they are travelling is a sewing kit. I brought mine on impulse, and I've used it three times already.

The first was when I tugged at a zip on my photographer's jacket (the one with many pockets that my brother calls the "flak jacket") and ripped the zip away from the cloth. It wasn't very much, but it was enough so that if I tried zipping it back on again, it would have definitely gotten worse over time.

The second time was when I noticed that the button on my trousers was falling off. It was hanging by a few strands of thread, but I've fixed it and its stayed put since.

The third time was tonight. As I was zipping up my rucksack, I noticed a rip in it, and it looked to get worse. Somehow I have managed to add an extra 5 kg into my sack, and I have no idea where it's come from. I'm pretty sure silk ao dais do not weigh that much. It's a bit of a patch work, and I'm still worried enough about it that I'm considering buying a new bag, but it seems to be holding.

The moral of the story? Bring a sewing kit, preferably one with a doobrie that makes it easy to thread the needle.


posted on Thursday, May 08, 2003 - permalink
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2 May 2003 - Ho Chi Minh airport
Visas make things easier

The good thing about being Malaysian is the number of countries that you can visit without having to get a visa beforehand. The bad thing is that having a visa is sometimes a good thing.

Let's take getting in and out of Vietnam, for example. I didn't need a visa to get into Vietnam. I came in through the land border and Moc Bai.

The immigration officer took my passport, disappeared for five minutes and then came back and waved me through.

The problems started when I booked a room at a hotel. By law all hotels have to record passport and visa numbers of all guests and pass them over to the police. If you do have a visa, then it's all straight-forward, but if you don't have one... well, then people start asking you, "where's your visa?", and you have to explain that you don't need one, and then people start flicking through your passport to find some sort of evidence that you really came into the country.

You see, not only did I not need a visa, but it seemed that the nice gentleman at immigration didn't stamp my passport in the right place or something. People kept flicking through the passport, looking for a non-existent visa and a very-hard-to-find entry stamp.

The worst was saved for last. I spent fifteen minutes at the immigration desk when leaving Vietnam. I had to explain that I was flying to Ulan Batar and after that travelling to Russia. That I was going to go to Beijing, except that SARS changed my plans.

Thank god for visas. My Chinese and Russian visas pretty much backed up my story, I'm sure. If I didn't have them, I think I would have had to recall my bag from the plane and produce the letters from the Russian tourist agency.


posted on Thursday, May 08, 2003 - permalink
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Enemy at the Gates

Hotel rooms are cheap in Vietnam at the moment. I'll tell you why: low season, poor economy, SARS. Rooms that would normally go for USD20 are being rented out for half that, and you can probably bargain it down even more.

For USD10 you get a nice room with air-conditioning, telephone, hot water and satellite TV. You can get rooms for USD3-5, but with none of the luxuries, and for an extra RM20, I couldn't really complain too much.

Anyway, the whole point of the last few paragraphs is to explain why I was watching Enemy at the Gates last night. When you're given satellite TV, you might as well use it.

Enemy at the Gates is a well-crafted film about snipers at the battle for Stalingrad. It falters somewhat near the end, but most of the movie is enjoyable enough, and provides food for thought at moments.

Vasily Zaitsev (Jude Law) is a young man from the Urals, thrust into the heat of battle at Stalingrad. Russia is on its last legs and this city is the final barrier preventing the Nazis from reaching the Balkan oil fields, and subsequently, the rest of Russia.

Through a combination of luck and skill, Vasily distinguishes himself as a master sniper, and impresses Commisar Danilov, a political officer. The latter comes up with the idea of lionising Vasily as a national hero to inspire the troops to fight what is otherwise a losing battle for the Russians.

All goes well at first, as the pair catch the attention of Nikita Kruschev (then a general), with all the glory that comes with it, but the relationship sours as they both vie for the hand of the same girl, Tania Chernova (Rachel Weisz). Added to this, the Nazis decide to fight fire with fire and send an expert marksman of their own, Major Konig (Ed Harris), to take care of Vasily.

The whole middle portion of the movie where Konig stalks Vasily who stalks the German in turn is absorbing. It makes it clear that these are two men who are masters of their craft trying to outwit each other. After all, being a sniper is more about using your brain than brawn, and a lot of the movie is about manoeuvring rather than meeting the enemy head on.

This contrasts well with the Soviet military doctrine at that time which was basically "we have the numbers, let's just throw bodies at them until they give up".

The treatment of the Russian love triangle is quite well handled. Danilov feels he is superior to Vasily, and there's no reason why an educated girl like Tania shouldn't take advantage of his offers of a safe job away from the battleground, and him as well. An interesting situation develops as Vasily is put into more and more danger and may lose his life, which would work very well for the political officer's romantic interests. It's handled quite well, and isn't too over-handed - all's fair in love and war, they say.

The movie is beautiful in places, with the art department taking enough care with attention to detail. The scenes within war-torn Stalingrad convey the claustrophobia in fighting urban battles and the bleak surroundings reflect the mood of the beleagured city.

There is also the grim representation of war at its ugliest when it pushes men to things that otherwise we could never imagine. It is frightening that the horrors of war were more real and matter-of-fact that the heroics of Vasily, which was very clearly exagerrated anyway as propaganda.

I was happy to finally see a movie with Russians and Germans who don't speak English throughout with a Russian or German accent. Instead, the Russians speak British English, while the Germans speak a very terse and precisely-worded American accent. After all, they're meant to be speaking Russian and German respectively, and I'm sure they don't do that with an accent.

The acting is pretty good, with solid performances from all the main leads. I especially like Rachel Weisz's gutsy performance that showed the iron will underneath.

My only gripe with the movie I suppose is the ending and the cop-out with Ed Harris's character. Here is a man equal to Vasily in skill, and a pretty cool character to boot, but the movie feels it has to justify an ending with heroes by painting him clumsily as a villain at the end. It could have worked as two men trying to fight with honour in an otherwise brutal war, but I guess they chose to cut out the complexity with "Russians good, Germans bad" at the end.

All in all, a movie worth watching and thinking about, even if they did cop-out at the end.


posted on Thursday, May 08, 2003 - permalink
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2 May 2003 - Montana Cafe, Ho Chi Minh
Ao dai blues

On the surface it looks easy. Go and buy some ao dai. In the same way I'm asked to buy fridge magnets or the like, it should be just as easy. Just go in, pick one, pay money, collect goods. It should be easy.

But it isn't. And I'll tell you why it's so. It's the curse of being a man. No matter what sort of highly intelligent mind you think you've been blessed with (count: 19 years of education in three schools, two universities, resulting in two degrees, both post-graduate, one for real) there is nothing that can match the power that the female mind brings forth when she is shopping.

How else can you explain why shops go out of their way to make buying women's clothes as complicated as possible? Obviously, it's far too easy to keep things simple, like with men's clothes. No more than 16 basic colours, in no more than two or three basic styles. Let's face it: a pair of trousers is still a pair of trousers, regardless if you're using a fly or a button zip.

But you've got to make it complicated with women. I guess they get bored otherwise or something. And they all want something that nobody else has to boot.

When I went in to order an ao dai, consider this:

First, there's the simple matter of what do you want to buy. There is the traditional Vietnamese ao dai, and there's the elaboration which chinese-style buttons. If you choose one with the high slit, you can get trousers to go with it, otherwise you can have one that's like a cheongsam, kind of.

You can get them with short sleeves or long sleeves. The ones with short sleeves have all sorts of variations in the cleavage department, with lace-type patterns. The ones with the long sleeves are a little more conservative, but they too have patterns.

Next, the material. There's silk, and chinese silk, and 80% silk, and I suppose there's also other materials than silk. There's silk that's heavy, and silk that's light. There's silk with all sorts of embroidery and patterns. There's silk with funny glittery stuff on it. There's sheer stuff that is see-through. There's probably even plain silk, although there wasn't too much of that.

Then there's colour. Don't ask for blue, because you get something like ten shades of it. You need to be precise about it. You probably have to read off the individual red, green and blue wavelengths.

And then there's the size. Small, medium, large, busty, not-so busty, slim, square.

Yes, I did buy several in the end. I succumbed and went back to what I know best: simple patterns, simple colours and the word "silk" on the label was enough for me.


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2 May 2003 - Montana Cafe, Ho Chi Minh City
Eight hours to kill in Saigon

Why, you may ask, am I sitting in a cafe, eating a 10,000VND ice cream as slowly as possible, while writing this? Simply because I have absolutely nothing to do for the next six hours or so. I've already spent the last two hours fruitlessly looking for a cinema, and I'm sweating like the proverbial pig now, hence my rest stop here.

I blame all of this on Korean Air, of course. Their choice of flight times could not really be any much worse than it is. Whoever heard of a 1am flight? Why not 8PM? Why not 6am? 1am is that time that is squarely unfortunate for the stingy traveller who doesn't want to pay half-day costs for a room.

I suppose I could have gone for a city tour or something, but I had things to do this morning but couldn't do yesterday because it was a public holiday (re: check out of the hotel, change money, collect ao dai). If they offered an interesting tour that left at two o'clock and came back at eight, that would be ideal, but it doesn't exist.

I've already resigned myself to sitting in front of an internet connection from 5 to 7PM, and having a sumptuous dinner after that, so I'm basically just stuck for the next two hours.

I was hoping to catch a film, but finding a cinema in Saigon is elusive. I thought I found one, but there didn't seem to be a cinema in the building, despite adverts for it outside. I should have asked.

I could have gone for a massage, I suppose, since plenty of people offered them to me, but I know precisely what sort of massage they have in mind, and I don't have the inclination, energy or funds to do that.

I could sit in a park somewhere and just bang this out on my knee, and I will do that when the weather improves from being 'quite hot' to 'slightly hot'. Even my famed internal temperature regulator finds this heat uncomfortable.

(I notice as I type this that I am unbearably bad at nursing an ice cream. Ice creams melt, that is why most people choose beers to nurse, I suppose.)

I did go to the Clinic just now to be declared SARS-free. It cost me USD55, and the darned credit card doesn't work. I am quite annoyed about that.

Oh well. Only five hours 45 minutes to go.


posted on Thursday, May 08, 2003 - permalink
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OK, I'm in Korea at the moment, and a little bit out of touch with the rest of the world, simply because my handphone won't work here. Until I get to Ulan Batar, you'll just have to email me or post comments on this website.

By the way, thanks to all of you who've put comments so far. It's good to read them because at least somebody's reading this website!

Cheers to all!


posted on Tuesday, May 06, 2003 - permalink
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29 April 2003

I pity those amongst you who didn't endeavour to stay up late and watch that exhibition of passionate football that was Man Utd vs Real Madrid. I especially chose a room that had ESPN, never mind it was USD3 more expensive, it was well worth it.

Who cares about consistency, when you have somebody who can turn a game like Ronaldo. Football is about passion in the moment, and Ronaldo was living proof of that (re: first and third goal against Man Utd at Old Trafford). What were the Red Devils thinking, that they had a chance against a man who is a walking fairytale, with destiny in his feet?

The first goal came out of nothing, the third was simply sublime. "Raul who?" we ask ourselves.

One man isn't a team, but we celebrate football as if it is, and none more so that night.


posted on Friday, May 02, 2003 - permalink
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29 April 2003
Safe? I'm not so sure

Aston Villa almost made it four games without defeat when Rooney scored for Everton in the third minute of injury time. It was a bummer. Getting a draw at Goodison Park would have been a Good Thing. At the moment, we're at 41 points, which would normally mean Premiership survival but I can't help but look over our shoulder and see West Ham at 38 points with two games left in the season.

Our disastrous performances against Birmingham mean that they are above us, safe and sound, and we are still anxious about what will happen.

We've tried our best to make the battle for the Champions League interesting, and Adzam is thankful to us, I'm sure, for holding both Newcastle and Chelsea back. We have taken points off four of the top six teams, which can't be all bad.

Liverpool, on the other hand, seem to be on a rampage, and look to fight tooth and nail for a Champions League spot. It still didn't mean that I didn't laugh my head off heartily at Djimi Traore's fine example against Charlton of how not to turn on the ball when you're the last man back.

I'm also very happy with Paul Scholes, if it's only because he is keeping me ahead of Adz in the Fantasy Football stakes. It's going to be an interesting finish in that - Adz's got his hopes pinned on Murphy and Gerrard, while I have Giggs and Scholes. Grit and determination against flair and guile.

The odds on Man Utd winning the league must have shortened considerably after Arsenal's non-championship winning form against Bolton. Shebbie was saying at the start of the season that Bolton needed people with graft, not craft, for their premiership survival, but Djorkaef and Jay Jay Okocha ("so good, they named him twice") have been inspirational and instrumental in keeping Bolton up.

Birmingham have Dugarry, who has been giving good return in the last few weeks. Diamonds shine, especially when they're amongst the rough.

Who do Aston Villa have? The legacy of Graham Taylor is that we'll have a solid, hard-working team, but not too high in the excitement stakes. I can only point to Hendrie and Barry for hope, while people like Hadji, Kachloul and Angel fester on the bench.

Do not get me wrong - I prefer results over style for any club I support, but if we're going to be a mid-table languisher, we should at least languish in style. Biar susah asal bergaya.


posted on Friday, May 02, 2003 - permalink
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29 April 2003 - On a train between Dieu Tri and Na Thrang
Vietnamese food

Unfortunately, as I've travelled eastwards, I've become less adventurous with food, but that may have something to do with the fact that the food is less adventurous anyway. Vietnamese food, it seems, is more bland than Malaysian or Thai food. There is garlic and ginger, but none of the curries that we know. A lot of mee soups, but little flavouring other than stock, salt and pepper.

There are also a variety of roast meats available, mostly served in a baguette. Actually, an omelette baguette is extremely good value at VND4000.

One thing which I really like here is that everyone seems to eat Laughing Cow cream cheese. Those that know me know I go weak at the sight of la vache qui rit and can finish the stuff by the boxful. Which is exactly what I'm doing over here.

Drinks are not a problem, with roadside stalls selling everything from coconut water to sugar cane to coke to beer. I've personally taken a fondness to coconut water because it's cheaper than anything in a bottle or a tin and because you get to scrape out the insides too.

All this served by the roadside on lillputian tables and chairs, which makes me feel like I'm at some sort of teddy bear's picnic.

Fast food hasn't really invaded Vietnam yet - the only exception seems to be KFC. There are plenty of restaurants in tourist areas that serve food on proper sized tables, with menus in English, but the premium is an extra 20% or so in price.

Supermarkets haven't yet caught on with the idea of serving hot food, so I'm limited to buying bottled water and cream cheese and baguettes from them.

They do sell marshmallow chocolate-covered biscuits here, which are a lot like Wagon Wheels (if you know them). I used to eat Wagon Wheels by the dozen when I was in school, and I have been happily reliving that childhood memory here in Vietnam.

Apart from that, Vietnamese food is a bit of a letdown after wonderful Thailand.


posted on Friday, May 02, 2003 - permalink
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29 April 2003 - On a train somewhere between Da Nang and Dieu Tri
Rail travel in Vietnam

Rail travel in Vietnam is surprisingly pleasant. It struck me as a little expensive, but I guess it isn't, considering the distances involved.

Hue to Ho Chi Minh, one way, is about USD30 for a sleeper. This is a journey of about 1000km with some of the best scenery you're going to get in this part of the world.

It helps that Vietnamese trains have huge windows for the sleeper compartments, vistas onto the outer world of paddy fields and looming cliffs that pass by gently.

At one point, the train was hugging a seaside cliff, going much slower than usual. I think it was a safety thing, not so that we got a good view, but it worked to our advantage.

Lunch is free, with rice and vegetables served in little plastic trays that taste better than anything served on planes. You can pay extra, as I did, for more egg or chicken or something to go with the basic set.

The bathroom is no different from your classic bathroom on a train - it's still basically just a hole in the carriage.

My gripes? That it's awfully cramped, with six bunks in a cabin. I can't sit up properly to type this, and have to do it lying down with my knees up.


posted on Friday, May 02, 2003 - permalink
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28 April 2003 - Hue
The palaces, temples and mausoleums of Hue

There's really only one reason to come to Hue - to see the remnants of the Nguyen kings, the previous central seat of power of Vietnam, now classified as a World Heritage Site. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, the one other time I've used the phrase "there's only one reason to come to..." was in relation with Angkor, another World Heritage Site.)

I can't help but draw parallels with Angkor, and Hue doesn't look anywhere near as impressive as the former, but that doesn't detract from the fact that it is still grand in it's own little way and worth visiting if you're into old buildings and monuments. If you're not, and this stuff bores you, then you shouldn't even think of coming here. For those that search for glamour and excitement of the glitzier kind, and like their holidays nicely accessible and packaged, I suggest that you spend time in Disneyland.

First off, let me just say that I was at a disadvantage this time around, as compared with Angkor, because I didn't have a guide. This is a real shame, because having somebody explain and point out subtleties to you adds to the joy of discovery. My bad was that I didn't hunt and look for a book on Hue before venturing forth - most books I did see as I templed around were in Vietnamese.

Secondly, as with Angkor, all the good buildings are far from each other, and you have to hire a moto for the day or something to see all of them. The most accessible part is the mini-replica of the Forbidden City inside Hue itself, and that is pretty large - allow at least an hour, maybe more if you did what I did, and try to tag behind a tour group! The rest can be covered in half a day or a little bit more.

Most of the buildings are between 100 to 200 years old, but war and weather have taken their toll on them. When you see the difference between the restored buildings and those left in their original state, you realise how much work there is left to bring everything back.

The Nguyen kings were Chinese, and this shows strongly in the architecture and decoration. The overwhelming motif is the dragon. You get dragons everywhere. On the balustrades, on the walls, on the doors, on the side of stone elephants, staring at your from the ceiling, from columns, from pillars, on clothes, on these large bronze pots. About the only place I haven't seen them is on the floor. Which is strange. I wonder why.

The mausoleums are situated in quite remote areas. One that I went to was only accessible if you crossed by boat and then travelled a further 2km. Unsurprisingly, it was the only one I saw that had no tourist vans parked right next to it.

Declaring a site to be a World Heritage Site doesn't immediately make it spectacular, but you are at least guaranteed that people will try to take proper care of it. I think Melaka and Penang would benefit from a World Heritage Site status - that is, if we can persuade local governments to it.


posted on Friday, May 02, 2003 - permalink
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28 April 2003 - Hue, Vietnam
Is there such a thing as being 'too friendly'?

I like Vietnam. Don't get me wrong, most of the people are nice, but there is one segment of the population that I've grown to dislike intensely. In fact, this has been a problem since Cambodia, and it's gradually become more and more annoying.

It's the cyclo and moto riders that hang around outside hotels, waiting for tourists to come out so they can take them to where they want to go. You would think that this is a good thing, to have service at your doorstep so you don't have to look for them, they are there to serve you.

The problem is that they don't know that 'no' means 'no', not "I'll think about it". They will ride alongside you, trying to persuade you that they know wherever it is you're going, and that it's very far, and you need them to go there, otherwise you'll never get there.

I know that they are trying to earn a living, but what they do becomes a bother and I don't like not being able to walk around town without somebody pestering you all the while.

They try a variety of tricks to get you to get in with them. One is this: "Where you come from?" "Malaysia" "Ah, Malaysia, I know Malaysia, good, good, I know many Malaysians, I take you around".

If you do go with one, they'll try to stick with you like glue. And not just any ordinary type of glue, but the really sticky, stretchy type, like hot UHU glue that's gone all stringy.

In Siem Reap, all these people on cyclos and motos would hassle you as you get off the bus and offer to take you to a nice, cheap motel. That pays them a commission, of course.

If you ask them to take you somewhere to eat, they take you to a place that costs twice as much as anywhere else.

If you ask them to take you somewhere, the first place you go to will be reasonable, but then if you want to go to other places, the price suddenly goes up.

All the while, they're calling you "my friend, my friend".

I'd really like to be able to trust people, but when all that they seem to do is to lead you to places where they get commission, and take you for a ride, it gets hard to be open with people.

I have met something like half-a-dozen of these people, and not a single one has really earned my trust.

One took me to restaurant where rice with fried fish would cost me VND30,000 (about RM6.50), when it wouldn't cost more than VND20,000 in most places.

Another charged me VND40,000 to go to the train station and back, when a one-way trip would not cost more than VND15,000.

Yet another wanted to charge me an extra USD2 because he took me somewhere further than expected, and it ate up his petrol. Nevermind the fact that he went on his accord, and didn't mention anything about it costing him more.

Another one (this I'm really annoyed with, but mostly with myself) took me to a money-changer who, not only didn't tell me that I was not getting US Dollars for my travellers cheques until after I signed it, but also took 2% commission, and exchanged it into VND at a rate 10% less than what banks offerred.

The actual money really isn't as important as the fact that I don't really trust them on anything.

All this came to a head the other night, when a cyclo driver invited me over to his house for dinner, because, he said, his sister worked in Kuala Lumpur.

I didn't really think very hard about this, and said "yes", but then later that day I was online with Errolyn, and she said (typed, rather), "WHAT!!!!", followed by sentences like "You know some people lure tourists to some dark corner and then rob and murder them" (I can't remember the exact words, but the idea is there). She really didn't think it was that good an idea.

I thought about it, and thought about the fact that he had also pulled the 'expensive restaurant' and 'poor money changer' scam on me, and I decided that I would feign illness to avoid dinner (not too difficult in this heat, and with my tummy problems).

Now, on the one hand, this guy could have been really genuine, and nice, and wanted to be hospitable to somebody who lives in the same town as his far-away sister.

On the other hand, yes, he could have been in collusion with a band of nefarious fellows who would waylay me in the middle of the night, and pull my fingernails off one by one while asking me for my ATM PIN code.

I would prefer to trust people and think the former, but I guess, in this case, the risk was to great for the return. Normally, the worse that can happen is that I lose some money, but that night, I could have possibly lost more.

In the end I didn't have to, because he didn't turn up. I now have an extra box of chocolates and a pack of cigarettes that I was going to give them as thanks.


posted on Friday, May 02, 2003 - permalink
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25 April 2003 - Ho Chi Minh
Seoul survival - Avoiding China and SARS

Let me tell you, this SARS thing really puts a monkey in the works. The plan was simple - make my way to Hanoi and then take the train to Beijing from there.

SARS changed all that. Now I can't go to China. Not so much because I fear that deadly virus, but because I don't want to get stuck there in quarantine. Getting in isn't the problem, getting out is.

I pored over a map of China and its environs - it's almost impossible to reach Mongolia without going through China. I could go through Kazakhstan or something similar, but that's more trouble than it's worth.

So, the plan now is to fly to Ulan Batar. Mongolian Airlines operates flights from Seoul to Ulan Batar six days a week. They also operate flights from Beijing, but that's exactly the place I'm trying to avoid.

Since I've never been to South Korea before, this is an opportunity not to be passed up, so the plan is now I spend about a week in South Korea before moving on. The rough itinerary is now:

Am I upset that I'm not going to Beijing? I certainly am. Seeing the Great Wall was on the list of Really Must Do Things On This Trip. But we do what we can, and if we can't change things to suit us, then we live with it, I guess.


posted on Friday, May 02, 2003 - permalink
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27 April 2003 - Somewhere between Da Nang and Hue
Not bad, for a 32-hour bus ride

I'm almost 30 hours into this long, long, long bus ride, and I have to say that it isn't so bad after all. Really, I expected it to be a pain, and there was a time between 2 and 4 am this morning when my right buttock went a little numb, but otherwise it's been a pleasant journey.

The countryside shows variety as you travel northwards. The gentle rolling hills around Saigon turn into rocky outcrops that frame the star-filled sky turn into sheer cliffs that the bus hugs around the coastline.

Some of the scenery is absolutely beautiful, and is a joy to watch as it passes you by - just as long as you have space on your seat to stretch out, it's ok. An advantage of travelling alone.

I just wish I'd seen more of the stars at night. They were tantalisingly out of reach, dimmed by the glow of the bus lights and of the rest stops. It was as good a night sky as I've seen for a long time, just wanted it to be slightly better.

In short, I'm glad I took this bus ride. It may have seemed a waste of a day to some people, but I liked it. Now all I have to do is to train my bum not go numb.


posted on Friday, May 02, 2003 - permalink
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My American boycott has been going relatively well. I haven't succumbed yet to a McDonalds or a Burger King or a KFC (although I did have a pepsi as part of the meal - it came altogether, honest!). But imagine my horror when I realised that the three 1.5 litre bottles of Joy mineral water I bought had inscribed on the label "a quality product of The Coca Cola Company"...

Sometimes there's no running away even when you are trying to avoid it.


posted on Friday, May 02, 2003 - permalink
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26 April 2003 - Somewhere in Vietnam
The technology I trust on this trip

Just a short break here from tales of the terrors of travel to tell you about the technology I'm trawling with me on this trip.

Firstly, and foremost, is my trusty Palm Pilot m505. It's actually a second-hand unit I bought from a good friend at a good price, and in it I keep all emails, reminders and dates.

It's actually pretty useful, but the real pain is that I have to charge it practically every other day, more often if I use it to read a book with the backlight on. How I hark for the days when Palms came with batteries and all you had to do was carry a spare whenever you travelled. Now I have to hunt for a free plug point wherever I go. It's a pain, I tell you.

I also bought a keyboard to go with the palm, but it was so impractical when I tried to use it that I decided that I needed something better, hence my AlphaSmart 3000 (which is what I'm using to type this out). This is basically a portable word processor with a full-sized keyboard that runs on three AA batteries. It really is quite cool, and is exactly what I need for this trip to keep notes. The only pain is that to upload the data in it to a computer, I have to connect it with a cable, but since it emulates a keyboard, it's pretty flexible about where you can plug it in. It would be ideal if it had a floppy drive or something similar.

My third piece of technology is my FujiFilm FinePix 2300 digital camera. It's a low-end camera, and second-hand to boot, but it works well enough and it isn't fussy to use. The biggest problem I've had with it is in taking long exposure shots (my hand shakes something terrible), but I now know I should lean it on something solid when taking shots like that. I have a 64MB card which is enough for 170+ shots at 1280x960 resolution and it runs on 4 AA batteries. It has a life of about a week, depending on how intense I am on picture-taking. Angkor exhausted my batteries in four days, I think.

The last main piece of equipment I have is my Sony Ericsson T68, a shining example of how being feature-filled never compensates for lack of user-friendliness. What I like about it is that it's small and has a standby battery life of about five days. What I don't like about it is... everything else. From being the most audacious gaudy yellow-gold colour, to having a navigational joystick that is no joy to use if you have thumbs larger than a few millimeters, to having navigational menus that at times hinder rather than help. I only use it as a glorified SMS sender/receiver, and next time will seriously consider carry one of those small keyboards instead. I also have to find a plug point to recharge this from time to time, although it's less of a pain than the palm.

There are also peripherals that I carry along to support all this other technology. One is a USB card reader which I can use to read both my digital camera smartmedia card and my Palm MultiMedia Card (MMC), as long as the PC I'm using has a USB port. I normally have to upload drivers too, but they can work without you having to reboot.

I also need to bring a battery recharger, mainly for the batteries for the digital camera. Honestly, I would be far happier if that's all I needed to charge, but instead my charger has to find space on the plug point next to the Palm charger and the phone charger. They can all fit, but plugs in this part of the world have only two short prongs and are mounted sideways, so my chargers tend to tip my adaptor over ever-so-slightly and pull everything off the wall.


posted on Friday, May 02, 2003 - permalink
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26 April 2003 - Somewhere on the road to Na Thrang
Pretty pit stop

I'm some four hours into the bus ride. As expected, the bus will drop you off at special places to eat and sleep. It's a little strange that this is the way that business must work, commissions and all, and the end user suffers all throughout, but I should factor it in while travelling and not protest too much and not think "heck, I just paid RM5 for a meal that isn't worth RM3".

What is the alternative? To pack my own food beforehand. But food that you prepare for yourself has a tendency to go a little off, and it isn't hot food, to boot. But maybe that's what I need. Large copious tupperware filled to the brim with good cheap food, vacuum sealed for freshness. There could even be a market for it.

This place we've stopped at, wherever it is, is an incredible looking seaside resort. Hotels and motels line the pristine beach, and it really looks beautiful. Probably because the sea isn't polluted.


posted on Friday, May 02, 2003 - permalink
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26 April 2003 -somewhere on the road to Hue
Bussing about

Ho Chi Minh city is nice. It really is. Something about seeing girls cycle around in ao dais which just sums it up nicely.

So why am I taking a jaunt out into the countryside on a 36-hour bus journey? Why am I not spending more time in Saigon by taking a train to Hue? Why do I subject myself to this kind of torture?

It's quite simple, really. Because I've never done it before, and I'm curious. And because it's cheaper than taking a train both ways by about USD15.

In the same sort of way that I'll never take that 12 hour bus pot-holed journey of hell between Bangkok and Siem Reap, I'll probably never again, after this, want to take a bus journey lasting for more than 20 hours. But until I have lived through it, I can't say I won't.

For this is the way to travel. Not to rush from one highlight to another, blurring the parts in between, but to live it all. It's all good, even the bad parts.


posted on Friday, May 02, 2003 - permalink
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24 April 2003 - Ho Chi Minh
Saigon Street decor: Traffic lights and zebra crossings

There obviously is some god of road crossings up there and they obviously heard me whinging about the state of Bangkok traffic, because they have unleashed vengence upon me in the form of Saigon's never-ending stream of motorcycles and false traffic control.

I could be mistaken in saying that people don't pay heed to traffic lights here - it may only be the motorcycles who don't. But the sheer volume of them makes it next to impossible to navigate across roads without having some sort of system.

But before I go on, let me just say this: Just because you see a little green man, doesn't mean it's safe to cross. In fact, it's false comfort to assume so. As far as I can see, traffic is the same regardless of the colour of the light. Certainly, people seem to turn right without even giving a glance to see if they are allowed to.

The method I've taken to crossing the road here is to pretend that the traffic is a stream, and I am a rock rolling across the riverbed. Just as water flows around a rock, I hope that the motorcyclists will swerve around me, as long as I don't make any sudden moves. I do try to cross at zebra crossings but I sincerely do not believe that it makes a single jot of difference to my chances of survival.

So, if you saw a dark man trying to cross a road in Saigon by inching forward, while all the time muttering to himself "I am a rock, I am a rock" - that was me.


posted on Friday, May 02, 2003 - permalink
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24 April 2003 - Ho Chi Minh
War Remanants Museum

There really isn't all that much for a tourist to see in Ho Chi Minh city. There are several museums, but I only went to two.

One of them was the War Remnants museum. I believe it used to be called the American War Crimes museum and was housed in the former US embassy, but I guess times change, and you can't bang on potential investors all the time.

However, although it has changed in name, by nature it is still pretty much the same. There is an odd juxtaposition of the weapons of war, glorifying it with statistics of how fast, how large, how great these weapons are, against the effects of war, which show the horrors of what it can do to a nation.

Probably the most memorable aspect of the museum is the section on US war atrocities. It doesn't pull many punches here as it catalogues them one after another. The methods used to get information out of prisoners, from dragging them behind tanks to throwing them out of helicopters. The massacres, when entire villages, including women and children were killed, for what reason, I still don't know. The use of Agent Orange and other defoliants that left an everlasting impact in the form of crippled and deformed children.

Surely these were war crimes, as much as any other? Why wasn't anyone brought in to task for this? How do we prevent things like this from happening again?

If Vietnam is meant to stir American conscience, then maybe we should have made the instigators of the war against Iraq see this museum and see what is possible when people believe thoroughly that they are doing right and don't give a damn about the consequences.


posted on Friday, May 02, 2003 - permalink
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19 April 2003 - Siem Reap

I rhapsodised endlessly about the temples of Angkor in a previous post, and I suppose I should write the contra-side of it. This isn't really a criticism, but an attempt to say why it may not affect other people in the same way as it did me.

We're spoilt, you see. In the last fifty years, it has been increasingly easy to travel around the world. Not just people travelling to places, but foreign ideas and cultures travelling to people. I guess we get jaded more often and even the fantastic has been seen somewhere, be it in a travelogue, a movie, TV or even Disneyland.

Let me take Disneyland. I think that was the first time that I was introduced to the idea of a temple in an overgrown jungle. It was either that or Jungle Book. At that young age, it looks... well, as normal as anything else, because everything is new, and you just take that idea and store it away as something. "Temple in Overgrown Jungle" - check.

The first thing that struck me when I visited Ta Phrom was that it was quite unreal. It was like a movie set or something. Roots of ginormous fig trees bursting through stone walls - you only saw this in movies, right? But it's all real.

I saw the Tomb Raider movie the other night, if only because I knew that the temples of Angkor had a bit part in it. I saw the trees, and the walls of Ta Phrom, exactly as I saw it in real life. It looked like a movie set, but it's real.

We are so used to seeing temples in overgrown jungles, in literature, in movies, in computer games, that our senses have been dulled to the wonder when we actually see it. Even if it is for real.

Or is it?

Well, yes and no. Ta Phrom and a few other temples are left more or less in their original state, in order to give visitors an idea of what it was like when explorers first stumbled across them. But it isn't quite the same. For a start, a nice path has been cleared to the temple, so you can practically drive up to the front gate, something you could never have done before.

It goes further than that. Some of the doorways and corridors are literally crumbling under the weight of the trees above it and need to be reinforced to make it safe for visitors to walk under and through them. Mixed in with the original stonework are wooden, steel and concrete beams.

That's not all. If you look at some of the carvings, the stones are oddly miscoloured. That's because some of the stones were left facing the elements, and the others fell down and were protected from weathering. When they restored the temple, they put the stones back up again, like a giant jigsaw. As a result some stones are almost pristine white, and others have taken on a dull, dark, blackish hue.

The bas-relief murals in Angkor have to be cordorned off with a piece of rope. It's estimated that 2 million foreigners come to visit the temples of Angkor each year. If each of them touch a carving, that's a little bit more weathering done apart from what nature doles out.

A tremendous amount of restoration work has been done on the temples at Angkor. No fewer than five international consortiums, plus the local government with the help of the World Development Fund, work around the clock to preserve the temples.

So, after all that preserving and restoring and restructuring, is it real? Is it any different from what you see in Disneyland? It looks the same, you can't touch either of them, maybe the grandeur is slightly different, but that's what special effects are for. Why bother travelling half-way around the world when you can practically get the same thing in your own back yard?

Well, I think there is a difference. I was walking around, and I kept thinking - this all is almost a thousand years old. A civilization was here, and it rose and expired and all that's left of them are these stone monuments. This is what they were capable of, shouldn't we be able to do better?

When I visited the fireflies at Kuala Selangor, I joked with some friends that if Disney ever acquired the rights to it, there would be monorail tracks that the boats ride on, and mixed in with the real fireflies would be fake electric ones - to 'enhance' the effect. I can tell the difference between what's real and what isn't. It's when we can't, I think then, that's when we're in trouble.


posted on Friday, May 02, 2003 - permalink
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Thanks very much to all who have written in about Korea. I now have a rough itinerary as follows:


posted on Thursday, May 01, 2003 - permalink
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