Archive for category Sightseeing

Powerful Forces

“In order to avoid vengeance from Hoturapa’s family, Kupe and his own family left Hawaiiki in Kura’s canoe Matahorua. After some time of navigating, Kupe’s wife Hine Te Aparangi sighted the islands of New Zealand, which appeared as land lying beneath a cloud. Because of this, they named the islands Aotearoa, Land of the Long White Cloud.” (

Aotearoa is a land of earthquakes, glaciers, bubbling mud pools and active volcanoes. The Maori, arriving from the Pacific Islands in the 14th century, must have been awestruck by the landscapes they saw. In order to make sense of its spectacular geographical features, they made up myths and legends. In their animistic beliefs of the universe  there was no distinction between animate and inanimate objects or humans and other living creatures. All were involved in the organic processes of the cosmos. During my recent travels in New Zealand, I experienced the power of these natural forces – their destruction and their beauty – and learnt first hand the wisdom of the Maori’s beliefs in the interconnectedness of all phenomena.

I arrived in Christchurch slightly worried about being culture shocked after travelling in SE Asia for so long. I had come in late at night and awoke the next morning to discover that the back-packers hostel expected me to provide my own breakfast. No street stalls here. Like an alien from a distant galaxy I set off in search of food. I hadn’t gone far when I noticed several  vacant building lots, piles of rubble and houses with large red crosses taped on their windows. It was only when my path along the Avon River was barred by fences that it dawned on me. I was witnessing the destruction of the earthquake which had struck Christchurch almost exactly two years previously. I remembered the TV news reports of February 22nd 2011 but had quickly forgotten about them. New Zealand had seemed so far away then. Now I was shocked at the extent of the devastation and its effects on people’s lives. Measuring 6.3 magnitude the earthquake left 70,000 people homeless and claimed the lives of 185 people.

Anglican Cathedral area

Anglican Cathedral area

Shopping street awaits demolition

Shopping street awaits demolition





The Maori believe that the animus Ruaumoko is responsible for earthquakes as he stomps around angrily in the underworld beneath his mother. He is angry at being buried in the darkness and from time to time he attacks his brothers on the surface.






Still on South Island, I managed to get up close and personal to a couple of New Zealand’s 3,000 or so glaciers. I am not a skier and so venturing onto the ice of the Franz Josef glacier was a real thrill. Crawling  through dazzling blue ice tunnels, wandering amidst the seracs and peering down never ending crevasses gave a false sense of stability. In fact the ice descends at a rate of 7 metres a day which is extremely fast by glacial standards. The power of moving ice is evident all around in the shape of the valley and the “roche moutonnee” or “rock-sheep” – the rocks on either side which have been rounded by the glacier passing over them. This 12 km long glacier is unique in that its tongue extends down through temperate rainforest to less than 300 metres above sea level.  Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere meaning “The Tears of Hine Hukatere” is the Maori name for Franz Josef. Her tears flowed down the mountain and froze to form the glacier when her lover, Wawe, was swept away by an avalanche.

A week before arriving at Mount Cook/Aoraki there had been a major calving event on the Tasman Glacier. The latter is New Zealand’s largest and longest glacier which stretched 115 kms 22,000 to 16,000 years ago. Today it is 600 metres thick and 29 kms long. Eager to see the after effects of the calving we went to the terminal moraine area. When the 650 metre front face broke off the glacier it was the largest iceberg ever seen on the lake. It had broken into several icebergs 40-50 metres high above the water, which is what we could see. Below the water line was a further 200-250 metres of ice.

Icebergs on Tasman Glacier Terminal Lake

Icebergs on Tasman Glacier Terminal Lake

Franz Josef Glacier ice tunnel

Franz Josef Glacier ice tunnel













The Te Arawa people are the guardians or “kaitiaki” of the geothermal fields on North Island.  Legend tells of Te Pupu and Te Hoata, goddesses of fire, who travelled whale-like under the sea from Hawaiiki to help their brother Ngatoro-i-Rangi. Where they surfaced to spout they left part of their fire in geysers, hot springs and mud pools which remain in these areas today. Every geothermal area has traditional cultural and historic importance for the Maori and is used for bathing, cooking, medicines, dyes and ritual. I walked around Wai-O-Tapu (Sacred Waters)  an 18 area covered with collapsed craters, boiling pools of mud, geysers, hot springs and steaming fumaroles. The dazzling array of colours was due to a variety of mineral elements absorbed out of the rocks by magma-heated water – green, orange and purple caused by ferrous salts, antimony and manganese oxide respectively. All this thermal activity was associated with volcanic eruptions dating back 160,000 years. I read about the science in the “Thermal Wonderland” brochure but understood why for the Maori it had such spiritual significance.

Spring -  74 degrees C

Spring – 74 degrees C

Boiling mud pool

Boiling mud pool












New Zealand’s volcanoes are mostly clustered in the North Island – with the active ones in a line from the Bay of Plenty to just south of Lake Taupo. The Maori voyagers saw the volcanoes as being connected. They are in fact along the boundary where the Pacific plate meets and is sliding under the Indo-Australian plate. The legend explaining the volcanoes is again part of the legend of the fire goddesses. Their brother Ngatoro-i-Rangi, a medicine man, decided to climb Mount Tongariro with his slave Auruhoe to survey his newly won lands. He commanded his followers not to eat while he was away in order to give him strength on the cold mountain. They did not follow his orders however and broke their fast. Ngatoro and Auruhoe felt the freezing cold and he prayed to his sisters in Hawaiiki. As we know, they sent fire to help him which eventually burst through the summits of the mountains creating the volcanoes of Tongariro, Ngaruhoe and Ruapehu. The heat came too late to save Auruhoe and Ngatoro gave her body to the fire in the crater. Thus Ngauruhoe got its name – also known as Mount Doom to all Lord of the Rings fans.

These volcanoes are far from dormant and we were unable to complete  the full Tongariro Crossing or climb up to the summit ridge overlooking the crater lake of Mount Ruapehu. In August and November of 2012 there were eruptions in the Te Maari crater on Tongariro. It had been dormant for 100 years. When I was there, gas plumes were visible from a new hole in the mountain.  Ruapehu’s 1953 eruption caused 340,000 cubic metres of water to pour down the valley. This lahar smashed the main railway bridge at Tangiwai on Xmas Eve causing the death of 151 people. The National Park has come up with several ideas as to how to prevent the same thing happening but these have all been vetoed by the Maori people who own the land and do not wish to interfere with the animus/life force of the volcanoes. For now the crater lake is carefully monitored and due to recent activity, we were kept away from it. Signs warning people of the dangers of an eruption are placed in strategic places in the Whakapapa ski field which is directly underneath Ruapehu. In 1995 when there was a full scale eruption, there were hundreds of skiers on the mountain.

Given the powerful forces which are part of everyday life on both North and South Island it is perhaps not surprising that New Zealanders enjoy living life to the full and why Maori legends reflect their deep belief in the life-force of all things.

Mount Ngauruhoe/Mnt Doom

Mount Ngauruhoe/Mnt Doom

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Tuk Tuk talk

Like taxi drivers in the West, the SE Asian tuk tuk drivers are eager to chat and are a mine of information.

Bhoun in Battambang enlightened me about the Cambodian education system which he had experienced first hand.

“Why” I asked him “do so many  schools seem to be closed or have lots of children playing outside the classrooms every time we go past one?”

“Because of corruption.” His answer was simple. Then he got very animated telling me about the various scams teachers get up to. Here are some he told me about.

  • They let the pupils go home early so that they can then charge high rates for extra lessons.
  • If you can afford to pay, you get a copy of the exam paper answers. This ensures you get a better job. The poor don’t get their papers marked fairly even if they have the right answers.
  • At school, the teacher used to sell her cakes which were more expensive than those outside the school. Those who did not buy the cakes got lower marks.
  • Poor children who were late for school were made to stand on a board for an hour. They had long journeys to get to school and had been up early doing their jobs before leaving. Wealthier children who were late were not punished.
  • Teachers used children to harvest their rice crops during school time.

This was enough to make me realise why he was so angry about his schooling. But it’s not the whole picture. Cambodian teachers earn about $20 a month and they are not paid regularly. To top up their salaries they charge “informal fees” which stops poorer children being sent to school. Most teachers have not even completed  secondary school so the quality of education is poor.

Of course, there are private schools where one can pay for a better education but this is way beyond the pockets of most people. With only 1.6% of GDP spent on education, one wonders what the future holds for the ever growing population. It also makes me hesitate before criticising the education system back home.

In the photo Bhoun was explaining to me how to make sticky bamboo rice. He would make an excellent teacher.

In Phnom Penh I learnt more about the madness of the Khmer Rouge and I wanted to know how people who had survived had been affected.  I asked my tuk tuk driver about his parent’s experience.

“They used to have a big house in Phnom Penh but then of course they had to leave with everyone else on April 17th 1975, the beginning of Year Zero.”

His whole family were forced to walk over 148 kilometres to the countryside around Kampot. City people were seen as the “new people” and Phnom Penh as” the great prostitute of the Mekong” and therefore it had to be evacuated. His mother survived the horrors but refused to go back to Phnom Penh to reclaim her house. She was afraid that the same thing could happen again. Her son, my tuk tuk driver, was saving up to try to move to Australia as he saw no future for his family in Cambodia.

In Siem Reap, near Angkor Wat, Naga my tuk tuk driver was very well educated and had taught English for a few years. However he could make better money being a tuk tuk driver but he still didn’t have enough to afford a bride.

“You have to pay a dowry to the bride’s family,” he explained. “This can be very expensive, let’s say about $5000 to $10,000.”

It’s hardly surprising that you often see the slogan, “no money no honey” blazoned on the tuk tuk.

Another driver I had in Siem Reap had very little English so we communicated by sign language. One Saturday I wanted to get visit Phnom Krom, a 9th century temple out near the  Tonle Sap lake. I knew he had children and so I suggested that they came along for the ride. The three of them made my day. They all bounced up the hill to see the temple with me and made sure that I was alright. The little three year old girl had no problems keeping up with her brothers but when strangers approached she quickly took hold of my hand. When they were questioned about their motives by the attendants, they just pointed at me.

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Encore Angkor

PART 1  Lunar New Year 1200

We sang as we paddled our wooden boats along the waterways from our village near the Western Baray, competing with the excited shrieks and laughter of our children. It felt good to be doing something pleasurable with the women but it was a pity that our husbands were not there to enjoy the outing. They were all away working by royal command. Naga, my husband, was building hospitals in various parts of the kingdom and we hadn’t seen him for months. Although there were mutterings of discontent as to the extent of the Deva Raja’s building programme, most of us understood the need for a strong Khmer empire in order to keep out the foreign invaders.

As we approached the mighty temple of the late King Suryavarman II, we all fell silent. The golden conical shaped towers of Angkor Wat shimmering in the late afternoon sun dazzled us.  We jostled for position to enter the South gate along with hundreds of other Kmers from far and near who were also going to the New Year celebrations. Soldiers in their long boats were checking everyone which made things worse. One even joked that he would throw the children to the crocodiles if we didn’t stop their moaning.

At last, we entered the city of Angkor Thom. What a sight to behold. Decorated wooden buildings stretched as far as the eye could see and above them rose the golden spires of the temples and palace. Crowds of people were making their way on foot or by water to the terraced area outside the palace. I bought some sweet sticky rice for the children from one of the myriad of food stalls along the way and threw some coins to a group of musicians. At last I got my first glimpse of Bayon, the king’s new state temple. It was so different from Angkor Wat but equally awe inspiring. Golden faces smiled down upon us from several stone towers, their red lips and precious gems sparkling in the dying rays of the sun.


“They look just like the Deva Raja himself” shouted my neighbour.

” If this new Buddhist religion inspires such kind faces, I’m all for it,” I replied.

I moored the boat once we got to the Terrace of the Elephants and walked with the children along the canals until we had a better view point. The huge platform on the backs of carved  lotus eating elephants was decorated with lanterns and flowers. Beautiful young dancers in fine silk sampots and glittering jewels entertained the crowds. I used to practice the Apsara hand gestures when I was young and had a secret wish to become a dancer. “Dream on,” my mother used to say.

Once darkness had fallen an air of expectancy gripped the crowd. Drums, gongs and cymbals announced the king’s arrival and the sight of him on his war elephant was spectacular. He wore a red sarong with a wicker breastplate and Garuda headdress. Sitting high in his golden howdah on silk cushions, I noticed that he had one leg tucked under him. Perhaps the rumours were true about his leprosy but he is an old man now and has fought in many battles. This New Year celebration could be his last. Loud cheers rose  from the crowd as he moved slowly centre stage. The royal family,dignitaries and foreign emissaries all offered him a  sompiah as he passed. About  the length of four long boats away from him was a scaffold in the shape of a stupa. It was covered in rockets and fireworks from China. I had never seen them before and had no idea what to expect. The king held up his hand and slaves lit the fuses with flaming torches. There was a pause and then the explosions began. They shook the ground so fiercely I thought I might lose my balance. My two children buried their heads in my sarong blocking their ears and crying. I remember looking up to see the reflection of the fire rockets in the golden towers of the Phimeanakas temple. It seemed as if the city was under attack and ablaze.

PART 2  January 1860

I was lucky enough this time to get the backing of an English organisation, the Royal Geographic Society, for my explorations in Indochina. The French government I am afraid to say showed no interest in my work. This second expedition is proving to be more about buildings than botany however so I hope they won’t object.

I have been following up various reports and documents about the ruins of an ancient civilization in Cambodia. Horse back seems to be the best way of getting around such a vast area and I have already recorded and sketched some of the incredible ruined temples and cities I have come across. Today I am riding out into the jungle again with a few natives who speak of a huge temple inhabited by Buddhist monks. It is January and the weather is scorching. I only hope we don’t have to hack our own paths.

As we emerged from the jungle on a small dusty path, there before me lay a sight of awe inspiring beauty.

“At the sight of this temple one feels one’s spirit crushed, one’s imagination surpassed. You look, admire and respect. One is silent. For where are the words to praise a work of art that has no equal anywhere in the world?”

Fascade of Angkor Wat by H MouhotPavillion of Angkor Wat by H Mouhot

Full of excitement and wonder I began to explore and make some sketches. I can’t believe the perfect balance and proportions of this vast temple. The architect was a genius. I suppose that it was built about the same time as the Roman empire and it certainly rivals anything built by them or the Greeks . What has become of the race who built it? Where are these civilized and enlightened people  now? Surely these simple monks are not their descendants. The present nation is barbaric and unenlightened and certainly knows nothing of the gods who built this temple.





Sketches of Angkor Wat by Henri Mouhot



Part3  December 2012

I sat at the top of one of the 12th century temples of the Preah Pithu group about a kilometre from the busy tourist magnet of the Bayon. I was completely alone. Cicadas had set up a monotonous high-pitched chorus and  palm leaves rustled in the breeze. The jungle  pressed in close eager to devour the temples. Pieces of carved stone lay everywhere, neglected and broken – silent witnesses to nine hundred years of Khmer history.  Anywhere else these temples alone would be worthy of conservation and heritage status but here in Angkor Thom they are not even on the tourist route.

With over three million tourists a year passing through Angkor Wat, the pressure on the monuments is huge. Most are processed sausage-like through the temples – Angkor Wat, the Bayon and Ta Prohm by lunchtime. I was lucky enough to have the time to do it slowly and over several days. There were times when the temples were crowded out but I just found a quiet place to sit and waited for them to move on. Tourist watching also made for good entertainment if one was in a forgiving mood. Risking broad generalisations, I found the Chinese as loud as ever (remember I had been living there for a year) totally destroying the atmosphere of mystery and wonder at Ta Prohm. They never tired of finding a new pose for every piece of stone or carving. Huge groups of Japanese in identical hats stopped for no one as they followed their tour guides like automatons. The Indians had expensive pieces of equipment and walked through the temples with the video lens glued to their face.

Many of the larger temples are not so much in a state of ruin as a state of repair. Since the end of the Khmer Rouge, the race is on to try to preserve them.RestorationHuge cranes and cohorts of workers are on site carrying out restoration work. Foreign experts, particularly the French who now claim Henri Mouhot as their own, are overseeing restoration work and training the Cambodians in  specialist preservation techniques. Given that there are over 1,000 temples on a site covering 390 square miles, there is plenty of work to keep them busy for a long time to come.

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Elemental Vietnam


Pitch black. I inch my way forward. Clay walls tighten around me and trigger my fear – claustrophobia. I’m forced to crouch down and shuffle along. Sweat stings my eyes. I want to retreat but I can’t turn round. I must go on. I try to control my breathing. My muscles ache. Then I see light and relief sweeps through me. I’m at the end of the tunnel.

I had only been in the Cu Chi tunnel for about 3 to 4 minutes and probably only covered about 50 metres, yet it seemed like hours. How was it possible that thousands of Viet Cong had managed to live underground in these tunnels for more than 10 years? The answer was simply that they had to. It was a poor, peasant army  faced with high-tech weaponry, helicopters, bombs and chemicals. The history of the tunnels is symbolic of the Vietnamese struggle against oppressors throughout its history – determined, inventive, daring, resilient and patient. The US only needed to read the history of past struggles against the Chinese, Kublai Khan, the French and the Japanese to understand this.

In the 1960’s the tunnels – 250 kms of them, stretched from HCMC (Saigon) to the Cambodian border. They enabled the Viet Cong to communicate with other VC controlled areas and to plan attacks such as those on Saigon and the Tet offensive in 1968. Wandering around the Cu Chi area, we learnt that the tunnels were several storeys deep with trap doors, living areas, storage areas, kitchens, weapons factories and command centres.  Fake ant hills concealed air holes, trap doors were camouflaged with leaves and logs and underwater entrances were built in rivers. There were even tunnel networks underneath the US military base at Dong Du and in US fortified encampments. This allowed the VC to mount surprise attacks and then to melt away without trace.

Once the US realised that the tunnels were so extensive, they carpet bombed the area. 420 km2 was turned into “the most bombed, shelled, gasses, defoliated and generally devastated area in the history of warfare.”  The US “tunnel rats” were brave men but the toll on the VC was enormous. Of the 16,000 cadres employed in the tunnels only 6,000 survived the war and thousands of civilians were killed.

” How do you find living in Vietnam, as an American?” I asked  a photographer who had lived there for 13 years. He said that he was nervous to begin with with but that he had never had anyone use it against him. “Once, I was taking some photographs near a village and an old couple showed me a cage next to their home. It was where they had both been tortured by US soldiers. They smiled as they showed me around and never once indicated any hostility towards me.”

Most modern Vietnamese just want to get on with their lives and support their families. Their wars are past history and they seem to be very forgiving.


With a 3451 km coastline and two major river deltas – the Red River and the Mekong – it was not difficult to get to water. Cycling the small dusty tracks of the Mekong Delta was a delight with  children rushing out to greet us with cries of “hello hello!”  All of life was lived on or near the water but flooding is becoming a real threat as deforestation in Cambodia is affecting the delicate balance of the Mekong River.

Tall poles adorned with pineapples, melons, potatoes and turnips  advertised what was on sale on each boat in  the Cai Rang floating market. It was early morning and I needed a coffee. I spotted a coffee seller in her boat and she swiftly drew up along side us and served me – coffee with condensed milk.

Coffee seller

The amphibious nature of some communities was even more obvious in Bai Tu Long Bay – the area of the famous karst formations in the Gulf of Tonkin. Whole villages live on the sea in floating houses complete with schools and shops. Each house had at least one guard dog which looked after the children when the parents were out fishing.

Swimming in the warm, clear seas off  Phu Quoc island in the Gulf of Thailand was idyllic but not for much longer. The international airport and tax free zone, complete with casinos and 5 star hotels, will soon spoil that.


A barrage of motorbikes surges towards me as I tentatively try crossing the road. I retreat and cover my face,  gasping for some clean air. I watch in awe as the drivers weave and wend their way through the mass of motorbikes. One driver is sporting a genuine looking American war helmet complete with an embroidered US eagle on the back. Drivers have to wear a helmet but not the other passengers. Babies, children and adults ride pillion without protection. Having run the gauntlet of a million bikes I think I’m safe on the pavement again. Not so. Several motorbikes use the pavement as a short cut without slowing down, missing me by a hair’s breadth. This is Ho Chi Minh City – vibrant, energetic and polluted.


The burnt out shell of  an imperial building stands stark in the midday sun. It is difficult to imagine Hue’s Forbidden Purple City in its heyday. Built in 1802, it was the palace of  the Nguyen emperors. Only 20 of its 148 buildings remain – all badly damaged by bombings and fire. First the French in 1885 stormed the palace, burnt the library and looted everything of value. Then the Americans, in 1968, used napalm on the imperial city and destroyed the town of Hue.

“We had to destroy the town in order to save it,”  remarked one US officer. This was part of the Tet offensive in which over 10,000 people died in Hue.

I wander around the overgrown ruins of palaces and temples in the Imperial enclosure until I come across the queen mother’s residence. I take refuge from the heat in her pleasure pavilion built over a lily pond. Eunuchs serve tea to the queen mother and her birthday guests. Music floats through the air and fish splash in the pond. The image fades, like a Vietnamese silk painting with illusive  figures and washed out colours, consumed by fire.

Queen mother's Pleasure Pavilion Hue

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It’s All Relative – Minorities in China

I’m becoming used to it. Thinking BIG, that is. Here in China everything is big and at first the statistics blew my mind. I have recently returned from a trip to Northern Guangxi, The Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, to give its correct title. I thought I was going to pass through areas populated by small groups of minority peoples with interesting costumes and customs. I wasn’t really aware of the statistics.

The Autonomous Region is home to four main minorities,the Zhuang, Miao, Dong and Yao, although there are many smaller ethnic groups which have been given one of the four minority names by the government, even though many of them speak a different language and follow different customs. Most of these minorities are dispersed across more than one province.  Now for a few figures:  officially, there are 55 ethnic minorities in China making up 7% of the total population, about 70 million people in all. In the UK, ethnic minorities make up 7.9% of the population which is about 4.6 million people. The population of the whole of the UK is 62 million, less than all the minority peoples of China put together. Since 1949, many minorities have been allowed to live in “Autonomous Regions” and given preferential treatment by the government. They are allowed two children for example. Education and health care have improved considerably. They do not, however, have any rights of self determination, need I go on?

Our guide was from the Dong minority, with a population of 3 million. His language belonged to the Kam-Sino-Tibetan group and he explained that in 1958 a Latin alphabet had been used to record it. However, it is not used much and most of the younger population speak and write in Chinese. He was acutely aware that the Dong language and culture was under threat with the migration to the cities . With roughly the same population as Wales, his concern about loss of language struck a chord. He took us around his village of Chengyang and other Dong villages, pointing out the unique architecture. The Dong are skilled builders and carpenters and construct large, two storey wooden houses without using a single nail. The famous “wind and rain bridges” are also unique to the Dong style of building and are used as a place to take cover from the elements and to socialise.

The second area we visited was not on the tourist trail. We trekked in sweltering heat, up through beautiful rice terraces to Nudu. This was a Cao Miao village but they  spoke Dong so our guide could communicate with them. They are one of the largest ethnic minorities in the South West – nearly nine million. We continued on small winding paths to the next village made up of a mixture of the minorities – Dong, Miao and Yao. The latter (population of 2.5 million), seemed very poor in the area we visited but we met more from this ethnic group later in the trip and got a different perspective on their life style.  Our guide made a few enquires and led us to the local store. Within minutes, we were made welcome whilst vegetables were collected from the fields and lunch was prepared over a small fire.  Soon a crowd of villagers gathered at the store to gaze in awe at the group of foreigners. We were enjoying our freshly cooked meal, totally unaware how challenging the next couple of hours were going to be.

It should have taken us an hour to reach the main road again but after two, we were still slipping and sliding our way down hill. The mud paths through the woods and rice terraces were treacherous and steep. Anything we encountered after this, in hiking terms, was easy. I could see why the villagers wanted a road and I noticed one was being built. It might mean that the remoteness of the area would be changed but who could blame them for wanting an easier option for getting in and out of their villages.

We moved on from this beautiful area to a more touristy part of Guangxi, the Dragon Backbone Rice Terraces, home to the Zhuang minority. This is the largest minority group in China – over 16 million –  the population of Australia, living in an area the size of New Zealand. Their language has Dai linguistic roots, related to Thai, but they are well integrated with the Han Chinese. These people have been building rice terraces for nearly two thousand years and they are an amazing feat of generations of back-breaking work. They rise 3,000 feet from the floor of the valley and are fed by a complex system of bamboo pipes. Our guide was a  farmer, so we became quite educated about rice growing  by the end of the week.

As we continued our walking east around the rice terraces, we encountered the Yao minority women who were very different from the   extremely shy and grindingly poor ones we had seen earlier in the week. With greater exposure to tourists, these women could be quite pushy,  especially as they had something to sell – their ground-length hair. They pestered our guide with,

” Tell them I am the one with the longest hair in this village” or ” do they want to pay to see my hair?”

The poor man patiently translated for us but we didn’t want to pay any woman for showing us the length of her hair. On one occasion, their persistence did pay off however, as one woman followed us for quite a long way on the trail. As we neared her village, her mother and sisters came to meet us (tipped off by the mobile phone perhaps?) and offered to cook us lunch. We accepted.

Living in the same geographical area, the minorities we met had many common traditions. Naturally, singing and dancing was an integral part of their cultures. The women were skilled embroiderers and weavers and wore belts and jackets with intricate, colourful designs. They  grew cotton, dyed it with indigo  and wove their own cloth. The Yao women  also wore heavy silver earrings, necklets and bracelets.

As we walked past crops and through villages, we noticed that their  diet consisted of rice, glutinous rice, maize, millet, pork and a rich variety of vegetables. Pomelos,  pumpkins and peppers were  seasonal extras. Unfortunately, our guide told us that his people also ate dog and I was unlucky enough to come across such an unfortunate creature being skinned in the market near Yangshuo. Meals can be washed down with oil tea or  rice wine (with a rather high alcohol content).

The state of ethnic minorities in China is complex. History, migration, government and ethnic tourism have all played their part in muddying the waters. The groups more willing to assimilate into Han society are seen as more feminine such as the Miao and Yao but there is friction in some minority areas where the people are less willing to assimilate. I do not need to spell out where those areas are.

Where I travelled, tourism was obviously increasing and the avaricious construction monster was in full swing. Five star hotels were being built high up on the Backbone Rice Terraces with cable car stations to ferry the elite guests up the mountains. How long will the less touristy areas manage to maintain their way of life?  I guess it’s all relative.



Most of the mountains I had climbed since coming to China had carved, stone steps from bottom to top and back again. After 8 months, I was desperate to find a trek that would allow me to walk on real earth. Not something I had written on my list of ” Things I will Miss in China”. So I booked a trek in Yunnan province in mid-May, which started with the most famous hike of south-west China –  Tiger Leaping Gorge.

The party consisted of our Chinese guide, a giant of an Aussie, two French women and myself. We met up in Lijiang old town and got lost on our first day trying to find our way out of the maze of narrow, cobbled streets.  Not an auspicious start. However, by 11.30, we were on the trail and I gave thanks for the feel of  stones, soil and earth under my feet. The trail was dusty and steep but we had views of  the towering snow-capped peaks of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain to the East and far below us, Tiger Leaping Gorge itself.

This is one of the deepest gorges in the world and is 16 km long.

After lunch, we hiked for another few hours, ascending 900 metres through the “28 bends”, a series of steep switch back loops on the trail. The Teahorse Trade Guesthouse was a welcome sight and where we were to spend the night.  The guest-house was aptly named as it was on the trail that followed the ancient mule caravan tea route to India, via Burma, to Tibet and Central China via Sichuan. Yunnan was one of the first tea producing areas over a 1,000 years ago and it was called the Teahorse Road because of the trade of Tibetan ponies for Chinese tea. People as well as horses carried heavy loads, as shown in this picture of porters carrying tea bricks, often more than their own body weight in tea.

     Men Laden With Tea, Sichuan Sheng, China, 1908, Ernest Henry Wilson

The next day was again blessedly cool and there were very few walkers on the trail. We hiked down steep slopes, passing several primitive-looking Tungsten mines on the way.  Eventually, after negotiating steel ladders and almost vertical rocky paths, we  reached  Tiger Leaping Stone at Middle Rapids. Here the Yangtze was in full spate as the swirling, muddy waters were squeezed through the narrow confines of the gorge. It was worth the long trek down although my knees didn’t agree. Most people end the 2 day trek here and get a bus back to Lijiang. For us, it was just a warm up.

Up early the following morning for the 2 hour drive to Haba village, 2680m, where we met our local guide and horseman. Here the people were of Tibetan origin and the countryside was green and fertile with everyone busy with the harvest. The sound of Yak bells provided an accompaniment to our slow foot steps as we ascended through the pine forests where azaleas, rhododendrons and violets were in bloom. The 15km hike seemed endless and the altitude slowed our walking to a snail’s pace. Base camp, at 4100m, was a welcome sight as we emerged from the forest.  Closer inspection however, revealed a dirty, unkempt site. It seemed sad but not surprising that the fees people pay to get into the area do not appear to be spent on preserving it’s beauty. We were fortunate to have wonderful weather which allowed us spectacular views of snow-capped peaks. At night it was cold, around freezing, and if there was no room around the mean little wood burning stove, the only place to keep warm was in bed.

After acclimatising for a day in the surrounding meadows, we prepared to climb to Camp 1 at 4,600m. We were told that it would make the summit day more manageable because of the altitude. When we arrived at the camp site – the guides began to clear and level the stony ground for the tents. We were told to rest. As the tents were unfurled and the guy ropes secured with boulders, it became obvious that these men had no clue about putting up tents. Only one tent had a matching rain cover and the rest looked completely unfit for purpose. They didn’t have the right poles or covers and would certainly not have been water proof. I could see them taking off in the strong winds.

“So Jonathan” I said to our guide, “in terms of safety at this height, what percentage would you give this camp?”

“80%”, he said smiling.

“But only one tent looks like it might just about do for 2 people. What about the other 4?”

“Oh, don’t worry about the guides,” he said, “they can sleep in the rocks. I think two of us can manage in one of the tents.”

It was already 4pm and we had no food or water. The two local guides were supposed to be going  back to Base Camp to collect the food once they had erected the tents! It was beginning to look like a complete fiasco and so the 4 of us took matters into our own hands and decided to go back to Base Camp. Tempers flared and the Aussie had had enough. He demanded a refund and walked out of the camp in disgust. We never saw him again. The French women were scared, which left me, at 7pm, having to make a decision about going for the summit the next day on my own – that is, without anyone from our party. I dithered and tried to weigh things up. I was worried about altitude sickness and the level of competence of the guides but I knew I would not be back any time soon and age was not exactly on my side. Having lived in China for several months, I had  grown used to the lack of  “health and safety” regulations,  so I decided to go for it.

At 4am the next morning, I set off with Jonathan and a local guide. My worries seemed to fade into insignificance when, after about 2 hours of climbing, I switched off my head torch and laid back on the rocks to look at the sky.  I gasped at the closeness of the stars and the sight of the Milky Way weaving its star dust trail through the heavens. Climbing very slowly over icy rocks and snowy patches, we eventually reached the snow line. We put on ancient-looking crampons and prepared for the  the long slopes ahead. I managed to walk 5 steps before resting and kept up this pace for the remainder of the ascent. At 9.30am we reached the summit of Haba Shan at 5,396m/17,703ft – the highest I had ever climbed. I was exhilarated. The clouds swirled in and out giving brief glimpses of the surrounding peaks. A few photos and a brief pause was all I was allowed before the guides were ready to leave.

The descent was rather quicker than the ascent and we arrived back at Base Camp at 12.30 – a total of 8 and a half hours. Then I followed the French women and the horses back down to Haba village so that we didn’t have to linger any longer at Base Camp. It took about 4 hours to descend through the pine forests and the yak meadows. I had walked for 12 and a half hours either vertically up or down all day!

  Summit of Haba Mountain – 5,396m.

I certainly had achieved my dream of walking on real earth again and was rather pleased that I had lived to tell the tale.

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It is difficult for 21st century Westerners to fully comprehend the mind set of ancient people’s attitudes to the afterlife. The Egyptians believed that life after death was a natural continuation of life on earth hence the importance of keeping the body intact and filling the Pharaohs’ tombs with the necessities for such a “life”. Other civilisations have had similar rituals and beliefs but the Chinese fear of non-existence drove them to extraordinary lengths in providing for the future welfare of the dead. Of course we only have the archaeological evidence of the tombs of royalty and the plains around Xi’an are littered with them.

Having visited two of the most famous ones, those of  Emperor Qin Shi Huang (246BC-210BC) of Terracotta Warrior/Great Wall fame and Emperor Jindi (188BC-141BC), I was amazed at the size of the area covered by the tombs and burial pits. I was also fascinated by the obsession with the afterlife that created an industry out of recreating “aristocratic life on earth”. The ancient Chinese believed everyone had two souls – the Po or earth-soul and the Hun or chi- soul. At the time of death the souls separated and had different destinations. The souls were not immortal however and their survival could be increased by feeding them. Life was made easier for the Po if it was given food, clothing and precious objects. This idea still persists in China today – see my blog “Money to Burn”.

Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum is a vast testimony to this megalomaniac’s fear of the afterlife. He certainly had good reason to be afraid of the thousands of spirits of the slain waiting to take their revenge and so he ensured that his tomb was guarded by 7,000 life-size terracotta warriors with horses, chariots and weapons. The tomb itself is said to contain rivers of mercury, cross-bow booby traps and replicas of his earthly palaces with jewel encrusted ceilings. Soil tests have indeed revealed significant levels of mercury and given what has already been uncovered, there is no reason to doubt the literature about his tomb. Ironically, he drank a potion of mercury during his lifetime as it was thought to be the elixir of life. It probably sent him mad and was most likely the cause of his death. His tomb still lies unexcavated. It sends shivers down my spine to think of all the workers who built the tomb being incarcerated in it, to prevent any knowledge of the “warriors” whereabouts being reported.

Emperor Jindi’s tomb was a real contrast to that of his megalomaniacal ancestor. Personally, I preferred it and thought the museum was far better than the one at the Terracotta Warriors.  His reign was peaceful and enlightened and the contents of the tomb tell us more about daily life than military might. The hundreds of burial pits have revealed elegant palace maids in Han costume, hundreds of domesticated animals and terracotta figurines. These originally had wooden arms and were dressed in colourful silk costumes. Again, as in earlier and later tombs, the motto was “to attend to the dead as if to attend to the living.”

Maids in death

Warrior ready for battle

Domestic animals and horses



All this attention to the afterlife is not done and dusted by any means. Its influence is still present in the daily life of the Chinese today. The next holiday I get will be “Tomb Sweeping” at the beginning of April. This originates from the Zhou Dynasty, 2,500 years ago, where people will worship their ancestors with food and flowers and willow branches will be placed around the tombs to ward off evil spirits. Despite the revolution, some beliefs just will not die!

For more photos go to:



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