08 June 2016

Yangtze River, China 2014

Day 1
Our home for five days on one of the world's best-known waterways. From Shanghai we flew to Wuhan, a major river transportation hub in the interior. On the trip from airport to the ship our local guide peppered us with statistics about China's "urbanization" movement that didn't explain the acres of forlorn, vacant residential towers we were passing.

After a day of airports and coach travel, our cabin on Century Diamond looks roomy and pleasing with the bonus of a balcony. Dinner is typical ship-style buffet, unlike our previous days of family-style round table service. We are at Table 1 for the duration, same faces each meal, designed to keep the staff on track. Our attendant is Coco. We chatter about upcoming shore excursions to unfamiliar places. Sailing upriver gets underway at midnight. 
Day 2
At 6 a.m., yes the ungodly hour of 6 a.m., the overhead tannoy speaker system in each cabin BLARES wild Chinese music at us. Bolting straight up from sleep, my roommate and I stare dumbly at each other. There is no way to turn off the shattering racket. Then we are subjected to shouted instructions about breakfast hours and an excursion that is hours away. Followed by raucous bird noises that we think are meant to be soothing. Happily, the cardiac-arrest business is never repeated on subsequent days. 
Today (it's mid-March) is cooler, drizzling rain and windy. Since we are awake anyway (!) we explore the ship. A few shops are on board, including a tailor who makes custom cheongsams for about $200 from gorgeous silk fabrics. The ship library consists mostly of Chinese magazines. There's a definite oversight, no information, about what we are passing along the riverbanks; often mile after mile of industrial mines, smelters, smokestacks. The few available handouts are only regarding the excursions. Some passengers go off to see a battlefield and fort at Chibi, within walking distance.
Fort Chibi

Sun deck; no sun

Nicer just to unwind on the balcony and watch the river activity. We are surrounded by flatlands where the river often widens / wanders into lake formations and seems alarmingly shallow at times. Lots of river traffic, many barges hauling freight. Gravel is coming downstream for construction sites. 

The ship is not full one or two Spanish and German groups, Canadians outnumbering all but meal times at the buffet can be a zoo. The Captain's Welcome Party ensures a fair amount of champagne before the dinner rush. Wine and beer are freely poured at meals which is not the norm otherwise: one glass of beverage at each meal when travelling on land.

Day 3
Excursion later today, good. It's overcast but no fog, just the usual mid-level layer of misty smog. On the ship entertainment program today: "fashion show." Expecting a demonstration of traditional costumes, we grabbed front seats. But it proved to be a sales pitch for the tailor with two live models wearing cheongsams who disappeared rapidly. The cruise director has an unfortunately shrill voice and used the word "actually" about 45 times this does not bode well for the later "fresh water pearl presentation" and "scarf wearing demonstration."

Happily, the sun came out and the sundeck soon filled up. We are passing more signs of life and cities now. The river water is looking deeper and mountain peaks are appearing. Showing a film on the Three Gorges was a bust; the ship does not have the facilities to show a film effectively. Finally, it's time to go see the Three Gorges Dam up close. Into a bus and up, up, up the road past Sandouping, part of Yichang city where the dam workers live.
It's a hike at the heights for a magnificent view of the dam and the locks. Hazy, but you can see everything. The size of the whole complex is gigantic. Thirty-two main generators! It must take an army to run the place. Maybe the army does run the place, heh. We can see ships lifting in the locks, as our ship will do tonight. The world's biggest dam is also installing the world's largest ship lift. I quote from our little handout:
"The project produces clean electricity, prevents deadly floods downstream and enhances navigation. ... However, the dam has also flooded archaeological and cultural sites and displaced some 1.24 million people, and is causing dramatic ecological changes, including the risk of landslides. The decision to build the dam has been deeply controversial in China and abroad."

Twilight approaches as we stop at the back of the dam for photo opps. The opps are largely ignored by the female contingent as we discover a covey of scarf vendors. Scarf-buying frenzy ensues as it does at each new locale. It's dark when we reach the ship and some holdup delays our boarding. The casual class of tai chi ladies across the street do their best to entice us into a small outdoor market. It works; we have time. Now the guys delight in the availability of beer in six-packs.

Tonight's post-dinner entertainment is a masked ball. The Spaniards and Germans are really into all this jollity. Some of our group are being felled by colds, not surprising as we are almost two weeks into the trip. At 10:30 p.m. Century Diamond enters the five-stage locks of the spectacular dam. We will rise 101 metres. Once the gates close each stage goes surprisingly quickly. It's awesome on the balcony facing a concrete wall that slowly slides down as we go up. Amazingly, some people have been able to scrawl bits of graffiti here and there (in Chinese characters).

Day 4
First thing, the morning excursion into Shennu Stream (aka Goddess Stream) on small boats, each carrying about sixteen of us. It seems to be one of the Three Gorges, but the ship handouts lack geographical information/identification. This little side trip is a highlight, amongst the soaring peaks. So much was submerged by the dam, turning mountain tops into islands. The boats have rules: wear life jackets; no more than five people outside on the stern. Soon the rules get ignored and photographers crowd at the back. Tour manager Lisa uses her severe voice.
There's a stop at a tricky floating dock where we assemble on a rocky ledge. The several boat guides line up, for something ceremonial perhaps? Only the people directly at the front of the crowd can hear whatever it is. Then they do a little song for us. Then they encourage us all to join a sort of happy conga line. The treacherous floating dock claims a few victims with twisted ankles and knees.

Back at the ship, the glorious start to the day has become all grey and cool. The passing scenery now is much more interesting, occasional temples, wonderful bridges, cities, but also "surviving" countryside spared the flood waters where family burial tombs can be seen on the hills. The river is so GREEN now! Wushan (not Wuhan) is one place where reconstruction is going on. A huge riverside sign proclaims it: "China Excellent Tourism City; National Sanitary City." Here we park for a while.

Some groups go to White Emperor City aka Baidi Cheng aka Baidi Temple, an optional tour entailing 1,000 stairs to the top. Luckily many old temples were built on mountaintops and do not have to be reconstructed. Meanwhile we could explore the "street" along the floating dock we're tied up to foodstuffs, dried fish, nuts, drinks, water, tea, snacks, odds and ends.
Docks/wharfs of this type are necessary because they easily adapt to changing dam levels. We see supplies coming along to be loaded onto the ship, all carried manually of course. Bags of their famous oranges, what we used to call mandarins.
Mild anticipation at dinner about tonight's talent show. Selected passengers model a few traditional women's costumes (again, a too-brief look), self-consciously sashaying in and out. Our neighbours from Table 2 do a limp rendition of the Expo song CA-NA-DA. The irrepressible Spaniards do an overly long and energetic but rather puzzling operetta (or so it seemed to be); their soprano swathed herself in a bed coverlet to great effect, whisking it expertly around her hips.

Day 5
Wakened at 6:30 a.m. by firecrackers going off on the hill. We have stopped again, at Zhongxian. People are doing laundry in the river at the bottom of steps. This is where we go to visit Shibaozhai, "Precious Stone Fortress." Local guide Romy leads us through the town on the south bank and a gauntlet of souvenir sellers to the fortress, perched way, WAY above us. Aka the Red Pavilion, it's another temple island-marooned by the dam flooding. Twelve stories and ninety-nine stairs to climb. Each level is dedicated to a famous general, scholar, or poet of the 200s AD, with cultural artifacts.
However. In order to reach the bottom (entry) level, we must cross a suspension bridge. It's about five feet wide which doesn't lessen the terror of a very long, swaying, bouncy crossing. So call me chicken-heart; queasiness with heights and unsteady sense of balance are in full force. So why not shop instead, the other few cowards suggest.

Not our ship but a reasonable facsimile

Later I am trying to capture more riverside views and burial tombs. The ever-present smog throws a soft cast over all, reminiscent of old watercolours.

Farewell dinner tonight, self-served in the round. Expectation is high for the special menu.
 It is loaded with fish and seafood dishes, to be expected in a marine environment, but severely limits my choices. Love Chinese sausage but had to spit out this version, heavy with fish taste! Apart from my personal allergies, consensus from Table 1 was altogether a disappointing, mediocre meal. Odd, and too bad, probably the least memorable on a 24-day trip of otherwise delicious Chinese dishes.

Next Day
We are at Chongqing, our next destination. Coolies are taking our luggage from the ship across the floating dock to the city; each man carries a mind-boggling four suitcases on a bamboo yoke. We estimate that's a minimum of 120 lbs. Poor buggers (but strong!), wonder what their pay is. Then they return with supplies for the ship which will turn around to take more groups on the downstream trip.

It's really been quite a lovely time on the Yangtze, a lull in the hectic pace of a long tour, somewhat like floating through a distant exotic film. The passing scenes perhaps more than anything convey a sense of the vastness, the beauties, of this country. But we also remember seeing the work ethic, the daily routines, the cheerful greetings; not so different from us after all.
© 2016 Brenda Dougall Merriman

23 May 2016

Matmata, Tunisia 2012

~~ Star Wars Alert: Tatooine (Tataouine) is a real place. 
It is a province and a town in Tunisia. 
Matmata is a small town at its north end. ~~

Salt flats, northern Sahara
The little Berber town of Matmata has a lifestyle unto itself. Here be troglodytes. We have driven east from Douz in a beautiful amber light, sun obscured by the sand haze in the air. As we pass away from desert and salt flats the terrain becomes hillier, we begin to see man-made entrances to caves dotting the hillsides. Or are they caves? Most homes are like circular craters, dug into the ground, the central portion open to the sky, with rooms carved out of the surrounding sandstone. Light from the centre illuminates the interiors that have no windows, just doorways.
 On the town outskirts our van stops at the side of the road and we are about to find out what it's like to live underground. Only the whitewashed exterior and a few pots mark the door. A long dark entrance leads to the courtyard; we pass a man who's been having a nap on a small bed along the narrow entry lined with some household utensils and the odd bit of clothing.

Roadside homes are often prepared to receive spontaneous passing visitors; it's a way to supplement their meagre incomes. It's almost a cottage industry, you might say, but the native hospitality has been eroded by their exposure as (reluctant) objects of curiosity. Our guide Samy gives us little advance information of what to expect, acting as the cheerful host. I'm not at all sure he, being from a different, urban part of the country, is even conscious of the dwellers' sensitivities.

The courtyard is sunny (it's still morning and the day is hot), deserted, and shows half a dozen doorways. A pet called a gundi, of guinea-pig resemblance, is in a cage. Oh ... a small girl about six or seven years old peeks around a doorway that leads to a yard where an outhouse can be seen. So this home is not a perfect crater. A family member will undoubtedly be out somewhere tending the goat flock. We gawk around, encouraged by Samy to investigate the rooms. It seems quite intrusive; most of us feel diffident.

Several rooms have beds arranged with colourful, patterned hangings and blankets. The clothing hanging on wall pegs is spare. The kitchen has something like a primus stove, some pans, and many clay pots for storage. It's hot as hades in there as if someone was recently cooking. Normally the temperature here would be cooler than up on ground level.  

The little girl is now hanging out in the courtyard looking bored. Suddenly, or so it seems, an elderly woman in black dress appears seated in the courtyard.
Since she looks posed, we take turns being photographed with her (still feeling uncomfortable). Naturally she doesn't know any English and seems disinclined to engage in talk. But our companion Alice strikes a chord with her and they have some amiable exchanges. Instinctively we give donations for taking the photos, only half-understanding that it was expected.

Samy directs us to the living room where a spread of pita, olive oil, and mint tea has been set out for us. A typical breakfast for the family. It was cooking the pita that likely sent the interior temperature shooting up. The woman does not appear again, so we serve ourselves, a sign (to me) that this must be a tiresome business for her. However the little girl does join us, looking annoyed and slightly sullen; no doubt her presence was ordered to add more atmosphere.
She is sitting apart not far from me. My companion found the perfect recipient for the bag of jujubes she'd carried all the way from Canada. The kid's eyes light up and she actually smiles. Earlier we were reminded that it was Remembrance Day. It is quite touching when over this little feast, someone starts the poem "In Flanders Field" and we all recite as best we can.

Onward as lunch time approaches, into the town of Matmata. Here, an obligatory visit to a small underground hotel, one of several in the town, based on the circular pit concept. We peer at it from above; we enter its courtyard from below for a different view. This hotel, Sidi Driss, is billed (and immortalized) as "home to Luke Skywalker" yes, one of Tunisia's many Star Wars locations. You too can sleep here. And so even the dullest of us (not mentioning my name) finally gets the long-lasting impact of filming in this area. We are not shown an actual bedroom, but a group of tourists is having a fine time lunching in the underground dining room off the courtyard.
Then to a "regular" hotel for our lunch ― Hotel Matmata is perhaps the only other hotel open in off-season ― an old and interesting place needing attention to maintenance. The cool, vast marble lobby is lovely. Lunch is a small but nice buffet lacking, very oddly, any sweets; no complaints about apples and oranges but not typical for desserts here. One has the sense everywhere of cutting corners.

 A stuffed goat kid is part of the dining room decor. One of the courtyards has molded clay depictions of a woman making pita bread, a large camel with a broken tail. Despite its rundown condition the place has much more charm than our occasional plush, generic hotels.

Star Wars probably started a new tourist invasion in the 1980s and keen fans still come to look. The location sets generally survive in good order for visitors ― others are west of here in Douz and near Tozeur. However, the latest Star Wars movie (The Force Awakens) did not film here.[1] Tourist boom time for this region may be over. Long known as a smugglers' route, extremist activities have been taking advantage of its relative isolation.

[1] Conor McCormick-Cavanagh, "Tunisia's Star Wars Fans Battle to Bring the Force Home," Middle East Eye (http://www.middleeasteye.net/in-depth/features/tunisia-has-potential-establish-itself-star-wars-fan-paradise-599714959 : accessed 28 December 2015).

© 2016 Brenda Dougall Merriman

11 May 2016

Military and Police Camels

What an excuse for extraordinary photos! In the Middle East, South Asia, and parts of Africa, camels have long served in terrain where a horse could not perform. In fact camels still serve a useful role in strategic army and policing commands.

Probably the most exciting and popular part of India's annual Republic Day parade is the Border Security Forces contingent. You would scarcely believe a 36-piece brass band is included in the camel brigade. True! Even Google did this:[1]
Photo: NPR

Just as incredible is the mounted military pipe band of the Pakistan Desert Rangers. The old Empire has a long echo! In daily life the riders and their steeds are in far less colourful attire, musical instruments safely stowed elsewhere we presume.
Photo: Aamir Qureshi

But wait. Not to be outdone, how about the Royal Oman Police Mounted Pipe Band!?? Purely ceremonial, the band along with its camel cavalry exists to promote cultural traditions. Sultan Qaboos clearly has respect for his educational days at Sandhurst Military Academy and subsequent service in a Scottish regiment of the British Army.
Photo: sickchirpse.com

A photo of the Saudi National Guard eludes me. Qatar has a mounted camel unit, and probably so do several more countries of the same climate and traditions.
Qatar Heritage Police. Photo: www.news.CN

Of course what you are seeing are ceremonial dress uniforms and displays. Everyday routine requires their appearance to be much more suited to their desert surroundings. While some camel units have been replaced by tanks, others have transitioned to public law and order duties with high visibility as tourist attractions.
Jordan Royal Desert Forces. Photo: Warrick Page, NY Times
Photo: camelphotos.com
Photo: BDM
Placing Egypt's mounted police in tourist areas was a smart move. A quiet job, perhaps a bit boring?

Historically, army camels have been known since ancient times, at least from Hannibal's crossing of southern Europe. They were far superior to horses as pack animals in terms of cargo weight and distance coverage. As cavalry, they were equally fast and when couched would serve their riders as gun placements or shade from an unforgiving sun.

Recently a Bactrian camel skelton was uncovered in Austria, believed to be part of the Ottoman army besieging Vienna in 1683.[2]
Photo: BBC
The British became accustomed to using camels in their historic campaigns in Africa, India, and the Middle East. Australian troops formed the first companies.
Imperial Camel Corps Brigade, First World War. Photo: Capt. Douglas G. Pearman
Here is the Imperial Camel Corps's ambulance transport, an amazing photo from http://australiancamels.com/camels-in-war/:

The United States Army imported camels to be pack animals in southwest desert areas, a previous post here. Compare the results to Australia's importation of camels in the same nineteenth century period for similar purposes: Oz now has an explosion of feral camels whereas the American southwest has none. 
US Army Camel Experiment reenactment. Photo: Texas Camel Corps

Interestingly, one Australian police force is bringing camels back for desert patrols after a sixty year hiatus.[3] New South Wales has come full circle.

Camels are familiar to United Nations troops who now serve in missions in countries with demanding equatorial terrain, for instance Sudan and Eritrea.
Photo: http://www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/camels-at-war/

It seems unlikely that the stolid beasts will be completely replaced by tanks.

[1] http://tech.firstpost.com/news-analysis/google-doodle-celebrates-indias-67th-republic-day-with-bsf-camel-contingent-296624.html.
[2] Jonathan Webb, "Intact Ottoman 'War Camel' found in Austrian cellar," BBC News, Science and Environment (http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-32145248).
[3] NSW Police Force, https://www.facebook.com/nswpoliceforce/?fref=nf.

© 2016 Brenda Dougall Merriman