Saturday, 20 October 2012

CHINA: Knowledge is poo poo*. A guide to cultural encounters in the Middle Kingdom.

China is, to most Westerners, an intriguing but somewhat alien culture.  Although it is evolving a Western service culture and aesthetic at a breakneck pace, there are certainly still enough cultural quirks to intrigue and entertain the traveler for a very long time!  Being prepared, mainly with an ample supply of good humour and patience, and knowing what to expect will make your time in China even more enjoyable and interesting. 

Shanghai skyline. Ultra-modern China. 
Seat reserved for those who disabled, elderly and pregnant.  The first thing to strike most first-time visitors to China is the sheer mass of people.  It sounds obvious that the most populous nation on earth should have a LOT of people, but it is only after you have experienced the heaving mass of humanity for yourself in a public place like Tiananmen Square that it really hits home.  For those coming from cultures with a concept of "personal space" this can be confronting.  Through sheer unavoidability, people will push and touch you, and tiny old ladies will grin up at you as they secure an elbow in your ribs to force themselves past you in a queue.  Even walking down the street is a constant exercise is sidestepping and collision avoidance.  The only way to cope is to bring a large supply of patience, try to see the funny side of your experience, and come the realization that this behavior is culturally acceptable and not seen as rude.  For many people, choosing a time to visit when crowds are a little thinner is key to a great trip.

Good evening sir, you look very beautiful tonight.  If you are tall, blonde, have a beard or are in possession of a fuller figure, people will stare at you.  Depending on your level of interesting "non-Chineseness", babies will be thrust into your arms, people will unabashedly take your picture at close range, and the bold will ask you to join their group photos while hugging you enthusiastically.  Patting your hair or "Buddha belly" and commenting loudly while pointing out aspects of your appearance to the crowd at large is also fair game.   Being reasonably tall, and having long blonde hair, I am usually on the hit list.  I caused a near riot at the Beijing Zoo once, as agreeing to a photograph with the first of a group of 300 rural schoolchildren opened the floodgates and I was mobbed by squealing children.  It ended with the teachers stepping in and assembling kids into orderly class groups to be photographed with the foreigner, while most of the zoo's visitors videoed the fun.  My Chinese colleague thought the whole incident was hysterically funny, and I suspect collected donations, as the zoo pandas paced forgotten in the background. 

The Forbidden City.  Ancient China. 
Wildlife is not food.  In general, Chinese people will eat almost anything.  Insects, strange sea creatures, parts of domestic animals that would be considered offal by Westerners, and more disturbingly, endangered or rare species are all consumed with gusto.  While attitudes towards items such as tiger paw or bear gall are thankfully changing, even the most Westernized restaurant is sure to serve up the interesting or unfamiliar.  On a broad scale, textures seen as distasteful by many Western palates are enjoyed in China.  Crunchy cartilage, viscous soups, chewy snails and cuts of poultry complete with small bones intact are all on the menu.  If you are a little adventurous in your dining choices however, you will enjoy some wonderful food, far beyond the "beef and blackbean sauce" type Chinese found across the world.  You will also find great differences in regional food.  Sichuan is known for it's hot, spicy food, Xi’an for it's wheat noodles, Beijing for it's dumplings and Shanghai for it's fusion food, influenced by hundreds of years of contact with the outside world.  Seeking out the local specialties and restaurants is always rewarding and fun. 

Please trip carefully on the stair-machine.  Running outside for exercise is seen as a bit strange in most places in China, even if you can find a clear space in which to do so, and people have seemed worried as to what the emergency is when I've jogged in more rural areas.  On a recent trip, I popped into the gym in a large well-known luxury hotel chain. As I took up position on the treadmill, I realized I had an audience - two gym attendants and six students.  The students lined up along the wall, notebooks in hand, as their instructor carried out a running commentary in Chinese, presumably on my technique, or lack of it.   Once I moved onto the weight machines, the air of excitement built, students scribbling madly as the instructor pointed out my puny muscles and corrected my bicep curl, grabbing my arm and wobbling it for emphasis.  All of this was carried out without the slightest thought that this may be embarrassing or inappropriate.  Steeled to this kind of thing by years of travel in Asia, I wasn't overly bothered, and managed to have a halting exchange with one young woman via her translation dictionary (on her iPad naturally) about her hopes to become a personal trainer.  As I left, the class politely clapped. 

A 4 star toilet sign, Beijing.
Warm tip: This is a 5 star-rated toilet.   Using the bathroom outside of your hotel can also be a cultural experience in China.  Although traditionally the squat toilet is used, most main tourist attractions now have Western-style toilets, and a government rating system has been developed to help the visitor pick the most salubrious facility.  From my experience, no immediately obvious system is used to award stars, with 5 star toilets sometimes lacking doors to the stall and / or toilet seats, and 3 star toilets sometimes stretching so far as to even dispense toilet paper (generally not provided, making small packets of tissues your best friend!)  If nothing else, the star system does provide an excellent photography opportunity. 

In general, China is changing and evolving at an astounding rate.  Rice paddies give way as skyscrapers appear almost overnight, like mushrooms.  Young people in designer jeans and slogan t-shirts stand next to older people still dressed in "Mao pajamas" and truck tire sandals, and portraits of Steve Jobs sell like hotcakes alongside Mao in poster stores.  From the centre of the Forbidden City, it is only a short walk to streets lined with glittering designer stores selling Gucci handbags at prices equating to many years wages for the rural poor.  For me, much of the charm of China lies in this juxtaposition of old and new, traditional and modern, communist and capitalist.   The cultural quirks and strange experiences that can result from China catapulting into the 21st century at breakneck speed may just form the most memorable part of your trip. 

* slogan on a t-shirt worn by a young man in Guilin.  Paragraph heading are all signs or phrases, and may have lost just a little something in translation!

Rush Expeditions runs regular trips to China, where you are sure to experience the culture for yourself!

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

ITALY: Capri by Vespa. A journey involving shopping, eating, swimming and a bright yellow scooter.

As we negotiate around another tiny three-wheeled truck, this one laden with building supplies, I realise that riding a scooter on the island of Capri is a relatively simple proposition.  Despite the narrow roads and heavy traffic of all kinds, the locals are very used to scooters, and show great courtesy and common sense around them.  In fact, we find it less of an extreme sport here than in our hometown of Sydney.

Our trusty yellow steed!
Confident handling the peak hour traffic at home, we decide a bright yellow Vespa will give us the freedom to explore the island at our own pace on our day trip.  Our only concern is the traffic and unfamiliar road rules, but it turns out to be easy.  Far from being assaulted from all sides by stereotypical crazy Italian drivers, the only issue we have all day arises from an inexperienced tourist riding so slowly we are worried he will simply flop over from lack of momentum.  The twisting, steep roads offer spectacular scenery, and the slower pace allows us to easily stop, park the scooter and pop in to wherever takes our fancy.  Even navigation mistakes, normally a source of great angst and marital discord, are easily dealt with - it's a simple matter to pull over and u-turn on the scooter if need be!

The jovial man at the scooter hire shopfront gives us a map and detailed directions as well as the keys to a bumblebee-yellow 200cc scooter, the extra grunt necessary to power the two of us up the steep hills.  Complete with helmets (though still obeying the unwritten Italian rule of flagrantly dismissing any other safety gear and wearing shorts and sandals) we roar off towards our first destination - Grotta Azzurra.

Ignoring the crush of people jostling towards the boats that will take them out to the Blue Grotto, we park our yellow steed in a row of its fellows and cross through the restaurant on the far side of the lot.  Sure enough, a tiny path leads out the other side and down towards the cliffs.  Five minutes later, we are joining a small group of mainly locals companionably sunning themselves on the rocks in between launching themselves off the cliffs into the navy water below.  More sedate matrons climb down a ladder set into the rock wall, and breaststroke carefully to ensure their hair remains dry.  Everyone, teens to grandmothers, is wearing a very small bikini with not a shred of self-conscientiousness.   We swim, bake lizard-like on the rocks until dry, then head back up the steep path.

Antonio hard at work on my sandals.
Next stop is part of my wish list - the store and man who used to make Jacqui O her famous "Capri sandals".  To my delight, Antonio himself is perched outside at his table, deftly assembling bright leather straps, jewelled buckles and a choice of 11 different soles into custom sandals for clients.  My just-slightly-obsessive fashion research has resulted in a very clear idea of what I want, and in less than 15 minutes, I am paying for a pair of elegant wedge heeled, aqua blue suede sandals.  Antonio promises they will be ready in an hour, so we find a cafe next door and eat while we wait. 

Bellies full after a delicious three course set lunch (usually an antipasto, a pasta main and a gelato) and laden with my precious sandals, we decide to take the gondola up to Capri's highest peak, Monte Solaro. We've been assured the view is worth the 10 euros each, so we park the scooter once again (each time parking has been free, or less than one euro per hour in clearly marked parking lots) and ascend. The gondola is ski-lift-style: single, open chairs dangling from a wire, but they afford interesting glimpses into everyday life, as we glide over homes and backyards packed with vegetable gardens and fruit trees.  The view from the top is indeed breathtaking, with the Amalfi Coast, the rocky coves and inlets of Capri and billions of dollars worth of super-yachts all clearly visible against the sparkling sea. 

View from Monte Solaro.
Hot again after our ride down the gondola in the blazing afternoon sun, a quick swim is in order before our ferry.  Unfortunately, we don't have time to hike to the Roman villa perched on the cliffs a few kilometres out of the main port, but apparently it is well worth a look.   The Roman emperor Tiberius' island residence, the villa was constructed more than 2,000 years ago.  Obviously, Capri has been catering to the tourist crowd for quite some time!

We ride to the much closer Scoglio delle Sirene, and walk down to the tiny, pebbled cove.  Less than 20m across, the beach is tiny and packed with people, umbrellas and snack stands.  I go to buy water and return with a bottle of aqua naturale and a small coffee gelato the flirty Italian behind the counter has added as a "little gift for your lovely self".  Have I mentioned I love Italy?! 

We return the scooter, thank the store owner for his helpful tips, and depart, still in one piece, laden with new shoes and a sense we had seen just a glimpse of the "real" Capri beyond the reach of the average day-tripper. Amo la Vespa!

Friday, 10 August 2012

AUSTRALIA: Kunanurra. (Unexpected) beauty and sophistication in the Australian outback.

First up a confession: I was not looking forward to going to Kunanurra.  My vague impressions of it involved mining, a slightly controversial dam and some reports of issues within the local indigenous communities.  The only other bell rung by the name involved the gorgeous rare pink diamonds mined at the nearby Argyle site, but like most women, my interest lay far more with the finished product than the open cut mine they originate from.

Lake Argyle from the air. 
I was wrong.  Kunanurra is absolutely, undeniably beautiful, and my big city sensibilities were soothed by the excellent coffee, sophisticated wine and great food I was served during my stay. Flying in, the views are nothing short of breathtaking, the ancient red rock of the Kimberley punctuated by ribbons of silvery green eucalyptus marking the rivers, and perfect verdant circles betraying the presence of giant centre pivot irrigators. The massive Argyle Dam, more than twenty times the volume of Sydney Harbour, is a huge silver sheet, and even the open cut Argyle mine possesses a raw beauty of its own from this perspective, each layer revealing subtle variations in the palate of umber, yellow and dark red that paint the land.  

Once on the ground, the pleasant surprises continue.  My accommodation, at the Kunanurra Country Club, is great - large, clean comfortable rooms, a sparkling pool, and plenty of guest facilities including a laundry room, free wi-fi and a knowledgeable guest services desk doing a great trade in day tours, scenic flights and even doling out mechanical advice to 4WD enthusiasts.  I settle on a trip on the Ord River with Triple J tours, which turns out to be an excellent choice.  Jeff, who has been running the business for over 25 years, is a font of knowledge about the area, and his drawling, dry wit goes down a treat with the guests on board the powerboat we are using to blast our way up the river towards the dam wall.  We stop for a picnic lunch at a gorgeous spot on the bank, and face a spread and service most city cafes would do well to match.  The fact the meal was seriously undersold to us by the laconic Jeff as a "vegemite sandwich and maybe a cuppa", only adds to the appeal. 

Freshwater crocodile - harmless
 to people, despite appearances!
Back on the river, freshwater crocodiles (some of the largest I have seen at up to 7 feet long) lounge on the banks, drape themselves precariously on semi-submerged logs or bob motionless on the surface of the river.  Even the wash of our powerful boat doesn't seem to perturb them, each one riding the wave nonchalantly without so much as a blink of a protruding yellow eye.   Jeff tells us they retrieve a few of the aggressive saltwater crocodiles from the river each year - most of them after suffering "high speed lead poisoning" as he puts it!  Culling out the "salties" is mainly in aid of the tourists we spot in canoes and kayaks, who are enjoying the sunshine and lazy current sweeping them gently downstream. Luckily for the intrepid paddlers, freshwater crocs are generally timid and non-threatening to humans, their narrow, delicate jaws making them a danger only to small fish and amphibians.

The scenery competes successfully with the wildlife for our attention.  As we move further upstream, the river widens into wide flat expenses of ancient rock, folded like a descriptive plate from a geology textbook and painted in vivid shades of ochre.  Studded with burnt trees and ancient cycads bursting into life, the landscape is nothing short of jaw dropping.  Further upstream, the banks move in, and we speed through towering gorges; later still overhanging trees and reed beds crowd the banks.  Finally, we arrive at the dam wall, a towering pile of rock and clay holding back the huge expanse of Lake Argyle above.  

Ord River bank. 
Since being dammed 40 years ago, the swollen section of the Ord River downstream from the wall has become a year round haven for wildlife, its natural cycle of flood and drought tamed.  A huge irrigation scheme planned to transform the desert into productive farmland has not quite lived up to the original grand vision, but plantations of sandalwood are the latest high yield investment by local farmers, and with the first of these reaching maturity next year, the long awaited return may be close. 

Four turbines harness the flow of the water and generate the electricity required by the Argyle mine and also supply the township.  Looking out across the lake as we stand on the wall, all that is visible however is an enormous expanse of sparkling water, with madly paddling grebes enjoying the whirlpool ride provided by the overflow race the only evidence of the generators beneath our feet.  

Once we've had our fill of the view, the group is taken back to Kunanurra by bus, another opportunity for Jeff to share his almost inexhaustible supply of facts and figures about the area.  His knowledge of local history and agriculture are particularly impressive, and some of the group leap at his offer of a guided tour of the irrigation area after the official day is over.  

Back at the motel, I spot a brochure for three-day canoe trips on the Ord River, complete with all necessary equipment and semi permanent campsites.  I'm keen to come back and make the trip down the river at a more leisurely pace at some time, and this sounds perfect...  

Rush Expeditions runs custom trips through Australia, which can include  activities like canoeing the Ord River if you wish.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

JAPAN: Onsen etiquette. Or, how not to embarrass yourself while naked in public.

Bathing at an onsen (a natural hot bath) is an integral part of Japanese life, and an enjoyable and culturally interesting activity for a visitor.  However, there are a number of etiquette rules to be observed, which you ignore at peril of embarrassment!  The following is a short explanation of the onsen "rules" I have gleaned over numerous visits to Japan.  I find knowing how to behave helps me to relax and enjoy the ritual of bathing and soaking in the mineral pools, and it is now something I actively look forward to on each trip.   

Even monkeys enjoy onsen bathing.
As a volcanically active country, Japan has thousands of areas where hot water naturally bubbles to the surface, and in many of these places, bathhouses have been constructed. In other places, the local wildlife get in on the act, and the snow monkeys of Nagano have been perfecting the art of the onsen for ages!  An onsen may be as simple as a small changing and bathing shed next to a natural hot pool, or as elaborate as an entire complex of rooms and specially constructed pools within a hotel or ryokan (traditional inn). The naturally hot geothermal water is believed to have healing powers derived from its mineral content, and I can certainly attest to its reliving power on muscles tired from a day of snowboarding. 

Onsen are synonymous with relaxing and enjoying natural beauty. Onsen are a major domestic tourist attraction, drawing Japanese couples, families or company groups who want to get away from the hectic life of the city to relax. Japanese often talk of the virtues of "naked communion" for breaking down barriers and getting to know people in the relaxed atmosphere of an onsen. The bathhouse is one of the few places that the normal strict social hierarchy of Japan is ignored, and people can relate as equals - the onsen strips away social convention along with clothing.

Traditionally, men and women bathed together at the onsen, but single-sex bathing has become the norm more recently.  Mixed-sex bathing persists at some special onsen (konyoku) in the rural areas of Japan, but it would be very uncommon for a foreigner to encounter one of these, so it's not really something you need to worry about.  However, children of either sex may be seen in both the men's and the women's baths.  People often go to onsen with work colleagues, friends or their families.  Socially, the closest Western equivalent I can think of is a picnic, and people behave in much the same way as they would in this setting, despite being naked!

Onsen are popular in snow areas -
perfect after a long day on the slopes!
The following important etiquette points will help you blend in at the onsen:

1. Remove your shoes. When you first enter the onsen, you will generally see a small step, leading into the main changing area.  This is your cue to remove your shoes, and leave them in a neat line, or in the shelves or lockers provided.  Continue on in your bare feet (or "onsen slippers" which will be laid out if provided). This is part of the pervasive Japanese idea of compartmentalized spaces of increasing cleanliness.  A good example is exchanging your street shoes for "house slippers" when you enter a home, or wearing special "toilet slippers" only in the lavatory. (Of course, this leads to many amusing opportunities for the foreigner to forget and wear the toilet slippers back into public.)

2. Remove all your clothes. Once you enter the main changing area, you will normally see a series of shelves, baskets or lockers.  This is where you leave all your clothes and your large towel. Continue in to the next area completely naked.  Do not wear a swimsuit or your underwear. You may take a small "modesty towel" with you, but this is used only to dry your face or hair, and is generally not large enough to provide any level of modesty in any case. Be brave!  You can also take any toiletries with you that you may need, but basic ones like liquid soap, shampoo and conditioner are usually provided.  

3. Scrub, scrub and then scrub again. All guests are expected to wash their bodies thoroughly and rinse themselves carefully before entering the hot water pools. On entering the  "wet area" of the onsen, you will see a series of bathing stations, which are generally equipped with tiny, low stools, hand-held shower heads, wooden buckets, and toiletries such as soap and shampoo.  One sits on the stool, and begins to wash.  Most Japanese will meticulously wash their hair twice, and scrub their entire body carefully.  Any activity you would carry out in your own bathroom is acceptable in the washing area, and I have seen shaving, plucking, exfoliation and toenail trimming, amongst others! However, all of these things must be carried out strictly in the washing area, and nowhere near the pools.  The main thing to keep in mind is that the onsen is "clean" and must be kept that way - you must be perfectly clean before entering the pools.

Typical indoor / outdoor onsen.  Note the 
bathing station in the corner of the room.  
4. Don't stare, swim laps or let your modesty towel get in the water. When you are clean enough to enter the pools (I generally make sure I have washed for at least as long as the woman next to me, as I am paranoid about being thought an "unclean foreigner"), get up off your stool, and head to the water.  You should leave your washing station clean and ready for the next person.  Enter the water slowly, as it will be very hot.  Once immersed, sit quietly - an onsen is not a swimming pool, so doing laps is not kosher. Remember, only your well-scrubbed body should enter the pool, so set your towel off to the side, and don't let it touch the water.  Advanced students may like to place their folded towels on top of their heads at a jaunty angle.  People generally enjoy the onsen in tranquility, though it is perfectly acceptable to chat with friends.  Don't openly stare, but take in the display of flesh of all shapes, sizes and ages and inwardly feel better.  Remember, no one is especially looking at you, and the Japanese don't regard nakedness as any big deal.  

5. Have your large tattoos removed. While this may be going just a tad too far (!) many onsen do ban bathers with tattoos, as in Japan they are still somewhat associated with criminality.  Yakuza (Japanese “mafia”) traditionally have large, beautiful, elaborate tattoos. Depending on the onsen, this 'no tattoo' rule may be enforced against all.  Most onsen are now relaxing this requirement as "fashion" tattoos become more popular among young people, and in general, small, non-Japanese-style tattoos are politely ignored. No stranger to ink myself, I have never had an issue, but a friend with a large dragon covering her back has been refused entry at traditional onsen.  

6. Don't get carried away and faint. The water is very hot, so don't stay in too long, take advantage of the cool drinking water and cold plunge pools often available, but do linger in your bathrobe and enjoy the massage chairs, hairdryers and complimentary cosmetics.  Most of all, enjoy the feeling of quiet companionship, the easing of your aches and pains, and the sense you have really begun to understand Japanese culture at a deeper level.

Rush Expeditions runs regular trips to Japan, which include the opportunity to try an onsen for yourself!