Archive for June 2006

Asia Trip 2006

20 June 2006
Categories: Travel


Touristy shopping district near Yu Yuan Garden, Shanghai.

Tea house at the center of Nine-Turns Bridge, familiar to readers of Neal Stephenson’s excellent sci-fi novel The Diamond Age. Supposedly, evil spirits like to travel in straight lines, so the zig-zag bridge prevents them from crossing to the tea house. A more tangible benefit is a constantly-changing vista for the walker; we saw this practised frequently in the gardens we visited.

Xiangyang Road Market, a dense labyrinth of stalls selling all manner of fakes and knock-offs. A “Rolex” watch may be had for around $30, and “Polo” shirts for $3.50.

Above the stalls at Xiangyang, the best Coca-Cola billboard ever.

The Bund, Shanghai’s famed collection of early-twentieth-century Art Deco and Beaux-Arts buildings, with the Signal Tower (1884) foreground.

Kevin on a pedestrian overpass near the Bund, with the Oriental Pearl TV Tower and the Pudong skyline in the background. Pretty much everything there has been built since 1994. Pudong = Tomorrowland.

The Bund, viewed from the river, with the Peace Hotel at center (with the green pyramidal roof).

The Shanghai Aquarium, on the Pudong side of the river, is an underappreciated gem.

Welcom(e) to the Oriental Pearl TV Tower!

Shanghai, as viewed from the TV Tower’s lower observation deck on an increasingly gloomy day.


Garden of the Humble Administrator, Suzhou. According to one guide book, a slight change in pronunciation renders this name as “Garden of the Corrupt Politician.” Corrupt or humble, the man had a nice garden.

Awesome bonsai at the Garden of the Humble Administrator.

Our tour guide, Mr. Sam Shen, interpreter (retired) to the world’s power elite. During his long and distinguished career, Mr. Shen served as translator for Henry Kissinger, Margaret Thatcher, George H. W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, the King of Nepal, and many others.

North Temple Padoga, Suzhou. For 6 RMB (about 75 cents) one can go inside and climb to the top.

Good advice inside the North Temple Padoga, whether you’re climbing or not.

Ramina and Sam wave to the climbing fool.

“Every body should take good care of cultural relics” …if they can find them.

Suzhou is crisscrossed by dozens of canals and was once known as the Venice of the East. This water gate allowed access through the medieval city wall.

Tiger Hill in Suzhou. The brick tower is more than 1,000 years old and is leaning from centuries of underground subsidence. The top section was struck by lightning several decades ago and rebuilt—to plumb, making it off-kilter to the rest of the tower.

Garden of the provincial governor’s mansion at Tongli, an ancient water town south of Suzhou.

Garden of the provincial governor’s mansion at Tongli.


Ramina and Kevin at the Great Wall of China at Mutianyu.

Getting there early, before the tour busses arrive, is the best way to avoid the Great Wall of Tourists.

Mountains north of the Wall, as seen from a watch tower. No Mongolians in sight.

The Great Wall at Mutianyu.

Olympic Stadium in Beijing, under construction.

Model of China’s Shenzhou manned spacecraft, at the Science and Technology Museum in Beijing. The design shows marked similarities to Russia’s Soyuz.

Shenzhou 1, which successfully completed a 21-hour (unmanned) test flight in 1999. Rest assured, the next person to walk on the moon will be Chinese.

Riding the subway to Tiananmen Square.

Chairman Mao’s tomb at Tiananmen Square. The parade of people waiting to view his body, still resting in state 30 years after his death, is hundreds of metres long. We came back the following day (sans camera, a requirement) to join the queue, and were the only Anglos there (and received a lot of curious looks for it). The experience was an odd combination of somber respectfulness and quirky creepiness. Afterward, Ramina bought a Mao thermos—just like Elvis, you can choose between young Mao and old Mao.

Tiananmen Square, facing Tiananmen Gate, the southern entrance to the Forbidden City.

Ramina tries to get me in trouble with the Chinese Army. Notice how with no change of expression this soldier still managed to give me the evil eye.

A crush of humanity flows into the Forbidden City.

Glamour shot in the Forbidden City.

Large sections of the Forbidden City were closed off for renovation in preparation for the Olympics in 2008, including the Hall of Supreme Harmony—seen here completely surrounded by a protective shed. What looks like the Hall is really a giant poster on the shed, sized to fool the eye as one passes through the Gate of Supreme Harmony to the south (just behind the camera).

Counting the seconds to the opening ceremony.

Is it an IOC rule that Olympic mascots must be both cute and vaguely creepy?

Just east of Tiananmen Gate, running parallel to the main east-west avenue Chang An Lu but hidden from it by a tall brick wall, is this lovely, quiet park. Not many tourists here, and a popular spot for wedding photos.

Wangfujing, shopping haven for wealthy Chinese.

The Panjiayuan weekend market, filled with wondrous curios and antiques, most of them fakes.

A typical display at Panjiayuan. The ship’s wheels might be authentic, but I wouldn’t count on the vases, the wood carvings, or the crossbow.

Wish I hadn’t jiggled the camera—Panjiayuan had lots of interesting Mao-era propaganda and nationalist art, including this dramatic (and hilarious) painting of two good Communist women, dressed in jumpsuits and performing gymnastic leaps while wielding a rifle and grenade.


A view of Bangkok and the Chao Phraya river from our room at the Peninsula Hotel.

The Emir of Qatar was staying at our hotel during the celebrations of King Bhumibol’s 60th year on the throne. Security was very tight, but (typical of Thailand) both courteous and friendly.

The Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, the largest Buddha image in Bangkok. Turning one’s back on Buddha to pose for pictures before him is considered disrespectful, and yet is commonplace at the heavily touristed locales like Wat Pho—and this photo was shot by a (supposed) Buddhist.

Wat Pho.

Wat Benchamabophit, also known as the Marble Temple.

Buddha image inside Wat Benchamabophit. The ashes of King Chulalongkorn are buried beneath the statue. The framed photograph is of the present king as a young man, studying in the robes of a Buddhist monk.

Collection of Buddha images in many different styles and eras at Wat Benchamabophit.

With all the royalty in town for the anniversary celebration, police roadblocks for official motorcades were commonplace. For unknown reasons (and only possibly due to Ramina performing a royal wave from the back seat), these cops let us through a barricade that led right to the hotel where the King himself was staying.

Aboard the public express boat, a “water bus” that stops at some 30 piers along the Chao Phraya and costs only 13 baht (around 35 cents) per ride. Smart locals sit on the shady side; latecomers and dumb tourists sit in the sun.

The National Museum of Thailand, which houses a fantastic collection of artifacts including several wildly elaborate royal funeral chariots. Unfortunately, photography is prohibited inside.

Jim Thompson’s House. Jim Thompson was an American businessman who made a fortune by revitalizing the Thai silk industry. He built this house by disassembling six traditional Thai buildings from various rural locations and reassembling them in Bangkok. He disappeared in 1967 and his demise remains a mystery.

Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn.

Wat Arun is lavishly ornate, but actually looks better at a distance.

Partly this is due to the ravages of rain and pollution…

… but partly it’s because the decoration is entirely made up of seashells and pieces of broken Chinese porcelain, brought back from China as ballast in the holds of empty trade ships.

Lots of Buddhas at Wat Arun.

On our last day in Thailand, I visted the Bridge on the River Kwai. As we know from the famous movie by David Lean, this railway was built between Thailand and Burma by the Japanese during World War II using POW labour.

This steel bridge was slow to construct, so as a temporary expedient a wooden bridge was built concurrently a few hundred yards downriver, almost exclusively with POW muscle. The wooden bridge is long gone. Both bridges were repeatedly bombed during the war. The square spans in the center are post-war replacements for bomb-damaged spans (donated as reparations by Japan), but the curved spans are original.

The train is advertised to tourists as a ride on the “Death Railway,” but it also happens to be a regular passenger run from Bangkok.

Typical view from the train—farm fields or trees nearby, with surreally lumpy hills beyond.

Slow passage over a sinuous wooden trestle.

There were some tight clearances to both jungle and cliffs along the way.

Just beyond these mountains is Burma; we approached within twenty kilometres of the border before leaving the train.

The cost of the railway: this beautifully maintained cemetery, donated by the people of Thailand, contains nearly 7,000 British, Dutch, Australians, and Americans who died during its construction. All told, 16,000 Allied POWs and 100,000 (!) Asian labourers succumbed to the horrific conditions. This was a sobering and emotional way to end the trip.

Dawn over Bangkok. Time to head for home.