the far east

I’ve gone through many more seasons than normal in one autumn.  I left the beginning of the falling leaves at home for a serious summer revival in the heat of the Middle East.  It kept us some time in its grasp before throwing me out, gently, towards winter.  Moscow was cool but still teetering on the final edge of autumn.  East from there winter came quickly.  I reached Siberia and the snow and ice didn’t let go of me until well into China. When I awoke in north Vietnam my ski jacket became unwelcome once more, and as I travelled south into the tropics the sun and the heat returned in fine fashion, albeit alongside the occasional thunderstorm.  Finally, upon the flight back west, winter re-inhabited the world and I stepped out of the airport, shivering, into snow-coated Edinburgh.  Now, I think my body is thoroughly confused as to which way the world’s tilting.

What of China?  What of Vietnam?  Well, some bits and pieces.

 

Nanshan: A premier alpine resort just north of Beijing.

The journey there was, as with most basic activities in China, adventurous. But simple enough – a helpful bus conductor got me off the bus in the right spot, where a swarm of taxi drivers were more than willing to take me to the hill.  Upon arrival I made my way to tickets where I bought a day pass and ski, boot and goggle rental.  The rental hall was huge and busy as Chinese school groups and families geared up for morning lessons.  I collected my gear.

I was up to the challenge of almost pencilled skis and rear entry boots.  I thought “how bad can old gear be?”.  Turned out, pretty bad.  It was like skiing in slippers.  I flailed down the slope barely able to link anything resembling a turn.  I returned to rental and insisted the boots didn’t fit.  I kept refusing their various offerings (rarely pairs) until finally I was brought an odd pair of Langes which had seen much better days but at least had four clips and came up past my ankle, woo!

Nanshan highlights

 

Things improved quickly.  The piste was a good blast.  The pipe was horrendous, but I wasn’t holding out great hopes, I’ve met similar halfpipe efforts in reputable places.

I headed on to the rest of the park which consisted of some comical moguls and a kicker which was good enough to spin off.  I landed a couple 540s (nervous ones… with no twin tips) and, once well warmed up, headed over to The Rail.  This wasn’t a regular feature – there was a Nike railjam type competition going on the day I was there, and I was pretty keen to give it a go.  I felt triply alien but I didn’t want to let it stop me.  First, I was invading upon a competition I wasn’t entered into.  Second, the comp was exclusively for snowboarders (at least there were no skiers present), and here was I on my (retro) skis. Third (and most overwhelming), I was a solitary white westerner doing what?? (wondered everyone) skiing in China.  Well, I missed my opportunity.  By the time I reached the slope the event was over and the prizegiving was taking place below it.  I thought it would be a step too far to hit the rail when I would certainly collide with at least some of the prizewinners at its end.

Still, it was a fine day at Nanshan.  Perhaps in a few year’s there’ll be a ski category when Nike comps come to visit!

 

How best to see Vietnam (as long as you can keep your eyes open)

The answer is on the back of a motorbike/moped/scooter/knocked-up-two-wheeled contraption-with-an-engine.  It’s brilliant fun.  Crossing the road is an adventure in itself, but you don’t get a full sense of the two-wheeled traffic action until you get amongst it.

In Hanoi the wet haze of drizzle and mist never lifted, so I spent my journeys clinging on to a wet pillion seat in my poncho, a grin spread on my face, as we twisted and turned through the streets.  On Cat Ba island riding was incredibly sedate by comparison.  I could sit back and admire the mountains and rice paddies.

Thang (pictured here) was my guide for the day, and we got on very well.  He was a hairdresser, often checking himself out in whatever mirrored substance was available.  At one point, upon dismounting his bike and removing our helmets, he asked “how’s my hair?”.  I answered “fine” and then, as an afterthought, “how’s mine?”.  He laughed hard, we both did.  Compared to his perfectly coiffed do, my matted mane was a good joke.

In Hue I grabbed a bicycle ($1 for a day’s rental – I couldn’t refuse!) and set out under my own steam.  Aside from one left hand turn (right hand driving) at a giant intersection amidst trucks and vans it was a fairly peaceful ride.  Winding dirt roads were dotted with curious adults, smiling children and nonplussed chickens.

Saigon was a different story; things moved fast.

It combined the bikes with the big city.  Instead of five or six lanes of bike traffic, suddenly there were fifteen.  Colossal roundabouts looked like nests of bees surrounded by their swarm.  I got onto bikes, and gosh was I scared.  The first ride I took was behind a taller than average Vietnamese fellow.  A mistake — always pick the short guys so that you can see over their heads as they drive.

On my last day I ventured out of the city centre into the suburbs, explored Chinatown, and eventually made my way to old Buddhist temple which was overgrown and mysterious.

It contained a number of sleeping monks and one awake one, ringing a large gong over and over.  I said hello to him and he smiled back at me and said “Everyday, 2 o clock. I ring gong.”.  Back on the street dark clouds were congregating and I was a few kilometres out of town.  I found a suitable looking bike and driver and jumped on, not knowing I was in for quite a ride.  He drove erratically and aggressively, swerving violently this way and that.  His bike too was a state.  It choked and coughed along, at two points stalling on junctions just as the other half of Saigon began to career towards us.  At that point I almost closed my eyes.  A little further along we got held up in a small jam and as we sat behind cars a few daring bikes nipped past us and bumped up a tight gap between car bumper and lamppost onto the pavement where they could make slow headway weaving through people.  I could see him considering it.  I sat there clinging on thinking “don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it”.  He didn’t do it.  Then the skies opened.  (You can see the looming storm cloud in the picture above.) On we went, the bike slipping out on corners now as instant rivers flowed down the streets.  My knuckles had long since lost their colour.  When I finally stumbled off the bike I was exhilarated, shaking and drenched.  I collapsed into a comfy chair in Vietnam’s Starbucks – ‘Highlands coffee’ – to dry off and calm down with a delicious ca phe sua da.

And then that was it.  After a cancelled flight in snow chaos, a rebooked (business class!) ticket and far too much free food eaten in the airport lounges, I was home.  Here’s to more dots soon.

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