We’d often hung over the fence in Hong Kong looking at China. Now it was time to visit the giant. After that we planned to carry out some health renovation in Thailand at the famous Chiva Som retreat.
Saturday February 4th 2013
Michelle wangled a spectacular deal at the Beijing Peninsular hotel whereby we took up residence in a two level suite overlooking one row of buildings across the road before smog swallowed the world beyond. Our loft style apartment had two separate wash- basins, a shower, bath with TV set into the marble wall and two toilets. The downstairs one, which I used, talked to you. As you flushed, a cultured voice said “thank you for your contribution to Chinese agriculture”.
While I’m on the subject of evacuation, I must comment on the effect that the icy weather had on my body. I went into a public loo in the Temple of Heaven and could not find Little Fraser. Had I turned me into a woman? I was about to go next door when I made the accidental discovery that I was, indeed, a bloke, but only by a small margin.
We ‘did The Wall’ on Monday, blessed by the only smog free day Beijing has ever had. After driving through snow-covered countryside we began our ascent to the summit. Advice from locals: very srippery icy steps, so creeping-style walk advised. Special Beijing hospital for the broken bone because fall down on the ice. T-shirts with print selling for one dollar before bargaining. Guaranteed not dissolve in the washing machine on first wash. After that, no guarantee.
The wall was spectacular and quite moving with its audacity and presence. Worth the taxing walk. We have about 100 pictures to prove we were there. Run away when you see us with a tablet.
Our guide said that the wall had been built to keep out the invading Mongols. Michelle thought that China was trying to invade Mongolia and that the wall had been built to keep out the invading Chinese. She added that the wall held two warring armies back while the soldiers on the top of the wall poured boiling urine over both sides to stop them. That hardly made sense to me. Who did the soldiers on top of the wall belong to? Maybe the Brits who traditionally don’t like anybody. Our guide became so confused by the question that he said it was time to catch the death defying cable car back to the street vendors who all had the same stuff at the same price and drove us crazy. You could also pay to sit on a smelly camel for a picture – which we didn’t.
We visited the temple of heaven. The park surrounding it was covered in snow. Unemployed people from cramped flats practice dancing because it is cheaper than burning briquettes, led by a similarly unemployed person who has done a course in ballet for beginners. Other people play cards, mah-jong, foot badminton, or generally horse about to keep warm.
Today we crept along the ice covered pavements and steps of the Forbidden (Frostbitten) City, peering into windows of temples. Our guide, Mark, told us that the palace had 9,999 rooms, one less than heaven, which clocked up ten thousand rooms. The walk was gruelling, always with the fear of falling down on the ice and getting taken to the bone hospital in a pedal powered three-wheeler, which poses a greater risk than a broken pelvis.
We also circumnavigated Tianinmin Square by car to say that we’d been there but it was too cold to get out and risk falling down again.
The best monument Beijing had to offer us was the Lama Temple with its huge standing Budda (by the time you get to Thailand he is reclining owing to exhaustion from holding up so much gold), but here he stands 30 metres high in a temple with rooms reserved for ghosts, and is chanted to by brown-robed monks.
Dinner Tuesday night; ah, what a feast. The Peninsula has a stupendous restaurant, specialising in Beijing duck. Chef Donald a la Duck attended our table, dressed in white, plus a hat, which doubled his height. He looked like a Mogul warrior as he flourished his knives and carved our duck with surgical precision. The dish used to be called Peking duck until Mao decided otherwise. I washed it down with Chinese rice wine that would intoxicate a horse. It easily accounted for me, and Michelle had to guide me back to the room before I did an unrequested floorshow for the foyer guests
Upstairs, in the pad, I turned on the television; certainly a big flat screen but everybody’s head looked like a sat-on orange. It was showing a documentary of the history of the Peninsular Hotel in Hong Kong. After some jerky black and white footage of seaplanes taking a week to travel from England, we cut to colour and an interview with Mr Khedouri whose family originally built the hotel. He spoke with great assurance to the camera, since he had been educated as an English gentleman, but when he stood next to the Duke of Kent, who had been invited to open the new tower, Mr Khedouri hardly made it past the Duke’s naval. The Duke adopted the royal stoop, also perfected by Prince Philip when talking to short people, and proceeded to pull the cord which parted the curtains to reveal a commemorative plaque. In my drunken stupor I imagined, instead of a plaque, a puppet show where the Duke is short and Mr Khedouri is tall, and continually hits the Duke on the head with a cucumber sandwich. After I laughed myself nearly sick as this idea, I clambered up the stairs to bed.
I forgot to mention that while I was bargaining for a beanie, Michelle bought a Samsung tablet for a quarter of what it costs in Australia. Too good to be true? Verily. The Samsung brand is not very clearly written on the back and there is no guarantee card. I think it Copysung. But so far so good. It turns on and a little green animal scurries across the screen. She also bought a black telephone handset that plugs into your iphone to stop cancer of the brain, and a diminutive speaker that does the job of a pair of Wharfdales.
One of the features of Beijing is its Hutongs – tiny streets that represent the old Beijing. They are so narrow many of them can’t take a car and the houses are so small that the front door is also the back door – well, almost. There are no toilets or washing facilities in these houses, meaning that you must get out of bed in the night and walk down the street to the loo.
Here is a good baggage tip for Hong Kong. If you want to leave a suitcase at the official locker facility, it costs about A$15 per 24 hours. Thus, if you want to leave a case for month (which we did) it costs a cool $450. At some point, the cost of the storage exceeds that of the contents of the case and you might as well abandon it. But there is better way. Stay at the Hong Kong Airport Regal Hotel and you can leave a bag there for free for seven days, after which it costs only A$1.20 a day. You’d need to leave a bag there for several years before it would be worth abandoning.
We took a train from Beijing to Shanghai. It is electric but still manages to get along at 300 clicks. Michelle booked the express, which it was – but only expressed itself between the 12 stations it stopped at. Thus it took over five hours, during which we observed, at great length, the countryside: quite remarkable in that it is either intensively cultivated or has stands of huge apartment buildings that form cities – but many of them are still being built or, if finished, are empty because people can’t afford to live in them.
Thursday 7th February 2013
Shanghai, a gracious, huge city, was cold when we arrived and then became freezing.
After a demonstration of white-knuckle lane changing from the airport, the flimsy taxi deposited us at the Langham Hotel (the ‘old’ Langham for those in the know). This Langham is a 1930s art deco masterpiece with a huge bedroom and bathroom, small lifts, lots of dark red drapes, leadlights, and a restaurant where you’d expect to find Humphrey Bogart having a smoke between courses.
As usual, Michelle had engineered an excellent room rate, which included breakfast. But nothing could save us from the usual laundry charges. You are better off throwing away your clothes and buying new ones rather than having them laundered or dry-cleaned at the Langham. The joke used to be that McDonalds is in the property business with hamburgers on the side. Now we can add that the Langham is in the laundry business with accommodation on the side.
Having said that, The Langham is a beautiful place to stay, its diminutive seven-storey height a reminder of old Shanghai. May it be preserved in this otherwise sky-reaching city.
One of the delights we had looked forward to in Shanghai was spending time with my son, Ben, and his fiancée, Hannah. They were holed up in a cheap apartment with dribbling water but also dribbling smallness of rent. We met up on Friday for some city sightseeing. The buildings, as in Beijing, are staggering in size and architectural diversity. Trudging through snow and dangerous fall-down ice, we went up in the Pearl TV Tower, a very high spike with doughnuts around its legs, waist and neck. You take a lift (much push and shove Chinese style to get in and out) to the neck doughnut where you can walk around and gaze at this remarkable city and its Yarra coloured river system. Now the challenge. The outer rim of this doughnut is made of glass and you can step on to it, looking down into a 200-meter drop. Michelle and Hannah did it easily, and stood looking nonchalantly down through the glass without a problem. Ben managed it after a couple of deep breaths. My turn. If they hadn’t been there I would have chickened, but as the fearless father figure I had to do it. As I stepped on to the glass, my stomach and all below it wanted to immigrate to my head and hide in my hair. I’m generally not too bad with heights, but this was a shocker. I’ve been flying in a microlight in Thailand but it was not nearly so scary as this building.
Then off to the designer shopping center that had Michelle weak at the knees with delight. She has now bought two pairs of boots and is eyeing off more. Modest little me only bought a navy cashmere sweater and two pairs of tan coloured socks which are unobtainable anywhere else in the universe.
I allowed myself to be dragged grumbling into the Shanghai history museum but then loved it. The Chinese specialty is the miniature street scene model, often accompanied by dawn to dusk lighting all achieved in two minutes, along with full-size scenes of old Shanghai life with people grinding, weaving, pleading cases in court, going to crowded restaurants and generally trying to survive.
Ben and Hannah took us to dinner at the Hyatt for Chinese New Year. Superb Shanghai duck – like Peking and Beijing duck by yet another name. The same dish served at home would never be ordered if called Sydney duck. People would think it was another of Donald’s uncles.
Unlike our New Year with the harbour bridge and sky on fire, and everybody outdoors, Chinese New Year clears the city like there’s been an alien gas attack. The shops close, along with many other attractions and most people go home to the company of their families. Taxi drivers are also scarce. We spent Chinese New Year’s Eve wandering the French Quarter during the day where Ben and Hannah showed us their rented flat of remarkable austerity. Common area peeling paint and dark, dusty wooden stairs demonstrate what happens when the owners’ corporation ceases to function. The entrance hallway is so narrow that when you open the door it blocks all the space behind it, meaning that only one person at a time can enter between the opening and closing of the door.
We had arranged to go to dinner with Hannah and Ben that night at another relic of old Shanghai – a 1930s theatre restaurant that puts on some screeching Chinese opera highlights and serves traditional dishes made from recipes found in emperor’s tombs. While Michelle is preparing to change into a designer outfit plus first steps of new boots, she begins to feel sick and decides to lie down. While horizontal, she says that she was now feeling really awful and might sick up on the carpet, therefore would I please call housekeeping and ask them to send up a large plastic or metal dish. This is very difficult to convey to housekeeping, especially explaining what the dish is for. I make vomiting noises to augment the explanation but this makes matters worst because they think I’m sick too. The request does the rounds of several earnest people until one lady says she understands and will have it sent up immediately. Metal or plastic might be difficult but she will do her best. Shortly thereafter a knock on the door reveals a formally attired waiter with two dinner plates, two small soup bowls and two soupspoons. Seeing this, Michelle leaps off the bed, a towel over her mouth, and bolts for the cavernous marble bathroom to drive the porcelain bus – on a long journey, it turns out. We both diagnose her complaint as food poisoning.
We are covered by our never-before-used Amex health insurance and decide to give it a run by declaring a medical emergency. This entails asking hotel reception to call Australia reverse charges – a huge struggle to begin with. Who do I get patched through to? Yes, an Indian lady in India who first must know our credit card details, dates of birth, medical history, home contact, travel plans, – and then she goes away to ‘verify’ it while Michelle continues driving the bus over potholes in the kneeling position. Then Mrs Gandhi calls back to tell us the good news: that we are covered, and that she will now call hotel reception and make enquiries about medical assistance. She goes away again to do this. She calls back to say that no doctor is available to come to the hotel and that we should load Michelle into a taxi (New Year’s Eve, remember, so shortage of taxis) and take her to the Shanghai United Family Hospital where some English is spoken. There is a closer hospital but it is only Chinese speaking, and not recommended because they might take Michelle’s tonsils out by mistake. We must keep details of all bills we pay so we can make a claim later. This is very, very important, sir. The paperwork must be comprehensive and correct otherwise your claim may be refused. Now, do you want to speak to a medical officer? No, my wife is throwing up, vomiting, hurling, chucking, heaving – take your pick – and I need to get her physical assistance, not talk to an Indian medical officer. Very well sir, you must forthwith get her to the hospital. Hotel reception assures me that they can get a taxi, even at this difficult time. Is there anything else I can help you with?
Michelle parks the bus and gets back into bed. I tell her to get out of bed so we can take a taxi to the hospital. Michelle refuses. She’d rather put up with food poisoning. She then goes to sleep, leaving me sitting in the art deco gloom for an hour wondering what to do. Since Michelle has shown no inclination to return to the bus (a nice art deco reproduction) I decide to go to bed too, while the city around us explodes tonnes of gelignite to scare off the evil spirits. It certainly scares us off, especially because next to The Langham is a small building forecourt which provides a launch pad for rockets and explosions that sound as though they are in our bedroom.
Happy New Year. Year of the snake. Year of the porcelain bus. Year of the Shanghai United Family Hospital.
Saturday February 10th 2013
Beijing beds and benches
While Michelle lay in bed allowing the war to be won by the good guys in her stomach, I donned my faithful puffed-up jacket and went for a walk. This was the first day of the snake and nothing was open. There was not even the threat of being run over. The only place with an unlocked door was the massage therapist establishment – not parlour, because that denotes the other kind of massage that every man has heard about but never experienced. I felt my body needed toning up and I went in.
Once used to the interior gloom I found a price list and slid my finger down to the one-hour oil massage, ideal for dry skin like mine. Out skipped number 36 and took me up to a neat room with very subdued lighting. I was asked to don a pair of silly blue paper underpants, which I later discovered were on backwards, giving the impression of much out in front and a skinny bum behind – neither of which is true, but no matter, we began. Little 36 had hands of steel and the grip of a top quality vice. She didn’t speak English but managed to tell me I was fat and had many poorly functioning muscles. At one point she excused herself and returned with a dangerously hot towel, which she laid on my back. Another trip away resulted in the arrival of a series of very hot rocks, which she assembled down my backbone. Usually, groaning in a massage establishment signifies certain pleasures, but my groans were in agony.
At the end of the hour she said that there was much work left to do on my steamed dumpling of a body, so I gave the nod for another half hour. This time she gave my stomach the hot towel treatment and then powered into some reflexology on my feet with her probing, heartless fingers. Her last act was to tie Gladwrap around my ankles and put my socks on over it. Why, I asked?
She explained the reason at length in Mandarin. I wore the Gladwrap all night but had to abandon it the next morning when I showered.
I hobbled out, more than happy to pay for my escape to the hotel where I lay down next to Michelle to recover. By the following morning I was able to cautiously move about but always I was reminded of places where little 36 had tried to tear me apart. Did I really feel better? Well, as the day wore on, yes. But I doubt that the cost/benefit analysis came out in my favour.
Michelle’s recovery was greatly enhanced by the prospect of going shopping. We rugged up and made off down Nanjing Road to join a river of people all heading in the one direction. It was like getting into the football crowd going to a grand final. But this crowd appeared to be walking for the sake of it. Certainly, some of them went to the shops but most simply walked and talked.
Michelle got vacuumed up into “Forever 21” a Zara like store for the teen sector. Forever 21 has wonderful merchandise in a very austere, brightly lit building of seven floors. Michelle bought bling and tops for her two nieces. Outside, we found a hop-on-hop-off city tour bus. We hopped on and then had to hop upstairs on to the open deck to find a seat. That wasn’t too bad until the bus started moving and then the wind chill factor threatened to snap freeze us. In order to stay alive we hopped off at the museum, thinking that a bit of potted culture would be good – until we found a queue several kilometers long of people with the same idea. A fellow in a smart uniform marched up with a sign saying it would be at least an hour before we’d get in. We then decided to swap that culture for another by walking along the famous Bund, where grand old buildings are left in testament to Shanghai’s glorious and not so glorious past. Michelle is a collector of hotels. She loves inspecting rooms, sizing up foyers, nosing into accommodation rates and assessing positions. Thus missioned, we took in the Peninsula, Peace and Waldorf Astoria hotels. At the Waldorf, we paid three times as much for tea and coffee as we had for an earlier, huge lunch. Was it worth it? You bet it was.
That night we ate with Ben and Hannah at their favourite restaurant, Xibei, which serves ‘north western China’ style food. This is not like any Chinese food we’d ever eaten. It was a knockout, and not at all expensive. The four of us sat and fantasised about opening this kind of restaurant in Sydney but the setting up problems sank us at the wharf before we put to sea. However, if you come to Shanghai this is a must – but allow for a garlic after-burner that might go on for three days.
Hotel toaster report: This morning, the Langham’s machine consumed my toast. I laid three pieces of bread on the moving belt where they crept into the glowing interior of the toaster at processional speed, then disappeared. I called the waitress who called the other waitress who called the chef. This chatty trio all but dismantled the toaster and eventually discovered that it was throwing the half toasted bread off the hidden end of the belt and waiting, with a grin on its knobbed face, to see what we thought about that. Now watched by six officials, I loaded in another three pieces of bread and, after an interminable time, it produced my three pieces barely warmed. It was clearly sulking.
Hotel breakfast toasters have never really been perfected. They take too long and never get the degree of toasting right. I have witnessed near fisticuffs as breakfasters load in their bread and then, when their back is turned, another breakfaster makes off with their toast thinking it was the toast he just put in. Nobody can understand the settings of hotel breakfast toasters. There is general disagreement among guests and staff on the meaning of light, medium and dark. Children should not be allowed near the toasters because they blatantly steal other peoples’ toast and change the settings until there is a fire.
We made it to the museum today, largely because some official left a sign outside that said it was closed and that reduced the queue. It was well and truly open, with spectacular showings of jade, auld clobber, pottery, furniture, currency and art.
Tomorrow we take the fast train to the airport. This train can get up to 400 kph but apparently only lopes along at 300 these days because of magnetic arthritis. We’ll be going from the chill of China to the steamy heat of Thailand and if I can summon the strength I’ll continue the travelogue.
Monday February 12 2013
Michelle, who has now assumed the role of packing director, has diminished my male role. Usually I have my case and she has hers, but because we had to make the divide between summer and winter, we needed two mixed cases and at that point Michelle slipped into the packing director’s seat while I’m now busted to assistant, third class, whose duties are confined to lifting and carrying.
Yesterday we did the unthinkable. We went to a yelling-out, mock-anger bargaining market and bought another suitcase. I am apprehensive about this. More space equals more stuff which equals yet another suitcase. And we’ve only been away for a week. By week four we’ll fill a container and be looking to buy another one.
I discussed the China one baby policy with Hannah, who is neck-deep in Chinese culture and handles Mandarin conversation very well. The one baby is over-cherished by the mother, father and grandparents. In infancy, the baby thinks it sits at the pinnacle of the universe. As a young child it behaves like a brat in public and nobody dares discipline it. It does not learn to share or interact with siblings. At school, the parents both protect it and intensively see to its learning. Any natural talents are exploited. But suddenly it is in competition with other one child family kids. The pressure to succeed builds. Hannah tells me this leads to rebellion and really difficult teenagers. What happens to these people as adults? How does it shape the future China? Gen Y on steroids.
Boys are, of course, highly favoured over girls. In one village, Hannah said, there are 300 single men and no women. Becoming gay or sex change operations must be tempting. Then there is the story about four enterprising single men who pooled their resources to appear on a high visibility billboard showing them posed up in trendy clothes, stating their assets and their aspirations. Single women were invited to apply re marriage. Apparently they harvested a reasonable selection. “The farmer wants a wife” equivalent here is “the man wants anything that is approximately female”.
We took our first trip in an A380 with Emirates, business class, and loved our muffled silk trip between Hong Kong and Bangkok – where we moved through startling steam into the Intercontinental Hotel. We had ahead of us one day and two nights of exhaustive walking and shopping for stuff we didn’t know we so desperately needed. After all, Michelle says, we have to fill up the new case. She is up to four pairs of shoes whereas virtuous me has only added underpants and a couple of shirts.
The Intercontie is a big, impressive, impersonal hotel and is very busy right now. When we checked in, although they had our credit card number because we had prepaid, they wanted a $200 cash deposit in case we went out of control with the mini-bar or dry cleaning. We objected. They bargained it down to $150. Still we refused. Stalemate. This is what I’m trained to do, the check-in-chick says. We are trained not to agree with this, Michelle replies. We walk away. We haven’t been arrested yet.
Hotel toaster report: Instead of the funeral speed belt model, this hotel has two eight slot pop-ups, which I may have to address separately. They provide a whole set of new problems because a single up-down lever controls all the slots. Whoever works this lever decides on the length of toasting time. You can imagine violent grabbing and even blows being traded over the lever when one breakfaster screams that his toast is done while the other believes that his has hardly passed the bread stage.
This could be the last you’ll hear from me for some time. The reason is that tomorrow we move into Chiva Som, the health retreat in southern Thailand, which promises to transform us into splendid examples of the human form as it was meant to be. This may involve being locked behind razor wire for 10 days with no Internet, no mobile phones and no chocolate. Therefore, if I go into radio silence you’ll know why.
Sunday 17th February 2013
Bangkok – Chiva Som
I thoroughly un-recommend the two and a half hour road trip from Bangkok to Hua Hin. Flat countryside left and right fails to take your mind off the freeway white knuckling style of the Toyota man. He was, however, better than the continuous competitive gymkhana drivers in China.
We interrupt this program for a weather update. Michelle and I have often speculated what it would be like to live in a cold climate. Since Sydney weather has turned itself into Brisbane weather, we had grown tired of listless, humid heat. I now know the answer – for me anyway. A week or so in China, where it got down to well below zero, did terrible things to my skin, to say nothing of Little Fraser – which I’ve mentioned before. Both of my hands developed scaly sores, my lips puffed up and scabbed, while my arms and legs felt like a crocodile’s back. I was reminded of falling leaves, and how the winter shrivels them. If I moved permanently to a dry, cold climate I’d turn into compost. As soon as I hit Thailand my skin started to clear up. I am therefore happy to simmer in Sydney.
Back on the road, the destination was worth the trip. Chiva Som is a beach health resort looking over the Gulf of Thailand, but it is not your average luxury resort hotel with five acres of swimming pools. This is a cross between resort, health retreat, hospital and survival training camp. The food is simply superb, and remarkable in that you cannot eat yourself fat. Here, they don’t have anything to do with oil or butter or sugar. I know you will be disappointed, but there will be no report on Chiva Som’s hotel breakfast toaster. It doesn’t have one. Bread is barely tolerated and mostly appears only as covered up mini loaves of compressed nuts. If you toasted it you would produce chipboard.
The good news is that the kommandant of the compound allows you to operate your electronic equipment in your room – but not outside. If you are caught speaking on your mobile in a public place you have to sit under the naughty palm tree for two days. The main reason is that that atmosphere should be peaceful at all times. No shrill Americans doing gazillion dollar deals. Apart from some restaurant saxophone music that sounds as though it’s coming through a pile of grey blankets, all is quiet. The other exception is the village pianist who fills the lounge with broken chords and impromptu twiddles for an hour and a half each evening. He plays a very sawn-off Yamaha baby grand and spends his time trying to catch the eye of anybody who will look at him for an exchange of nods and grins. He arrives with a pile of music, which he seldom opens, because his broken chords and occasional trills sufficiently enchant the listeners. The top two treble notes of the keyboard need work. They sound like Woody-woodpecker warming up. To stop people like me from playing the piano there is a sign on its cover saying that it will play very badly for all but the nightly piano-man. I have to ask how bad that can be.
Chiva Som only takes about 100 people. The guests walk about as if in a trance, not looking right or left. They also dress oddly. The hotel issues you with knitted cotton, lemon coloured, long-leg pajamas upon arrival, which you must return or buy when you leave. But some people, obviously not constrained by the bedroom etiquette of pajamas, wear them everywhere. They can appear at dinner in their pajamas. At lunch yesterday a man wore his pajamas and added the hotel dressing gown to be really chic. I especially noted a Japanese girl in her pajamas and was disappointed, upon close inspection, to find that she wore knickers underneath.
Another joy of arrival is your health check. You have to confess all to the assessment officer who then passes on your numerous flaws to the vast health repair team, readying them to suggest treatments and exercises – some of which are included in the tariff, while many good ones are not. At health check time you are issued with a substantial book laying out all the treatments available. Every one promises to transform you into the person you could be and should be. It is an overwhelming list. I don’t know how I have managed to stay alive all this time without these treatments. I quickly realised that I came here nothing more than a receptacle of dreadful toxins and fast breeding microorganisms rampaging around, trying to do me in.
Michelle is a lover of, and highly knowledgeable in, body treatments. The management gives you a free allowance of a thousand dollars that you can spend in the hushed caverns of wellness. That doesn’t include the free massage every day and a number of other activities, such as water aerobics and stretching, that you can share with the other toxin-filled inmates. Yesterday we did a class in metabolic breathing in which we had to assume a number of challenging poses and then try to inhale and exhale deeply. It is very hard trying to breathe at all when you are perched on one hand and one leg while waving your big toe in a circle at the ceiling. I fell embarrassingly over a number of times.
Today we did a class of ‘H2O body complex’ in which a gorgeous little Thai girl took charge of Michelle and I in the swimming pool. We had a floatie ‘noodle’ each, a strapped-on buoyancy band, a heart monitor and a pulse watch. Thus equipped, we attempted to exercise without drowning. I must say Michelle did better than I, often getting to the end of the pool first. After an hour of that we were allowed to return to dry land – but what a shock. As we walked out of the water we felt heavier and heavier – so much so that is was hard to waddle along the path. You get used to the buoyancy so that it becomes normal, and without it, gravity is intolerable.
Tonight was my birthday. Michelle booked a table overlooking the sea “with the shore lights flashing and the night tide dashing” (Drake’s Drum). We tucked into a delicious four-course meal of very few calories. I celebrated my wasted years with a can of non-alcoholic beer – but there was more. Michelle had made secret arrangements with the kitchen. A birthday ‘cake’ appeared with one candle, accompanied by a quavering duet from the waiter and waitress and general applause from the big table of growling Russians behind us. I did not rise to make a speech but instead attacked my cake – made of wobbly jelly with embedded strawberries.
February 22nd 2013
Chiva Som – still captive
I don’t want to generalize, but holidaying Russians en masse are uncouth in the extreme. They have descended upon the establishment, making a mockery of the simple rules of courtesy, especially to the Thai staff who are gentle, naturally polite people, and trained to be even more so here. The Russians break the mobile phone rule, they smoke, they pile their plates, and they take tables that have been reserved by other people. They sit in clumps, growling and harrumphing at one another and shout for service to have plates brought and taken away. The older ones are generally XXXOS and upwards – although I must say that the young women can be stunning while they still learning to be rude.
Enough of the Russians. We met a friendly Dutch couple who sat near us at dinner by the sea. They were taking a year off from work. During their conversation they uttered the magic word: Herbalife. Had it come to Australia? Yes it had, but low key. They left a couple of days later but I think they would have prospected us if they’d stayed longer. Sleuth Michelle found them on the Dutch Herbalife website. We realised that we had been in the presence of Herbalife royalty. They were inner circle, president’s club members of the Herbalife grand family of international wellness, bright eyes and flat bellies. To their credit, they didn’t get going on the abundance of benefits or set up the whiteboard. They really were the golden couple. He, very tall, deep voiced and handsome and she, also tall, blond with a beautiful face. They had paid the premium tariff and booked a villa overlooking the pond mit many vaterfoll. But they had trouble sleeping because “ve ver kept avake by the froks croaking and croaking the whole of the night.” Serve them right for being so attractive.
Chiva Som literally abuts the beach. Most nights we eat at a table overlooking gentle waves which are about as threatening as Port Philip Bay on a quiet day. The water looks clean and inviting but you should obey Chiva Som’s swimming semaphores. A notice at the front gate says that a red flag tells you not swim – probably too rough. The green flag says it is safe to swim. The yellow flag says swim with caution. As it turns out, the green flag is never used and the yellow flag is virtually permanent. The reason: “Sir you go in the water, nice, but many jellyfisss. Always jellyfisss, so never safe to swim” – as is the case with so many idyllic beaches- like those in northern Australia.
This place specializes in treating the body with every fix you can think of. The assessors find bodily breakdown you didn’t know you had. They even have visiting mind-altering people if you want to reset your life path. But the body is number one.
Taking Michelle’s advice I booked in for many mysterious meetings with gorgeous whispering therapists who gently massage in magical oils. I went for a treatment called “detoxifying skin therapy”. First a shower, then a layer of warm paint stripper after which I was wrapped up like a fast food sandwich, followed by another shower and then a slathering of green seaweed, more plastic wrapping plus towels and a final coat of a heated towel which is snap fastened snugly around the body. The heat was cranked up and I slow-cooked like a prize piece of Beef Wellington. It was really very hot and oppressive. To counteract the feeing of becoming Joan of Arc, they dipped a flannel in icy water and laid it over my face so that I didn’t know whether I was burning or freezing. Finally they unwrapped me for a third shower to wash off the seaweed, which had become quite attached to its new host. I walked out of the treatment room not knowing whether I was alive or dead. I eventually discovered I was alive and better for the experience – I think.
I’m never far away from textiles. I have to touch them, even if people are wearing them as clothing and then, red-faced I have to explain that I’ve come from a tactile textile family. While shopping in Shanghai we came upon the silk shop, an absolute delight if you like the best silk fabrics on the planet. Of course, I wasn’t going to buy anything, except that I somehow emerged with two meters of a wonderful woven check that would transform me into George Clooney if I had it made into a jacket. I schlepped the fabric to Hua Hin to find a tailor whose low price would offset the stupidly high price I’d paid for the fabric. Michelle and I went into ‘town’ to find that the highly praised tailor from ‘Trip Advisor’ was closed. We found another one down the street, not Indian, would you believe, who looked at my silk fabric and quoted me to make it into a jacket. The price was reasonable and I didn’t haggle. Two days later I went in for the first fitting. ‘The tailor’, it turned out, was not the tailor at all, but the measurer/interface man for the real tailor, whose wife arrived breathless at the shop carrying the preliminary cut of my jacket’s body. I tried it on and they fussed about with pins. Isn’t it usual for at least one arm to be attached? Much eye play between the two and some quick- fire exchanges in Thai. Um, sir, there is not enough fabric to finish the jacket, he says. But two meters is plenty, I reply. I know. I’m from the garment industry. In any case, you measured me and also measured the fabric. No problem then. More urgent Thai conversation. The terrible prospect emerges of a short sleeve jacket or a tank top – in superb Chinese silk. George Clooney dies. We will search in the factory, sir and call you. Later that day he calls with the miraculous news that the fabric has been located. Now his son doesn’t get a pair of shorts after all and George Clooney comes back to life. The second fitting produced the sleeves and I now look forward to the job being finished with all the parts necessary to make a jacket. Michelle is pressing me to get some trousers made but I fear the tailor will produce pedal pushers.
There is not much to do at night here. Most people are exhausted by the daily exercise or the therapeutic pummeling. Television is dismal, specializing in movies that didn’t make the box office for good reasons, or hysterical Wall Street reports on the micro-movements of economic indicators. Thus when a guest speaker offers wisdom in the library after dinner, we attend. The first was a vague Thai woman flogging an expensive course in life mapping. My map is already too near the edge of the page to bother risking a change from current happiness to future unhappiness. Michelle had done all this before in her qualification as a life coach and her map was quite satisfactory too, thank you.
But the next speaker was a Zen master who’d come to talk about breathing. He started off by asking how we could define life. That was a hard one. After our unsuccessful answers he defined it as a containment that breathes and is programmed to reproduce itself. He didn’t say that life had to have a brain. A jellyfisss has no brain and neither does a bacterium. Hence breathing is fundamentally vital to life. He went on to demonstrate various kinds of breathing to assist in life’s challenges. He’s written four books, but all in un-translated Japanese, unfortunately. He finished by saying that the best way to breathe was to laugh. We all had to stand up and start laughing – for no reason. An American woman saw the funny side of it and went out of control as she doubled up close to hysterics.
We’ve been here just on a week, now. The world that we normally live in is fading, bringing into question the many views we all have of reality. If we lived here for six months we’d emerge as different people and maybe we wouldn’t be able to return to our established lives. The limiting factor is, of course, money. Chiva Som is not cheap – and that’s probably a benefit in disguise.
Thursday 28th February 2013
I have been fortunate in that I didn’t wink inappropriately at one of the guests at Chiva Som. A rare, polite Russian, (actually born in Kazakhstan, so I didn’t mention Sasha Baron Cohen) Natascha is a tall, statuesque, platinum blonde with mysterious pale eyes and the most inviting smile you’ve ever seen. She’s quite interested in fitness, I thought, as I saw her powering through swimming pool water, and running four kilometers along beach before going to a punishing aerobic class. Michelle spoke to her first when they met in the fragrant massage department and said she was friendly – which is not the case with the impenetrable vacant expressions typical of many inmates.
Then we came across her in the indoor pool where she’d been thrashing up and down with a personal trainer. We introduced ourselves. She said she was Natascha Ragnosina, and added ‘verld champion boxaar’ and punched the air twice just short of my nose. Was this a joke? We couldn’t wait to get back to Google her and find out. It was true. Natascha had been world champion in three weight divisions simultaneously, one being the heavyweight where she gave away nearly half her bodyweight to a huge, grizzly opponent and beat the tripe out of her. If you look up Natascha Ragnosina on Google you can watch some her bouts. She was taller than most of her opponents and lightning fast – meaning that she was hardly ever hit. Her beautiful face shows no sign of damage. She had 50 professional bouts and won them all, knocking out many of her opponents. Before she retired (she is now 36 and still stunning) she wanted to fight the much-praised daughter of Mohammed Ali. The fight was arranged twice but Ms Ali backed out. Natascha got sick of all the waiting and all the talking, so she hung up her gloves, undoubtedly the greatest woman boxer ever. She’s also done catwalk modeling and currently has a short sports segment on Moscow television – but says the money is awful. “Why do you keep training?” I asked. “Because now I am hockey player,’ she replied, laughing at my incredulous expression. “I play professionally for Moscow team of men. I am the only woman. I want to play Olympic Hockey.”
While the weather has been relatively calm the jellyfisss ruled the waves but two mornings ago we awoke to a right old gale and the sea, again like Port Phillip Bay, turned into angry little waves. The direction of the powerful wind, the man at the beach said, blew away the jellyfisss but that didn’t change the yellow flag because now we had to exercise caution in choppy conditions. I decided to go for a swim and went down to the beach. Sitting on the sea wall, I found one of our guests who had decided to light up a risky cigarette – since you can be flogged for smoking inside the resort. She made the mistake of smoking her fag facing the wind, with the result that it feasted upon the oxygen and lasted about ten seconds. I thought this was hilarious. She didn’t, and looked sourly at me while she ignited the next one downwind and got some value out of it. I thought the government could make use of this unappreciated fact about smoking by decreeing that all smoking outdoors must be done into an oncoming wind. If there was no wind, smoking should not be permitted.
The saga of the jacket and the tailor did not end where it should have. I went to pick up my George Clooney transformer only to find that the tailor had now let out too much so that instead of fitting a stove pipe the jacket would now fit Billy Bunter. Furthermore, the burgundy coloured buttons agreed upon had turned into black buttons. The sleeves, however, did exist and were of excellent cut and length. But for the body, it was back to the factory.
“So sorry sir, the factory not lucky for you. Come back day after tomorrow and all fix.” When I returned as agreed, the tailor was closed with a notice in the window saying ‘Back 1600. Sorry.’ I did not believe this, but decided to settle in for maybe a long wait by taking up a front position in the open bar opposite and ordering a beer I didn’t want. The minute the beer arrived so did the tailor. Now I was afraid that he might just be dropping in and would soon be gone. I might never see my jacket again. I gulped down my beer and rushed across the hot street. He was still there and greeted me by pulling the jacket from the rack with a flourish. The buttons had changed to dark pink but that was okay, I’d get better ones in Sydney. I slipped it on. It was perfect! All of a sudden there was a crowd of women outside the tailor’s window. They were pressing their faces against the glass, pointing at me, and holding up autograph books. One pushed the door open a little and called out “George, we love you.” The tailor slipped the jacket off my shoulders and apologized that he had forgotten to sew some spare buttons on to the lining. Before I could say don’t bother he had dived out of his shop, grabbed his motorbike helmet, and he was gone, leaving me alone in the shop. What would happen if a gang of Russians came in demanding service? I’d have to pretend to be the tailor and start measuring them, inside legs and all. Thankfully the tailor returned before I had to change my career and put the jacket into a zipped bag. I paid the balance and caught a tuk-tuk back to the hotel where I discovered that the spare buttons he had given me were black.
During the tailor saga we moved from the purity of Chiva Som to the real world of the Intercontinental Hotel. We took an hour to pack, a three minute taxi ride up the same road and unpacked it all again in a delightful room overlooking the swimming pool. Now were surrounded by people smoking, drinking alcohol, yelling, and spoiled kids. But this hotel turned out to be a grand halfway house between heaven and reality. One of the eating options was to sit in a sunken little dining nook with water on three sides. Michelle had researched this restaurant as the Best Thai food in Hue Hin. I looked at the menu, my eyes coming to rest on a dish offering Hua Hin crab meat, coconut cream spicy red curry and wild betel leaf. It was called Gaeng Poo. I didn’t order it, seeing no point in starting at the finishing line. It came as a shock to have two normal size courses each. One would have satisfied our now smaller stomachs.
Hotel toaster report: The hotel breakfast toaster at the Intercontinental dragged down the otherwise excellent breakfast offering. The wide single grate, moving at funereal pace, delivered the under-toasted bread into a tray with a bent-up end to stop your much prized slice from becoming airborne and landing on the floor. The problem was that you had to risk burning your wrist trying to retrieve your toast from behind the bent up end.
Tomorrow we’ll be packing again for a flight to Hong Kong. I’m going to risk wearing the new jacket, but I must be ready to take it off if I see a mob of women bearing down on me.
Monday 4th March 2013
Ah welcome, highly esteemed travelers to Hong Kong, where your money will vanish in direct proportion to the growth of your stomach and your suitcases. Shopping is addictive and compulsive.
There are clinics set up all over town where shoppers can go to dry out while they undertake group therapy. When it came to my turn to speak to the circle (no surnames are permitted), I threw my wallet on the floor and said, “my name is Fraser and I’m a shopaholic”. So did Michelle, with her purse. The therapy failed for both of us. The third suitcase is now full and we’ll have to hire the bell captain’s two fattest boys to sit on them all at closure time.
I have not fallen in love with the Hong Kong Intercontinental Hotel. While it is virtually built into the harbour (a bit like our opera house) with correspondingly wonderful views, it is a bland building with low ceilings – even in the foyer. To create an illusion, the foyer desks and chairs are all sawn-offs. Bad knees are not taken into account and many people cannot get up from a chair without help from the staff who are trained in the dead lift. I suppose the good thing about that is, if you get drunk, you haven’t too far to fall. But the cost of getting drunk would be beyond the means of most people. Money rules at the Interconti. The mini bar is set like a bear-trap ready to capture your savings, while a light breakfast costs as much as a lavish dinner outside the hotel. Consequently, I will not be commenting on the hotel breakfast toaster because I can’t afford to go into the room where it is situated. But I imagine it would be high tech combined with artistically hand-worked marble and brass, polished daily, and operated by four uniformed breakfast toaster technicians who would assist you to select bread from a massive array of international styles and then take instruction on the colour of the toast you preferred. You would then be asked to sit at your table and await the arrival of the runner bearing your piece of toast, still hot.
There is a game played between guests, like us, who have paid money to join the Intercontinental Hotel Ambassadors Club with the intention of cajoling the hotel into giving upgrades and privileges that exceed the joining fee. The other team is the hotel, which adds lightweight frippery to entry-level rooms with the intention of making a profit out of the joining fee. It is a team sport in which both sides are equipped with grizzle, stonewalling and nasty comparisons. Instead of a room upgrade we got free Wi-Fi (which has been free anyway in every other hotel we’ve stayed at), a free movie to watch in bed, a harbour view (that makes a tiny room look bigger) late checkout (which we can’t use) a small bottle of scent and fresh fruit – delivered with all consuming rote-enthusiasm by middle management. I can’t say that we didn’t like staying at the hotel. Everything worked, including a complex bedroom lighting system that takes persistent study to master, and a toilet that flushes with thunderous, furious aggression because, instead of a cistern, it is worked by some massive vacuum machine deep in the basement.
I was really taken with the harbour view from our room until I saw the same Chinese down-market cruise ship, the Ji Mei, go back and forth each day, accompanied by a tug. This ship was in need of a good paint and some panel beating where the captain had run into something tougher than his ship. Suddenly I realised the deception. We didn’t have a harbour view room at all but a sub-entry-level room with a 3D movie screen behind the picture window showing repeating harbour scenes from a video. I voiced my suspicions at the low-down reception desk but didn’t get anywhere.
It would come as no surprise that we ate out on our first night. We found a restaurant in Nathan Road by following pictures and arrows up to the 27th floor of a building where we joined the clatter and hubbub of Chinese serving and eating. We ordered chicken with ginger sauce and, while we waited, Michelle was horrified by plates of Peking duck that waiters carried past with the bird’s head as part of the offering. “I can see poor ducky’s face,” Michelle moaned. “Don’t look,” I consoled her. “It’s normal here.” When our chicken arrived it too came with a detached head that looked none to pleased at being separated from its body. Michelle couldn’t look at it. Neither could I, actually. I began thinking that this chicken had started out with hopes and dreams for a long, meaningful life in the chook-yard and we had indirectly caused it to be unfulfilled. I called the waiter and asked for the head to be removed because it upset my wife. He complied, but with a look of incredulity on his face.
Michelle had done some research on the best dim sum lunch in Hong Kong. The vote went to Tim Ho Wan, which is the only restaurant of its type to have been awarded a Michelin star for the past three years. We took a long, dangerous taxi ride down Nathan Road until we found a group of people on the pavement outside a very unpretentious doorway. In front of the door a woman with a microphone was yelling something we couldn’t understand. After some enquiry we found that the woman was handing out numbers scribbled on slips of paper which the intended diners held until they were called by her. That gained entry into the restaurant. Our number was 86. First problem: the numbers were being called out in Cantonese. Solution: find out who is holding number 85 and we know we’re next. I found number 85, held by a nervous little woman who didn’t know why I was looking over her shoulder. Second problem: if number 85 is waiting for a table for eight, then 86, wanting only a table for two, might be taken in ahead of it. Solution: continue to hold up 86 in front of the announcer’s nose and point at the door. This seemed to work because we were propelled to a table for two in a very small, very noisy restaurant. Third problem: I had come out bravely wearing a short-sleeved cotton polo shirt and was pretty cold when I sat down – only to find that I was under the air conditioner outlet. I began to freeze. Michelle marked the menu card while I assumed the sad face of Shackelton sitting in his Antarctic hut. We also discovered that our tiny table was for four and that we were seated with two other people of unknown origin. The food had better be good, I said between clenched teeth as I buttoned up my polo to the neck and hugged myself. When it arrived I couldn’t believe how good it was. This grotty little restaurant is world famous, with a cult following for a very good reason. The food is sensational and cost us less than A$20 for two.
Back in the street Shackelton thawed out and we found we were in the wholesale garment district. The wholesalers operate distribution and retail simultaneously. The rule is, you can buy, but you can’t try on until you’ve paid, and returns are not accepted. This leads to lots of speculation and holding up in front of the body before taking the plunge. But the garments are so cheap that if you make a mistake you can give them away immediately to the disadvantaged without unhinging your budget.
On the second night (out of three) we ate at our favourite restaurant, the Red Pepper in Causeway bay. It specialises in Szechuan Chinese food, which relies chiefly on chilies to define it. Many people think the food is inedible, but if you can tolerate fire in the mouth and later further down, this is the best. We ordered three dishes resulting in Michelle’s partial loss of hearing and my partial blindness as we rode through a gastronomical bushfire. For me, cold beer, administered often, offered some extinguishing of the flames. That, in turn, left me partially intoxicated as I sat in the final smoldering ruins of empty plates.
Our shopping addiction has currently landed us with the logistical problem of enough stuff to fill four suitcases but only three available. The clinic forbids you to buy additional suitcases, which means that we must adopt the time-honored practice of throwing stuff overboard when the ship looks like sinking. Father, I cannot tell a lie, I have seven new pairs of trousers, a sweater, a jacket, several shirts and t-shirts, some underwear and several small items, like socks, all to fit into suitcases that were well filled before all this new stuff was acquired. I am not allowed to tell you what Michelle has in the way of additionals, but I can say that her feet and body will be abundantly protected well into the future. I’m working hard on my jettison list but have so far only come up with a pair of trousers that were badly worn, two new pairs of shorts that I tried on under pressure behind a curtain in a night market and later found them to be too small, two t-shirts that had not been allowed to dry after exercise and are decidedly smelly, and a pair of odd socks I never liked. The books are still badly out of balance and I might have to start throwing away stuff that I quite like in favour of those items I love. This will be an emotional time for me and I might have to go to the clinic for further counseling.