Today Mairin and I went to the Great Wall of China at Badaling about 40 Km north of Beijing. We were picked up by our tour guide at 7.30. who informed us with a smile that the temperature was a wonderful 6 degrees. Since we had donned every item of clothing we possessed ---thermal long johns, trousers, thermal long sleeved vest, shirt, polo neck jumper, fleecy, travel waistcoat, 'michelin man' coat, woolly hat, double socks, boots, long woolly scarf wound several times around. and 2 pairs of gloves each, we felt a bit foolish.
The journey was pleasant with lots of historical information in pretty understandable English. I loved the sincerity and obvious pride of this young lady as she told us of 22 million people living in Beijing, of how the Emperor Judee choose the site for the capital city Beijing, for 4 reasons, which were-- shelter and security in the valley between 2 mountain ridges, a river for luck(y), the beginning of the silk road, and of course the advice of every wise man of note in northern China.
The sun shining brightly in a clear blue sky left us totally unprepared for the biting wind and freezing air that hit us when the mini-bus door opened. I have never experienced such cold. Even with all the layers our fingers, toes and noses were numb in minutes.
The Great wall originally stretched for 10,000 Km and is known as the biggest cemetery in the world. Hundreds of thousands of people died while working on the wall and were buried in it. This information was kept secret at the time for obvious reasons.
Thousands of soldiers spent their whole lives guarding the wall. In a time before telecommunications, information was passed by smoke signals sent out by burning wolves dung.
The wall is an impressive structure snaking across the landscape, curving up and down with the terrain. Even when we got to the top by a sort of bob sleigh, the going was tough just making our way to the watch tower and the freezing wind grew even stronger. Mairin sat in a corner and began to paint the Great Wall in her journal, soon we were surrounded by interested onlookers. This attention plus numb fingers had us moving on quickly.
Because we arrived early there were no queues to go up or come down and the wall was not crowded. Some queues were forming as we descendrd, though nothing to what we were told can be expected in Summer when 1 million people visit daily.
We were accompanied by a couple from Shri Lanka, an Indian man, his sister and 2 young daughters. We all tried in vain to persuade the driver to turn on the heating, No luck !
As usual on these trips we were herded into a jade factory, a long speech on the wonders of jade and a very hard sell, which we resisted with great difficulty. Mairin was walked into trying on a bangle which she was told needed to be a snug fit. At 260 Euro she was not about to buy it and they almost had to amputate her thumb to get it off. She's still moaning in pain!
The Ming Tomb is still a bit of a mystery to me. We were shown around a museum and told a bit about the Ming Dynasty. I thought this was a preparation for visiting the tomb, but we were quickly directed back into the mini-bus and shunted on to the next hard sell. Silk, this time.
Ah well, you win some, you lose some. All in all it was a memorable day.
Before I pack my bag and prepare to leave Cambodia for home, let me tell you about the street I have lived in for most of the past year. In reality it’s a lane that leads from the town to the river. In Cambodian language it’s a village. (Village Number 3).
I find it a very interesting little place, full of life, old and young, rich and poor, healthy and ill, big fancy houses behind high gates and little tumble-down hovels. People work, play and live here. Mothers cook meals over open fires, families sit on the ground and eat. Laundry is done and hung to dry. Fish are caught in the river, gutted and set to dry in the sun. The men sit and chat over a few glasses of rice wine, or play cards in the evenings. Children ramble freely, playing games, marbles, skipping, football, cycling. Old people sit in the shade, keep an eye on the young children and chat to anyone who passes by.
I see numerous small industries here. Two families make ice-cream and sell it from small carts in the area. They start crushing blocks of ice around 5 every morning, then the generators get going churning the mixture, carts set off before 7.
An engagement Party.
Time for breakfast.
Opposite my house is a catering business. They provide tents, furniture and prepare and serve food for special occasions. A few doors up, there’s a morning café where you can buy bowls of porridge for breakfast. Another family sells iced coffee. We have a little sweet stall and a place that sells bottled water, and at the corner you can buy petrol in litre bottles.
Sign writer at work.
There’s a sign writer who does amazing work with brush and paint. Wearing his Vietnamese sun hat he moves his work from one side of the street to the other to avoid the sun.
Sewing from dawn to dusk.
Everyone lends a hand
3 families sew for the big factories. I have watched this work in progress. Two young girls make pockets and attach them to trousers. At another house they join the main parts of the garment together, while yet another family sews on waist bands. I’m told they earn less than 10 cent per garment.
Sellers call out their wares as they walk or drive down, There’s a bread man selling French sticks from a basket on the back of an old bicycle, a young boy sells steam cakes from a basket on his head, boiled eggs and sweet corn are sold from a cart on the side of a motor bike, rice in banana leaves, noodles, coconut juice, the list goes on. They come and go in their own time, bread in the morning, noodles at night…..
The monks are also part of the scene. There are 2 pagodas on the river bank within a few hundred metres of the street. They begin chanting every morning at 5, announcing a new day and ensuring everyone is awake. They walk down daily collecting alms, standing and praying over each donor. Some of them are as young as 13 years and look even younger. I find it amusing to stand while these little kids chant at me, they look like children dressed up for a school play. I often give them a big smile but they never smile back, it’s all very serious business! When I asked them their age they reluctantly told me 13 or 14, but my assistant said I should not speak to them as it was disrespectful!! I was also showing disrespect when I forgot to take off my shoes before handing over the money.
I have just spent Christmas in Bangkok with Don and friends indulging in the usual Christmas goodies, roast potatoes, Brussels sprouts, nut roasts, mince pies, cake, pudding, chocolate , cheese, chutney, sent or carried to us by family and friends. I enjoyed a week of delicious western foods and carried back enough treats for another week.
Thinking so much about food I realize how one man’s meat really is another man’s poison’. We have our likes and dislikes, meat eaters, vegetarians, vegans, people who like only savoury and those with a sweet tooth. Most of us can choose, look in the fridge and decide what we fancy. Not fish again, we had it yesterday! How about a burger, pizza, salad sandwich, perhaps served with French fries or coleslaw? To us western people this is tasty comfort food, but to a Cambodian it is bland and tasteless.
Here in Asia the average person happily eats rice with chilies 3 times a day. Some fresh or dried fish, pork or chicken added makes it a really good meal. I never hear complaints or anyone saying they would like something different. It’s rice 3 times a day and lucky to have it.
For most of the population life revolves around growing, finding and cooking food. Mothers get up at 5 in the morning to light fires and cook rice for breakfast. They spend their days in the rice fields planting, harvesting or fishing. Yes, where there’s water there are fish and that includes the rice fields during the monsoon season. Men, women and children spend hours, knee or waist deep in water fishing during the rains. They eat what they can and dry the rest under the hot sun to be eaten in the dry season.
Delicious fruit, mango, pineapple, papaya, mangustine, rambutan grow in abundance and are dirt cheap in the market. Bananas grow like weeds and are treated as such, it’s as if people are ashamed to be seen eating bananas, though my friend Pathma tells me they are the most nutritious of all fruit.
Cattle and water buffalo are everywhere, yet milk, cheese, butter and yogurt are not commonly eaten, are expensive, difficult to find and when we do they come from Denmark!
Foods of many kinds are sold from carts attached to motorbikes. It seems that many families don’t cook because it is as cheap to buy from the vendors. Usually families sit around on a mat, picnic style and eat from a common dish served with several hot, spicy dips. Soup consisting of stock with vegetables and fish or meat is very popular. Fresh herbs and spices are widely used and expertly blended by most cooks here in Cambodia.
Baan chow is a delicious Cambodian dish consisting of rice pancake filled with coconut,rice and chopped meat or fish.
Eating picnic style.
Making rice batter.
Making Baan Chow.
Anyone for Baan Chow?
Water and sugarcane juice are the usual drinks, with the odd glass of rice wine of course! Most restaurants will supply you with as much green tea as you can drink, free. Soft drinks, Fanta, green or orange in colour is readily available, also coca cola and many different fruit juices. Iced coffee is a favourite with many of us foreigners.
The average family does not have, or feel a need for a fridge. When I asked, the answer was ‘Why do we need a fridge? We buy our food fresh at the market every day, we take it home, cook it and eat it’
Is life really that simple?
Party, Cambodian style
This week I finished my 2 year placement with VSO here in Sisophon.. It has been a week of surprises. On Tuesday my arranged study visit was interrupted when members of the District office arrived, not to see what work was being done but to present a ‘letter of appreciation’ and a gift
Wednesday was definitely a quiet goodbye, wrong again. I arrived at Koy Meing at 8 o’clock to find the female teachers busy lighting fires and chopping ingredients. The male teachers were errand boys scooting off here and there at the women’s bidding. The students were abandoned. A party was being prepared. 3 hours later all was ready. The students were called to order, speeches were required and finally the food, a real feast was set out. Baan Chow is a traditional Cambodian meal and very delicious.
Koak Lun actually closed the school and the feast was prepared at a teacher’s house. There was a warm welcome and Hannah and I had a lesson on how to make Baan chow from scratch the traditional way, grinding the rice into flour to make the pancakes, cooking over a fire, everyone helped and it was all such fun. Two hours preparation produced the menu.:-
Crickets, deep fried with garlic and chilies.
Deep fried fish, very fresh
Last year we had serious floods in Banteay Meanchey and I wrote about them from the comfort of my guesthouse room. This year the floods have come again and I’m recording the fact, not from a distance but surrounded on all sides by a foot of brown muddy water.
My house is near the river and for weeks now I have anxiously watched the level rising. It inched its way up nearer and nearer to my gate. Last week the older houses on both sides flooded. I began to raise my possessions off the ground as a precaution, but not really believing the water would come in, a little bit like King Kanute I suppose I was telling it to stay away! A 3 hour downpour on Sunday morning 9th. October sent water flowing in my door and me scurrying to the upstairs' apartment'. Another unmerciful 2 hour thunder storm on Monday morning raised the level to knee high in my living room. As I write there’s a long-boat moored at my gate, Children are swimming in the garden next door, a couple of families are washing the kids’ hair, a baby is being bathed, pots and pans are being washed, all in brown muddy flood water.
I guess I know how Noah must have felt, I wonder if he really invited the animals in or did they just arrive? Here in my ark they don’t need an invitation. Apart from the ghekkoes who are always with us, I now have bats, butterflies, mosquitoes, cockroaches and huge spiders as regular house guests. There’s no point in fighting them or spraying with chemical, they seem immune to it, so I tuck my mosquito net well in around me and so far only one cockroach got through .Something helped itself to half a banana one night, it may have been brown and furry with a long tail, I've locked up all my food since.
Next week is the water festival. It is the time of year when the rains should have stopped and the floods receded enough for the river to change course and flow south again. It's not looking promising so far.
The opinions expressed in this blog are the authors own and do not reflect those of VSO
In praise of crutches.
Aren't legs wonderful? From just a few months old we creep on them ,walk, run,skip through life, seldom giving them a second thought. We walk bare foot, squeeze them into the latest fashions, high heel, low heel, platform or winkle picker, over heat them in trainers or freeze them, they seldom complain.On rare occasions we go too far, that's when we need the crutch. For me at age 60+vat it's my first experience. How lucky can one be to get away scot free for all that time! Initially it's painful, the lazy parts of the body, used to letting the legs do all the work, like the neck, shoulders and arms ache like hell, but they soon pull themselves together and you take off.