Sunday, June 10, 2007

Lychees, Longans and Pagodas

Travel to Southern Guangdong, China

When the Southern China Airliner descends for landing in Guangzhou's International, we see myriads of glittering lights below us. The time is early evening 1900 hours.In summer days, the air stands heavy and polluted in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong. A center of industrialization, the immense amount of manufacturing units add its share to modern days's plight of greenhouse emissions. We sigh when we leave the Airport, nearly melting in the humid, stifling atmosphere that has engulfed the city. Millions of people work here, like in the other big centers across China. Guangzhou is a showcase for the industrial revolution, its International Fair held twice a year draws Billions of foreign capital to the Chinese Economy. The official figures claim 10 Billion Dollars are received in orders during 10 days of Spring fair, and the same happens 4 times a year.

Our contact man Mr. Wu is expecting us at the Exit with a signboard exhibiting our names clearly. After an initial welcoming ceremony we tend to the waiting cab and speed off towards the main bus terminal. We will continue the journey to southern Guangdong without a rest in the capital. Buses in China are plentiful, we depart from the southern terminal near the railway station.

Along the highway the familiar sights of China, as in every province the huge signboards lining the roads, to lure customers to displayed merchandise, the modern capitalistic features of are everywhere visible. I wonder how many times I must have seen the "HAIER" advert, written in huge letters on the billboard that we pass. Familiar scenes cross my mind. China, a gigantic country by all standards, a society which is diverse, unique in its size and its achievements. Nothing will stop China from achieving superiority status, there is no other nation where people work as hard as in this progressing Nation.

The bus speeds through the night, leaving the capital behind us, turning towards the southern parts, our destination unknown except for the name. We are anxious to see where we shall end up. Along the road huge Banana plantations which cater for the whole of the Chinese market, Guangdong's climate is ideally suited for the growing of fruits.

Where we will end up this night ? We wonder, and Mr. Wu tries to elaborate on some scenic spots along the road. Since months have we prepared to reach this part of China, and now the time has come to see the 'fruit city', famous for its Longans and Lychees, throughout the dynasties Emperors in Beijing demanded the best fruits from here.

After four hours of ride we finally reach, the Terminus looks typically provincial. Lots of characters linger around here, which I dislike. One should be careful at night, always watch ones bags. A Taxi in form of an 'Wulungxie' the Chinese version of a Minibus takes us to Mr. Wu's residence, he insists he wants us to stay at his home. Mr. Wu is a teacher in the Gaozhou 'Normal school', a Middle school with approx. 5000 Students. His residence is far outside, we cross rice fields, typical Chinese village like structures, and I regret not having insisted on staying in the city center. When the house is reached we recognize the residential structure of an apartment building, the ones covering China from North to South, East to West. Simple with basic utilities, enabling millions to live in an affordable home.

Through the dark staircase we reach the third floor, carrying our bags and start to sweat from the physical effort. As always I don't like to carry much baggage with me, this time I blame myself for not being persistent enough. Always revenging itself, a heavy load of baggage adds to your inconvenience when going to distant places.

When we enter we realize that we made a mistake to follow Mr. Wu's advice and lodge with him. The place is Spartan, to say the least. Our bedroom features two beds, hard wood as the source of a mattress, and a straw mat. There is lots of personal junk from the owner lying around. We decide to make it through this night, (anyway we do not have much of a choice). Mr. Wu is in high spirits, and he wishes us a good night before retiring. No one can find sleep, we are too tense, although very exhausted from the trip. When we doze off it is close to 0500 hours in the morning.

We awake to sounds of birds singing, the windows open and we can see rice paddies in front of the building. It's a lovely scene and we feel better than the night before when we arrived. Looking for a bathroom we find a basic, bare concrete floored shower and toilet room, enough to make you run back to where you came from. We look into the kitchen and see a heap of unwashed dishes, signs of Bachelor's life, and a rice cooker. Beside it a note, inviting us to have our breakfast consisting of rice congee. Two bowls and 2 pairs chop sticks lay beside the rice cooker, the congee is hot, the cooker was left on 'warm'. We are hungry and taste some congee, the common breakfast in China, 'Xi Fan' as it is called.

The note also says he had to attend to his class and will be back around 10 AM. We have made up our minds, we will leave at the earliest opportunity, trying not to offend the host. Hard to understand without knowing the mentality of Chinese People, they offer you their home and you do not want to accept it.

When Mr. Wu finally arrives we are ready to leave, he looks surprised. He is of the opinion that his house is more convenient than a Hotel, however he agreed and calls a Taxi. Again I carry the unnecessary weight of our luggage down the stairs.

Do to the remote location it takes almost 30 minutes till the 'Taxi' arrives. A Motorcycle with sidecar, and the luggage is all stowed away. Rattling through the suburbs, we now fully realize how far the place is from the center of town.

A hotel is quickly found and we now settle into a somewhat more familiar surrounding. Mr. Wu has accompanied us and helps us to settle in, with instructions to the chamber maid the 'Foo Yuan' in Pinyin. We need rest, for the night we spent without much sleep and ask to be excused for a few hours. Mr. Wu leaves and promises to return in the afternoon.

We drift into a deep sleep and I wonder, like so many times before, what will wait for us here. .

Next : The gardens of Eden.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Mandiana - Niani - Mali border

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.I depart from Mandiana customs check point in the afternoon and hit the road towards Niani.Without a proper map (as there is none) the road is not clearly marked, especially its condition. To my astonishment I find it in much better condition than the ones I got used to since entering Guinea.

At 40-50 mph this seems a real highway to me. A few checkpoints on the way, nothing spectacular, the usual 'pay 'n drive' method works well here.

The scenery has changed into complete Savannah now. Grasslands and scrubs, solitary Baobab trees, but no more the dense tropical jungle.
Life in these areas is dreadful, no running water, no electricity, as in dark ages. People though can adapt to any condition that is put upon them.
We reach Niani at night close to 19 hours P.M. and my fuel is close to nil. Of course Niani, the border town must be having fuel, or so I think. What I finally find is not the usual filling station.After crossing the town, which is not much of a settlement, I am directed to the 'station'. I can not somehow forget this scene, it is another milestone on a long road through Africa.I find a petroleum lit grass hut, crooked stems serve as poles, a straw covered roof. The fuel is all filled in beer bottles of 0.7 ltrs, lined up in a row on front of the 'gas station'. If it were not for the acute shortage, I would laugh at this, but now I realize I have no choice, for after Niani there is a 100 miles nothing except bush and unknown territory.So I fill a 50 bottles of 'beer' gas, its price almost double inflated to the normal rate. I do not even want to look for food, for I know I have to continue to Mali tonight. So I leave, with a unforgettable memory in place.The evening brings some cool air, I sense the mighty river nearby. And when I reach the bonfire that is lit near the main road I recognize the Guinean border guards who camp here.To describe this would take another chapter, however this is an entry / exit point and I must say the guards are the friendliest I ever found in Guinea. The exit stamp in my passport, i carry on, the dark road passing through the middle of the bush, beside the river. Driving carefully in the dark, against my mentors advice, I focus my full attention on the rough road ahead of me.  The river Sankarani I cant see, as it is dark, but to me it is more a lake than a river. Floating gently, but mightily. A build up to the mighty dam that feeds three quarters of Mali with electricity, the Barrage de Selingui. A gigantic project as I am to see later on. A premonition overcomes me I can't explain why, but I slow down my vehicle to a mere 10 mph. I cannot see the road ahead of me, and the high beams are not helping much either. I notice the concrete structure that stands in the dark was once a bride crossing a creek beneath. Now, the bridge has been washed away, and I am standing 6 meters over the creek that floats beneath under it. In the darkness I maneuver the car back and find a diversion I passed minutes ago, leading to the creek's bottom. The normal type of vehicle would not be able to drive through this makeshift road, but I manage to cross the waters which aren't deep surprisingly and climb up the other side to continue my journey.The road turns to the left and leads into pure grassland, with bumps shaking us to the brink. In the distance a see a shimmering light, a line decorated with obsolete plastic carrier bags in all colors indicate a further check point. No one in sight, in the middle of the Savannah. I blow my horn. It is now 20 hours and I still have to make headway, I force myself. After a few minutes a customs guy appears and tells me the border is closed for tonight, from his uniform I can see we have reached the Malian customs.I beg, a common way of getting things done in these parts, to let me pass, as I have pressing business in Bamako. After consultation for which he disappears back into the dark, he reappears and removes the rope that serves as a barrier. We cross the line and follow him, guiding us to a shelter build from grass, roots and pieces of logs. The papers I am asked to submit. He disappears into the hut, and I wait. 5 minutes, 10 minutes pass. After 15 minutes I follow him and see three customs officials inspecting my 'international vaccination card'.I am asked if all my vaccinations are in order, which I confirm. Something they must find, and in my case they ask me for a valid 'Vaccination contre Meningitis' as you guess right the vaccination against Meningitis is what delays my departure. 5000 CFA change their hands and I carry on through the night. next episode : night in the bush




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Monday, May 28, 2007

A world beneath - the tragedy

I was trying to find out about a missing link in my family's annals. It was sixty five years ago when my uncle, then nineteen, enlisted in the German Navy. I am not proud of this , neither am I ashamed of the fact, it was as it was, and parallels can be found at any time in history, even to this day. He chosde to be in the Navy and was trained on a German sub. He must have felt proud then, to fight for his 'homeland', same rhetoric used  till this day, to win hearts and minds of subordinates.

Whilst he underwent training in Pilau U-boat training school he sent a post card to his family in June 1941. Another one was sent in winter 1941, showing the U-boat in the icy sea off Newfoundland. It was on 24th July 1942 when their U-90 sub incl. all 44 men were sunk by the Canadian destroyer 'St.Croix'.

It is difficult to imagine the last minutes and the agony that he went through, only 19 years of age at the time. In the year that followed the vessel 'St. Croix' itself became a target to the German sub U-305.

The irony - U-90 never sunk one enemy ship. After 65 years  we knownow  the events relating to his death. His death was documented in 1943 in the registrar's office in Wilhelmshaven, Germany.

Yet, as it seems that we never learn from the past, as I am writing, many innocent lives are lost becauseof  yet another 'wannabe'. And the world is unable to stop him. And with every innocent life lost the danger of escalation rises. What a world of hypocrites we still live in, with those crying for 'justice' and 'freedom'. Yet they themselves far away from the guns, when in fact they ran away from performing their duty - to serve their country when called to do so.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Mandiana Customs scam, night in the Savannah, Barrages de Selingui, Mali

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Once dawn breaks I am up again, trying to locate the facilities of this shabby place I spent the night. The couple with the motorcycle episode still on my mind, I find my way to the washroom, and what a washing room it is.


There is flowing water however and I have my shower under the fresh morning sky, the cold water from the well helps me to clear my mind at once. I have a difficult task ahead of me, and I need lots of luck to get my merchandise out of the customs clutches. So mad the whole story sounds, no one would ever imagine the agonizing moments I go through with these officials. Like leeches they prey on their targets, remorseless their approach to empty your pockets.


The night before I visited the local hawkers and to my astonishment I found quiet palatable food. Without a meal the whole day I longed for a dinner, and I found it in form of a decent Spaghetti Bolognaise, and some 'sauce 'd arachides' a peanut butter based sauce with stewed rice. Amazingly, the dishes were of agreeable taste, and reasonably cheap.


The appointment is set to 80.00 AM and I drive up to the main junction that links the western border Bougoula, with the northern and eastern route, to Kankan and Niani. The customs building is a simple tin roof thatched house, but the main negotiating room is on its left, and is comprised of a raw concrete floor, some wooden chairs, and a grass covered rooftop, open to all sites, so that the traffic can be observed. Whatever passes through here, is subject to pay road tax, in one way or another. The capital is far and here the officials can act as they see fit.


The night before I drove up to the main junction, the Customs officials on duty sitting near a bonfire in one of the huts erected to control vehicles that pass through here. I was asked to report the next morning, having no choice I will follow the order. Again the officer who we found at the entry point to Mandiana tells me that I do not have valid car papers, and thus adds to my already big problem..


I drive up the yard, and after the initial exchanges of welcoming : 'bienvenue', the officials, three of them, begin their process. All eyes are focused on the big Renault articulator, now parked at the side, under scrutiny of the customs. They will not let go of this truck till they receive their share The one in charge appears, with the copy of the transit invoice in his hand and tells me the amount involved. The figure is somewhat less than at the Bougoula border,  but it is still beyond my acceptable figure 


When I insist that the value on the invoice is incorrect, the official displays the transit documents, and I realize the blunder made by my own staff. The valuation on the documents contained an error, committed by the Ivorian Customs. The whole crew of the truck has by now assembled around the vehicle and I request the original invoice issued by our company back in Ghana. Here the amount is a complete different amount, and I produce it as evidence. Seeing an opportunity slip by, the man in beige now tries to be stubborn. I am now in full steam and ask him to physically check the load instead. Upon his instruction a few bales loaded are released and the weight is being taken. By multiplying the number of packages he derives at the figure on my invoice. This solves the puzzle and he grins. We know the icebreaker worked. We have all settled into the straw- hut and two official in a hammock are explaining the procedures, and warning of the 'brigade', the customs flying squad that seizes all goods that are not properly declared. All to intimidate us and to find ways to extract more money.


Once the final calculation comes out we are to pay in the region of 3000 US Dollars, still high but of course much less than the previous figure. Now it comes to the finals, the crew is invited to have lunch with the officials, I politely refuse indicating to my stomach. They withdraw behind the house to  .savor he local specialty 'cailler'. When I see the fermented milk, with thousand flies swarming around it, and the sugar being added in large amounts, I return to the point of the vehicle, finding a place in the shadow under a large Acacia tree and wait for further developments. I feel the deal is nearly done. With the meal over, the people return to prepare the final release documents. Without telling anyone in the group I know I have a most important meeting to attend in Europe, after 3 days in Prague to be precise. How I will reach there I don't know. We are in the middle of the bush, no airport, only rough roads leading into three different directions, one of which is towards the north to Mali, and I know that I will have to take this route. I urge to conclude the deal, already 10 days have passed since the truck has entered Bougoula border (Encounter at dusk, part II). With a few twitches in the final figure we agree to the amount. Now all the attention is on how much money everyone will collect from the deal.  Smiling faces abound, I realize we are done. I am preparing to depart, handing over the amount to the woman in charge of the consignment, to be paid against official receipt. And with the new friends made waving goodbye, I set off towards Niani, the border with Mali. The time is 15.00 PM, and I have to drive approx 300 km through Savannah road to reach the border town, also know to be a smuggler's haven.


Continued : Night in the Mali savannah .


Saturday, May 19, 2007

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Kek Si Lok Temple credit to Lim

Kek Si Lok temple at night :



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