Time for Tea in Vladivostok

There’s an English tea-room in Vladivostok??? Indeed there is. This is me in my real-life job, as a reporter:



Burmese Daze – the book!

For some strange reason it seemed to make sense to turn my diaries and dlogs from Burma/Myanmar into a book. More depth, more stories, more opinion, more, well, Myanmar!

It’s available now, as a print book from Lulu.com, and as an ebook from Smashwords , Barnes and Noble, and  Kindle. For UK-based readers, print copies are available direct from me (for less than the Lulu etc list price); please just ask via the contact form.

Reviews – good, bad or indifferent – most gratefully received on the relevant seller’s site. Thank you!

For anyone who fancies doing their own book, it’s not as difficult as you might think, but I’m happy to give advice based on my own experiences – again, just ask via the contact form.


Going via Gothiek to Hsipaw

I decided to move on east to the small town of Hsipaw, and to go by train. The eye-catching Celica dropped me outside the station about half an hour before the train was due to leave.

The ‘Foreigner price’ fare was US$2. I slapped down a $20 bill. The station-master said he had no change. “Well, I’ll pay in kyats, then,” I said. “Only dollars,” he replied curtly. There was nowhere to leave my pack, so I had to cart it the quarter-of-a-mile into town in search of change. Eventually I found someone who could change the $20, and I ran – yes, ran – back to the station, where the station-master, smiling away, handed me my ticket.

I’d chosen the train because it went over the Gothiek Viaduct, a marvel of turn-of-the-last-century engineering and once the second-highest railway bridge in the world.

Although the bridge was built by an American company such things always make me wonder about the old Colonial types. I mean, what on earth would someone from my home village in England in the 19th Century have made of the heat, the humidity, the wildlife, the locals, whatever, in a place like Burma?

It’s not like they would have seen it on TV or something, or even, until the later part of the century, seen photographs – drawings and descriptions would be all they had.

Even in the 21st Century going over the bridge was pretty hair-raising, as it was a looooong way down. Actually, given the shoddy state of the bulk of the infrastructure I’d experienced so far, maybe going over in the 21st Century was even riskier than going over when the bridge was first built. All I could do was hope that its strategic importance – as a link between the north-east and the rest of the country – meant that the government looked after it better than it maintained everything else.

You’ll have to take my word for it about what a nerve-wracking experience going over the bridge was. I tried to take pictures as proof but I was stopped by a soldier, who watched me like a hawk until we were well past the bridge.

I did wonder whether the train itself dated from Colonial times, with its solid wooden seats and (by now) knackered windows. The track was so shoddy we had to go very slowly.

Train from Pyin U Lwin to Hsipaw.

Train from Pyin-Oo-Lwin to Hsipaw.

I didn’t lack for entertainment during the long journey though. For a start there were three mice playing in the sacks of vegetables, parcels of bamboo and shopping bags of the women sitting opposite. Then there was the constant stream of vendors prowling up and down the aisle, offering all sorts of things, from food to books to “medicine”.

One such vendor was selling little vials of powder that would fix anything from stomach upsets to headaches. How did I know this? He was yelling his sales patter into a megaphone at our end of the carriage, and it was being translated for me by Mr C, the local guide of an American called K. (I think the station-master in Pyin-Oo-Lwin had sat me with them because I was a woman alone and he thought they would look after me.)

Anyone who didn’t have a headache before the miracle cure man had started his spiel certainly would have one by the time he’d finished; strewth he was strident. I didn’t ask Mr C what the powder was, but it looked rather like ground black pepper and there was an awful lot of spluttering from the people who put it into their mouths or noses.

The most depressing experience of the trip was probably watching the local girl opposite me smarten herself up before getting off the train. She uncoiled her past-bottom-length hair, combed it a bit then twisted it into a rope, wrapped the ‘rope’ round her hand and made a knot with it, then wrapped the loose end round the knot and anchored the lot back on her head with a comb. Even my very best hair day wouldn’t match one of her very worst hair days!

From Burmese Daze – the book. Available directly from me (£6, including p&p in the UK); or from Lulu, Amazon, or to order from your local independent bookshop or via Hive. E-book available from Smashwords.


In Moscow, I failed to post small parcels to two friends; the Post Office would accept letters but not parcels. I visited St Basil’s Cathedral and The Kremlin, where I coveted the handful of Fabergé eggs on display. The museum also boasted a collection of carriages, including an ornate winter sledge that had belonged to the Imperial family. It must have been a joy to travel in. For the royals, anyway – they were enclosed in glass. The driver, however, had to brave the elements outside. Little wonder there was a revolution, really. Speaking of which, I was a bit miffed by the difference between the ‘foreigner price’ and ‘local price’ for attractions; the admission charge for The Kremlin, for example, was 150 roubles for locals but 650 roubles for people like me. I didn’t mind paying more than locals who were poorer than me, but what really rankled was the thought that Russian oligarchs could waltz into museums in Britain for free, while I had to pay 500 roubles more than them to get into a museum in Russia.

I also pondered how much more interesting Moscow must have been when my friends visited the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s. Then, a trip to Gum, the pre-eminent department store, was the retail equivalent of a sojourn in a Siberian Gulag, and Western jeans so desirable that a tourist could probably swap a pair for an entire apartment block. (And if the jeans were Levis, the vendor would probably hand over their blood relatives as well.) By late 2001, Gum was almost indistinguishable from any shopping mall anywhere in the United States or Europe, selling goods from the likes of Estée Lauder, Christian Dior, Lancôme – even Frederick’s of Hollywood.

'7 November' parade, Moscow

Moscow: ‘7 November’ parade, by people who wanted Russia to return to pre-Perestroika days.

Mind you, not everyone approved of the ‘new Russia’: en route to a chocolate shop I happened upon a ‘7 November’ parade, featuring several hundred (mainly older) people, some of whom carried placards of Stalin (yes, Stalin). A fellow spectator explained that these were: “People who think the Revolution was a good idea and want Russia to go back to those times”.

The following day I went to the Lenin mausoleum where, after the parade the previous day, I shouldn’t have been too surprised that, of all the memorials to former presidents, the one that had the most flowers was that for Stalin. After being herded at a rate of knots through the room where Lenin lay in state, I decided that the reason cameras were banned is because photographs would probably reveal that Lenin looks more like wax than preserved human.

I also visited the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics. They were looking, so a leaflet I picked up read, for any help in expanding. The museum wasn’t a wreck or anything, but it was a little rough around the edges, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether that would have been the case if the Americans hadn’t stolen the Soviet thunder by beating the Cosmonauts to the Moon (even if the Soviets had got into space first).

Tri Ton, Toilets and Tuc Dup

13 January 2002

“Is there a toilet I can use?” I asked my driver, Minh, when we stopped for (Vietnamese) tea in a café in the tiny town of Tri Ton.  The café owner escorted me through the kitchen to a little metal cubicle attached to the back of the building, which is on stilts over a pond or a rice padi or some kind of body of water, anyway.

The door closed perfectly and the interior was perfectly tiled, including the floor. But there was so toilet! There was the little tank of water that you use for washing everything down the toilet when it’s a non-flushing one, but – let me repeat again – there was no toilet of any kind to go with it, not even a squat one. I went into the kitchen and gestured to the women there, none of whom spoke English. They just smiled that smile that shows they know they’re looking at a confounded tourist, and pointed back into the toilet. And that’s when I realised that what I thought was a crack in the tiles between the floor and the wall was actually the toilet! Fortunately, I only wanted to get liquids down there, but goodness knows what happens to ‘solids’. Unless they don’t happen on an exclusively Vietnamese diet? Of course, whatever went through that hole, solid or liquid, just had to drop into that water below, and I’m trying really, really hard not to think about what happens to it after that.

I wonder what the muppet American woman I met earlier would have made of the ‘toilet’.  She reckoned she’d been incapacitated by flu in Saigon and is still ill today. This morning she told me about all the medication she’s been taking, and I suggested that she should be drinking lots of fluids too. “Normally I do,” she said, “but I’ve been trying not to drink because of the state of the bathrooms.” Now bearing in mind we’re on a Sinh Café tour so the toilets, while not necessarily five-star, will be far from basic, I reckon she’s being a bit precious.

The tour is a three-day thing, based in the town of Chau Doc. Yesterday we went to Rung Tram forest, a Viet Cong hideout that the Americans bombed into oblivion. Only without much success: the ‘forest’ is more of a swamp, and, of course, the bomb craters simply filled with water, making the VC even harder to get at than they were before!

Today I’ve taken myself ‘off tour’ and found a moto driver to take me to Ba Chuc, where 3,000 or so Vietnamese villagers were massacred by Khmer Rouge interlopers from Cambodia in 1978, and Tuc Dup, another legendary hideout of the VC.

Minh has persuaded me to take the ‘scenic route’. So our first stop this morning was a Khmer market just outside Chau Doc. (The Cambodian border is quite close to here. And, of course, the ‘border’ is a relatively recent artificial addition anyway; once upon a time people were grouped by ethnicity rather than an arbitrary line on a map. ) What a bizarre experience. I’m used to children waving and shouting “Hello!” at me, but at the market I had grown adults just staring at me like I was from another planet. (I did check and as far as I could tell I’m not looking particularly ‘weird’ today – I’m not wearing a sou’wester, say, or got my skirt tucked in my knickers.)

After my encounter with the toilet in Tri Ton we headed for the VC refuge of Tuc Dup. I’ve heard it called a ‘mountain’ but it looks more like a hill to me – it’s only about 300m high, after all. But that didn’t mean the Americans found it an easy nut to crack. They thought they’d have the VC out in no time. 128 days and scores of American, VC and South Vietnamese Army lives later, they finally managed it. Just a month ago, of course, the Americans were trying something similar at Tora Bora, Afghanistan, with Osama bin Laden their target.

I’m writing this while lounging in a hammock in an open-air café across the road from Tuc Dup. Minh is currently snoozing off his lunch. I probably would be too, only I’m pretty sure that’s a rat turd on the floor between my hammock and his, so I’m resolutely on Ratwatch (again). It seems veggie food isn’t a strong point at this café: when Minh found out I’m veggie he got on his bike and went off to the market, bought some food and got some woman to prepare something for me. He returned to the cafe, steering the bike with one hand and holding a plate of my dinner (complete with little dish of soy sauce) in the other!

That rat turd, though, reminded me of something that struck me last night, on our journey to Chau Doc: just how open many of the buildings round here are. Driving through the dark past a load of houses with the lights on highlighted this, as the lights really showed up all the rat-friendly holes.  I never thought I would say this, but it’s actually so nice to see a rat first thing in the morning,  preferably about 15 feet away, as it means I’ve seen my rat for the day without it running over my foot. OK, so that doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t see at least one more rat during the course of the day, but as I’m sure there’s no chance of me getting through an entire day without seeing one, it makes sense to get it over with sooner rather than later.

Another issue raised by these open buildings: theft. In some cases the cafe owners live about five yards from the cafe, but, apart from putting the tables and chairs to one side when they close for the night, they seem to leave a load of stuff in the café, including TVs and the like. And I’m assuming everything’s still there when they get up in the morning. Would this happen in Bolton, I ask myself. Probably not; the scallies would have had everything on a truck and away before the owner had even got into bed.