Monday, March 31, 2008

News from Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia

We are flying back home. Long, long trip back home (5 flights over 36 hours from Spratly to Kota Kinabalu to Taipei, Los Angeles, New York and Burlington, VT).
And while I am flying half around the world (it seems), I hear that one of my friends from Vermont, Ariana, is in Kyrgyzstan, in Central Asia, for a very exotic trip it seems - from horse backriding to skiing to cooking... Quite exotic indeed. So while I get back into the swing of things here in Vermont, and get my body clock back to US time, I thought I would share her blog with you, so that we can all dream about going to such a remote place one day... You can read her blog at And don't forget that I still have a number of good China stories to share!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Encounter with a shark!

Here in Layang, Layang, Spratly this week, we truly feel like the odd couple. Everyone here is a diver. One American even asked us - very surprised - "How is it possible?! You are here in one of the top diving spots in the world and you don't realize it?!". Well, we answered: "You are here in one of the most desired remote locations for amateur radio and you don't know it!!".
It must be true though. There are people from all over the world here: France, Germany, Poland, Italy etc... One young man from Poland is especially coming to photograph sharks, and he has been doing this everywhere already it seems: Galapagos, South Africa, Maldives, etc.
In any case, between two sections on the radio yesterday, we managed to walk to the end of the small island and try our snorkeling equipment. Nice! Very nice! The reef was swallow, the water clear and we saw a number of tropical fishes. But the reason why this place is so incredible for divers, is that there is a very abrupt drop of the reef, to what seemed like bottomless ocean.
The funny story though belongs to my husband Ed. He was following a nice big and colorful fish, when he suddenly saw a shark... "Cool, I need to get closer" he thought, and here he went... After a few seconds though, he reached "consciousness": "Eh, what in the world am I doing?... This is a SHARK!!! And I don't even know if it is dangerous, or how big or how far it is..." Funny, no?...
I guess we enjoyed it though because we were back snorkeling today, but this time we took the boat with the divers. Fantastic... Sting rays and many fishes. But the most beautiful sight for me was actually the first few seconds under water when I discovered the reef and a few divers starting their dive just under me. It was almost like a smooth and peaceful dance... And the water was so incredibly clear. Too bad I did not buy that underwater camera afterall!!

Monday, March 24, 2008

China media coverage of the Tibet situation

I am not an expert on Chinese politics nor the Tibet situation and for that reason I have never touched on political subjects in this blog. The closest I got to discussing politics was when I touched on the fact that young Chinese people never seem to discuss Mao time. So, I won’t do it more today than I have before. What I am sharing here is how we felt last week, when trying to get news about Tibet from “inside China”… You had to be there to realize how the “picture” of what was happening could be incredibly distorted!
As the Tibet violence started last week, it was amazing to see that in the matter of a couple of hours, the Yahoo news were blocked… and a few hours more, we could not even access anymore the Yahoo page all together! Some people could not even access their Yahoo email! Surprisingly, we could still visit, which had “softer” headlines about what was happening. YouTube was of course also blocked, but this is not anything new.
That night, Tibet was of course a subject of conversation as we shared a few beers with some expats (it was Saint-Patrick’s day after all!)… Interesting enough, we had brought our young Chinese friend with us. I was observing him as we were talking, and the look on his face was truly saying “I don’t know what you guys are talking about”. Not surprising. So that was Monday.
Unfortunately, I don’t read or speak mandarin, so we were pretty disconnected from what the Chinese media were saying all week. We did keep up to date with the situation using my husband’s company VPN (virtual private network).
We were flying out from China Friday, and the TVs at the airport - in English interestingly – had one headline “other Asian countries support China’s action in Tibet”. They mentioned India and Pakistan. Another headline was that “China was complaining about the bias of international media”. Wow! Indeed a different angle… in a message targeted to foreigners, if we consider that most Chinese don’t speak English. Interesting complaint, when China itself does a lot more than spreading biased news… it simply blocks them! Then, on the plane, finally we could read some news on Tibet – in English – in the Hong-Kong paper, the “South China Morning Post”. It mentioned that India actually prevented some Tibetans to cross the border to China to help reduce the tensions. There is indeed a good reason for India and Pakistan to support China’s actions, and it is to avoid violence in their own countries in the border areas where some Tibetans live.
We could also read about the way China justifies its actions of restricting the news “to avoid violence to spread to other regions”… Truly, there is never “One truth”…
I will end this posting by mentioning a really interesting blog (for those of you who can reach French)… a fascinating memorandum actually signed by 30 Chinese intellectuals (names and professions included), with a very comprehensive point of view I thought. Interestingly enough, the blog itself is hosted by the French newspaper Le Monde, and I am just wondering what kind of risk these intellectuals were taking by signing this article, if the fact it was written in French was helping them not getting censured (or is this blog censured in China?), where these intellectuals resided, in China or in France, why Le Monde was hosting such a highly political blog… so many questions…
In any case, it was definitely an interesting way to “speak up” in this difficult context.
I will end this posting with all these unanswered questions but there is no doubt that last week has shown us how extensive and complex the “freedom of speech” issue truly is in China…

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Layang Layang: One island, one resort

After an overnight in KK, we flew to Layang, Layang, a Malaysian Spratly island yesterday morning. One-hour flight to reach this tiny island in the middle of the South China Sea. It is actually a circular reef with the island at the tip of it. Unfortunately I cannot show you photos before we leave because it is forbidden to upload and download photos here at the resort. It is also forbidden to take photos of the Navy base located at the end of the island (at least if I want to keep my camera!). It is hard to imagine what is here. As we are rolling on the landing strip, we can see - just there on the left - the rooms and the swimming pool of the resort. Fortunately, there is only one flight a day. So, the noise of planes won't really disturb us. As I said before, that's all there is here: the airstrip, the Navy base and the resort. So, it is funny to come to the supper buffet and not being asked any question or any proof you are staying at the resort... if you are here, you got to be at the resort!!
Hard for me to find something historic (as I like to do) on the island, but it is definitely a strategic spot. It was used as a base during the Vietnam war... And this morning, we had the honor to show our room with all the radio equipment, to noone else than the top commander of the Malaysian Navy, who was visiting the island today... Yep, you heard right "the top guy"... He was fascinated about us coming from so far and connecting with people from around the world. I won't expand about our radio stuff here (we have the other blog) but yes, I have talked from here with people from Oregon, Scotland, Australia, Korea, Taiwan, Hong-Kong and to tons of Japanese!! And it is just the beginning!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Heading to Spratly!

This is where we have lived for the past 7 months (well, 5 months really if we substract the traveling as our expat friends here point out). I will miss Xiamen, China and soon Asia, with all the great people we met, the great places we saw. But for now, our adventure is not quite finished. We are heading for Spratly in 1h30! We will report on our adventure there, may be with no photos for now if the internet connection is too slow. It is an amateur radio operation, as I mentioned before, so we are also discussing the "radio stuff" on our N1URSpratly website.
So stay tuned... and stay tuned for more China stories too, because even after I leave, I still have a number of stories I did not have time to tell yet... like the traditional wedding I saw, the great Shikumen houses in Shanghai, the Water Village near Suzhou, the old round Hakka houses in the Fujian province, tea houses and more... So, bye, bye Xiamen... I will be back next year!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Xiamen sidewalks

In Xiamen, most sidewalks are tiled. I am not sure if it is the case in other Chinese cities, but it is definitely very common here. And some of the tiles (like the yellow ones on the photo) are actually soft, like made of rubber. I always wondered why. So yesterday night, as we were walking home with our Chinese friend Wayne (after some beers to celebrate Saint-Patrick's day with some expats, at a bar owned by a guy from Sweden who was apologizing for not having enough Irish songs... Imagine that!)... so as I was saying, yesterday night as we were walking home, I took the opportunity to ask our friend. "Why the soft tiles?" "It's for the blind people, so they can follow the path... and you see, they have stripes and then the last one before the street or when they have to turn have dots rather than stripes, so blind people know when to stop. They can feel the shapes with their feet... You don't have those in the US?" "Nope" I answered, and he added, concerned: "So how do blind people find their way around?" "Humm, unfortunately, they have to manage without this great help!" I said... Well, this time, China impressed me!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Chinese's bound feet

I remember hearing about Chinese women with bound feet when I was young. I thought it was a legend. Probably, Chinese women simply had small feet and they had tight shoes. What a surprise when I realized that it was far from being a legend... There are still some old women with bound feet in 21st century's China... There is an unbelievable photo of them in "Marco Polo: a photographer's Journey" book from Mike Yamashita (I will add the photo to this posting when I get back home where the book is). It looks pretty shocking to see these women with feet half the size of a normal foot... And the incredible story of this tradition, I read in "Mao's last dancer". Fascinating. Again. Like so many things here in China. Young girls had their feet constrained in tiny shoes, as they were forced to bend their toes under their sole. It made women more "acceptable" for marriage, a sign of class and distinction in a way. But women with bound feet were actually handicaped (we can imagine). They could not walk long enough distances to bring lunches to their husbands in the fields for instance, and stayed mainly at home. So, I will not only bring back a 70s' Mao clock from China, but some exquisite ceramics, a little red pair of Chinese bound feet!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Middle of the South China Sea

Yep... I am going to add another star on my map of Asia in a couple of weeks. And that will definitely be a very special one. I hope you will be reading this blog then. I am going to be right in the middle of nothing else than... the South China Sea. I know… it sounds very exciting… I have been way too lucky this year with my travels! I am going to have to settle down after these great 7 months in Asia... or … may be not!.. But for the present, the destination will be Spratly Islands.
The Spratly Islands are indeed intriguing. Discovered in 1791 by Henry Spratly, they are a series of islands, located between the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean, claimed by EVERYONE (China, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines and Malaysia)! Why? Because of their strategic location and the fact that it was thought for a while that there could be oil there.
We will be in Layang Layang, one of these islands.
Not an historic place, but rather a long and narrow reef… truly tiny (around 25,000 square meters!)… A paradise for divers and underwater photographers it seems... and amateur radio operators, like my husband Ed (and I, yes, newly licensed to be able to go to places like this with him). The amazing thing is that the island is practically man-made! The Malaysian government, who operates the island, created it by filling the channel between two isolated reefs with sand. It also managed to build on it an airstrip, a dive resort AND a military installation.
So today we got the authorization from the Malaysian Navy to go there. Everything is finally in motion. We ARE going! And as you can see, it is not an easy place to get to: controlled by the Navy, with limits for how much luggage we can take, limited internet access, etc. But I am really excited!!.. Does it show? I am even planning to buy a little underwater camera I saw advertised on TV.
For more information on the amateur radio stuff, see our expedition website at

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Love for Mao

My friend Ann took that photo in a flea market in Beijing. Interesting subject... and quite shocking to see that there was a time when even self-criticism (as you can see with 2 of these little sculptures) was the subject of decorative ceramics. Well, I don't think that Chinese people care anymore about Mao. I have not heard one Chinese person mention his name. Not surprising...I am sure they got an overdose of him for years. But Mao is in the flea markets today... for the pleasure of tourists. The fact is that when I saw this photo I immediately thought "I got to get some memorabilia of Mao before I leave". So Friday came, day of the flea market in Xiamen, and I was there - with Ann as my guide - ready for some serious hunting! Indeed we found some other examples of ceramics portraying Mao and his famous Red Book... and yes, I now own a 70s-style little alarm clock, with of course the portray of Mao, and a worker with a moving hand holding... the Red Book. I will bring home a piece of China history!.. Well, Chinese people may not care about Mao anymore, but they are happy that we, the tourists do. How could they have ever believed they could actually make money on all that old Mao stuff?! The love for Mao is not dead, indeed!