Python References on the Trans-Mongolian


“And now for something completely different.”


I’m beginning to think, not for the first time, that the greatest perk of my job is all the time off that I get. Mid-Autumn, or ‘Moon Cake’ Festival, is one of the two major breaks in China, a time for people to exchange sweet cakes and journey home to their families. I have yet to acquire the  taste for moon cake, and home to me (as Burroughs said) has never “meant any more than a key to a house, apartment or hotel room.”  So I took another trip, boarding the Trans-Mongolian Express with the gf and a handful of friends and colleagues.

The Beijing-UlaanBatar express is a 28 hour journey with a handful of stops. The train itself was bookended by dining cars: one Chinese, one Mongolian. After departing the big smoke and setting up camp in two adjacent sleeper rooms, our party of eight (a Brit, an American, a Filipino, four young Chinese women and myself) descended on the Chinese dining car for lunch, laughing and chatting over ribs, chicken wings and bottles of Yanjing.* Every time I tried to open the curtain to peek at the glorious Chinese countryside, the rail collapsed into my lap. This did not deter me from stubbornly trying several times.

Returning to our carriage (which we had virtually to ourselves), we played card games and chatted politics (a conversation we cut short when it became a little too heated) before going our separate but interconnected ways for the evening. Dinner was composed of pot noodles and snacks that we brought with us.

At approximately midnight, we reached the Chinese border at Er Lian (and were immediately told not to step off the carriage). As we all climbed into our beds, the train was undergoing a procedure to change the gauge of the rails. None of us could tell if this was a literal placing of new rails in front of the train, or an exchange of every single wheel on the train carriages, but whatever was happening was accompanied by regular banging, an oppressive industrial thumping, and a broken sleep filled with Lynchian nightmares. At 2am we were awoken and scared shitless by Chinese soldiers with flashlights who returned our passports to us. A few hours later we were woken by the slightly more attractive (and less heart attack-inducing) ladies at the Mongolian border.

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At 6am, the bedroom shutter rolled up with an enthusiastic “Dude, look at that sunrise!”, which I reluctantly complied with. We were chugging along the ridiculously flat steppes. I could not have been more elated (unless, of course, I’d have had 8 hours sleep). We went to the Chinese diner only to discover that it had remained in China: we were staring out the back of the train, watching the tracks recede into the impossibly distant horizon.

And so it was Mongolian food for breakfast. No curtain rails this time, just good food and Pythonesque banter: one of the delights of travelling with a fellow Brit is that we never ran out of things to talk about or of Monty Python references. We even improvised Palin-esque commentary on our adventure**. Tired of ‘lol’ing at our own wit, we spent the rest of our journey chatting and larking in the sleeper, trying to practice a handful of Mongolian phrases, and scraping the absolute barrel of Monty Python references (28 hours is a very long time!)

The foothills appeared. Then the mountains. By this time we were talking about Ben Wheatley movies as I dug wax from my ear. Eventually, the suburbs of UlaanBataar  crept into view. Yurt after yurt after shipping container. We all agreed that the UB boonies appeared quite the fuck hole to our travel-weary eyes.

We stepped onto the chilly platform and entered the city itself with no game plan. We exchanged RMB for MNT and then started walking. First port of call was a Mongolian greasy spoon for lunch. None of us could read Mongolian, but one of our party suggested ordering the first few dishes on the menu and splitting them between us. So lunch was made up of five different soups and a bowl of rice.

We then descended on the Main Street of Peace Avenue and found a cheap hotel (at our second attempt), before tracking down a tour company that could facilitate the rest of our trip. We all discussed what we would like to see during our Mongolian stay. A trip to the Gobi was not possible with our limited amount of days, so we settled on camping East of the city.

So for one night only, we bedded down in UlaanBatar. I slept for 10 hours.

Cue Palin voiceover, and bombastic BBC music.

FADE OUT.


*(lunchtime drinking is discouraged in Chinese companies. We were truly in holiday mode)

**“The tea in the dining car is a little too hot, but the desert outside is only ten degrees centigrade.”

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The English Patience


“What y’all speaking Arabic for? Ain’t that one of them there dead languages?” – yes, seriously


There is a conspiracy theory that states certain foreign governments hire Americans to travel around the world making loud obnoxious nuisances of themselves in order to spread a negative international reputation of America. There is actually a slightly more believable conspiracy theory that states certain types of American are pretty good at this already, foreign employers or no.

I went to Paddy O’Shea’s* to shoot the breeze with a mate. We were approached by a group of Americans, possibly in the employ of outside governments, who wanted to take a photograph of the wall behind us (“Hey, d’you guys recognize me?” “No.” “I’m on… THE WALL!”**) They wanted to take a photo of the photo, which was put to us as a friendly suggestion that it’d be really great if we could move away from the wall for just a second to allow for this twice in a lifetime opportunity, which we politely did. Then another American arrived and it was suggested that hey buddy it’d be really really great if they could get just one more photo, at which point we politely pointed out that actually they were already in possession of a photo of the bloody wall and that we’d quite like to sit still and enjoy our pints in peace. Luckily these chaps took this as intended: as a move from the martial arts manual that I refer to as The Art of Telling People to Fuck Off Without Actually Resorting to Telling Them to Fuck Off (TATPFOWARTTFO).***

One of my friends, a long-haired poet from middle England, once took a road trip to visit our cousins across the pond. Stopping in a gas station in Kentucky he was told in no uncertain terms by the shotgun toting James Dickey character behind the counter that “We don’t serve faggots round here!”

I don’t really know why a certain type of good ole boy votes in an angry midget with a nylon head to run things at home and then immediately pack a rucksack to travel around (“I like to say I have a BLACK BELT in travel y’know!”) complaining about the service and acting agog when they discover an international reputation as ‘rather loud and a little on the irritating side’.

I do not, under any circumstances, mean to imply that every white American is bigoted, annoying and socially inept… but damn the ones who are ain’t doing y’all many favours are they?

 

 

*(in the running along with Flann O’Brien’s in Bangkok and Johnny Fox’s Irish Snug in Vancouver for World’s Greatest cod-Irish Pub)

*Not a Pink Floyd reference, apparently.

*** See: https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2015/09/08/the-p-is-silent/

Long Live the King


“This is very impressive, I think it’s actually the best temple we’ve seen so far.”
“Yes. Shall we take a selfie?”


I spent the summer of 2015 in Southeast Nowhere, Beijing, scratching my balls and watching Michael Bay movies. The following summer was spent sweating through housekeeping duties in a hostel in downtown Vancouver. This year, I figured it wouldn’t break the bank to have an actual fucking holiday.

I considered disappearing, Sean Flynn style, into deepest Cambodia. I considered going to a hotel in Saigon, putting The Doors on full blast and staring at the ceiling fan. Eventually I settled on swapping TsingTaos for Singhas on a five day urban break in Bangkok. The gf was keen to come with me, her first time away from mainland China.

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My knowledge of Thailand is limited. Like, ignorant limited. In fact pretty much my only experience of the country was Thai boxing and Apichatpong Weerasethakul movies. I’m not saying I was expecting tuk tuk chases that ended with someone jumping through an exploding ring of barbed wire, or someone lying under an idyllic waterfall making love to a fish, I’m just saying that I really know bugger all about Thailand.

 
First thing to do was make sure we had enough money for our stay. Make seriously sure. The Thai government has started doing random checks at airports to ensure that people can actually afford their stay, as a way of cracking down on broke-arse hipster twats coming over and begging in the streets for enough cash to continue their travels.

 
We flew from Bejing in the early afternoon. Customs and baggage claim took a little longer than I’d have liked, so it was about 9pm local time when we finally got to the hotel. We had an exquisite dinner at the restaurant next door, stocked up on supplies from one of Bangkok’s 3,648 7-Eleven stores, and then I raided the mini-bar for Singha number 1 before falling asleep.

 
Coincidentally, our first full day in the kingdom of elephants turned out to be the king of Thailand’s birthday: the perfect day to visit Wat Pho temple and The Grand Palace, along with absolutely every other fucker in the entire country. We had chicken noodle soup by the river, watching the festivities from a fairly peaceful distance before heading to Chinatown for a coffee and getting hit by a hella downpour.

 
We spent the next couple of days getting used to the Metro and the taxis and trying to learn the Thai for “are you fucking joking, mate? That’s too expensive.” (turns out that the syllables are unpronounceable and that most people speak English anyway).

 
The gf is open to the idea of urban drifting* so we did a fair amount of walking during our stay. We’ve seen a lot of temples. It’s been humbling to sit on the floor (soles pointed away from the Buddha, of course) and contemplate one’s place in the great web.

 
We went to check out of the hotel this morning only to find that July has 31 days (who knew) and that we’ve actually got one more night here in glorious Krung Thep.

 

Meanwhile, a friend in the U.K. has started shooting that short horror film that we wrote together. The cinematographer is my arty mate from the Kazakhstan trip, who’s soon trading Astana for Cairo**. In a way, I kind of wish I was shooting it with them. In another way, though, I wish them well and I’m in Thailand.

 
When I made my first stab at becoming a screenwriter a main inspiration was John Milius, writer of Apocalypse Now. While director Francis Ford Coppola was going insane in the jungle, dealing with typhoons and infidelity and heart attacks as well as Brando and Hopper sized egos, Milius was lazily writing the surfing epic Big Wednesday, spending his days sipping whisky on a Californian beach and his nights riding a dune buggy with a bare-breasted Margot Kidder, shooting the bulbs out of street lamps with an antique shotgun.

 
I always felt that the writer won.

 

 

I still do.


*at least with the safety net of Google Maps (a novelty for her)

**he’s shown me the rough cut of the Kazakh video we worked on, which is quite the mini-epic.

 

Walking to Hollywood

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“You went to Macau and you DIDN’T get in a junk boat? Who goes to Macau and DOESN’T get in a junk boat?!?”

– Loud American douche


I took the subway out to Hong Kong island. Actually, I first took the subway absolutely nowhere, dropping HK$9.50 for a two way trip through a turnstile. But, eventually, I wound up in Central Hong Kong.

I didn’t do anything special there. I walked, sipped a coffee, watched birds wheel over skyscrapers in the hills, lived a little bit more of my life.

I saw a film being shot, in an alleyway behind the appropriately named Hollywood Road, with what would be considered a skeleton crew in the West.

I found an HMV, where I bought some rock and roll books. I sat reading about a young Lou Reed under the Hong Kong Observation Wheel. I sipped another Japanese beer, listening to an American loudly berate his companion over his choice of transportation during a recent trip to Macau.* It made me glad to think that I’ve hardly spoken to a soul all day (and that whatever else I may be, at least it isn’t American).

My brief trip to the Kong will soon be over. By tomorrow evening I will be back ‘home’, probably on the couch watching a Stephen Chow movie while the gf bubbles excitedly about weapons she’s bought in a fantasy video game. My tacky plastic sunglasses will be in the drawer. My passport will have another red stamp in it, and I will be dreaming up the next adventure.


* “Hey, let me just stop you there for a second. [answers phone] Hi. Yeah, just got back from Macau. well, to be TOTALLY honest I found the whole thing a little… PROBLEMATIC, ya know…”

Chungking Express

 

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“Junk boats and English boys
Crashing out in super marts”
– The Gorillaz


As the landing gear came down, the theme tune to Enter The Dragon was in my head. The flight was turbulent, the meal was rubbery and – at the very point when I was expecting to descend – the pilot swung out across the ocean and begged the question “so are we off to Thailand then?” before he eventually did everyone the courtesy of actually landing the plane.

The bags arrived 40 minutes after the plane did, but I still made the very last metro all the way to the hotel (which is not the place to stay if you ever want to swing a cat).

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But, hey. Who am I to complain?

The Cantonese translates as ‘Fragrant Harbour’. The Mandarin, slightly more prosaically, as ‘Smells Good Bay’. To us Westerners, it’s Hong Kong. Beijing was never somewhere I dreamed of visiting (much less living), but this always was (second only to New York on the list of places that I only believe in because I have actually seen them). Like that other fairytale city, HK is my kind of place.

Tacky, scruffy, eccentric, formerly British. If the Kong were a person, it would probably be me. There are shades of the Imperial past here, but it also feels like the model for Beijing in the future: somehow multicultural/globalized/capitalist and yet still Chinese as fuck. Maybe the sun never set on the Empire after all. Indian food, African music, American toilets, British manners; they’re all here. You can’t cross the street without being offered a watch, a three piece suit or hashish. People even queue here. A Beijinger in a queue is like a hen with testicles.

I woke myself up this morning with a strong glass of coffee and a quick scan of Facebook and Twitter (which have become novelties these days). I breakfasted, like the middle class wanker I aspire to be, at a Starbucks overlooking my first port of call: Chungking Mansions, star of arguably the greatest of HK movies.* The ‘mansion’ is a horseshoe-shaped hellhole of pawn shops, guest houses, eateries and other rip-off merchants. I loved it!

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I then did what I always do, set off on a walk with absolutely no plan whatsoever. I wandered some of the other arcades and visited the Garden of Stars, where I discovered I have the dainty hands of Brigitte Lin.

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I took a single poorly framed photograph of the Peninsula hotel, headquarters of the invading Japanese army in 1941.

I strolled along the seafront of West Kowloon, watching women do yoga on the beach and men fishing in the harbour (my eyes lingered on the yoga a little more than the fishing, let’s be honest). Then along Temple street, home of cheap DVDs and blatant prostitution.

All this before lunchtime. I had lamb tikka masala and then sampled something that I hope will reach Beijing sooner rather than later: buy-one-get-one-free Japanese lager.

A long weekend is not enough time to get to know this place, but the first impression is that it mixes most of the things I like about China and Britain and has filtered out a lot of the stuff that I don’t. It’s cleaner than Beijing. More cosmopolitan. More comfortable.

But, at this point, I wouldnt go so far as to say that it’s more interesting.


*If you have never seen Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express, I urge you to do yourself a favour.

The Fellowship of the Jing

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“It’s a shit’ole, but a loveable shit’ole.”


After weeks of clear blue skies, the smog has rolled in again, just in time for a British mate to feel the tang of disappointment during  a fly-in visit from Shanghai. The two of us took in some of the sights around Line 1 together, but halfway through our little tour the heavens opened like The Wizard of Oz, leaving us dashing through the dusty wet streets and swearing casually.

We visited a couple of bookshops and wandered through Xidan’s ‘garment city’, which is Beijing’s version of a Guillermo Del Toro set (right down to the hirsute beasties trying to sell you sweatshirts at inflated prices). After spending too much money on books and hipster glasses, we took a couple of Beijing babes out to dinner for buy-one-get-one-free ‘burger burger’ in Sanlitun, keeping the ladies absolutely enthralled by discussing our most used phrases as bewildered foreigners in China (mine is “what the fuck is this arsehole doing?”)

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I was not surprised to learn that my ‘brother from another city’, although enjoying Shanghai immensely, was glad to be back in the Jing and has missed it to some extent. He likes the food here and he says that the subway is slightly cheaper (even if its users are a little on the vaginal side). Mostly he missed the banter. We had more banter than you could shake the proverbial at.

This morning I woke up with a skunk of a hangover so I ganbei’d a couple of strong coffees, watched that David Duchovny ‘comedy’ where he saves the world from an alien sphincter and wondered wtf had become of my life. The sky may look like Laurence Fishburne’s living room in The Matrix, but I’m still happy to be here.

Ganbei’d in Dongdaihe

“Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.”


I have a pretty low tolerance for corporate bollocks. I recently “lol”-ed my “a” off when I saw an online advert for something called ‘netbonding’, which, the slogan assured me, was “even stronger than networking!” The advert raised an important question for me, which was “why don’t you piss off, right now, and never reappear in my life?”

Another kernel of corporate shite that I can’t stand is the idea of ‘team building.’ It’s fair to say that I feel the same way about ‘team building’ as I feel about One Direction or intestinal parasites: proof, if any be needed, that there is no god. I am deeply suspicious of any company that has so little faith in their ‘team’ that they think getting together for a walk in the woods, or a game of laser tag, or slapping each other on the back while building an exact replica of a little Lego house before an egg timer goes off, is going to help ‘build’ them.

With such strong opinions on these matters, I’m sure you can imagine how thrilled I was when the principal of my teaching centre raised the suggestion of spending our weekend off taking a ‘team-building’ trip to the seaside town of Dongdaihe. I was so thrilled, that I almost introduced her to a famous English saying that begins with “no” and ends in “fucking way is that going to happen.”

Even so, I climbed into the rented SUV with an overnight bag for a three hour drive to Dongdaihe, China’s answer to the town from Jaws. It was, surprisingly, almost exactly the same as any English seaside town: inflatable turtles, beached fishing boats, lots of casual racists. As if that wasn’t enough to remind me of home, it was absolutely pissing it down with rain.

Upon arrival we all went for lunch, which was made up of enough sea life to fascinate Jaques Cousteau. The octopus was quite good, but when I finally extracted a snail from its shell, it flopped onto the table judgmentally, looking like it had just burst out of John Hurt’s chest. I’m now considering vegetarianism. Seriously.

After lunch, it was suggested that we all hit the wet and freezing cold beach, but I displayed my team spirit by making it clear that the only thing I was hitting was the sack (I was up at 4.30 for a 5.30 start, and I didn’t get much sleep in the car).

When I woke up to everyone returning from the beach, I was roped into some games, including one where we all stood in a circle passing a football to each other while a man banged a drum with a chopstick. It made about as much sense as any English ‘team building’ I’ve done, so I went with it. I even found, eventually, that I was having something that, by some stretch of the imagination, might be referred to as ‘fun’.

In the evening, I explored some of the town with a handful of colleagues. There was an onshore amusement arcade, including a mini-circus that I avoided like the plague after realizing that animals were involved. I stopped in a shop to see if I could use their toilet, only to be invited into their home! I could tell, from my limited Chinese, that the shopkeeper was excitedly telling his wife there was a foreigner in their toilet.

We had a seafood dinner and then retired to our rooms until a seafood breakfast. Unfortunately my friend and roommate was sick as a mo fo all night (probably with seafood poisoning), so neither of us got any sleep. The following day, we went down to the beach. I fell asleep in the sand (most of which returned to the hotel with me) and scrambled over some rocks. We had a seafood lunch and then had ‘free time’ until our seafood dinner, which was spent with a group of other poor bastards from another teaching centre who had arrived for their own ‘team building’ adventure.

I was approached by a pretty young lady who suggested a ganbei competition. Ganbei is the ancient Chinese art of downing a beer in one (although I’ve started using the term “ganbei’d” in casual conversation as a synonym for “clusterfucked”). She only had a small plastic glass and I only had a little left in my bottle, so I acquiesced. I was horrified, though, when she returned with two 500cl bottles of Yanjing. So, with everyone responsibly whooping and hollering at us to “ganbei, ganbei, ganbei”, I started to ganbei. She had swallowed the lot and spewed it back up before I even got to the end of the neck.

It was a result I was perfectly happy with.