February 2013

Sudan and South Sudan

As part of a longer trip to the Horn of Africa for six weeks in November and December 2011, I visited South Sudan and Sudan.  The juxtaposition of visiting Juba and Khartoum revealed two cities and societies so different that it is hard to believe that they were, until recently, part of the same country.

I am indebted to my friend and work colleague, Adrian Norfolk, for giving me useful advice before arriving in South Sudan and for hosting me at his modest residence in Canada’s small and nascent diplomatic mission in Juba. South Sudan is the world ‘s newest country, recovering from a 50 year long civil conflict that left close to two million dead.

Arriving in Juba airport was one of the more wildly chaotic airport entries that I have experienced. While there is virtually nothing of specific sightseeing  interest to see in Juba, there was, nonetheless, something fascinating in watching the bureaucratic energy of the international community working with the South Sudanese in a nation-building project in the world’s youngest country.

For close to fifty years following the end of the second war in  1945, the end of colonialism, either voluntarily or through collapse, has been a defining feature in the emergence of new countries. The effective end of the British, French, Portuguese and Soviet empires have almost tripled the number of countries in the world.  There maybe a handful left, but I suspect that only a few more countries will emerge over the next couple of decades.

Apart from spending some time with the small but great group of Canadians there, another highlight was dining in restaurants on the Nile river. At the time of independence in 2011, there were less than 20 kilometers of paved road in the entire country. It may have improved somewhat, but transport is not for the faint of heart.

Sudan in recent years has become a pariah in the international community, and can be fairly capricious, isolated and slow in permitting visas to visitors. It came as somewhat of a surprise to land in a very modern, air conditioned and brightly lit airport with large neon signs saying  “Welcome to Sudan”. The city has some nice hotels, good infrastructure in the central part of the city, and is situated at the confluence of the Blue Nile coming down from Ethiopia and the  White Nilc coming down from Uganda.

My most enjoyable experience was taking an excursion 200 kilometers north of Khartoum along a good road that reaches the Meroe pyramids. Located not far from the Nile at the southern edge of the desert,  the pyramids are impressive and were built by the Nubians about 2500 years ago, almost 500 years after the last of the pyramids were built in Egypt.  They are distinctive and quite striking in appearance.

Despite the rather poor standing of the government of Sudan in the international community, I found my interpersonal interactions with the Sudanese I met to be universally positive, something other visitors to Sudan have been  recounting to me for decades.

Alas both countries are continuing civil conflict and strife in the border regions. One can only hope the two can learn to share the resources of the oil revenues in such a way that some measure of prosperity can be had by both countries. As of now, however, the troubles continue, and the  future of both countries remains in question.

Myanmar Days: Part 2

Antoine and I took a shared taxi for the two hours up from Mandalay into the former British hill station of Maymyo, now renamed Pyin Oo Lwin. There are two parts of the town. The downtown core is along the main Mandalay to Lashio road that continues into Yunnan in southern China at the border town of Mu-se.  The central core was congested with truck traffic and resembled a somewhat cooler mini-Mandalay.

It was in the leafy older suburbs that the very British appeal of Maymyo came back. The highlight for us  was the Kaundaugyi botanical gardens, and spending the afternoon among the quiet, and now faded, elegance of the quieter suburbs. We had stayed at the Cherry May Inn, charming in its own way, but somewhat inconveniently located about seven kilometers south of downtown Pyin Oo Lwin.

Shortly south of the hotel, however, is the access point to the gorgeous Anisakan Falls. The staff at the hotel took us by free motor taxi to the beginning of the hiking trail.  The hike involved a descent of a little under one hour. The falls come down in three separate cascades. We decided to take the steep alternate route back that allowed us to go to the  top of the falls where another set of waterfalls came  into view. The path was very steep and Antoine and I were accompanied by  three young and slight Burmese girls. As I was going up the steepest sections, I could feel the young girl behind me pushing at my day backpack to help me make my way further up.

The following morning, just at dawn, we were dropped off at Anisakan railway station to take the train to Pwin Oo Lwin. The first 45 minutes to the main town seemed to have been for free. At the station we bought our upper class tickets to Hsipaw, a further six hours away for US$6.

The train is narrow gauge, and the easily the  tippiest and bounciest “rock’n’roll” train I have ever been on.  Yet ultimately it was uncrowded and fun. A little less than half way along the trip, we crossed the Goktiek Viaduct, spanning a dramatic canyon, which had been built by the British in 1904.

Hsipaw is a charmer. Although Lonely Planet ‘s observation about “only a trickle of travelers” making it there is no longer accurate, it felt much more lightly visited than other destinations.

One gently haunting highlight of Hsipaw was visiting the Shan Palace, and talking with the  soft spoken and articulate Fern. There were a handful of other travelers who quietly walked in during the late afternoon and then Fern started to speak.  She initially provides a sense of the history of Shan royalty from a human family perspective, complete with sepia toned family photographs in the living room, and then shifts into the painful history in recent decades starting with the military coup in March 1962, and the killing of the last Shan prince, Sao Kya Hseng  (her husband’s uncle). His death has never been acknowledged officially.  Her husband (Donald is his Anglicized name) was arrested in 2005 and was sentenced to 13 years in prison for operating as an unlicenced tour guide among other charges. She was only allowed one fifteen minute visit every two weeks and had to drive hours to get to the prison.  Donald was released in a general amnesty in 2009.  Even now, this is a place that remains a “word of mouth” destination for those travelers who want to learn more about the country than merely getting the travel guidebook perspective.

The trek from Hsipaw up to the Padaung village of Pankan, was one of the highlights of Myanmar. We were a group of eight and walked with our guide for a little over five hours, stopping briefly in a Shan village, then doing the substantial and often steep hike from roughly 400 meters to 1200 meters. The Padaung  are ethnic Khmers who grow tea up in the higher altitudes of Shan state. Our Shan guide, Maung, noted that of the 20,000 kyat we paid for the tour (about $23) 10,000 goes directly to the community so that the children can go to school for free. The food served in our Padaung home, made only of local ingredients, was perhaps the tastiest I had in all Myanmar. Nine of us slept upstairs on lightly padded thin mattresses.

The following day Antoine and I left before dawn for the one hour motor taxi ride back to Hsipaw. The sun rose just as we went over the high pass of our previous day. From Hsipaw we went up to Lashio, a rather non-descript and dusty city, despite its hilly location. From there we flew to Heho airport and on to the main travelers town for Inle Lake, Nyaungshwe. The city is not on the lake proper, but the lake can be accessed by a several kilometer long canal.

More than any other place in Myanmar, this crowded city packed with visitors, gave an early indication of what much of the rest of touristMyanmar might look in another five years. The ten hour boat trip along Inle Lake was great, but there were hundreds of other boats, from the time we departed to the time we got back, transporting other visitors to different places along the lake. The timing for the entrance from the canal to the lake proper was perfect for photography.  The early morning mists were still rising as the Inle Lake fishermen paddled the boats with one leg while standing, slapping the water with another paddle to scare fish  into the trawl nets that they had set up.  The same phenomenon could be observed ( without the paddle slapping), just before sunset as we returned.

Antoine decided to go to Angkor Wat as I headed, once again by the charming “rock’n’roll” train, to Kalaw. Along with Hsipaw, it is my favourite town in Myanmar. Situated at 4200 feet (Myanmar, along with the USA, is one of the last countries in the world still not converted to metric), Kalaw has a wonderful hill station climate.

Almost all other travelers were trekking to Inle Lake. I decided to head in the opposite direction deeper into the mountains to the Palu  village of Nyaungone. Completely bereft of other travelers or even a single store, and with vistas to additional hills and mountain ranges,  it was a joy to spend a few hours there.

The magic of Myanmar and the charming interpersonal dynamic that is such a feature of travel here, despite occasional discomfort and inconvenience, still exists. I would echo, however, the advice I was given last summer. The time to visit is now.

Myanmar Days: Part 1

By the old Moulmein pagoda lookin’ lazy at the sea….
There ‘s a Burmese girl a settin’ and I know she thinks o ‘ me
And the wind is in the palm trees and the temple bells they say
Come you back, you young backpacker, come you back to Mandalay…

I am currently in Myanmar, for the first time since May, 1978. This is a busier place now,  yet there is much in this country that remains timeless,  especially off the lightly beaten path.

In addition to returning to a place I last visited almost 35 years ago,  there is also a wonderful déjà vu of being in a special place at a time of transition.  To this I owe a debt of gratitude to my friend and work colleague, Bob Paquin who, last summer, advised me that Myanmar/ Burma is the place to go…..NOW.

Globalization is the dominant paradigm of our age. Precisely because of this, visiting places and countries just as they become open or  more accessible has always had an appeal. I first felt it, perhaps naively, when visiting Cuba  in 1974.  This trip reminds me slightly of spending a month in China in 1983,  Tibet in 1986, Vietnam and Cambodia in 1992,  or Albania in 1995 as there is a tangible sense of visiting a place opening up and on the cusp of transition. While it is fully understandable that the people of Myanmar would want to modernize and be an integral part of the international community,  being here now is an opportunity to experience something authentic and different, in a country where the effects of globalization are only now beginning to be felt.

Myanmar, since the lifting of sanctions, has suddenly become a popular destination. Its most obvious manifestation is a dramatic increase in accommodation costs and, to a slightly lesser extent, in transportation. There is a real squeeze on hotels, so booking accommodation at least a day or two in advance is prudent.  That said, all of the other aspects of independent travel proved easier than I was anticipating. Air travel has been easy to arrange.  Train travel is uncrowded and inexpensive, if slow. And in most towns, there are dozens of travel agents ready to arrange air transport, bus journeys, treks and other services.

Unlike some other destinations I listed above, travelers have been coming to Myanmar, albeit in limited numbers for a long time. On my long trip in 1978, Burma represented the great travelers divide of Asia.

Back then, there  were a large group of travelers going from Europe overland to India and  Nepal. To the east, in southeast Asia, there were a lot of Australians and others concentrating their travels in that region. Burma did not permit land entry into the country. In those days you were restricted to a “fly in – fly out” seven day visa. It thus  required a certain financial outlay for the two flights. Those traveling on the cheap who were in Burma at that time were likely to be on an around the world trip. Thus I was fascinated to meet those, like me, on low budget long-term travel who had chosen to stay in the wooden beds in the dormitory of the Rangoon YMCA. With the seven day restriction,  I made it to Bago, Mandalay and Sagaing, but not Bagan before time ran out. I recall the train journey to and from Mandalay as being excruciatingly uncomfortable, taking seventeen hours rather than the advertised twelve.

Back to 2013.   I teamed up with Antoine, a great young French doctor Ii met at the departure lounge of Bangkok airport and we were to spend much of our  time in Myanmar together. Yangon was much the same as I remembered, though much busier with traffic. I enjoyed  visiting the Shwedagon  pagoda, among the world’s most beautiful Buddhist shrines, both during the day and, even more magically, at night.

The following day  we took a ferry across the Irrawaddy to the grubby town of Dalah, then hired a car to take us to Twante, sight of yet another superb pagoda, the Shwesandaw, but in a timeless rural setting.  We also visited a simple pottery factory.

From Yangon we flew to Bagan, which is among the greatest archaeological sites in the world. We were four days there, exploring the temples by bicycle. In theory, balloon rides over Bagan were fully booked for the next two months.  Still, we expressed our interest and the next afternoon we were fortunate to find that there had been a cancellation. The following morning we were up before dawn and were in one of the eight balloons that lifted off about fifteen minutes before sunrise. For most of the fifty minute ride we were flying fifty to one hundred meters above the temples. About two- thirds of the way through, the sun broke out, bathing the temples in a deep rich red light. This was my first balloon ride ever and it was awe inspiring to see the temples of Bagan from the air in this way.

We then went by ” fast boat”  to Mandalay. This is a relative term in Myanmar. Anywhere else this would either be a regular ferry or even a slow boat. In total it took us 13 1/2 hours. Save for watching the sunrise, there was not really much to see on the boat journey. What we could see was mainly of flat fields and the occasional small village. As we approached Mandalay,  after dark had descended, we could see the temple lights of Sagaing on the banks to our left. Yet as a method of transportation  for getting from point A to point B, it was a thoroughly enjoyably experience.

Some places do not live up to their romantic name. Alas, this is now the case with Mandalay. I enjoyed returning to the temples of Mandalay Hill,  but otherwise I found the city to be crowded, dusty, polluted and noisy.   Poor Rudyard would turn in his grave if he were to visit the city as a somewhat older British soldier today…..

A dream vacation in…Somaliland

For a number of years, one of my good work colleagues at the Department, Abdul Omar, a Canadian of Somali origin, and I had been planning a trip to Hargeisa in Somaliland. Fortunately, this trip finally came to fruition for us in November 2011.

I had arrived in Addis Ababa a couple of days before Abdul in order to obtain my visa from the Somaliland Liaison office. As an ethnic Somali, Abdul was exempt from this requirement. Abdul is currently working on secondment to the World Bank based in Tanzania.

Abdul and I initially flew from Addis to the eastern town of Dire Dawa. We took a local bus from there to the fascinating town of Harar, in a hilly range a couple of hours further east. Harar has a unique culture and is an attractive walled city in its own right.

We hired a vehicle to take us to the border at Wojaale. Our route descended down through the hills and emerged into the flat plains inhabited by ethnic Somalis. At one point we stopped at the side of the road and bought some camel milk, to fortify us for the journey into Somaliland.

In the eastern town of Jijiga, we stopped at a local restaurant and had a delicious meal of camel meat, with a side dish of camel fat from the hump. As roadside restaurant meals served in corrugated iron sheds in isolated African villages go, it was one of the tastiest and most delicious I have ever eaten. It was served at the Khoroxay restaurant. The next time any reader of this website passes through Jijiga in eastern Ethiopia, I would strongly recommend a meal of camel at this restaurant.

We continued along the flat plains beyond Jijiga until we finally came to the border town of Wojaale. African border crossings in remote area can be challenging, but fortunately these were straightforward.

Once past the Somali immigration and customs, we hired a driver to take us to the capital of Hargeisa. Within a few minutes after we started driving along the dirt road, Abdul started making comments about what a great guy the driver was. We ended up hiring him until the end of our stay.

Following an uprising which began in the 1980s against then dictator Siad Barre, Somaliland declared its independence from the rest of Somalia in May 1991. To date, no other country has formally recognized the de facto independence of the country. Due to occasional terrorist incidents emanating from Somalia and Puntland, Somaliland takes security seriously. On our journey, there were five checkpoints between the border and Hargeisa. While the security sheds were extremely basic, all interactions with the security forces were normal and professional. The guards looked at our passports and us, and then let us proceed.

We stayed the first night in the Oriental hotel in downtown Hargeisa. Abdul was tired after dinner and went to bed at about 10pm. I then decide to go on my own, wandering around the downtown core. I have spent more than seven years posted in African countries. While not perfect, I have developed a sixth sense of whether I should be walking around on my own in a city at night. Hargeisa was very relaxed and easy going. Even at night I had no sense that I might be at risk, and I enjoyed the evening ambience.

While we made our way from the Ethiopian border to Hargeisa just with our driver, any additional travel beyond Hargeisa required an armed guard, at our expense (about $20 plus some inexpensive food) as an escort. The local intelligence I was given on the ground was high quality. At the Ambassador Hotel, the driver quite impressively, gave a village by village assessment of the country, between “peaceful” and “problems”. There were five villages of problems near the frontier of Puntland, two villages to the east not far from Djibouti and one in the south. None were within even 80 kilometres proximity of where we were going.

We picked up our armed guard the following day and began our trip. “George”, an anglicized version of his Somali name, was in his 70s. We were to learn that he was a legendary fighter with the Somali National Movement in the 1980s, and was a national hero. Because of his presence in the vehicle, at virtually all checkpoints over the next days, the guards talked to him in awe and admiration, and never checked our passports.

We drove along towards the main port of Berbera. A little over half way between the capital and Berbera we went off the main road to Las Geel, a superb site of Neolithic cave paintings dating back almost 10,000 years, the details of which were elaborated by a French archaeological team in 2002. Later we went to the port city of Berbera at the edge of the Red Sea.

Perhaps it was partly due to the relentless heat and humidity, but I found the ambience of Berbera to be oppressive and unpleasant. The following day we climbed up into the mountains to the charming town of Sheikh. It is about 1500 meters above sea level and has a great climate Now here is a place that travelers to Somaliland could really enjoy. We did some great light hiking in the hills.

We later continued on to Burcao, rougher around the edges, but in its own normal way, like a busy, noisy, dusty and slightly less attractive Hargeisa. In theory there was a road connecting Burcao to Hargeisa directly, but our driver said the road was very rough so we drove back the same route through Berbera again.

Make no mistake. Somaliland is extremely poor and would appeal mainly to more enthusastic adventure travelers. Yet in its own way, I found my visit there enjoyable, positive and inspirational. Much of it was related to the insights into Somali culture I got from Abdul. And in a world of travel caricatures about how terrible Somalia is, for me my days in Somaliland were far richer, in the genuine aspect of travel than in many other places I have visited.

Reflections on a changing China on a bus to Ayutthaya

A few days ago I took a day tour by bus from Bangkok to the ancient capital of Ayutthaya. On the bus were seven young travelers from China (not traveling together), along with three other Canadians, a French woman and four people from Myanmar.

I am just old enough that had I been born in China, I could have been one of the youngest Red Guards in the Cultural  Revolution that engulfed China for a decade beginning in 1966.

When I traveled on my Long Trip between 1977-1980, China was closed to independent backpackers. One could go in on a packaged group,  and there were not many at the time, but that was it. I joined the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in September 1981.

Toward the end of 1981, China first allowed independent travelers to enter China on their own, through agents based in Hong Kong. On my way to my first overseas posting to India in 1983, I went through Hong Kong, and spent a month on my own in China, entering through Macau, and going by local transport to Guangzhou, Guilin, Yangshuo, Changsha , Chengdu,  Xian, Datong and Beijing. It was a fascinating, if tough and challenging, insight into a vast country just beginning to engage again with the outside world.

In late 1985, I finished my posting in India, and from 1985-1988, I was a project officer on Canada’s recently established development assistance program with China. In 1986, I was assigned on temporary duty to the Canadian Embassy in Beijing . Towards the end of my stay, I went on an agricultural project mission to Inner Mongolia. We went first to Hohhot, then to Xilinhot around one of the least degraded grasslands,  then on to Xi ujimqin Xi, and finally to the  village of Ershan Bolog. We were well treated as official guests. Incidentally, that mission to InnerMongolia was among the best experiences of my entire career.

Following the end of the mission I was dropped off by official vehicle at the railway station in Baotou. The juxtaposition between  my official guest status of the Peoples Republic, and cramming onto the multi hour, hyper crowded “hard stand”  train journey to Yinchuan in Ningxia is difficult to overstate. From there I went overland to industrial Lanzhou, then to Xining, then to what was then the end of the railway line at Golmud  in Qinghai. From Golmud it was a tough two day bus  through the Kunlun Shan and Tanggula Shan mountain ranges across the high Tibetan plateau to Lhasa. Tibet had been opened to independent travel less than two years earlier.  After a few days in Lhasa, five of us chartered a car to take us over the next four days to  visit the Tibetan towns of Gyantse, shigatse, tingri, and down through the main Himalayan range to the border town of Zhangmu.  the following day I walked across the border and continued by bus to Kathmandu. The journey from Tingri to Kathmandu is one of the greatest road journeys in the world.

In 1988, I was on another project mission to Beijing and Hangzhou.  After the mission, I took a few weeks off to travel around the minority areas of Yunnan, the flew up to Lanzhou and went along the Silk Road to Jiayuguan, Dunhuang, Turpan, Urumqi and Heaven Lake. In comparison to my first visit in 1983, China was a country on the move and the pace of change, at least in the major cities, was accelerating.

During my year of self funded leave in 1992-1993 (described under Trip Around the World on this website) I stayed in Beijing in early December 1992 with a work colleague in Beijing for a few days (Thank you YC Pan), before taking the Trans-Mongolian Railway in winter to Moscow.

I was not to visit China again until a few months ago going into, and coming out of, North Korea. Beijing is now un-recognizable. In the 1980s Beijing was still a city in a developing country.   In 1983 the majority of citizens in Beijing were still wearing Mao suits. Now it is a developed modern city. The creation of a large Chinese middle class is one of the great global economic achievements of the last 30 years.

In 1995 China began to allow its citizens to travel internationally without restrictions. For at least a decade now, I have occasionally seen young Chinese traveling in different places. Now I see them in ever larger numbers, and in ever more places around the world.

I was fortunate to be born in Canada at a time when, if I had some money and decided to make it a priority, I had the ability to go backpacking internationally. Chinese now in their fifties like me, did not have that opportunity.  Now young Chinese born in the 1980s and 1990s have a similar chance to young Canadians to expand their horizons and explore the world if they so wish.

If you are one of the young Chinese travelers on the bus who wrote down my website at the top of the temple at Ayutthaya, this blog entry was inspired by you.