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24 July 2003

I arrived in Bangkok yesterday. This is my first trip away since undergoing eye surgery in June. Everything seemed to be going fine until I stood up suddenly after taking some photographs kneeling down. A minute of two after that I became aware of a sudden onset of black floaters in the left eye – and I knew I had suffered another tear to the retina. The following morning I went to the Rutnin eye hospital which was not far from the hotel where I was staying. I took my doctor’s notes from Kuala Lumpur (he had advised me always to carry them when traveling) and asked to see a retina specialist. None of the staff on the outpatients reception spoke very good English and I don’t think they understood what I was talking about when I said I thought I had a torn retina.

A nurse first checked my vision and then sent me to a doctor who started fitting me for spectacles. I tried to explain that I didn’t need new spectacles; I needed to see a retina specialist. His English wasn’t that good, but he commented how bad my left eye vision was. I said that was because I had torn my retina, but I think he must have thought I was talking about what had happened in the past because he said I had to have my vision checked first before seeing a specialist. After that I was told to come back after lunch to see another doctor. Eventually I got to see a specialist at 2.30pm and fortunately he could speak good English. He recognised my problem straightaway and, after dilating and checking my eye, said I needed laser treatment to seal the tear within the next 24 hours. He said I had developed a new, small tear in the top of the retina, not far from where I had had the previous tear that had led to the retinal detachment in June. He said I could fly back to Kuala Lumpur and have it done by my own surgeon there, but as my doctor was on leave for two weeks, I decided to have it done in Bangkok.

Although I wasn’t sure how good the doctors were there, I assumed that as it was an eye hospital they must be reasonably competent. I also did not want to risk the tear developing into a detachment and having to undergo more invasive surgery again. The laser procedure was carried out without too much discomfort. I had about 30-40 laser bursts to the back of the eye, and only two were painful. I wish the laser treatments I had in Kuala Lumpur were as painless as that.

That night after returning to the hotel I had to go across the road to the 7 Eleven to buy a bottle of water. My eye was still very blurry from being dilated and having been poked around during the afternoon, and I thought I was seeing things when there appeared to be an elephant parked outside the 7 Eleven. But there was definitely an elephant there, neatly positioned in one of the parking spots, with its owner holding a rope around its neck. I went back to my room to get my camera and flash gun as it would have made a great photograph, but by the time I got back downstairs the elephant and its owner had moved on and were nowhere to be seen.

29 August 2003

I am in Beijing today for some meetings. My hosts took me to a restaurant in the Oriental Plaza called South Beauty. It was a very upmarket and trendily furnished place with glass floors and water features. I made a visit to the men’s room before leaving and was surprised to find fish swimming in the wash basins – but then realised that these were for decoration and there was one bowl without fish – which I presumed was the one I was supposed to wash my hands in.

In the evening, after dinner, I walked to Tiananmen Square as I wanted to get a photograph of Tiananmen at night (the building that, is, not the square). Tiananmen, with its massive portrait of Mao at the front, is very much a symbol of China, but I wanted to get a picture of the building when there were not throngs of tourists in front of it obscuring the view. I set myself up in front of the building just prior to 10.30 pm and started shooting a few pictures, experimenting with different exposures. But then, right on the dot of 10.30 pm, all the lights went out in Tiananmen Square and every one of the buildings around the square was plunged into darkness. I was lucky to have got a couple of shots away before ‘lights out’. It seemed very early to be turning out the lights on one of the main tourist attractions in Beijing, but I suppose that encourages people to head home early and not hang around on the streets too late.

30 August 2003

Saturday morning and I have the weekend off in Bejing. I walked up Wangfujing, which was just a round the corner from the Beijing Hotel where I was staying, for a morning coffee. Wangfujing is one of the main shopping streets of Beijing, and just off the main thoroughfare is Wangfujing Xaochijie (which means Wangfujing Snack Street). This is an interesting street to stroll through as it is full of stalls selling an amazing variety of snack foods – like barbequed scorpions and grasshoppers on skewers. The locals seemed to be relishing all the strange and exotic foods, but the few westerners around were only looking (and with very apprehensive looks on their faces).

After coffee I headed out to one of the older sections of the city where I paid a tricycle driver 60 yuan (about US$7.20) to take me on a tour of some of the hutongs for an hour or so. I got some great photographs and it was fascinating to see what was almost ‘village life’ in the heart of Beijing. It is sad that so many of these hutongs are being razed to the ground to make way for boring high rise apartments. I read in one of the English language papers that it was proposed to preserve some of the hutongs, but these will probably end up being like the ‘cultural villages’ in some south-east Asian countries where people are really just putting on a show for the tourists and the opportunity to see ‘real’ people living in real hutongs will be lost forever in the name of progress.

31 August 2003

Today, with an interpreter and driver, I headed out of the city to see the ‘real’ Great Wall at Simatai, about three hours drive north of Beijing near the town of Gubeikou. On a previous trip to Beijing, a colleague from Australia had told me of a trip he had made out to Simatai and how impressed he was with it, because all of this section of the wall was original, and it was not swarming with tourists. He was not wrong. As we approached Simatai, I could see the Great Wall in the distance, snaking over the tops of the mountain ridges – a much more impressive sight than the Great Wall at Badaling.

As we reached the foot of the Great Wall it was clear why there were not hordes of tourists on this section of the wall. The climb to the wall from the road was quite steep, although there was an old cable car operating to a point about three quarters of the way up to the base of the wall. This saves what would probably be a strenuous hour’s climb (if you are fit – it would probably take you two hours if you are not). The cable car does not stop – you have to jump on as it is moving, and do the same to get off at the top. At the top of the cable car there is also a contraption that looks like an underground miner’s trolley car that is attached to a winch with a steel rope. For a few extra yuan you can sit in that and be winched up another 50 metres or so (at an angle of 40 degrees!), but it didn’t feel safe at all. There was no safety rope, and if the main rope snapped, you would undoubtedly experience a very quick but frightening death as the trolley car fell back down to the bottom.

Even after using the trolley car, there was still quite a strenuous walk up a rocky path and then up steep steps to reach the top of the Great Wall. After my latest laser treatment to my eye, I am supposed to be taking it easy for two weeks, but I couldn’t resist climbing the Great Wall again - I'd better not tell my doctor or he will have a fit! And it was worth the climb because the mountain scenery from the top is absolutely magnificent. You can see the Great Wall snaking over the mountains ranges for miles and miles. It was so peaceful up there with hardly any other tourists around. I suppose another reason why not a lot of tourists visit this part of the Great Wall is that in many places the sides of the wall have crumbled away, and in some places there is a drop of up to 500 feet if you stepped off the wall. So you definitely have to watch where you are walking.

When I got back to Beijing I asked someone whether any tourists get killed from falling off that part of the Great Wall. The answer was: “Oh yes, quite often, but only Chinese – no foreigners have fallen off”. The tone of the answer was so nonchalant that it seemed it was of no concern if only Chinese fell off!

Simatai is definitely worth visiting, but it is a long way out from Beijing. It took close to three hours each way to drive there, and the drive can be a bit hair-raising – as can any long drives in China. On the way we passed by three accidents, one a petrol tanker that had rolled and exploded, another was a truck that had spilled a load of bricks on the road, and the other was a head-on collision between a truck and a car at an intersection. The first and last looked like there could have been some fatalities.

1 September 2003

Whilst waiting for my flight at Beijing Airport, a female voice over the PA system announced “Ladies and gentlemen, China Airlines flight CA909 for Moscow is about to take off. Please board the aircraft quickly.” I had visions of a plane sitting at the end of the runway, about to take off, and passengers racing across the tarmac to board it before it started moving, I bought a coffee at the airport. It was 45 yuan (about US$5.50). It is hard to enjoy a coffee when it is so expensive. Even the coffee at Starbucks in Beijing is only 28 yuan (and even at that price it is double the price in Kuala Lumpur).

24 September 2003

I arrived in New Delhi late last night for a day of meetings today. I am staying at the Centaur IGI Airport Hotel as I have an early flight to catch to Kabul tomorrow morning. The Centaur was the only airport hotel I could find on the Internet, but choosing it was a big mistake. It is tired looking, damp, dark and smelly. All night long a loud speaker outside was blaring out what sounded like someone giving instructions to workers. Perhaps it was coming from the airport cargo yards or something. I couldn’t work out what it was, but it kept me awake half the night. Perhaps that was why the hotel was almost deserted. During my two nights stay I saw only two other guests at breakfast the first morning. The rest of the time I saw nobody except hotel workers. On my way into the city I saw a better looking Radisson hotel a few minutes up the road from the Centaur. I shall note that for next time I need to stay near the airport.

25 September 2003

Today I made my first visit to Afghanistan. It was only a short trip – a day and a night in Kabul – but it was one of the most interesting days that I have spent for a long time. I have turned my blog for that trip into a travel article, which I have posted separately ‘Asia Travel Articles’, so I won’t repeat it here.

26 September 2003

I arrived in London from Dubai after my trip to Afghanistan, and I took a taxi from Heathrow Airport to the Sheraton Skyline - just a stone’s throw from the airport. That cost 12 pounds – more than the price of a luxury coach ticket from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore (a five hour trip compared to the ten minutes in the London cab). London is just so expensive.

27 September 2003

I had breakfast in the Sheraton before heading off to visit relatives in Hampshire. The buffet includes all the wine you can drink. This is the first breakfast buffet I have seen in any hotel in the world that includes wine.

28 September 2003

I am writing this on a British Airways breakfast flight up to Newcastle to catch up with my brother whom I’ve not seen for many years. They are serving small bottles of wine with the breakfast to anyone who wants them (and many are). It seems the English have become a nation of alcoholics!

29 September 2003

The trip to Newcastle yesterday was interesting. It is about 20 years since I was last there and the city looks so much better now. It is no longer the grimy industrial city that it once was. The city centre has a lot of character and the area along the river has been completely redeveloped. It is a pleasant city to stroll around. My brother took me out to his stone cottage on the moors near Hexham. I don’t think I could live in a place like that – it is too quiet and isolated for me.

We had a walk on the moors near Hadrian’s Wall which was built in the second century by the Roman’s to separate Britain (which they then occupied) from the land of the Picts (now Scotland). When it was built it was nearly 120 km long and five metres high, so must have looked almost as impressive as the Great Wall of China, but today there are only small sections left and they are rarely more than a metre high. I suppose with farmers stealing the stones to build their own walls over nearly 20 centuries, it is not surprising that there is not much left of the wall. It seems that it is only in the last century that man has started to appreciate the importance of preserving historical monuments for future generations.