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MY BLOG – 2007 Q3: July to September


Sunday 1 July 2007

Another typical English summer’s day - dull and cloudy - so not much opportunity for photography, although I did manage to get a few good shots around Faversham harbour. On the way back to Boughton-under-Blean we called into a farmer’s market which had a very extensive range of organic foods, fruits, vegetables and breads on sale. I bought some old-style English bread pudding which I hadn’t tasted for years. It was delicious! We stocked up too with lots of fresh strawberries and raspberries – they taste ten times better here than the ones we get in Malaysia – and cheaper too.

The weather cleared up later in the day and it was a fine evening for Graham’s 60th birthday dinner at the Red Lion in Crockham Lane. The food – all traditional English fare – was great, but twice as much as I could eat. I can’t believe how much food English people eat these days – and the size of the desserts that the pubs serve is obscene.

Monday 2 July 2007

We made a quick trip down to Portchester to catch up with relatives today. Karin and Damien came with us and Neil and Pamela joined us there. We had lunch at a marina in Portsmouth and then drove to Lyndhurst in the New Forest via Fareham, Stubbington, Titchfield, Warsash and Southampton. Apart from Fareham where I went to school, most of those places I hadn’t been to for 40 years. Some places I recognised, and hadn’t changed at all, whilst others had changed so much that I felt like I was visiting places to which I had never been. Even parts of Fareham had changed beyond recognition.

Tuesday 3 July 2007

Today it was back to work after ten days’ holiday, and I had meetings in the city. I took a train into London and after my morning meeting I had a genuine Cornish pasty at a café in Covent Garden – the first I had eaten for decades. It was a warm sunny day (always the same the first day back at work!) and many office workers were sitting at the outdoor cafes watching some buskers perform whilst having their lunch. One guy was singing Italian opera and had a superb voice. It was a most relaxing way to have lunch.

After lunch I walked towards Leicester Square for my next meeting, and on the way passed a bookshop called Stanfords which had a sign out front saying it was the largest travel book and map store in the world. I had a little time to spare before my meeting, so I popped in for a quick look. I managed to buy a couple of large scale maps of Greenland that I hadn’t been able to buy on our trip there last month. The range of travel books that they had was amazing. I will have to spend more time browsing this shop on my next trip to London.

After my meeting I took a taxi to Heathrow. Although my flight was not until the next morning, after the Glasgow airport car bombing the previous week, security had been tightened so much that travelers had been warned to get to the airport several hours earlier than normal. If I had gone back to Kent, this would have meant getting up in the middle of the night to catch my morning flight to Istanbul. So I had decided to overnight at one of the airport hotels.

Just as well I did because there was total chaos at the airport. Terminal 4 had been shut down because of a security alert and all flights out for the afternoon had been cancelled. My taxi was stopped at a police roadblock, and I had to get out and walk the rest of the way to the hotel. There were thick black storm clouds approaching (I later learnt it was a hailstorm and caused a lot of damage in the city) and I had visions of me and my luggage all getting soaked, but I managed to get to the hotel before it started to rain. The airport hotels were packed with people looking for a room for the night. Luckily I had a membership card with one of the hotel chains that guaranteed me a room, otherwise I could have been sleeping on the floor of one of the other terminals as thousand of passengers did that night.

Wednesday 4 July 2007

My fight to Istanbul left two hours late after extra security checks. I was attending a conference at the Intercontinental Hotel but had booked a room at the Point Hotel which was much cheaper but within walking distance. After checking into the Point, I walked over to the Intercontinental to register for the conference, and found it was surrounded by police with machine guns. Apparently a terrorist threat had been made against the conference and all the delegates had to go through extra security.

Saturday 7 July 2007

Today I joined an end-of-conference Bosphorus cruise for the delegates. The local police were still taking the terrorist threat very seriously, and a police gunboat following the cruise boat. As well, plain clothes policemen mingled with the delegates on the boat. You could easily tell which were the delegates and which were the policemen, because the delegates had all thrown off their suits after the two-day conference and had changed into casual wear, whilst the plain clothes policemen were still wearing their dark suits, black sunglasses and big bulges under their jackets.

Monday 9 July 2007

After an all-day meeting yesterday in Istanbul, I flew to Azerbaijan today for more meetings. Although I had been through Baku airport once, I hadn’t been into the city before, so was quite surprised at how modern it was. Around Baku, the country looks a picture of environmental devastation, with oil fields and processing plants spewing toxic chemicals into brightly coloured ponds, but the city itself is an interesting blend of Soviet and European architecture.

Tuesday 10 July 2007

After some morning meetings my hosts wanted to take me out to Gobustan, a UNESCO World Heritage area about 60 km south-west of Baku, to see the pre-historic rock carvings there. They date back to 8,000 years BC, and are in surprisingly good condition. What also surprised me was how well the area had been preserved with no signs of vandals having painted graffiti anywhere, like you see on many similar sites in other parts of thee world. Perhaps this was a result of the 70 years of Soviet occupation..

But what I remembered most about the trip, was the drive there and back. Trying to squeeze an out-of-town side-trip into such a tight itinerary maybe wasn’t such a great idea, because my driver drove at 150-160 kph most of the way there and back. Fortunately we were in a BMW, and I was in the back, which made me feel a bit safer, but twice we got flagged down by the police on the way down, and twice on the way back. On two occasions, we drove straight past the police without stopping (with my driver anxiously checking the rear vision mirror to see if they were going to chase us – but they didn’t). On the two occasions that he did stop, he got out and talked to the police, but I didn’t see any tickets being issued. After the second stop I asked him how he was getting away with not being booked, and he just said: “I tell them I work for the government”. Seems that is you work for the government in Azerbaijan, you don’t have to follow the road rules.

Wednesday 11 July 2007

We squeezed in another short sightseeing trip this afternoon after finishing up my meetings. Fortunately this didn’t involve any hair-raising drives, but comprised a leisurely walk around the old town of Baku which is another UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a fascinating place with narrow streets and ancient buildings. Some have been restored but some are still quite dilapidated after being damaged by an earthquake seven years ago. Since then a lot of restoration work had been done, but I was told there had been a lot of criticism about the quality of the restoration, and that in some places buildings had not been restored to their original form.

What I particularly liked about the Baku old town was that it was not over-run with tourists. There was a large group of school children at Maiden Tower, but apart from that there were very few visitors around. For that reason the shopkeepers weren’t doing much business, but they weren’t particularly aggressive and most didn’t bother us as we walked by. I was amused to see that one carpet shop proprietor had used the cobbled road outside of his shop to display his carpets – and didn’t seem to mind cars driving past, over his carpets. He must have confidence in the quality of his carpets.

We finished our tour up at the Shirvanshah’s Palace, where a group of local musicians were performing in the courtyard. They were not performing for tourists (I was the only foreigner there) but for the locals. It was very pleasant sitting in the sun listening to their traditional music in such an historic setting.

Thursday 12 July 2007

I’d picked up a mild head cold whilst in Azerbaijan. It didn’t worry me too much until I was on the flight back to Istanbul. As we descended into Istanbul and the cabin pressure changed, I experienced considerable pain in my middle ear. My next sector was to Amsterdam, and on that I experienced pain on both take-off and landing – the latter being worse than I had ever experienced in 50 years of air travel.

On arrival at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, I went to the medical clinic to see if there could give me something for the pain, because I wasn’t keen to go through another bout of pain like that. They gave me some tiny plastic tubes of something called Otriven (each one had just 0.3 ml of liquid in them) and the doctor told me to breath one up each nostril half and hour before taking off and half and hour before descending. He gave me enough for my flight to Kuala Lumpur, and half a dozen extras for future flights. I asked how much that was, and he said it was free – all part of the passenger service at Schiphol airport. I was most impressed. That was the first time I had transited through Schiphol, and everything about the airport seemed well organised – such a contrast to the chaos of Heathrow. I shall try to use Amsterdam for European transits in the future instead of London if I can.

Friday 13 July 2007

I had a good flight back to Kuala Lumpur. The nose drops worked well. They didn’t stop the congestion, but they stopped the pain. I made a note to see if those drops were available in Malaysia, as they would be good to carry in my back pack in case I need them on other flights in the future.

Monday 16 July 2007

Flying with a cold is not a good idea because my middle ear has been blocked for days and it’s most uncomfortable. I went to see an ENT specialist at Pantai hospital in the morning. That was even more uncomfortable as he a stuck a long metal tube up my nose to have a look at the problem. I never realised how far you could put something up your nose.

Wednesday 22 August 2007

I arrived at Hong Kong airport en route to a conference in Shenzhen, so took the ferry from the airport direct to the Fu Yong terminal in Shenzhen. Cruising up the Pearl River Delta, we passed an enormous amount of shipping – big barges ferrying over a hundred 40ft shipping containers at a time, and hundreds of small ships of all shapes and sizes – and big factories along the shoreline spewing out dirty smoke into the atmosphere. This part of China is reputed to be one of the worst for air pollution, and as we got closer to Shenzhen it was like we were entering a grey fog. It was clear to see where a lot of Hong Kong’s air pollution comes from these days.

The conference was being held at a new resort in the mountains to the north-east of Shenzhen city, so the hotel car that picked me up from the ferry terminal didn’t take me through the city proper, but around the northern outskirts of the city. The part of Shenzhen that I did see looked very depressing – so industrial and dusty – and construction going on everywhere – it was like a massive building site. New freeways were being built everywhere, but it seemed that drivers hadn’t been taught how to drive on them. On one freeway that we traveled, three slow semi-trailers were occupying all three lanes – the middle one slightly behind the others - and approaching car drivers would swerve in and out of them at over 150 kph like a game of deadly dare. Other semi-trailers were trying to out-race the car drivers, and on one bend a semi-trailer had overturned, blocking two lanes, but still the cars and other trucks raced by without slowing down. I used to think that Iranian drivers were the craziest in the world, but now having been to Shenzhen. I have to change my mind.

We made it in one piece to the resort in about an hour. The conference organisers were putting me up in the Interlaken Hotel, which is part of a replica of the Swiss Interlaken town that has been built by the Chinese property developer, OCT Group, at a place they have called OCT East – a nine sq km eco-tourism development in the Yantian district.
The OCT Group have spent about US$430 million over the past three years building a five-star resort and spa, golf courses, the Interlaken village, an ancient tea town (why they need to build a ‘fake’ one when there are so many real ones in China!), a 1,000 seat theatre, a large man-made waterfall, a viaduct for a Disneyland type steam train that takes tourists through the forested valleys, and all sorts of other Disney-ish attractions.
These sorts of artificial environments are not normally to my taste, but they have done a good job here incorporating an existing tea plantation into the development and a massive amount of reforestation – even a cynic like me found it quite a relaxing place for a couple of days.
It has only been open for three weeks, so perhaps it won’t be so relaxing when hordes of people from Hong Kong and Shenzhen start descending on it. You can be in OCT East in less than two hours from the centre of Hong Kong (and that’s allowing for half an hour to get through immigration and customs at the Chinese border) so I would imagine this will become a popular respite from the muggy summer weather for Hong Kong residents once they get to know about this place.

Friday 24 August 2007

I arrived in Hanoi today. I don’t recall having been in Hanoi in August before – usually it is towards the end of the year or early in the new year when it is cooler. Whilst the temperature was not much different to KL (32-34 degrees), the humidity was noticeably higher, and there seemed to be a constant mist in the air. Just a short walk down to a local supermarket in the heat and humidity sapped my energy. Definitely not a good time of the year to be visiting Hanoi if you were a tourist. Fortunately, on this occasion, my three days in Hanoi would be mainly in air-conditioned offices and air-conditioned cars.

It is about 18 months since I was last in Hanoi, and I was amazed at the development that has taken place along the road from the airport in that time. The number of advertising billboards has increased ten-fold, and where there were previously padi fields, there are now factories and shops springing up everywhere.

Sunday 2 September 2007

Yesterday was Malaysia’s 50th anniversary of independence, and there were many events and displays organised around the country. I stopped by one display at the Bangsar Shopping Centre which had enlarged copies of the front pages of the Straits Times on display from the months leading up to independence 50 years ago.

Although most of the stories had something to do with the movement towards independence, and the then ongoing battles with the communist insurgents, one front page story that attracted my attention was about the return of the Sultan of Pahang, a man aged 53, from a two-week ‘honeymoon’ in Hong Kong with a 19 year old joget girl (a Malay traditional dancer). The story, on the front page of the 6 May 1957 issue, was accompanied by a picture of him stepping off a BOAC Constellation at Singapore airport with the girl whom he was reported to have secretly married a few weeks prior.

The Straits Times article focused on the fact that as he already had four wives (the maximum permissible) he would have to divorce one of his existing wives. A spokesman for the Sultan told the reporter that he had already in fact divorced one – the only problem being that he had not yet informed his wives which one he had divorced. The spokesman was quoted as saying that the Sultan “was not required to tell her immediately”.

I bet that story had a few tongues wagging back in 1957.

Thursday 6 September 2007

The Selayang Municipal Council would not win any prizes as one of Malaysia’s more progressive municipal authorities, but maybe it should be given a prize for creative ideas.

In order to tackle a stray dog problem, the Council has decided to launch a competiion amongst residents to see who can catch the most stray dogs over the next seix months. Every resident who delivers a live stray dog to the council pound will receive RM20, and whoever rounds up the largest number (with a minimum ‘qualifying number’ of 150 dogs) will receive RM15,000. Second place-getter will receive RM13,000 and the third prize is RM11,000.

I wonder if the Selayang councillors have ever tried catching wild dogs? It’s not exactly an easy task. I hope they have advised the Selayang hospital to stock up on bandages, iodine and tetanus shots.

Sunday 9 September 2007

The front page of today’s local paper was devoted to the release of the 2006 Malaysian Auditor-General’s Report which highlighted a slew of cases of public funds mismanagement.

During the course of last year many government departments had paid inflated prices for supplies. One department had paid RM5,741 for a car jack, available from hardware store for RM50, and RM224 for a set of screwdrivers, worth RM40. Another had paid RM10,700 for a set of technical books, available from bookshops for RM417. There was a long list of similar cases, and the report also highlighted problems of missing appropriations for highway crash barriers that were never built, and money wasted on helicopters that couldn’t be used.

No wonder there are so many wealthy businessmen driving flashy Mercedes around Kuala Lumpur – looks like many of them have been ripping off the government (and maybe a few government officials have been pocketing some paybacks along the way). Of course, that’s nothing unusual here. What was unusual was that it got splashed across the front page of the newspaper. Maybe they forgot to drop a few brown envelopes off at the newspaper office this year?

Tuesday 11 September 2007

Today I transferred my blog to Blogger.com so that I could make it a little more interactive, and facilitate easier uploading of photos and videos.

The link is http://banyanman.blogspot.com