Tuesday, December 31, 2013


How quickly the year went. A quiet day at home, ending with charades, champagne & Sprite and group hug. 2014 will be full of changes. Where will we be a year from now? 

Sunday, December 29, 2013


Back in Beijing. Home comforts, a lot of smelly laundry and late Christmas presents around the tree. 

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Guy & Yuko

Other than a bit of luxury and to change planes, the main reason we're in KL is to see Guy, Yuko, Joshua, Sasha and Francesca. Guy used to work with me at the BC in Japan, but they moved here several years ago and have been growing a family. Lovely to see them and hang out by the pool. I could get used to KL.

Friday, December 27, 2013


From Kuching to Kuala Lumpur, town to city, island to mainland. After the basics of our rainforest cabin we have treated ourselves to a decent hotel suite opposite the Petronas Twin Towers. We deserve it. Continuing the luxurious theme, we visited the shopping centre beneath the towers. It is sumptuous in its design, plentiful in brands, a cross-between Bluewater and Westfields (though I've not been to either). The biggest treat is an hour-and-a-half in Kinokuniya, our favourite bookstore east of Waterstones. There are four Starbucks in Kuching, forty in KL. Everyone seems to have a smile on their face. Cindy Lauper alternates with Ricky Martin on taxi radios. Welcome to Asia-lite. 

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Monkeys and Cats

More wind & rain, so we cancelled our plans to go to Bako National Park which would have involved a hair-raising boat trip, and instead 'did' a few of Kuching's museums which are open today (including its Art Museum which used to be the British Council office).
After lunch we took a taxi south of the city to Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre to tick off the orangutans. It did not look promising. December & January are fruiting season so they have enough food up in the trees and tend not to bother coming down for feeding time. The ticket office politely informed us that the chances of seeing them were slim or virtually non-existent. 
A large crowd of us (itself enough to frighten them off) were sent on a wild goose chase into the forest where a warden called out to the 27 semi-wild apes who live in the reserve. None came. So we traipsed back to another viewing area... and were rewarded with the sight of two orangutans dangling by absurdly long arms from vines as the rain chucked it down. 
To be honest, I'm not big on monkeys, whether they be orangutans, gorillas, chimps, baboons, whatever. There's something a bit unsettling, a bit naff about an ape - possibly because if we'd taken a wrong turning several millions years ago, we could have been one.
However, talking of stupid and naff, on our way back to the resort we dropped in on the Cat Museum, housed in an architectural monstrosity (a cross between Liverpool Catholic Cathedral and a UFO) atop a hill in the north of the city. 'Kucing' means cat in Malay so the city plays on its feline theme... mercilessly. There are three large cat statues in the east of town and cat merchandise everywhere. 
The museum contains an utterly random collection of cat-related stuff: big, slightly scary plaster-of-paris models, fluffy feline photos usually found on Hallmark cards and Woolworth jigsaws, others of cats wearing clothes (the equivalent of a chimps' tea party), a display cabinet of cat food, a 1971 poster of Dutch band The Cats (once big in Indonesia), a list of cat-related films (or films simply with Cat in the title) which for some reason stops in 1982 with Cat People. In fact everything seems to have stopped in 1982, even though it opened in 1993. 
Still, we hoped once and for all to find out why Kuching is named after Felis Catus. Finally, somewhere between a photo of Brigitte Bardot clutching her favourite moggy and a diorama of a pet cemetery, we found a panel which said: "No-one knows why Kuching is named after a cat". 

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas in Kuching

In sympathy with the UK, torrential rain and high winds are the order of the day. We take the minibus into Kuching. The museums are closed but the shops are open. So we swallow our pride (and the rain - and some great sushi), and mooch around the bazaars of Chinatown and Little India, ending up in the James Brooke Bistro, a charming little cafe on the riverfront. 
James Brooke was an East India Company trader who, after helping the Sultan of Brunei put down a rebellion in 1840, became Governor (or Rajah) of Sarawak. By most historical accounts his rule was largely benign and efficient, surely influenced by Raffles' earlier governorship in Singapore. After his death in 1868, his nephew Charles ruled until 1917, followed by his son Vyner up until WW2 when the Japanese invaded. Sarawak then became a British colony before becoming part of independent Malaysia in 1963. 
Kuching still has a number of faded white colonial remnants dotted around: the Court House (1874), Fort Margherita (1879), Sarawak Museum (1891)... But it is - and always was - a multinational town of Chinese, Malay and Indian inhabitants with the architecture, old and new, to match. It seems a happy town: friendly taxi drivers, smiling families, shop sellers who just want to chat rather than hassle you into buying stuff. And for all the wind and rain, it's this that's made our Christmas.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Twin Peaks

From KK to Kuching is a 500-mile Air Asia hop, but delayed by torrential rain. When we finally arrive at our lo-budget rainforest resort which juts out into the South China Sea, it's dusk. And it's basic. Switching on the lights in our cabin sees ants the size of cockroaches scatter under pre-IKEA furniture. A bout of broom-bashing deals with them, but our spirits are not raised at dinner in the semi-open 'restaurant' where we are joined by a handful of offbeat diners. A sparrow-like waitress of uncertain age attends. A man the size of our cabin sits opposite wearing bizarre, individually-toed trainers which protrude at right angles. A man is playing Leaving on a Jet Plane on a Bornean guitar (called a Sape if anyone's interested). Suddenly, it is all too much for Liz, and as we chink our glasses she breaks into mild hysterics, midway between laughing and crying. It is Christmas Eve and here we are in a rainforest in south-western Sarawak, a monsoon blowing a gale outside, with the cast of Twin Peaks. The only person missing is the Log Lady. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

Sunbed Exploration

I'm reading the Faber Book of Exploration, edited by Benedict Allen. It's an 832-page tome of a book, no illustrations and very dense (Allen's commentary is in 8pt in two columns)... but it's compulsive reading. 
Allen is the perfect companion. I've only seen one of his travel programmes - the one across Mongolia in the late 90s, in which he dispenses with crew, doubling up as both narrator and cameraman (possibly the first to do so?) - and he clearly knows his stuff. 
I like the way he's divided it up into themes: sea, hot deserts, cold deserts, forests, mountains etc and then chronologically within those themes. He does a good job of redressing some imbalances: the inclusion of many women travel-writers for example. And he has a go at including indigenous writers who, having been on the receiving end of western explorers, went to where they came from (eg a native American Indian's account of a train ride east to Chicago, where 'the people swarm like ants'), though I yearned for more. 
Much of the book deals, of course, with that curious breed of Victorian & Edwardian male who 'explored for England', driven by (at first) the opportunities of trade, then the white man's burden of civilising & converting heathens, and then scientific discovery or simply personal wanderlust. But thankfully there are plenty of non-Brits, especially into the 20th Century. 
Do I have a favourite? Possibly the Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen who led the first crossing of Greenland in 1888 and almost reached the North Pole in 1893. Everyone's heard of the "Dr Livingstone, I presume?" quote when H M Stanley bumped into the Scottish explorer in the middle of Africa, but few are aware of the equally incredible encounter between Nansen and another British explorer, Frederick Jackson, in the middle of the Arctic. Nansen had been marooned on an isolated island after his North Pole quest and looked unrecognisable covered in walrus grease with three-year beard and disintegrating clothes. Amazingly, Jackson chanced upon him, and after an awkward hesitation, said: "You're Nansen aren't you?"

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Up (continued) and Down

Arise at 2am, breakfast, then off we trek in the dark, at first through a final stretch of stunted rainforest and then onto exposed granite. I'm thankful that we can't see beyond the beam of my headlight as there are bits where we have to grab onto a rope to haul ourselves up, but mostly I'd rather not see just how far it is to the summit. But eventually, after three hours, we make it and are rewarded with amazing views of the sun rising above its sister-peaks in the East (er, where else?) and the swirling clouds below.
As daylight establishes itself, the landscape is revealed in all it's surreal, almost lunar glory. But before too long we're descending and I'm praying that my knees will hold out. The first third, back down to the overnight lodge, is OK, but the rest of the trail down to the Park Gate is agony. We pass pitcher plants, but unfortunately no Rafflesia (the largest single flower in the world), hear all sorts of birdlife, but see no other animal life, though there are orangutans, leopard cats and Bornean ferret-badgers somewhere out there.
Arriving back at our resort, somehow I manage the 100 steps from car to room.

Saturday, December 21, 2013


It's not that I've always wanted to climb Mt Kinabalu (at 4,092m the 'highest mountain in South East Asia'*), but let's just say that the idea has taken some shape over the last couple of years having discovered that you can climb it, given a modest degree of fitness. So that's what all the stair-walking has been about. 
So leaving Liz and the girls asleep, I'm picked up at 5:30am and am driven into Sabah's interior. The mountain is easily spotted from Kota Kinabalu and it looks nearer / not as high as I'd anticipated. Then a strange thing happens, the nearer we get, the further it seems to be, and higher. 

Finally we reach the Park Gate, sign in and set off at 9:00am. It's a long hard slog through forest, relentlessly, inexorably, mercilessly up. I have a guide, Sylvester, but he stays a few steps behind me allowing me to walk at my own pace. On the one hand I want to share this with Liz, like we did in Nepal, on the other hand it's mostly too tiring to talk. There are shelter/rest points all the way up and I look forward to each and every one of them. 
Halfway up it starts to rain and I'm thankful for my bicycle poncho. It becomes even more of a slog as the trail, already rough, turns into a steep, red rock-strewn stream and it takes all one's effort to step from one slippery rock to another, all the time up, up, up. Finally we reach the overnight lodge at 3,272m. Four and a half hours. I'm quite chuffed. 
I have three hours to kill and recover as the lodge fills up with more & more trekkers and a buffet dinner is served. Really nice atmosphere: all nationalities, all ages, all sharing their stories about how tough and wet it was. Then off to the dorm, in bed at the absurdly early 7pm and a fitful half-a-night's sleep, courtesy of cold, altitude and party-goers. 

(* depends how you define SE Asia: there are six higher mountains in Burma and three in Indonesia)

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Borogoves etc

But of course it's not all roses. N is sick (sunstroke), I'm still dealing with work and - incredible though it may seem - I'm doing my tax return. But nothing a good walk along the beach with A won't cure. Wouldn't stop talking: yak yak yak. School, Greek mythology (Percy Jackson style) and she's going to write about the resort's cat... Lovely. Highlight was a word-perfect recital of Jabberwocky, as the western sky offered a suitably surreal sunset to match the moment. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


Eat, pool, beach, eat, read, pool... Not a lot more to to say other than to mention the dazzling sunset. Why are sunsets better in tropical climes? If one can forget the palm-tree-and-beach frame for a moment, why can't Solihull have the kind of red sky and dramatic clouds that are two-a-penny here? Answers on a postcard...

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

To Borneo

At the unearthly hour of 2:30am we take an Air Asia flight (the no-frills equivalent of EasyJet) to Kuala Lumpur. Difficult to sleep but we managed to grab a couple of hours. KL is Air Asia's headquarters so they have their own no-frills terminal which is quite simply an enormous hanger. It's a humid, slightly chaotic transfer, but soon we're on another flight to Kota Kinabalu (or KK as it's often called) in Borneo. 
It's funny, when I mentioned to Chinese colleagues that I was going to Borneo, nobody knew what I was talking about. Where? I think it's partly because it has a different name in Chinese but also it's an island not a country. In fact it's three countries: Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Indonesia's bit, known as Kalimantan, makes up a good two-thirds of the island and is the least developed; Malaysia's part is split between Sarawak and Sabah; and then there's the tiny oil-rich principality of Brunei.
I've always wanted to come here. Ever since pouring over maps of South East Asia as a child, reading about James Brook (the 'White Rajah'), whose family ruled Sarawak for 100 years, and Eric Hansen's Stranger in the Forest in which the author walks from the north to south coasts crossing some of the least explored territory in the world.
The flight hugs the coast, finally landing in KK where we are met and driven to a modest beach resort which will be our base for the next week. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

RIP Peter O'Toole

Farewell Peter O'Toole, forever associated as blue-eyed, white-robed T E Lawrence (though he here is in The Last Emperor). Much has been made of him never winning a Best Actor at the Oscars, despite being nominated eight times, but I guess it all comes down to who he was up against each time. In truth, the films he chose were often indifferent. I saw him on stage just the once. Ironically it wasn't Shakespeare, which he made his own, but Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell at the Apollo in 89. As suitable a role as anything he did before or after.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Farewell Karotams

Our good Aussie friends, Colin & Vanessa Karotam and their children Amy & Aaron, have come to the end of their posting and are off back to Canberra. So tonight we have them round for dinner. Amy has been Alyssa's best friend in Beijing so it's going to be hard for her.   

Friday, December 13, 2013

There's Antimony, Arsenic, Aluminum, Selenium...

In Alyssa’s science lesson today, they learned all about the Periodic Table. Full marks to the teacher, because he played them American mathematician-singer-songwriter-satirist Tom Lehrer’s fabulous 'The Elements Song'... which is basically him singing all the names of the elements to the strains of Gilbert & Sullivan, recorded sometime in the 1950s. 
I have it – and many other great songs like 'Poisoning Pigeons in the Park', 'Oedipus Rex' and 'The Masochism Tango' – on an illegally copied cassette, An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer. To be honest, I thought he was dead. But no, he’s 85 and still very much alive.
Alyssa then informed me that Daniel Radcliffe is a huge fan (“the cleverest and funniest man of the 20th century”) and together we watched a YouTube snippet of him doing The Elements Song on Graham Norton.  

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Sozzled Shrimps

This evening a bunch of us ate at a Shanghaiese restaurant. For some reason a pot of live shrimps was ordered. They were brought to the table, doused in strong liquor and left to thrash & thresh. Occasionally one or two would jump out onto the tablecloth whereupon we'd pick them up and threw them back in. Then, when the alcohol had quietened them down, we ate them, still alive. I'll spare you the photo.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

French Concession

To Shanghai for a 3-day East Asia Arts Meeting. By chance, Markus is in town from Singapore so we went out for dinner with some French friends of his, fittingly in the French Concession. From 1849 to 1943 this was effectively a swathe of land ceded to France. (There were also British area to the north which became the International Settlement). There's something very 'old world' and intimate about the FC's human-scale, gently curving roads lined with low-level Art Deco buildings, plain trees, indie boutiques and bijou restaurants. Pretty much unique to China and in many ways the opposite of Beijing. I'm just amazed that so much of it has survived.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Village that Knows it's a Town

A's homework tonight was to do some research about Huaxi in East China. Forty years ago it was little more than a village, with oxen wandering down unpaved roads. Then, through an interesting mix of socialism and capitalism-with-Chinese-characteristics, it has become known as The Richest Village in China. Wu Renbau, one-time farmer, local Party Secretary and now mayor, has introduced hi-tech agriculture, steel making and textile manufacturing.
The core 2,000 original inhabitants live in identical villas, all adults have expensive cars, and there's free, high-quality education, healthcare and... cooking oil for all. It's even listed on the stock exchange. The price to pay is uber-conformity, a 7-day week and nothing to spend your money on (there don't appear to be many shops or any night life). There is however, a park with replicas of the Great Wall, the Statue of Liberty and the Arc de Triomphe, as well as the quite stupendously ugly Longxi International Hotel, which is taller than the Chrysler Building - and there the comparison ends.

Saturday, December 7, 2013


In an attempt to get fit for a mountain trek in a fortnight's time, I'm walking up & down the stairs. Our flat is on the 21st floor so that's quite a few steps - despite the missing 4th, 13th and 14th floors. Floor-walking - or rather floor-racing - is an organized sport nowadays. When we were living in Bangkok, I once contemplated doing the annual Banyan Tree Hotel climb - 61 flights, 1,237 steps - but thought better of it. One guy did it in an astonishing 6:19 mins. I do my 226 steps in about the same time.

Friday, December 6, 2013


Nice dinner with Mike Winter, visiting Beijing on business. Used to be a British Council colleague, Liz's boss in London in the late 80s, mine in Tokyo in the early 00s, left five years ago to work in higher education, haven't seen him in years. The evening flashes by.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Nelson Mandela RIP

It had been coming... Well, what a life. Good, bad, certainly full (though one could argue whether  27 years in prison could ever be 'full' - except in thinking time); a terrorist, a saint, an all-round icon. Like many, I read The Long Road to Freedom, still have the Special AKA single at home, and well remember a visit he made to Brixton in 1996 where I was living at the time. Somehow I received an invitation to a speech he was giving in the sports centre. It was like a carnival or gospel convention. He had a kind, quiet voice, a bit like Kofi Annan's. It's funny how we're conditioned to think that speeches should be loud and dramatic. His was the opposite, but just as impactful. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Bike, Mouse, Hamster, Snake

Over breakfast this morning Alyssa started singing "I've got a mouse and he hasn't got a house, I don't know why I call him Gerald. He's getting rather old but he's a good mouse". 
Now if you know your Pink Floyd, you'll know this is from 'Bike', the last track on Piper at the Gates of DawnStunned, I wondered where she'd heard it. I've got the LP, but don't think I've ever played it within her earshot. Turns out her maths teacher told the class he had a hamster called Gerald. 
"I don't know why I call him Gerald..." he said, and then launched into the song. He got quite carried away, playing a YouTube version on the white-board and before too long the whole class was singing along. Altogether now... "I've got a bike, you can ride it if you like. It's got a basket, a bell that rings and things to make it look good. I'd give it to you if I could, but I borrowed it".
He's also got a large snake, whose name was not revealed. Apparently it eats hamsters. He may have been teasing, but Alyssa said he was serious. Sounds quite a character. Oh, and his name is Mr Mason.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


With PM, Ministers and delegation in Shanghai, and my colleagues there taking over, it was back to mission control for me. Trip seems to be going well, now two-thirds through. During a lunch for 600, the National Theatre's War Horse made a surprise appearance, led down the aisles in front of bemused guests. The NT have done a deal with the NT in Beijing to produce a Chinese version. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Return of VVIP

So, after four weeks of frantic preparation and three years after his last visit, PM David Cameron, several Ministers and a 125-strong business delegation touched down at 7am in Beijing at the start of an intense three-day China visit. 
In the build-up, the programme changed constantly, right up to the day before, which unfortunately meant that Hangzhou dropped by the wayside, but still includes Shanghai and Chengdu. 
And what was my role in all this? I led on Maria Miller, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport's programme, and I must say (not because I have to!), she was very nice.
This will all be in the news, so here are half-a-dozen in-the-margins asides:
  • For the last few weeks we could only use the term VVIP and could never mention dates which was quite difficult when trying to organize events. "Can't say who it's for or when exactly, but is it OK with you?"   
  • The PM really is followed around by a man with a red briefcase.
  • Cameron has a Chinese weibo blog: if you press google-translate it says: "Hi, I am a Prime Minister! Sign up microblogging powder me, I am ready to share the latest!"
  • The PM was driven to the Great Hall of the People in a Chinese-made Hongqi (meaning Red Flag) car which is traditionally used for conveying dignatories.
  • Nice to bump into some less famous friends and acquaintances, here with the delegation, including designer Michael Young who I last saw in a Tokyo bar ten years ago, which prompted us to celebrate with a bottle of Asahi.
  • We knocked over a Christmas Tree in the Grand Hyatt, narrowly missing (though she wasn't aware of it) Zaha Hadid. It was a small one. 
And then, off they went on a chartered Virgin Atlantic flight to Shanghai. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì

Liz sat her HSK level 3 Chinese exam today. Looks like all that hard work in class, pouring over textbooks and writing Chinese characters on the iPad paid off. She won't know for a month but it seemed to go OK. Very proud of her.
Me? I was in the office all day preparing for...