When we talked about travelling to China, friends from Aqua Jogging told us about their trip with Peregrine Adventures. We looked at the itinerary and decided it had the right mix of cities and countryside. When we rang to book we were in for a disappointment. The tour we had chosen had dropped the Yangshuo component. It was part of another tour but the two could not be combined. It was then we decided to do it on our own. Researching Trip Advisor we found that the Phoenix Pagoda Hotel at Fonglou near Yangshuo was popular because the owners were very helpful with tourist information, had bikes for the use of patrons and were situated in a quaint rural converted farmhouse. I still remember the excitement I felt speaking to Lily on the phone. I was actually talking to someone in China!
The flight to mainland China was only one hour and ten minutes from Hong Kong and was quite spectacular. As we came in to land we could see water everywhere. The curving Li River, the flooded rice paddies and the strange karst formations gave the area a distinctly other-worldly look. The sky was quite hazy as several small factories were belching smoke and small fires were common.
Our taxi driver was holding up a card saying John and Linda. He drove for about an hour along a freeway through the weird karst hills with small settlements built in the flat land between. Almost all the flat land was cultivated but we did see quite a few deserted multi-storey houses. Finally, we arrived at Phoenix Pagoda where we were welcomed by and Lily and Jerry and paid our 300 Yuan taxi fare (about $60).
Our room was at the top of the hotel, (a restored farmhouse) on the third floor. Outside was a small balcony overlooking the rural village of Fonglou and of course the karst hills. Most importantly there was a large soft bed in the middle of the room where we thankfully sank into oblivion after 42 hours without proper sleep. This was not before dinner on the rooftop terrace. Jerry brought us local beer, spicy chicken, garlic broccoli and stir-fried pumpkin. Simple but very tasty.
The hotel had won an award for best restored farmhouse. We certainly get our exercise running up the stone stairs. The bed was on a limestone foundation, the floor and sink were of the same material. Lights, chairs, tables etc were all of bamboo. The wardrobe was a gnarled tree trunk attached to the wall!
Our first day was warm and hazy. After breakfast (freshly squeezed orange juice, muesli and eggs) we checked out the bikes and headed off to Moon Hill. The peace of our small village was left behind as we reached the highway. Fortunately, there were clearly marked cycle lanes although motor scooters used them too. Inside the entrance to Moon Hill was an area to leave our bikes, although we padlocked them for safety.
The climb up the 800 steps was good training for what lay ahead in Yunnan and the Great Wall. At the top we gazed around the area at the rivers, towns and karsts and talked to Australians and Spanish tourists about their experiences.
There was a restaurant near the entrance to the Moon Hill Park. It was rapidly filling when we arrived, so we ordered drinks and pork with vegetables. As I drank my iced tea John said, “Do you realise there is ice in that?” This was my second slip up as I unthinkingly cleaned my teeth with the local water on the first day. I hoped those “Travel Bug” tablets would work! (they didn’t)
We enjoyed people-watching from our table. The manager, a small wiry woman with a 12-month old baby strapped to her back, was busy taking and giving orders, scrubbing down seats and tables, pouring hot water and refilling vacuum flasks. I have never seen such a human dynamo. She only stopped once for someone to retie her baby sling. The child woke up but seemed content to watch while her energetic mother raced around.
Terrifying Taxi Ride to Light Show
We arranged with Lily for a taxi to take us to the Impression Liu Sanjie Light Show. I thought it would be a good idea to go in early and eat at a vegetarian restaurant recommended by Jerry. We were warned the traffic would be horrific but did not realise our intrepid driver would charge full speed down the wrong side of the road. John and I kept saying, “she isn’t going there!” but she did. On one fearful occasion we were heading straight for a bus when our driver swung off the road, through a car park and back into the traffic again. She dropped us off at a hotel called The Green Lotus and agreed to pick us up at 6.40pm.
As we walked towards West Street in the rain we realised we weren’t going to have time to order, eat and be back in time so searched for somewhere to eat close by. We sat down, said we were in a hurry and ordered some dumplings. Twenty minutes later they had not arrived so we had to leave. Our taxi was not waiting at The Green Lotus but after a few minutes a man arrived with a mobile phone. Lily from Phoenix Pagoda was at the other end trying to explain that he was the taxi driver’s husband and he would take us to the Light Show. The traffic was too bad for her to get to us. We walked in the rain for about 2 kilometres until we reached the theatre. Here we parted from our “friend” who for some reason sounded very angry when he talked on the phone to Lily.
We then had to follow a man holding a sign which read “100”. He gave us tickets and waved us on. Just at the entrance a stall was selling snacks. As we hadn’t eaten we bought nuts and a Sprite. The woman suggested popcorn so John said “yes”. Five stressful minutes later it was still popping in the microwave. Thousands of people swept past and the music began. It was now dark and we had no idea where to sit. Fortunately, all the seats were allocated and women with torches found us our seats.
The Impressions Light Show is directed by moviemaker Zhang Yimou, the man who also directed the opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and several acclaimed films such as Hero. Six hundred performers, including local fishermen, take to the Li River each night with 12 illuminated surrounding karst peaks serving as a backdrop.
It was very impressive, like an Olympic Games opening ceremony on water with the precision only the Chinese are capable of. We had good seats in B section and marvelled at how so many people could be organised every night (twice tonight as there were two performances) in boats, on land and on water.
Getting out was not so bad. Towards the end of the performance people started standing up and moving towards the entrance. John wanted to get out before the crowd so I reluctantly followed. Our driver was waiting at the designated spot and again we walked about a kilometre to the taxi. The traffic wasn’t as bad this end of town and we were soon home.
Terrifying Tuk-Tuk Ride
The hotel was full of families and children were running up and down the stone stairs, singing and talking loudly. Who would have guessed that we had arrived in Tomb-Sweeping weekend where people from all over the country return to the town their ancestors are buried.
During Qingming, Chinese families visit the tombs of their ancestors to clean the gravesites and make ritual offerings to their ancestors. Offerings would typically include traditional food dishes and the burning of joss sticks and joss paper. The holiday recognizes the traditional reverence of one’s ancestors in Chinese culture. Wikipedia
We ate in that night, but not on the rooftop terrace because of the rain. We pre-ordered our dinner so that when we arrived at 6.30 it was served immediately. The specialty of the area was its beer battered fresh-water fish but ours was baked with some sort of sauce on it. It was not the best fish I had eaten but Jerry was so enthusiastic about it I felt like Mr Bean and wanted to hide some in my bag or the sugar bowl just to please him. The vegetable dishes were great – grilled capsicum and eggplant with bits of pork. We drank the local beer which is quite yeasty and not bitter.
In the morning we decided to go into Yangshuo by taxi. We were told the traffic was still chaotic but went anyway. The driver dropped us near West St and we enjoyed looking in the shops and the market.
We found an interesting lunch venue. On offer, along with frogs and snails was “beef with four bacteria”. I definitely gave that one a miss. My mushrooms and lamb love hearts had me wondering but I ate it anyway. What part of a lamb is its love heart?
After lunch we were walking through a market when suddenly all the stalls were lifted off the ground and people began running in all directions. Some men in uniform swaggered past. They were not police as we thought but some sort of equivalent to traffic wardens. They certainly frightened the locals.
Getting a taxi home was harder than we imagined. We were offered a beaten up old tuk-tuk and warily accepted, showing the driver our hotel card. We then had a ride even more terrifying than last night’s taxi ride. It was almost gridlocked traffic from town to the turnoff to Fonglou but our driver not only drove along the wrong side of the road to the annoyance of oncoming buses but he careered down the bike lane forcing cyclists and walkers out of the way. A few times I thought we would land in the ditch beside the road.
Of course there were no seatbelts and the only airbags were the two of us! We cheered as we pulled up outside our hotel and paid our hefty fee of 60 yuan ($12).
River Rafting Trip on Yulang River
We had another misty day. I would have liked to see the karsts against a blue sky but at least it was not raining. Lily arranged our river rafting trip on the Yulang River. We were picked up by taxi and driven to a place upriver called Yima where the rafting began. Our raft was made from bamboo and had a double seat tied on it with two flimsy life jackets attached. I stepped on board first and thought it was going to sink when John climbed on too. Our cheerful boatman with a long bamboo pole steered us downstream. We went over a number of weirs where we had to put our feet up to avoid being drenched.
All the time the tall karst rocks towered around us on each side with many strange formations. At the entrance we were offered a flowered headband, plastic bags for the feet and a water pistol. We declined all three but saw other people putting them all to good use.
It was about half an hour’s walk back to the hotel from the bridge along the edge of the same road we had driven in the tuk-tuk. The traffic was not nearly as bad today. Beside the road was a Banyan Tree which was in a large park filled with Chinese tourists. Many of them had dressed up in traditional costumes and were parading around and posing for photographs.
John sat on a buffalo for a photograph but turned down the offer to pose with brightly dressed monkeys. They were trained to sit holding little batons over their shoulders and if someone tried to take a photo without paying they were ordered to turn their backs. I felt so sorry for them.
Birthday Cake Before Dinner
We ate lunch on the rooftop terrace of the hotel followed by another bike ride where we managed to avoid the rain. Jerry announced tonight’s dinner was on the house as it was for our birthdays. We ordered beer and peanuts, to be followed by pizza and finally fresh fruit and icecream. We were the only people dining in tonight but hardly had we started on the peanuts when the pizza arrived. We were really enjoying the pizza when in trooped Jerry, Lily, the cook and the security guard with a birthday cake. They stood around the table and sang happy birthday. Then they sat down with us and started eating the cake, presenting us with ours first. I wasn’t sure whether to eat the pizza or the cake but shortly they left to go and have their own meal. We happily returned to the pizza.
That was our last day in Yangshuo. We were flying to Kunming the following day to join our Peregrine Adventures tour group. We were so glad we hadn’t missed out on this picturesque part of China and especially the genuine concern and care from our hosts, Lily and Jerry.
We can’t talk about Xi’an without mentioning the Terracotta Warriors. It was Anzac Day 2014 but there was no celebration of it in Xi’an. We were shivering in eight degrees Celsius and looking glumly at the rain falling.Wearing our warmest clothes we were not too worried because we knew the warriors were under cover. What we didn’t know is that there were three pits to visit plus the museum so there was a fair bit of outdoor walking to do. The first pit was the largest and we were keen to get a good view of the infantrymen in their rows. So were hundreds of others so it was the quick and the dead to get a space beside the railing.
It was interesting to see the site of the well where three men were digging when they found the first warrior. It was decided to leave that warrior in a broken condition because that is how he was found.
It was here we were conned well and truly. We thought we were looking at the man who found the first pottery fragments in March 1974. He was there, signing books so I was inspired to buy one. I found out later he was a bit like Santa Claus, filling in for the original.
The Terracotta Army is 2,200 years old and is 1.5 kilometres from Emperor Qin’s mausoleum. The emperor was worried about dying and was searching for the secret to immortality. Just in case he didn’t find it he prepared for the afterlife on a massive scale and all his concubines, wives and workmen went with him when he died at the age of 49. It is thought he was taking Mercury to prolong his life but alas it had the opposite effect.
Pit 3 is the smallest pit, known as the command centre and was discovered in 1976. We then moved on to pit 2 where there were some close-up views of various soldiers and officers. We headed across to the museum where I especially liked the bronze chariots pulled by four horses, the second of which looked like a 2000-year-old caravan.
Xing Xing offered us a warm meal in a farmhouse or a Subway. John and I opted for the hot meal which was home cooked style and very tasty and fresh. Mr Yung lived on a farm which became part of the Warriors Museum Complex, so his old house was knocked down and he was given a new one. Fortunately, it wasn’t in an apartment block. He now finds cooking meals more lucrative than farming.
At 5.15pm we met for a walk to the bell tower, the drum tower and the Muslim Quarter. The last of these was fascinating with a huge variety of food being cooked on the footpaths outside the shops. We tried a date filled persimmon cake. Delicious!
That evening we hopped on a local bus to take us the two stops to the Shaanxi Grand Opera House. Because we had quite a filling lunch John and I opted to share the 16 courses of dumplings on offer before the show. They were delicious and accompanied by rice wine, beer and tea. The only problem was Ian in our group caught his finger on a chair and sliced the top off it. His wife had her first aid kit but he was in pain and will have to watch out for infection. You just don’t need that to happen on a holiday.
Xing Xing had only been able to get us C grade seats but they were fine. The show was entertaining although obviously geared to the tourist market. There was a mixture of orchestra and dancing supposedly from the Tang Dynasty but there were a few modern instruments thrown in, probably for the better as many Chinese instruments are strident and hard on western ears. The percussion was great but the dance of the masked warriors designed to expel epidemics and ghosts was my favourite.
We hoped to have a good sleep that night as the next night we would spend twelve hours on a sleeper train with two other (as yet unknown) people on the way to Beijing.
One of the things we really wanted to do before we left was ride around the City Wall of Xi’an on bikes. The wall is twelve metres tall, twelve to fourteen metres wide at the top and fifteen to eighteen metres thick at the bottom. It covers 13.7 kilometres in length with a deep moat surrounding it.
We had brought our helmets with us, packed with underwear. The bikes had no gears but good shock absorbers for the bumpy paving. We were having a great time when without warning John crossed in front of me and I hit his back wheel. Next minute I was sprawled across the pavement but fortunately had only minor injuries. We are still debating whose fault it was. The same thing happened to another couple so it was easy to do.
The afternoon was spent walking around Xi’an and getting lost. We finally bought a map and found we had been looking in entirely the wrong area for the Muslim Quarter.
Just before six we stocked up on noodle boxes, red wine (French), bananas, longans, chips and peanut bars before heading off to the train station in a local bus, complete with luggage. At 7.30pm we boarded our train and found we were bunking with Helen and Ian from Sydney. We were rather perplexed as to how we could fit four adults and four big suitcases in such a little space. In the end we had to put two bags under the bottom bunks and some things at the end of the beds.
I was in a top bunk and was quite comfortable. It felt a bit like a school camp with everyone visiting everyone else to see what their cabin was like, card games happening and lots of laughter. We added hot water to our noodles from the supplied kettles and enjoyed the wine and snacks. Wearing our slippers we visited one of three sinks to clean our teeth. The toilet was western style to everyone’s relief.
The Travel China Guide says this about soft sleepers.
Soft Sleeper, as the name suggests, is softer than hard sleeper. But more importantly, the compartment is more spacious with only four berths inside, two upper and two lower; the berth is wider and longer, about 30 inches (75cm) and 75 inches (190cm) respectively; the compartment has a door, which separates it from the aisle and provides a quiet and private room for the passengers inside.
Soft sleeper ticket price is about 1.5 times of that of hard sleeper, and a lower berth costs more than an upper berth.
The group had varied opinions on the soft sleeper ride. Some didn’t sleep a wink while others found the rocking of the train lulled them to sleep. The train rattled a lot and felt like it had a flat tyre but it was certainly preferable to the eleven hours in the air it took us to fly to China. A loud musical wakeup call started at 6.30am and at 7 o’clock we pulled into Beijing Station.
What!!!! This could not be Beijing. The sun was shining, the sky was blue with only a slight haze above the horizon. Where was the choking pollution? We were truly fortunate to see Beijing at its best.
As you may recall, if you have read the beginning of this A to Z, the plan upon retiring was to regain fitness and good health. That included weight loss so when a friend recommended Weight Watchers I found a local group and turned up to my first meeting.
The group leader was very informative and gave me lots of booklets to get me started. In those days we paid in cash for each visit. There was a little book for recording weight each week and suggestions for meal plans plus another book with the points value of most foods you might eat. For an extra cost there were books to help with eating out, eating fast food and a more extensive food list. I was given the total number of points I could eat in one day and off I went.
At first it seemed impossible to record everything faithfully but I was nothing if not determined and each week I was pleased to see the figures going down. I know family and friends thought I was being fanatical as I refused to deviate from my eating plan even when visiting or eating out. Reaching my goal weight I was able to relax a little but the conditioning had worked. Akin to being under hypnosis, I now avoided anything fried or creamy or in any way weight inducing.
I had been going to Weight Watchers about a year when our group leader asked if I was interested in training to be a Weight Watchers leader. I agreed, thinking that having been a teacher, it would not be all that different. It involved several weekends of study with a senior leader going through the subject matter, discussing and role playing possible scenarios, looking at the history of the organisation and understanding the scientific theory behind the eating plans. I would be supported with factual notes each week, suggestions to make group meetings interesting and a room full of products to sell.
I had my phone interview for WW at 11.00am and was told at any time I could pull out. I kept thinking “do I want to lose my freedom?” Then I thought “I need a new challenge” so I went ahead with the interview. The material is arriving shortly and I will go into training thereafter.
Before my first meeting I accompanied other leaders to their meetings and usually took over part of the proceedings. The first half hour was spent weighing each person and recording their statistics on their cards and in their booklet.
With great relief I can now say I have completed a session of weighing. I was very pleased that a person called L was there to show me what to do. I am going back tomorrow. I probably won’t have any help and there will be a lot more people there so hopefully I can put into practice what I learnt today.
Sometimes people bought cooking books or boxes of snacks and this was usually paid for in cash or with a credit card using a cumbersome imprinter machine which pressed the raised card number onto a multi-copy, carbon slip. How I hated doing that. Teaching had not prepared me for retail.
I did two credit card transactions and most importantly remembered to write on the back of all the stickers to double check who paid what. Putting everything away took ages but at about 1.00pm we finally got outside.
I wondered if I would still be able to go away on holidays and had my mind put at rest.
I spoke to A afterwards about some aspects of the job and it seems that it is possible to take some time off for a holiday for as long as you like as other leaders are happy to take your meetings and earn a bit of extra money.
My first meeting was fortunately with the assistance of my trainer B. Even so I slept fitfully the night before, waking up at one stage dreaming I had left my palm cards at home.
I headed out to D at 9.15am and started unloading the car, talked to the woman at the desk who gave a quick rundown on safety and where to go for evacuation. As a result we had to leave all the doorways out of the room clear of furniture. B arrived soon afterwards and finally came M, the recorder. It was a frantic rush, even with three of us. I managed to break the storage cupboard lock trying to find a Weight Watcher’s Unlimited form (which I didn’t find). There were three new members, all over 100kg. Two of them said their main aim is to get to double figures. Everything went well except I took the money to the bank without the deposit slip. They wrote their own so that problem was solved.
I spent the afternoon checking the WW paperwork and ringing B for advice. I made the “Waterfall” phonecall which was recorded at the other end and consisted of financial and numerical details of the meeting.
Preparing motivational meetings was something that I enjoyed . One suggestion was to show the group a 5 kilogram piece of fat to indicate how much weight they had lost when they reached that milestone. Off I went to the butcher with my unusual request. It was difficult keeping it in pristine condition despite an esky and ice so by the end of the week the last group missed out.
I learnt a lot as I was preparing my presentations.
I spent the afternoon preparing for WW tomorrow. The topic is plateaus. I have a couple of aids I made on the computer. One is a definition of metabolism – the fire within, written on top of a raging fire. The other is a description of the weight loss cycle and how body first loses lycopone when less food is eaten, and this contains water so a lot of water is lost at first. The lycopone loss is replaced by fat loss and fat has less water in it than lycopone so the weight loss slows down. OK – then we have to look at ways to get the weight loss started again.
Oils aint oils! That was what today’s meeting was about so I took a box of different oils to the meeting. We started with a quiz and then went on to discuss how to eliminate trans fats from our diet in groups. At that stage 3 people got up and left – always a bit off-putting but we had 28 people through and sold over $200 worth of products. We couldn’t get the sales to add up correctly so I had to check all my stock at home to get it right.
Another time we had fun estimating how much wine equals 100 ml and 150 ml. People were amazed at how little wine made up one standard drink.
After each meeting the money had to be banked. It consisted mainly of cash and a few credit card slips.
I left half an hour early for WW and walked up the street to the bank carrying the money. The bank had gone and was now a variety store so I asked at the Commonwealth and they said it was in the Stockland Centre but I only had 3 minutes until closing. I streaked down to Stockland but they were just closing the door when I got there and would not accept my money even though I just wanted to put it down the chute.
Sometimes we just couldn’t accommodate all the different types of cards on our primitive machine.
The only problem was a woman who wanted to pay with a Cirrus card but we told the woman we couldn’t accept it, only Visa and Amex. She volunteered to go to an ATM but decided against buying the Choc Crisps, maybe because she was letting us know she wasn’t happy.
The dreaded supervisor would come to inspect a meeting to make sure everything was running smoothly.
I went to the WW meeting with a little bit of trepidation as T was coming to supervise. I sent a text to M but she didn’t open it so she didn’t know until she got there. Her daughter was with her which added to her stress levels although the child was very helpful and well behaved. Everything went well and T gave some useful advice which I tried to apply to the evening meeting. At night I accidentally went overtime by ten minutes. Finally someone said they had to go home. I worried about a mother and daughter who didn’t look very motivated but I did have a lot of new enrolments (7) which kept us very busy.
All the time the pressure was on to keep the sales of WW products high and the numbers of new enrolments increasing. Keeping track of sales and new memberships was tricky.
I was looking forward to WW today with all the new products. There were 4 new people and $256 worth of sales. After the meeting S had a problem with balancing the books so we spent about 3/4 hours working it out. Then we had to look at the problem of last week having too much. We finally found someone who joined WWU (Weight Watchers Unlimited) but it hadn’t been recorded. I rang the woman and she is bringing in the orange tear off slip next week. I will send the money in then.
Sometimes there was some positive reinforcement which made it all worthwhile.
Today is Australia Day. We had a few flags up at Weight Watchers. 27 people passed through, although only 12 stayed for the meeting. One woman said she was inspired by last week’s meeting and lost 2kg. She had moved from another meeting but found our’s much more to her liking. Another was excited about going swimming for the first time in years after our talk about exercise last week.
The two meetings went well except I got to D and found I had left the booklets at home. I rang John who brought them out and he didn’t even grumble. The group enjoyed “Dem Bones” as an introduction. In the evening a new member was so pleased about the meeting she couldn’t stop saying “Thank you.”
The weather didn’t always co-operate but people still turned up regardless.
What a day!!! M rang in the morning to say she was flooded in and couldn’t make it to the meeting. I assumed very few others would as well but 17 turned up!!! Fortunately I arrived early to deliver stock and had the room just about set up when people arrived. However, I was faced with people buying huge quantities of food, credit card transactions, people buying ten week packages, new members. A woman offered to do the weighing but I forgot to give her the cards to write down the weights and she put the other cards away so I had to guess the weight loss. To make matters worse I had new members and had to be out of the room by 12.00. Why does it all happen at once? I had to literally throw everything on the trolley and sort it out in the storeroom. I spent most of the afternoon doing the paperwork and was $9 out which wasn’t too bad. Probably it was stock sold which I hadn’t recorded or maybe magazines.
Sometimes people got tired of waiting and were very vocal about it.
A woman complained about waiting, saying she had a houseful of guests at home. I asked the woman in the front of the line if she minded letting her in but she had a houseful of guests too. The penny dropped that she wanted two to work on the weighing so I did a few but had to go and start the meeting.
Numbers fluctuated from too many to not enough.
The C meeting had only one person stay which was a bit embarrassing for both of us. I showed her some of the exercise video to use up the last ten minutes as she seemed determined to stay the full hour. She wanted to avoid the grandchild at home!
Although most people were lovely a very few were critical.
One had joined up online to WWU so I sent her to M who weighed her and sent her back to me to fill in the paperwork. I was a bit confused about recent changes in membership rules. She was quite arrogant, saying that I didn’t inspire confidence. For some reason that rankled and I have not been able to get it out of my mind.
There were some interesting personalities at some of my meetings.
This morning there were no new people at WW but a woman from C’s class came. I had been warned about her – she has some issues, and is very talkative. It was difficult to keep her quiet in the meeting and then she eagerly asked questions afterwards.
Weight Watchers went well. There were 24 people with one new member. My lady with the issues almost became teary but I managed to cheer her up before the floodgates burst. She stayed around after the meeting, even looking in the windows as we were packing up.
Sometimes I had to fill in for someone who was away. This could be quite daunting in an unfamiliar environment.
I arrived at the Salvation Army hall about 20 minutes early. I hung around until 5.15 when finally someone turned up. This was not the person with the keys but they managed to let me in. We were however all set up by 6.00 and were then busy recording and weighing. I weighed people too and was so busy I didn’t realise there was a new person waiting to join. The recorder said she told me but I didn’t hear her. It was noisy in there. The meeting went OK although I could do it better tomorrow. One woman queried me on using exercise points for extra food as she said that was not what their usual leader said. I’m not sure now how well I answered that but I should have said if that’s the way her leader wants it, its fine by me.
My husband received some bad news. He was diagnosed with a serious condition requiring surgery. Immediately everything else became unimportant. I felt I couldn’t continue with WW which was consuming a lot of my time.
I talked to J from WW and told her I was thinking of resigning. She supported me and my last meeting will be 15th November, four day before John goes into hospital. I sent my resignation letter to T so it is done.
Although I found being a WW Leader was stressful, time consuming and underpaid, I still enjoyed it. For the first time I was teaching adults, not children. They were there of their own free will and left if they wanted to. I especially enjoyed the meetings at AP. The people there were so responsive. I devised a competition where people wrote their names on a nametag to be drawn out of a hat at the end of four weeks (my last day). I planned to give out a cookbook or something similar.
Saturday, 15th November, 2008
The last WW meeting is over. Before I left home I made up three presents, two for S and K with the Maggie Beer sauce in a Xmas bag. I also wrote a note of appreciation to both of them. The gift for the meeting was four little cook books in a white carry bag. The meeting went well with everyone talking happily. I told my news at the end and was surprised at how emotional they were. P, who never speaks, nominated J to get up and make a speech of appreciation which she did very well. She has no inhibitions so she waxed lyrical about how much I had inspired the group. I must admit there were tears in my eyes which I did not expect. I left the keys with K, dropped S off at her home but felt sad rather than liberated as I drove home.
This morning after aqua jogging and breakfast John helped me carry all the stock down to the Prado to return it. I hope that is the last of it and I never have to balance another product sheet. On the way home I posted the last WW letter with great ceremony at FM Post Office and banked the money in Wollongong.
It was a great relief to be able to concentrate on one thing only, helping my husband recover after his operation. That was fifteen years ago and he has had no recurrence of his condition. Apart from some voluntary work here and there I have not been in the workforce since.
As for Weight Watchers (now WW) I used to go to meetings now and again just to keep on track. Of course face to face meetings stopped during Covid so I joined online to access recipes and to track my points and weight. I find this is not as effective as the group meetings as I lack the motivation that I had in those early years. I love food but its quality and usefulness as fuel for my body is always at the back of my mind, thanks to my conditioning at WW.
Of all the places I have visited the Cinque Terre stands out for its multiple attractions. Five villages, all exquisitely beautiful and yet different. Three ways of seeing the villages without a car: walking, catching a train, catching a ferry. Plenty of places to eat delicious locally produced food. In May, 2011 it wasn’t too crowded. This was before massive floods in October of that year washed away many houses in Vernazza. Three residents were killed and the town was buried under four metres of mud and debris. There was over one hundred million euro worth of damage. Below are extracts from the diary I kept on the five days we spent in this beautiful area.
We are in the train to Torino following the coast up as far as La Spezia. It is 1.15pm and we were one and a half hours late leaving Roma as the train didn’t arrive on time. There are people in all the seats so its rather squeezy. We also have a rabbit in the compartment and a dog in the corridor. The scenery is interesting with coastal views and productive farmland. One of our stops was Civitavecchia where we will travel in a week’s time to board the ship. The train gets close to the water’s edge in some places and then veers inland again.
I’m going to read my information on things to do in Cinque Terre. We still have about one and a half hours to go and of course no internet. John has reported that the toilet is blocked so I plan to hang on until I get to the destination.
We arrived eventually after some confusion at La Spezia. There was no sign to say where to catch the train and people were wandering around looking confused. Eventually we were on what we hoped was the right train and after waiting for a while it eventually moved. The eight-minute trip, mainly through tunnels, stopped at Riomaggiore to let us off. We walked up a steep hill for 300 metres and rang the doorbell but no-one appeared. A passing woman stopped to help and rang someone on her mobile. Then Emiliano turned up with two other guests who must have arrived when we did. He showed us to our room which is small but pleasantly airy with blue and white curtains and white walls. The bathroom is new looking and clean although it had one of those annoying semicircular showers where the door is hard to shut. There is a brand-new TV which should keep John happy. The balcony looks across at the village and the grape vine covered hillside but at one end it gets larger and you can see the sea.
We had had lunch on the train but decided to buy some food and wine for happy hour. Emiliano suggested we walk along the Via dell’Amore to Manarola and have dinner at one of three restaurants he recommended. After a shower and a drink on the balcony we walked along the Via dell’Amore, translated to “The Way of Love.” which follows the edge of the ocean, through tunnels, finally emerging at Manarola.
Then it was a steep climb up a series of steps and roads to Billy’s, a restaurant recommended by both Emiliano and Trip Adviser. We had to wait twenty minutes to get a table but they gave us some Prosecco to keep us going and we sat on the steps looking out to sea. Our table was beside the kitchen on the outside, with a view of the setting sun over the ocean. The food was good. I had mussels in garlic and tomato followed by a grilled fish and John had butterflied raw anchovies soaked in lemon juice followed by stuffed mussels. We shared two half bottles of white and red and were given complimentary glasses of lemoncino and a purplish liqueur that tasted like cough medicine. It must have had some kick because I walked home, fell into bed and was asleep within minutes.
Tuesday, May 31, 2011
I felt below par today. I don’t know if it was jet lag, the limoncino or what but I felt decidedly queasy as we walked to the harbour this morning. We had a latte and John had a croissant but, in the end, decided to have an easy day and do the boat trip tomorrow.
We bought some tasty food to keep us going and had lunch on our balcony overlooking the town and the sea. We had fresh bread, delicious tomatoes, olives, cheese, salad mix and the remains of some Balsamic vinegar and olive oil. No wine but healthy juice with orange, carrot and apple. I wrote six postcards. The PO was closed when we walked past so will have to try and post them tomorrow.
We booked dinner at La Laterna for 8 but decided to have the first course at home on the balcony. Ricotta cheese, olives, tomatoes, bread dipped in olive oil and balsamic vinegar and the local dry white wine. What a way to start the evening! At La Laterna we had a main each and a glass of house red. I had spaghetti with seafood in foil and John had a fried fritto misto. We shared a tiramasu.
Wednesday, June 1, 2011
First day of winter at home and here didn’t look much better. It was cloudy and windy and rained through the night. We wondered if the ferries would still be running. I felt much better than yesterday and think I am finally recovering from jet lag. We had breakfast in the room before heading off down to the jetty. At nine o’clock the ticket office was still shut but it opened just before the ferry arrived. I bought two E20 all day tickets even though the ticket seller gloomily forecast the ferries might not run because of the swell. We saw what she meant as the ferry came in. The landing spot was just a piece of rock and people had to run along a gangplank over the bow that swung around in the waves.
The boat set off in the swell and we filmed and photographed the scenic villages under a cloudy sky. First we passed Manarola, the most spectacular from the sea I think.
The next town is Corniglia which has no jetty and is perched on a hilltop.
Vernazza was next but our ferry went straight to Monterosso al Mare. Here we were able to get off fairly easily as it was a large jetty. The town seems much bigger than Riomaggiore and has an interesting medieval centre. We stopped for capucchino and cake in a bar which was very busy. We were astonished at pictures on the wall of the bar of huge waves roaring up Monterosso’s main street.
As we passed a Post Office I thought I would go in and buy some stamps for the post cards. The man behind the counter waved me away and said “Go to the shop at the back” or so I thought. I went outside and looked around but could see no shop at the back. I went in and this time he said, “Go to the tobacco shop”. We walked down the road and into the tobacco shop but they said they don’t sell stamps anymore and to go to the Post Office. One more try at the PO and I were sent angrily away, I suppose because there was a huge queue waiting and only one man serving. I don’t know when I’ll be able to send those post cards.
At 11.30 we caught a ferry to Vernazza. It was smaller than Riomaggiore and seemed more touristy if that is possible. We only had 40 minutes there but wandered around the streets. It has a stream running through the middle of the town. Small bridges cross the river from the road to the houses. There were lots of people waiting for the train. Maybe they were tired after doing the first 90 minute walk from Monterosso.
The next ferry at 12.20pm was supposed to stop at Manarola but they must have decided it was too rough and kept on going. It did stop at Riomaggiore but we stayed on because we were going to Portovenere. We kept saying we could see a patch of blue or the sky was getting lighter and I think that was actually the case. There were a few clusters of houses on impossibly steep hillsides but from Riomaggiore to Portovenere was mainly unpopulated. As we approached Portovenere we saw a pointed rock with a cross on it, a massive castle on the left hand side of the entrance to the harbour and a church on top of a rock, also at the entrance. Once inside the heads it was calm and peaceful so getting ashore was no chore this time. We walked off the ship on the side, not over the bow.
Portovenere was such a pretty town with its castle and row of pastel houses along the waterfront. We spotted Tri Torri right away at the back of a square near the marina. John was hungry so we headed there first. The ferry captain told us the 3.00pm ferry would be the last one as the last two were cancelled. The restaurant was lovely. It was all beige and white with a view of the water and the castle. We both ordered a E25 main course of mixed grilled seafood plus a salad and two small carafes of house white and red plus a bottle of water. The food was delicious. We had scampi, prawns (huge), calamari (tender, grilled on charcoal) and fish. The waiter cleaned up the fish for us, removing bones and fins and opening it up to make it easier to eat.
We had time to buy a gelato each and eat it before our ferry came in. The trip home was rough but the sun had come out and everything looked bright and clean. I filmed the arrival of our boat at the landing spot in Riomaggiore and people getting off and on. It was quite scary at times as the boat swung around.
We bought some food for dinner, bread, tomatoes, cheese, salad, onion, prosciutto and a cake. John made coffee when we got back to our room and now we are resting on the bed with the windows open, the cool breeze blowing in and the sound of birds and children’s voices coming from outside.
Thursday, June 2, 2011
We have completed all we could do of the Cinque Terre walks as the track from Corniglia to Manarola is closed. When we arrived at the station this morning we saw that we had a 40 minute wait for a train so we purchased our train/walk pass and started the walk to Manarola. Once there we had cappucchinos and waited for the train. Funnily enough the train we would have caught at Riomaggiore went straight past but there was another one soon after. Today is a public holiday so there were plenty of people out and about. We took the train all the way to Monterosso al Mare and felt as if we were in a different town to yesterday. The sun was shining, the umbrellas were up and people sunbaked or swam in the sea. What confused us most was where the train station is situated is in a part of town we hadn’t seen yesterday when we got off the boat. It was very impressive and had a lovely resort feel about it. I was tempted to pay for a little change room and sunbed on the beach with its own umbrella. The umbrellas all looked brand new for the new season.
After buying a gelato we started the walk. It was only three kilometers but took an hour and a half. There were a lot of steep steps going up out of the town and the sun was shining hotly. We were very pleased to reach Vernazza and sat down in a pleasant little café called Trattoria del Sandro. I had vegetable pie, a local specialty while John had octopus and potato salad. He said it was very tender. We had a can of lemon squash and a salad. It came to E35.50 so John says no eating out tonight.
We were amazed at the throngs of people flowing through the village, from trains, ferries and walking tracks.
We headed off again on the Vernazza to Corniglia track. This was supposed to be longer at 4 kilometres but the time was the same – one and a half hours. It started to rain at one stage but was a welcome relief from the heat. We sheltered under a tree until the big drops stopped. Corniglia had cars, motorbikes and buses parked in a square when we arrived. The square led to a narrow street where we bought a lemon gelato with honey drizzled over it. The narrow street wound its way to another square where a number of cafes had large umbrellas covering most of the area. At the back was an ancient church with a paved area beside it where children played a noisy soccer game. The road continued to a look out over the sea where telescopes could be used to view the other villages in the distance. This wasn’t the way to the train station so we walked back all the way to the square with cars and bikes and continued to a set of 378 steps which wound all the way down to the train station. We were glad we were going downhill and that this was almost the end of the journey. We had a 20 minute wait for our train, eating our rather squashed nectarine, our juice and a mandarin. We chatted to two Americans from New Jersey until the train arrived. Back at Riomaggiore we walked up our 300 metre hill and decided it wasn’t so bad. We have both had showers and are resting our extremely weary bones. Our clothes were saturated with sweat so we washed them and hung them out. A heavy downpour of rain has just wet them all again but no matter as they weren’t dry anyway.
I will have to take this laptop down to the main street to send my emails when we go to get some dinner. I think we’ll take the long road past the church as the steep way (down the steps) would be too slippery.
Later: I couldn’t get the internet to work tonight so will have to send it in Roma. Tonight we ate at Le Grotto. Our main course was spaghetti with fresh anchovies and herbs (delicious). For dessert we had strawberries, something like homemade icecream and cranberry sauce (with a bit of chocolate). A bottle of red and some sparkling aqua and the bill E50 with tip. On the way back we passed a brass band warming up outside a church (or was it an oratory?) We didn’t stop to hear them play but as we lay in bed later we could faintly hear it. People talked loudly until late in the night and as our room was right beside the footpath it felt like they were in the room with us.
Friday, June 3, 2010
We are on the train to Roma so this is a good time to write. I have just started a spreadsheet of expenditure so I can keep track of the cost of this holiday.
We were awake early and by the time the 7.00am bell started pealing we had packed and eaten our remaining yoghurt and fruit for breakfast. We said goodbye to La Baia del Rio, leaving the key on the table. After checking our train times and remembering this time to date stamp our tickets from the yellow machine we had coffee at the little shop near the station. The train left Riomaggiore at 8.37am which would get us to La Spezia early but we intended to buy some lunch for the journey. All went according to plan and we arrived at La Spezia with our next train departing at 10.06 am. This gave us time to walk down to the main square, check out a market and buy some rolls with ham and salad. We also bought some little cakes for dessert. Back to Platform 3 and we had a 20 minute wait for the train. We are now stationary at Pisa Station but can’t see any Leaning Tower from here. I’d be frustrated if I hadn’t seen it before.
Later: We arrived in Roma and carried our backpacks to the Welrome Hotel where we were taken to our new room by Mary. It is called Colosseo and is larger than the Trevi and has a small balcony at the back on which we hung some clothes to dry.
When we booked our trip to Sabah, I knew that there had been a Prisoner of War camp in Sandakan and had heard of the Death Marches but knew very little more. What we learnt on our visit about the enormity of the crimes committed by human beings on fellow humans was hard to comprehend.
Since then my husband has read The Story of Billy Young by Anthony Hill and Sandakan: A Conspiracy of Silence by Lynette Ramsay Silver. I have not attempted either as the thought of revisiting that period of history is just too confronting.
However today is ANZAC Day when we remember those who didn’t make it back home so I thought it was a good opportunity to bite the bullet and try to answer a few questions. Why were the guards so brutal? Were there any survivors? How did so many die? I’m not attempting to read Silver’s outstanding book in one day so am using the ANZAC Portal from the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, specifically Sandakan 1942-45 as my main source.
In 1945 Borneo was still occupied by the Japanese, and at the end of the Pacific war in August, Australian units arrived in the Sandakan area to accept the surrender of the Japanese garrison. Just 16 kilometres out of Sandakan, in a north-westerly direction, was the Sandakan POW Camp. Here, between 1942 and 1945, the Japanese had at different times held over 2700 Australian and British prisoners. The POWs were brought from Singapore to Borneo to construct a military airfield close to the camp. By 15 August 1945, however, there were no POWs left at Sandakan Camp.
So what had happened to 2700 men? For the next two years, between 1945 and 1947 the area from Sandakan to Ranau, 260 kilometres to the west, was searched, and the remains of 2163 Australian and British POWs were uncovered. Hundreds of bodies were found at the burnt-out ruins of the POW camp.
Research has indicated that some 2428 Allied servicemen—1787 Australians and 641 British—held in the Sandakan Camp in January 1945 died between January and August 1945 in Japanese captivity.
They were so close to being freed as the war was nearly over. How is it that so few (only six) made it home?
Until April 1943 the soldiers were worked hard but had enough to eat and kept their spirits up with concerts. Then the new guards arrived, from Formosa, under Japanese leadership. They were considered the lowest of the low by the Japanese, not even good enough to fight, so brutalised and resentful, they took out their anger on the prisoners. In July an intelligence ring run by some officers with local people was discovered, resulted in severe punishments. There must have been some hope when in September 1944 Allied planes began bombing Sandakan and the airfield. This was seen by the captors as a reason to reduce rations as the prisoners were no longer needed to work on the bombed-out airfield. The plan was made to move the prisoners to Ranau in the mountains where they could be used as supply carriers. The first group of 455 Australians and British set off with only four day’s rations, no boots, in rain, suffering from malnutrition and numerous other illnesses. If they fell they were dragged into the bushes and bayoneted or shot. By June, five months later, there were six left.
Back at the camp in Sandakan, things were no better.
Hundreds of Australian and British POWs between January and August 1945 expired at Sandakan camp from ill-treatment in a situation where their captors possessed locally enough medical and food supplies to adequately care for them.
At the end of May another 530 prisoners were moved out with about 270 left behind, too incapacitated to move. Twenty-six days later 183 men reached Renau; it had indeed been a Death March. Of those left at the camp they all either died of illness or starvation or were killed by the guards.
Reading about the conditions under which these men lived and the hard work they were expected to do until they dropped is gut wrenching so I will move on to one bright note. Six men survived. Yes, out of 2,700 men Six survived. This is their story.
Gunner Owen Campbell, 2/10th Field Regiment
On the second Death March, Campbell and four others decided to use the first opportunity to escape. Out of sight of guards during an air attack, they slid down a 61-metre bank, hid in some bracken and rubbish, and lay quietly until the column had moved on. For four days they fought their way, sometimes on hands and knees, through the jungle in what they assumed was the general direction of the coast. The four other men all lost their lives but Campbell eventually spied a canoe. The canoeists, Lap and Galunting, took him to Kampong Muanad where Kulang, a local anti-Japanese guerrilla leader, was headman. The local people hid and cared for the sick man. Eventually, Kulang took Campbell down river to where an Australian SRD (Service Reconnaissance Department) unit was camped.
Bombardier Richard ‘Dick’ Braithwaite, 2/15th Australian Field Regiment.
During the early stages of the second march Dick Braithwaite was so ill with malaria that his mates had to hold him up at roll call. For him it was a question of escape or die. Taking advantage of a gap in the column, he slipped behind a fallen tree until everyone had gone by. Eventually he reached the Lubok River where an elderly local man called Abing helped him. Abing took Braithwaite in his canoe down river to his village, where he was looked after. Hidden under banana leaves, Braithwaite was paddled for 20 hours downstream to Liberan Island where he was rescued by an American PT boat and taken to nearby Tawi Tawi Island. A week later, after he had told his story, an Australian colonel came to see him in his hospital bed to tell him they were going in to rescue his friends:
I can remember this so vividly. I just rolled on my side in the bunk, faced the wall, and cried like a baby. And said ‘You’ll be too late’.
Private Keith Botterill, 2/19th Battalion,
Lance Bombardier William Moxham, 2/15th Australian Field Regiment,
PrivateNelson Short, 2/18th Battalion
Botterill, Moxham, Short and another man, Gunner Andy Anderson, escaped from Ranau on 7 July and for some days hid in a cave on the slopes of Mount Kinabalu. They ran into a local man, Bariga, and had little option but to trust him with their story. Throughout the remainder of July, Bariga hid them and brought food. Anderson died of chronic dysentery and they buried him in the jungle. At this point, Bariga learnt that there was an Australian unit operating behind the lines in the area, and after the Japanese surrender on 15 August the three POWs were told to head out of the area and meet up with this unit. Nelson Short recalled as they lay exhausted in the jungle:
We said, ‘Hello, what’s this? Is this Japs coming to get us? They’ve taken us to the Japs or what?’ But sure enough it was our blokes. We look up and there are these big six footers. Z Force. Boy oh boy. All in greens.
Warrant Officer ‘Bill’ Sticpewich, Australian Army Service Corps;
The final escape from Ranau was that of Sticpewich and Private Herman Reither. Towards the end of July a friendly Japanese guard warned Sticpewich that all remaining POWs at Ranau would be killed. On the 28th he and Reither managed to slip out of the camp and hid in the jungle until the hunt for them died down. They moved on and were eventually taken in by a local Christian, Dihil bin Ambilid. Hearing of the presence of Allied soldiers, Dihil took a message to them from Sticpewich. Back came medicines and food but unfortunately Reither had already died from dysentery and malnutrition. There is a dark side to this story which you may wish to read in the following article by Lynette Silver.
These six survivors were alive to testify in court against their tormentors and to ensure that the world received eyewitness accounts of the crimes and atrocities committed at Sandakan, on the death marches and at Ranau. As a result of these trials, eight Japanese, including the Sandakan camp commandant, Captain Hoshijima Susumi, were hanged as war criminals. A further 55 were sentenced to various terms of imprisonment.
It is hard to explain the treatment of prisoners at Sandikan by their captors. The Imperial Japanese Army indoctrinated its soldiers to believe that surrender was dishonourable. POWs were therefore thought to be unworthy of respect. The IJA relied on physical punishment to discipline its own troops and allied prisoners formed the bottom rung of the military hierarchy. The fear of an uprising by the prisoners may have been behind the decision to make them weak through sickness and malnutrition. The fear of reprisal at the end of the war would have fuelled the decision to remove every trace of the 2,500 prisoners sent to Sandakan.
Ever since China opened up to overseas tourists in the late 1970s we had wanted to visit this enigmatic country. It wasn’t until April, 2014 that we embarked on a tour with Peregrine Adventures. What I liked about the tour company was that it mainly used public transport, involved a lot of physical activity and the group would be no larger than fifteen people. Reading the Lonely Planet guide I was entranced by the picture of Tiger Leaping Gorge and imagined myself climbing narrow tracks beside rushing rivers and below jagged snow-capped mountains.
Where is Tiger Leaping Gorge? It is 60 kilometres (37 miles) north of Lijiang City, Yunnan, in southwestern China. Around fifteen kilometres in length the gorge is located where the Jinsha river passes between Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and Haba Snow Mountain in a series of rapids under steep two hundred metre cliffs.
Although the gorge is not considered navigable, four rafters attempted to go down the rapids in the early 1980s and were never seen again. Subsequent attempts using boats were more successful. The area was first officially opened to overseas tourists in 1993.
We had had an inauspicious start to our tour. On the second day I was violently ill so I spent the day in bed.
Two others in our group starting feeling queasy. We decided it must be a combination of altitude (2052 m) although altitude sickness should not really kick in until 2500 m and strange food, water, jet lag, tiredness etc. Our guide Jane wants us to eat like the locals and serve ourselves with our own chopsticks but we rebelled and said that it would be too easy to spread germs so she relented and we now use serving spoons although continue to eat with chopsticks.
Personally I blame the birthday cake for John, loaded with cream and delivered to our table in Dali Old Town.
Would we all be well enough to tackle Tiger Leaping Gorge?
Saturday was the test before the big one. To climb Shibaishan Mountain was our aim. To get there from Shaxi, we walked 1.5km north, turned left at the sign (pointing to Shadeng Qing) and walked another one kilometre to the foot of the mountain. The path up the mountain consisted of hundreds, maybe thousands of stone steps.
Along the way were several temples, grottoes and stone carvings. At the first temple we thought we had reached our destination but onward and upward we continued. Three had stayed behind owing to illness and some of the group were either coming down with or recovering from bouts of diarrhoea. It was sunny and hot and we needed frequent rests. As I felt I had recovered I really enjoyed the fresh air and the surrounding hills covered with cypress forest and the view of paddy fields way below. I felt I was ready for whatever tomorrow would bring.
On Sunday, 13th April, 2014 we left at 7.30am on the three hour trip to Tiger Leaping Gorge. This was at times a harrowing experience but we finally arrived at Qiaotou and armed only with backpacks and bamboo walking sticks set off on the trail.
The first part of the walk was easy and pleasant as it was not too hot and the track rose gradually. We admired the river below and the snow speckled mountains above until we reached the Naxi Family Guest House where we had a long lunch.
The plan was to rest before tackling the notorious 28 bends in the late afternoon, but the tactic did not work. I found I was becoming more and more exhausted and had to rest frequently. There was no shade and sitting on a hot rock was not very pleasant. All the while the mules tinkled behind us and their owners eyed us hopefully, waiting for a sign of weakness. When I felt dizzy from hyperventilating I decided a mule was the only way to go. As if waiting for someone else to crack, three others also paid the 200 yuan ($40) for a mule.
The ride was actually quite enjoyable. It was such a relief not to be climbing any more and my mule and I became very good friends. He was very sure-footed and I had complete faith that he would not topple off the narrow track. I had visions of riding into Tea Horse Inn on my steed but just short of the highest point of the track I had to dismount and continue on foot for an hour. From then on it was easy walking and we were met on the track by the four who were unable to do the walk. Of the eight who walked today, four did the whole trip under their own steam, without the help of mules – the youngest, aged 23 and the oldest aged 77.
Tea Horse Inn was picturesque and the beds were comfortable. The showers were hot and there were pedestal toilets in the bathroom, something we did not have in Shaxi. Those who were too sick to walk had been entertained by watching the instalment of a new kitchen and dining room which we got to experience that evening. With our diet of rice, vegetables, little meat, no alcohol and plenty of exercise I felt like I was in a health resort. There was beer but I went off it after Dali.
Watching the sun move across the peaks of the mountains next morning was spoiled only by the fact that some were still too sick to do anything but travel by vehicle to the next night’s accommodation. We found the walk much easier on day two and enjoyed the magnificent scenery. We came across a waterfall of cloudy white water beside what looked like a primitive factory and found it was part of a tungsten mine. In fact there was only one unpolluted waterfall in Tiger Leaping Gorge and that was used as the water supply for the area. Plastic and metal pipes followed the track, detracting from the natural scenery for much of the walk but we were glad to make use of them at the end. Somehow we forgot to eat lunch as no one was hungry when we rested at the Half Way Guest House. We got to visit the famous toilets with the best view in the world. The whole back of the cubicle was open to the sky and the mountains.
The only steep part of the track caused problems for a Canadian trekker in our group who fainted and fell, cutting her head. The guide and the woman’s husband helped her down and fortunately she made a good recovery that evening. It was very stressful for Jane (our tour leader) as she was keeping an eye on us in front and also the injured member behind. The descent to Tina’s was gravelly and one slip could be disastrous. We had a walk across the bridge, looked below at some ant like people on the rock and returned to sit in the dining room eating freshly roasted peanuts and drinking coke.
We left Tiger Leaping Gorge the next morning at 9.30 am, following the river in our bus which had driven the three hours from Lijiang to get us. It was difficult to squeeze through in parts because of rockfalls.
Some of our group planned to visit the hospital as soon as we arrived at our Naxi style hotel. I accompanied Jane and two group members who had been sick for an extended period of time, walking through the old town and into the new town for medical help in the form of antiemetic drugs.
Lijiang had an earthquake in 1996 which killed 300 people, including many schoolchildren when the roof collapsed in a school. Many of the town’s buildings date from that time. The old town was carefully reconstructed with UNESCO funding and is a maze of cobbled streets and wooden buildings.
Fortunately most people in the group recovered in the next few days but for the rest of the trip no-one was willing to admit they had a birthday and risk being presented with a microbiologically suspect cream cake.
The name Sandakan has a wonderfully exotic sound. When our travel agent gave us someone else’s itinerary which included Sabah, now part of Malaysia, on the traditional island of Borneo, we couldn’t wait to make it ours. Things didn’t quite work out as planned which made me decide to be my own travel agent in future but I have to tell you about the Gomantong Edible Birds’ Nest Cave, the Sukau River Lodge, the trip up the Kinabatangan River watching for proboscis monkeys and orangutans, the Sepolik Orangutan Centre with the orphaned orangutans, the English Tea House high on a hill in Sandakan, the Memorial Park to the soldiers of the Sandakan Death March and the Agnes Keith saga of “Land Below the Wind”.
Are you ready?
Wednesday, 22nd July, 2009 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
We were awake before alarms started going off around 4.30am. By 5.30 we were anxiously looking for our pick-up vehicle. 5.45am and we were very anxious. We gave up and took a taxi. The 45 minute flight itself was interesting, over mountains and rivers. We were astonished at the extensive plantations of oil palm trees (Elaeis guineensis) which had replaced the traditional rainforest. When I say extensive you’ve got to believe it.
At Sandakan Airport we were met by M who was very well spoken but looked seriously unfit. He seemed to have difficulty moving and the sweat poured off him in the intense heat. First stop was the Sepolik Orangutan Centre where we were to transfer to our minibus. M did not inspire us with confidence as he disappeared, leaving us alone in front of a small café. Close to us a charismatic guide was surrounded by adoring tourists pressing notes into his hands and farewelling him with genuine remorse. However, our fate was to be with M who waved us in the direction of the minivan and explained there would be two vans travelling together as there were eleven of us in the group. The other bus left but ours would not start. After a while John and any other male around who thought he knew about cars had a go at starting it. The key went in the ignition but would not turn. About half an hour later the driver finally realised he was using the wrong key. Finally on our way we encountered our next problem in the small town of Kota Kinabatangan. M indicated that we could stop for a coffee break but we found the real reason for the interruption soon enough. One of the passengers on the other van had come to realise that he was travelling inland and not to the jetty where the boat left for Turtle Island. This was especially galling for us as we had wanted Turtle Island in out itinerary but the travel agent had “stuffed up”. Oh well! The other passengers had to wait an hour on the side of the road in a hot minivan while a taxi came for the errant tourist. At least we had cold tea and iceblocks to while away the time.
Finally on our way we turned off to the Gomantong Caves where swiflets construct edible nests from a glutinous secretion, produced from salivary glands under the tongue. The Cave Swiflets that live here in the thousands make two types of nest, commonly referred to as white nests and black nests. Both are edible and they are used to make the Chinese delicacy birds nest soup.
A slippery wooden walkway followed the inside edge of the cave. Above us were the valuable birds’ nests and a few swifts darting around. The bats were mainly sleeping so were few in number. Below and inside the walkway was guano (the excrement of birds and bats). A handrail divided the walkway from the stinking mess below but I grabbed it only to let go in horror as it was covered not only in guano but cockroaches, dead and alive. Where there were missing wooden slats on the walkway I was forced to grab the handrail again, gingerly, with the tips of my fingers. I noticed M had stayed outside. On our way around the cave we found one tiny bat on a rock and a baby swiftlet that had fallen from a nest. We were all pleased to see the sunlight again and voted unanimously on the bus afterwards that the climbing of slippery rope ladders in those smelly caves to gather birds’ nests, would be one of the worst ten jobs in the world.
Here is a newspaper extract concerning the current value of birds’ nests. (2009)
By Niluksi Koswanage and James Pomfret
SABAH, Malaysia (Reuters Life!)
The nests are woven by the saliva of the Asian male swift, and when prices went as high as $2,500 a kg (2 lbs) last year, teams would work round-the-clock to prise them off the walls of the 25-storey high Goamantong cave in eastern Sabah state.
Now, as the global economic recession reduces the appetite for luxury items in China and beyond, Asri and other harvesters spend most of their time outside the cave, smoking and keeping an eye out for thieves eager to make off with the nests despite the drop in market prices and demand.
“We are stuck. There are many birds’ nests to collect but we have been told by our bosses to take less because prices are falling and people from China are losing interest,” Asri said.
Consumers in China and Taiwan prize swifts’ nests as a health tonic, aphrodisiac and status symbol, earning the delicacy its “caviar of the east” nickname. Goamantong nests are among the most exquisite in the world as there are less impurities like feathers and grit, traders say.
So the other job we considered on a par with the nest gatherer was the job of nest guard, high up inside the cave on a platform, in the dark, with the smells and the insects, bats and bird droppings.
A short walk along a jungle track brought us back to the minivan. In less than an hour we had reached the wide, brown Kinabatangan River. Here we boarded a launch and crossed the river to the Wildlife Adventure Tour’s own lodge. At first sight it looked run-down and ramshackle but we were immediately served a lunch of rice, chicken, fish and vegetables. I especially liked the stir-fried eggplant and jackfruit. Our rooms were quaint little dark green lodges on stilts which looked authentically Malay. Although spartan they contained necessities such as an air conditioner and a shower. There were twin beds, each with a mosquito net over it. The windows also had screens but it was comforting to have double protection. Showered and refreshed we walked back to the jetty for our river trip in search of monkeys and other wildlife.
This is where the best memories and the worst experiences blur together. I became so hot I nearly passed out as there was no cover over the boat. Only when the sun slipped behind the trees could I enjoy the scenery around me. We spotted numerous macaques, proboscis monkeys, a striped snake and at the very end of the cruise, a pair of orangutans. They looked like kings of the jungle as they balanced easily on branches at the tops of the tallest trees.
Back at the lodge we showered again before dinner. There was freshly made fried rice and some tasty barbecued meat. John bought us each a can of beer which we consumed while chatting to some of the other people on other tours. The proposed slide shows and insect walks did not eventuate, and although annoyed that M couldn’t be bothered, we weren’t sorry to retire to our stilt house and sleep under our mosquito nets.
Thursday, 23rd July, 2009, Sukau River Lodge
The alarm woke me in the middle of a dream but on the whole I slept well. M had promised to be there in the morning to hand us over to our new guide as he was staying another day so I decided to give him a few RM in appreciation for his efforts. However he wasn’t there so he missed out.
We were quite happy to leave, said goodbye to our two Danish friends and had an uneventful journey to Sepolik Orangutan Park. At the Sepolik Orangutan Centre there were hundreds of people, many tour guides and very little direction. We were told by our guide to “wait here for Mr G” after which hundreds of people poured past us into a small theatre, all escorted by their efficient and capable guides. Where was Mr G? Finally we saw our former guide and asked after our new escort. Mr G had been lounging around having a cigarette and enjoying himself, unaware, or so it seemed, of our existence. The two guides argued over whether we should see the film now or after the orangutan feeding. Mr G lost so we squashed in on top of the other 250 people in the theatre to hear the end of an explanation of what the Orangutan Centre was all about. The film was very informative, explaining how people try to raise orphan orangutans in their homes. The orangutans become too big and too strong to handle and the owners don’t know what to do with them. The orangutan centre prepares them to re-enter the wild. At the feeding table we saw about five orangutans. We stood on a seat at the back and watched over the heads of the other two to three hundred people.
Back on the bus we arrived at the Sandakan Hotel. It is about a three star standard but is in a very good central position. We had a brief rest before organising a taxi to take us to the Death March Memorial. It cost RM60 return, with the taxi driver waiting for us, having a siesta under the trees. As he said, “How else would you get back to the hotel?”
THIS MEMORIAL MARKS THE SITE OF A PRISON CAMP OF SURVIVORS OF THE FIRST DEATH MARCH FROM SANDAKAN TO RANAU FROM JANUARY TO APRIL 1945.
OF THE 2,000 AUSTRALIAN SOLDIERS OF THE 2ND A.I.F. AND 750 BRITISH SOLDIERS OF THE BRITISH ARMY WHO LEFT SANDAKAN ONLY 6 AUSTRALIAN SOLDIERS SURVIVED.
ON THIS ACTUAL SPOT VX52128 GUNNER ALBERT NEIL CLEARY 2/15TH FIELD REGIMENT, ROYAL AUSTRALIAN ARTILLERY WAS CHAINED TO A STAKE AND BEATEN AND STARVED FOR 11 DAYS UNTIL HE FINALLY DIED ON 20 MARCH 1945. AGED 22 YEARS.
THIS MEMORIAL ALSO COMMEMORATES THE COURAGE AND BRAVERY OF THE LOCAL PEOPLE OF SABAH, WHO SO GALLANTLY ASSISTED THE PRISONERS-OF-WAR AGAINST OVERWHELMING ODDS.
I could write a hundred pages or more about the Prison Camp but will leave it until U for Understanding Sandakan. It was a very peaceful place with trees and lakes and birds. It was hard to imagine what took place here on this spot 64 years ago. The remains of some of the machinery, water tanks and pipes of the prison camp were scattered around the park and a chapel-like building with a scale model of the camp as it was stood at the crest of a hill.
On the way back we asked the taxi driver if the Agnes Keith House would be open. We had read it was near the English Tea House so when he said “Yes, you want English Tea House?” we decided to take a risk at getting home afterwards and go there. The Agnes Keith House was closed but we decided we needed cheering up after the Death March Memorial and headed off for an English tea. Our table was overlooking the sea but because I indicated I liked the gazebo it was immediately cleared and made ready for us. John was chatting to some people on the croquet lawn when he discovered I’d moved. We enjoyed our coffee with scones and cream so much that we decided to come back for dinner.
Instead of getting a taxi back we walked the “hundred steps” to the bottom. The road and steps were covered in moss with gaps and holes in numerous places so we thought it might be dangerous in the dark. That night we went back up in a taxi but we walked down the main road to come back to the hotel which didn’t take very long.
Dinner in our gazebo was very pleasant overlooking the Sulu Sea in a perfect temperature. We shared a papaya and scallop entrée, had red bream with rice and snow peas for mains and bread and butter pudding (me) and mango pie(John).
The music was from the war years and the atmosphere was magical. It was a truly memorable evening.
Friday, 24th July, 2009, Sandakan, Sabah
After breakfast, we walked up the hundred steps to the Agnes Keith House. This is how Lonely Planet describes it.
This atmospheric two-storey colonial villa, Newlands, tells the story of American writer Agnes Keith and her British husband Harry, the Conservator of Forests in North Borneo. They lived in Sandakan from 1934 to 1952 and spent three years in Japanese internment camps during WWII.
As the day had not become too hot (it was only about 28 degrees Celsius) the walk was quite pleasant. We fell in love with the house as soon as we entered. The ground floor has high ceilings and polished floors. It consists of two large rooms with a broad staircase in the middle. I noted there was a dining room with a refrigerator and a lounge room. The absence of a kitchen was explained by a room across a breezeway where the cooking would have been performed by the servants.
Upstairs were two huge bedrooms and a study. Each bedroom had a spacious ensuite off one end. In the master bedroom the queen sized bed was in the centre of the room “to catch the breezes” with all the other furniture against the walls.
We read about the life of Agnes, her husband Harry and their son and daughter. I intend to buy or borrow her books – “Beneath the Wind, Three Come Home and White Man Returns”. They are about pre-war Sandakan, being captured by the Japanese and returning after the war.
Reading the books afterwards I learnt how Agnes, Harry and their son were imprisoned during the war but survived. Coming back to their home they found it burnt to the ground. It was rebuilt as an almost exact replica of their former home. However, Borneo after the war would never be the same and when “White Man Returns” they find their days in Sandakan are numbered.
When I retired I relished being able to read a book when I felt like it, without the pressure of work obligations keeping me from one of my favourite activities.
For several years I hoped to find a Book Club and eventually rang the local library to see what they suggested. They gave me the name of a group who met once a month on a Tuesday at 5.30 pm. The leader was a librarian who worked there but the meetings were held at the Golf Club. I spoke to Ruth, the leader, on the phone, and she told me the next book was Inhalingthe Mahatma by Christopher Kremmer and the meeting would be on the 19th January, 2010.
I found the book hard going but completed it by the day of the meeting. I was a bit apprehensive about the intellectual rigour of the group but I needn’t have worried.
There were seven or eight all together. Most people didn’t like the book as a whole, although some liked part of it. Two had only read two chapters, one had returned it to the library unfinished, two hadn’t read any of it and the leader had almost finished it.
It was one of those Book Clubs where you turned up whether you had read the book or not. It was as much about socialising as an in-depth book study. I felt at ease with this group although I was determined to read every book nominated before the meeting.
Thirteen years have passed and still our group consists of the same people plus or minus one or two. When the librarian, Ruth, retired from the library, we all wondered briefly what would become of us. Ruth decided to just keep on as before, so we still meet every month in the same place to discuss a book, sometimes briefly, sometimes in great depth. Now we have a FB group so we can communicate with members more easily. We have tried other venues but keep returning to the Golf Club where we can usually find a quiet corner and we can enjoy the spectacular view out to sea. Towards the end of every year we all contribute one or two suggestions to make up a list for the following year. The icing on the cake is not having to cook a meal because we all order at the club restaurant after the meeting.
How I read books has changed a lot in the last seventeen years. By this I mean it used to be either library books or books I bought from local bookstores. Now it is mainly library books read on my iPad, downloaded from Borrowbox. Sometimes I will buy and download a book from iBooks or Kindle. Christmas and birthdays are the main times I buy books unless it is something unavailable in other formats. I love reading on my iPad because I can eat at the same time!
I also belong to another Book Club associated with our Aqua jogging group. It meets up infrequently and only once since Covid restrictions ended. I wasn’t adequately prepared for the last one as I had read Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus six months before. Alas I had even forgotten some of the characters and felt unable to contribute anything sensible. Everyone else had read the book and seemed to know it inside out. I’ll be better prepared next time.
As well as Reading my other R is for Recording. Every major holiday I used to take my Sony HandyCam with me and record every interesting and fascinating moment. I would then relive my holiday by playing it back on my computer and using the software iMovie, to edit, add music, transitions and titles.
This would then be burnt onto a DVD and an appropriate picture would be printed on the white blank of the disk as well as the jewel case cover. Friends and family would then be subjected to this modern take on a slide night which would see most of them falling asleep. To prevent this happening I then made ten minute DVDs with the edited highlights.
Possibly everyone heaved a sigh of relief when I found technology changing around me, rendering my video camera obsolete and my beloved iMovie 6 replaced by a newer version I didn’t like. Some of my aqua and book club friends were showing off their newly made photo books. All you have to do is download the software from Photobookclub, insert your favourite photos and get it made up into a beautifully bound photo book. The quality is not quite as good as a printed photo but it is fun to play around with different backgrounds, borders and arrangements. An added bonus is a guest can flick through it in ten seconds and is not held captive by a lengthy video.
I even made a photo book based on my 1918 “A for Ancestry” but named it “The A to Z of my DNA”.
Printing six copies I was able to keep one, give one to each of my children and three to new DNA relatives. Even though it is nearly 50% text it still came up well as a photobook.
Putting together photos of the first five years of my grandson’s life I made another simple story/photo book which he still loves to read. He keeps asking for me to make one of the next five years but that is a project still on the back burner.
When I was small my father would tell me stories of “Step and Tear”. They were two orphans who had all sorts of dreadful experiences but things turned out well for them in the end. I started telling these stories to my grandchildren but had to make up many new adventures as I honestly couldn’t remember much. Now I have all these stories on my computer and am looking for a way to make them into a self-published book for the children before they get too old. That is my next project after the A to Z is over.
Think how much photography has changed in the last 17 years! From having rolls of film printed and waiting a week for the finished result we now have instant access to our photos which as a result have multiplied exponentially. On the computer are slides converted to digital, photos in older software, scans of printed photos, photos not yet put in folders. Finding photos for this and other A to Zs had been time consuming because they are all over the place. That is another job for the future, organising all the photos into one place on my computer.
Don’t get me started on all those printed photos in boxes, and the ones in photo albums. I really should go through them and discard at least 50%.
You might ask what Q Station stands for? It is short for Quarantine Station but is not where people were isolated with Covid. Instead it is a comfortable, quirky and different type of accommodation in a stunning setting on North Head, Sydney Harbour.
We decided to give ourselves one night there for our birthdays which are not too far apart. To get there we caught a train to Sydney, changed at Central for Circular Quay, then took a ferry to Manly and a bus to the Q Station. The bus driver insisted we stay on the bus so he could drive us up to the lookout to see what he thought was the best view in Sydney. He even stopped to let me off for a quick photo before dropping us back at the Q Station.
We arrived two hours before check-in, thinking we could leave our small bags somewhere and have lunch in the café at the beach. Reception rang the room and it was ready so we hopped on a minibus and were driven down a steep hill to our accommodation. It wasn’t luxurious but it was clean, had an ensuite and a verandah with two chairs and a table.
Our view was of the buildings opposite, but some exploration brought us to the First Class dining room next door which opened onto a deck overlooking the water. It is no longer a dining room but where we were staying was for the First Class passengers arriving by ship years ago. We decided to keep that spot in mind for a pre-dinner drink later in the evening.
There used to be a funicular railway to the beach but that has been removed and instead we walked down 230 steps. We could have called for the minibus to take us but decided we needed the exercise. Next to the café is a small museum which tells the story of the Quarantine Station. We ate bagels filled with ham and pickles and watched school children on an excursion, glad that we were not the teachers.
After exploring the museum we walked back up the 230 steps and spent the afternoon poking around the extensive buildings spread across the hillside. A brief rest in our room was followed by a shower and a glass of white wine on the First Class Dining Room verandah. We thought we were observing a dramatic life and death rescue by helicopter out on the water but fortunately it turned out to be a drill.
It was time to walk back down the 230 steps for dinner at the Boiler House. There were corporate groups outside under pavilions but we were escorted up more steps to a mezzanine level built inside the old building.
Our two-course meal with a glass of wine was excellent and was followed by a stroll around the jetty and beach before climbing the 230 steps to our room. It was time to do some research on the history of the Q Station.
In 1836 the immigrant ship Lady Macnaghton left Cork, Ireland. Of the 444 passengers on board, 56 had died from typhus and scarlett fever by the time it reached Sydney. The sick were left on board and the rest were housed in tents on the site of the Quarantine Station at North Head for two months. Seventeen more people died on shore owing to the exposed living conditions, lack of warm clothing and unpredictable weather. An inquiry was held into conditions on emigrant ships which resulted in considerable improvements and stricter rules. It was also the catalyst for the establishment of permanent buildings for the purpose of quarantine.
From the 1830s until 1984, migrant ships arriving in Sydney with suspected contagious disease stopped inside North Head and offloaded passengers and crew to protect the residents of Sydney.
As Australia’s longest continuously operating quarantine station, it has changed considerably over time. The heritage buildings reflect the typecasting of people by gender, race and class.
After its closure on 16th March 1984, ownership of the Quarantine Station was transferred from the Commonwealth to the State Government. The National Parks & Wildlife Service (NPWS) established guided tours and a conference and functions centre.
Largely owing to lack of funding many of the buildings fell into disrepair.
In 2006, Mawland Group signed a lease with NPWS and repaired and improved the facilities to their current standard. In 2022 the site above Quarantine Beach was sold to a successful northern beaches hotelier.
We studied the map and found a myriad of uses for the structures around us.
The shower block was the first stop for quarantine arrivals, where they were forced to strip for carbolic acid showers. This was to erase fleas and body lice which could host infectious diseases. What a traumatic introduction to Australia for would be residents!
One building, which contains a single, windowless room, was used as a gas-inhalation chamber, under the misguided belief a good dose of zinc sulfate would kill a virus in the lungs.
Another building contains large-vaulted chambers that were used to fumigate passengers’ luggage on arrival with the aim of killing vermin.
More than 800 carvings and inscriptions by inmates have been discovered around the property. There is a large sandstone rock face that’s covered with painted, carved and scratched inscriptions from many of the 12,000 people incarcerated at the quarantine station during its time in operation.
Some are initials, others are drawings, and many describe the misery of life in quarantine, written in many languages.
One inscription from 1917 by Xie Ping De from He County, China:
Sky … Ocean,
I am very frightened of having the disease.
Moreover the doctor is helpless to control the sickness.
Feeling pessimistic and despondent.
I am not used to maintaining hygiene yet.
If you asked me the feeling about the voyage.
I shall persuade you never come here for pleasure.
Wish you good health and a long life.
(Translated from Chinese)
It wasn’t all misery for the detainees. The Sydney Morning Herald in 1913 described some of the leisure pursuits that passengers had available to them.
Those who are merely detained as contacts have about 500 acres of ground to ramble over. In good weather the days pass like a picnic. There are retired paths and retreats and open well-grassed plots. Cricket has been played and though the inclines are steep football has been attempted. Fishing is open to all, and those who like swimming have opportunities in abundance.
The Migration Act of 1958 legalised the detention of “illegal immigrants”, a term referring to anyone without a valid visa. What was originally built as a staff dining room became a detention area for people awaiting deportation. An inscription in this building (translated from Turkish) goes like this.
Where did you come from Adam or Noah
My wrists! Where did you get this chain?
The cruel capitalists can exploit and kill
The poor people and enslave them
I’m not strong enough!
The cruel and the cruelty
My wrists! How did I get this chain?
In the final stages of the Vietnam war, the Quarantine Station provided refuge for children hastily evacuated from Vietnam as it fell. Many of the 200 children brought to Australia were cared for by staff there as they waited to meet their new adoptive families.
I wondered what happened at the Q Station during the Covid lockdowns. Apparently you could stay in a cottage (at a slightly reduced rate) for weeks at a time, with your groceries delivered, and live in complete isolation from the rest of the world, ensuring your safety and good health. It wouldn’t be a bad spot to retreat from the world.