Monday, September 20, 2010

China & Speaking Chinese

The very first time I became acquainted with Chinese was 10 years ago. I was 19 and travelled to China with my younger sister for an older cousin's wedding, and at the time it was my sister who could speak a very decent Chinese. The good point was that we did not have to stay with my grand-mother all the time (we were the youngest of all cousins being there) and we could head just the 2 of us to visit Beijing. At the time, Beijing was still this big city where there were more bikes than cars, and you had to negotiate crossing the streets with all the cyclers coming up to you and not letting you cross the street in peace.
It was all about visiting the city and enjoying the nights out with cousins and cousins's friends who were at least 10 years older than the 2 of us. Restaurants, bars, nightclubs, massage places, you name it, we did it. No wonder why I completely fell in love with the place, the city, the lifestyle, and especially the impression of being in a city that lived life full speed, compared to "Old Europe".
So when I came back to France and got into my Ecole d'Ingénieur then I started to learn Mandarin. Speaking the language was what had made all the difference for our trip in Beijing, and if I ever wanted to go back there, and maybe work there, then I had to speak the language!
The learning was not that good though, because when I graduated and finally got a job in China - Wuhan this time - then I could hardly make my co-workers or taxi drivers or waiters understand me. It took me 3 months of listening and repeating to be understood and follow a simple conversation with Chinese friends.
So I think it started this way... First the need to communicate directly with people, which quickly improved into being able to hold a full conversation (with a lot of hand talk too, though) with my colleagues and friends. But now, having been back in France for the past 4 years (I know!) and still studying Mandarin on a weekly basis, it is the pleasure of speaking Chinese that is the most important. How to explain? Well, I just love speaking Chinese. The rythm of the language, the tones that make it lively and quite physical, the sounds so different from anything you would find in Europe, a bit like poetry on its own... I can enter my Chinese classroom tired from the day, leave all my worries at the door and enjoy the simple fact of reading and speaking Chinese for the evening. This is why I don't think I'll ever stop learning Chinese.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Pangkor Island

Sometimes the only thing you want to do is to lie on the beach and soak in the sunshine, running in the sea just to get a bit of fresh water, and coming back to your towel to finish reading the 1000 pages novel you bought just 2 days ago - and which will only last until the next evening, if you keep reading non-stop like this.
Well yes, sometimes the only thing you need is that. This is how I usually spend my holidays when with my family, reading thick novels and playing cards with my brother, sleeping in the sunbed and getting the best suntan I can think of - we're talking of my pale northern skin. But this time no, it wasn't for me. I packed my rucksack and went all the way to Malaysia. I walked and dived and bundled my way through this lively country, loved the pace and heat, the noise and the smells, it all reminded me so much of China, without being China at the same time. I guess it's the travelling I missed...
But then, at some point, I needed the time off. Put the rucksack down, walk in flipflops and sit in the sunshine. So I found a spot in my Lonely Plat which said: Pangkor island - beautiful small island (Pangkor means beautiful in Malay) - fishermen village - long white beaches - not too touristy - not too far from KL - can cycle around the island in 2 hours... This was all I needed.
small fishing boat and the fishermen village right behind

I didn't stop for long though, just one night. But it was worth a stopover. Jamaican style hostel with hammocks hanging outside, beach within walking distance and good fresh food too.
I must admit I was worried, it was the almost only stretch of my trip when I was on my own, and although I like it from times to times, I wanted to visit the island and if possible to share it with people. This is where speaking Chinese helps, as I noticed four women my age speaking Mandarin where I was having lunch. They looked just as much on holidays as I was, and where planning their day trip. I introduced myself in Chinese and we hit it off straight away! They were energetic and curious ladies, and offered for me to go on the boat trip 5 minutes after we met. So we went for a short boat trip in the bay...
Chinese friends from China
and Malaysian Chinese friends
...and then for some snorkelling in the shallow water. Lots of fish and a few sea cucumbers. Unfortunately it seems I'm the only one with another of the Chinese who can swim confidently enough to enjoy the snorkelling, but the other three stand on the shore and can see the fish too, so we all have a good time in the end.

In the evening, after the required shower to take the salt out of the skin, dinner-time! And we're having fresh fish in hot pot, which they call steamboat over there (for those who like hot pot / huoguo / fondue chinoise / steamboat, I've got the best of addresses here in Paris, just ask). Enjoyed the food that we topped with banana and honey pancakes. Not the most Malay dinner ever, but then, when in Rome...

Monday, August 30, 2010

Walking the jungle (2)

After this very first day getting in touch with my inner climber at Bako park, several other days followed for more jungle walking. The friend I was travelling with in Kuching and I wanted to see as much nature as possible, and enjoy the free access to all this beauty... So 2 days later we went walking in Santubong peninsula, the path this time was rougher and steeper, but I actually had fun getting a bit more energetic and pushing the edge of the walk / climb / hanging on a slippery slope with an old rope to prevent from falling (OK I wasn't feeling too good at this point).

Santubong peninsula - waterfalls, slippery rocks...
 and of course after one day of walk, I couldn't resist once again...

another good swim in the sea :-)
After that, the next good walk was in Mount Kinabalu park. I did not go for the whole 2-days-package-climb-that-costs-a-leg-and-an-arm (the ones you don't lose walking at 2am in the dark), but I travelled in and out one day to get a feel of the paths at the bottom of the park. It would have been great should the weather had been nice. But this time, no such luck, it was pouring rain and the thick jungle leaves were offering little shelter once I was walking in the forest. To be honest, I enjoyed it because rain makes all the smells come out from the earth, trees and leaves - at the beginning at least. But after 2 hours of non-stop tropical rain, rather cold temperature as the Kinabalu park is 2000m high up in the mountains, and having my clothes soaked wet I was happy to reach the entrance back, and get myself fanbianmian (instant noodles) and a cup of hot chocolate.

Kinabalu park

After this one, several days went without walks... Kota Kinabalu, then back to Kuala Lumpur, and off for a bus ride in Perak state, where I needed to go to the Cameron Highlands before flying back home. And these mountains kept all their promises! First thing, when you get on the bus from Ipoh and get close to the mountains, you find yourself surrounded by sugar loaf mountains, a bit like Yangshuo in China or Halong Bay in Vietnam. All this got myself really excited, until I got to Tanah Rata and realised most trails were indicated as "hard to find", "not well marked", and of course "don't go on your own, follow a guide"! I found it disappointing that after walking on my own in several parks in Borneo, in the Peninsula I had to get myself a guide to walk in one of the biggest spot of Malaysia. So of course I got myself a map, asked for directions and went on my own.
Trail 10 was a good well-marked path to go through a beautiful camelia garden, then up in the mountain and to the top of Gunung Jasar mountain, 1670m high up, but with a beautiful view over the Highlands and tea plantations. As goes in the season, the weather was beautiful but not as warm as down in the plains, and it was a good idea to climb steep slopes to get a bit of warm in the early morning (9am - ok maybe not so early then!)

Cameron Highlands - trail 10
The path was intricated with roots from the surrounding trees, with beautiful patches of blue sky through the canopy. Climbing up at some point I got out of the forest and up the small mountain top with the nice view on tea plantations...

Gunung Jasar and the view to the tea plantations
After that I tried to find my way forward to another path... After 3 fails and a lot of mud on the pants, I eventually decided to walk my way back to the hostel and spend more time in the beautifully arranged camelia garden. It wasn't a bad idea as the evening rain comes early in these mountains and it was pouring by 2pm :)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Walking the jungle

Malaysia, and especially Borneo, has as main attraction walking in the thick jungle forest, crossing thick walls of green with human-size knifes, unseen but omnipresent wildlife looking at you from the canopy... We've all seen these movies with huge snakes / tigers / leopard / etc hunting humans in an inhospitable environment. Well, Malaysia jungle wasn't like that, but it was close enough. At least for the vegetation - huge ferns growing from the ground or hanging from the trees, real-size banana trees, giant trees with roots three meters long... - and the atmosphere - the temperature averaged 30°C daily, if not 35°C with a very high humidity.

The smells in themselves are quite amazing compared to the clean, dry forests of Europe. The air, thick with dampness, smelled of rotting wood, wildlife, and the forcefulness of Nature. Entering the jungle, you'll find yourself sweating shortly, if not for the humidity then for climbing between trees and ferns, trying not to get your feet trapped in the exposed roots, avoiding the ferns with thorns that try to catch you...

Walking in the jungle makes me think of Mowgli and the Book of Jungle that I used to watch when I was a kid, Tarzan and all these stories from Englishmen lost in the jungle... It was a fantasy that I wanted to see for myself while I was there. Of course I didn't come face to face with the White Tiger, King of the Jungle, neither with Kaa (aie confiance...), but the feeling of making your way in ancient trails from Borneo tribes is somehow overwhelming...

First experience of walking the jungle, in Bukit Nanas park in KL - Malaysia Day 1
I couldn't refrain myself from dragging G., on my first day in KL, through the Bukit Nanas park in the center of KL. Pretaste for what awaited me in Borneo, some huge bamboos and ferns...

Bako National Park - at first the trail was all clear, apart from a few macaques here and there...
Haaaaa, here we are Sarawak! Landed in Kuching, one day to visit the city, and we're off to Bako NP for one day walk. At the beginning the path looked as above, and we worried we wouldn't get enough proper trail (the one without the wood floor), but soon enough...

Lintang trail, top of the hill and view of South China sea
We also crossed some dry lands where the flora was very close from the one in the mountains in Australia (say our Australian friends)...

Getting there... the beach!!!
Obviously one good day of walking wouldn't be complete without going for a swim at the end of the day! If you expected the water to cool yourself down, think again. But the water was 25°C, clear as cristal, and felt very very good...

Friday, August 20, 2010

Borneo Tattoos & Indian Hennae

The Head-hunters tribes are a famous part of Borneo history. These fierce warriors would gain recognition and respect from their fellow hunters by - yes - cutting heads, which represented their hunting skills to the tribe. They would also get tattooed all over their body from the age of 10-12 - when they enter adult age in the tribe. Actually each tattoo has a specific meaning, some of them would be linked to their hunting skills.
When I got in Kuching I got to see some Malay with tattoos that were really beautiful... Obviously today the tattoos are not linked to the head-hunting anymore - although they say somewhere, deep in the jungle...
I loved these imbricated and fierce tattoos that still convey some of the spirit of these tribes in Borneo. I didn't get the chance to visit one of the tattoo place in Kuching, maybe for best as I might have been tempted for myself! But there was this thick book on a stand listing all kinds of Malay tattoos, I with I'd brought it back!
When I travelled to Kota Kinabalu I had the chance of visiting the Mari-Mari Cultural Village. Listed as one of the best in Borneo, it shows beautifully built bamboo houses for different tribes, and it also features how people would live there... More on that visit later! But they would draw small tattoos for all visiters. Here's mine:

And another one

Later in my trip I was in back in Kuala Lumpur and visiting Little India I came accross a hennae shop, the kind with pictures of beautiful hand and foot hannae tattooes for Indian weddings. This time, I couldn't resist! So I got both hands tattooed for the rest of the trip

The lady even managed to keep the tattoo from Borneo into the Indian tattoo!

I bought myself some hannae tubes in KL, following advice from my host, and examples of Indian hannae drawings. Next step is to try it on my left hand, or if someone is tempted for me to try it on them :)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Back from Malaysia

So this is my first message! I've just been around Malaysia for the past 3 weeks and had an awesome time. These few weeks have gone by incredibly quickly, and at the same time I've had the impression of living to the fullest, as if I had spent not 3 weeks but 3 months there. The places I've seen, and on top of it the people I've met have made this trip really amazing, something to remember aftersuch a long while not travelling very far.
My first impression when I came back home, after 18 hours of travelling - plane + train etc - was a one of closing a loop.
When I first arrived in Kuala Lumpur, after the same tiring trip from Paris, I set myself to sleep in a hostel, and even if I was exhausted I couldn't find my sleep because of the noise. Street noise from the cars, people walking down the streets in this lively area of Bukit Bintang, the expat and "rue de la soif" area of KL. I finally managed myself to sleep by fitting in the earplugs from the plane.
And 3 weeks later, here I am setting myself to sleep in my own bed, appreciating the comfort of a real mattress and warm cover I haven't much enjoyed in the past weeks. And before falling asleep I find myself somehow disturbed by the silence around me... After such a short time in Malaysia I've actually got used to sleeping in noisy areas, hearing the cars or planes or trains from outside, not mentioning the neighbours or party downstairs. And I didn't record it to set myself to sleep :)