Saturday, August 12, 2017

Somewhere between China and Russia...

It took us a long time to get there, and we were pretty beat when we arrived, but Mongolia turned out to be a great place to visit and play music.
Ulaanbaatar (UB) is a big city, combining new shiny buildings, Soviet-style monoliths and rubbly wrecks. It is a hot, dry and dusty place in the summertime; that was certainly the case for us.
The language, as it is both spoken and printed, was the most difficult for me to comprehend out of the three touring destinations. It made ordering vegetarian food quite a challenge. As much as I tried to enjoy Mongolian cuisine, I settled for pizza and chips as often as not.
We got to UB at the end of the local election process and the beginning of the Naadam Festival. Due to a government decree, there was no alcohol officially available for sale for the first three days of our visit so much ingenuity was required and utilised by those who were thirsty.
The place we stayed looked foreboding on arrival; very uncompromising from the outside. But the people who ran it were friendly and helpful, and the rooms were comfortable. Breakfast was of the continental variety, and included fried egg and a kind of sausage that can only be described as "soylent pink".
Outside, probably due to the election, festival, and three days of public holidays, the roads and footpaths were only sparsely populated. Quite a contrast from Vietnam!

With almost a dozen tour gigs under our belt it is fair to say that the band was hitting its straps, both technically and in terms of putting on a show. But there were still the odd challenges requiring attention. Chasing venues for payment, sound-checking through the language barrier, getting owners/managers to deliver on their commitments; all part of the fun. In addition, touring without amps and drums means that every gig is something of a journey into the unknown. You never know what a venue will provide,  despite you having sent them your stage rider months previously and/or spoken with them regarding requirements. Guitars were played directly through mixing desks on more than one occasion. At least the drum kits were in place; more than I can say for many of our UK shows in 2016. We played seven shows over the nine nights we were in Mongolia, only resting on the first and last evenings.

One of the highlights of the entire tour was the visit to the Lotus Children's Centre, about an hour out of UB, on the edge of the hills. It's an orphanage run by some very hard-working and dedicated folks, and filled with some of the nicest, happiest and most mischievous kids you will ever meet. We played a set of songs for them, and then they gave us dinner followed by a sunset show put on by the children.

On my days off, I visited temples and monasteries; I was amazed at the magnitude of the Buddhist presence in UB; easily rivalling that of the other places we'd been. Some of the statues were breathtaking. The monks seemed happy enough to chat as they went about their daily business. It's been a fairly recent resurgence; most monasteries and lamas were destructively and violently suppressed during the Soviet-era.
If Sharky Bar was the peak show of the Vietnam/Cambodia section, then the last gig of the tour, outdoors at the UB Jazz Club, must rank as the best of the Mongolian appearances. The big crowd seemed completely immersed in our performance. As were we. They danced, clapped and sang along all night. Wonderful; a great way to end things.

As we went through security on our way to the plane, a guard made me take the Buddhas I'd bought in Vietnam, Cambodia and Mongolia out of my bag. She inspected them, asked me a few questions about receipts, where I'd purchased and the like, and then let me wrap them up again. Did she think I was smuggling treasures out of the country? Who knows...

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Guangzhou Seven

I don't think anyone from our touring party was looking forward to the trip from Vietnam to Mongolia. Three flights, three countries and the best part of a full day's travel.
If only it had proved that simple.
The odyssey began with me being jolted from my sleep at 4.30am. Ouch. An hour and a half later we were checking in for the flight to Guangzhou. Getting the instruments onto the plane was the first of a few challenges we were to face. We won in the end. The flight was smooth; the chap next to us heard us chatting and became an instant fan. He took a photo of himself with Peter Guitar and me.
Guangzhou was where the fun really began. We were installed into a nice lounge while we waited patiently for our flight. What could possibly go wrong?
Firstly, we were bumped onto a later flight. This would mean that we would have to be efficient in Beijing if we were to make our connection. An hour before boarding we were told that the flight had been cancelled due to extreme weather. No more flights until morning. It looked like we'd be sleeping in the airport. More by luck than skill, we found out that the airline was willing to put us up. We travelled to a very nice hotel, enjoyed dinner out on the street, and managed about four hours sleep before being ferried back to the airport before dawn.

We flew to Beijing, already half-a-day behind schedule. We inquired as to the viability of our Mongolian Air tickets, and we were all but assured we'd be ok to fly to Ulaanbaatar. At 10.00 that evening. Great.
Airports are wonderful places to kill time. More boring than a budget speech, and more expensive than an angry ex-wife.
Somewhat bloodied but unbowed, the seven of us lined up to be first to check-in when the gate opened. And, of course, when we told them of the assurances we'd received they didn't want to know.
Eventually, someone in control explained that they'd try and get us on but couldn't guarantee anything. The plane was fully booked and we would be relying on no-shows.
We waited patiently, if a little angry and worried, for another four hours. During that time we were informed that 35 people hadn't shown up, so our hopes of escaping China were raised. About 20 late-comers showed up in one go, adding to our stress levels.
Sometime after 10.00pm, we were told we'd made it onto the flight. We joined the millions of sheep, sorry, people at passport control and security, and made it to the gate not long before the flight's doors were scheduled to shut. Hooray. Only one small problem - there was no plane in sight.

After all that, it transpired that our plane had been diverted due to weather. It wouldn't be leaving at 11.55.
It did show up, hours later, and we finally took off at 5.30. Two hours later we arrived, a somewhat bedraggled-looking bunch, at Chinggis Khaan airport. We had been in transit for over 48 hours.
Hello Mongolia!

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Holiday in Cambodia: Siem Reap

Our second Cambodian destination was the popular tourist town of Siem Reap. After another long bus ride (albeit in a well-appointed coach), we were piled into tuk-tuks supplied by our hosts and whisked away to our luxurious accommodation at FCC Angkor. What a beautiful place!
The gig that night was outdoors, up on a stage, playing to FCC's usual Saturday night revellers. The number of patrons dwindled as the night went on, but we still gave it the old mach schau, despite knowing we had to get up at 4.00am for a very special morning. Most of us were in bed by midnight.
I have had a passionate, if sometimes wavering, philosophical and academic interest in Buddhism for 30+ years. Initially stimulated by the beat poets, my thirst for knowledge and my desire to practise has continued to grow. So, the prospect of a visit to Angkor Wat was something I was a little excited about. Even the grim reality of sleep deprivation couldn't dampen my ardour.
We made our way out on a convoy of tuk-tuks. In the darkness, I could see an increasing number of headlights as we closed in on Angkor Wat. All roads lead to Rome and all that.

We made our way in, past what seemed like hundreds of hawkers, and stood quietly gazing at the temple as night turned to day. It was overcast so there was no sunrise to speak of, but it was still a magical experience.
The place is a cash bonanza for Cambodia. Millions of people must visit every year, with each foreigner stumping up USD$37 for the privilege. Locals get in for free.
I was happy to pay. Sure, it was hard to ignore the immodestly dressed, the smokers and the shouty-types, but I tried to drink in the splendour of the place and think about what it must have been like when it was a going concern. Breathtaking.

We also visited the 216 faces of the Bayon Temple, and finshed off our morning at Ta Prohm; both locations were equally magnificent.

In the afternoon we had a heart-warming visit to the 'Music for Everyone' school, a place where local kids can learn to sing and play. It runs on fumes, and would be a worthy cause to support. We also went out to 60 Road Studios, which looks a very impressive music-creation space.
Our second, and final, Cambodian show was at Triangle Restaurant Lounge Bar. We were once again made to feel very special, with food and drink being laid on for all. It was another good performance; PlanB has hit its straps, of that you can be sure.
I'm glad we played Siem Reap; the shows were great and we were treated very well.
I'm even more glad that I got to Angkor Wat.

Holiday in Cambodia: Phnom Penh

We only spent three and a half days in Cambodia but, boy, we did our best to do justice to the place.
To my relatively naive eyes Phnom Penh seemed older, poorer and dirtier than Saigon.  I loved the place almost immediately. We caught tuk-tuks and rode through the dusty, dusky Thursday evening air. The Velkommen Guest House, at one end of yet another chaotic, pungent street, was run by a pleasant, chatty Norwegian geezer. My room was big enough to host a five-a-side match.
We enjoyed Khmer and Thai food on our first night, before heading to Sharky Bar to say hello. We met Ben, who presides over the venue, and enjoyed a few cold beers while we discussed our Friday gig. The staff made us feel special and we had a very pleasant session before disappearing into the Cambodian darkness.

For most people, Fridays are full of optimism; the weekend beckons. For us, this particular Friday was a little short on wide-eyed happiness. We took tuk-tuks out to the harrowing killing fields of the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre where we were exposed to the most barbarous elements of humanity. We also visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), and it is fair to say that we were emotionally spent by the time we returned to the hotel. I'm glad I went, but I was happy to leave when I did.

After soundchecking at Sharky, a few of us went for a wander around the markets. Clothes first, then the food markets. I wouldn't recommend the meat unless you want flies with that.

The Sharky gig was probably the best of the tour so far. It is an anglo-themed bar, but the clientele was probably an even mix of Cambodians and ex-pats. Sharky had been promoting us for months; they'd even organised a radio interview for Sneaky and me last weekend. I think the publicity drive worked. It was their biggest crowd in months, and we responded. There was lots of dancing and singing along among the masses. Rich the sound guy, Packo and Ben looked after us very well. Everything about the show seemed to work, and we raged through our three sets as if our lives depended on it.

Just one of those nights.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Eat (and drink and play) at Joes.

Getting to our two-day engagement at Joe's Cafe in Mui Ne was a bit of a challenge, but it was just about worth it. The vehicle that took us there from the chaos of Ho Chi Minh City was a "bed bus", where travellers insert themselves into a plastic coccoon and sleep away the journey. Fine if you are five foot tall, not so good if you are a long streak... needless to say, a little ingenuity was required.
Joe's Cafe is owned by a laid-back American guy called, erm, Joe. From a humble beginning, he and his wife have been improving the business for a few years, and Joe's is now in a new location, and they have added a boutique hotel just down the road.

We played two shows on consecutive nights; both went well, despite me only having half a voice (head cold). We were supported by two of Joe's favourites: keyboard virtuoso Kreed (thank you for the vodkas) and the friendly and very talented Clive Pendock.
We had an amazing photographer, Aleksei Serov, come to our shows (see top image), and he also offered to do a photo shoot by the beach. The results of his efforts were excellent.
These were tour gigs number five and six and, musically speaking, I think the band is sounding pretty good. Joe's gave us a five-star review, and comments from patrons were very complimentary.

As much as I enjoyed the evenings, the relative serenity of our one free day was also a highlight. Sitting in a deck chair, looking out onto the blue-green South China Sea, across to where Bhutan and Sarawak would be if I could see that far... Lost in thought, pondering nothingness.

Monday, June 26, 2017

So Saigon

I've been in Ho Chi Minh City for a week or so. Most of the band arrived in the early hours of Monday 19 June, slightly worse for wear after two plane journeys that were separated by a lengthy delay.
For some of us, it's our first time in SE Asia and it has been an eye opener.
The pungent aromas (some more pleasant than others) are often overwhelming, the seemingly lawless approach to road use is something to behold, and the local folks we have met have been mostly very pleasant and helpful.
To say the pace is hectic would be an understatement. Everywhere you look, people are racing in all directions; residents, workers, hawkers, beggars, thieves and tourists. Like bees in a jar.
The city blends ultra-modern skyscrapers, colonial buildings and decrepit shanty towns to form a working and living enviroment the likes of which I have never seen before. Except in Bladerunner.
And, amid all of this chaos, the Buddha is everywhere.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Bad Day on the Bike.

Three reasonably fit men. Three days mountain biking on the Mawson Trail. Meticulously planned. What could possibly go wrong?
Wednesday held all the portents of another day in paradise. Sunshine, birdsong and a cool breeze helped to make Day Two of our scheduled three-day mountain bike ride look like it was going to be a belter. The day began like so many others have, shaking off the cobwebs and slowly preparing man and machine. Kapunda had been a lovely host, and now it was time to press on to the unassuming town of Riverton, via a fabulous few hours of trail riding.
We rode off, two of us, out of the caravan park and along the bitumen that would take us out of town and on to Riverton. Despite the previous day being pretty hard on the legs, I felt good. The riding wasn't overly onerous; neither was the legacy of the night before's indulgences.
We rode onto the dirt at Taylor's Run Road, and began the undulating route that I have traversed may times before. After about 20 minutes, I suggested we stop at the top of a hill to take a photo.
I dismounted and took a couple of shots. Then, from nowhere, a dizzy spell hit me like a gunshot. I was down on my haunches and up again before I had much chance to process.
I told Bob what had happened. Weird; probably just one of those moments. We got back on the bikes and rode off. Immediately I knew something was wrong.
There was no strength in my legs. My breathing was laboured. My chest was tight. I got about half way up the next hill and had to get off and push the rest of the way.
"Something's wrong," I said.
I tried again, rolling down the hills and trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to ride up. Deteriation was rapid. After two or three attempts I announced that I didn't think I could go on. That I needed a rest. Within myself, I suspected that this would be the end of my ride.
I was struggling to breathe without making noises, my chest felt like there was a metal band being tightened around it, and my legs were like jelly. It's fair to say I was getting frightened.
I sat on the side of eucalyptus-lined avenue, knowing I wasn't getting up, despite my desire to do so. A couple of motorcyclists went past; I nodded stoically yet mournfully. Here I was, deep in the heart of one of my favourite places in the world, a broken and rather pathetic figure. I gazed upwards through the canopy at the beautiful blue-sky day, and earnestly wondered if this was to be my last. Seriously.
After sitting for probably 20 minutes, we thought it best to ring Rod and see if he could get the car down the track to pick me up. 15 minutes later he arrived, and they put my bike on the back and lifted me up into the passenger seat.
In the interests of full disclosure, but against my usual robust nature, I announced that I wasn't sure that I hadn't had a heart attack, and that I wasn't sure I was going to survive. I didn't want to freak anyone out, but I wanted them to know that I was feeling seriously compromised.
As it happened, I started to feel better once I was in the car. My breathing wasn't quite as noisy, and I was starting to converse. By the time we got to the Kapunda Emergency, I was able to get myself out of the car and speak coherently with the nurse.
The nurse checked my vitals, measured my blood pressure and gave me an ECG (first time in my life I've had my chest shaved). Everything appeared fine. She advised that I shouldn't ride again that day; I told her that there was no chance I would be getting on my bike.
Unfortunately, but sensibly, we decided that it was best to curtail the riding holiday and return to Adelaide.
I saw the doctor, he thought it was oesophagitis, perhaps brought on by the pain-killers I'd been taking for my recovering fractured fibula. It some situations it can feel very much like a heart attack, something to which I am inclined to agree with. My chest was tight for about three weeks afterwards, but both the doctor and the cardiologist have given me the all clear. Two months later, it still gets a little tight when I sing with the band.