Monday, 28 February 2011


I was telling my homeroom class of Korean students about the devastating earthquake in New Zealand. I told them how maybe 200 people had died (they were saddened by this). Then, I told them that 30 Japanese students might be among the dead. They cheered. This was a class from a prestigious Christian high school, intelligent students who exhibited a remarkable degree of callousness I wouldn’t have expected. There is still a lingering resentment of the Japanese in Korea, something that at times is hard to believe. If there is one thing that a divided peninsula can agree on, (forgetting about 4,000 years of shared history, language and culture), it would be negative feelings towards Japan. Something like the enemy of your enemy is your enemy or something. I had never realized before arriving in Korea how much Korea dislikes Japan. I thought that it would be a case of big brother-little brother, like between Australia-New Zealand. It’s not at all like this relationship. It’s much more than that. Korean bitterness of their treatment by Japan is much more epic.

The list of Korean grievances towards Japan is long. The most prominent cause of Korea disgruntlement is over the contested islands known in Korean as Dokdo, in Japanese as Takashima and in English as Liancourt Rocks. To people who are not Korean, Dokdo seems insignificant. Lonely Planet Korea describes Dokdo as a neglected, barren fruit tree in the backyard. Neglected until the neighbour takes an interest in the fruit tree. Then, you take an interest in it, big time. Korea has a legitimate claim to the uninhabited islands that are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and potentially large natural gas reserves. It has been shown as being part of Korea on maps since the 6th century. Japan’s claims centre on the fact that after the liberation of annexed Korea, Dokdo was not explicitly listed in the surrender. In 1949, the UN decided that Dokdo was Korean, a decision overturned in 1951 by the US secretary of state. However, in 1952, the South Korean president claimed the islands for Korea, which remains the disputed status quo. South Korea has now positioned soldiers on Dokdo in a bid to maintain their grip on the disputed island. Prefectures in Japan celebrate a Takashima Day and some Japanese have listed their address as Dokdo.

Dokdo, Takashima or the Liancourt Rocks. Take your pick but the right answer is probably Dokdo.
Another issue is the name of the sea Dokdo is in. Commonly known in the West as the Sea of Japan (the name you would find on most maps), Koreans object to this sobriquet. The centre of this argument is that Japan nefariously promoted the name while Korea was under imperialistic control. Korea argues that their preferred name, the East Sea, was found on a majority of European maps published before Japanese predominance in the peninsula. Japan maintains Sea of Japan was the choice of most European cartographers before Japanese dominance of Korea, and that the Sea of Japan is the most appropriate name. This view was upheld by a congress in 1928, which has influenced future discussions. Korea counters that as an effective Japanese colony, it had no effective say in the name. I probably say Dokdo’s Korean but Sea of Japan is fine. 1-1 then.

A more bizarre claim is that Japan deliberately changed and influenced the spelling of English spelling of Korea from Corea to Korea. Allegedly, this was done so that during Olympic Games and the like, Japan would be in front of Korea alphabetically during the opening ceremony. Imagine the disrespect of a simple colony appearing before their masters. Actually, this ignores the fact that Koreans actually competed for Japan at the Olympics after the 1910 annexation. A Korean marathon runner called Sohn Kee-Chung who ran for Japan under his assumed Japanese name, Son Kitei, won the marathon for Japan at the 1936 Berlin games. A staunch nationalist, he refused to sign his name in Japanese, drawing the outline of Korea beside his signature and made sure reporters knew Korea was his homeland. This gave him a degree of notoriety in Korea which was further developed when a picture of him on the dais was published in a Korean newspaper which deliberately obscured the Japanese flag. Late recognition of his patriotism was given in the 1988 Seoul Olympics when he led the Olympic torch into the stadium.

Sohn Kee Chung, a Korean who won the gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics while running for Japan.
Rather than a master trying to keep down its dog, the spelling of Korea is more likely a case where the flexibility and inaccuracy of English and the problems associated with accurately translating foreign names is at fault rather than a grand Japanese plan. As one blogger wrote, Korea should feel lucky that the transliteration is close and actually is related to Korea (Korea is believed to be derived from Koryeo, an early Korean dynasty). After all, China bears no relation to its Mandarin counterpart, Zhong Goa. Or Japan itself, which is Nippon in Japanese. And the Japanese themselves didn’t refer to Korea as Korea, instead they called it Tae Han Chejkuk or Choseon. These seem similar to South Korea’s current name Tae Han Min Guk or North Korea’s name Chosŏn Minjujuŭi Inmin Konghwaguk. Think this is another case of Koreans being too easily wounded.

While sometimes you could feel Korea is trying to invent ways that Japan has insulted it, the truth is it has been severely wronged by Japan in the past. Japan has invaded Korea twice, once in the late 16th Century and again in the late 19th Century. The latter invasion is where most of today’s bitterness and hostility comes from. Japan started a policy of replacing China as the major player in the Korean sphere of influence in the 1870s shortly after the Meiji reform. Starting with gunboat diplomacy, they forced Korea into unequal treaties before upping the stakes in 1895 with the assassination of the strongly nationalistic Queen Min, who was making appeals to both China and Russia for help to overcome the Japanese dominance. In 1905, Japan persuaded the puppet emperor to sign a treaty that made Korea a protectorate and in 1910, encouraged by a non-intervention treaty signed with the USA, completed the formal annexation, effectively ending the 500-year-old Joseon dynasty. Opposition to this was widespread in the community. In 1919, US president Woodrow Wilson’s speech to the League of Nations about the right of people to be independent was seen as a sign the world would help Korea. However, a non-violent protest on the 1st of March 1919 was brutally repressed by the Japanese occupation forces (up to 8,000 were slaughtered) and it wasn’t until 1945 that Korea finally gained its independence.

During the occupation, Korean language and writing was banned with Japanese promoted as the language of education. The study of Hangeul (Korean script) was relegated to an elective. Its use was discouraged in homes.  People were required to adopt Japanese names, like Sohn Kee-Chung did. Koreans were supposed to adopt Shinto, and leave behind their traditional Confusion-Buddhist thinking. Instead of aspiring to universities in Korea, now the highest honour was to attend Tokyo University. Koreans were expected to worship the Japanese emperor. Popular songs and poems written for the Korean emperors were changed to now give praise to the Japanese emperor. Korean history books were burnt. Inscriptions were changed in an attempt to conceal history. Local palaces and temples were burnt down or converted to other purposes, like Changdeokgung in Seoul which became a zoo. Gyeongbokgung, later rebuilt, was burnt down and replaced with the Japanese Governor-General Buildings. Looting of artifacts and national treasures was widespread. Koreans were used in military medical experiments, in tests involving biological warfare and experienced hardship from preventable famines. The Japanese seized ownership of traditional land. Koreans were shipped to mainland Japan in great numbers to work in military factories and heavy industry and put to forced labour in the mines of Manchuria. Military police patrolled the streets and dealt with rebels and independence fighters severely. Reports of massacres of villagers who collaborated with rebels being burnt alive in churches were not uncommon. Koreans living in Korea could not vote and didn’t have any local representation in the Japanese parliament. It has been branded a genocide, both of Korean humanity and culture.

Changdeokgung was made into a zoo during the Japanese occupation.

After the 1919 uprising, some concessions were allowed, including the publication of Korean newspapers, like the one that published the altered image of Sohn Kee Chung. A provisional Korean government was established in Shanghai and was popular in China, especially in Manchuria and Russia (where the future North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung was born). Armies were founded and guerrilla warfare was fought, especially in North Korea. Since the liberation and subsequent splitting of Korea in 1945, both North and South Korea have listed grievances and complaints with the Japanese government. Some of these have been addressed but the Japanese reluctance to offer apology and recompense is well known. The wording of Japanese textbooks of history over the war period has raised South Korean hackles. One major issue yet to be fully resolved revolve around the use of Korean woman as sex slaves for the Japanese Imperial army, euphemistically known as comfort women. These poor women served as mere sex objects for countless Japanese soldiers, many left with on-going medical complaints, broken both physically and mentally. These women have appealed for compensation and recognition of their suffering, something that has been denied to them by Japanese courts that cite lack of evidence. No formal apology has yet been made by the Japanese government and the woman, most of whom are now elderly, must fear they will never see one. Their very existence is rejected in school textbooks that omit any mention of comfort women, and downplays the impact that the Japanese occupation had on Korea, China and to a lesser extent South East Asia.

Another Korean grievance involves the visits to Yasukuni Shrine by Japanese Prime Ministers. This Tokyo Shinto shrine in a peaceful idyllic setting memorializes all of Japan’s war dead since the Meiji reform. Unfortunately, it also honours non–Shinto Korean soldiers whose families wish to see their names released from the shrine so that they can be worshipped in a way they feel more appropriate. The biggest issue involved with Yasukuni Shrine involves the internment of the souls of 23 executed Korean war criminals (Class B and C) as well as 14 Class A Japanese war criminals from the top echelon of the Japanese war machine. Basically what infuriates Korea and China is that a visit to the shrine effectively serves as a worship of Japan’s war dead, including these notorious war criminals, some of whom were responsible for atrocities in both countries. The visits by former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi “to pay homage to the servicemen who died for defense of Japan” led to the pullout of summit talks with Japan by both China and Korea.

Talk of compensation and apology are still a burning issue. While compensation was agreed upon and paid by Japan in 1965, the money given to the South Korean Government was mostly used for economic development and not used as compensation for individuals. The South Korean government at the time chose not to have Japan grant individual compensation. This has been challenged of late and groups of war survivors have actually filed against the South Korean government to seek compensation. Apologies have been offered by the Japanese government to the people of Korea but have been made in a way that the true intent and sincerity have been questioned. For example, politicians have made apologies overseas that have been recanted when in Japan. Apologies have been made but actions then cast a shadow on their sincerity e.g. Koizumi giving a heartfelt apology but then he or other politicians attended the Yasukuni shrine.

It seems strange to me that the Japanese can inspire such long-lasting resentment. When traveling in Japan, I found the Japanese to be courteous and kind people. Sometimes, it seems that hatred and resentment of Japan is encouraged. The area of Seoul called Seodaemun houses the impressive arch called the Independence Gate, a nice park and a chilling museum that was used by the Japanese during their latest occupation to jail Korean independence activists. 
In a cell in Seodaemun prison, one of the most brutal museums I've been to.
Both male and female freedom fighters were housed here and their plight is detailed graphically. The bottom floor has animated mannequins of both the Japanese and Koreans. One scene shows Japanese raping Korean women, another shows Japanese torturing Koreans by inserting bamboo rods under their fingernails. The ground floor of the museum was kept like it was when it was a prison, with some of the small, poorly lit cells open for the public to look in. Outside the main building were photos and stories of some of the dead and an execution room, where people were hung, shot and tortured and otherwise killed. The day we went was a Saturday morning and several school groups were there (Korean kids attend school every second Saturday morning). Some of the pictures and the animated mannequins were disturbing enough for adults, let alone kids. But the schoolchildren seemed to be taking it all in. Their teachers seemed to be encouraging them to view the most horrific scenes. And some of these kids were under 10. If museums could be rated, this would be an R18. I guess it might be part of a great plan to ensure that Koreans don’t forgive and never forget that the Japanese committed such atrocities, no matter how much they might like manga or Japanese bands.

I will put my hand up and say that this hatred of Japan and that’s not a word I use lightly, could be used to a teachers advantage in class. Mention Japan to an unresponsive class and you would be almost guaranteed an impassioned response. Students with seemingly no English ability would string together an English sentence of violent vitriol directed to the Japanese. An articulate dismantling of Japan and a coherent listing of legitimate Korean grievances.
I have been guilty myself of small scale protest against Japan. My first year in Korea, a Japanese film crew come across the East Sea to discover and document how the kids coped in an all English immersion environment. We were filmed playing a type of genetically engineered scrabble where the kids made sentences using oversized scrabble letters. I must have been bored or in a subversive mood so I didn’t mind when the kids spelt out sentences like “Dokdo is ours”. The kids got into the nationalistic spirit composing messages like “Koizumi (Japanese PM) is a monkey”. The feed was beaming live into TV sets all over Japan, with the Japanese reporter commenting on how great our English program must be, considering the great phrases the kids could come up. And the best part was that no one (the Japanese film crew or our administration) picked up in it. In hindsight, I was lucky it didn't cause a diplomatic feud. I’ve been to Japan three times and I’ve always come away with positive feelings. I wish I hadn’t encouraged this slice of anti-Japanese sentiment. Why can’t we all be friends?

Sunday, 27 February 2011


I have to start this story off with a confession. Before I went To Egypt, I didn’t know what an obelisk was. To be more specific, I didn’t know that obelisks were called obelisks. Maybe, I thought they were called a needle, maybe I didn’t think they had a specific name. To further compound my embarrassment, there is an obelisk at my place of work. Friends would say met at the obelisk in 5. I knew what they meant and where to meet, yet I stil didn't make the connection.  It wasn’t until I was in Aswan, visiting the unfinished obelisk at its large outdoor museum that I connected the dots between the word obelisk with the monument obelisk. The unfinished obelisk would have been the largest one of the ancient world (standing 42 metres) but construction was stopped when cracks appeared in it where it lay in the bedrock. It is a type of architectural Rosetta stone, offering insights into ancient Egyptian stone-working techniques, with marks from workers' tools still clearly visible as well as ocher-colored lines marking where they were working when work was abandoned. Like other ancient monuments like Stonehenge, questions have been asked about how obelisks would have been built and then raised. Copper chisels and diorite pounders would have been used to render the massive monoliths out of the red granite in the quarries of Aswan, in a process that may have taken months or even years to finish. Once free, they were then shipped down the Nile to grace temple entrances, erected by cranes, levers and what one can only imagine, massive amounts of manpower.  
Since discovering that obelisk meant the needle like monolith and not just a character in Axterix, I endeavored to try and find more obelisks on my travels. Some are still in Egypt, but many others were taken by foreign powers and can now be found in Italy, France, Turkey, Israel, the UK and the US. Obelisks have been highly valued and because of this, have been a favourite item to steal, looted by Egypt's foreign rulers (Egypt has been in foreign hands for the majority of the last 3,000 years). Of the many obelisks raised in ancient Egypt, only nine still stand in Egypt, the rest either removed, broken by competing cults, preyed on by climate and time or pulled down by Christians or Muslims whose religions have long since replaced the ancient pantheon. Many still lie broken in the sand, representing lost dreams and grandeur faded. They recall Shelley's famous poem, Ozymandias, believed to be inspired by shattered statues of Rameses II

 "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings.
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, 
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

After the Unfinished Obelisk, I saw several standing and finished obelisks in Egypt. The first was at the great temple complex at Karnak. Two obelisks still stand here. The taller of the two was erected by Queen Hatshepsut, the other erected by Tuthmosis I. An inscription at the base of the taller one indicates that the work of cutting the monolith out of the quarry required seven months of labor. Hatshepsut actually raised four obelisks at Karnak, now only one stands. Some fell during her reign and were replaced. In fact, the unfinished obelisk may have been commissioned as a replacement for one of the fallen monuments until its fatal flaw was revealed. We went to Karnak on a beautiful day. Other buildings may be taller but the way that this obelisk reached towards the sky, hieroglyphs silhouetted against the bright blue sky, like a giant, divine finger was breathtaking.

Left: The unfinished obelisk in Aswan.Middle looking up at Karnak and Right; twin towers at Karnak.
From Karnak runs a 3-kilometre avenue of sphinxes. Up to 2000 sphinxes line the path, which is still being renovated, much of it still lying under housing and hotels. If you could follow this path, you would find that it leads to Luxor temple, which like Karnak, also boosts an obelisk. This obelisk was initially one of a pair (as almost all obelisks were). However, in 1829, Muhammad Ali Pasha, self-proclaimed Khedive of Egypt but really just a vassal of the Ottomans, ‘gave’ the two obelisks to the French. One was taken gleefully and arrived in Paris in 1833, where it still stands in the centre of Place de la Concorde. The other obelisk remained in Egypt, maintaining its guard at Luxor Temple. France symbolically renounced its claim to it in the 1990s. Both are made from red granite, and like so much of the remaining examples of Egyptian architecture, extols the virtues of Rameses II. Rameses II or Rameses the Great is recognized as ancient Egypt's most successful leader, with many monuments bearing his cartouche, including famous monuments like Abu Simbel and Ramesseum. Rameses II also hijacked buildings and monuments raised by previous pharaohs to change them to extol his deeds, accounting for the over abundance of monuments and statues bearing his name. He protected his legacy by insisting that his carvings were deeply engraved, which made them less susceptible to alteration by later pharaohs, saving his legacy from the same fate of the monuments he had defaced.

The next obelisk we saw was in Istanbul. When it arrived in Istanbul in 390AD, Istanbul was Constantinople and it was erected in the hippodrome. Here it still stands, shorter than original, the bottom half broken, whereabouts unknown. It was ironic that our guide was standing by the obelisk as he was telling us how much of the treasures of Constantinople and later Istanbul had been looted by foreigners. He didn't seem to get the irony when I pointed out he was standing beside a looted Egyptian artifact. In fact, he seemed rather perturbed that I would question the integrity of the Turkish people in such a manner. It still stands in the hippodrome, surviving in the shadow of two great, religious marvels in the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia.

My next obelisk sighting was in London. This obelisk is commonly known as Cleopatra's needle, despite having nothing to do with the famous queen, (it was made 1000 years before she was born). It was given to the UK as a gift by Muhammad Ali to commerate the Mediterranean victories of Lord Nelson. The British welcomed the gift but declined to pay for its transfer. So the obelisk stayed in the Alexandrian sand it had languished in for 2000 years until 1877 when a Sir William Wilson paid for its transfer. It wasn't plain sailing back to London; six crewmen died during a storm in the Bay of Biscay. The obelisk finally made it to London, where it now stands on the banks of the Thames, surviving both World Wars. It was damaged by a German bomb in 1917. Shrapnel damage pay testament to its near destruction.  It is flanked by two unusual looking faux sphinxes that stand either side of the needle. It makes for a rather incongruous Egyptian theme park in dreary London, about as far away from the Egyptian landscape as imaginable.

Left: Cleopatra's needle; Middle: The Rosetta stone and Right: Mary beside one of the sphinxes that guards the needle.
Rome can be considered the capital of obelisks. No fewer than thirteen found their way to the old imperial city, looted and transported across the Mediterranean (although only eight still stand today). We saw four obelisks here, not including the numerous replicas and custom made obelisks like the one at the Spanish steps. Given the trouble experienced by the British in the 19th Century, it must have been quite a task to transport them here. They were brought down the Nile to Alexandria and from there were taken across the Mediterranean to Rome on specially designed ships. When in Rome, cranes were used to put up the monoliths. The tallest one is known as the Lateran Obelisk. This was originally from Karnak and is another candidate to be the twin of the unfinished obelisk. It was initially intended to go to Constantinople, on the order of Emperor Constantine. On his death, his son Constantius II brought it to Rome, where it was erected in the Circo Massimo in 357 AD. It fell sometime before the 16th Century, and a search in 1587 found it buried under 23 feet of dirt, surviving but in three pieces. It was re-erected in its current location in 1588, near the Church of St John Lateran. A cross was added to the top of it and it became an icon in this high profile area of medieval Catholicism. 
Top Left: Obelisk in St Peters Square, Bottom Left: Lateran Obelisk. Top Right: Obelisk in front of the Pantheon, Bottom Right: Ancient Roman obelisk at the top of the Spanish steps.

The next two obelisks we saw were within a couple of hundred metres of each other, on either side of the Pantheon. The first is a curious amalgamation of styles, with a small obelisk on the back of an elephant base designed by Bernini (the architect responsible for St Peters Basilica). Its twin is found in Urbino. The other is the centre piece of a fountain in front of the Pantheon designed by Filippo Barigioni. Both are small obelisks that merge ancient Egyptian with post-Renaissance architecture.
The fourth is the most famous in Rome, the 25.5 metre obelisk that stands in Saint Peter’s Square. It had originally stood since 37 AD on the wall of the Circus of Nero but had fallen over and was half buried. The task to erect it was taken over on by Domenico Fontana. It took 18 days to move it the short distance to where it stands now, with 1000 men, 140 horses and 47 cranes employed in the shift. It was erected successfully; although legend has it Fontana had a team of horses ready for a quick escape if it didn’t go to plan. Legend also had it that the ashes of Julius Caesar were contained in a small ball at the top of the obelisk (although when Fontana opened it up, it only contained dust).
Obelisks are a prominent example of colonist looting that has occurred to many countries. Egypt is maybe the most prominent victim, with most great museums having an Egyptian wing or hall, composed of items often taken without the consent of Egyptians. The Rosetta stone (in London) and the mask of Nefertiti (Berlin), other great Egyptian icons, are examples of items that also find themselves out of Egypt. Countries could do the right thing and return items that were taken illegally back to Egypt. This is unlikely given that they are such a draw card. Egypt can only hope.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011


There are some cities that you visit that differ vastly from your expectations. Moscow is not one of them. It is almost exactly what you thought it would be like. Cold, somber, uninviting with a hung over malignancy from the Soviet era. And that’s just the people. Nothing about Moscow is inviting. “Nyet, Nyet, Nyet” is a constant reply, whether you are asking to buy a chocolate bar, a subway ticket or a beer. Even the friendliest person we met wasn’t exactly a bleeding heart. We were struggling with directions so it was nice that she helped us out. She pointed us to our guesthouse with instructions that it was opposite a stature of an angel. We said thanks and then proceeded to not be able to see said angel. Our good Samaritan continues to watch us and sensing that we couldn’t make sense of her directions yells at us “Hey, it's by the angel, I told you it's by the angel”. Her tone was more banshee, less angel, vitriolic, scathing. Moscow is harsh.

Getting to Russia is such a process that you almost think that they don't want you there (which I think may be the case). To get a visa, you need to get an official invitation from the Department of Ministry. This can be done by contacting a travel agency, university or by getting a job in Russia. Alternatively, some hotels and hostels can also “invite” you to the country (for a small fee). We got our hotel in Moscow to issue us with an invitation. You then take that to the embassy where they make requests for imaginary documents. They also require everything in triplicate but don't tell you that on their website nor do they make mention of it on the application form. Despite this, the embassy doesn't have a photocopier that people can use. Me, “Can I use a photocopier to make more copies of this document”? Sour faced Embassy guy “We don’t have a photocopier”. Me “I can see three photocopiers right there”. Sour Faced Embassy Guy “Nyet”. (I see now he was just preparing me for the motherland). Finally, after running down to a family mart and using their photocopier/fax machine, my documents were in order and the visa was issued.

We flew to Russia on the national carrier, Aeroflot, which doesn’t entirely deserve its unpleasant reputation. Much to my chagrin, it wasn't a prop plane. There were not ashtrays in the armrests as I had hoped. There was no personal in-flight entertainment. Instead, there was a repeat screening of a 70s style soft-core spy film. Hoping for a horror show, I would have to give Aeroflot a solid B. Arriving in Moscow, we managed to cut our way through the swath of dodgy looking taxi-drivers trying to ensnare us at the airport and caught a bus to the nearest metro. The Moscow metro has many things going for it. Trains arrive every 2 minutes, an impressive feat. It also has many things going against it. The trains are so old and so rattly that conversation is nearly impossible. You are so far underground that you get a true appreciation of how many of the subways also doubled as Cold War air-raid shelters. Some of the early stations are elaborate affairs, which were worth a trip just to admire the Soviet architecture, where you can still play spot the hammer and sickle.

Coming out of the subway in Moscow seemed to take forever.
The convoluted immigration process didn’t stop once you hit Russia. Once in Russia, you are supposed to register in every city you were spending three or more days in days. There are three options. You can take your chances and live on the edge, hoping that the infamously over-zealous police didn’t pick you up. If you're darker skinned, don't even think about it. The Russian police are famous for their overt displays of racism, especially towards people who might look like they come from Central Asia. Another option is that you can go to the local registration office yourself and be prepared to waste a day, while trying to obtain documents that no one has ever heard of before in a bid to get registered. Luckily, for us, the third option was that your hotel could do the registration process for you (for another small fee), thus saving a potential wasted day or a change of money via a bribe.  

On our first day in Moscow, we took to the streets, making our way to the Red Square. The city is simultaneously in decay while showing signs of growth. Old school ladas roamed the streets, taking me back to childhood jokes. 
Q: Why do Ladas have heaters in their back window A: To keep your hands warm when you're pushing them. I didn't see too many broken down on the side of the road or an over-abundance of car repair centres so maybe Ladas are more reliable than they get credit for. 

Apart from the Cyrillic writing, Moscow could be any other depressed looking city in the world. McDonalds have made it there (they did actually make it in to Russia before communism fell), Starbucks is there. People look hassled, mostly keeping to themselves, walking quickly, head down. We passed the occasional church and quiet cafes before we make it to Red Square, the spiritual as well as historic heart of Moscow (some might say all of Russia). We weren’t alone. Crowds were here, taking in the sights. Several bridal parties were dancing in the square with their official photographers competing with tourists for the pictures. Red Square is synonymous with communism in many western minds, used in the regular, massive Soviet military displays that were meant to intimidate during the Cold War. It is an impressive expanse, flanked by buildings of significance. 
Red Square. Gum Department Store is on the left, the Kremlin and Lenin's mausoleum on the right and St Basil's right in front.
When you enter through Resurrection Gate, to your right lies the impressive State Historical Museum, a red brick, baroque building that is home to millions of items of interest from Soviet, Tsarist and eras long before. On the left side is the GUM department store, the flagship store in the country during communism, a store that unlike most in the country was not plagued by shortages of consumer goods. This meant that there were often long queues of people waiting to get in that often extended all the way across Red Square. Opposite GUM is Lenin's mausoleum and behind that lies the Kremlin, the fortress of ancient Moscow, home to the tsars, headquarters of the Soviets and currently maintained as the presidential suite of the current regimes. The surprising thing for me about the Kremlin was that several churches from the tsarist era were maintained on the grounds. I was surprised because I assumed that the Soviets would have done away with these vestiges of tsarism. It's true that they weren't in great condition, decrepit and dilapidated, used for other purposes than worship. But they still remain and some effort has gone into their repair.

Golden domes of the Church of the Disposition of the Robe, in the Kremlin.
The true star of Red Square is St Basils Cathedral, which stands opposite of the State Historical Museum. St Basils dominates the skyline and is an icon of Moscow that dates to the 15th Century. It is also an oddity in that "nothing like it can be found in the entire millennium of Byzantine tradition from the fifth to the fifteenth century". The church, designed as a flame rising from a bonfire, is surprisingly small inside, made out of 10 different churches. Legend has it that Ivan the Terrible, the tsar who ordered its construction, blinded the architect Postnik Yakolev so that he would be unable to design anything as beautiful again. In fact, Yakovlev continued to work in Ivan's service, designing the chapel over the grave of St Basil's that was built several years after Ivan died.  St Basils has been threatened several times in its history. Napoleon lit fuses to try and blow it up on his departure from the Russian capital in 1812 (the fuses were dampened by a sudden rainstorm). It was also under threat of removal during the Soviet era. After Lenin's death, thoughts were entertained of destroying the cathedral, as it became an obstacle for urban redesign. Lazar Koganovitch, Moscow party boss, suggested removing the church, even going as far as removing a model of it from a mock-up Red Square. Thankfully, Stalin showed some compassion and objected to its destruction with the famous quote "Lazar, put it back".

St Basil's.
Stalin wasn't as kind to all of Moscow's churches. The orthodox world's largest church, the Church of Christ the Saviour, was condemned in 1931, dynamited initially to clear the way for a Lenin memorial before eventually becoming the world's largest outdoor swimming pool. It was remade in the 1990s, with the new church built closely following the original external design of the church, although there were changes done to the interior design. Russia's largest cathedral, it is an impressive sight, both inside and out. It stands about 103 metres tall and can hold about 10,000 people. Inside, the ceiling and the walls are adorned with bright frescoes that show both religious and historical events. The original church was dedicated to the victory over Napoleon, meaning that some of the frescoes commemorate figures and scenes from 1812. The Orthodox churches always surprise me with their iconography. It sometimes seems almost paganist, with their focus on the Saints and their relics. Away from the main hall were shops where you can buy icons, crosses, photographs, bibles and other religious paraphernalia.
Church of Christ the Saviour

For something a little different, we made a trip to Novodevichy Cemetery, which made for an interesting hour-long diversion. This was the first time that a cemetery had made it into an overseas itinerary (my wife is a big fan of visiting graveyards throughout New Zealand). Novodevichy was, and still is, the celebrity cemetery, where a who's who of Russian authors, musicians, playwrights, poets, cosmonauts, actors, scientists and political leaders came to be interned. Notables include Anton Chekhov, Boris Yeltsin, Nikita Khruschchev and Gogol who are all buried here. The headstones were often intricate and ornate, with huge sculptures. Unfortunately, the writing was all in Cyrillic so while the several busloads of interested Russians could follow the maps to find their favourites, the four of us were left guessing, without being able to find out who was who. We were still able to enjoy the over the top sculptures as well as the ambience of the cemetery, which has turned into a macabre tourist attraction of some note. 

Sure these people are famous but not sure who they are.
Novodevichy Cemetery is found right beside Novodevichy Convent, of which it is an extension. The convent was founded in 1524 by Tsar Vasily III. It served two functions; as a convent and also as a fortress, which marked Moscow's southern edge. After the revolution, Novodevichy's churches were closed and in 1922 it was turned into a museum. This spared it from a worse fate until the cathedral was returned to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1945 as a reward for backing the war effort. A religious function has been restored to the convent but nuns still keep a low profile. The convent has several sumptuous churches on its ground, with tall, graceful bell towers. They are often adorned with the golden onion domes so characteristic of Russian Orthodox churches. Candlelight illuminates the interior of the cathedrals and alters, given the many icons and paintings an eerie feel. The Orthodox Church is undergoing somewhat of a revival in post-communist Russia so the convent attracts many worshippers, meaning that you did feel as if you were disturbing prayer at time. There was one lady with a small child who we seemed to be following, who lit candles at several places around the complex and was very fervent in her prayer. I felt bad as a tourist in her place of worship. Afterwards, you can contemplate what you’ve witnessed with a stroll around a small lake, where vendors sell Matryoshka dolls and watercolours among other souvenirs.
Looking back towards Novodevichy Convent

No trip to Russia would be complete without a round or two of vodka. We had our first round in a bar near the Kremlin. Vodka in Russia seemed to be much smoother than vodka I had had at home. This is just as well because you get a glass of vodka that resembles a beer mug more than a shot glass. It’s intimidating seeing that drink arrive but it goes down smoothly. Now I have more understanding of how characters in Dostoevsky’s novels can consume vast amounts of vodka, drinking it as I would drink beer. It was during this vodka-drinking contest that we noticed the most overt display of xenophobia. We were enjoying (if that’s not too strong a word) our beverages when we saw this guy stop. I would say he was a skinhead, maybe even a neo-Nazi, given his dress sense and hair cut. The object of his attention was a group of African students. He stood staring at them for 10 minutes, muttering to himself before making himself so enraged that he stormed off, kicking a chair and shouting something. I have never seen anyone appear so angry at the sight of a group of foreigners that were keeping to themselves, not harming anyone. This behaviour appalled me, not that is exclusively Russian. Racially motivated crimes and bigotry occur in every country in the world. What it can be is an allegory for the sense of unwelcomeness I felt at times in Russia. I was concerned by it but on the other hand, I was secretly pleased by it. Nowadays, travel often seems all too easy. Tourists can turn up to a country, be picked up at the airport, enter a resort and leave a week later without actually leaving the confines of their resort during that time. Even if they do, they often only see the tourist sites, dealing with people directly involved in tourism. I liked how Russia put up a middle finger to tourists and said that you want to come to my country, you can come on my terms. Take it or leave it. It seemed real, gritty which is how Moscow is.

Thursday, 17 February 2011


When we went to Luang Prabang in Laos in 2008, I had the feeling that we had arrived in the country just at the right time. It had enough tourists to make things easy but not enough that tourists were exploited. As a micronism for greater Laos, Luang Prabang fits well with this synopsis. Its really just a big provincial town, that has maintained enough of its temples and old school charm to be a draw card for tourists but hasnt became too big to lose its authenticity.

One of the many beautiful temples in Luang Prabang.
At night, people come from the villages and around Luang Prabang to sell goods at the famous night market. Unlike some places in South East Asia, bargaining is still amicable. The stalls are varied, selling mainly handicrafts but also some quite unique items, weapons, masks and good coffee. In the morning, if you rise early, you can watch the monks (there are many) collecting alms from the locals. Unfortunately, as is the case in many developing countries where tourism is important, watching the ceremony is not without its disadvantages. For one, some of the locals have got camera-shy, sick of the constant pictures and intrusions of interested foreigners into what is a long lasting local custom. This lessons the amount of food collected by the monks, which goes to feeding both the monks and the less fortunate members of society. Some local businessmen have also been taking advantage of the situation, selling old, stale food to tourists who give it to the monks. The result of this has been several monks falling sick. There has been some talk of changing the practice but the Laos government sees the ceremony as a major draw card for tourists. Its has been alleged that they would ensure that the ceremony will continue, even if it means getting lay people to dress up as monks and use lay people to dole out the food. Tourists are therefore indirectly responsible for the loss of karma that would have been accrued by these locals for not giving alms to the monks.
Monks on the morning alms collection.
Karma would be a feature of a trip we made to the Pak Ou Caves, famous caves filled with Buddha statues that are about an hour from Luang Prabang. Along the way, we had a chance to stop for snake wine (wine that has the body of a snake in it) and for a couple of shots of LaoLao ( a nasty smelling and tasting moonshine whiskey made from rice). I wouldn't recommend either, both tasted like gasoline and smelt pungent. After an hour, we arrived at a village opposite the caves where we caught a boat to get across the Mekong. On our boat, sat a little girl. She was a young saleswoman, hardened from her few tough years of life experience. Her goal, getting us to buy from her, a songbird encased in a cane cage. By buying it from her, and then releasing it, you would attain karma (this is a relatively common sight throughout Asia, especially near Buddhist sites). Her expressive eyes and bargaining skills, plus the fact that she was on a boat with us so we had nowhere to go or hide so held our full attention for 10 minutes, led us to a decision to buy this bird from her (something I wouldn't usually have done as buying birds only seems to encourage the capture of more birds). We gave her the equivalent of $2 for the cage and bird, got off the boat and walked up to the area in front of the lower caves. It was decided that this was a good place as any to release the bird. I gently removed the bird from its cage. It looked like it was a swallow or a swift, a small, graceful bird. It didn't struggle in my hands. I took to the edge of the cliff that we were standing on and threw it out, expecting to see it take flight. Instead, it flew like a stone, plummeting into the muddy Mekong, its injury or death a blow to my karma accumulation.

The hardened saleswoman who broke our resolve
Karma aside, there wasn't a lot I could do to save the unfortunate bird. I could make a list like Earl but I wouldn't know how to reverse this situation, unless I saved a bird from death (which I suppose I have, saving birds from the jaws of pet cats, both pre and post the Mekong bird massacre). I just felt bad and a little foolish, standing for a minute to reflect on the bird before heading to the caves. The Pak Ou caves are pretty cool, two caves filled with 4000 statues of Buddha, most of which were very old statues left by the locals who have lived in the area around the cave for millennia, others left by more recent visitors to the caves. The statues were of all different sizes, some seated, but mostly in the standing Buddha form favoured in the area. The larger, upper cave has more Buddhas but you need a torch to see them. I preferred the smaller cave, called Tham Ting, that sat behind the altar of bird sacrifice. Here, the statues overlooked the Mekong, acting as guardians as maybe icons from the old Laotian religion did in the days before Buddhism, that served to protect travelers on their journeys along the great river.  Below, you can see boats waiting to take their passengers back to Luang Prabang or just back to the village opposite, buddhas silhouetted against the Mekong, snatches of jungle glimpsed on the far bank.

Buddhas looking out of Pak Ou Caves, over the Mekong River.

Laos is still one of the gems of Asia, slow paced, laidback but increasing in modernity. Standing at the caves, you hope that the modernity takes a while to come, because the serenity of the area deserves more than to be broken by the noise of tourist buses and larger boats pulling up from Luang Prabang. I'm still working on paying off the karma debt I accrued in and around Luang Prabang though.


In the middle of downtown Vientiane, the capital of Laos, lies a monument to mis-spent aid. In the 1960s, the United States gave money to Laos to use towards the construction of an international airport. This would have benefited Laos as well as provided America a better base for its interests in Indochina. Instead, the funds and concrete were diverted to the building of a monumental arch, one similar to those found in the cities of France, Laos’s former imperial masters. Known as Pataxui or the Gate of Triumph, those in the know refer to Pataxui as the vertical runway. The arch, at first glance, looks strangely out of place, a European edifice in a South East Asian city, although the long, wide avenues in downtown Vientiane do give you a further feeling of France. On closer inspection, the concrete goliath has a very oriental feel, full of carved mythological beings and Eastern mysticism. Two graffitied staircases lead up to the top, where ones efforts are rewarded by panoramic views of the city (one of the least hectic large cities in South East Asia). This entire preamble about Pataxui was really to get to the point that aid money is often mis-used, mis-managed and mis-appropriated in the developing world.
Pataxui, the vertical runway, in downtown Vientiane.
Aid is big business. Each year, many billions of dollars a year are given to developing countries by developed countries. However, developmental aid (as opposed to humanitarian aid) is seldom an act of pure altruism. This money is given for a variety of reasons; to improve infrastructure (which may also be a way to extract a developing country’s resources easier), to give support to military allies, given as a reward for policies that favour the donor country. Aid may be dependent on certain companies being given contracts, on religious or ideological goals being met or done in ways that are atypical to the region. Aid can often be seen as a form of neo-colonialism, a way to push a country’s influence and interest (an agenda first started by European Companies like the East India Company that monopolized a country’s resources without actually going through the process of colonizing a country, and later refined through multinational companies and the conditional giving of aid). Aid given by the World Bank and the IMF has been criticized as a tool to open up areas to capitalists, with little regard given to the well-being of people in developing countries. The poorest countries are not necessarily the major beneficiaries of aid. For example, only one-fifth of US aid goes to countries that are classified as least developed. Most aid goes to ‘richer’ developing countries as these countries are potential new markets and/or potential military allies.
Even humanitarian aid has it critics. Well meaning groups sent pork to earth-quake survivors in Iran; medication is often sent to disaster areas without translation and therefore can’t be used. People in Haiti complain of mis-managed funds, of rubble being moved to allow aid workers SUVs to run up and down streets but nothing done to clear rubble from essential facilities. Humanitarian aid, however, remains an essential and important part of the world's response to disasters, emergencies and poverty. When I travel, I try to support fair trade initiatives or give money to groups who support beggars etc (rather than giving directly to beggars as this is likely to exasperate problems). In Laos, we bought books to give to ethnic children from hill-tribes we would meet on our hike. At the first village we came to, we proudly handed over our books to the children. It was then that our guide told us that these kids couldn’t read Laotian or English, the language the books were in. Money was wasted on these books that we could have spent on something that could have really benefited those kids. While this incident is small in scale, it can be used as an analogy for the wider malaise in the process of giving developmental aid.
The hill tribe kids we gave the books to.
I was in South Africa when I picked up a copy of Paul Theroux’s “Dark Star Safari”, which documented his journey from Cairo to Cape Town. Theroux is a great travel writer but is well known as being a curmudgeon, almost to the point of misanthropy. In this book, one of his constant gripes was how Africa had receded in the forty years since he had taught in Malawi and travelled the continent. Aid was a large point of discontent. As far as Theroux could tell, aid had done little to improve infrastructure or the living standards of many Africans. In fact, given the growth in populations, he felt the living standards in most of the countries he visited had actually decreased, even in the face of extensive aid. He dissects the aid workers he meets "they were, in general, oafish, self-dramatizing prigs, and often complete bastards." He argued that the waves of money and volunteers has accomplished almost nothing apart from lining the pockets of the sellers of the SUVs which are ubiquitous among foreign aid workers and has made a generation of people reliant on volunteers to be teachers or professionals. They feel the role of many educated Africans who emigrate to greener pastures and fatter paychecks. Being in Africa at the time and witnessing some of the poverty he spoke about first hand, his observations hit home hard.
Many experts have derided the way aid has been handled in developing countries. They have argued that foreign capitalism has, on a whole, slowed development. Others have argued that the distribution of aid supports regimes that are counter-productive to economic growth, supports governments that encourage corruption and is open to general abuse. Seemingly positive steps can prove disastrous to communities. For example, the importation of grain and corn cuts out local farmers as it is often sold at cheap prices on the black market before it reaches the people it was intended for. Likewise, the clothes donated by the West are often sold to suppliers. These people and groups profit from charity but also undercut local tailors, causing their businesses to suffer.
While corrupt governments are in charge of many developing countries, aid is unlikely to have much of an effect. Instead, the way aid is used must change. Developmental aid should be only given to stable governments who are act to limit corruption. Countries like Botswana, which has a long history of stable government, can be held up as an example of how aid can benefit a country. Plans must be made that take into account local conditions, knowledge, expertise and experience and that have long-term goals. Creating jobs and encouraging self-sufficiency is the only way to pull people out of the mire. Countries like Brazil, recently developed, give aid through the form of expertise and knowledge transfer. It is something Cuba, who have sent doctors and teachers, has done for a long time. Is this a new global model to how to give aid?

Wednesday, 16 February 2011


List making seems to be a universal response that we use to try and seek order in the randomness of life. Some lists order the mundane and the domestic. Others address deeper issues. The composition of such lists is thought to reflect on our personality and character, at least that’s what the more sensitive of us think. Below is a list of my 50 favourite songs of last year.

  • Helicopter- Deer Hunter
  • Fever Dreaming- No Age
  • Spanish Sahara-Foals
  • Living In America-Dom
  • Answer To Yourself- Soft Pack
  • Celestica- Crystal Castles
  • Zebra- Beach House
  • Power- Kanye West ft Dwele
  • Infinity Guitars- Sleigh Bells
  • Sun Hands- Local Natives
  • Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)- Arcade Fire
  • Slow- Twin Shadow
  • Ambling Alp- Yeasayer
  • Flash Delirium- MGMT
  • Let’s Get Lost- Beck and Bat for Lashes
  • All Of the Lights- Kanye West ft. everybody
  • Stay Too Long- Plan B
  • Solitude is Bliss- Tame Impala
  • Weird Feelings- Male Bonding
  • The Day- Curren$y (Ft Mos Def and Jay Electronica)
  • Exhibit C- Jay Electronica
  • Runaway-Kanye West ft Pusha T
  • Shutterbug- Big Boi ft Cutty
  • The High Road- Broken Bells
  • I Can’t Write left Handed-The Roots and John Legend
  • Juicy-r – Wait What
  • Fuck You- Cee-Lo Green
  • Odessa-Caribou
  • Gonorrhea- Lil Wayne
  • Troublemaker- The Koxx
  • Haha Jk- Das Racist
  • Everybody Knows- Kids of 88
  • Me and the Devil- Gil Scott Heron
  • Born Free- M.I.A
  • We Want War- The New Puritans
  • Young Blood-The Naked and Famous
  • Round and Round-Ariel Pink
  • All I Want- LCD Soundsystem
  • Monster- Kanye West ft Justin Vernon, Rick Ross, Jay Z and Nicki Minaj.
  • Go Outside-Cults
  • The Girl and The Robot- Robyn ft Royksopp
  • Giving Up The Gun- Vampire Weekend
  • Nothing On We- Chiddy Bang
  • Apply-Glasser
  • Joker-Tron
  • Cold War- Janelle Monae
  • French! – Tyler the Creator ft Hodgy Beats
  • Lil Freak-Usher ft Nicki Minaj
  • Hard in Da Paint- Waka Flocka Flame ft Ciara
  • Telephone- Lady Gaga ft Beyonce
Because lists such as these can be seen as insights into people, the compilation process takes careful consideration. First of all, how many of your guilty pleasures should make it? These are the songs that you love to hear or sing along to or accidentally leave on your iPOD so your wife finds them and plays them in the car all the time meaning that you can then tease her musical taste to the other passengers in the car while being able to enjoy the song without being the one who played it. Bit like having your cake and eating it to.The right number of these songs in the list is hard to define; a couple adds credibility to a list. It shows that you keep an open mind and will see greatness in music, even if it is mainstream trash that you wouldn’t usually touch. However, too many of these songs means you have moved away from being ironic to being wack. For example, Lady Gaga’s song is a guilty pleasure. Other years, Beyonce, Justin Timberlake and even Miley Cyrus would have appeared on my end of year list. Having a couple of these songs are essential to any good, end of year, list.

Guilty as charged
Then you have to consider the hipster vote. Hipsters are that strange breed of people who malign mainstream society and proclaim themselves as alternative, only to conform so strongly to their non-conformity that they end up being more conformist than the groups they set themselves apart from. Hipsters dress the same, speak the same, read the same books and listen to the same music. Hipsters hate other hipsters who make bands and then proceed to get famous. I imagine that this is why many hipsters hate Vampire Weekend. Another band of hipsters is Kids of 88, a New Zealand band that all hipsters hate. A New Zealand newspaper carried a review of the Kids of 88 debut album Sugarpills that famously consisted purely of the definition of placebo and the placebo effect “something of no intrinsic remedial value that is used to appease or reassure another”. Nothing irritates hipsters more than a band who apes their favourite hipster bands. Justin Bieber gets less vitriol than bands like Kids of 88, who admittedly should get some grief for being pretentious posers. If you don’t get a hipster favourite band, let’s say Animal Collective, prepare yourself for the look, a roll of the eyes, as if to say yes you I knew you wouldn’t get, you’re too straight to understand where they are coming from. They might then say ‘it’s not something that you get straight away” or “listen to it, you might get it in 5 years time”. A hipster would never concede to another hipster that they didn’t understand or get something that other hipsters do. I call this the Kid A effect. Kid A (a record I do like a lot but only after repeat listens) was so out there, so different from OK Computer or anything else in the Radiohead catalogue, that on first lesson, the honest reaction for most people would have been WTF. Hipsters, on the other hand, would have professed instant gratification, even though they don’t get it. In this parable, Kid A serves as the clothes the Emperor wears in the story the Emperor’s new clothes. A hipster saying that he didn’t get Kid A or another such album would be paramount to a rugby head expressing a love for ballet or being outed as an avid reader of Jane Austin.

Didn't get it? It's OK, just admit it.
Then there are your favourite artists to add. I’ve always had a soft spot for Lil Wayne. I’m standing by him even after the cough syrup addiction, the prison term, the ridiculous rock album. Even though his first release post-prison wasn’t great, at least it hinted that he was getting back to his best form. So, one of his songs gets on my list. Then, you have to consider when is too many too many. I have four Kanye songs on this list. This could look like blind devotion to an artist but I don’t care. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was easily my favourite album last year, so four tracks aren’t out of place appearing on the list.

Talented Douchebag.

Some of these songs I only like certain parts. Like the New Puritans song. Most of it is overwrought, sub-prog rock underneath cliche over-synthesized robotic chanting. But there is grittiness to the song, reminding me of the angry guitars from Massive Attack’s Mezzanine album, that I really dig. Likewise, Kanye’s Monster. It’s got a good beat, but Kanye’s verse has some real clunkers (pussy in a sarcophagus??). Even Jay Z’s 16 bars plumbs the depth with his declaration of love being his Achilles heel. But it’s all irrelevant when Nicki Minaj, she of guest appearance and mixtape fame, trumps everyone. By the end of her verse, she leaves a twisted and torn beat. “You could be the King but watch the Queen conquer.” I listen to that song just for her verse.

Lists like this reflect a change in taste. 15 years ago, if I had made a list like this, I would guess that about 70% of the tracks would have been grungy, guitar driven hard rock. This list hardly has a hard rock song on it. It’s dominated by indie bands and hip-hop. I have a bit of a weakness at the moment for brash but clever hip-hop like Waka Flocka Flame. Misogynist rhymes that I would dislike if Eminem dropped them, I like in other rappers. I think this is because I think Eminem is crazy enough to one day carry through with his rap fantasies (although Gucci Mane is pretty out there, with his ice-cream tat and all). Songs have acquired different meanings along the way, different associations. When I hear ‘Who Loves The Sun’ by the Velvet Underground, I think of Perfume by Patrick Suskind. When I listen to Trinity Root’s song Sense and Cents, I think of a book about Gallipoli I was reading when that album was on high rotate on my stereo. Other songs affect me in unexpected ways; maybe I’m just getting more emotional in my advancing years.

Compiling a list seems like an easy task but it can be tiring with so many things to consider……………………………………………………………………