The Asian Experience

A journal of a lonely traveller to the Orient

Mark Botha

Beijing, China

OK, so 14 hours in the air & I’ve made it into Red China.

1st stop Beijing… what a city! Preconceptions utterly destroyed. In China’s capital, I found a modern, spotless, well-crafted, beautifully preserved metropolis bustling with a vibrant young population. Truly a World-class city possessing a stunning blend of old and new. A transport system that runs flawlessly and glistening streets showcasing all the mesmerizing wares of north-eastern China. Ate Bullfrog… yes BULLFROG – drank apple schnapps with two factory workers (thanks for the tips gentlemen). Missioned to the Great Wall (bucket list got a little shorter), Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the concert hall, Temple of Heaven, Ming Tombs and Olympic Complex.

Next stop…Pingyao!

Pingyao, China

Pingyao, Shanxi Province….a little piece of me got left behind there.

Arrived on the bullet train @ 300kph from Beijing to a deluge from the heavens above. After buying an umbrella for 4 Yuan (about R10), I embarked on a rainy expedition of this special place. A 2800 year-old walled city with a cultural heritage to match. With soaked shoes, a damp jacket and flimsy umbrella, I fell in love with this special place… The streets are riddled with curious scents and inquisitive people. Famous Pingyao beef to pickled eggs and liquorice duck the belly’s never empty! With wood-worked bars, fairy-land “fork” hotels and street kitchens housed in a litany of tiny alleys, Pingyao truly embodies the essence of ancient Chinese culture. I saw a lattice work of ancient art, crumbling buildings and cobbled walkways.

I will never forget this place, never.

Shanghai, China

Shanghai…New York, London and Paris all rolled into one. A blitz 36-hour sojourn in this city showcased to me really what the Orient is capable of. Nipped on the heels by a dog with an afro and almost went overboard in the water village. Watch out for the tortoise soup and seaweed chicken broth, they taste as bad as they smell. Almost got solicited and then lured into the “Wery wery cheep” Thai massage industry! A bustling metropolis of 22 million + people, Bentleys galore and sky-rises you must crane your neck simply to catch a glimpse of the top of.


On to a new country and her capital – Hanoi, Vietnam!

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, charming Hanoi…quite possibly the highlight so far. A narcotic city, oozing French colonial charm infused with brazen revolutionary overtones. Bustling with a hoard of scooters and motorbikes the chaotic traffic flows seamlessly through bustling intersections completely devoid of robots or stop-streets. I sampled a myriad of sensory delights (the food really is great) and got a pair of almost perfect Chuck Taylors for R180! Spent 120 000 dong…yes, dong @ +-R80 for my own taxi for the entire day – travel here really is cheap – and experienced a plethora of beautifully preserved buildings, museums and monuments. Ho Chi Minh’s legacy can be seen on every corner and in every shop. Coffee here is great, and the cafes even more so. Mango tree-lined streets circling the litany of lakes, parks and ponds only add to the magic of this time-worn city.

A bustling Old Quarter offers the shopping deals of a lifetime and the large expat quota makes getting directions and meeting interesting fellow travellers a dream. Love this place – will definitely be back soon!

Next stop – Iconic Ha Long Bay!!!

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Ha Long Bay…a place seemingly manufactured from the deepest reaches of the creative magic of God himself.

Setting out on a misty morning among an armada of boats chugging forward to assault this miracle of nature, one cannot help but wonder if this stunning planet could offer up any more glorious gems of infinite beauty. My breath long removed, we wound through emerald waters, between towering pillars of limestone, wreathed in stunning greenery and soaked in glorious views of one of the most spectacular marvels of nature on Earth. The deck of the junk-boat afforded perfect, unobstructed panoramas and an accompanying silence intermittently broken by the rhythmic chug of the 40 year-old diesel engines. Snaking among these cliffs, Otis Taylor’s moving Blues tunes floating melodically through the iPod and nothing in front of me but my new All Stars, I sensed a quiet peace undiscovered previously.

Visit this iconic place…see it before you depart this World and you will understand. Words cannot begin to explain its magic, perfection or magnificence.

Hue Imperial City, Vietnam

Hue Imperial City…took a daunting overnight train ride to get here, disembarking to 100% humidity and searing temperatures. Situated exactly in the middle of fascinating Vietnam, this UNESCO site offers the perfect stop en-route from the North to the South. The citadel & ancient capital boasts some of the most impressive structures I’ve witnessed to date. Toured the fortified ancient city before heading out to the King Minh Mang & Tu Duc Tombs. These, located in serene countryside allowed a welcome respite to the hustle and bustle of urban settlements.

Hewn from solid rock into the sides of mountains, these burial sites offer lovely strolls through terraced gardens and around placid lakes – a must see here. Enjoyed a leisurely Dragon Boat ride on the Perfume River to the Thien Mu Pagoda where I discovered a Buddhist monastery and a special way of life. Took the unique pleasure of conversing, at length, with the resident abbot or arjarn (head of the monastery) and learnt something about myself leaving me pondering a few things…

Next stop…Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon!

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

The famous heart of South Vietnam! Built by the French, defended (in vain) by the Americans and overrun by the Communist North, the persistent sweltering heat only adds to its authenticity. Exiting the airport, I was curtly reminded by a local to refer to this city as Saigon… and only Saigon. Our intrepid guide couldn’t resist offering up him own sentiment on the ‘the Northern socialist policy and all its oppressive ways’ – in stark contrast to those of the North. We transferred in blistering heat out of a city with 5 million scooters and motorbikes, winding along dusty, pothole-strewn roads to the Cu Chi Tunnels. Embedded deep in bamboo and birch forest, the heat only intensified as we observed a famous and well-preserved Viet Cong military base.  

A rusted T72 tank draws your attention to the tree line – imaginings of crazed Viet Cong charging through the bush stirring fantasies of an era of terror. The crackle of gun-fire tears through the air, startling tourists and eliciting a chuckle from the guide. A local shooting range at dirt-cheap prices adds authentic flair to this attraction. Gripping Rambo’s M60, I squeeze a trigger and experience the fully-automatic power of an American-made heavy machine gun!

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