Winter holiday is here, and I’m in Japan! 4

Winter holiday is here, and I'm in Japan!
TOKYO, JAPAN — This year’s winter escapade is not to a warm, sunny location like Malaysia, but to the more wintry Japan — a joint effort by my son and me. He had some comp time available, and wanted to visit me in Jishou, but as I had planned to travel outside China during the Spring Festival, we settled on two weeks in Japan. Fun fact: this year, the Chinese New Year falls on my birthday. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which day that is. I gave my exams on Dec. 30, and spent the rest of the week reading them and calculating grades for my 150 students. I discovered two disturbing things: at least two of my sophomores had cheated on their exam and hardly any of the sophs had improved their listening comprehension marks over the last three terms. The cheaters flunked their exams, and the term. They will need to take a new test next term. I also get to read their classmates the riot act, as I suspect those two were just the unlucky ones who got caught. The sophomores’ failure to improve their skills much since they were freshmen is a bigger ...

Int’l arbitration court rules against China’s expansive claims to So. China Sea

Int'l arbitration court rules against China's expansive claims to So. China Sea
China’s claim to a vast portion of the South China Sea is invalid and it has encroached on the sovereignty of the the Philippines, a United Nations court ruled today. The ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague is a sharp rebuke of China, which has aggressively expanded its presence in the South China Sea against the objections of neighboring countries. China earlier had asserted it would not recognize or abide by the court’s ruling, claiming the court had no jurisdiction. But the decision is a serious blow to China’s “face” in the region, and it remains to be seen how the Beijing government will react. Government officials called the decision “ill founded.” And social media users in China were decrying the Hague’s decision within minutes of the announcement — no doubt republishing government-supplied responses. Here are two examples from my WeChat feed, translated by WeChat’s built-in app. Further reading: BBC The Washington Post South China Morning Post

Chinese-made ‘grandpa’ cartoon addresses territorial disputes in So. China Sea

Chinese-made 'grandpa' cartoon addresses territorial disputes in So. China Sea
JISHOU, HUNAN — In an effort to convince the wider world that China has an expansive territorial claim to a large portion of the South China Sea, the People’s Daily has released a three-minute cartoon history lesson that is sure to convince the United Nations tribunal considering those claims. A decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is expected on Tuesday, but China has announced it intends to ignore the court’s decision. So there. Entitled “Grandpa Tells a Story,” the wise grandpa tells his inquisitive granddaughter the history of China and its long-standing claim to the South China Sea and especially to islands just off the coasts of four other nations, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines. (See map above.) Taiwan also has overlapping claims with China in the area. First, he tells her Chinese fishermen were the first to discover the Spratly Islands 2,000 years ago, during the Han Dynasty. They found them with the help of magnetic compasses, which the Chinese just so happened to invent. Apparently, other fishermen in the area were clueless. Then, sailors during the Yuan Dynasty explored the South China Sea. Six hundred years ago, the navigator Zheng He (sailing in ...

The Malaysia trip, wrapping it up

The Malaysia trip, wrapping it up
JISHOU, HUNAN, CHINA — Here are some closing thoughts and even some statistics about my month-long journey around Malaysia. I really like it. There is something for everyone in Malaysia: big cities, wilderness areas, beaches, different cuisines and cultures. In fact, the part I liked the most was the multicultural atmosphere of the country. It’s something China really cannot offer, despite its 55 minority groups. Their culture is largely being subsumed by the majority Han culture. The largest cities, Shanghai, Beijing, and others, are cosmopolitan, to be sure, but not to the extent of Kuala Lumpur, George Town or Singapore. Another big factor was the English level of the Malaysians I met. Even taxi drivers and bus drivers could speak enough English that we could communicate well. It baffles me why in China, which requires English instruction beginning in grade 3, even college graduates have trouble with ordinary English conversation. Well, it doesn’t really baffle me. The focus in China is on reading, writing and grammar, mostly for the purpose of passing competency exams. Conversation is an afterthought, and only English majors get any real practice in it. Native English teachers at the secondary level may try to get their ...

Another Malaysia trip SIDEBAR: North Borneo Railway videos

Another Malaysia trip SIDEBAR: North Borneo Railway videos
There are the videos I took on the North Borneo Railway steam excursion Feb 13. I was trying to capture the sounds of the experience, as well as the operation of the locomotive. I have omitted the rather long video of the locomotive on the turntable, as it’s fairly easy to imagine what it looks like. The engine backs in, get turned around 180 degrees, backs out. I took the first video with my cellphone, and the others with my camera, a Nikon D3300. YouTube did the conversions. Looking out the window as the scenery passes by. You can hear the engine’s whistle as we approach road crossings. A view of the Vulcan Foundry 2-6-2 as we prepare to leave. The crew has been stoking the firebox to build up steam for the last few hours. On arrival at Papar, the final destination, passengers disembark, while the engine crew disconnect the locomotive from the front of the train, pull onto a siding, and back the engine onto the turntable. With the locomotive facing the other way, the crew has filled it up with water and is now ready to move it to the other end of the train for the ...

The Malaysia trip, part 6 1

The Malaysia trip, part 6
JISHOU, HUNAN, CHINA — I just realized that my posts are numbered differently from the map I made. Whoops! When I devoted an extra post to the Batu Caves/Thaipusam visit, I should have labeled it “part 1.5,” because I was still technically in Kuala Lumpur. Oh, well. You are all clever enough to figure things out. Although this post is “part 6,” it pertains to location 5 on the map I posted — Kota Kinabalu, which is in Sabah state on the island of Borneo. You can find it on the map on the right near the northern tip of the island. Malaysia is divided into peninsular West Malaysia, where I have spent most of my time, the federal territory of Labuan, which is an island north of Borneo, and the east Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah on the north side of Borneo. The rest of Borneo belongs to the tiny sultanate of Brunei (embedded in Sarawak) and Indonesia. In addition, Malaysia has two distinct monsoon seasons, depending where you are. The western coast of peninsular Malaysia has its monsoons April to October. Meanwhile, the eastern coast and Borneo have their monsoons between November and February. As I was ...

The Malaysia trip, part 5

The Malaysia trip, part 5
JISHOU, HUNAN, CHINA — Let’s see if I can wrap up my travelogue before classes start in a few days. As you probably have guessed, Singapore was my next destination after Penang. My friends who have been there praised this city as a good place to visit, and since I was in the neighborhood (so to speak), I decided to spend a few days there. It was not nearly enough. Singapore is like Hong Kong, or New York City, or any other big metropolis. There’s so much to see and do, that even locals have not seen or done it all. My plan was to spend Chinese New Year there, as I knew Singapore would have a massive fireworks display on Feb. 7. There were at least two, one in Chinatown and one on the waterfront, and in the end, I saw neither one. I had not counted on one major factor: the crowds. Navigating the crush of people in Chinatown just got to me, and round about 10 pm, I decided to bail out and head back to my airbnb place in Little India. So, I can’t offer any photos of massive fireworks displays. Which is not to say ...

The Malaysia trip, part 4

The Malaysia trip, part 4
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA — Cameron Highlands was a bit of a snoozer, but George Town was a real treat. Several writers have described George Town as one of the top places to retire, and I can see why. Great food, lots of things to see and do, great people, interesting culture. I was reluctant to leave at the end of my week there. It’s only a five-hour trip by coach from Brinchang to Butterworth. The coach leaves from Tanah Rata, just south of Brinchang, and stops in Brinchang to pick up passengers on the way to Ipoh terminal and finally Butterworth. As I discovered, the head office of the coach line, Unititi, is at the Brinchang Hotel, but the main bus terminal for the Cameron Highlands is in Tanah Rata. Good to remember for the next time I come. I could have stayed on the bus all the way onto Penang Island, but my Airbnb hosts told me the ferry from Butterworth to George Town would put me closer to their home. Plus, it’s a lot more picturesque. Here’s some history about George Town. Like many other cities with similar names, it’s named after King George III (the fellow we ...

The Malaysia trip, mapped

The Malaysia trip, mapped
Rather than clutter up the last post with a map, I’ll put the map up here. As you can see, most of my travel has been in peninsular Malaysia. Eastern Malaysia, on the island of Borneo, reaches the end of its monsoon season in February, usually. 1. Kuala Lumpur/Batu Caves 2. Brinchang, Cameron Highlands 3. George Town, Penang 4. Singapore 5. Kota Kinabalu, Sabah 6. Kuala Lumpur For the geographically challenged, Brunei is an independent sultanate wedged into the state of Sarawak, Malaysia, and Indonesia controls most of the southern half of Borneo. The Philippines are to the northeast of Borneo, and easily accessible by boat or plane from Sabah (where I am now). Thailand lies to the north of peninsular Malaysia. So, you could land in Bangkok, Thailand, take the train to Kuala Lumpur, or even Singapore. Fly to Jakarta, Indonesia, then hop over to Pontianak on Borneo (and stand on the equator!), then take the bus to Kuching in Sarawak, Brunei, Kota Kinabalu, and finish up in the Philippines. Six countries in all. Yes, I did consider it. But rather than rack up “countries visited” points, I opted for leisurely exploring one — well, two, counting Singapore.

The Malaysia trip, part 3

The Malaysia trip, part 3
KOTA KINABALU, SABAH, MALAYSIA — The rough itinerary I worked out before coming to Malaysia was (1) Kuala Lumpur (2) Cameron Highlands (3) Penang (4) Singapore (5) ???? (6) Kuala Lumpur. Right now, I’m in segment (5), so there’s some time delay at work here. I ended up staying six days in the Cameron Highlands, specifically in a small town called Brinchang (or Berincang, which is the Malay name/spelling). Two of those were basically downtime, partly because of rain and partly because I needed to give my feet a rest. All that walking in Kuala Lumpur had raised blisters on my left foot. [Note to self: Next time, bring the shoes you know are comfortable and don’t chafe anywhere. And wear two pairs of socks. OK?] The Cameron Highlands are, well, higher in altitude than the coastal regions of Malaysia, and naturally cooler. Temperatures in KL were in the 90s (°F) while I was there, but Brinchang temperatures were 20 degrees cooler, even during the day. Great weather for walking or hiking, and the area around Brinchang and Tanah Rata offers plenty of hiking trails. For reasons of space and weight, I did not bring my hiking boots, which in ...

The Malaysia trip, part 2

The Malaysia trip, part 2
GEORGE TOWN, PENANG, MALAYSIA — So, I’ve been here three weeks so far. What have I been doing? Walking a lot and riding buses, taking lots of pictures, eating interesting food. Soaking in all these new places and experiences. And trying to relax. No hurries, no worries. So far, I have spent about a week in Kuala Lumpur, about five days in Cameron Highlands, and tomorrow I will finish a week in George Town, Penang. Next, I will spent three days in Singapore for Chinese New Year — which should be fun — and then a week in Kota Kinabalu on the island of Borneo. Then back to KL, and China. The most interesting thing I’ve done by far is witness the Thaipusam festival (see photo at right) at Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur on Jan. 24. It’s a religious festival, but a joyful one. So the feeling was very light hearted. I like Kuala Lumpur in general, too. But I grew up near New York City, so if you’re not a city person, KL may leave you feeling exhausted. There are tons of things to see and do (and eat!), but it’s also crowded, noisy and not especially hospitable ...

The Malaysia trip, part 1

The Malaysia trip, part 1
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA — With a five-week holiday break coming up, I decided in November not to dilly-dally like I did last year, and make a plan for an extended trip to someplace warm. I settled on Malaysia for the most emotional of reasons — a friend posted photos of Malaysian palm trees and blue seas on WeChat. I haven’t quite made it to the blue seas yet — that comes next week — but there have been plenty of palm trees, and so far, mostly sunshine so far. It’s going well. Last year, I postponed buying air tickets to Indonesia until prices were too high, so this time I booked early. From Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur was only $182 roundtrip on AirAsia, including trip insurance and a $20 checked baggage fee. That was well within my budget, but I had to juggle departure and arrival times to avoid the price hikes around Chinese New Year (Feb. 7 and 8 this year). Air fares fell off dramatically for a long stay of four weeks. I bit the bullet, and booked the tickets. This will be the longest vacation trip I’ve ever taken, and one of the first adjustments I’ve ...
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