Lhasa, Tibet, China  ལྷ་ས།

It took two days to get from Xi’an to Lhasa (with a one-night stop in Xining, Qinghai) by train. China’s rail network is one of the largest in the world, and its 10-year-old extension to Lhasa (Chinese: Lasa 拉薩) is an incredible feat of engineering, climbing the Tibetan Plateau from an elevation of 2300m in Xining, past 4000m somewhere along the line, and about 3500m in Lhasa — so quickly that every single person on the train not already acclimatised to high altitudes suffers from altitude sickness. And that train is full, full, full: vacationers trying to beat the summer heat elsewhere within China, student backpackers, Tibetans returning home or just visiting…

Aside from being breathless and suffering from a mild headache, arriving in Lhasa looks like arriving pretty much anywhere else in China. Hop on a public bus, pass through large shopping areas and glitzy screens, and–

Oh wait. Are we in China? Of course we’re in China. Flags flags flags flags flags. Hmm. I don’t recall ever seeing this many Chinese flags in any city before.
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 Xi’an, Shaanxi, China 西安

Xi’an is one of the most significant cities in China, having been its often-renamed capital during some of China’s most significant dynasties. It’s so full of cultural and historical significance, with plenty of attractions showcasing it, that one of my hosts says “You could pick up a rock and it would probably be considered a cultural artifact.” At one point during the Tang dynasty sometime around 750, Xi’an (then Chang’an 長安) was the largest city in the world, and now it’s a sprawling 10000 square kilometre megalopolis of 8 million people, with its ancient city wall still intact and forming the core of the city’s downtown.

And yet, within two hours of getting off the high-speed train from Shenzhen, I found myself in an alley next to a large hotel just outside the city wall, handing out condoms to grateful cross-dressing prostitutes. Talk about an introduction to the city.
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 Kigali, Rwanda

Kigali is like Singapore.

Clean and green streets. Well-developed and modern. Good food (especially in contrast to the rest of Rwanda, where it’s usually cold buffets full of starch), with plenty of international variety. Pretty, great to live in but not so much to do as a visitor. Odd rules (no plastic bags in Rwanda; no chewing gum in Singapore) that keep the cleanliness. Easy, comfortable, cheap (but expensive compared to surrounding cities/countries), convenient. This is probably the first place in Africa I’ve been where I wouldn’t hesitate to say I could live here comfortably. But there’s something slightly below the surface politically. Like in Singapore, most people feel fine to just live with it, but for some others, it causes unease.

Nevertheless, it’s undeniable how effective the government has been in the whole country, building it again in just two decades and surpassing all of its neighbours. It’s absolutely impossible to imagine this as the city where bodies were strewn all over the thousand hills, covered in blood for years. That city has been virtually replaced, save for the topography. Given all they’ve been through, it’s no wonder the populace seems to have little to complain about.
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 Huye, Rwanda

It’s Saturday morning and everything is closed. And boy, am I hungry.

No cars on the road. No moto-taxis. No buses. A scant few people around, but I had to walk for awhile outside of downtown Huye/Butare to see what was going on: umuganda, the mandatory day of community service that happens on the last Saturday each month. High school students took turns with machetes, chopping grass and trimming hedges; university students cleaned up their genocide memorial in preparation for April, the month of remembrance; people of all ages helped out at a church’s garden, preparing soil and fertiliser. All were cheery, despite moments of heavy rain on an abnormally cold morning. Then just around noon, it was all over (and I could finally find some food).

The spirit of cooperation.
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 Lake Kivu, Rwanda

Crossing the border from Uganda, the difference isn’t immediate but it’s soon apparent: this is a much more prosperous country. The poorest village homes I’ve seen all have corrugated steel sheet roofs instead of thatch, and the middle class have shingles. There are actual sidewalks in the cities. With few exceptions, there’s no litter around and the streets are pristine. Vehicles don’t look like they’re going to fall apart. Development seems visibly rapid. It also seems like a far more orderly country: all boda-boda drivers wear helmets and carry one for their passengers, many of the buses run on a schedule instead of when full, and traffic is a smidgeon less dangerous and speedy.

The order can get a little bit ridiculous though. In Kibuye, a town with wide roads and relatively little traffic, there seems to be even a bit of overregulation — traffic only goes one way. And in the whole country, it seems like every notable town except Kigali has been renamed, with both names commonly used and a frequent source of confusion for visitors. There are now three official languages: Kinyarwanda, French, and the recently-added English, in order of prominence, along with some who speak Swahili. Other than Kinyarwanda, it’s a complete tossup as to what any given person speaks or understands. I feel obligated to start every interaction the way airport workers in Canada do, in hopes of being understood: “Hello/bonjour!” — and sometimes even that doesn’t work. (But hilariously, it seems like practically everyone knows “ni hao”, even in rural areas, and at least four people have greeted me with some sage-like fist-in-hand bow that they probably saw in a kung-fu movie. A high school-aged girl also completely schooled me in a conversation in Mandarin, which she initiated.)

Life moves normally. And normally, I wouldn’t give that a second glance. But this is Rwanda, and with its notorious recent history, I can’t help but look at everything with… well, what’s the opposite of rose-coloured glasses?
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 Mombasa and Nairobi, Kenya

Having had some amount of rain and clouds every day so far in Kenya, I made an unplanned detour east to get some sun on the coast. After two days doing nothing on the beaches south of Mombasa, I felt a bit antsy and returned to the city, Kenya’s second-largest. It’s the antithesis to Nairobi: laconic and laid-back, a great deal safer in terms of street crime, and hardly congested in the city center. But it’s also the biggest port city in East Africa, playing host to freighters and cruise ships, as well as a significant Kenyan Indian and Arab population. Most people are Muslim rather than Christian, and outwardly dressed as such. And forget nyama choma (barbecued meat) and fried chicken: the most common dishes around are biryani and pilau — sound familiar? — and coconut-based curries. In other words, it’s Kenya but it’s a world away from the rest of Kenya.
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 Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

“Do they know it’s Christmastime at all?”

Why yes they do. It’s just that they celebrate it on January 7th and call it Genna instead.

What prompted the writing of this (extremely patronising, but helpful in fundraising) song was Bob Geldof’s Live Aid, back in the days of Ethiopia’s big famine in 1985. (Bono: “Well tonight, thank God it’s them instead of you!” Yikes, no.) But that wasn’t its first, so let’s go back a little bit further into Ethiopia’s modern history. (Okay class!)
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