A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

You've read the blog... now get the book. The Blogger's Guide to Beijing is now available in eBook format in five volumes from Amazon. Click here for more details...

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Fighting for your meal and watching soldiers dance? Welcome to Baguio!

Regular followers of this blog will know that I am anything but a fan of the Philippines' capital Manila. It’s filthy, unsafe, floods whenever there is a drop or two of rain and any of the nice historical parts of the city are overshadowed by the unpleasantness surrounding them.
Yes, I’ve even been to hell – twice, and lived to tell the tale (it’s an area of Manila called Tondo, where the taxi drivers ask foreigners if they can draw a curtain so they can’t be seen from outside, and lock the cab doors securely in case of attack. It’s a place where even the police are afraid to patrol.)
But move 200kms north of Manila to the city of Baguio, nestled within the Cordillera Central mountain range in the province of Benguet in northern Luzon, and it’s a different story.
It takes between six to eight hours to get there on the bus, though they leave every 15 minutes or so from Pasay or Cubao in downtown Manila and have free onboard wifi and often show videos – though the majority of the films shown are gangster/shoot-em-up/violent films of which I am not a fan…
Baguio City was established by the Americans in 1900 and sits at an altitude of around 1450 meters. Because of this, the temperature in the city is around 8 degrees lower than the average temperature in the rest of the country. The Americans declared it the Summer Capital of the Philippines on July 1, 1903, and every year for the next decade from March to June, the entire American government contingency from the Governor-General to the humblest clerk was moved to Baguio to escape Manila's summer heat.
But in July 1990, a massive earthquake destroyed much of the city, which over the next quarter century has taken on a new persona. Want a decent hotel? Look no further than across the street from Victory Liner bus terminal and you cannot miss the bright blue Micro Hotel…

One of the oldest buildings still standing is The Mansion House which was the residence of the American governor-generals. You cannot actually go in, but you can enter the main gate and gawp at it from across the lawn.

The cathedral is another focal point, noted for its pink exterior, twin spires and traditional stained glass windows. Construction began in 1920 and it was completed and consecrated in 1936. It served as an evacuation centre during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during World War II and not only survived the carpet-bombing of the city in 1945, but also the 1991 earthquake.

One of the nice things about Baguio is how green a city it is. There are plenty of parks and open spaces, such as Wright Park, where there’s even a musical fountain display – OK, not a patch on Dubai’s musical fountains, but pretty all the same. It draws the crowds most evenings.

Talking of water, the city has an extraordinary amount of precipitation during the rainy season, with the months of July and August having on average more than 1,000mm of rain. So it’s not surprising that during the monsoon season you regularly get spectacular waterfalls appearing from out of nowhere – which often leads to land slides and road closures.

It appears, too, that Baguio follows a different calendar from everyone else, with September having an extra day in it!

The shops are a lot more fun than what you find in Manila. I particularly like this sports shoe shop in the SM hypermarket complex which uses its staff to perch precariously along a thin bar that runs around the shop, retrieving boxes of shoes for the punters below and dropping the boxes to their colleagues on the floor. I can’t help but feel that the H&S lobby in Europe would ensure this practice was banned on safety grounds; but this is the Philippines where such niceties don’t count.

Another job that I wouldn’t much care for is sweeping up the shit from hundreds of horses that stand idly by waiting for tourists to hire them for a trot around the area. (Is this why the plants in Wright Park are so stunning?)

But what ignominy these horses must suffer! To make them “prettier” many of them are given a pink and purple hair wash…

… while some visitors pose sitting on them, dressed up in the local Igorot costumes.

Baguio is proud of its local indigenous ties and tries very hard to project itself as a city of culture. One of the so-called tourist attractions was set up in 1998 and is called Tam-awan Village – a 30 minute ride out of the downtown area itself. According to the blurb, it blends indigenous aesthetics and exquisite Cordilleran craftsmanship with an artist’s concept for a village adapted to a Baguio setting. Hmmm
The self-styled Garden in the Sky is where you get to have a glimpse of traditional lives of the Cordillera people showcasing Ifugao and Kalinga houses and promoting awareness for the Ifugao Tribe's indigenous customs. The Ifugao houses started out as three knocked-down huts transported from Bangaan, Ifugao; but now Tam-awan has seven Ifugao huts and two Kalinga houses. All use the original materials and have only had new cogon roofs added, and all are laid out to resemble the design of a traditional Cordillera Village.
In keeping with the spirit of the place, you can tell you are immediately entering an “ethnic” area as the doorboy – for want of a better word – is wearing practically nothing except for a loin cloth. Girls – keep your eyes averted!

Once inside you quickly discover, if you didn’t know before, that this is an artists’ colony through and through – a venue where local artists try to sell their work. To read some of the stuff on the web written by American tourists, you’d think you about to enter art heaven by coming here; but being the arch-Philistine that I am, I would simply say that the grounds include some questionable art that would not look out of place in a secondary school art room. Of course, there’s also an art gallery and a coffee shop to try to get you to part with more of your money.
A number of staircases take you to different ethnic huts – the first one on your right as you enter features a painted lizard on the rock face.

Though the art may be underwhelming, the garden itself is quite pleasant, though once again I think the health and safety lobby in Europe would have a field day condemning almost everything from the slimy slippery paths, to the broken handrails and the treacherous muddy slopes. Quite frankly, it’s an accident black spot waiting to happen.

Tucked into the sides of the very steeply sloped garden are the various huts that amazingly some people fork out to be able to spend the night in – “Tam-awan Village is an experience in itself. By living in the huts, guests get an opportunity to immerse in an atmosphere that allows them to get a glimpse of village life,” we are told. I guess this way gullible tourists can boast that they “went native” on their holidays.
The Ifugao houses are compact and built without nails. It is said that because they use heavy hand-hewn timber elevated to shoulder height by four posts made of hard wood, they can last several generations with just occasional re-roofing.
There are a couple of wooden bridges one can shuffle across and behind them what the garden owners have called “dreamcatchers” – ie some painted old car tyres hanging from the side of another path. Oh please! Who is taken in by this crap? Apparently quite a few people, if you read the web comments on the likes of Trip Advisor!

After walking round the death-defying trails you might feel the need for a bit of refreshment – well they have a café located in the garden which I’m afraid I also found very underwhelming. All the walls are covered in art works for sale with No Photography signs everywhere. Again, why anyone would want to photograph any of this stuff in the first place is completely beyond me; but I guess there is no accounting for taste.
Regular readers of your favourite blogger will know I already have a theory about what counts as “ethnic” and sure enough, I am not disappointed here: plenty of wooden statues and second rate works of art, featuring a penis or two gratuitously thrown in, to hit that ethnic button in the punters’ minds.

For me, the only real surprise – and something I found absolutely lovely – was a broad diversity of plants, most especially a clump of what is known locally as Ginger Torch: a Beehive cultivar of the species Zingiber Spectabile. Quite stunning. The café even had stems from this plant as table decorations.

But enough of such tourist traps. A much better experience for plant lovers must surely be Baguio’s botanical gardens which are still being put together. As you walk along the chicken-wire fencing towards the main entrance you are left in no doubt that they will not tolerate the dumping of garbage…

or even having garbage thrown rather than dumped…

You are not even allowed to leave it in a neat pile.

And just in case you are not American and don’t understand words like garbage, the message is once again rammed home – all four notices posted within a 50 metre stretch of fencing. Hmmm - I wonder if they have a problem here?

Obviously these injunctions have done their job. Inside there is (hardly any) litter to be seen. At this altitude, the tropical Luzon pine forests are highly conducive to the growth of mossy plants and orchids.

in fact there are numerous orchid species all waiting to be photographed.

And the powers that be have even taken it upon themselves to offer visitors who are senior citizens, students or the disabled a 20 per cent discount on using their public loos … a shame therefore that the doors are tightly locked shut! (And yes, the Men’s side is called “He”!)

The gardens are also used as a nursery to produce new plants for planting around the city. This area is off limits to visitors – well, off limits if you obey all the signs, that is!

Yes, Baguio is indeed a nice and pleasant city. But for me, the best thing of all, and something no visitor should miss, is the free show put on once a week by The Philippine Military Academy, which is positioned at Fort Gegorio del Pilar 10km out of town, right next to the airfield.
Every Sunday, members of the public are allowed to explore parts of the 370 hectare grounds and to view some of the cadets performing their silent drills – a 45 minute presentation with only the sounds of the band together with an announcer telling us all what is going on.

The Academy, whose history dates back to 1905, but which only moved to its present grounds in 1947, trains not only the army cadets, but also cadets for the navy and air force. In 1993, the first female cadets were admitted and specialisation based on branch-of-service was introduced into the curriculum.
Today, cadets who will graduate in 2016 are parading for our enjoyment – the white uniformed cadets belonging to the army division and the black from the navy.

The cadets exercise their manoeuvres without any verbal instructions being given at all – forming messages from their positions – “Hi”, “PMA”, “Bye”, and so on; throwing their rifles to one another as they march in opposing concentric circles (which reminds me a little of some of the moves in Scottish Country Dancing!); and even breaking out into disco dancing, as well as Gangnam!

It’s all impressive stuff and the 45 minutes is over far too quickly.
But then it is time to explore some of the grounds. Many of the camp’s features have been designed by past student classes as part of their team building exercises – like this “tree” house (actually made mostly of concrete) constructed in 1956.

There's a number of small garden areas too, again constructed by past cadet classes. This yellow hibiscus hedge catches the eye from afar. Splendid stuff!

As the PMA is located in Baguio, the senior officers wear a sash made of the local Igorot cloth design as a mark of respect for the city.

Although many classes are held for all cadets, there are of course separate classes for the different branches of the armed forces. Outside the air force building is an old propeller standing guard which could surely work wonders in a home air conditioning system.

There are also collections of old aircraft dotted around – such as this Bell UH-IH helicopter…

an SF 260 M Marchetti trainer, and this Falcon fighter plane.

Walking further through the grounds, one comes across a collection of old self-propelled howitzers, amphibious landing vehicles and old tanks – such as this Sherman M4 A1, which was used extensively in the Pacific war arena…

Yet another thing that the PMA is famous for is that it was here in Baguio that they originated the art of fine dining known as Boodle Fight. Never heard of Boodle Fight? Well, you’ll find plenty of BF restaurants in Baguio, that’s for sure.

In a Boodle fight, long tables are prepared and food is placed on top of banana leaves. A huge pile of rice is placed in the centre of the leaves, and fish, meat and vegetables are then placed around the rice.
Before the "eating combat" begins, everyone is meant to wash their hands (though in the restaurant I was taken to we were all given plastic gloves – a bit like the ones that come with boxes of hair dye (I am led to believe!) – and once the signal is given, everyone dives in using their fingers to cram their mouths with as much food as they can possibly eat. You have to be fast to ensure you get your share, as no one is going to wait for you or offer you titbits from the other side of the table.

What a glorious way to end a visit to Baguio. It’s definitely a place you will want to come back to again and again.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Bureaucrats! Puh… Who Needs Them!

When my daughter was young I used to warn her of some of the pitfalls in life. I don’t mind one jot who you end up marrying, I used to stress, except never, ever, end up marrying a politician! In the end she did OK and no politician got anywhere close to her heart!  But if I could rewind time I guess I would have to add one more category to that injunction… nor end up marrying a bureaucrat!
OMG Bureaucrats! How I loathe them. The late, great, Sir Patrick Moore, who died last year, and for whom I once had the honour of  producing one of his programmes on the BBC’s World Service, was not only the anchorman of TV’s longest running show with the same presenter (The Sky At Night on BBC1), but was less well known as a self-appointed scourge of bureaucracy.  Some 30 years ago, under the pen-name R. T. Fishall, he published an irreverent guide to taking out vengeance on people who were burying Britain under paperwork and tying the country up in red tape.
‘Bureaucrats: How To Annoy Them’ was inspired by correspondence with a man from the Southern Gas Company, who had sent Moore a final demand for £10 of repairs, despite the fact that the central heating at his cottage was oil‑fired.

‘We are not ruled directly by Parliament,’ he wrote, ‘but by minor officials — bureaucrats of all descriptions, safely embraced in the arms of the civil service, with immunity from dismissal and nice, inflation-proof pensions.’

My last three months have been filled by the shenanigans of petty bureaucrats, and only now am I emerging from the tomfoolery of their actions. Let me explain…
As my last posting in Beijing was drawing to an end, I was already laying plans for my next port of call – the Philippines. ‘It’s more fun in the Philippines’ is the country’s latest pithy, hard-hitting slogan for attracting visitors from around the world.
Reading through the information posted on the web, it transpired that in order to get an SRRV – a special non-immigrant resident visa that provides its holders with multiple-entry and indefinite stay status in the Philippines – I would first need to prove that I wasn’t a criminal … a bit ironic, perhaps, given the fact that Manila is one of the crime capitals of the world, while politicians and bureaucrats at all levels in society make some of the corruption of even China’s corrupt officials look like mere child’s play (as witnessed by the current ‘Pork Barrel’ scandal, involving billions of siphoned off pesos, which illustrates this all too clearly).
Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained… and I set about attempting to get a police clearance certificate showing that I had a blemish-free past (assuming, of course, no one bothered checking on the fact that I was arrested in Saudi Arabia on three occasions!).
Now, if you’re a Brit abroad and want to get a Police Clearance Certificate, what do you do? My first thought was to go to the British Embassy for help. No way. The embassy in Beijing emphasises that they cannot help. Instead one has to apply from the UK itself, where not only must you fill in endless forms attesting to the fact that you are of upright character, but you also need a British doctor / nurse / accountant / lawyer / teacher / etc / etc signing the back of one of your photographs to say that the photo is really you. What happens if you have lived abroad for some time and don’t know any doctors,  nurses,  accountants, lawyers,  teachers, etcs? Too bad!
Luckily I did; and having filled out the forms, attached photographs and sent them off to the UK to be countersigned, they were then sent on to the Association of Chief Police Officers, together with a cheque for £45. And some two weeks later a certificate arrived proclaiming to the world that they could find no trace of a criminal record for your favourite blogger.
Next up, according to the instructions, I had to get the Philippines Embassy in my home country to attest to the fact that they had had sight of my police clearance certificate, together with proof that I received a monthly income of more than $800 – or just over £500.
The embassy, of course, is in London; my home is in Yorkshire – a five hour bus ride away. But no worries. When I finally arrive back in the UK from China I book a trip down to the capital (£15 return ticket on National Express) and present myself to the Philippines Embassy Consular section – not a stone’s throw away from Trafalgar Square.
I look at a wall full of forms for filling out, but they are all intended for Filipino nationals applying for various services – nothing remotely linked to attesting a UK piece of paper. So I grab a queuing number and wait for a free bureaucrat while watching a feed of a Pinoy TV station along with countless bored-looking Filipinos.
Finally my number is called and, pushing my clearance certificate and proof of income through a tiny slot, I explain what I’m after. Sorry, I am told by a bored-looking bureaucrat who looks anything but sorry; You need to get this authorised by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office before we can authorise it.
I ask.
Because that is the rule.
I make my way over to the other side of Trafalgar Square where the FCO hang out, only to discover that since I was here last time (getting the paperwork in order for my China work visa) the system has been changed. A fed-up looking doorman tells me that I am the nth person this morning they have had to turn away.  FCO attestations are all now being done in Milton Keynes (three hours away), he tells me. I could try writing to them there.
But I need this in a hurry. Can I visit their office? No. According to their web site, only postal applications – taking up to ten days – are allowed. No visitors at all. This, according to the tripe they tell their ‘customers’ is ‘so they can offer a better, more efficient, service’.
First you have to go online and pay for the service you want – in this case attesting two documents is going to cost me £60, plus postage. Then you are given a reference number that you insert into the forms you have to fill in, proving you have paid for the service in advance before sending everything off in an A4 envelope to MK. You then wait for 2-3 working days after which your documents should be sent to your home address. Thank goodness I am at least in the UK now as I doubt I could have done this from abroad.
The system works, and a few days later I am the proud owner of yet another piece of paper which says the first piece of paper from the Police is genuine. (I wonder why no-one asks for a piece of paper attesting to the fact that the FCO piece of paper is genuine, but hold my tongue.)
I book another bus journey down to London, allowing enough time for the embassy to process my application, which I have been told should take no more than three hours.
I arrive at the embassy and shove my sheaf of papers through the tiny slot in front of the Filipino bureaucrat. Please pay £18 for each document at the window opposite, I am told, only after which they inform me that due to staff shortages and the fact that their computer system was down the previous day, I could not now have my papers back until the following Tuesday (it being Friday today).
But I specifically booked my ticket to the Philippines on Monday, after you told me last time that I could get the paperwork completed in three hours, I wail. They relent. I can get my paperwork on the Monday, but certainly not today.
The weekend passes and for the third time I take a bus down to London, leaving in the middle of the night to ensure that I get there when the embassy opens in the morning. Hurrah! The paperwork has been completed (and from the look of things was even finished on the Friday. I am not amused.)
So far I have shelled out the not inconsiderable sum of £45 (ACPO) + £60 (FCO) + £36 (Embassy) + £40 (bus fares) = £180+ just to get a few pieces of paper together.
I head for Heathrow Airport and the check in desk of Kuwait Airlines, whom I have the misfortune of flying with to Manila.

Sorry, I am told. You need to show you have booked an onward flight out of the Philippines before we can let you board.
But I am applying for a residence visa in Manila – look, here is all the paperwork to prove it, I tell them.
Sorry, rules are rules. Get on the internet and book a ticket to anywhere and then we can let you board.
I storm downstairs to what Heathrow laughingly calls an internet café and book a seat to Bangkok for £170 which Kuwait Airways then checks up on by ringing the airline to ensure that I have really done what I said I had. I am allowed to board!
I arrive in the Philippines where, surprise surprise, no one is the slightest bit interested in asking me for proof of an onward connection.
A few days later I head for the offices of the PRA to apply for my SRRV. This whole application process is going to cost me a one off payment of $1,400 (£880) which I hand over in 100-dollar bills which are all photocopied and the photocopy placed in a newly opened file with my name on it. Twelve photographs are also required – heaven knows what they will do with them all.
I also need to deposit $10,000 into a designated bank account of the PRA which can in the future be used for investment or going towards the purchase of an apartment.
I go to a branch of the designated bank around the corner to arrange a transfer but am told I have first to transfer the money from  my UK account into a Philippines dollar account and from there transfer the $10k into the PRA’s account. That way I can show proof of transfer to the PRA in order to get the whole unwieldy process to move forward. Luckily I have someone with me who has a dollar account and a few days later I have the requisite paperwork to take back with me to the PRA to prove transfer of funds into their coffers.
But this being the Philippines, where banking is still carried out much as it was 50 years ago in Europe, it is another eight days before the PRA can confirm that they have received the funds. I go back to the PRA once again.
Now I am told that I will need to undergo a medical. No problem… that is included in the initial fee. A kindly looking nursing agent accompanies me to the other side of Manila to a hospital where I offer up various samples, get my BP taken, and have a chest X-Ray in a room in which there are notices denouncing the old wives tale that drinking milk can mask any irregularities the X-Ray might show up.
I return to the PRA and am told that my medical results will be sent to them automatically. Unfortunately, as there are two national holidays this month, the processing of my visa is now going to take slightly longer than normal. Oh dear – what a pity – your tourist visa will therefore expire before we can get our finger out and do the necessary paperwork. Could you please go to the Bureau of Immigration to get a tourist visa extension. (Fume!!!)
I head for the other side of town to the BI – a horrid looking building with hundreds of people milling around, not sure of where they need to be going.

Finally I am pointed in the right direction, pay P500 (£7+) to the man behind the counter and am told to come back in an hour’s time.
An hour passes, and I get back my passport with a visa extension.
Back again to the PRA to prove to them that I can stay legally in the country until such time as they have got their act together. A photocopy is taken of my new extended visa and I am told to wait three weeks and then to eMail to find out the current status of my application.
I wait three weeks; I eMail; I wait two days; and behold, my SRRV is now ready for collection.
I return yet again to the PRA where a few more forms are filled out. I am asked to sign here… and here … and here… oh, and here also… and finally I have my new SRRV in my hot and stickies.  I am now officially a Philippines Resident! Yeah!
A week or two passes and now it is time to get myself a Philippines Driving License. Unfortunately every site on the web which refers to this gives different information. I am in Baguio City where a friend has a friend who works in the Land Transportation office who ‘knows someone’ who will be able to help speed up the process.
We turn up in a small windowless office which has two tables, four chairs and two typewriters. I show my UK license. I show my expired Saudi license (to prove that I can drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road). I show my passport. I show my residents visa.
Would I mind undergoing a driving test to get my driving license, I am asked.
No problem … but don’t I need a license to hire a car in order to undergo a test in order to get a license in the first place?
Hmmm; hadn’t thought of that.

They take photocopies of all my paperwork and I am told that someone will phone me up later in the day.
Luckily for me, my friend also needs to get a new driving license for herself. I accompany her to the LTO just to view the process.
A stark warning on the notice board puts me in my place.
My friend casually asks how difficult it would be for a foreigner who has just got an SRRV to get a new driving license.

No problem at all.
Would he need a driving test?
No. Not needed.
Can this be true? I am wheeled in to the head of the bureau to check my credentials. She has obviously never seen a British driving license before – well, not the old style one that I have. She points to the list of vehicles I am allowed to drive.

Which of these vehicles are you allowed to drive?
The ones listed there.
She points to my date of birth. How old are you?
I do a quick computation, which she does at the same time. Our maths agree!
Just go upstairs for a medical and then fill in this form, she tells me.
Upstairs I have my blood pressure checked and am then asked to remove my glasses and read the letters on the board.
A, T, X, errrr ….
I put my glasses back on and manage to read all the way down to the eighth line. Success!
I head downstairs, fill out the form and am asked to wait on one of the benches. One gets the feeling that these people were never born to be bureaucrats. Hey, they have even scattered some pot plants around to brighten up the place!
I am called to window number 2 where I am asked to sign my name and stand in front of the camera for a mug shot to be taken.
Can you stand back a little? Can you crouch down a little? Perhaps just a little bit more?
There is something of the absurd as I try to crouch down while smiling into a webcam, but it seems to do the trick and I am told to sit down again.
I am called to window number 3 where I am again asked to sign my name and stand in front of the camera for a mug shot to be taken. (Did the last bureaucrat forget to press the ‘go’ button? Or did his machine crash? I will never know, though the notices over the windows might give a clue – Filipino nationals and non-nationals)
Can you stand back a little? Can you crouch down a little? Perhaps just a little bit more?
Yet again I crouch down while smiling and again I am asked to sit down.

Next I am called to window number 4 where I am relieved of P617 (about £8) and asked to sit again.
And finally – a half hour after the whole process started I am called to window 5 where a brand spanking new Philippines driving license is awaiting my collection.
I am amazed. I am delighted. Hey, not even in Europe would you get one of these so fast.
So in retrospect, I guess I would have to rewind history one more time and warn my daughter never to marry a politician, or a bureaucrat … unless, perhaps, they were working for the Philippine’s Land Transportation Department… though somehow I doubt Genevieve would have paid the slightest bit of notice to me anyway in the event of history having taken a different path!