Thursday, July 31, 2008

Blocking blogs in China

I will be heading up to Beijing tonight for the Olympic Games. I have not been able to update my blog on my last few trips to China because is one of the Internet sites that has been blocked by the 'Great Firewall of China'.

However, when China was awarded the Olympic Games, it promised that there would be no censorship and unrestricted access to the Internet during the Games.

I hope they keep their promise otherwise I will not be able to update my blog until I return at the end of the month. If there are no posts within a few days of this one, then it will be apparent that the Chinese have not kept their promise.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A cultural night in Bali

I’ve been attending a conference in Bali this week, and tonight the delegates were taken to an outdoor drama performance in a temple in Karambitan village. It was about an hour’s drive north of Denpasar – at least I think it is north because I haven’t been able to find it on the map yet.

I guess this was a ‘real’ performance and not something put on for tourists, because we went up in two buses (there were about 60 of us) and there was nowhere for the buses to park (they caused a bit of an obstruction on the narrow street outside of the temple) and there were just as many locals watching the performance.

Before the performance we were invited to have dinner in an inner courtyard of the temple which was hosted by the headman of the temple (he is the distinguished looking gentleman in the white suit and traditional headgear in the second photograph below).

It was a beautiful night, and the atmosphere was exotic with the courtyard lit by lanterns and the perfume of the frangipani trees drifting through the still night air.

Drama is as an integral part of Balinese culture as dance, and the two are often intertwined in temple ceremonies.
I believe what we saw was called a barong play – a drama that depicts the fight between good and evil. It was interesting to watch, although I didn’t really understand what was going on. As it seemed to be staged as much for the locals as it was for us, there was nobody to explain what was happening.

However, I did learn that the character with the fiercesome mask in the bottom two pictures below – one of the main characters in the play – was called Rangda, a child-eating demon queen who leads an army of evil witches against the forces of good.

She is said to haunt graveyards, feed on corpses, and at night fly through villages, trailing her entrails, trying to find pregnant women to suck their babies’ blood.

As we were watching the drama performance, a group of local kids were sitting on the ground close to the action, but when Rangda appeared, they all ran away!

No flash photography was allowed during the performance, so the photographs below are a bit noisy because they were shot at ISO-1600.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Putrajaya from the air

I’ve been trying to get a good shot of Putrajaya – Malaysia’s new administrative centre – from the air for quite some time now, as it’s located just east of the northern approach to KLIA, but I always seem to be sitting on the wrong side of the plane, or it’s night or it’s raining, or we make our approach from the wrong direction.

Today I thought we had a chance when my flight from Singapore came in from the south and I found myself on the right side of the plane (‘right’ meaning correct side, but it was actually the left side) and we flew past KLIA and did a left hand circle over Putrajaya. However, the shot I got (below) wasn’t as good as I had hoped for because there was quite a lot of cloud around and the window of the plane I was on (a Jetstar A320) was quite dirty.

However, the shot does show quite well how Putrajaya is developed around lakes – which are actually old open-cut tin mines that have filled up with water. I’ve heard that some of the cat fish in these lakes are enormous – perhaps that’s due to a heavy metal diet?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Rich photographers? No way!

On my way back from dinner this evening, I noticed a small exhibition of photographs of Indonesia in the shopping centre next to my hotel. Most of them were very good landscape photographs, and they were being offered for sale in a nice frame. But they seemed to be quite expensive for Indonesia – most were priced between two and six million rupiah (US$200-600) – and I’d question whether some were worth that because they were rather over-saturated.

As I was standing looking at the photos, I heard a couple behind me remark about the prices. The woman said: “Oh, I didn’t know photographers made so much money – it must be a good way to get rich.” How I wish! I don’t think there are many professional photographers that would regard themselves as ‘rich’. Most struggle to make ends meet, practising a profession that they enjoy – but doing it more for the love of it than the money. If you could get rich by taking landscape photographs, I’d give up my day job in a flash! (And anyway, none of the photographs had a ‘sold’ sign on them yet).

Crash helmets or clash helmets?

I had some meetings in Jakarta today. As I was riding in a taxi on my way to the first one, I noticed how nearly all of the motorcyclists on the busy roads are now wearing helmets. The Indonesian authorities have apparently done a good job of educating riders about the benefits of wearing crash helmets – unlike many other Asian countries where the majority of riders still get around without any form of head protection.

It seems in Jakarta that motorcycle riders like helmets with lots of psychedelic designs and colours – in fact some were so gaudy they would be better named ‘clash helmets’. I only saw only one that I would have described as ‘plain’. It was a white helmet with three black words stencilled on it that read: “Fuck the USA” (he rode past too quickly for me to get a photo of it). I guess the guy wearing it isn’t a fan of George W. Bush.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Burning buttocks on a bronze boot in Budapest

I’d heard that the Statue Park (or Memento Park as it is called on the park’s brochure) outside of Budapest was worth a visit. It is a display of some of the statues that were removed from Budapest’s streets and parks after the fall of the communist dictatorship in 1989. In many other ex-communist countries, such statues were destroyed when the communist regimes fell, but in Hungary it was decided to put them on display to commemorate democracy by reminding people about dictatorship.

It was about 40 minutes away by bus on the western side of Budapest (the Buda side). At the front of the park there is an imposing statue of Lenin:

Inside there are about 40 politically themed statues, the most impressive of which is the bronze Tanácsköztársasági emlékmű (Republic of Councils Monument) which was produced by Kiss István in 1969. It was derived from a 1919 poster of a worker proclaiming: "To Arms! To Arms!"

I observed a British tourist taking some photographs of it, after which one of her companions, another British girl (I could tell from their accents) sat on the right boot of the statue to have her photograph taken. After about five seconds, just as her photographer friend was about to snap the shot, she suddenly jumped up and screamed: “Argghhh – I’ve burnt my ass!”

I don’t think she realised how much heat a bronze statue can absorb on a hot day.

After walking around the park for about 30 minutes and snapping a few shots, I walked over to a small building where they were showing a film about the life of secret agents in Hungary’s communist era. It was quite interesting – in fact I found it more interesting than the statue park itself.

There was also an interesting display of photographs and press clippings from the Hungarian revolution in 1956.

On the way back to Budapest, I spotted what looked like an old London double decker bus parked in a second hand car yard of Audis and other prestige vehicles. It looked quite out of place and I wondered how it got there. Maybe some travellers had bought it for a trip to Eastern Europe, but got tired of traveling in a bus and traded it in for an Audi.

(The smudge around the front of the bus is from the reflection of the window of the bus I was traveling in).

Saturday, July 05, 2008

A quick trip to the puszta

With the week’s meetings over, I joined some of the attendees on an excursion to see the horsemen of the ‘puszta’ which someone described to me as the ‘Hungarian steppe’. From that description I was expecting to see wide open spaces like the Mongolian steppe, but after driving for an hour or so through quite well developed and cultivated farm land, we pulled into a farm with some large horse stables – and that turned out to be our destination.

We were met by two horsemen dressed in traditional costumes cracking whips, in a car park that had parking spaces for about 20 coaches, and I immediately had the feeling that this was going to be a very touristy experience, and not at all what I was expecting.

We were ushered to a grassy area where a man served each of us a glass of ‘home-made’ apricot brandy.

It was potent – and I could only take one sip. If I had drunk the whole glass I am sure I would have passed out.

We were then led over to what looked like a small racetrack, and about 20 horses were let out of a stable and galloped around the track. I guessed this was as close as we were going to get to see wild horses. I got a few good photographs as they went around, but they only did it once so it was all over in a couple of minutes.

Next stop was a open area back next to the car park where the horsemen put on a show displaying their riding skills for about 15-20 minutes.

The guy in the picture below riding four horses – standing on the bare backs of the two behind – was very impressive, but the rest of the show was quite tame.

After that we were taken to the farm’s restaurant for a meal of traditional Hungarian food – goulash, sausages, etc – and then it was announced that we would be having an afternoon of ‘games.’

At that stage I lost interest and decided to leave early and make my own way back to Budapest to catch up on some outstanding work. The farm was worth a visit for an hour, but not for a full day excursion.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Virtuosos work up a sweat in Budapest

I went to a concert tonight at the House of Traditions performed by the Budapest Gypsy Symphony Orchestra. This world famous orchestra is also known as the Orchestra of a 100 Violins – but there were far fewer tonight, so maybe this was a sort of cut-down performance given that the stage of the House of Traditions wouldn’t accommodate many more than about 50 musicians.

I was intrigued that in the middle of the orchestra there was a female violinist dressed in a long black evening dress – whereas all the other musicians were wearing traditional gypsy attire. It wasn’t because only the men were wearing the traditional clothes because there was one other female musician on a viola who was wearing the same traditional dress. It sort of looked like the woman in the black dress had got dressed for the wrong concert!

Even though the orchestra was ‘cut-down’ for this performance, it still featured some of its top musicians including Oszkár Ökrös, who is reputed to be the best cimbalom player in the world (and a very big man at that). He certainly worked up a sweat for his solo pieces (see picture below).

The orchestra was led by Sándor Rigó Buffó and Lendvai Csócsi József (pictured below). They too worked up a sweat in one of their ‘duets’ (not sure if that is what you call a performance by two violinists).

Lendvai Csócsi József (below) led the orchestra for most of the performance. His position is officially Leader of the Orchestra.

But for part of the time it was led by Sándor Rigó Buffó (below) who is also the President and Artistic Director of the orchestra. I guess that was to give Lendvai a rest. Lendvai’s a big man as well and he looked like he needed it. I wonder why these virtuosos are such big men?

I enjoyed the performance because it was live. It’s not the sort of music that I would download to my iPod though. (That reminds me, I came across a great album by Chantal Kreviazuk the other day called ‘Colour Moving and Still.’ I downloaded five tracks from the iTunes store – I love the combination of acoustic and electric guitars on the track called ‘Blue.’ I was listening to it over and over again on the plane coming over).

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Hungary’s magnificent Parliament building

I attended a reception in Hungary’s Parliament building tonight. It is a magnificent structure - constructed in a Gothic Revival style and completed in 1904 - that is the largest building in Hungary and the third largest parliament building in the world.

We didn’t get to see a lot of the inside (we entered through entrance No 7 and then walked upstairs to the Hunter's Hall overlooking the River Danube), but what we did see was very impressive. The photos below are of the grand staircase, the ceiling of the domed hall at the top of the stairs where the royal crown is on display, and the last picture is of the Hunter's Hall where our reception was held which had some large murals on the top half of the walls and the ceiling.

PS added 4 July: I replaced the first picture of the exterior of the Parliament House with a better ‘blue hour’ shot that I took tonight from a boat on the other side of the river.