Monthly Archives: May, 2007


My friend Hap sent me this fine picture from Dijon.

Bistrot Quentin

Looks like… well… my kind of place.

There are nine million bicycles in Beijing

I foolishly got hooked on Katie Melua‘s excellent album Piece by Piece just before going away on my round-the-world trip. Foolishly, I say, because when I got to Beijing I couldn’t stop thinking about the song about nine million bicycles (extract here).

Still, it’s better than the time a few years ago when Rose and I watched The Sound of Music just before visiting Austria. It’s embarrassing to realise you’ve been wandering around a shop humming to yourself about edelweiss or lonely goatherds…

There’s a whole range of transport options in Beijing other than just bicycles, though. In fact, I can’t remember ever seeing such a variety of vehicles anywhere else. Here are a couple I quite liked:

Beijing three-wheeler

Beijing three-wheeler

At one point we even overtook a tree going down the highway at speed…

Travelling tree

I think there was a vehicle under there somewhere.

I really stopped in Beijing to visit some long-lost friends, rather than because I’d ever had a great yearning to see the place. But I found myself enjoying it greatly. There are some downsides – the air pollution, combined with the dust that comes in off the desert, is pretty appalling, and best illustrated by this photo of my friends’ muddy windscreen:

Post-rain windscreen

This was the view after a rain shower had passed over the stationary car. The car had been nice and clean beforehand.

Another downside, for those not used to them, are the Chinese lavatory facilities. In some spots, the Tourist Board has started indicating their suitability for visitors with a star-rating system.

A 4-star loo

Even four stars doesn’t guarantee you’ll get a seat!

But, these things aside, it’s a fascinating place.

I visited the Temple of Heaven and admired the trees in the surrounding park.

twisted tree

I visited Tianamen Square and the Forbidden City, where it’s apparently good luck to rub the brass studs on the enormous doors.

Forbidden City door

Young volunteers within the walls tell you how privileged they feel to be able to work there, and how they hope you’ll come back, and bring your friends, and see the Olympics. Their upcoming hosting of the games is hugely important to China. Personally, I have minimal interest in the Olympics, and some mild objection to the fact that my taxes are going to fund London’s decision to embrace the huge financial loss which hosting them always entails for the country concerned. But here the symbolic importance is huge and all around the city you see evidence of how things are being prepared, built, tidied up, covered up, so that the city will look presentable for the foreign visitors and the TV cameras.

I think the high point for me (in more ways than one) was the Great Wall. I had expected to be impressed by the scale, but I hadn’t expected it to be so beautiful. It was a bright, clear (and very hot) day, and we took a cable-car up to the wall, then walked along it as it snaked along the mountain ridges through the lush vegetation.

Great Wall of China

How dull it would have been if it had been straight and flat! That’s probably what the Romans would have done.

Great Wall tower

There was relief from the heat inside the towers.

Great Wall tower

And some opportunities to gather extra material for my collection of notices from around the world.

Notice at the Great Wall

The food was superb, my friends James and Annabelle were great hosts, the prices were just unbelievable and the people were friendly.

Pity about the government.

And now I’m back in Cambridge, and it’s cold and rainy. Which, after the dust and mid-30s temperatures of Beijing, is actually rather nice.

Good things coming this summer

For some time I’ve been looking forward to the 1st July, which is when public places in England will become smoke-free. Only just over a month to go…

Now I hear more good news. Apparently the EU is clamping down on the outrageous prices that mobile phone companies charge for roaming calls – they should drop to below EUR 0.50/min this summer.

I wonder if this will have any effect, good or bad, on the costs of roaming outside Europe, though…

I come from a land down under

Like many people, I imagine, the only mental image I had of Sydney was of the Opera House, and even that was flawed: it’s not white, you know, as I had always assumed. It’s actually a subtle beige colour. Here’s the obligatory photo – a night shot, just to avoid being too clichéd!

Sydney Opera House

So I had no idea what to expect of the rest of the city, but I subconciously assumed that modern architecture would be the norm. And while it has a central business district much like many modern cities…

Sydney CBD

…I was really struck by the older buildings, from the grand to the humble, from early Victorian to late Art Deco.

Sydney MacDonalds


Manly Wharf

I stayed at a delightful B&B dating from the 1870s:

Ardmore House

And I was impressed with the public transport system, where a ‘day tripper’ ticket gave me access to an excellent rail network which whisked me to and from the centre, and a couple of long ferry trips, around the bay and up the river, all for about 6 quid. (A stark contrast to the tattered remains of a once-great railway system which greeted me when I got back to London. But that’s another story…)

I don’t want to post too many photos at a time, so I’ll spare you the leafy residential neighbourhoods, the amazing sandstone cliffs around Bondi Beach, the lighthouses and bridges…. All in all, I liked Sydney very much, and hope I get a chance to return before too long.

Signs of the times

I liked this notice, seen on a platform of the (excellent) Sydney rail system this evening:

No smoking

Actually, as one travels around the world, one often comes across interesting signs. I think one day I’ll publish a coffee-table book…

This padlocked box was on a street in a New Zealand town. Is the sign intended to fool very dim criminals, do you think?

Empty box

And this one, inside the door of a loo cubicle, also set me wondering. I must confess, I’d never had the urge to do this before:

Don't stand on the loo seat

Once you’ve seen it, though, you start to wonder. What have I missed out on all these years? What is the attraction? Demonstrating your sure-footedness? Spying on your neighbour in the next cubicle? Pretending you’re in a French toilet instead of a Kiwi one?

Whatever the appeal, it’s obviously sufficiently tempting that they had to make and put up a special sign…

Birthday Bubbles

I spent Friday and Saturday diving on the Great Barrier Reef. The timing was simply based around flight schedules, but by a happy coincidence, Friday was also my 40th birthday. If you need to spend such an occasion on the far side of the world from most of your loved ones, it’s hard to find a better place to do it!

I rented a little camera mounted in an underwater enclosure, and took lots of photos. But I found it was capable of taking short movie clips as well…




Life’s necessities

Spotted in an airport a couple of days ago.

Life's necessities

I’ve been having a fabulous few days of vacation but have been moving from hostel to airport to boat to hotel sufficiently regularly that I haven’t had a long-term solid internet connection for quite a while. I have lots of photos and movies to upload but all my connectivity has been on a pay-by-the-minute basis recently, so you’re spared most of them for the moment!

This comes to you from the Inbox Cafe in Cairns, Queensland, which has a pretty good internet connection, great food and coffee, and very friendly staff. Recommended. Even here, though, it’s tricky to get a video upload to YouTube to complete. I’ve heard good things about Blip.TV, though, and might give them a try soon, because they offer FTP upload as an option, which is likely to be more reliable, I think.

In the meantime, here’s where I spent the night before last: on a dive boat on the Great Barrier Reef.

Kangaroo Explorer sunset

I rented a little underwater camera so will post something more sub-aquatic soon. But now I have to catch a plane to Sydney…


A couple of days ago I was in Napier. It’s an interesting town because it was almost completely destroyed by a big earthquake in 1931, and they rebuilt the centre from scratch, with the result that it has the most complete set of Art Deco buildings you can find in such a small area, anywhere in the world.


It’s almost too good – you might imagine you were one a movie set if it weren’t for the rather garish signs which New Zealand shops tend to have on them. These were perhaps the quietest ones:


Above the awning-level, though, there are restrictions on what people can do.

This isn’t a movie set, of course, it’s the real thing. And there are some nice touches lower down, too.


It’s only relatively recently that they’ve realised what a treasure this is and started to capitalise on its tourist value. Before that, the main emphasis was the beach (which is also very pleasant).


It makes me think of the David Suchet Poirot dramatisations, which draw heavily on Art Deco. There are fewer palm trees in most of those episodes, though.


The Art Deco Shop is in the old fire station:


and the owner had a great car parked outside:



My good friend Robert Feakes asks, gently, whether I might implement a Tolkien/non-Tolkien filter on Status-Q in the same way that some sites give you a non-Flash option! Point taken.

If it’s any consolation, I didn’t actually know that the Tongariro area was the site for much of the filming before doing the hike: I had simply heard that it was a fabulous walk, but then recognised some of the scenes en route. And since I’ve now moved out of the main filming areas, gentle reader, you will probably be spared much more in the way of Tolkienesque references.

Robert also commented, “it does trouble me that New Zealand is now seen as ‘LOTR-land’ (sort of ‘Herriot country’ with more battles and orcs) rather than a splendid place in its own right”. And he has a fair point. I was always bemused by the ‘Inspector Morse tours’ of Oxford for a similar reason. For me, NZ has always been an enchanting place and, frankly, if more people get to see and appreciate its amazing beauty because of the LOTR connections, that’s probably not a bad thing.

The good news is that all evidence of the film sets was removed after filming, so there’s little danger of it turning into a theme park.

On the slopes of Mount Doom

Mt Ngauruhoe

Today I did the Tongariro Crossing – one of New Zealand’s best-known walks. Very many thanks to Pete Burgers for recommending it! Thanks from my heart, at least; my legs may not be so grateful. It’s a 7-8 hour hike through, onto, and over some amazing volcanic scenery, and I’m now completely exhausted, so am heading for bed.

I’ll be posting some more photos over the next couple of days, but here’s a question for Tolkien fans which has always puzzled Rose and me: Since the great eagles are able to pick up Sam and Frodo from Mount Doom at the end of their mission, why couldn’t they just drop them off there in the first place?

Open Source in action

I had a great time last night visiting Catalyst, who provide software and services to some pretty high-profile NZ projects, but also seem to have a lot of fun. I liked them immensely, and it’s always encouraging to see successful businesses built around Open Source.

Some of them are helping with OLPC on the side, and I was able to play with one of the laptops for the first time. I was quite impressed.


One ring to find them?

I think I’ve lost my UK mobile. It may be in the back of a cab somewhere, or under a plane seat, or lying in a Wellington gutter. Anyway, I can’t find it. (So friends and family should note that it is not a good way to contact me at present!)

Normally, you have a good chance of finding mobiles simply by calling them. But this one is switched off, or the battery is dead; I just go straight through to my voicemail.

I want a way to switch it on remotely. Perhaps a phone could wake up every half hour, check for any messages, and if you had sent it a special text it would respond in some way – emailing you what it could deduce about its position, for example, and staying on for a while so you could call it.

The frustrating thing is not knowing whether it’s here in my hotel room somewhere, or hundreds of miles away in Auckland airport, or lurking under some Wellington restaurant table… I may never know.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser