Happy Year of the Goat

pieterneele | 18 February, 2015 15:54

Wishing all of you a happy and healthy Year of the Goat!

A friend from Vietnam sent me the outlook for people born in the Year of the Dragon, especially edition 1964 (me). Work: no good. Health: no good. Love: no good.

Looking for a place to hide. Just for a year. ‘Cos after, the Year of the Monkey promises to be real good.

(Can’t get myself to add a goat image, too predictable.)

Lonely Planet pt 2: they are children’s books

And while at the subject of Lonely Planet guides: they are children’s books.

Travel is about the unknown and the unexpected, travel is about discovering. But those ‘travel’guides tell you where to go, what to see there, how to get there. You know exactly what awaits you.

Those using those books are tracing the footprints of others: a boy scout’s game. Travel-wise they, well, haven’t grown up. Those having outgrown those guides go their own independent way.

Lonely Planet pt 1: they don’t get the essence of TRAVEL

Zeeuws-Vlaanderen, the small southwestern part of Holland along the Belgian border where I was born and grew up, is done away with by Lonely Planet as an irrelevant region of farmland and chemical plants.

Now this is not true. There are some interesting old buildings in the towns of Hulst, Sluis, Aardenburg. There are characteristic tree-lined ‘polder’ dikes. In the half submerged conservation area of Saeftinghe over 200 types of birds have been spotted.

But íf it were true, what’s wrong with farms and factories? A TRAVELLER is curious. He first and foremost wonders what a place is like. Beautiful or not, that matters less. Whether there is ‘something to see’ is a worry of tourists.

And then: a TRAVELLER is open to everything. A cloud in the sky. Furrows in a field. The daily life of the one hundred thousand people living in Zeeuws-Vlaanderen.

At Lonely Planet they don’t understand this essence of TRAVEL.

TRAVEL vs tourism


Tourism: the predictable.


Tourism: the beaten track.


Tourism: superficial.


Tourists take their second-hand routes and destinations from guidebooks and tour operators.


Tourism makes no such sense. It combines a couple of ‘things to see’ that have nothing in common other than maybe being located in the same country.


Tourists need ‘sigths’.

Not so far from each other: the sources of the Yangtse, Yellow River and Mekong

Three of Asia’s longest rivers, the Yangtse (6,300 km), Yellow River (5,500 km) and Mekong (4,900 km) all have their source in China’s Qinghai province, at the northern part of the Tibetan plateau.

Seems like a remarkable fact. But rivers that start furthest inland and at this highest plateau don’t have much choice but to become the longest on their way to the sea.

Besides all three come from Yushu prefecture (the administrative unit below provincial level). And two of them, the Yangtse and Mekong, even come from the same county of Zaduo (the administrative unit below prefectural level).

This if you accept the length of a river’s longest tributary as the criterion to determine a river’s source.

Introduction of satellite measurements has made establishment of river lengths more easy and more reliable. It has led to the ‘relocation’ of the source of all three rivers. The Dang Qu turns out to be a longer tributary of the Yangtse than the Tuotuo He so that its source, traditionally at Geladandong west of Yushu, moves to Zaduo county. The Kari Qu turns out to be longer than the Yueguzong Qu, shifting the Yellow River’s source to the territory of Yushu. The disagreement about the Mekong’s source doesn’t matter in this respect: it will remain in Zaduo county, whatever the outcome.

What’s a river source?

Easy question, right? You’d expect a straightforward answer. But there isn’t.

One who wants to get to the source of a river will instinctively look for the spot that is furthest away from the sea. On a map his finger starts at the mouth and traces the river upstream. He ignores smaller tributaries, at every junction he follows the longest branch. The head of the final branch where he ends up this way, that is his river source.

But some take a different view. Take as an example the dispute on the source of the Mekong that has been going on for the past 15 years. It centers on the two branches of the river that are furthest upstream. Some concerned think that not only their length should be considered to decide which is the source of the Mekong. They argue that their water discharge and the surface area of their basin, among others, should also be taken into account to determine the Mekong’s ‘true’ source. Someone has pointed out that the longest of the two branches meanders a lot, reason why in fact the shortest should maybe be taken more seriously: if it discharges more water more quickly its more forceful stream will prevent it from meandering. The argument has almost been turned upside down: in fact because the one branch is the longest (by way of its meandering) it should nót be assigned as the source.

The outcome of this discussion will bring us what is called the ‘scientific’ source of the river.

Most countries have a geographical or scientific institute that deals with these matters. It is up to that organisation to proclaim A source to be The source. China has two of these institutes.

All of this quite apart from the beliefs of local people. They have been living in a source area for centuries and as long as can be remembered they regard (often: venerate, or even worship) a specific pool, well or beginning stream as the source of the river. The scientists’ criteria are irrelevant to them.

Scientists call this the ‘spiritual’ source.

So whoever wants to get to a river’s source can choose whose lead to follow. The rationally disposed can go along with the scientists, those that feel bureaucrats matter can adhere to the decisions of officialdom, the spiritually inclined can stick with the indigeneous population of the source area.

The FIFA World Cup 2014

The finals in Brazil are still almost three years away. But the soccer World Cup of 2014 has started. In Asia in preliminaries of preliminaries many countries have been eliminated already.

Nepal didn’t make it. They drew 1-1 at home against Jordan but something went wrong in Amman: 9-0. I sent a somewhat compassionate message to friends in Kathmandu.

Laos is out too. They first beat Cambodia, but then lost to China: 13-3 on aggregate. I sent a somewhat compassionate message to friends in Luang Phrabang. Had it been the other way around, I would have laughed at my Chinese friends.

Syria was disqualified. Not because a strange man holds power there who kills his own people, but because in both matches against Tajikistan they fielded a player who once played for Sweden. FIFA, as its rule book stipulates, turned both Syrian victories in 3-0 defeats. I suppose those of Tajikistan knew right away. But they didn’t say anything, they figured: if they find out, he will not play next match and we may lose 4-0. We better say nothing, and they will field him again next match.

Among the other victims Macau, Malaysia, Maldives, Mongolia, Myanmar. For 23 of 43 Asian nations that entered the competition the World Cup is already over.

China is now trying in a group that precedes yet another group. They beat Singapore in my city of Kunming. International matches are played here sometimes. It will have something to do with the city’s location at 1.900 metres above sea level – an advantage if the opposition is not used to it. They then lost to Jordan. Things can still go both ways.

During China’s only successful campaign to reach the main tournament in 2002 I was a loyal supporter. Few believed they stood a chance, and I rooted for the underdog. These days China is an underdog in hardly any field anymore. If they fail – well, I kind of look forward to some malicious delight.



October 3rd 2012, flight MU5711, Kunming-Beijing

A group of young men in neat dark suits is standing apart near the gate. Curious, I move up to them. Buttons with the North Korean flag or the North Korean leader on their jackets, small labels of their German sponsor on their cabin baggage.

It is the national football team, on their way back from training at altitude in Yunnan ahead of their WC qualifier against Uzbekistan. ‘Very strong’, the official says when I try to strike up a conversation. Apparently he isn’t reassured by the fact that seven players in their current squad played in last year’s World Cup in South Africa.

I imagine the Dutch national team to be noisier than these calm and modest guys, and busy with iPhones and earphones. Not that there is any chance I‘ll ever be on a scheduled flight and in economy class with them.

Halfway through the flight I walk to the toilet in the back. Most have dozed off. Those awake seem bored. 

Waiting at the luggage belt in Beijing the seemingly oldest official is bantering with the seemingly youngest player. A shy smile. The others are laughing.

Anonymously they disappear in the passenger crowd.