Monthly archives of “December 2015

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Kalimantan, Indonesia – Twenty minutes from death

The ‘high-wall’ of a mine has been the undoing of many a geologist (if an opencast mine is targeting something flat and dipping, like a coal-seam, the high-wall is the side of the pit above the deepest bed you are uncovering). Sometimes the undoing is accidental – the geo slips or the high-wall edge breaks away. Sometimes it’s thought to have been deliberate – life was getting a bit tough for that geo. And sometimes it’s thought to have been deliberate, but not on the part of the geo (the other guy came back with an odd smile). So high-walls deserve respect.

Kalimantan, Indonesia. Yet another gaping hole in the ground. Usual brief, go there and see what the story is. Someone, somewhere will be offering some great deal. But is there anything left? The mine is up on a ridge, deserted, but maybe only for a day or two. Regular protocol, circum-navigate the edge, keeping a healthy distance back from said high-wall. Get the broad picture. Look for interesting rocks. In this case, I found a beautiful example of ancient (maybe 40 million year old tidal-bedding).

Tidal bedding in the high wall of an coal mine. Kalimantan, Indonesia. The lighter beds form as the tide flowed, and the darker layers of mud formed in the still waters of slack-tide.

Tidal bedding in the high wall of an coal mine. Kalimantan, Indonesia. The lighter beds form as the tide flowed, and the darker layers of mud formed in the still waters of slack-tide.

Then, try and get into the pit. Go down to the bottom and see exactly what the target was. In this case, I stood at the end of the pit and eyed the ‘low-wall’. It’s opposite side the high-wall, and in this case, it was a clean bed of mudstone, from which the coal had been removed. It dipped down smoothly and directly to the bottom of the pit. The view is in the featured image. The low-wall is to the right, and the high wall to the left (with a figure to give scale). It’s not as steep as it looks. Honest.

I walked closer and studied the low-wall for quite while longer. Hmm, steepish, sort of border-line comfort-zone. But I figured I could make my way down it, and even if I did start to slide, I could more or less ski down safely. Then I made my way down, and it didn’t seem too bad after-all. Part way down I stopped and did a little work. This is the view from there:

Edging down the low wall of a mine, Kalimantan, Indonesia.

Edging down the low wall of a mine.

As I said, not too steep at all! I made it down to the bottom, made some more measurements, then happy I’d figured it out, I headed along the pit. I eventually found the ‘haul road’ and slogged back up to the top, and found our vehicle with the others waiting.  I took off my sweat-drenched vest and back-pack and stowed them (including my camera, blast it). Then I heard – a roar. I rushed through the scrub to get a view over the low-wall, to see – the whole face that I had just slithered down, had failed. Several thousand tons of boulders were cascading down to the bottom.

Mmm. Twenty minutes or so. And it wouldn’t have been by high-wall.

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Mongolia – From Death-threats to a camel-ride

It’s March 2009 in Mongolia and there is an ill-feeling along the Gobi Altai. The year before, and some months after the last time I was in the area, a massive flash-flood had barrelled out of the mountains. It funnelled down what is normally a broad, dry valley. Many nomads, camping in the valley, died. The proximal cause was clear – an extreme rain event. But what was behind that? Could it be an increase in rainfall intensity? There is evidence that the climate is changing. The nomads say that not only are conditions getting drier, but rainfall, when it comes, is heavier, does not sink into the soil, but runs off (Sukh 2012). Or could it be the increasing proportion of goats (versus sheep) that Mongolian herders now stock to provide more mohair for the tourism industry? Goats tend to chomp off plants closer to the ground, and can lead to desertification – which will escalate run-off.

Or – was it us?

The word in the country-side was that perhaps the spirits of the land were not happy with the foreigners. In the head-waters of that valley was a large foreign-run, coal-exploration project. This wasn’t ours, but hey, who’s splitting -hairs? Following the flood, a group of my colleagues were camping in the broader region. Some drunken and angry locals burst into the camp one night. In the fracas, the Camp-Manager received some blows and a driver had his arm broken. The intruders left, but with a warning – they would kill anyone who returned.

It was yours-truly who was fated to go back in the spring. Opinions in the Ulaan-Baatar office were polarised and strongly voiced. The colleagues who had ‘been there’, were understandably shaken-up. They, and others, suggested we didn’t go. But there was another group, who thought it was more likely just another case of drunken locals and people in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the end this view won-out, and we headed back to the Altai, but with our ‘radars’ tuned.

We were working with a team operating an old Russian augering truck, trying to drill holes into the rocky ground. Instead of hostile locals (and I wouldn’t blame them if they were), up the plains towards us came …. a camel train. It was that time of the year when the nomads pack-up from where they have hunkered-down for the brutal winter, and head back into the hills to their ancestral spring-summer camping grounds. The train came right up to us, trudging closer across patches of snow and grass – it was led by a man riding a horse, and his young, quiet son, riding a camel. They were both dressed in the traditional deels. The two-humped bactrians, all six of them, were loaded up with all the paraphernalia of a ger (the nomadic tent, or ‘yurt). The round disk that form the centre of ger was easy to spot. It was strapped to a pile of felt that gets wrapped around the ger as insulation. Another camel had the rafters, that fit into holes in the disk and radiate outwards to support the roof. Others had some of the lattice-like wall frame, or the traditional orange-painted wooden furniture.

Young boy with Bactrian camel, Mongolia

They stopped for a chat, and through my colleagues, who could interpret, I learned something unexpected. The man had been educated at a University in Moscow, back in the Soviet days (I didn’t learn what in). But then the treat – I was enticed on a camel ride. The camel was not that thrilled, but was under close-control by its handler (not me). And then, ride and socialising over, they headed onwards  towards the Altai on their their rather lonely trip. Mum and probably other kids would not be far behind.

In the following video I’ve killed the sound. The silence is way-better than the infernal noise the augering machine was making in the back-ground.

But no animosity there, just traditional nomadic hospitality. I guess we were lucky.


Sukh, T. 2012. Local Understanding of Hydro-Climate changes in Mongolia (Thesis)

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Cheap Eats Nanjing 8 – Boiled Dumplings

I’ve been going to this place since Day-One. Fortunately I had a local with me at that time to point things out. Now they know me, and what I’m after when I wave and point.  The specialty is traditional boiled dumplings. There are various fillings and the price is by 100g (GoogleTranslate is not doing well with the script, so I’ll have to get help on that one). They make up your dumplings to order.



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For a decent lunch or a modest dinner, I ask for 300 g, and it gets me what you see in the featured image. Twelve RMB has got to be the best value feed anywhere. Every table has a stack of little plastic dishes, some soy sauce and some curry/chili/sambal. You mix this together in your bowl, and dunk the dumplings in.

Outside DSC_9203Nanjing Street map

If you walk down Chenxiang and get to a point where you find yourself having to climb over scooters and bikes parked all over the footpath – you’re probably directly outside. Heck, it’s Xmas Eve, maybe I’ll go there now….



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Cheap Eats Nanjing 7 – Eggplant and noodles at ‘Have Never Met’

A trendy (the Andy-Warholesque portraits of Mao on the walls are a sort of hint, not to mention the name) up-market (eye-catching menus) sort of place. I spotted this weeks ago, then couldn’t find it again for ages. Just a few of their offerings have an English translation – I’m a big fan of eggplant, so when I saw that, I took a stab. Wow, really nice big bowl (see featured image above, and below, for what it looks like once you’ve mixed it and eaten half). A really big meal for 25 RMB, plus a mug of tea.

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I was about to go when the female half of a twenty-somethings couple at one of the other tables asked where I was from. Turned out both her and her husband had been to New Zealand last year – and had got as far south as a place called “Tekapo”. Yep, they got the name right, not far from my home town. So far, they like NZ more than any other country they have visited.

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Cool menu! But unfortunately not making it easy to machine-translate….

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‘Have Never Met’  is on Zhujiang Road, a little to the east of Jinxianghe.

Nanjing Street map Outside DSC_9266 The Name DSC_9265



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Cheap Eats Nanjing 6 – the ‘Chicken Curry’ place

If you are like me and get a craving for cheese now and again, there are limited options in Nanjing (I haven’t yet found any shops to simply buy the stuff). One option is a pizza-joint. They are around, but what you get tends to be small for the price. The other little gem I discovered is a family-run place that had, in English “Chicken Curry” written across the front. Yep, that got my attention. I’m not sure if that is the name of the place – I can’t translate what’s above it.

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They will whip up a chicken, milk, rice and cheese bake for 24 RMB (featured image). It’s never crowded – in fact, I’ve never seen anyone else in there. I’ve also tried their basic chicken, curry and rice (The only place I know that does a basic curry and rice).  The young ones do speak English, but the menu is in Chinese.

Other menu with notes

Part of the menu and translations courtesy of Google. Anyone for “Too slippery cow Quanxiongshuifan”? Or even the “Orleans difficult Kuaixianwofan”? (:

The young woman who works in here surreptitiously photographs me with her smart-phone while I’m eating (#strange red-haired foreigner?), but tells me that if i want more rice, “just-ask”. Though perhaps that option is only if you’re photographable.

The Cheese Curry place is in Dashamao Alley, between Jiangjun Alley and Chengxian St.

Nanjing Street map


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Cheap Eats Nanjing 5 – spicy potatoes at ‘Jie Jiao Xiao Cai’

One of the things I miss in China are potatoes – so I was thrilled to come across ‘Jie Jiao Xiao Cai’. It serves a big bowl of spicy potatoes (featured image). It’s a modern, up-market place – so up-market that everyone gets handed a full-colour, glossy A3 photographic menu (no English) to tick off what they want. I felt so bad about all the paper being wasted the first time I went that i ordered two cheap dishes, plus rice – and had to take half of it home. Now, I just point, and the staff know me so well that they are pointing to the spicy spuds before I can spot them.

The spuds come in a stoneware bowl and are riddled with hot peppers. The who thing gets progressively hotter as you eat your way down. The 15 RMB bowl, maybe plus some extra rice to flesh it out, is heaps enough for me. There are lots of other nice looking things on the menu – I’ve also tried and can recommend the ‘Kamameshi gravy radish’ (only 9 RMB for a bowl).

Colour menu with labels

A little part of the menu with a few things translated.

The Jie Jiao Xiao Cai’ is on Danfeng Rd.

Nanjing Street map

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Cheap Eats Nanjing 4 – Bahali Xinjiang Restaurant

For naan bread encrusted with spices, and spicy tofu – there’s the Muslim Bahali Xinjiang Restaurant. This combination (see featured image) costs 23 RMB and comes with a full pot of tea (more if you want). It’s more than I can eat in one go – so it’s a doggie-bag to have the rest for lunch or dinner next day.  They make the breads in a huge oven out on the street.

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A page of the Chinese menu with translations courtesy Google Translate.

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Thick spicy naan breads in their menu.

Lots of other things on offer – the braised eggplant is another favourite. A lot of their dishes are shown in a photographic menu, along with English description, but the basic menu is all in Chinese.

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Making naan breads in the oven out on the street.

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Braised eggplant in the menu.

The Bahali Xinjiang is on Ji’e Alley.

Street map

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Cheap Eats Nanjing 3 – Steamed Dumplings

For a cheap, quick lunch, three of these steamed dumplings do me nicely. So far I just point to the display ones on the counter and ask for one of each. It gets me a meat one, a vege one and a bean paste one. The price –  about 5 RMB.

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There’s quite a selection of stuff, and I’m only just starting to explore.

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The shop is on Chenxiang Rd, directly opposite the supermarket.

The Shop_9133 Nanjing Street map




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Cheap Eats Nanjing 2 – Biangbiang Noodles

I had to warm a little to this place – its signature dish, ‘Biangbiang Noodles’, means you are trying to eat (with chopsticks) something that is like an enormously elongated and slippery chink of lasagna. At first I found it impossible to haul the stuff up more than about an inch out of the bowl. So the solution has been to have my head in the bowl while I slowly chomp it into manageable bits. But the taste and price have trumped the mechanical logistics. For 18 RMB you get a large bowl of noodles in a spicy sauce with veges, eggs, and some meat, plus a soup. Only a few dishes are advertised with photos, but there are many more options if you can read the Chinese.

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This is the Biangbiang Noodles, as advertised inside. The first two characters means ‘biangbiang’, I guess in traditional Chinese. The third character means ‘noodles’,

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Plenty of other things on the menu – though not with photographs. Here’s just one section (glad I translated before blindly pointing….)

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The name of the place translates as ‘Xi’an Noodles’  and it is on the south side of the narrow Wenchangqiao Rd (connecting Chengxiang with Taiping Nth Rd, and to the east of Southeast University).

Street map

Xi’an Noodles is the red dot. Green dot is the HotPot Place from previous post.


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West Timor – Mine of Women and the Palm Wine Bomb

West Timor – Mine of Women, and the Palm-Wine Bomb

I never thought to see a mine run by women. By why not? And why?

Timor is an island north of Australia, and owes its existence to the geological collision between Australia and Indonesian archipelago to the north. The east side of Timor is now independent, while the west is part of Indonesia. If you are used to Indonesia, West Timor comes as a bit of surprise. The dominant people are obvious different – they are Melanesian (not southeast Asian), and the dominant religion is Catholicism (not Islam).

Food on the streets of Kupang, West Timor.

Food on the streets of Kupang, West Timor.

The geologically action pushed Timor out of the ocean. This means that much of the land is ancient coral reef. But what was also pushed up, and can be seen here and there, under the coral, are old sea floor sediments – beds of shale and sandstone. And these sometimes contain dark, thin beds of manganese. Extracting manganese has become an important part of the economy. It’s stuff that you and I use, in batteries for instance. Despite billions of batteries being discarded each year, economics tell us, apparently, it’s cheaper to keep digging the stuff up.

Betel-Nut Mama! A local working small village resource of manganese, West Timor.

Betel-Nut Mama! A local working small village resource of manganese, West Timor.

Beds of manganese among shale and sandstone, West Timor.

Beds of manganese among shale and sandstone, West Timor.

I was sent to West Timor to look at the manganese. From the town of Kupang on the coast, I went first to see an industrial-scale manganese mine. I was shown around the big open-cast mine by a Java-educated Asian geologist. Machinery can do the large-scale work, But because the manganese is typically in those thin beds, separating it out from the shale and sandstone needs a human touch. This hard work was being done by little groups of people sitting on the ground, breaking up the mixture of ore and rock, and hand-sorting it. They were lovely friendly people, but oh… the life of hardness and despair to be seen in their eyes. The geologist told me that Muslims were the preferred workers – more dependable, and no problems with alcohol. I saw some smaller mines out in the hills, where locals were scratching up whatever they could find.

Worker hand-sorting manganese in large mine, West Timor.

Worker hand-sorting manganese in large mine, West Timor.

Worker hand-sorting manganese in large mine, West Timor.

Worker hand-sorting manganese in large mine, West Timor.

The next day Roni, myself and our driver set off on a long trip to the interior. The road was constant curves, round and round as we headed into the hills. After some hours, as the road curved to the left, we passed a motorbike. It was lying on the edge of the road, near a deep, straight-sided concrete storm-gutter. On the other side of the gutter, several meters away a youth lay on his side. His eyes were closed giving him a peaceful look, but his body was at an odd angle, and in the wrong place. Others were there and we didn’t stop, but kept on our winding way.

We arrived at a village and were shown several piles of manganese ore. Each pile was maybe two meters in diameter. These were stockpiles the villagers created from manganese collected in other parts of their region. Once in a while a buyer from the coast would arrive, negotiate, and a sale made.

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Guides from that village led us along the ridges until presently we came to another village. We walked out of the forest and down the side of the ridge, to come across a warren of holes. It was a local manganese mine. But this one was different – the entire operation was being carried out by women. There were three generations of them down the pits, digging away in conditions it would make any WPH and S officer blanch. Every man in that village was away in other parts of Indonesia working. The only males of any kind I saw were a few very young boys. The women were all friendly and cheerful, but clearly tired. It was slow, tedious, and back-breaking work. I did my work, basically a look-see at what was in the pits and what was being stockpiled nearby, gave my thanks and goodbyes, and we all headed back towards the firs village.

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Here we went through the village formalities of visitors and guests. Everybody, men, women and children gathered under a big thatched roof. There was food – and some palm wine. I was keen to get some of this stuff, to take back as a little souvenir.

Palm wine is pretty simple stuff to make. When a palm tree is cut down, a rectangular incision, maybe 30 or 40 cm along each side, is made in the trunk. The outer part is sliced off as a lid, then the hole is dug deeper, almost right through the trunk, but just a little hole is pierced right through to the underside of the palm log. The hole is filled with the hashed up trunk pieces. Then the ‘lid’ is put back on the top, and a plastic drink bottle is put under the little hole underneath to collect the sweet, fermenting liquid that starts to dribble out. Its that simple.

Getting some wasn’t quite as simple as I’d hoped – someone had needed to go back to a producing tree. We sat and waited, and waited and waited. Eventually the wine appeared – a large plastic Coca Cola bottle full of milky white liquid.

We got into our vehicle and I stashed the bottle at my feet. We set off and our long, winding road home. Several hours of travel. Night fell and we kept winding our way through the valleys along almost deserted roads. The trees on either side flashed past momentarily at the edge of our headlights. Hour after boring hour. As we were passing through the area where the young man had died earlier in the day, the palm wine detonated.

The noise seemed to come from everywhere. Along with a lot of liquid. It was only once the driver regained control of the vehicle that we realised what had happened. The still fermenting plastic bottle of wine, warmed by the heat from the transmission, must have finally expanded to the size of a football. It was the Marvin’s head scene in Pulp Fiction. There was palm wine over the entire inside of the vehicle, us included.

Of course, I never did get to taste that wine – but I have this awful feeling that to this day, anyone who drives in that vehicle will still be able to smell it.