Friday, February 29, 2008

North Korea

I have been thinking a great deal about what we saw and did in North Korea , and will write the entry on the plane when I have twelve hours to fill, the thing is that I want to write about the silly and the small things we saw, yet the hardest thing is to realise just how bad things are and to make fun at a regime is one thing, but to convey the suffering is even harder

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

50 minutes 50 Years


It took 50 minutes to fly from Pyongyang to Seoul and it felt like you had time warped back to the future, all is well and the blog will come in next day or two.
We are running on fumes after six hours sleep in nearly 60 hours


Monday, February 25, 2008

Going Black


Just a quick entry , going into North Korea this morning . Handing in Phones all four of them , Blackberry every communication device is banned.

So when you hear, read or see anything about the New York Philamonic Orchestra's ground breaking tour of North Korea, i will be there in the background filming , taking photos and of course those little side stories about the Unholy world of mal.

Hope to try and do some entries from inside the Hermit Kingdom, if not then next entry will be from the Land of Kim Chi (South Korea)

Wish me luck, as they say clocks may go forward one hour but in fact you are going back 50 years in history, should be fascinating


The Hermit Kingdom beckons

Americans in Pyongyang

The following letter welcoming the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to Pyongyang on the eve of its historic concert there tomorrow has been published by the North Korean League of Girl Accordionists, apparently with the approval of President Kim Jong Il and the help of a Korean-English dictionary of musical terms. We have chosen to reprint it verbatim. (The Times Online Edition)

“Greetings to New York Musiclovers' Orchestra and listeners of the world in unison! Our Dear Lieder welcomes you to the shores quiet-flowing old man Taedong River, where great East Pongyang Theatre is majestically fulfilled with chairs, music stands and electric lighting for your whole foreign concert. It will be a clashing cymbal of d├ętente.

“Our nation's father is world-most-known musicologist, composing perfect symphonies for our accordions and also decomposing decadent lackey pop for Korean youth safety. In counterpoint, he loftily supports classics and sees no bass designs in your chosen Gershwin and Dvorak programme, respectfully An American in Paris' and New World Symphony. A dittier man would cry, “by Jingo!”, but not our chief magnanimous conductor. His achievements all self-trumpet.

“Not since spy ship USS Pueblo's arrest 40 years ago has our nation given foreign visas on this major scale. We hide nothing in our guitar cases. Foreign discourse on our so-called Gulag Arpeggio are a pure crotchety note of misinform, and we trust that your second violins are not disguised fifth column, or diminished seventh.

“We are not hungry. We have great tubas. So enjoy Communist Korea from C to shining C.”

Originally appeared in the Times Online

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Forbidden City Marathon


You could hint that by the title that I had somehow stumbled across another race whilst traveling and that for a few hours I took time off and ran the "Forbidden City Marathon" here in Beijing.

One of the great joys of my job is visiting places that are some of the greatest attractions in the world, people save for years to be able to travel and have holidays in exotic locations. I somehow usually find myself flying in, working insane hours and then try to squeeze in a bit of sight seeing and retail therapy, as we refer to shopping. And as part of my therapy I went out and bought 4 shirts, all fake all great names, all wrapped up to look identical to the real things. Thus four brand name shirts, Armani, Zegna, Polo etc. Trusting that the size neck would ensure a correct fit only to get back to hotel and find that they do not fit my arms, so in a fit of RT frenzy I went back and bought another three this time trying them on. Hey Armani at $6 is a bargain in anyones book.

Anyway back to the marathon, just after dawn yesterday I got up and ran from the hotel down to Tiananmen Square past the famous Mao portrait on the Gate of Heavenly piece and back to the hotel in sub zero temperatures wearing running shorts. Lets say that the locals could not make out if i was mad or that my legs were normally blue.

Later the correspondent on my trip Greg Palkot, on his first trip to China really wanted to see the Square and tour the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City is in its own right and incredible place where courtyards the size of small airfields lead onto more temples and more courtyards. On a good day I have walked thru the city in a couple of hours.

Greg I am sure just wanted to get it done and ticked off on his bucket list "Yes I have seen "The Forbidden City". i think he looked at two temples for about a minute and we just bolted thru the city in I am convinced a world record time of 48 minutes. Even when the Secretary of State or the President comes they with no crowds or distractions take an hour complete with posing for Photo calls.

There is a couple of funny points to note though , half the Forbidden City is covered in scaffolding as it gets a face lift for the Summer Olympics and we went thru more "gateways of Heavenly Scaffolding" than real historic gates

and I also noted that the dreaded Sky Antenna was in fact invented by the Chinese back in the 13th Century and looks just as bad back then as it does now on the side of every English house .

And thus Greg can now claim to hold the unofficial world record for the Forbidden City Marathon.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Minimum 8 Teeth


Forget the surly image of the Chinese, everyone in Beijing is getting prepared for the Olympics. So far 1 million local Beijing residents have been given the day off work to attend "learning how to cheer" classes so that come those two weeks in summer the noise of hands clapping and thunder sticks being beaten will cheer on their fellow countrymen and ladies to perform to their best and beat the imperial powers through motivation to honor the country.

The girls who will be centre stage bringing out the medals to drape around the winners, are all hand picked beautiful airline attendants from the airlines here and have been attending beauty school and learning how to smile by hours of practice. How do you practice smiling, well you clench two chopsticks in your mouth and that creates the perfect smile.

When you arrive in Beijing Customs and Police are being taught how to smile and say hello, and there has been a minimum standard set for smiling. The correct smile upon greeting should reveal a minimum of 8 teeth and thus my photo proves that I am ready and happy to greet you in Beijing

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Onto Asia

Well now that democracy in Pakistan is established and the internal politics that will take the months to reach any conclusion, peace is on the streets, and in the news business, peace is not a story. A sad but true fact of life, before you tut tut me, nobody watches TV if nothing is happening.

Peshawar was once one of my favorite cities in the world for its charm, history and sense of vibrancy, however with the rise and hopefully the fall of Islamic power in the state there, it has become too dangerous to be on the streets. I just hope that one day it will be ok to walk around the streets again without fear of being attacked or kidnapped for the sole reason of being a foreigner, let alone working as a cameraman for an American Network. We generally have no displays or stickers on our equipment and when asked I often say Swiss TV, lets face it no one has ever had a grudge against the Swiss.

Later on today it is off to Beijing and the next leg of the trip, before we go to the Hermit Kingdom and that should be a months worth of blogs in a matter of 48 hours.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

"What would you like?"

There are things about Pakistan that can drive you to drink, well if there was a hotel or bar in Peshawar where you could get a drink then you would drink.
There used to be one bar, in fact the worst bar in the entire world which was a sealed off room in the Pearl Continental Hotel , which had the atmosphere of of a funeral parlor on Christmas day. However the management took the wise decision that given the rise of the islamist movement in the area there was a very high risk off either one being bombed or two being torched by a mad mob of mullahs.
Thus Peshawar is a dry city, and all sense of humor seems lost on hotel restaurant staff. Greg and I figured that since we had not heard from New York about any live shot requests and we were still waiting on DC for script approval that we would chance going down for dinner.
Option 1 was the Chinese, however on entering it seemed that family night was in full swing. leaving the small people running rampant we went to the lobby to see if the buffet was available, worse than small children they had a man on an electric organ croning for the benefit of the staff as the place seemed deserted. We decided that small children were the lesser of two evils and went Chinese.

Waiter "What would you like to drink, coke , seven up , pepsi ..."
Greg "Can we see your wine list? sir"
Waiter "Coke, seven up, pepsi..."
Me "What about a bottle of Scotch?"
Waiter "Coke, seven up, pepsi..."
Greg "We will have sparkling water...."

One minute later, New York called, 30 seconds after we had ordered our meal, we had a live shot coming up. The meal arrived and we had two minutes to try and get some of it down , before Greg left and I ordered the bill and asked for the meal to be put in a takeaway box, it is still sitting in my safe early in the morning.

If I had a Scotch or vodka or gin (all locally made in Pakistan but not available in Peshawar) then I might be tempted to eat cold chinese and enjoy a fine but rough bathroom tumbler of Scotch.


All the king's men, Gone!

The headline on the front page of one the national newspapers today, along with "Democracy takes revenge" describing the elections for the Parliament here in Pakistan yesterday. In a nutshell President Musharraf's party was walloped in the first free and fair elections in years here, almost all the senior cabinet members in his administration lost there seats in Parliament and the party of Benazir Bhutto (now dead) is set to form a coalition government.

By Pakistan standards it was considered a complete success as only 25 people were killed nationwide in election related violence and a only a couple of hundred were treated for polling related violent scuffles.

It is strange covering an election were in many respects the outcome means very little to one personally, sure there is the greater global picture and of course the vote here has a direct influence on the "War on Terror". But for me personally the election yesterday was not easy.

The reason being that back many years ago in the late Eighties I came the closest to being killed whilst working.

Sure I have been bombed and shot at in war zones, but the incident in the Philippines Election was the closest I have ever come to being shot at point blank range by a gunman I could see.

And arriving at a polling station in Rawapindi, just outside Islamabad yesterday bought back some hard and bad memories of could this be a deja vu, perhaps it was not the threat of a gunman but the risk of a suicide bomber yesterday, needless to say that we did not muck around on the streets as this polling station was a potentially prime target.

Manila 1986

President Ferdinand Marcos, had called an election naturally he was expecting to win, as all Dictators do. However having killed the Opposition Leader Aquino on his arrival back at Manila airport (they shot him as he walked down the steps to the tarmac) his wife Cory Aquino took the rains and a peoples power revolution was underway.

For the first time in the first and only time in my life I went to a rally that was a true 1 million people rally. And believe me 1 million is a large mass of people , it took nearly an hour to try and squeeze into the middle near the stage.

From nun's to housewives the city and nation was awash in yellow, the symbol of Peoples Power leading up to election day, and the President was nervous, the ballot would be rigged but this time it would require corruption on a massive scale to try and fix the numbers.

Vote buying by Marco's was so endemic that locals took it as a way to earn easy money, and a classic expression was born in "Vote early, vote often". Playing cards with the picture of Jesus were handed out by Marco's cronies and locals would place them under the ballot and when they marked the ballot it left a mark on the card, they would then go around the corner show the crony the marked Jesus card and collect their money, then assuming another false name go to another polling station and repeat the process.

Only the vast and overwhelming majority had figured out that they could reposition the Jesus card, so that the mark would be the same as if they had voted for the Marco's candidate when in fact they had voted for the Peoples Power candidate. So in essence there was a need to simply steal the ballot boxes after the polls had closed and replace the ballot boxes with fake votes.

At the time I was working for the Seven Network in Australia and we had done our story for the day by mid afternoon before the polls closed due to time zones and the US network asked if we could help them out by covering some polling stations in the suburb of Muntilupa, south of Manila. They arranged for me to have a sound man to help, a mercedes car with driver and even a policeman for security on a motorbike.

We headed out and went around a few of the polling stations before it became evident to us all of us on the team, Correspondent Paul Lyneham, Local Soundman Sarni Ocampo and myself that we in fact were not covering news but in fact were being used by the locals to try and show the Marco's Cronies watching the Polling stations that an American TV Network was there filming polling stations.

Finally we said enough and having been directed to a polling station just before the close of polls we stopped, I filmed the last votes being cast and the start of counting. After ten minutes or so of this I had shot enough and we were simply sitting outside in the courtyard relaxing behind a low wall of the school were the polling station was. The only noise came from the main road , as the school was up an narrow street and our mercedes with driver and policeman was waiting for us to come back.

Then the first noise and the first screams started up as the pistol shots were being randomly fired in the air, grabbing the camera I dropped behind the wall and filmed half a dozen men running into the schoolyard still firing, the gun is mighter than the ballot in this case, and they wanted the ballot boxes now!, American TV Network be dammed.

In those few seconds I had dropped behind the low wall and had started filming the gunmen on the other side of the school yard, you descend into another world in moments like this, it is about capturing the image, and for twenty or so seconds my mind was occupied with the the technical aspects of framing, exposure and above trying to get your breath and heart rate under control as the adrenaline courses thru your body like a fire hydrant being suddenly opened.

After about twenty seconds or so of filming the mayhem of gunmen running from classroom to classroom, weithout saying anything dramatic from a Hollywood script, the words went something like this

Me " lets get the fuck out of here now"
Sarni (my soundman carrying the BVW 50 Recorder and tethered to me by a cable between us" Go Go Go
Lyneham "Fuck me this does not look good"

I started of first with Sarni close behind me the cable bonding us, Lyneham a few steps back, round the low wall and across maybe ten yards of open space to the gate to the street and another wall. I kept going through the gate with Sarni, oblivious to where Lyneham was.

The sound of gunfire behind us had not let up, the goons had control of the school and the ballots.

Crouching to stay low I ran out into the lane , and coming up from the running crouch I came face to face with a man brandishing a pistol , he coldly calmly pulled the trigger and a bullet passed over my head by inches as i was still in a run.

Time stopped, In that absolute second of terror everything stopped, the barrel was pointed directly at my eyes, all I coulod focus on was his hand gripping the trigger, and I thought I was dead.

Sarni behind me dropped and I followed as we now lay on the ground face first in the dirt, it was as if I had not taken my eyes off the trigger and the barrel still pointed directly at my head. Sarni was tucked in behind me and the video recorder lay there in the dirt and my camera was in my hand still recording , what I would never know.

Screaming at me, he said

"Camera Camera"

I remember the weight of the camera as i lifted it up , my eyes never leaving the barrel, I cannot remember his face only the gun pointed at my head ,

" Camera Camera" he screamed and i let go of it

Two well placed kicks to my body and I turned my face back onto the ground and looked to the side.

With this I watched him drag it down the lane the recorder bouncing along with cables and microphones trailing.

Sarni remained tucked in and then two more young guys came over and started kicking us again, except now they were yelling at the top of there voices

"Go Go"

Sarni and I slowly stood to our feet and put our arms in the air, at this moment we saw Lyneham come out of the school his arms slowly rising too.

He had been just going around the corner when he saw me being shot, ducking back a second or two later all he had seen was the back of Sarni tucked into me and us lying in the dirt, he thought we had been shot dead in cold blood.

The three of us slowly walked down the lane arms in the air towards our mercedes and waiting policeman, I went into shock as i slipped in the seat of the car and we sped off with the policeman now using his siren, he had seen it all and was powerless.

NBC complained to the President and the next day the camera and recorder was returned to the hotel in pieces minus the tape. To this day I wonder where that tape is, not that it matters.

The Marcos regime claimed victory in the election and later fell in a peoples power revolution which was a sweet moment for me and another story as I was there and entered the Palace the night he fled the country.


Perhaps that is why yesterday I was nervous, another election and perhaps, just perhaps it could of happened again .

Sunday, February 17, 2008

A head for Heights


Election eve and a nation on the brink of either democracy or potential riots. According to latest reports there are at least 19 ways to rig the ballot tomorrow, and filming in Rawapindi this afternoon it took less than ten minutes to find false voter registrations being waved in our faces. The politics is far to inside baseball to try and explain the differences between PPP, PML and PMLQ, to be honest I have trouble figuring out who is who and what symbol they are using on the ballot, all I know is that the Bicycle party should beat the Arrow party, but they are not the main vote riggers so the Tigers may end up winning.

One of those days when it seems that things are not going to end, we flew overnight here from london, touching down around six am, a couple of down hours the out getting yet another 2 dog tags to wear, with the obligatory passport photo on them that make Hannibal Lector look good even with his mask on. Then a press conference from the Electoral Commission that is about as exciting as watching paint dry, before over to Rawapindi more filming back to the hotel, edit and feed, and this is all before New York is awake and we have to start out shift on New York time.

Now usually hotels have nice views and given what we are paying here I would of expected a view of the rolling hills, well I look out onto a building site that seems to be going 24/7.

Check out the workmen on the scaffolding, they are about six stories up with not so much as a piece of dental floss to secure them. Greg Palkot and I decided that if one fell we would not watch, six stories onto concrete

Having trouble uploading Pix , so will post sans graphic

Friday, February 08, 2008


Tourism magazines are at best a collection of advertisements for bars and restaurants, however the December edition of “Vilnius Now” has a fascinating final article from the acclaimed series by the Executive Chef of the Vilnius restaurant “Le Passage”. Titled “Why You Fart”, which concludes with the final line of

“So, happy farting!”

Thanks Wouter in a thousand or so words, you managed to explain that you need to avoid fruit after a meal, but eat fruit two hours before a meal on an empty stomach. And have no doubt that when I have the urge to fart I will be sure to do so.

Vilnius is a great city, you can dine entirely on potatoes and sour cream and as was the case with Greg today three plates half covered with sour cream was not enough, to the point that he ordered an extra bowl of sour cream to supplement the “festival of the spud”.

Kim Miller our Producer has had to endure a solid forty-eight hours of continuous “Beaver” jokes following dinner on the first night, but walking into the potato restaurant she noticed a rooster in the entrance and promptly turned to us and said, “Well at least I know what I am having for lunch”.

A classic moment today was walking around the old city; we entered the Cathedral Basilica in which twenty-foot statues are dwarfed by columns and paintings. Organ music filled the space and made you feel very humble walking around, turning a corner I noticed a woman bent over on a pew, naturally I assumed that she was deep in prayer seeking solace, continuing my walk around I glanced back and realized that instead of seeking penance she was in fact texting on her phone. As she left she threw herself down on the ground hoping that her savior would forgive her for texting instead of praying.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Eating Beaver

Correspondent Greg Palkot and I have travelled the world together on assignments from the mountains of Tora Bora in Afghanistan to Sudan, where the closest power pole was 600 miles away. This time however we have returned to the ancestral home of the Palkot family.

Now I must admit that when I was told that I was coming to Lithuania, I had to go and find an atlas, yes one of those old fashioned things that lies around with lots of pictures in it. I actually wanted to see where in the hell I was going without Google maps.

So what do we know about Lithuania apart from the fact that famous Lithuanians include Charles Bronson & Monica Lewinsky. 90% of the worlds Amber comes from here, according to the French geographic society , the actual centre of Europe is 15 miles North of Vilnius, the capital. Public Holidays of note include : 8th September "Nation Day" - Grand Duke Vytautas was due to be crowned in 1430. He died the day before.

We arrived last night along with Producer Kim Miller, both she and I asked Greg for some everyday phrases like hello and thank you, since being a proud Lithuanian would naturally have a grasp of the language and be our interpretor. Actually he was waiting for his dad in New York to email him the essential twenty phrases

Now driving in from the airport in the dark it seemed like we were going in circles around a train yard in the rain. The old city of Vilnius is very beautiful, in that classic European sense of history and culture.

So what does one eat in Vilnius on a Wednesday night in Winter , what is a classic Baltic dish that defines the gastronomic taste buds of a true Lithuanian. There are not many places in the world where you can say to the waitress in the restaurant. How is your Beaver tonight? and I would like your best beaver please.

Now having eaten beaver, I can say beaver stew is a different taste and no it does not taste like chicken


Monday, February 04, 2008

The Secret to crossing the road in Roma.

So what gives, a month in Europe and not a word about life? Well there seems little to write when everything in life is so good and you start feeling like you are alive again. I have discovered in myself, a happiness that I have not had for a long time.

I have been in London, just five weeks and so far have spent two weeks in Pakistan, the next week was Holland, week after that Berlin and now I am on a plane coming back from Rome, then in between all that I have found somewhere to live moving into my flat overlooking the canals in the morning.

Been to Emirates stadium or as I will refer to it from now on as the Cathedral of Arsene, (after The Arsenal Football Manager, Arsene Wenger) were my football team Arsenal won, trust me getting tickets is harder than anything else in the UK. Been on the London Eye, spent an afternoon looking at Da Vinci and Van Gogh paintings, celebrated Australia Day laughing in a Pub off Covent Garden, walked along the South bank of River Thames watching street art. Spend each Saturday morning in Richmond Park where you see your cold breath running past deer’s and that is my England.

In Berlin ran thru the famous Brandenburg gate,

stayed at Adlon hotel where Hitler held functions but is now more famous as being remembered as the hotel where Michael Jackson dangled his kid out of the window. Seem the Berlin Wall;

they build bigger ones in Israel I might add. Ate French fries with mustard from a paper cone in The Hague, in Holland. Filmed a mad Dutch Politician who is a dead man walking if you think Muslim’s hate George Bush wait till you see what happens to this guy, he needs six body guards to move around inside (yes inside) his own Parliament building and that is in the area where the public are not allowed

This month is going to be even busier and better and there will be blogs from some even more stranger countries, where? Well take the one of the most orchestras in the world; add communism and a mad hermit through in Mal and you have some potentially funny incidents about to happen.

Oh and yes the secret to crossing the road in Rome (or as they like to say in Europe romA) is to not look, this is essential as eye contact with the driver means that you have seen him and will avoid him, whilst if you have no eye contact with any car then the driver must assume that you have not seen him and thus he is not allowed by the laws of “The Safe Drivers Code of Italy” to hit a pedestrian who has not seen you. And as Mario lead me across a busy road coming back from Lunch yesterday we did not look and it works

Anyway must get back to the Tabloids and see how Amy Winehouse is going in Rehab, whether Cheryl will leave the love rat Ashley who vomited on a girl he had picked up in a drunken love romp, and did you know that the Spice Girls cry at the end of each concert because it is one day less that they will be together.

Enroute ex RomA