Australia As You Thought It Was

DEAR WORLD, I’M back. Obviously I’ve been back – as in, back home, not travelling, not living the dream – for some time now. Four months, in fact. It’s been traumatic. And wonderful, obviously. Seeing friends and family. All of their pale, cheerful, slightly chilled faces. Wonderful. Returning to work, getting the train into central London, bodies crammed into carriages like paperbacks on an overcrowded bookcase. Having a dishwasher. Having to shave. All the things that you romanticise when you’re lugging a backpack up to the fifth floor of a dingy hostel, cockroaches scurrying before you. Wonderful.

Home...

Home…

...and re-discovering my Jamie Oliver festish

…and re-discovering my Jamie Oliver fetish.

But I’m not talking about that. I mean that I’m back here, in the blogosphere or whatever the kids are calling it now. I’m here with a post that I mostly wrote whilst I was still travelling, but I haven’t been able to search out photos for until now, on account of having to hit the reset switch on life and wait for the loading screen to disappear. Now I’m all booted up and running DKC 2.0, I can write some more things for you, dear reader. And maybe for myself a bit, if I can keep from crying when I look through our travelling photos.

I have some Proper Thoughts about returning home. But they’re for later. This is for now.

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THE NORTHERN TERRITORIES are Australia as you imagine it: long roads, red scrubland, and the sudden realisation that those hats with corks hanging from them might actually be helpful because, man, these flies that keep landing on my face are annoying.

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We were there with my parents in the third week of our Australian journey. It was the second week where we’d been travelling together, and the bird count was high. This is not a euphemism. As this was his first time in Australia, for my dad every bird was a ‘lifer’ (for the uninitiated in twitching ways, that’s a bird that you’ve never seen before in your life), and every waking moment was another opportunity To See More Birds. There had already been some tensions and controversies as I tried to navigate a course through BKC’s likes (sleeping) and dislikes (walking) and those of my father (walking and sleeping, respectively). There had been numerous binoculargates, the latest – as we left our one-night-only AirBnB place in Darwin to head for Kakadu, now locked out with no way of re-entering – the most serious. When the hallowed optics were discovered missing, believed left-in-flat, recriminations flew, bags were turned inside out and pockets thoroughly checked. Only the late discovery of said binoculars in the side pocket of a less used bag saved us all from the sight of a grown man crying.

Thus blooded, we headed out to the land of man-sized termite mounds.

Trav22-6 GENERALLY, I AM not a fan of sunrise tours. The early rising is rarely justified – they invariably cost more and they usually mean spending a significant portion of your time at the temple/volcano/natural wonder in complete darkness. Sunrise tours are an epidemic amongst Asian tour operators. Sunrise is often beautiful; tourists want to see something because it is spectacular/historical/it-said-so-in-the-guide-book; tourists will pay more to see the attraction at a time that everybody knows is beautiful. Thus the thing that they see will also be more beautiful. And we will be richer. That is the logic.

Hence we once found ourselves tramping through a grey, dusty, volcanic ash landscape in complete, utter, can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face darkness, trying to find our way solo to the crater of Mount Bromo in Java, Indonesia, as a light rain pattered onto our heads. Every so often, moped drivers passed us, travelling from somewhere to nowhere; sensing our weakness, some occasionally stopped and circled us, like vultures. “Hey, you want volcano? I take you for 80,000. No? Ok, ok, 60,000.” After telling the first four no, we eventually caved – but only after having a heated, whispered argument as two moped drivers looked on (“we’re lost, we don’t have a choice, and it’s dark.” “It’s too much [it was £2.50], it’s a rip off. They might murder us and chop up our bodies. We’ll find our way.”).

A  volcano. In the dark. About as exciting as this photo.

A volcano. In the dark. About as exciting as this photo.

Mount Bromo by morning light. Steaming like a hot cup of tea outside on a cold morning, except without any of the benefits of warming your hands or making you feel cosy inside.

Mount Bromo by morning light. Steaming like a hot cup of tea outside on a cold morning, except without any of the benefits of warming your hands or making you feel cosy inside.

Dawn breaks. Or, rather, the rain takes a break from its relentless attempts to crush our spirit.

Dawn breaks. Or, rather, the rain takes a break from its relentless attempts to crush our spirit.

They took us to the bottom of the volcano, which we dutifully climbed in silence. As morning dawned behind the grey clouds, we were treated to an underwhelming view down a steep crater from which grey steam emerged into the grey day, joining its great friend, grey rain. Then we walked back the way we’d ridden on the mopeds and realised that in the darkness we’d missed the best part of the trip – an otherworldly, moonlike landscape, truly spectacular in its monochrome desolation. But there wasn’t time to stand and enjoy it: we had to catch our bus.

For the record, this is what a good volcano dawn tour is like: you eshew the option to pay more and get up earlier (2am) so that you can see the "blue fire" from the crater, and instead walk up a hill just darkness begins to slip away, looking out over a sea of cloud.

For the record, this is what a good volcano dawn tour is like: you eshew the option to pay more and get up earlier (2am) so that you can see the “blue fire” from the crater, and instead walk up a hill just as darkness begins to slip away, looking out over a sea of cloud.

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And you’re rewarded with what a volcano should look like: spectacular. It’s Ijen Plateau, also on Java. If you’re there, skip Bromo, do Ijen instead.

So I was sceptical about the Yellow Water Sunrise Tour in Kakadu National Park. During the dry season, when we were there, Kakadu is a vast expanse of outback with just scrubby, red bushland stretching for miles and miles. There’s the odd, half dried Billabong, patrolled by hopeful birdwatchers and hungry crocodiles. And that pretty much seemed to be it on our drive into the park along the dead straight roads that disappeared into the heat haze.

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But Yellow Water at sunrise made me feel like I was David Attenborough. And, let’s be honest, you can’t get better than that. As we boarded our boat, the sun was sliding over the water, nuclear bright but honey-in-hot-milk soothing; mist was creeping out over the river like a flock of ghostly sheep that had taken a wrong turn; and an Azure Kingfisher was perched atop our boat, flashing its iridescence and shitting on seats. I have never seen so much and so diverse birdlife all in one place as we did on that day (and I spent most of my childhood in bird hides). We were in for a remarkable trip, our guide told us, but “just remember not to lean out of the boat, otherwise a croc might go for you.”

Better than most volcanos.

Better than most volcanos.

Don't be fooled, something's lurking in there.

Don’t be fooled, something’s lurking in there.

...and he wants to be your friend.

…and he wants to be your friend.

See how friendly he is?

See how friendly he is?

Rufus Night Heron. Yes, that's right, check out my Bird Knowledge.

Rufus Night Heron. Yes, that’s right, check out my Bird Knowledge.

Whistling Ducks.

Whistling Ducks.

...and an Australian Pelican. My favourite kind of Pelican. Because they're massive. And easy to remember.

…and an Australian Pelican. My favourite kind of Pelican. Because they’re massive. And easy to remember.

But Kakadu is not just about the birdlife. There’s also the thrill of longdrop toilets in the dark. Will there/won’t there be a spider crouched under the toilet seat? Probably not, but, as I discovered when I heard a small scream from BKC in the toilet next to me – to be fair, it was more of a yelp, certainly less of a screaming-like-a-girl sound than I would have made – there are other things that lurk. “Everything alright?” I ventured, over the partition wall.

HAVE YOU SEEN THIS FROG?

HAVE YOU SEEN THIS FROG?

“It was a frog!” my wife shouted back. “It jumped up my bum!”

I considered this statement for a moment whilst I stumbled in the darkness to find the sink. “It jumped up your bum?”

“It was inside the toilet and it jumped right at me.”

Such aggressive frog behaviour is perhaps more understandable in the light of my mother’s experience in Darwin: queuing outside a similarly rustic toilet, she was surprised by the sudden emergence of a pale faced Dutch girl, who slammed the door behind her. “There was a frog in there,” she told my mother, “it was in the toilet.”

“Are you ok?” my mum enquired.

“Yes, but,” whispered the beleaguered Dutch girl, “I weed on it.”

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We were also lucky enough to join a tour that headed into Arnhemland, a vast, largely untouched wilderness that covers over 97,000 square kilometres, roughly equal in size to the state of Victoria, and is home to about only 17,000 people. It’s aboriginal land and for non-residents it can only be entered by permit. When we went, Tony Abbot, the Australian PM, had just spent a week living and working there.

One of the primary reasons for visiting Arnemland is to see rock art. There are places where it’s possible to see drawings and paintings that were left centuries or millennia ago by the ancestors of those who now live on the land. And when I say millennia, I mean 10,000 years plus – which is a staggering amount of time for one culture to have been in the same place, uninterrupted, let alone for its artwork to have survived. Perhaps more so than other works of art, photos cannot truly convey rock art.

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To truly appreciate aboriginal art, you need to walk around half-dried billabongs, under dusty red overhangs of rock, and watch as distant dust devils twist upwards from the flat, baking bush. You need to scramble up cliffsides, anxiously holding your binoculars in one hand whilst balancing with the other, pausing for a moment to appreciate the 8,000 year old paintings and the view that stretches into the distance. And in that moment you might forget the fragility of your optics, whether or not you’re wearing enough suncream, or the fact that you should have brought a hat and didn’t; instead, you might appreciate how the light here stretches water into glass and landscape stretches time into a past before the arrival of European settlers. Or something like that anyway. I’m pretty sure that’s what the Australian Tourism Board told me to say. They definitely said not to mention the giant man eating reptiles or the small, slithery, deadlier-than-a razorblade-smoothie snakes. (“are those fires deliberate?” asked my dad of our guide, pointing out to the long columns of smoke in the distance. “Yeah,” he replied, “round here long grass is bad news.”).

Nothing to worry about, apparently.

Nothing to worry about, apparently. Keep driving.

Whilst in Arnhemland, we also visited the art centre of Gunbalanya, where locals ply their artworks to tours and daytrippers. Gunbalanya is a small, dusty town of squat buildings with corrugated iron roofs, a few shops, a police station, and a modern looking school. The place felt poor in a way that we hadn’t experienced in the rest of Australia.

Whilst there was some outstanding work at the art centre, on sale there was also a lot that was less good. As we were led around on a somewhat haphazard tour by a local artist who worked at the centre, I couldn’t help but feel that – despite there being some excellent artwork on display – the place was as much a job creation scheme as a place for artists to work. How to decant aboriginal culture into a European, tourist, market driven system, whilst still preserving its heritage? It’s a question that Australia still struggles with.

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Alternatively, of course, you could go to Mindel Market, in Darwin, and watch the Northern Territories sun sink into the Timor Sea whilst eating kangaroo sushi rolls and browsing aboriginal art sold by a stoned white hippy lady. No it’s not Crocodile Dundee, but there’s still always the threat of amphibians in the lavatory – and you don’t get much more authentic than that.

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A Note To My Future Self On The Importance of Home

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I AM SAT in the car as I write this, door open, remnants of the morning’s rain spattering the windscreen as the wind ruffles the trees above. In the driver’s side cupholder there’s an empty beer bottle leftover from the night before. Our tent, pinned down by all four of its pegs, sits next to the car, looking about as good as a NZ$30 (£15) tent can. When we erected it for the first time, yesterday, we discovered that, due to a manufacturing error, the entrance had partially been stitched closed. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve.

We’re in a peaceful Department of Conservation campsite somewhere north of Napier, on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island. We’re basically marking time until tomorrow, when we can decamp to our luxury cottage accommodation in Lake Taupo that we’ve booked for three days over Christmas. That and we’re doggedly attempting to justify the NZ$157 that we optimistically spent on camping gear when we first arrived in New Zealand, six week ago – before we knew about the six weeks of rain that was to come and before we’d realised the LIE of free camping (“yeah man, you can, like, just camp anywhere you want in New Zealand. It’s, like, awesome” – this from pretty much everyone we’ve ever met who’s been to this country).

Have you ever seen anyone so proud of her tent?

Have you ever seen anyone so proud of her tent?

Instead of sitting in this car, we could be going and doing THINGS, important TOURIST THINGS in this beautiful country. But we’re not – in fact I’m quite enjoying just sitting and doing very little, quite enjoying not spending the day driving around (although I am, ironically, still sat in front of the steering wheel). New Zealand has been one of the best countries we’ve visited. We’ve loved it, from its snow capped Southern Alps to the crashing waves of its West Coast, from its varied craft beers and delicious Sauv Blancs to its unfailingly friendly people and laid back ‘tude. It’s every bit as good as people say. And it’s so far away from anywhere else (our flight home from Auckland to London will take us 30 hours) that there’s a good chance I’ll never come back. In two weeks our year of travelling will be over, and soon after I’ll be back in work. So why not maximise our time seeing the place? Why not revel in our freedom?

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On the shores of Lake Tekapo, NZ

This post is an effort to answer those questions. It’s also an effort to recount the impact of long term travelling and, above all, it’s a reminder to my future self about the importance of home. (Future David: remember how you’d grown to hate the uniformly white mugs found in motels, hotels and hostels everywhere? Remember how you just craved a mug with some colour on it? Remember how it bothered you so much that you went out and bought your own mug?).

WHAT’S A NORMAL week in travelling? The glib, cliché answer that’s only half true is that “there is no normal week.” In fact, there are rhythms to travelling, some regardless of who you are, others specific to us.

Accommodation

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I’ve developed a real problem with authority whilst travelling. Sometimes, in motels, I DON’T DO WHAT THE SIGNS say! Stickittotheman.

When I was a student and went travelling in Eastern Europe for a month, we just turned up at places and found accommodation by speaking to people or walking between hostels. This seems to me now to be an incredibly inefficient way of doing things when you have a very heavy backpack. But maybe that’s because I’m a decade older. Without exception, everywhere we stayed in Asia we booked in advance, usually over the internet, often through Airbnb. Thus a portion of our time (and, it has to be said, more of BK-C’s time than mine) was always spent researching accommodation options. Where do we want to stay in the city/region? What’s available? Why have they got such bad photos on their websites? What does tripadvisor say? How long should we book for? Sometimes this could take five minutes, sometimes it could take hours; sometimes we’d book only the day before, sometimes we’d go on accommodation binges and book several stops in a row, gaining breathing space but losing spontaneity. Booking accommodation is a never ending rabbit hole: remember that, Future David.

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I didn’t risk this one though.

In Australasia we’ve always had a car and sometimes we’ve been lucky enough to be staying with friends. So we’ve quite often just turned up in places without anywhere booked, and it’s always been fine. However, see below for Transport, specifically travelling by car.

Rowf?

Rowf?

Packing/Unpacking

There’s been a lot of this. In Asia, particularly towards the end, we slowed down a lot and thus were able to properly unpack our bags and live out of things like wardrobes and drawers for a while, which was blissful. However, then there was always the hassle of trying to fit everything back into the bag, which often resulted in me sitting on BK-C’s bag (which is marginally smaller than mine) whilst she zipped it up. In Australasia we’ve spent much less time in places – normally one or two nights – and thus there’s been a lot more packing/unpacking, but we’ve had the luxury of cars, so breaking zips has been less of a risk.

This is what happens when you have a car for six weeks and then have to catch a ferry on foot.

This is what happens when you have a car for six weeks and then have to catch a ferry on foot.

When we arrive in a new place now (every night it seems), we have a well oiled routine: BK-C empties the cooler bag and food items, I get the toiletries out of the bags and arrange them in anally straight lines in the bathroom and on bedside tables/the floor. The side of the bed nearest the bathroom will always be mine. That’s just the way it is. (Future David: remember the sinking feeling when you emptied the washbags only to discover that something had leaked over everything else. Remember that one time when it was tiger balm that had melted in the heat, and everything, everything smelled of tiger balm for weeks?)

Budgeting

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Actually, this rarely caused us a lot of stress. I researched every country before we came and how much we were likely to spend on a daily basis in each. This has proved to be fairly accurate, so we were prepared for how much things cost. But we’ve also been scrupulous about recording everything that we spend, through the marvellous phone app Trailwallet. Every time we spend money, it goes in the phone. Thus I can tell you, for instance, that on 19 March, a date that I just selected at random, we spent a total of £72.02, or NT$1,858 (Taiwanese Dollars). The financial record reminds me that 19 March was a great day of food – we caught the metro to north of Taipei to Tamshui, where we indulged in a “delicious pasty like thing” (59p), “cheese potato with bacon” (£1.19 – about as bad as it sounds), and “steam dumplings” (£1.19). Then we caught the metro back home via Taipei’s famous night market of Shilin, where we ate “green onion bread” (49p), “stinky tofu and oyster omelette” (£2.67, worse than it sounds) and “delicious sushi” (£7.71). I can also tell you that street food – of the sort that we indulged in on 19 March – made up 3.82% of our total spent budget in Taiwan, at £53.79; our biggest expenditure was, predictably, accommodation, at £689.46; and our smallest expenditure category was laundry, at £2.77 (read into that what you will).

This kind of data is fantastic when you’re trying to stick to a budget, but it’s also great in retrospect: its specificity dredges from my memory a vivid image from when we were sitting by the quayside in Tamshui, enjoying an evening iced coffee (£6.96) at a posh restaurant, watching the simmering orb of an Asian sun dip into the Taiwan Strait, turned a deep crimson by pollution blown over from China.

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I’m glad that we recorded everything we spent, and what it went on, simply because it’s meant that we’ve curbed our potential expenditure and because it prompts memories of what were we doing on each day. Putting purchases into the Trailwallet has become second nature. But, I must admit, I’m also looking forward to being able to buy a coffee without assiduously recording it, without making an assessment as to whether it’ll take us over budget for the day. Future David: revel in your ability to choose any of those sandwiches neatly lined up in Pret, without fear that you’ll go over budget.

Transport

I know, I know. I look COOL.

I know, I know. I look COOL.

This one’s up there with accommodation. Whoever you are, you’re going to need to get from place to place. It’s sort of the point of travelling. In Asia, that means buses, trains, planes, boats, tuc-tucs, mopeds, or some ingenious – probably hand built, certainly not safety tested – combination of all of them. Often, you can (and we did) just rock up and get a bus. If you’re in Malaysia then celebrate! For you are blessed with a cheap, well organised and above all easy public transport system. If you’re in Japan, don’t even think about it – the Japanese system is so efficient that they’ve probably heard you were coming and booked everything for you already (except you Tokyo, yes you: please meet my friend London who has a unified transport authority and not A GAZILLION private companies running different lines and routes in a confusing mish mash of colours and acronyms). But if you’re in Burma, well, don’t exactly expect efficiency. You’ll probably have to walk forever to book your bus tickets and then the bus “terminal” will be dozens of kilometres out of town and you’re just expected to know which bus is yours. It’s all part of the fun. In the forty degree heat.

Roads? Where we're going we don't need roads...

Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads…

In Australasia we travelled by car. We went where we wanted, when we wanted. It was liberating. But I also realised how much I’d grown to value that time bundled up on public transport – time to read and write, the opportunity to meet locals, or simply the chance to stare at the landscape, thinking big thoughts about the world. In Australia, we drove over 7,000km in two months. After four months of driving for several hours most days, I’m beginning to tire of the road. (Future David: remember how towards the end of travelling you used to get into those moods where nothing was quite right and where your tolerance of other people was equivalent to that of a cat? Remember how you wrote that blogpost to remind you in the future about the wearing parts of travelling, and then instantly regretted it because people would think you were ungrateful?).

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Eating

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Shan Noodle Soup from a roadside stall in Nyaungshwe, nr. Lake Inle, Burma. Possibly my favourite noodle soup of the year.

I love food. It’s one of the reasons I love to travel. We’ve had so much amazing food this year, from banana leaf curries in Malaysia that really put the “gorge” into “gorgeous” (no, I can’t believe that I just wrote that cheesey line either) to so-fresh-it’s-nearly-still-moving sushi in Japan – we’ve had it all, and then we’ve asked for seconds. But there comes a time when even the most hardened foodie tires of eating out at restaurants, of choosing where and what to eat every night (why is it worse having lots of choice instead of just what’s in the fridge? I don’t know, but after a while it becomes overwhelming – I want less choice, not more). In Asia, there’s always that old staple of noodles-in-a-cup, easily enjoyed in your hostel/hotel room. Yes, there’s the hostel kitchen as well, but if you buy those ingredients you’ve got to carry them around with you and, besides, it’s actually cheaper to eat out and that’s not to mention the fact that all the fresh produce is sold at markets miles away from where you are at times when you’re highly unlikely to be up. So: you’re probably going to be eating out at restaurants. And it turns out that you really can have too much of a good thing. (Future David – think about how much you love eating out at restaurants? It’s one of the Best Things, isn’t it? Now remember how you’d come to resent having to eat out when you were in parts of Asia. It seems like a form of cruel and unusual punishment, doesn’t it?).

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In Australasia – and especially in NZ, where we’ve been without family visits – there’s been, blissfully, a lot of self-catering. The facilities with which to cook have, however, been varied – most motels have only a microwave, all have blunt knives, and there’s no guarantee that we’ll have a fridge from night to night. As a lover of cooking this is frustrating, as a shopper for food, it’s limiting: most things that we buy to eat for dinner can be cooked in the microwave. I can’t wait to have my own kitchen again, where the knives are sharp and the spices are neverending. (Future David: remember how you’d grown to quite like tinned STAG Chilli, the best long shelf life microwaveable meal you’d found in the supermarket? Yes, that’s right, hang your head in shame).

People, other

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Our hosts in Penang, Stu & Clara.

The people you meet is one of the best things about travelling. Vincent, the Taiwanese IT consultant turned design-guru surfing hotelier; Francoise, the 71 year old French man with whom we shared accommodation and a love of antiques (“my treasures,” he called them) in Kyoto, and whom I helped with his IT problems: “I wish to send an email to my girlfriend, but I do not wish to send it from this account, because it is my wife’s. Can you help?”; the postcard seller from Yangon, Burma whose name I can’t write here because he dared to talk to us about politics and his hopes for the future of his country; Joslyn, who was our Oregonian tour guide on a trip to Central America and later put us up for the night at her house in Brisbane; Lorette, our French, wise old-soul-in-a-young-person’s-body companion on the two day Tiger Leaping Gorge hike, in China; Tom, the funny, open minded film editor from LA on his own travelling odyssey – these are just some of the amazing people we’ve met this year. But for each Tom and Lorette there’s been a dozen others who we either haven’t clicked with, who have been downright unfriendly or, worse, friendly and the most annoying person alive. Yes, yes this is the joy of travelling – and I’d meet everyone again just to meet those few gems – but after a while you start to ache for shared context. You miss your friends. I miss my friends. And then your patience starts to wear thin, and you become as intolerant as BK-C has become of Other People’s Music, however minimally it may be leaking out of someone’s headphones, and you must, you simply must ask them to be quiet. In short, you begin to Hate Other People. When this happens, Future David, you remember all the good things about home – the way that you don’t have to start conversations with everyone by telling them where you’ve been, where you’re from and where you’re going; the way that you can can say something and the person you’re talking to will just get you (or at least pretend to) without you having to explain just how witty you really are; and you remember how your home friends delayed their New Year celebrations until you got back, and how much that meant to you. At this point, you realise that it may be time to head back.

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Our hosts in Bali, Ktut and… er… Mrs Ktut.

All These Things Together

INDIVIDUALLY, THESE THINGS are insignificant. But together, taken over time, they start to matter a lot more. Everyone needs something to anchor them – a space to retreat to, a good book to read, a friend to turn to, an ipod to plug into; travelling either takes these things from you or makes them more difficult to control. It’s fine at first, but after a while you’ll go to greater lengths to secure your anchor, and not being able to do so frustrates you more. The good thing is that taking nothing for granted – be it comfy accommodation or the ability to speak to your family – you get a better sense of what’s important to you, something more difficult to achieve in the rhythms of home routine. The bad thing is that after a while the exciting challenges that travelling brings seem only to get in the way of your anchors, not to augment your appreciation for them. Some people are able to spend their lives travelling; I do not know how. For me, to have meaning, all things must have an end. You might say that travelling is a constant series of beginnings and endings, as you depart and arrive from places, greet and leave companions – but sometimes I just want to enjoy being in the middle of the story.

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Future David, the things that I’ve written about are not the things that you’ll recall. When the 6.30am alarm goes off telling you to get up for work, you’ll remember having no alarm when you travelled; you’ll remember sunrise over Yellow Water in Kakadu, the way that the birds cut through the mist; you’ll remember walking through the blistering heat of the market in Pyay, Burma, and the friendly, confused smiles of the locals; you’ll remember the exquisite pork dumplings from that place in Hualien, Taiwan where no one spoke English and everyone – yourself included – laughed at your ineptitude in miming what you wanted to eat; you’ll remember the flight over the Great Barrier Reef, the way it stretched out and disappeared beyond the horizon; and you’ll remember feeling free to do whatever you wanted to do, all of the time. But also remember this: there’s a wide range of multi-coloured mugs in your kitchen cupboard, and not a single bloody white one.

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Our year of travelling comes to an end on 2 January, when we arrive back in the UK. But don’t fret! I’ve got loads of stuff still to write about, including an oh-so-nearly finished post about PROPER travelling stuff, in Australia, rather than this boring boo hoo I’m ready to come home stuff. So stick with me.

Burma and Britain, Past and Future

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MANDALAY. The Irrawaddy River. Yangon, formerly Rangoon. Wonderfully evocative names, aren’t they? I think of heat rising from the banks of a wide river; golden, towering pagodas; and bustling street markets colour dashed and culture steeped. But I also think of elephants tugging timber, workers loading steamers and men in linens drinking gin & tonics on hot, hot nights. Burma existed in my imagination – exists even now, having been there – as much as a product of Empire as a product of Asia. In Yangon, the buildings of Empire are all still there, decaying, repurposed, divided, lived in, empty, rat filled; all of the above, all at once. How to square splendour and decay, empire’s legacy and Burma’s future – my own sense of being British with the tragedy of what happened here, is happening here?

Yeah, I like setting myself up to fail.

As I’ve recounted in a previous post, we arrived in Yangon from Tokyo (could two cities ever be so different?). The streets were thick with traffic – banged up cars, buses without doors, and scooters that had seen better days. And it was hot. Heat rose in waves from the asphalt, forcing its way into the cracks in the road, the spaces where your skin touched your clothes and the opening-closing gaps between your heels and your flip flops. Brow mopping was de rigeur, parasols mandatory – unless you were white, in which case you just baked and sweated, and generally brought the shabby elegance of the place down, letting it drip off your hair and run down your neck. People sat in tea shops and on street corners, seeking shade wherever they could. Old women sat on the pavement selling mangoes, a man stood at a stall preparing betel nuts to chew for the taxi drivers that pulled up at the side of the road.

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A seamstress in Yangon’s central market, Bogyoke Market (or Scott Market as it was known under British rule).

I had a cold – a rotten, clingy affair that made me sniffle whilst I shuffled along the busy streets, cursing my preponderance of snot that seemed so out of place in such tropical climes, regretting that I hadn’t offered BK-C more sympathy when she had suffered from the same thing in Japan but ten days before. I spent one day cossetted in bed in the hostel, thankful for the air conditioning but cursing the frequent power cuts. The rest of the time we spent wandering the streets.

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The Sule Pagoda is an important, sacred site for Buddhists and a defining landmark of downtown Yangon. A pagoda has been on that site for centuries, and parts of the current structure date back to the fifteenth century. Demonstrating their usual regard for Other Peoples’ Cultures, when the British arrived they built a roundabout around the pagoda, which remains today. Beat that, Swindon.

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WE VISITED THE famous Shwedagon Pagoda, the iconic landmark of the city that is a must see for visitors. Or we tried to, anyway. It was early evening, our intention having been to get there to witness the setting sun reflected on its golden spire, but having failed to appreciate how long it would take to walk there. On the way, walking up Shwedagon Pagoda Road, we’d passed grand old colonial houses lining the street, most behind barbed wire and with expensive looking cars outside, a few run down and abandoned. By the time that we arrived, the sun had already dipped beyond the horizon. We left our shoes at an overmanned desk at street level and walked up the wide, grand corridor that leads to the entrance of the Pagoda. There were a handful of other tourists ambling alongside us, as well as a few small groups of Indian naval officers and sailors in spotless, perfectly creased white trousers and shirts. As we’d walked around the city earlier in the day, we’d seen dozens of the sailors in the markets, shops and streets, as well as clustering around ATMs, arguing about the exchange rate. When we reached the entrance to the Pagoda itself there was a desk, behind which sat two officials. One looked at us and tapped a sign that said Entry for Foreigners: 8,000 Kyatt. That’s $8 or about £5. Not a huge amount by my own reckoning – probably what I’d pay for a beer in London – but it was a steep price by Burmese standards, and money that goes entirely to the military junta. Plus, we were on a budget. No doubt, though, we would have paid and gone in if, at that moment, two of the Indian Navy guys hadn’t strolled past the desk unchallenged.

“Aren’t you going to charge them as well?” I asked.
“No.”
“But they’re foreigners, too. Look,” I said, pointing, “they’ve even got the Indian flag stitched to the arms of their shirts.”
The official looked at me, blinked once. “Yes,” he said, “but they’re officers.”
“Well how do you know that we’re not officers?”
“Are you?”
“…no.”

So we left in an indignant huff, railing against the unfairness of the situation but also feeling a little bit self-righteous because we’d refused to give our money to the Government, money that either went into the pockets of generals or funded state repression of the Myanmar people. I’m sure that the Indian officers had a lovely time at the Shwedagon Pagoda, though.

So this is the night time view from Vista Bar. Much better to enjoy the pagoda with a drink in your hand than pay to go in. Right?

So this is the night time view from Vista Bar. Much better to enjoy the pagoda with a drink in your hand than pay to go in. Right?

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ON OUR FINAL day in Yangon, we went on what must have been one of the best walking tours we’ve ever done, with Free Yangon Walks. The tour (which consisted of just us) was led by an Australian, Gino, the confident, garrulous, remarkable founder of this enterprise (when we took the tour with him it was his first week and he was the sole guide, offering free walks every day). Gino showed us many of the old buildings and took us through the history of each, as well as offering an insight into the broader history of Burma.

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Having exhausted its own forests of oak, Britain wanted Burma for its teak. Without wood, the Royal Navy wouldn’t have its ships. And without ships, Britain wouldn’t have its empire. So over the period of 60 years and three wars, the British conquered the country; by 1886 the whole of Burma was administered as a part of India. With the timber companies came banks, hotels, and office buildings, along with investment in the country’s infrastructure. Not that the infrastructure needed to ship teak from the north to the south was particularly sophisticated. Felled trees were dried and then piled up in the dry season by the side of rivers; when the rainy season came, they were floated downriver, until they reached the wide expanse of the Irrawaddy. There, they were lashed together into giant, makeshift rafts that men lived aboard and piloted down to the shipping and timber merchants of Yangon.

Walking along Yangon’s riverfront and the streets leading up to it, those buildings are still there, the paint peeled, the brickwork fallen away, and the floors – still tiled with beautiful, nineteenth century tiles made in the long dead factories of Manchester and Stoke-on-Trent – are stained with the red marks of betel nut, where chewers have spat. The flooring alone of some of those buildings is probably now worth millions of pounds. For the most part, people live, work and walk upon them in poverty.

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The Burmese people – or, more correctly, the patchwork of different ethnic groups that occupy modern day Myanmar, the largest of which are called the Bamar, whom Burma was named after – are culturally distinct from the Siamese to the north and east, now in modern day Thailand, along with the Chinese and Indian groups that they share borders with. Prior to British rule, the literacy rate in the country was remarkably high for that time, at 60% (compared to about 75% in Britain), and there was a thriving culture of writing and theatrical performances. Even today, the Burmese love to read, and all along our travels in Myanmar we saw stalls selling used books in Burmese. This might not sound odd, but it stands apart from most other places we’ve visited in South East Asia. In Laos, for instance, a comparably poor country, there is no tradition of reading, and very few Laotians read for pleasure.

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SO THE BRITISH came and built the stunning buildings that I enjoyed seeing as a tourist, giving me the thrill of seeing something so British somewhere else, so out of place, and they built railways and roads and schools, and educational opportunities for women increased enormously (literacy rates among women were about 5% previously)… but of course the British also played ethnic groups against one another in order to maintain control, brought institutional racism, put down rebellions with bloody massacres and, naturally, shipped a large portion of the country’s natural resources to Britain for fat profits.

In George Orwell’s Burmese Days, his novel based upon his experiences as a colonial policeman in Burma, the characters are all venal, selfish, destructive people that lord over the locals as well as making each others’ lives hell. Empire corrupts and damages everything, including the imperialists themselves. This all encompassing corruption is also mirrored in Amitav Ghosh’s excellent novel about colonial Burma, India and Malaysia – The Glass Palace. The British sit in their teak camps pining after the rolling fields and craggy highlands of their home, drinking and worrying about when they’ll die of malaria.

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The Irrawaddy.

Before Burma gained independence in 1948 things looked like they might work out alright because of a driven, charismatic, inclusive leader called Aung San – the father of Aung San Suu Kyi. Unfortunately, he was murdered by political rivals in 1947. The country then limped along as a Republic, still riven by ethnic infighting, until the military coup in 1962 gave the country the repressive junta that still rules it today.

Throughout our time in Burma, I felt uncomfortably colonial. Every time we walked into a hotel or hostel reception, the trio of beautiful Burmese women who were inevitably sat behind the desk always stood, and remained standing the entire time I was in the room. “Please, sit down,” I’d entreat them, but they never listened. We asked a postcard seller that we spoke to what Burmese people thought of the British (he initiated the conversation on politics – more on that in a future post). “I’m scared to tell you,” he said. I pressed him, and he told us that “Burmese people, they are afraid of two people: the British, and the Japanese.” When we visited the cooler, mountain climes of Pyin Oo Lwin (or “the hill station,” after its imperial designation, as it’s still known), there were punnets of strawberries for sale everywhere, and lots of stalls were selling jams and fruit wines. It was all weirdly familiar, comforting and uncomfortable, all at once.

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You don’t see many houses with chimneys in Burma.

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SO: AS A RESULT I’ve been struggling recently with my sense of national identity. These are the kind of existential indulgences that one embarks upon when taking a year off work. Here’s the thing: the British really screwed over Burma – and a load of other places – but my own sense of Britain and its place in the world, as being active in world politics, as being a multi-cultural nation with links across the globe, as being – in some sense – a good thing, is predicated upon this history of Empire. Also, I might add, the impending referendum on Scottish independence is playing into my general anxieties. What’s British if a part of it leaves? Those people building the banks and railways in Burma were Scottish and Welsh as well as English. Not a history to be celebrated, but it is a shared history.

Looking up at those impressive, familiar colonial buildings in Burma (and Malaysia) it’s easy to forget the bloodshed and hatred that went alongside them, and just to feel excited as I experience a strange sense of belonging, like seeing my own history reflected back from an unexpected place. Weird isn’t it? There’s a whole body of academic studies on this, of course, called postcolonialism and this kind of musing doesn’t really stand up to any kind of academic scrutiny – but equally the sensation of seeing yourself reflected in the remnants of Empire can’t quite be captured in a beautifully footnoted, double spaced essay.

Britain isn’t empire, but a sense of nation can encompass the bad with the good, conflict with agreement, making something that’s worthwhile today, without having to forgive, accept or condone the things in the past that would fall far short of the nation today. The challenge, for Britain, is to build something out of all these pieces.

In The Glass Palace, towards the end of the book, one of the Burmese characters talks about why he believes Aung San Suu Kyi will work for Burma:

“[…] she’s the only one who seems to understand what the place of politics is… what it ought to be… that while misrule and tyranny must be resisted, so too must politics itself… that it cannot be allowed to cannibalise all of life, all of existence. To me this is the most terrible indignity of our condition – not just in Burma, but in many other places too… that politics has invaded everything, spared nothing… religion, art, family… it has taken over everything… there is no escape from it… and yet, what could be more trivial in the end?”

So, I can’t say that I’ve found any answers to my existential questions. But I can say that sometimes we find parts of ourselves in the most unexpected places. And, also, that I will be very sad if Scotland leaves the United Kingdom.

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This post was written and uploaded in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia.

NEXT TIME: More Burma, less Britain. 

(Food) Courting Kafka in Penang

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A FUNNY THING happened on the way to the food court. We’d just arrived in George Town, Penang, Malaysia, and were venturing out of our hotel to seek some dinner. As we passed by two cars parked on the side of the road, we saw a small, elderly lady sat on the ground between them. Are you alright? we asked. No, she said, she’d fallen down and couldn’t get back up again. We helped her up. She was using an umbrella as a walking stick. Holding it in front of her, she gripped it with quiet ferocity – less to support her weight, it seemed, and more as a futile handhold to stop her from falling backwards, which she was in perpetual danger of doing. It was clear that she wouldn’t be going far. Can you walk? No. My leg. It doesn’t work. Where are you going? The coffee shop. She pointed to a small food court about a hundred meters away. My husband usually takes me, but he’s at work. I see.

It was still light, and there were other people about. Eventually, a woman from the car rental place opposite came to see what was going on – why an increasingly desperate looking white male was standing with both hands on the back of this little old Malay lady, whilst his wife waved at passing vehicles. The car rental lady got her car and drove our charge to the coffee shop. We went to have dinner. So: situation resolved?

No.

At the food court we ate Char Kway Teow, which is like a Malaysian version of Phad Thai. It was delicious. This is irrelevant to the story, but I just mention it in passing.

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On the way back to our hotel, we passed the same elderly lady standing in the road. Hello! We called. Hello! Found your feet again! Glad to see you moving about! I cannot move. Oh. My leg. It does not work. Oh. Ok.

So, once again, we resumed our positions. Each of us linked arms with her. Can you walk like this, if we support you? Maybe. She managed two steps. I cannot. Ok. How far away is your home? Down there. She pointed along the street.

By this point it was dark, and there wasn’t really anyone around. Cars and scooters passed us every now and then, but their drivers studiously ignored us.

You carry me. Carry you? Yes.

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I knelt down – she was quite small, the top of her head just coming up to my chest – and went as if to give her a piggy back. BK-C pointed out that quite apart from sheer indignity of this for the lady, she wasn’t in any position to climb onto my back. So I lifted her up in my arms instead. She was as heavy as a sack of lead, or perhaps I was as weak as someone who hadn’t been to the gym for five months. I am scared, she said to me. Me too.

I managed perhaps ten or fifteen metres like this before I had to put her down. We were outside the car rental place again, but it appeared to be closed. I deposited the lady next to a car, where she stood holding onto the rear windscreen wiper, me supporting her back with my arms. At this point, BK-C went to a local business that had its shutters down but from which a light could be seen. She managed to coax the reluctant owner out onto the street, where he joined us so that he could contribute nothing whatsoever to the incident, except wringing his hands and talking to the lady in Malay. (“She says she cannot move. It’s her leg.”). There was talk of flagging a car down, though the Malay business owner seemed very reluctant to do so. We were also apprehensive about the task as we spoke no Malay; we’d only just arrived in George Town from the tourist haven of Langkawi and at this point we hadn’t appreciated how widely English was spoken in Malaysia. Besides which, it was dark, we were in a strange town, and the cars were driving fast.

Trav17-5 We were joined by a young Malay man who had been working in the car rental office. He volunteered that he wasn’t able to help because he was working. Nevertheless, he stood there with us and discussed the situation. What was to be done? It was a pickle certainly. If only there were someone with a car.

The elderly lady was leaning further and further back, and holding her up was becoming an increasingly strenuous task. Moreover, my bladder was becoming increasingly full.

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The owner of the car that she was gripping onto arrived. There was a conversation in Malay. He was unable to help. I think that he had to wash his hair or something. He drove off, the old lady and me breathing in his car fumes as its back window slipped from her grasp.

Minutes ticked by. The lady didn’t get any lighter. I know this, because it was just me holding her up. Then I spotted that there were dozens of plastic chairs stacked outside our non-helper’s business. I suggested that perhaps we might retrieve one for the lady to sit down on. He went to get one. Upon returning, he placed the chair down on the ground about a metre away from my charge, and gestured that I should manoeuvre the lady into the chair. I gestured that he should bring the chair to the lady. A short period of competing gesticulation ensued. Mohammed and the mountain were mentioned. BK-C took the chair and placed it behind the lady. She sat down.

Eventually, a tall, wiry, old Indian man walked by carrying big bags of shopping. There was another conversation in Malay. He walked off. I was led to believe that he would be returning.

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Some time passed. Then I saw a cyclist approaching from down the street. It was the wiry Indian man. He dismounted and indicated that we could put the lady onto the back, where there was a flat ledge above the wheel for carrying bags. She expressed some reservations about this arrangement. Is there a car? No. I am scared. Yes, but this is the only way you’re going to get back. We’ve been here for over half an hour. We’ll hold you. We won’t let you fall. I might piss myself if I have to stand here any longer.

The wiry man and I lifted her onto the back, and walked the bike down the street, one on each side, one hand on the lady, one hand on the handlebars. Our two other helpers wished us luck and waved us a cheery goodbye.

After a few streets, we reached the lady’s house. Our cycling saviour shouted inside and a younger woman came out, whereupon she immediately began berating the elderly lady in Malay. We helped her off the bike, and walked her to the doorstep. Do you want to come in for a drink? she asked, as we bodily handed her over to the younger woman.  No. No thank you. I just want to go back to the hotel and urinate like there’s no tomorrow.

After that, we took a different route to and from the food court.

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I HAVE BEEN READING…

Now For Then: How To Face The Digital Future Without Fear, Ben Hammersley
My Ear At His Heart: Reading My Father, Hanif Kureishi

I HAVE ALSO CONSUMED…

The Economist, (recent issues)
The Paris Review, No. 209, Summer 2014
Neil Gaiman: Keynote Address 2012, Neil Gaiman, The University of the Arts
The Psychology of Your Future SelfDan Gilbert, Ted.com
Buddhist Economics: How To Stop Prioritizing Goods Over People and Consumption Over Creative Activity, Maria Popova, quoting the work of E.F. Schumocher, brainpickings.org
The Shape of Days, Austin Kleon, austinkleon.com
Impressions of Poverty, Richard Davies, AS I PLEASE, criticaldispatches.com
…and way too much of the Lonely Planet Guide to Indonesia (& LP Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei).

This post was written and uploaded in Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia.

NEXT TIME:

I get more in depth about the food we ate when we arrived at the food court.

Six Months of Travel: Things To Remember, To Learn, To Forget

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“Did you know that ‘but’ means ‘no’?”

It was evening, and we were sitting in the common area of our guest house, an open structure with chairs, benches and a pool table, sat on the edge of the beach. Two locals were potting poolballs in exactly the way I had failed to a moment ago. Every so often, bats raced over our heads as they flew through the common room to eat the bugs that clustered, suicidally, around the lights. There was the sound of waves breaking. BK-C and I were arguing about education policy with a Dutch life coach. She had just interrupted my reasoned and, if I may say, elegant, riposte to her previous argument, to deliver to me this tiny bit of life coaching.

I really hate people telling me what to think, especially through the medium of meaningless clichés. I took a deep breath, had a sip of my gin & tonic, and carried on: “but what you’re not taking into account…”

That’s it. End of story. I was very restrained. Why have I just recounted this tale of me being a little bit of an arse to an otherwise very nice lady? Well, mainly it’s because I’ve just discovered that it’s actually very difficult to start a post summarising a long period of travel without resorting to meaningless clichés, grand generalisations, or speculations about what you may or may not be thinking/expecting/visualising. Travelling, in other words, is a lot like the rest of life. There are highs and lows. There are good days and bad days. Life is not, in fact, a beach everyday. Ok, maybe every other day.  And maybe there have been some phenomenal experiences that we’ll remember for the rest of our lives. But the point is, I’m going to have to use some sub-headings here. Maybe even a list.

Things to Remember

THERE HAVE BEEN distinct phases to our travel. We travelled from Bangkok, into Cambodia, up through Vietnam, through Laos, back into northern Thailand, and back down to Bangkok. I think of this as Stage 1.

I’ve previously written about our time in Vietnam and Cambodia, so let me just select a few things from Laos and northern Thailand. In Laos, we visited Luang Prabang, which is a city of much culture, history and wonderful temples. We got up early, when it was still dark, and went to watch the giving of alms, where long lines of orange robed monks took offerings of rice from the devout kneeling at the side of the road. Then we wandered around the morning market, sampling all kinds of new foods, before ending at a local coffee shop where we drank coffee strong enough to bring back the dead, sweetened with condensed milk. This is one of my favourite memories.

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It’s hard to make generalisations about an entire people, but of course we all do, and I’m not making an exception for the people of Laos, who were unfailingly lovely. We travelled up the Mekong River from Luang Prabang into northern Thailand; rocks loomed out of the cold morning mist, and we huddled underneath blankets as our junk boat cut through the water. Eventually, the sun burnt away the mist and we were left seeking shade as dense jungle swept by on either side of this wide, wide river. That evening, we docked at a tiny village in the middle of the jungle, for our homestay. As we walked up the dusty hill amongst the houses on stilts, people came to their doorways to stare, in silence; young children in raggedy, dirty T-shirts hid from us; a dog, panting in the heat, watched us, her teats gorged and hanging, two puppies playing underneath her; we looked behind, and a straggling group of older children had begun to follow us. I have never felt more foreign than at that moment. That night, we saw stars like I have never seen before. Two other guys and I broke the awkwardness of no common language with our hosts by making shadow puppets on the wall for their kids, the mother smiling on. Then we fell asleep on the floor, under mosquito nets, wrapped in the utter, utter silence of the night time village.

Trav16-6 Trav16-7 Trav16-5 Trav16-9 Trav16-8IN MAE HONG SONG, northern Thailand, we were two of the few westerners in the sleepy town, and ate phad thai omelettes sitting on the floor, looking out over a lake where the brightly illuminated pagoda was reflected. Later, we bought hand woven textiles from a little old Karen woman at the night market, the prices embarrassingly cheap.

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The next day, we hired a guide and hiked through what seemed to be unspoilt jungle to reach two local villages, one of the Hmong people, the other of the Karen people. There was no trail, there was no path – just hacking our way through head high bamboo. Yes, we ran out of water towards the end, and yes we had to remind ourselves that we were having fun – but it’s not these things that I remember, it’s the children playing with a kite made out of the plastic bags, the wrinkled faces of the old women as they watched us wander about the village, the constant fear of standing on a snake amidst the bamboo…

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FROM THAILAND WE flew to Hong Kong, and spent a month in China. This was Stage 2. China gets a stage all to itself because it’s so big and because at times it was something of a trial. I’ve written extensively about the country, so I won’t recount it all again here except to say that hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge was one of the best treks I’ve ever done.

Trav10-16  WE FLEW FROM Shanghai to Taipei, and spent three weeks in Taiwan. Then we flew to Tokyo, and spent three weeks in Japan. After that, it was to Yangon for three weeks in Myanmar. This was Stage 3. We were travelling fast, we saw a lot and we had some of the best and most memorable experiences of the trip so far. I intend to write more about all three countries (I took a lot of notes and a lot of photographs), so I’ll just pick one thing from each place.

At the southern tip of Taiwan is the national park of Kenting, a beautiful expanse of rolling hills, cliffs and coasts that has much in common with the south west of England, except that it’s tropical. We had no transport of our own while we were there, but Vincent, the wonderful owner of our hostel, took pity on us and drove us around the coast to show us his favourite places. He gave up a successful career as a web designer in Taipei and Beijing so that he could open a business in Kenting and spend his time surfing. We reaped the rewards of his choice.

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IN JAPAN, WE had the luck to visit during sakura, cherry blossom time, and the trees were bright and bristling with flowers, the petals shivering in the wind. On our first full day we travelled to Kyoto on the Shinkansen, bullet train, and after checking in at our Capsule Ryokan hotel (all tatami floors and folding floor futons), we hot footed it to the Toji Temple, where a monthly flea market was just starting to close. There, we darted between stalls to look at people’s wares even as they were packing them up; BK-C bought vintage kimonos and antique washi paper, whilst I, inexplicably, bought a hand painted Union Jack flag from the 1972 Sapporo Winter Olympics. Then we went into the gardens of the Toji Temple, and had our first taste of why Japanese gardens and temples are so famous the world over. We’ve visited a lot of temples whilst we’ve been traveling. It’s fair to say that we’ve become a little jaded (in fact, the worst kind of traveller – the constant comparers: “yeah, this is ok, but it’s not as good as Wat Pho in Bangkok.” Or “yeah I could climb those steps to go and watch the sunset from the top of the temple, but it’s not going to be as breathtaking as that place in Luang Prabang. Why bother?”). But I never got bored of visiting Japanese temples. Their elegant aesthetic, the precise beauty of their gardens, the quiet contemplation of sitting on the tatami floor – I fell in love with all of this.

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IN BURMA, WE visited Bagan, a vast, scrubby plain where, from the 9th to the 13th centuries, Burmese kings vied to build increasingly magnificent temples, and where over 2,000 of those temples remain today. We hired electric bikes and zoomed about the plain in the 40 degree heat, slipping and sliding in the sand, visiting whatever temples took our fancy. Although there were plenty of tourists at the bigger temples, most were deserted, and we explored them Indiana Jones style, with torch and whip. Ok, maybe not the whip, but certainly the torch. On the walls of many remained 1,000 year old drawings, and it is a remarkable feeling to stand alone in the dark, quiet and relative cool of one of these temples and to stare upon the doings of people long dead, the pictures drawn before Chaucer put quill to vellum to pen the Canterbury Tales, even before Richard I sat on the English throne. There is no glass, no grill between you and these incredibly precious paintings, just air and your own sense of wonder. I shall name our firstborn Indiana.

Trav16-24 Trav16-23 Trav16-25THEN WE FLEW back to Thailand, visited a couple of islands, and headed south into Malaysia, where we’ve been for the past month. Malaysia has had the most consistently great food of the trip. Because of the uniquely cosmopolitan make up of the country, you can eat Indian curry for breakfast, Chinese food for lunch, and Malay food for dinner – and every time you’re eating the local cuisine. Increasingly, as we travel, I find myself spending less time – or sometimes no time – reading the ‘sights’ part of the Lonely Planet, and instead spending hours salivating over the ‘eating’ section, in order to plan what restaurants and street stalls we’re going to visit. Eating is a pleasure, everyday; seeing temples is not.

Trav16-26 Trav16-27On Saturday, we arrived in Singapore. Next, we’re travelling to Indonesia. When we leave Indonesia, in September, that will be the end of Stage 4. Stage 5 will be Australia and New Zealand. We return on 2 January, 2015. I’m sure that won’t be a downer.

Things to Forget

Inevitably, and yet also in a way that surprises me, every time, life is not a montage of edited highlights, even when travelling full time. As I write this it is a Sunday, and BK-C and I are sat in our room, spending the day writing and reading. It’s our first day in Singapore, and we’re spending it indoors. We travelled really fast in the first five months, and it takes a toll. You have to have down time. After a while of spending two or three nights in a place you start to crave continuity. And you realise that you can’t go on walking into furniture in the middle of the night when you get up to go the toilet. Eventually you’ll fracture something (once I thought I had, and lay in bed, in the darkness, suffering in silence and wondering what lie I could tell to my friends and family about how I fractured my leg).

BK-C and I seem to measure everything in the domestic: could we live here? Would we want that table in our house? Would we get better service here if we were regulars? It’s different for other travellers, of course, but for us one of the most important things about a place we visit is where we stay. Our room has to be somewhere where we can spend time, where we can lie on the bed and read, or pretend to write and instead stare out of the window. For other travellers it’s about meeting other people, the location of the accommodation, the availability of wifi… and of course all of those things are important to us, but if a room is nice, then none of the other things really matter. Every place must feel like a little home. This means, of course, that if we don’t like our accommodation then it can colour our entire experience of a place. In Langkawi, our room was a dirty box with no window, and thus the whole island was a downer for us. At times like this our friends and family seem a long, long way away, and we wonder why we’re here (similarly, you feel very alone when you’re sat on the toilet at 4am for what is the tenth time that night, in your guesthouse’s little shared bathroom that, as you’re going to realise later, has open topped walls abutting the common room).

However much you try and keep in touch with home, there are things that you miss. Two sets of friends have got engaged whilst we’ve been out travelling: both sets are getting married before we’ll return. My father-in-law’s cancer has come back. My granddad has died. Two sets of friends have had babies. Many more children of friends have changed alarmingly quickly (I mean, is that normal? Shouldn’t they stay in stasis or something until we get back?). England still haven’t won the world cup. Again.

Things to Learn

This wouldn’t be a self-reflective post on a travel blog if I didn’t have a list of all the things that I’ve learnt whilst we’ve been away. So here it is.

  • The place where we sleep is also the place where we read, and thus it must be nice; or we must make it nice through the medium of post it notes on the walls, filled with lists of things to do and quotes from inspiring people. Yes, we are losers, but I knew that before we came travelling and so it has no place on this list.
  • Our favourite places have history and culture and a creative scene.
  • Don’t let anyone tell you that you shouldn’t take your phone, your ipad, your laptop with you: they’re wrong.
  • It’s heartbreaking not to be able to attend your grandad’s funeral.
  • I scream like a girl when I see a cockroach. Every time.
  • Gaffa tape is one of the most useful things you can travel with.
  • You can never eat too many chinese dumplings.
  • It’s still hard to make time to do all the things you want to do, even when staying in a hut on tropical beach (this must be what retired people feel like).
  • British humour isn’t universal. Or, there are a lot of people in the world who just don’t understand how funny I am.
  • Mutton is delicious, and should be used more in Britain.
  • I’m still not very good at relaxing.
  • Condensed milk in coffee is ace.
  • Indian food makes a fantastic breakfast. A curry trumps a full English, any day.
  • Sitting on a chair designed for primary school children doesn’t in any way affect your ability to enjoy your food.
  • You don’t always need to plan, and things will work out.
  • But it’s still better to plan. I’m not a hippy, for goodness sake.
  • Don’t send text messages to people at home telling them what a killer time you’re having on your tropical island. They’re either asleep or at work when you send them, and both seem to make people grumpy.
  • Bigger mosquitoes are easier to kill than small ones.
  • Tea without milk is good, often better than tea with milk (I’m looking at you, Lipton Tea).
  • Tiger Balm is the most effective thing to put on bites. Try it.
  • Except ant bites, for which nothing works. Wear mittens in bed.
  • Writing everyday makes me happy. So maybe I am a little bit of a hippy, after all.

Final Words

THIS IS THE bit where I end with some wise and meaningful words. Like the beginning, though, it’s difficult not to stray into clichés and platitudes. The learning that comes from travelling is lots of little pieces of wisdom that accrete over time, like the lint in your tumble dryer. So, I’ll just settle for this: it’s been amazing.

But I can’t wait for what the next six months will bring.

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What I’ve Been Reading For The Past Six Months

 Ferried over rough seas, bounced at the back of minivans, perched on mounds of luggage, I’ve been spending a lot of time with my kindle over the past six months. This is what I’ve read, in no particular order:

Wool, Hugh Howey
Great House, Nicole Krause
– Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China, Paul Theroux
– The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss
– The Wise Man’s Fear, Patrick Rothfuss
– Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s, Graham Stewart
– Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s, Alwyn W. Turner
MaddAddam, Margaret Atwood
– 1Q84, Haruki Murakami
– Road of Bones: The Epic Siege of Kohima 1944, Fergal Keane
– Show Your Work!, Austin Kleon
– The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
– Dance, Dance, Dance, Haruki Murakami
– The Collected Short Stories of Anton Chekov, Vol. 1, Anton Chekov, (Constance Garnett translations)
– The Glass Palace
, Amitav Ghosh
– Life After Life, Kate Atkinson
– Reading Like a Writer: A Guide For People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, Francine Prose
– On The Steel Breeze, Alastair Reynolds
– The Complete Short Stories, Franz Kafka, Vintage Classics
– Burmese Days, George Orwell
– How To Shit Around The World: The Art of Staying Clean and Healthy While Travelling, Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth
– A Geek in Japan: Discovering the Land of Manga, Anime, Zen, and the Tea Ceremony, Hector Garcia
– Hiroshima, John Hersey

This post was written in Juara, Pulau Tioman, Malaysia, and Singapore. It was uploaded in Singapore.

NEXT TIME: The street food of Penang. Almost definitely this time. No more travel montages.

Beijing & Shanghai: Photo Essay

AFTER X’IAN, BEIJING: we travelled there at 300 km/h, our speed digitally displayed at the end of the carriage. There was boiling water on tap, there were wide seats, there was more than adequate leg room and the train ran on time. In other words, it was everything that train travel in the UK is not.

 

THE LAMA TEMPLE

 

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Welcome to the Disneyfication of religion. Don’t worry if you’re not Buddhist, it really doesn’t matter. Please collect your complimentary bundle of incense sticks and proceed directly to the brazier, where you may light them. Screams of excitement are encouraged. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous (and you probably are) please do feel free to light the entire bundle at once (don’t worry about the sign telling you not to do that). Next, proceed to wander around the temple clutching your incense stick like you don’t quite know what to do with it. When you’re bored with it, just drop it on the ground. Thank you.

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THE HUTONGS

 

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Welcome to the hutongs, a series of old narrow lanes that you’ll probably get lost in. People have died trying to get out. Do come in, though.

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Residents are mostly friendly.

Mostly.

Mostly.

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Don’t touch my beer.

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All hail.

 

The discarded bikes of those who didn't find their way out of the hutongs.

The discarded bikes of those who didn’t find their way out of the hutongs.

 

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Don't worry that you're lost, having a beer will help you find your way out.

Don’t worry that you’re lost, having a beer will help you find your way out.

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THE WALL

 

Welcome to the Wall. Yes, it looks like it was rebuilt recently, and there's a reason for that. Try not to be too underwhelmed. Distract yourself by buying overpriced gloves to stop your hands falling off in the cold. And if that doesn't take you mind off it, don't worry, because there's a toboggan run all the way down to the bottom of the hill which is a lot more fun than the wall itself.

Welcome to the Wall. Yes, it looks like it was rebuilt recently, and there’s a reason for that. Try not to be too underwhelmed. Distract yourself by buying overpriced gloves to stop your hands falling off in the cold.

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OK, so it is quite impressive in places.

And if you're still bored, don't worry - because there's a toboggan run all the way down to the bottom of the hill which is a lot more fun than the wall itself.

But if you’re still bored, don’t worry – because there’s a toboggan run all the way down to the bottom of the hill which is a lot more fun than the wall itself.

 

REMEMBER THIS?

 

Remember this?

So 2008…

SHANGHAI

Welcome to Shanghai! You can get married here.

Welcome to Shanghai! You can get married here.

It's very popular.

It’s very popular.

We've got the whole post thing covered as well.

We’ve got the whole post thing covered as well.

And laundry. I'm pretty sure it's fine to be a Christian in China as well.

And laundry too. I’m pretty sure it’s fine to be a Christian in China as well.

We don't talk about the hairy building. Look away,

We don’t talk about the hairy building. Look away.

This is the view that you're paying £6 a beer for. Better enjoy it.

This is the view that you’re paying £6 a beer for. Better enjoy it.

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NEXT TIME: The food of Penang.

This post was written and uploaded in Kuala, Lumpur, Malaysia.

Hell is a Tropical Island: Or, Why I Am An Awful Backpacker

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IT’S BEEN A while since I last posted, I know. In Burma it was because access to the internet was patchy at best, and that was without the regular power cuts; but since then? It’s because I’ve been gripped by a terrible apathy: Tropicalislanditis.

Normally, I’m never without my little notebook – I write down things we see, what people say and how I feel. It’s all recorded for you, dear internet, so that I can reproduce it in what I tell myself is a witty, urbane manner. Ok, so it’s for me too, so that I can feel slightly smug about it all (although I’d probably feel a lot smugger if I was quicker at posting stuff on this blog). But since Burma, I’ve been without my notebook.

Let me explain: after leaving the 42 degrees heat and 80% humidity of Mandalay we travelled to Ko Samui, an island off the east coast of Thailand. There we met both sets of parents, and spent a blissful ten days with our family in a resort with a private beach, smoked salmon for breakfast, and eye watering prices in the restaurant. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to stay in one place for so long. Needless to say, we did very little beyond reading, eating, drinking and playing pool.

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After that we parted with our parents and headed over to the west coast of Thailand to the little island of Ko Lanta, where we got a fantastic deal on a bungalow right on the beach, and I celebrated my 31st birthday. Then we took a very circuitous minivan, car, ferry, taxi route to travel south to the Malaysian island of Langkawi. And here we are now, sitting in Starbucks to use the wifi, whilst outside it rains.

Here’s the thing though: we’re bored. Worse: we’re bored and WE CAN’T BE BOTHERED. It’s the worst combination. Yes, you’re right, that is the sound of tiny violins being played, or perhaps the drip drip of your heart bleeding for us. Tropical islands are wonderful places to relax, but they are not great places to do things. I mean, I could probably go and rent a jet ski and make some heroic charge towards the swimmers paddling close to the shore, but my chest isn’t quite chiselled enough, my skin not quite bronzed enough, nor my wrist not quite braceleted enough for that particular brand of hedonism.

YOU’VE FELT THIS before – those of you with children, cast your mind back, those of you who are retired, stop pretending that reading the paper in the morning is being busy – it’s Sunday early afternoon and the day stretches out before you, a wonderful expanse of Not Working, the morning behind you as a leisurely lounge on the sofa. You could do anything, absolutely anything, yet you can’t quite rouse yourself to leave the sofa. You feel vaguely anxious that you’re not making the most of this precious free time, yet you want to take the opportunity to relax; you’re bored, but the TV or the radio or that book is keeping you glued down; and you realise that you slightly despise yourself both for doing nothing and for thinking that you should do something other than relaxing. You only really start to unwind in the evening because by then you don’t have the anxiety of time pressing down on you, and you end up going to bed late, only to wake up completely unrefreshed on Monday morning but having achieved absolutely nothing – nothing – with your weekend.

That’s pretty much what it’s like being on a tropical island all the time. Although it’s possible that I may be missing the point.

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I haven’t even bothered to break out my big camera since we left Burma. That’s why I’m showing you a picture of a pineapple right now – I don’t have any decent photos, just what I’ve been snapping on my phone. Still, who knew pineapples grew on the ground like this? Not me.

I like to find solace by tormenting the local wildlife.

I like to find solace by tormenting the local wildlife.

YESTERDAY, THINGS REACHED a crisis point. We didn’t set an alarm, and when we did rouse ourselves, we just lounged about in our tiny, cramped, windowless yet air-conditioned room in the guesthouse we’re occupying, caught in a paroxysm of apathic homesickness, looking at facebook pictures of how friends at home are re-decorating their houses, building new garden sheds, or Having Fun Without Us. We didn’t want to go to the beach, because it was stiflingly hot; there was no one else in our guesthouse to socialise with, probably because the rooms are like prison cells; and we didn’t want to wander the streets of the town we’re in because this is tourist central and I don’t want to buy another pair of board shorts, thank you, or eat at your overpriced and yet underspiced restaurant. We had a long, soul searching discussion about why we’re travelling, what we’re getting out of it, and when did we become so bitter and ungrateful? (actually, I’ve always been bitter, but I’m generally better at hiding it). Then we realised it was time to take things in hand: so we went to buy some stationery.

After some initial horizon scanning, we identified the things that were important to us in life and travelling, tabulated the data to identify what could/couldn’t achieve whilst travelling, and then set a colour coded schedule for the coming weeks with some overarching strategic objectives. What else would you do in this situation?

After some initial horizon scanning, we identified the things that were important to us in life and travelling, tabulated the data to identify what we could/couldn’t achieve whilst travelling, and then set a colour coded schedule for the coming weeks with some overarching strategic objectives. What else would you do in this situation?

The problem is, we’re kind of inbetween most other people we meet who are travelling. There’s the early twenty-somethings who (with some notable exceptions amongst the people we’ve met) generally want to get drunk and wear as little clothing as possible; and then there’s the older travellers, generally in their 50s or 60s, who are either very well travelled and just Better At Life than us, or instead credulous and herding together for protection. There aren’t really many people in between. Apparently all the 30-somethings are at home having, well, homes and families and things. If you want to put a label on us, then I think that we fall into the flashpackers category, although it’s a bit of a loose term.

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Both BK-C and I are on career breaks. There are definite things that we want to achieve – apart from seeing the world, of course – whilst we travel. For me, it’s my writing. For BK-C, it’s to eat a lot of different foods and talk to a lot of different people. Maybe it’s because your thirties are the first time that you start to feel the grains of your life slipping past, but it’s hard to find the right balance between doing things and not doing things – too many experiences in too short a time and you quickly become tired and jaded, doing too little over too long a time and you soon become bored and apathetic. Right now, we’re in the latter; at the end of Burma, we were in the former. So now we’ve got colour coded goals, we’ve got plans about when to get up, when to lie in, and – of course – where we’re going to go. Yeah we’re probably massive losers, but tomorrow we’re heading to George Town, on Penang, the food capital of Malaysia, and honestly? I can’t wait to get up off the sofa.

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This post was written and uploaded on Pulau Langkawi, Malaysia.

NEXT TIME: Normal service is resumed and I actually write something about the places we’ve been. I’ve got posts about Burma and my final China post stacked up, so expect something on them. I’m also dying to write about Malaysian food, but I’ll save that until after George Town. 

China Goes Wild, Nearly: Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge

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ABOUT A QUARTER of the way through his account of travelling through China by train in the late 1980s, Riding the Iron Rooster, Paul Theroux writes: “so far, China seemed a place without wilderness. The country had been made over and deranged by peasant farmers.” He wasn’t wrong. Even in Guilin, a place of ethereal beauty, concerted efforts had been made to make it the Authorised River Tour of the Place On the Back of the Twenty Yuan Note With Visits To Ancient And Totally Authentic Farming Villages. In Yangshuo, a town amongst the limestone karsts that are the area’s trademark, farmland extended right up and indeed onto the stone towers. So when we told people that we were going to Yunnan and they said that it was a beautiful wilderness, I was sceptical.

Coming into land at Kunming airport, we’d seen acres and acres of poly tunnels stretching off into the glinting, plastic distance. Somewhere in the haze there were also mountains, but they seemed very far away. We decided to try and get closer to them by travelling to Dali City, about four hours drive west of Kunming. After similar experiences in South East Asia travelling through mountainous country, I was expecting a very windy journey on the bus. But I’d forgotten that Chinese roads are all straight. I presume that if they encounter any mountains on the way, they just blow them up. At least it meant I didn’t get travel sick.

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Dali is a pretty little walled town that sits on the edge of a lake and under the shadow of some fairly imposing mountain scenery. We were there mainly on the recommendation of an American girl that we’d been on a cookery class with in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. After we’d started talking again following the customary where-is-the-hostel-my-bag-is-heavy-I-told-you-it-was-this-way argument, we were able to appreciate why she’d recommended the place. This was the view that evening from the terrace in our hostel:

Trav10-3 The next day we wandered into the town itself, which was full of quiet streets lined with waterways and peach blossom trees.

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We came across an antique market, where traders laid out their goods on groundsheets at the side of the road. A combination of Chinese tourists and what appeared to be some serious buyers browsed through the goods, the buyers holding up pieces of jade and amber to examine them with their eyeglasses. In addition to these semi-precious stones there was a whole assortment of old Chinese wares from coins, teapots, and opium pipes to knives, chairs, and books. We didn’t know it at the time, but – with the exception of the Terracotta Warriors – these were the only genuinely old things that we’d see in Mainland China. Most “antiques” in China are just new things made to look old, and usually not very well. Most were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and those remaining are cossetted away behind closed doors, reserved only for the serious collectors. Later, in Beijing, we visited a big antiques market and were bitterly disappointed because it was all “handicrafts” and things that had been made to look old by reversing the vacuum cleaner. So we were glad that we took the chance in Dali to buy something genuinely old, purchasing a well used Chinese seal set made of solid copper (and, less good for my luggage, weighing about a kilogram). We haggled with the seller – fairly ineffectually – through a Taiwanese-American lady who happened to be there. She didn’t think that we got a very good deal, but we didn’t care because we loved it.

I’ve been carrying this around in my bag ever since, waiting until we meet up with our parents in Thailand so that I can offload it to them. Haggling in China is different to what we’d experienced previously. In SE Asia it’s a fairly good-natured affair, and you usually start off at about half the asking price and work upwards. In China, you start off at quarter the price and try your very hardest to stick to that price. Every Chinese trader we dealt with drove a hard bargain and gave nothing away. Which explains why I ended up paying £7 for a pair of gloves when I visited the Great Wall. £7 may not sound like a lot, but, trust me, when you’re buying gloves made in China, in China, it is. There’s a well known Chinese phrase: “It’s always easy to fool a foreigner.”

After the antique market we continued down quiet lanes until we reached a street that contained approximately 30% of the population of China. This is the other side of Dali – the one that’s been discovered by the Chinese tourist market. We blended into the crowd in our usual way by posing for pictures.

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The Chinese like to go to popular places and do popular things. If it’s not popular then, well, it’s not popular. This means that it can be surprisingly easy to escape the crowds in China. The Yunnan Provincial Museum, for example.

WE DISCOVERED THE other 70% of the Chinese population at our next stop in Yunnan Province: Lijang. It’s supposed to be a beautiful old Chinese town, with distinctive architecture. In fact, it’s a new Chinese town built to look old, with Disneyland architecture. It has spectacular views of mountains and many, many shops, most of which sell dried Yak meat for you to take home to remind you of that time you went to Yunnan province with everyone you know.

Trav10-10 Trav10-11  Fascinating though the people watching was in Lijang, we were there only as a stepping stone onto Tiger Leaping Gorge, the one thing in China that I Definitely Wanted To Do.

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So early one morning we said goodbye to our backpacks and boarded a minibus to Shangri-La (no joke, this is actually a place in Yunnan – formerly called Zhongdian until it was renamed in 2001 to attract tourists, supposedly because it’s the place that British author James Hilton based Shangri-La on in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon), which passed by the small village of Qiaotou, where the trail for Tiger Leaping Gorge begins.

 

Looking back from the start of the trail.

Looking back from the start of the trail.

We arrived at the trailhead having made three new friends – from Germany, Israel and France. We set out at a brisk pace, hoping to escape the expected hordes of other tourists. After all, the Lonely Planet lavishes praise on TLG, calling it the must do hike in China, and Chinese tourists are ubiquitous in the rest of Yunnan. But, in fact, we were alone as we made our way up a twisty paved road that soon gave way to a gravel path. It was a clear, sunny day and we looked out over a steep sided valley patched with rice terraces. We paused to look out over the view and adopted a more leisurely pace. After about half an hour, though, our Israeli and German friends said goodbye and marched off at speed – they were intending to hike the entire gorge in a day, whereas we had the leisure of two days. It was just myself, BK-C and Lorette, our new French friend. For most of the rest of the day we didn’t see a single other person and had the most spectacular views in all of China just to ourselves.

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If you’re a francophone then you can read Lorette’s account of our TLG hike here. If you’re not a French speaker, then you can enjoy her pictures and, if you venture further into her blog, you’ll see her wonderful, wonderful drawings, some of which she shared with us that evening (packing your sketch book and a set of watercolours at the expense of an extra coat definitely makes you a proper artist). Lorette was one of those chilled, inspiring and life affirming people that you seem to meet when travelling, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. She’d been working in Cambodia for the past eight months, teaching physiotherapy, and was on her circuitous way back there now, before finally heading back to France. Losing ourselves in conversation helped us to conquer the 28 gruelling switchbacks to the top of the gorge.

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We lunched on big, cheap bowls of noodles at Tea Horse Guesthouse, about half way, and then stayed the night at the confusingly named Half Way Guesthouse, about three quarters of the way along. Perhaps an hour before we reached Half Way Guesthouse, we caught up with the group of Chinese hikers who we’d shared the minibus with and who had overtaken us whilst we lunched at Tea Horse. At one point we all paused to appreciate a particularly breath taking piece of scenery. One of the Chinese hikers spread his arms as if to try and encompass the view, evidently overtaken by the beauty of the moment. Then he took a deep breath, gave an almighty shout, lobbed an empty plastic bottle deep into the gorge – where it will presumably join the ever increasing pile at the bottom – and stomped off. The Leave No Trace philosophy still has some way to go before it reaches China.

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THE NEXT DAY, we rose early and hiked onto the end of the trail for most, Tina’s Guesthouse. Leaving BK-C at the guesthouse to read her book, Lorette, a Korean guy we met called De-Ha, and I all tramped down a steep, steep path to the ferocious river below. On the way down there were the usual stalls manned by locals selling drinks and snacks. We’d seen perhaps three of these the previous day on our journey along the trail, their owners lazing in the sun on what must have been a very slow day indeed. They sold water, soft drinks, beer and wild walnuts, a speciality of Yunnan. On the way down into the gorge, one of them also sold big bags of surprisingly authentic looking green stuff labelled Cannabis. We pointed this out to each other and raised our eyebrows at the owner, and she just laughed. The gorge was steep and I can’t imagine that the Chinese police make a habit of patrolling the place, though the owner was risking a bullet in the neck by selling drugs. It’s a mystery to me why anyone would want to buy booze or drugs half way up a mountain, but this is what amounts to the wilderness in China – a place where someone else hasn’t set up a shop yet. Go to Tiger Leaping Gorge, and go now. Don’t delay – soon it will be full of plastic bottles and, maybe, stoned westerners.

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Looking to Hike Tiger Leaping Gorge Yourself? I recommend these blogs as a good resource.

http://easyhiker.co.uk/hiking-tiger-leaping-gorge/

http://withoutbaggage.com/essays/china-tiger-leaping-gorge/

The second one allows you to download the GPS track for your smartphone in GPX or KML format. I used the GPX track in MotionGPS [CHECK] on my iPhone, though discovered that I didn’t really need it as the path is well marked.

NEXT TIME: I finish up my travels in China by visiting Xi’An, Beijing and Shanghai.

This post was written on the bullet train from Kyoto to Hiroshima, and finally uploaded in Kuala Lumpur airport.

On Becoming a Celebrity in Yunnan Province

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I’VE BEEN READING Paul Theroux’s account of travelling through China by rail in the late 80s, Riding the Iron Rooster. Although Theroux is one of the world’s great curmudgeons, you can’t fault his perceptive eye for a place, and as we travelled through China ourselves I found my self nodding furiously at his insights into Chinese culture. “I’ve noticed that too,” I thought to myself, “so that makes me just like Paul Theroux!” I imagined myself incognito in the background, the great travel correspondent watching, observing and taking notes. Then I went to Yunnan province, and realised that it was impossible for a foreigner to be incognito in China.

We flew from Guilin to Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan. I was all for taking the train, but then I discovered that it would take 24 hours so we flew instead and it took 1 hour 30 minutes, costing the same as we would have spent on the train. Every time I looked at travelling from one place to another in China, I found myself surprised anew at just how big the country is.

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China – it’s big. (Map courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin).

And it’s all one time zone: the whole country runs on Beijing time. When we were in Guilin, in south eastern China, it was getting light at about 6.30 in the morning – in Kunming, in the south west, it wasn’t light until about 7.30. In Xinjiang, the country’s westernmost province (bordering Pakistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) the sun doesn’t rise until 9.40am in the winter, over two hours after the sun rises in Beijing. This is bonkers.

We arrived in Kunming early evening. It was a pleasant 20 degrees centigrade, the setting sun making the picturesque park at the centre of town – with its little bridges, weeping willows and peach blossom – seem particularly lovely as we stumbled past it with all our bags, lost in the usual daze before we found our hostel. Kunming is known as the “Spring City,” because its weather is always nice – not cold in winter, and not too hot in summer. It has pretty tree-lined streets and boulevards lined with trendy shops, all kept clean and tidy by officious looking men with walkie-talkies who order the street cleaners around and move on homeless people. We’d read in the Lonely Planet that the city was very popular with international students and that a lot of people came there to learn Mandarin – but we hardly saw any Westerners whilst we were there; perhaps a handful, at most (and they were grizzled and unfriendly, the sort of traveller who would be rude to you because you had the same colour skin as them).

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The next day, we wandered through the park in the centre of town. It was sunny and teeming with tourists. Stalls sold snacks, drinks and tourist tack. A man on a stage whipped a crowd into a frenzy as he auctioned off mysterious looking cardboard boxes. We ate fried potatoes covered in salt, pepper, chilli and possibly crack cocaine they were so addictively delicious. And we had our own crowd. Yes, we too were a tourist attraction. In a garden full of peach blossom trees people were posing for photographs beneath the peach blossom, until they saw me and BK-C and then they stalked us amongst the blossom for a quick snap of the funny looking foreigners. One woman just came up and asked for a photo with BK-C. BK-C demanded one in return, with her whole family:

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What cracks me up most about this picture is how deeply unimpressed the older lady on the far right looks. At this point I was holding my two fingers up in the V for victory sign that is such a popular photo pose in this part of the world. She was having none of it.

Have yourself a bite. The first one's free...

Have yourself a bite. The first one’s free…

Trav9-2 One man followed us around for about 20 minutes until, when I was teapotting in front a giant teapot (why wouldn’t you?), he plucked up the courage to ask for a photo with me. It must have been my uncanny teapot impression.

I think that spending a lot of time with just the two of us may have jeopardised our grip on normality somewhat.

I think that spending a lot of time with just the two of us may have jeopardised our grip on normality somewhat.

Winners.

Winners.

This was our first encounter with our new found celebrity status. It’s carried on throughout East Asia. Some people pretend to take pictures of whatever’s behind us when they’re really taking pictures of us:

Here’s a man that I photographed pretending to take pictures of something behind us. He quickly refocused his lens on something else when I pointed my camera at him.

Here’s a man that I photographed pretending to take pictures of something behind us. He quickly refocused his lens on something else when I pointed my camera at him.

Other people just come right out and ask (which actually I prefer, as it feels less like you’re an animal in a zoo). If there’s a group of people sometimes we’ll rotate through the whole group doing photos with them. It’s given me a new appreciation for famous people – it must be very tiresome your face not being your own. Our new favourite thing to do is to either randomly pose for people who are secretly taking pictures of us – one couple literally fell over themselves with excitement when we did this – or to photobomb other people’s photos (people go mental – in a good way (I think) – when we do this). This must be what it’s like to be Bill Murray.

WE WEREN’T THE only people in the zoo. Chinese people come to Yunnan province not just for the spectacular scenery, but also to see the many different ethnic minorities who make the province their home. All over the province, there are groups of Chinese tourists having their pictures taken with members of these ethnic minorities in their traditional dress. The ethnic Han Chinese (who make up 92% of the population of Mainland China) seem to view these people as a form of walking entertainment – a bit like the Disney characters who walk around Disneyland, posing for photos. They’re an oddity to be ogled.

 In Dali and Lijang, there was a big business of renting out the traditional dress of different ethnic minority groups so that Han Chinese tourists could dress up, have their photos taken and laugh at how funny they looked.

In Dali and Lijang, there was a big business of renting out the traditional dress of different ethnic minority groups so that Han Chinese tourists could dress up, have their photos taken and laugh at how funny they looked.

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WE VISITED THE Provincial Museum of Yunnan, where there was an exhibition on about the “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Yunnan’s Peoples.” Given the interest that Chinese tourists had in different ethnic groups, we thought that it might have been popular. But it wasn’t.

The museum was a grand looking building with marble colonnades and a huge sign with golden lettering. It sits just off a main road and outside it was busy, hot and noisy. Inside the cavernous foyer it was cool, dark and silent. Two security guards were fossilised at a table just inside the doorway, next to a knife arch and a sign saying that all bags would be searched. They wore green uniforms with epaulettes and big, peaked caps. As we walked though the arch and it screamed that we had metal on us, one of them slowly rose and sighed. I offered him my bag to search but he just waved it away and led me over to a bank of lockers – all empty – and locked it up there, using a 1 Yuan coin from his own pocket to pay for the locker. Upon first inspection, the information desk in the centre of the foyer appeared to be unmanned, but actually the man sat behind it had died with his mobile phone glued to his forehead, his cheek resting on the desk. A worried looking woman eyed us from her hiding place behind the cash register in the gift store. On the other 4 floors we saw many men in uniforms guarding the dust gathered in the corners, along with the occasional, presumably lost, Chinese tourist. We left having learnt little about Yunnan, but plenty about the resource profile of Chinese state run institutions.

THERE IS A postscript to our experiences of difference in Kunming. The day after we left the city, there was a horrific terrorist attack at the train station – 29 people were killed and many more injured when a group of people ran through the station with knives, stabbing and slashing indiscriminately. Those responsible for this attack were Xinjiang separatists. Xinjiang province, in the North West, is mostly populated by Uighurs, a people who are ethnically and culturally very distinct from the Han Chinese: they look like Afghans or Tajiks, have their own language, and follow Islam. After our experience of seeing and being ethnic minorities in China, it might be tempting to draw conclusions about the motivations and causes for this act of terrorism that elide what is, in fact, a complex situation. I’m not seeking to do that. This terrorist attack was a despicable and deplorable act that can never be justified. But I also can’t help thinking that China’s approach to its ethnic minorities does little to win hearts and minds.

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NEXT TIME: I discover that China isn’t all cities and farms.

This post was written on the bus from Sun Moon Lake, Taiwan, to Taipei, and posted in Kyoto, Japan.

 

Conversationless in China (From Hong Kong to Guilin)

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THE SINGLE MOST stressful part of travelling is arriving somewhere new. You step into the airport, or the bus station, or the train station, and you’re either mobbed by people trying to sell you a taxi, a hotel, a ripoff scam; or everyone ignores you, the signs are incomprehensible and you have no idea how to get where you need to go. Arriving in Hong Kong was none of these things – our bags were on the carousel when we arrived, I was able to pick up a map of the city for free, and there was helpful signage telling me exactly how to get where I wanted to go (American airports please take note).

Stepping off the bus at 10 o’ clock at night onto busy, bright Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui we were all smiles. No one tried to sell us a tuc tuc ride, no one gave us a second look. “It’s so nice,” we said to each other as we wandered towards the hostel. “It’s like London,” meaning, of course, not that Hong Kong is anything like London (because it’s not), but that the people here were wealthier, the place was more cosmopolitan and we were just another face in the crowd, rather than The Clueless Tourists With Matching Backpacks. Yes our hostel was on the ninth floor of a building, just above a brothel catering (it seemed) exclusively to drunk Indian men, and yes our room was only the size of a postage stamp whilst costing considerably more than anywhere else we’d stayed, but we were happy to be in Hong Kong.

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Because we needed a visa for the mainland, our first day was sacrificed to Chinese bureaucracy, including what seemed like an inordinate amount of time asking people if they had change because the photocopying machine in the visa office only accepted $1 coins. It was maddening, but at least it was warm in there, whilst outside it was 8 degrees – downright freezing after the heat of Bangkok.

The rest of our time in the city we spent walking. Hong Kong was clean and bright and full of people walking with a purpose. Actually, that’s a lie. Hong Kong was full of people strolling with a purpose. The people of Hong Kong, even the ones in suits, had an unhurried air about them. Yes, they were going for a business meeting, but what was the rush?  I don’t know Hong Kong, maybe the fact that it’s cold in your city and I’ve packed a wardrobe that, in hindsight, might be considered a little optimistic, consisting almost entirely of shorts and T-shirts? But the people of Hong Kong were deaf to my inappropriate clothing predicament, and instead we bobbed around behind people, trying to squeeze past, trying to walk fast, but mainly shivering in our matching his and hers long sleeved thermal tops (purchased during a similar clothing crisis just before going backpacking in Yosemite, California. I really don’t when BK-C and I started buying the same clothes, but it has to stop).

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There we are, together, wearing all of our clothes that we brought with us, with our Special Hiking Gear and our Nearly Matching Buffs wrapped around our heads to keep us warm, BK-C with her Special Reflective Coat on so that she’ll be Safer Crossing the Road. For some reason, the Chinese people with us at the time of the photograph found us to be extraordinarily funny.

We visited Hong Kong Park, a very orderly place with asphalt paths, an aviary cleaned four times a day and a botanical house with lots of different plants from around the world and free wifi (as all Government buildings have in Hong Kong); we went on a Feng Shui course and a tea appreciation course provided for free by the Hong Kong tourism board; and we failed to get up to go for the free Tai Chi classes at 8am. All in all, we were very much in favour of the city.

Lens-size comparison club at Hong Kong Aviary.

Lens-size comparison club at Hong Kong Aviary.

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It’s not the size of your lens that counts, it’s what you do with it.

The wonderful thing about travelling, though, is that you can be completely anonymous. It doesn’t matter if you have matching clothes which are probably a bit smelly. Nor does it matter if, after spending 24/7 together for 2 months, you start finishing each other’s sentences or, worse, just stopping half way through a sentence because you don’t need to finish it:

“Have you got the…?”
“Of course.”
“Ah. I was looking…”
“Yes, but I’ve put it in the other one now.”
“How did you…?”
“I moved the bag with the things.”
“So where are the things?”
“In the other bag.”

All of our conversations are now thus. Or, more recently (after we’ve fought over the seat with the better view of the restaurant so we can stare at other people whilst pretending to listen to what the other is saying), because we’ve exhausted all our other topics, we’ve taken to comparing things, people, places, foods (“if you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?” or “what’s the worst place we’ve stayed in?” or “where do you stand on croissants versus pain au chocolat?*”)

So when we met up with my old friend from university, Jenni, who’s now teaching in Hong Kong (“Honkers”), we were relieved that she was too polite to comment on the fact that we were wearing the same clothes, or that there was a faint edge of desperation in our desire to talk to Other People. It was nice not to be anonymous for a night, to have a common history and a shared future.

With our mind on the next stage of our trip, we talked about the differences between Hong Kong and the rest of China. Jenni told us that Hong Kongers consider themselves to be quite different from “mainlanders.” “They don’t like the mainlanders,” she said. “Hong Kongers consider them to lack decorum, like their spitting all the time and doing a poo in the street.” (For the record I have never seen anyone taking a shit in the street in mainland China, though the unique nature of Chinese toilets does mean that I’ve shared that intimate moment a little more closely with some than I would like). “When we set critical writing for the students [at school],” Jenni said, “they always complain about mainlanders.” Since the handover in 1997 Hong Kong has been part of China but has operated under a different economic and political system, which by the terms of the handover must continue until 2047. “One country, two systems,” is the Chinese mantra when it comes to this former British colony. But Hong Kong is quite different to mainland China – there’s no censorship, internet sites aren’t blocked, and capitalism has a freer reign.

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I was thinking about these differences as we took the Hong Kong metro as far north it would go, so that we could cross over into the city of Shenzhen, in mainland China. The border crossing was easy; the other side, though, was dirtier and more bewildering than Hong Kong. At the exit to the metro station (which, mercifully, was also the train station) we were met by a man in an old, moth eaten uniform. “Train ticket,” he said to me as I passed. I stopped to talk to him, momentarily duped by his uniform. “Railway?” He said to me uncertainly, then more enthusiastically when I stopped. “Railway, railway!” At that point, I realised that he had none of the confident, bored authority of an official; he was just a tout, trying to scam unwary tourists into handing over their train tickets, probably so he could charge them an extortionate fee for showing them where to get their train from. In China, if someone looks like they’d rather be somewhere else, then they’re probably the person you need to speak to. If they offer to help, then they’re almost certainly not (although I must add that when we’ve asked someone for help, we’ve always found them to be unfailingly polite, if someone bemused by our attempts to mime what we’re after).

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FROM SHENZHEN WE caught a sleeper train to Guilin. We shared the carriage with three generations – grandmother, daughter, and toddler. They spoke no English, and we spoke no Mandarin, so we did the soon-to-be familiar routine of hellos, smiles and blank looks of incomprehension. Every time I looked at the little boy he hid his face behind his grandmother, and refused to return my smile. His mother tried the usual routine which all parents seem to do in China when they see us, of man-handling their child into a wave and repeating, “hello! Hello! HELLO!” I have never seen a child do this independently.

We disembarked from the train at 5.45am on a Sunday to find Guilin dark and wet. We were faced by the usual barrage of taxi drivers and touts, firmly telling them that no, thank you, we did not want a taxi, despite our body language desperately screaming that there’s nothing we’d like more than to climb into their warm, dry car. Instead we walked 45 minutes from the train station to the hostel, through dark, deserted streets, arguing all the time about whether it was the right way, searching endlessly for a toilet, and being startled occasionally by an electric scooter appearing out of nowhere from behind us (they’re all over China: swift, silent, and – as with the scooters in Vietnam – deadly because they’re ridden as frequently on the pavement as on the road).

It rained for the entire time that we were in Guilin. We sat in the hostel common room, bundled up against the cold, and read our books and surfed the internet. Occasionally we wandered out to get some noodles at a local place where you ordered from a grumpy woman at a cash register by the front entrance, before going inside to present your receipt to two angry ladies who either shouted at the chef or threw together your noodles themselves. We wouldn’t have been able to do this unless a kind lady we met at the hostel had written down for us what we should order. Each time we went there, I pointed at the Chinese characters she’d written in my notebook and held up two fingers. One time, we sat next to a Swiss-Chinese man who wrote down a different dish for us to try. But we preferred the first one, because it cost only 3 yuan (30p).

And, yes, we also went for a ride down the River Li and took lots of pictures of the limestone Karsts which the area is famous for, all eerie looking in the rain and the mist which clung to their peaks.

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“Some people they say to me, will we see anything because it is raining?” our guide said to us on the bus on the way to the river. “I say to them: yes! You are actually very lucky. Because when it is not raining, there is no mist, and it is not beautiful. So congratulations for choosing to come today, when it is raining!” At the end of the trip down the river, we all trooped up to a vantage point and were ordered by our guide to take photos of the view. She held up a 20 Yuan note to show that this landscape was on the back, but the Chinese tourists didn’t need any telling and were already pushing each other out of the way to get the photograph. So we stood in the rain, and watched them, and felt very lucky. And that was Guilin.

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*This last conversational topic was suggested by our good friend Benny Chastney, after hearing of our conversational dearth. Personally, my head says croissant, but my heart says pain au chocolat. If you’d like to send us new conversational topics just fill out the comments box below. Write now, don’t delay – we need your help.

This post was written on the train from Beijing to Shanghai. It was uploaded in Taipei, Taiwan.

NEXT TIME: I visit Yunnan Province in South West China, and discover that there really are parts of China that aren’t cities or farms.