1. A Sublime Disruption: It Is Not A Small World

    A Sublime Disruption On Vimeo

    a couple of years back

    my life changed

    permanently

    irretrievably

    i hadn’t changed with it

    out of the ashes of those events

    i decided to try and relax

    and to live a little

    the things i chose to do

    while incredible

    and fun

    began to blend into each other

    and i found myself

    doing the same things

    if a little differently

    and my circle of life grew ever smaller

    it was at that point

    i decided to eradicate

    whatever elements of my life

    that remained

    and out of the misfortune

    that i had experienced

    came enough fortune to afford me

    a sublime disruption

    this is not a beautiful film

    it is clumsy

    it is missing many things

    there are times

    things are blurred

    things are out of context

    and its difficult to see

    what it is your looking at

    but it is authentic in it’s confusion

    and honest in its intention

    and it’s all i have to give

    early in this journey

    i read a book

    where the writer laid out that

    no relation of a dream

    can convey the dream sensation

    the commingling of absurdity

    surprise

    and bewilderment

    the notion of being captured by the incredible

    which is the essence of dreams

    it is impossible

    he said

    because we live as we dream

    Alone

    i use this dream

    which i lived

    to try and remember

    how it was for me

    to be in these places

    where

    it was difficult to see

    what it was i was looking at

    where there was far too much

    to understand

    and all i ever discovered

    is how little that i knew

    that i should always remember

    that quite simply

    all i can ever hope to understand

    is myself

    but that

    is no small feat

    it is not a small world

    there is no rhyme

    there is no reason

    there is only me

    and everything i am

    and my relationship

    to everything around me

    this dream i lived

    helps me remember

    that when i feel trapped

    when the limits of my horizon

    root me to one spot

    that i am my own world

    and i am my own dreams

    and my dreams have no horizons

    and i am

    surrounded by more worlds

    and more dreams

    worlds of you

    and your dreams

    and worlds of them

    and their dreams

    and no more than they are

    no more than you are

    it is not a small world

    and that together

    our horizons are infinite

    because ours are not small dreams.

    - Written on my return, January 2012

  2. Nepal: Himalayan Mind Trick

    Surrounded on all sides by the inaccurately named Himalayan foothills, the village of Dunche is barely a strip of dwellings and a hotchpotch of shacks passing as shops, and it was the last large village on my route into the Langtang range. On a walkabout in the dusk after the Nepalese mountain bus experience, myself and my friend were followed and charmed by about a dozen or so small children.  These were the children from all the villages that we would be visiting in the next few days, sent here aged 4 and up to get a primary education in a boarding school. We quickly befriended them, and asked them to take us to see a small stupa on a hill just above the village. In their uncontrollable excitement at being commissioned for a trek they got so hyper that within 2 minutes we had to cancel the whole thing before somebody got hurt. It was only a 10 minute stroll, but in their haste to impress upon us how suitable they were for the task, they started jumping off every ledge they could find and outdoing each other with somersaults off heights 3 times their own. Not wishing to be responsible for a batch of broken necks, and generation of crippled Nepalese mountain children, we decided to buy them a packet of coconut biscuits to share between them. With the prospect of a biscuit, they actually calmed down, formed an orderly queue and politely and gratefully took one each. It was about that point that the United Nations Food Program drove by. You ever started a food queue and the UN drove by giving you evils? I have.

    Turns out they were nice guys and we met them the following morning as we started out on the trek proper. They had been in town to evaluate the situation in the villages we were setting out towards. I thought back to the bus ride and realised that there’s a binary element to these peoples’ lives which I can only assume helps them get on with it. I had realised on the bus that there’s only two outcomes to these situations. You either get there or you don’t. Its that simple. It doesn’t matter how many chickens pecked your feet, how much puke you got in your wallet, how many times you think you nearly died. It only matters whether you get there or not. Some of the people in these hills were facing the prospect of food or no food. Not chicken or fish, gourmet or microwave. Food or no food. More often than not, in spite of being some of the most resourceful people on Earth, with the capacity to absorb more hardship than most of us will ever face in a lifetime, they’ve no real control over it. Their fate’s in the hands of a daredevil bus driver, inept government policy, lumbering bureaucracy or even an accurate evaluation by the UN on their food reserves. This is what it means to have a simple life, and perhaps other than in Tibet, I’d never come across a people that seem to universally carry what I can only describe as a sense of joy.   



    That said, they’re still human and while question’s like “How was your bus ride?” may be redundant (the fact you’re asking means it went well), there’s always a way to complicate things and keep it interesting. One night after getting in from a monsoon rainstorm, I had to leave my coat outside to help it dry out. I went inside to crowd round the furnace to help get warm again. I realised about two hours later that my iPhone was in the inside pocket of my jacket and went to go fetch it. I found my iPhone had vanished and there was a battered old iPod in its place. There was only two teahouses in this village. Everybody who was staying in my teahouse was in the room with me, so they couldn’t have taken it, so the answer lay in the other teahouse. We asked whether our teahouse owner would come over there and translate for us as we asked if anybody had seen it. We were told that they hadn’t spoken to the other teahouse in over 10 years and if they joined us going over there we could all be stabbed. This village was two days walk from the nearest road. Each teahouse has its own set of visitors, mostly herdsmen, extended family, friends of friends and the occasional group of trekkers. But in 10 years they hadn’t spoken to the only other people on that ridge everyday that they were. And if either side put a foot wrong, there was a sword fight. And no, they didn’t want to talk about it.

    After food programmes, near bus plunges, the majesty of the Himalayas, and the challenge of the trek, I was past caring about a lost iPhone. You either have one or you don’t. And from that point, I didn’t. And I was actually strangely happy about that. The others in the teahouse tried to console me and I felt embarrassed they felt the need to. These were some of the most honest and simple people I’d ever met, or could ever hope to. Concerns over something as frivolous as an iPhone seemed absurd. Our porter Gopal was a 49 year old man about my height and nothing but sinew and muscle. He had to carry about 30 kilos for this trek which was basically everybody’s luggage. He does this for a living. As a young man, it wasn’t beyond him to be carrying more than 60kg loads through the streets of Kathmandu or beyond for up to 12 hours a day. For him, trekking over 4600m passes with 30kgs on his back is the easy life he earned by doing that literal back breaking work when he was younger. His friends call him Chicken Tiger. He looks like a chicken, but he’s as strong as a tiger. And he was. The only English he really knew was a phrase he kept repeating from time to time, Mountain Taxi. That’s what he called horses, and they’re his competition. If he could spend his life outdoing horses into his 50’s, I could live without an iPhone.


  3. Nepal: The Road To Enlightenment?

    Nepal won me over literally from the moment I landed. Every single member of the staff at the airport were smiling like hit up junkies from the get go. Till that point in my journey, getting a smile from a immigration officer was as remarkable as the second coming. These guys were joking and tossing forms around with the full contempt they deserved. They knew there was no foreseeable eventuality that anybody would bother to try to find that paperwork and even if they did, there’s no way on Earth they’d find it. You see, Nepal isn’t very orgainised.


    As soon as I left the airport, we didn’t enter into some advanced sliproad system connecting to motorways so that people can use the word zip as a verb. In Nepal, they don’t much care for using zip as a verb. Nobody in Nepal has ever zipped anywhere. You see, when you leave the airport, you just come out onto a street. This street has cows on it. These cows have every right to be there. Why? Because in Nepal cows are holier you and your car, you dummy.


    When you get onto the streets, you just have to know where you’re going because there’s no way of telling what street you’re on because there’s no official street names. They also seem to wind around the place aimlessly meandering to wherever it is they go and God help you if you’re out at night time, street lights are for pansies.  Cars of course drive on whatever side of the road suits them as they have to negotiate things we don’t have a word for in English - they’re technically pot holes, but that would imply superficial damage to the road. In this case, the holes are so big or deep, that the road appears as superficial damage to the hole. Buses are big too. There are people so crammed into them, its as though they were loaded by vacuum. I was almost positive that based on the conditions inside the bus, it was the people on the overcrowded roof that had were travelling first class and the ones on the inside that were riding for free.


    A few days later, I set out on one of these buses to head into the foothills of the Himalaya on a trek. Myself and two others had hired a guide and a porter to get us through the following 8 days in the Nepalese wilderness. I sat at the stop that morning sipping my chai tea, watching and wondering how this chaos formed a working system. Bags being picked up left, right, and centre, with no labels on them and just hoisted onto the roof racks of the buses. People milling about, some selling tickets, some buying tickets, some just walking around shouting, for no discernible reason. Until the buses started leaving nobody was going anywhere, but at the same time nobody was waiting around. Everybody was doing something, even the ones doing nothing. A child dancing by himself, an woman clutching the results of an MRI scan, a man trying to gather his eight member family together in the melee, all pushed on by store owner trying to open the shutters and lay out his his knock off Gola apparel.


    We finally got our seats on the bus and it turns out you do have to pay for seats on the inside. I was stuck in a seat one row from the back. There was no air conditioning and on the right of the aisle a window had just been accidentally kicked in by somebody clambering onto the roof. The rest of the windows, glass long gone, had bars on them. By the time we set off, every seat was full, and I was lucky that the woman next to me didn’t have a couple of live chickens in a plastic bag - another of my party was not so fortunate. What I did have was a chorus line in the back seat behind me who got into full swing about an hour into the journey. In my experience, Asian people don’t seem to travel well on buses, and this was be no exception. As soon as one puked, the sickly sweet aroma filled the stagnant air, and those around her couldn’t help themselves but join in. I only wished I could have puked, just because I felt left out sitting there listening to the wondrous sound of contagious wretching. I should also add at this point that Nepalese buses don’t come with sick bags, and apparently the Nepalese don’t travel with them. Why would you waste a bag when you have a perfectly good floor in front of you?


    I looked out the window and managed to convince myself I was getting some air, and granted I was compared to the those deeper into the bus. Eventually, to relieve one of my party, I did find myself in the aisle seat. It was there I had time to consider the question of where on my body will I not accept the presence of somebody else’s vomit. I decided I could take it pretty much anywhere, even on my wallet, which had fallen out of my pocket and onto the floor. Nobody manged to puke anywhere above my chest though, so the question of how much I can take remains academic.


    Five hours later and we were well and truly up in the mountains. The roads at that point were only as wide as the bus we were travelling in, and this was not a one way street. It was on the other hand, the beginning of monsoon season, and the rains had been heavy of late, though the road was still open. How or why this road was open is beyond me. What criteria was used in making this decision? Basically, the road was open because nobody has said it’s closed. The reason nobody has said it’s closed, is because people are still driving on it. The reason people are still driving on it, is because they can. They can because the landslides haven’t been sufficient to completely wipe it out. But a landslide is still a landslide.

    Driving over wet mud at a 45 degree angle tilted towards nothing but a kilometer of air and the floor of a Himalayan valley is a time when you are quite literally confronted by a sense of your own mortality. Nothing but the grip of the worn tires on the jaded wheels of a second hand, decades old Tata bus, between you and oblivion. Some of the travellers around me, who obviously did this regularly, had put jumpers over their heads to stop them looking out the window. The chickens at this point had stopped clucking and the only sound you could hear over the struggling engine was the intermitant bleeting of the bound goats on the roof and, of course, the occasional dry wretch.


    There were points where the only thing more scary than looking out over the edge of the cliff, was looking forwards at the road ahead, wondering how in jaysus name is this bus going to get over that? But it did, everytime, even over points where the road became a river. Until at one point, in a dense mist, it had to get over two landslides in quick sucession, and finally the engine cranked, the wheels lost their grip and we started sliding backwards down the hill. I was sitting over the back axel and I could see just how close we were to the edge. There was nothing but mist beneath me. Somehow the driver managed to keep it on the road and after the longest 5 seconds of my life, the bus regained its traction and we came to a halt. Immediately, some people on the bus got up and started to the door. At this point, I looked at the people I was travelling with, and I don’t remember many words shared, but seconds later we were off that bus. What I didn’t realise was the other people getting off, were only getting off to help push the bus up the hill.


    I wasn’t pushing that bus anywhere. I was told the village I was trying to get to was somewhere between an hour and four hours walk from where we were. That was good enough for me. So I slung my bag and headed up the road and took my chances walking through a level three maoist insurgency zone (6 being the safest, 1 the most dangerous). I had a bit of banter with the lads on the roof as I headed off, soon realising where the best place to be on a bus is as its about to take a plunge off a cliff. Anyway, I wasn’t there to go on a bus, I was there to go on a trek.

  4. Tibet: What they’re fighting against.

    Tibet has probably got the most clear cut argument for self determination of any people on Earth. Yet, contrary to Richard Gere’s protestations, their independence is a grey area. There are a number of examples in its history, where warring parties within Tibet used foreign muscle - read Mongolian, and hence Chinese - to consolidate their own domestic power. As a trade off, they were considered vassals in the Chinese court, an attitude not easily lost despite the ebb and flow of time. As a result, historically and politically, the case for Tibetan independence is not in fact clear cut. What is assured, is that culturally, Tibet has a completely distinct existence from anything that goes on on the plains and hills below. Despite Chinese arguments to the contrary, Tibet is certainly not China, and therein lies the struggle.

    They are a culture under full assault. With the flight of the Dalai Lama in 1961, they have a leader in absentia. At the summer palace in Lhasa, the room he last slept in is kept as it was, and all the clocks are stopped at the time he left. It’s a powerful and potent symbol, surrounded by his gardens, which when I visited was made all the more poignant as it was playing host to Children’s Day, a Chinese designation which is celebrated by Tibetans and Chinese alike. The crowds here were mostly made up of picnicking Tibetan families, their children dressed up in special costumes for the day, quite literally full of the joys of spring. I couldn’t help but be confronted by their future as much as their past.  

    Tibet before in invasion was no Shangri La. The Dalai Lama was a king who presided over a social structure which would be deemed barbaric by any modern standards. A caste system ensured the serfdom and slavery of many, and condemned generations past, present, but more importantly, thanks to the ideology of reincarnation, future generations to a life of poverty and struggle. I couldn’t help but feel that the Chinese claims to a great liberation had some basis, and that the Dalai Lama got off lightly, as like other leaders in the region, he would inevitably have had to navigate his nation into modernity.

    Today in Tibet though, there is development and the seeds of a liberation from poverty at least are being sown in the form of new roads, railways, bridges and tunnels. I had the pleasure of crawling along at a snails pace behind a truck hauling brand new government supplied mini tractors over a mountain pass as a testament to the Chinese dedication to Tibetan development. This progress obviously benefits the Tibetans, but for the Chinese, its essentially a pacification program and very much in their own interest.

    The majority of development projects are nearly always to the financial gain of Han Chinese newcomers rather than Tibetan companies, and corruption assures some bizarre work practices. It is not uncommon to find entire roads being ripped up to be replaced. This is normally due to the fact that a Chinese company has laid it poorly, precisely because they know that it will have to be replaced - and they will get the new contract to replace it. One of the more incredible sights I saw in Tibet was the second city of Shigatse. Here, the entire city centre was practically deconstructed. Everywhere, in this city sized building site, I saw the Tibetan workers just sitting around drinking chang rather than working. I pointed out to my guide that there seems to be alot of work to do, but nobody seemed to be doing any. Though Tibetan herself, she said that Tibetans were lazy and didn’t want to work. Based on the fact that they were the ones who had dug up the entire city in the first place, I couldn’t quite take her seriously. I was pretty sure the fact that they’d be digging the whole city up again next year probably had something to say for their lack of motivation.

    The development of Tibet is still in its infancy versus the size an inaccessibility of the place, but unless a dramatic collapse occurs, there is no conceivable way for Tibetans to find their way out of the grip of a Chinese future.  In four days of being in driven around Tibet, Chomba, our Tibetan driver only addressed us directly once to point out the extension of the railway headed to Shigatse. Like a Hollywood western, the railway and infrastructure are literally a cast iron symbol of change and in this case, Chinese domination.

    The slightest perception of threat to Chinese power is met with overwhelming force. Western interference here does no good as its Tibetans who bare the brunt of the retaliation. We were told, only three weeks before we arrived, a group of tourists unfurled a free Tibet flag at Mount Everest base camp and manged to get a photo up onto Twitter. As a result, they were arrested and questioned for three hours, before being released and escorted out of Tibet. For me, it meant that I couldn’t walk more than 20 meters into the base camp, lest I attempt to repeat their feat. But as usual, it was the locals that were made to suffer. Their government approved Tibetan tour guide, (A mandatory addition to all tours as you can’t travel independently in Tibet)  was sentenced to 10 years hard labour, and 10 years in jail for an action of which he was entirely ignorant. Their tour company was summarily shut down, and all associated with it banned from working in tourism again. Tourism, being one of the few industries which Tibetans have access to.
       
    But the domination has a more ugly face than even that. In Lhasa, on the main streets, watching over the prostrating pilgrims, five man squads of ready armed riot police patrol at all hours of the day and night, ready to pounce on the least transgression. Thanks to the fact that monks are generally seen to incite unrest, there are police stations in most temples and monasteries, and a presence at all ceremonies. The Tibetan Buddhist religion is basically criminalised and under house arrest. One cannot help but wonder, if that religion is the cornerstone of the Tibetan national identity, how does a young Tibetan child feel when they see it? When they then walk out of that monastery and into a city that is their birthright, and find that its the Han Chinese that prosper here on their streets, and that they face a cruel choice of conform to progress, or associate with a criminalised culture and wither for their past.

    Its probably fitting then that Tibetans celebrate Children’s Day at the Summer Palace. There under the cool shade of the juniper groves, it will always remain a place of comfort and peace, a place where a symbol fled, but another was born. The small victory in the the flight of the Dalai Lama means there’s no police station in the Summer palace, because no matter how powerful you are you can’t suppress something that isn’t there; and it’s because that place constantly reminds you he isn’t there, that he always will be.

  5. Tibet: What they’re fighting for.

    Some people have great trouble with travel to certain parts of the world which are deemed to be authoritarian. Burma is one such place, and Tibet is another. Two unimpeachable leaders of great integrity come from both those places. One is Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, the other of course is the Dalai Lama. Both actively encourage people to visit their respective countries, because they understand how powerful it is that people experience something rather than read about it in a newspaper, or have it shoved down their throat by Richard Gere.

    In my experience, Richard Gere helped me discover that yes there was a place called Tibet and yes, something bad was happening there. But it also made me think it was probably for the best, because if the guy from Pretty Woman doesn’t like it then it must be brilliant. Besides any friend of his was nobody I wanted to know, and so the Dalai Lama was dismissed as a kook, and somebody really needed to have a word with his optician. And so it was, my 13 year old self put Tibet in a box marked “Shit I never need to think about again”, until of course, I arrived in Lhasa. Yes, in my case, it allowed me to see what they are fighting against, but more importantly, what they are fighting for.

    Nothing in the world prepares you to go to a place like Tibet. A kingdom on top of the world, it’s almost a fairytale, it’s existence somehow impossible, borderline make believe. Being there was literally overwhelming, and when you get out of the cities and beyond the areas of control, its like traveling to a place untouched by time. Getting around was another story.

    We were driven through the alpine desert in a 4x4, by a Tibetan maniac called Chomba, who seemed to live on pickled chicken’s feet and cans of Thai Red Bull. He spent most of his time driving with his knees as he ate and talked on the phone at the same time. About what I don’t know, but making other people look like a dope compared to him, was pretty much his whole ethos. Being Tibet, much of this time was spent driving around hairpin mountain roads. Half of that time was spent overtaking other trucks and cars on those roads. A quarter of that time was spent in the hard shoulder of the opposite side of the road overtaking cars that were already overtaking other cars. On one occasion, while Chomba did a double over take, the car behind us over took on the inside leaving 4 cars pelting it down a half paved mountain road designed for two way traffic.

    Chomba seemed to believe that if he honked his horn aggressively enough, it would allow him to drive through solid matter, as this is the only way I can explain a man blindly overtaking a truck on a hairpin bend. Flying in the face of the laws of physics is not without precedence in Tibetan history. During the British Younghusband expedition, the Lamas distributed amulets to the Tibetan warriors to defend them from the British guns. They died in their droves, and the sales of Lama amulets never quite recovered. Whilst I’m sure Chomba didn’t believe in a Lama spell, drinking that much extra strength Red Bull would make anybody feel invincible.

    Perhaps it was Chomba’s driving or my own perception of the Tibetan myth, but I find it impossible to try and express the affect of seeing rural Tibetan villages had on me. Here was a place that people dressed as they would have for centuries, not because they were trying to get your attention or money, but simply because that’s how they dressed. Its not as though they don’t have television, or they don’t know how the world lives outside Tibet. Its simply as though it doesn’t concern them. They aren’t told to dress that way by dictate or even poverty - some of their dress is actually quite intricate, and modern dress would be much cheaper by comparison. Tibetan culture just seems effortless, they exude that concept in their very presence.  There’s a strength in spirit that goes beyond words and is practically tangible. They have poise, presence and an unflappability - an utterly peaceful demeanor.

    They are a people perfectly adept to their environment.The yak is used to plough, its used for food, they use their excrement to fuel fires, while their fur is used for wool to make clothes. In many cases, the environment completely informs their culture. From time to time along the landscape you see altars on hilltops with vultures hovering above. Those are places for sky burials. Tibetans do not bury their dead, because during much of the year, and in many places the ground is too hard to dig. They do not burn their dead, because they do not have wood and the air is too thin to burn hot enough. They dismember the dead and feed them to the vultures, and this is a sky burial.

    In that sense, they are beyond any domination or suppression because they have a way of life and being that is completely outside of modernity and until you literally force them out of it, that can’t change. You can’t take anything away from them, because what they have is so little. Their destiny is in their own hands, and like all people they’ll have to choose sooner or later between a culture unchanged, or a life of modern comfort. The conflict of course, is that modern comfort leaves them dependent on Chinese dominance.
     
    Seeing Tibet by 4x4 is pretty much the only option open to travellers today, and yes it’s less than ideal. But I passed through that world, and even from the car, I couldn’t help but feel captivated by it. Because you are exposed to so little of the average Tibetans lives, what you are exposed to becomes so precious. While stopped by a herd of yak blocking up a small village, I watched an elderly couple sitting on their step outside their impeccable Tibetan home, lovingly marveling at their grandchild and I felt connected to something which was at once alien and familiar. There’s a sense of peace here I can’t say I’ve ever felt anywhere else, and this is in spite of the politics, and fact I was being driven around by a total maniac, who at one point was so determined to beat another driver to Everest, that he drove off the road and down a Himalayan hillside at a 70 degree angle to beat him to the bottom.

    Tibet is a cynicism killer, and for me that’s tantamount to a full emotional short circuit. I was there for one reason and one reason only and that was to see Mount Everest, but seeing that world outside my window made it all the more incredible. For me, Everest is one of the few things on Earth you can’t second guess and talk down. It is simply the highest point of land on Earth, and for a cynic like me, that makes it practically a religious experience. Passing through Tibet and then being confronted by Everest was probably the most profound experience of my life. And yes, I cannot help but feel changed by it. No I didn’t climb it, but I look at it not as what I didn’t do, but what I did. I lay claim to be the first person ever to make it from The Hill Pub to Everest overland from Helsinki. And nobody can take that away from me. Not China. Not nobody.

  6. Tibet: Arriving Late In Shangri La.

    A city on the roof of the world, capital of one of the most revered cultures on Earth, Lhasa is not just legendary, it’s practically mythical. The train that took me there is almost more so. People I met before booking my ticket all had heard rumours about the train, none of them good. Apparently, with the altitudes involved, the train, similar to an airliner, is pressurised - which meant to my mind, every time you opened the window to deal with toilet stank you’d be sucked out along with your deposit and into a pulp of feces infused flesh and bone. I was also told that once you hit the Tibetan plateau people end up as breathless puking messes weeping for mercy like a deleted scene from Outbreak as they all drop like flies with Acute Mountain Sickness. I can say some did, but thanks to the fact they pump extra oxygen into the carriages, I barely noticed it. As for the cabin being pressurised, it definitely wasn’t, but I left the windows closed all the same. I want my funeral to have an open coffin, and I can’t have my nearest and dearest having to look at me rendered as a stinking pile of pulp with a photo of me smiling like an idiot in front of it. Them scratching their heads wondering if it’s some kind of sick joke. My funeral is not a joke. It’s very serious.

    What else was legendary was my travel mate’s four birth sleeping compartment which thanks to having two screaming kids, their mother and grandmother, and a half dead cancer patient made it a 6 person squeeze. Trying to figure out why a person as sick as that was travelling alone on a 44 hour train ride to Tibet was one thing, but with the constant mayhem from the kids, and the fact that to them the whole world was an open toilet, he had by far and away two nights of the worst sleeping circumstances I’ve ever heard of. Except of course, those unfortunates in the unreserved hard seater carriage who, if they didn’t have a seat, spent the entire 44 hours being stepped over and sleeping in the aisle - which of course is the first place a parent directs their kids to piss, and the number one direction for everyone to spit.

    I, on the other hand, shared a soft sleeper with an elderly French gentleman and his much younger Vietnamese wife whose French was so bad even I could understand it. I knew they were good roommates to have though, and that was proven on the first night when I attempted to sleep with my wallet under my pillow for security. At some point, unbeknownst to me, it fell out of my top bunk, and it fell into Miss Saigon’s bunk below, but it was handed back untouched. On the second night I woke up gasping after a dream where I was drowning. The train was at nearly 5000 metres and this was my body’s way of waking me up to tell me I could barely breathe. I gradually got my head together and realised it was just the thin air when I accidentally knocked my iPhone over the edge and hit the sleeping Miss Saigon square in the face. Again, not so much as a whimper as she handed it straight back. She was as legendary as the train ride itself, which is more than I can say for her husband who by that stage was wheezing so bad I was gonna just smother him to save us all the anguish of hearing him die at his own pace - which was annoyingly slow.

    I cannot tell you how beautiful this train ride is. I can tell you at one point, before I even entered Tibet, just past the city of Xining on a branch of the Silk Road, I could see nomadic herders on horseback galloping past the lake of Qinghai Hu. In the background their herds of yak and sheep wandered past inexplicably huge sweeping sand dunes. Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the train, a lightening storm rolled over snow capped peaks in the distance. I’d say it was like something out of a film, but I never saw this in a film, and if it was in a film, it’d be really cheesy and totally unrealistic. As for the ride up to the Tibetan plateau itself, there are no words. Except maybe snow, tundra, jagged peaks, melt-water rivers, wild antelope, wild yak, tame yaks, marmots, foxes, inclines, declines, railway, peasants and half the Red Army.

                                                 

    In spite of being in one of nature’s great wildernesses, I was travelling through one of history’s great fault lines. Along the track at regular intervals, I began to spot figures standing ominously and saluting at the train. They were wearing black ankle length leather jackets, large sun hats, and full face reflective visors. They were there to protect the track from vandals, and the getup was to protect them from the intensity of the Tibetan sun. Based on their outfits, I’m pretty sure if they weren’t there, they’d be perpetrating a high school massacre somewhere in the Dakotas.

    But the military presence was much heavier than even I expected. On the road parallel to the track, we rolled past hundreds of military transport trucks carrying thousands of troops headed for Lhasa to start a six week clampdown in the run up to the official Chinese celebrations of the Great Liberation of Tibet.

    The sickly feeling of seeing that only grew on arriving in the Lhasa valley. In the gaze of the majestic Potola Palace at the eastern end of the valley, the wilderness of the past day or so mutated almost instantly into luxury apartment blocks, identikit Lexus and Volkswagon showrooms, while the train pulled into a gleaming new train station, an imposing symbol of permanence and the ideals of a Chinese sponsored progress. These newly constructed suburbs were built to house the Han Chinese who are moving here with increased, state sponsored frequency. A miracle of engineering and a pride of modern China, the train nearly always arrives on time. Looking to find something that was no longer there, it was me who’d arrived late.

  7. China: Meeting new people is fun! [Nightmare edit]

    Obviously, meeting people and sharing stories out on the road, is one of the most rewarding elements of travel. Its these kinds of meetings that have changed my trip, and mostly for the better, but they don’t always work out that way. There’s some types of people you just need to keep a wide berth of in Chinese hostels, and those people are generally middle aged men travelling alone. Unfortunately, all they want to do is talk to you, and to them, talking is basically just bragging. I was once approached by an Englishman, who, when I told him I was Irish, replied that in his eyes I was basically English. I took some time to explain to him how and why he was wrong and he was genuinely shocked to hear of Ireland’s independence. In his attempt to change the subject he launched into tales of his encounters with the young prostitutes of South East Asia, to me, a perfect stranger. At that point it became clear, this was the only reason he was talking to me at all. After me not saying a word in response, he filled the silence by giving a full run through on the physical attributes of a Chinese girl across the room, which he bookended with that fact that things were easier for him in other parts of Asia, but “anything can happen here”, he assured himself.

    Though love tourists aren’t just old, lost and decrepit, they are all mentally disconnected in some way. I met a young 22 year old Englishman who made his wife walk up the aisle to a song describing her, amongst other things, as a high class prostitute in front of 500 of her non English speaking Chinese family, just because he thought it’d be funny. His friend was a 21 year old Anglo Frenchman who wore a guitar on his back and spoke with the accent of a James Bond villain. He told me of his true love who he’d met in China and who was now in her home town begging to be allowed to marry him. I pretended not to notice the young looking and slightly under-dressed girl sitting to his left, his “friend”, there to spend an enchanting evening with him in a hostel bar, ranting at me. He told me he came to China three years ago and had trained as a Shaolin monk before becoming a wine merchant to the nouveau riche, where he sat and watched them mix coke into their $20,000 Chablis.

    Unfortunately though, he’d fallen foul of some local Triads of late, which meant he now had to stay here at this tiki themed Chinese hostel rather than his plush apartment in the east of the city, where of course he kept some of the finest sports cars money can buy. But, he told me, what was most important about him was that he was an endless stream of consciousness, and demanded to know who I was - not my name - but who was I? I should have told him all I knew was I wasn’t a mental case living in a hostel hanging out with prostitutes. Instead, I just got pissed off that I was sitting there talking to one. So there and then, to the sound of his hooker’s snoring, accentuated by the fact that she had fallen asleep at the table with her head in her arms, I decided I’d had quite enough of meeting people in Chinese hostels. 

  8. China: Meeting new people is fun! [YAY Edit]

    Before I left on my journey, I was quite concerned about travelling alone. All the wiseacres that I know were falling over themselves to assure me I’d meet the most aaaammmmaaaazzzzing people. China was the first real test of this as it was the first time I needed to rely on the backpacker community to get around, compare notes, swap tips and to just generally tend to my sanity.

    When I was in Beijing on my first stop in China I came across a pretty extraordinary guy. Well, my other friends came across him as he constantly harassed them to find out who I was, and when I wasn’t with them, where I was. He was a Chinese guy from Hong Kong. At first, he was too scared to actually talk to me, but he’d sit in the eye-line of the people I was talking to and just stare at me, and over time this developed as far as him sitting in the background, suggestively eating a banana. Of course, this meant I was totally paranoid for the week I was in that hostel, as nobody I spoke to could keep a straight face, no matter what I was saying. Eventually when he did start to talk to me, the first thing he told me was that I was “Sooor Crute” in his accent which was the exactly the same as a westerner doing a piss take Chinese accent. It was like being stalked by Charlie Chan.

    On a nice trip out to a top Beijing nightclub, I managed to meet another European traveller who was off his chops on whatever whizz they fork into themselves on the Chinese club scene. I say met, but in actual fact, we never shared a word, but our connection was profound. Like all great love stories, it started with me walking across the dance floor, him spotting me, and then trying to grab my glasses. As I wanted to keep my glasses, I tried to explain to him that he could not have them. Overwhelmed by the beauty of the moment, and in recognition of our incredible chemistry, he reeled back and headbutted me twice, right in the mouth. I just remember at that point becoming particularly aware that an electro remix of Justin Beiber was blaring into my ears, so I decided to retreat to the opposite side of the room with blood streaming from my mouth and nose, to re-straighten my front teeth, in marginal peace, with half the dance floor watching.

    It was the first time in my life that the feeling of hearing Justin Beiber, actually matched how I looked on the outside. I have heard of people who have crippling symptoms of a disease that nobody can diagnose. When they finally get diagnosed, in spite of being told they are going to die, they actually feel relief rather than sadness, because finally somebody recognises their disease. To me, Justin Beiber has always felt like having my teeth knocked in, and finally, people could see what my suffering looked like.
      
    I wouldn’t even mind, but the fact this all happened in spite of me being there with not one, but three hardy Glaswegians who saw nothing, was probably the most shocking fact of all. In fairness though, there’s nobody better to have at your side after a random headbutt attack than a Glaswegian. Firstly, he instantly and calmly tried to find out who did it so he could reek horrible revenge on my behalf. And secondly, on not being able to identify my assailant, he made sure my panicking taxi driver didn’t take me to the hospital, and he then joined me for a beer back at the hotel to tell me about how many times he’d lost teeth in fights and how some of those fights were with the police. I think the thrust of his advice was that once your Dad doesn’t find out, everything would be OK. This guy was the wisest 20 year old I think I ever met.    

    In the reception the following day, with my mouth looking like a smashed apple, my Chinese admirer looked very concerned. I told him what had happened, he looked at me quizzically and in his quaint way of speaking, suggested maybe I should have gone to the “homosexual night club”. Maybe Charlie Chan Jr was right, but I had a feeling there and then, that was something I would never, ever know. If they play Justin Beiber on repeat in the straight clubs, then what the hell went on in the gay ones? The only real downside of the whole sorry affair was that because I couldn’t spit worth a curse, I wasn’t able to go eat scorpions, snakes and silkworms that night. Number one rule of eating at a Chinese night market is don’t put anything in your mouth that you can’t get out as fast as you put in.

    But I did meet some extraordinary people too. I met a 23 year old American missionary with muscular dystrophy who was told by doctors he only had 3 years before he completely lost the ability to walk, and he decided to risk jail in China to save souls with his remaining years of able life. While I’m not comfortable with the notion of missionaries in general, I could not help but be moved by his dedication and courage. Course that didn’t stop me from going to great lengths to explain to him the Earth was older than 4000 years and that evolution was an observable fact. I gave up shortly after having him explain to me how Noah managed to control the dinosaurs on the ark. Which he did, in great detail.
         
    And from extraordinary people, I learned extraordinary things. I met an American woman working for the UN in Afghanistan who went some way to explaining the challenges they face there, including the Taliban resurgence, the impossibility of the task at hand, and most importantly the pederast tradition of the Batchi boy, which dates back to the time of Alexander the Great. Here rich men buy young boys from poor tribes to dress them up as women and perform special dances before presumably being buggered within an inch of their lives. She imparted that quite a few of the top Afghans have unusual performance spaces built into their multimillion dollar compounds built with money stolen from foreign aid, which I’m sure also buys performers for those spaces. I have heard of the unintended consequences of war, but this brought a whole new meaning to collateral damage.

  9. China: Getting round is hard to do.

    I’ve taken some time out from this because China broke my mind. Even before I left on my trip, I described it as visiting Mars. I had no context for the place. No colonial touchstones, or some sort of arch narrative that linked me to the place, albeit abstractly. China is its own planet and when I arrived and removed my space helmet, my mind decompressed.

    Trying to get your head around the place without being able to read the language and nothing more than Hello and Thank You to assist you in every situation from casual greetings to a panda bear attack, is quite a daunting prospect. You’re reduced to a childlike state where you have to find somebody who speaks your language, to write a note in their language, so you can show it to the waiter whenever you need to go to the toilet.

    And it’s a thin line between you and a life of Chinese destitution. Confidently I set out on my way to Xi’an from Beijing, braving the train system independently for the first time. I was armed with my destination in Chinese characters - not handwritten, which can lead to confusion - but printed in nice clean characters right there in my Lonely Planet. I can assure you now, the Lonely Planet is only lonely because they consistently print out of date information in their books. They’d make alot more friends if they were helpful more than 50% of the time. I’d much rather buy a book from Popular Planet. A guide that gets places for knowing what its taking about, rather than just being talked about. (And as for the Rough Guide? Why would you call your guide book after a concept that has uncertainty built into the very name? I’m starting a guide called The Maybe, Maybe Not Guide to Not Really Sure) If it wasn’t for the fact that I managed to find a Internet kiosk by pure luck near where the taxi driver abandoned me, I’d still be living homeless on the streets of Xi’an.

    And when I didn’t have the book or a note to help ruin my chances of getting where I wanted, I just had to get creative. Once, in a rush to catch a train in near 40 degrees with my ridiculous amount of luggage on my back, front and sides, I struggled to find a taxi. On finally clambering into one, like a drunken Michelin man, I was utterly exhausted but relieved, but then realised the challenge had only begun, as I had to then relate the notion of a train station to the driver in the hope that he’d take me there. In my exasperation from the conditions, I simply turned to him and hooted, twice, motioning as though I was the a very proud driver of a steam engine about to head on mightily to Chipping Thudbury. His blank expression never changed as he turned his head and started to drive before turning back to me, flapping his arms, and repeating the same sound I’d made to him. I could only assume he was taking me to an owl farm, grimaced and quickly changed tact.

    And just when you think you know what you’re doing, China reminds you even it doesn’t know what its doing. Once when I was up at daybreak to catch a flight, I sat in the back of the taxi and had a proper moment of peace as the sunlight pierced through the misty skies and cast a dim pink pall over the concrete jungle. I watched a wizened proud grandfather walk steps ahead of a distracted child on their way to start the school day, while in the background, the elderly residents of the surrounds did Tai Chi in the People’s Park. It was so alien to the world that I’d generally experienced in those streets; serenity with a vested tension, a knowledge of the frenetism to follow in the cut and thrust of a Chinese business day. As I breathed in and found a sense of something special, “Maybe”, I thought to myself, “this is China?”.

    Only moments later at the airport, my bliss was punctured on an stupidly large escalator when I heard a commotion. I looked up to see about 25 people struggling to avoid a crush that had started around the top. There’s one thing about the Chinese generally and that’s that they don’t like to be last in a queue, so bunching is a pretty regular occurrence. What else is a regular occurrence is some apparatchik when designing the airport put n shaped barriers at the top and bottom to stop would be wrong doers taking a trolley on the escalator. It was successful in that regard, but it also means that unless you’re a ninja or a circus performer, odds are you’ll fail to get round it if you’re in a bunch.

    Somebody - probably an old person practising their tai chi - had failed to negotiate the n barrier and had fallen over. With nowhere to go for the bunch of twits behind him, falling down soon caught on, and they and their jumble of luggage were now blocking the way. Unfortunately, there was no way round it and no shortage of twits on this one way conveyor belt of twitty crush death, so panic quickly ensued. Eventually, a member of the airport staff took the initiative and started shouting down at the rest of us to turn around and head back down the upward moving escalator. This of course only started another crush, this time at the bottom as people, still in bunches, started trying to run down an up escalator with their oversized knock off luxury luggage.  As I stood walking on the spot on the escalator to avoid death on either end, I began to think “this is how it happens”. I realised that it was one of those faceless, avoidable tragedies you read about, sigh and roll your eyes at in the Metro. I was going to die with dozens of others in the Chengdu Escalator mishap, and every go-nowhere goof ball on a bus and train from Morden to Monkstown was just gonna think, “Serves him right for going to China in the first place. What did he think was going to happen?”

    Meanwhile, the only emergency break for the escalator was at the bottom, and as the staff in that area hadn’t yet got a sufficiently large, ever growing pile of screaming Chinese people mangled into their luggage, panicking on the floor,  things were moving pretty slowly. Whether the machine actually has an inbuilt pity function or was manually stopped was unclear but disaster was somehow averted. As it all returned to normal, and I made it to the top, the crowd of onlookers had begun to dissipate, when above the din and aimed at me, I heard a Chinese woman say, “This is China.” That lady is right.

  10. I was going to write something about cycling the city walls at Xi’an, the Terracotta warriors, the Giant Buddha at Leshan, climbing Mount Emei, the in’s and out’s of Chinese train travel, outrageous urbanisation, the Chengdu Funk or my ongoing struggle with China on the whole. Instead, I put together some panda footage, which probably says more than I ever could about China. Better rez when I’m near a decent connection… Cut on iPhone, rough as always. Enjoy.