Two countries ago

The Summer Palace in the mist

This blog is now running two countries behind my actual location. I’m in Russia now, writing this in a yurt on Olkhon Island in the middle of Lake Baikal; who knows when and where I’ll post it. Before Olkhon we spent twenty-four hours in Irkutsk, and before that was Mongolia.

Beijing already seems like it was months ago. Over on Chris’s blog you can read about his hellish morning spent trying to get a Mongolian visa, a nightmare I was blissfully unaware of at the time. While Chris was dashing back and forth across Beijing I was asleep at the Red Lantern House, recovering from my horrible flights the day before. I woke up late, had a lovely hot shower and had just started work my last blog post when Chris burst into the room in a dreadful panic, updated me about his visa tribulations and galloped back off again.

We met up a bit later, after his passport was safely handed over to the Mongolian embassy, and went to Tiananmen Square. It was much as I remembered it, although it had a more relaxed feel. This was it for that day. Chris was experiencing an emotional hangover from the stress of the morning and I was still full of cold and recovering from the aforementioned flights; we took the rest of the day off.

The next day we went to the Summer Palace, a place I strongly remembered from my last time in China. It certainly lived up to my memories. In the heavy heat haze the place looked incredibly beautiful as views across the lake appeared and disappeared out of the mist. We spent most of the day walking around the lake, then had to get through the crowded palaces at quite a clip when we realised that it was almost time for the last boat back to central Beijing; in fact we ended up missing the boat, which left at a stupidly early 4pm.

That evening Chris and I went to a street stall for dinner that he had already visited when he first arrived. It was run by a very friendly couple who recognised Chris as ‘the English teacher’ as we approached. We sat down and I was astounded to hear how well Chris could speak Mandarin. We stayed there all evening, drinking tea and gossiping like old friends – or rather, with Chris talking and me nodding and occasionally miming things.

The following morning we got up early to visit the Great Wall; we were booked on to a tour organised by our hostel. I had quite dim memories of the Wall from my last visit – all I can really remember was the surreal experience of being mobbed like a minor rock star by Chinese tourists who had never seen a Westerner before. People would shove their well-wrapped babies at you and take a photo of you holding them. When we were at the Forbidden City this time round people were still trying to take photos of Chris and I, either overtly or by rather unsubtle covert means. But last time on the Great Wall it happened far more often.

We arrived at the Wall and decided to take advantage of the cable car up to the top, which was pretty expensive but left us with more time on the Great Wall itself. Again there was a heavy heat haze that obscured all but the faint silhouette of the Great Wall, up on a ridge above us. It was such a familiar sight it was difficult to realise that I was actually there.

Up at the top, the Wall stretched away endlessly in both directions. We picked one section and headed off up the steep, uneven steps. Chris skipped off ahead, as sure-footed and sprightly as a mountain goat while I panted and trembled along in his wake, feeling terribly unfit and convinced that I was about to lose my footing. After a while I grew a bit more confident and began to take in my surroundings, though it was still difficult to believe I was walking on the Great Wall of China. We had been taken to a slightly more distant section so it wasn’t as crowded as other parts can apparently get, especially towards the beginning. The crowds had begun to build by the time we left.

By the time we had been to the end of the first section and back my legs had stopped trembling out of fear of falling off the wall and started trembling with exhaustion instead. Chris still looked fresh, so I told him to head off on to the next section without me and we arranged to meet back by the toboggan run, which was to be our means of getting back down from the hillside. As soon as he’d bounded out of sight, muttering about ‘testing himself,’ I began to doubt whether he would be back at the time we had arranged and mentally moved our meeting time back by half an hour, accepting that we would be late for lunch.

Meanwhile I went for a far more gentle stroll along the other section of the Wall, taking a good many photos. I found a particularly good vantage spot and sat down, feeling like I was waiting for something other than Chris, though I wasn’t sure what it was. About ten or fifteen minutes later I worked it out – I was waiting for myself to realise that I was on the Great Wall. The realisation came at the same time, and I asked a passing tourist to take a photo of me to mark the moment. After that I sat there for a good while longer, soaking it in.

My estimation of Chris’s lateness proved to be fairly exact. He arrived looking apologetic and soaked in sweat, almost half an hour late. I genuinely didn’t mind as the humid heat had destroyed my appetite for lunch, and he looked really satisfied at having run to the point he had set himself as a target and back. We got the toboggan down the hill – I had been a bit nervous of the idea at first, but it was brilliant fun, although you couldn’t go very fast as there was quite a lot of traffic on the run. There was still plenty of time to have lunch before we got back in the minivan, and we got to know the other people in our group – a lovely English family who lived in France and two other women, one of whom had been teaching in Nepal.

When we got back to Beijing there was still quite a lot of afternoon left, so we went around a Confucian temple – a very atmospheric and serene place, although I am none the wiser about Confucianism for having been round it. Then we went on to dinner in a street that seemed to be Beijing’s answer to Dalston – full of hipsters and good but bloody expensive trendy restaurants. We ate in a brilliant vegetarian place with a great short menu from which it was almost impossible to choose your dinner as everything sounded so good. It was strange, though perhaps not terribly surprising, to find that hipsterdom is uniform in its expression across the globe. Although I liked the restaurant, I didn’t like the weird feeling that I could be in any trendy part of any town around the world.

The next day we went to the Forbidden City, where I was supremely disappointed to discover that the old audioguide tour, voiced by Roger Moore himself, had been replaced by a crap new one narrated by a Chinese woman who didn’t really inject any sense of life or personality into the palace. I was completely knackered and so was Chris, so we walked around in a bit of a daze. I bought a jade bracelet – I’ve decided to get a bracelet from every country I pass through on this trip. The afternoon was taken up with various dull-yet-important bits of preparation for our first Trans-Siberian train. In the evening we went for a late dinner at a Beijing roast duck restaurant where we were both pleased to discover that it wasn’t too different from the duck you get in Chinese restaurants in England, although it was far juicier than any I’ve had at home, and far less expensive.

Thus went my second trip to China, in a blur of sightseeing, eating and bureaucracy. The next morning, at the crack of dawn, we went off to the station to catch our train to Ulaanbaatar. I left the country in a less than stylish manner. My stomach has always reacted to extreme humid heat with sudden bouts of sickness, and this finally hit home at the station, just as we were about to get on the train. While Chris worked out which carriage we were in I threw up several times down the gap between the train and the platform, then got on the train, then jumped straight back off to throw up again right in front of our carriage attendant, who gave me a sympathetic, wary look every time he saw me after that. The last bout made me feel a lot better and I sat back in relief as we pulled out of Beijing, wallowing in the excitement of being on my first Trans-Siberian train.

Ahead lay Mongolia, wild camping, the Naadam festival and days of horse trekking, but that will have to wait for another post.


The Melancholy Gurkha

The rain in Kathmandu

I’ve left hot and rain-soaked Kathmandu for a cooler yet equally humid Beijing. Considering the fuss I had over how to get to China, it should have been no surprise that my actual entry into the country was far from plain sailing. I had two flights – one from Kathmandu to Kunming in China, then on to Beijing – and both were delayed.

I caught a cold just before I left Nepal so I wasn’t feeling brilliant as well – apparently such bugs are common at the beginning of the monsoon. The delay on the first flight was only an hour, but it meant I was cutting it fine with my connection in Kunming especially as I had to grab my backpack from the carousel and check it back in again, and pass through immigration and security. By the time I got to the departures lounge my flight was marked ‘Last Call’ so I took off like a madwoman across to Gate 38. Kunming has a new airport that had only been open a couple of days when I was there. It is very big and impressive-looking from what I saw as I legged it through. However, Gate 38 is located somewhere on one of the outer rings of Saturn, along a great many conveyor belts and through a great many halls from where I started. I eventually got there, panting, sneezing, sweating, only to discover that ‘Last Call’ means something quite different in Kunming Airport. The gate’s waiting area was still full of passengers – they hadn’t even started boarding yet.

We were loaded onto the plane about five minutes before we were due to leave, which in retrospect was a bad sign. We sat there on the tarmac for an hour with no explanation, then eventually the captain told us we were delayed because of bad weather. A while after that they served us dinner, still while we were on the ground, and I realised that we were going to be severely delayed. If we’d been delayed in the airport, able to wander around, it wouldn’t have been nearly as bad, but as it was we spent almost three hours on the plane before it left the ground. We took off at roughly the time we were expected to land in Beijing. The whole time I was on the plane I was sitting next to a young teenage boy with a big digital watch that went BEEP BEEP BEEP every six minutes. I asked him to turn it off but he either couldn’t or wouldn’t. So I had no sleep at all on the flight. The whole business made me very glad that this was my last bit of flying between here and London – it’s overland all the way home.

I arrived at the Red Lantern hostel in Beijing at three in the morning in a filthy temper, exhausted and clobbered with a monsoon cold. Still, it was nice to see – or rather wake up – Chris, my travelling companion for the rest of the trip, even if I did just rant at him for a bit then go to sleep.

So far the rest of the Beijing stay has been a vast improvement on the very start. We’ve been to Tianamen Square, the Summer Palace, the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. The breathtaking sights remain the same as I remembered them from last time I was here, over a decade ago, and yet around them the city has changed enormously. The weird feeling of oppressive hysteria that you get in heavy-handed totalitarian states seems to have lifted here. The endless streams of bell-ringing, rusty bicycles are gone, replaced with more cars, scooters and electric bikes. There are fewer beggars and men squatting aimlessly by the road than I remember, far less rubbish in the streets, and endless building sites everywhere you look.

Beijing has become a fast-paced modern metropolis, but one that still holds surprises. We’re staying in a hutong, a quiet backwater just off a busy, modern road full of bright fashionable shops blasting pop music. The contrast is amazing. Just behind these neon shops peoples are selling fruit and homemade food in the street. We bought half a kilo of lychees for 50p the other day. Yesterday morning we walked past just as a chicken was being dispatched by a salesman who had more live ones awaiting the same fate in a small cage. But the hutongs are cleaner now than I remembered them, the streets covered with tarmac, and there are well-tended public toilets everywhere. I had a bit of reverse culture-shock, coming from the mad squalor of Nepal.

Speaking of which, I’d like to rewind the clock a little and describe a wonderful afternoon I spent in Kathmandu before I left. Bear with me – if I don’t write this up now I probably never will. If this was a TV programme I’d have an advert break here so you could go and get a cup of tea. As it is:

Two days before I left Nepal I went back to Boudhanath, to the enormous stupa I’d seen on my first day with Rahul. I looked out for him around there, but I didn’t see him and couldn’t remember how to get back to the field where his tent was. Instead I wandered around by the stupa for a long while, and went for lunch at a vegetarian cafe within the grounds of a monastery.

After lunch I went back to the stupa. Having been sweltering hot all morning, it suddenly began to rain with great force, sending everyone running for cover. I ducked into the doorway of a shop to take shelter, realising that my brolly was no match for the downpour, and was soon joined by a man I’ll call the melancholy Gurkha.

This man had come to Boudhanath in the midst of a profound existential crisis. Originally from a village near the city of Gurkha in Nepal, he has just been retired out of a Gurkha regiment in the Indian Army and was trying to work out what to do with the rest of his life. Suddenly finding himself stuck in a shop doorway, he decided to unburden himself to his captive audience. His father had also been a Gurkha, but he died when the melancholy one was only a baby. He had brothers and uncles in the army too – he was from the Chhetri caste, the warriors. The melancholy Gurkha was overwhelmed with questions. Should he get married? But the army had been a kind of marriage that he’d only just escaped from, and he wasn’t keen on letting go of his freedom again. Should he go to Afghanistan to work in security, like one of his brothers? But the pay for a Nepali ex-army officer wasn’t great in relation to the risks. Or just live on his modest pension, voluntarily teaching martial arts to the local kids to give them a bit of much-needed discipline? He stood in the doorway shaking his head, staring up at the stupa.

The rain eased off a bit so I invited him for a cup of tea in order to quiz him more about his life. He wouldn’t tell me much about his time in the army, but he did say more about his home village: his house is an eight-hour walk across the hills from the nearest road, which in turn is four hours from Gurkha, the nearest town. His family has a large piece of land where they grow tea, rice, and raise sheep for pashmina wool. In the one small village there are fifteen distinct castes and seven languages spoken. His family is Hindu, but he had become disillusioned with the religion, drawn instead to Christianity, which he saw as simpler. Faith was another matter of great mental struggle for him. He hated the caste system after a cousin his age killed himself by drinking poison when he was prevented from marrying the girl he loved, who was from a low caste. The Gurkha blamed the isolation of the village and lack of available information for the persistence of tradition – the nearest secondary school is a four hour round trip away. He was plucked out of the village and educated in Gurkha, and found that when he returned home many of his contemporaries, who did not go on to secondary school, had developed the same hardened traditional attitudes as the previous generations.

When he said that his family grew tea I told him how much I loved the stuff, so he showed me a place in Kathmandu where I could buy the best quality tea at Nepali prices. The melancholy Gurkha was very insistent that I mustn’t buy tea in any touristy places, where I would not get good quality stuff and would pay through the nose for it. Instead we went to a brilliant tea shop on the New Road. It was like a corner of heaven for me.

As soon as you walked in through the door the clean, outdoorsy scent of tea hit you. The man who ran the shop was an utter obsessive on the subject, to the extent that his main hobby was collecting different kinds of rare green tea leaves. He knew the exact temperature of water to add to each type of leaf, the exact quantity to spoon out per cup and could tell me the provenance and growing conditions of all the teas in his shop. It was like being at a wine tasting – first I was taught how to taste. The tea was just sublime. We were given two little glasses of each type, because the taste evolves in the pot, so the first cup does not tell you everything you should know about the leaf. The three of us – the tea shop owner, the Gurkha and I – sat tasting the teas in contemplative sips as the rain poured down outside. Perfect tea tasting weather, as the shop owner said.

Each tea was subtle, complex and utterly marvellous. The tastes seemed to shimmer and change on the tongue as I tried to identify them. I have never tasted better teas in my life, and I’ve spent quite a bit of time seeking out the good stuff. Needless to say I now have a pack of it to squeeze into my backpack – silver tips, the champagne of tea, and a wonderful rich organic black tea, both from Nepal. The only reason I can think of why Nepali tea isn’t better known around the world is because they were never conquered by the British Empire, which did a great deal of promotional work for Darjeeling and Assam.

After the tea shop I thanked the melancholy Gurkha and stumbled back to my guesthouse, tea-drunk, my mind spinning with new information about harvest times and grades and picking methods. The next day my cold really hit home and I had various errands to run and goodbyes to say, so that afternoon was really my last proper experience in Nepal. Like so much that happened while I was there, it had been something that I could not have anticipated when I left my room that morning. But I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect way to end that leg of the journey.

Thank you, my dear reader(s), for the lovely comments you have been leaving – they are very much appreciated. If you have not yet left a comment or subscribed to this blog, then please feel free to take this as a hint. We’re about to head off on the train to Mongolia tomorrow, so I doubt if I will be updating this again for the next couple of weeks. This means you all have plenty of time to compose your responses. I’ll write more about China when I’m on the train and post it when I can.

Encounters with People and Animals

Boudha stupa

I realise I haven’t really written very much about the things you can see here – temples covered in elaborate carvings, ancient palaces, gold-topped Buddhist stupas and hills covered in forest, flowers and swarms of butterflies. But whenever I sit down to write, the encounters I have had with different people and animals are the things that first spring to mind.

You see a lot of animals here. In fact, a street dog just wandered into this internet cafe a few minutes ago, apparently intent on checking its email. During the day the streets are full of dogs lying fast asleep in attitudes of complete snoozily repose – they look very sweet until you remember that they are exhausted now because they have been up all night barking like maniacs. Some sort of unholy nocturnal gang war is going on between different factions of dogs here – they kick off in the middle of the night and keep it up for hours.

Several dogs have adopted me for a while since I’ve been here. If I sit anywhere for long, I’ll look down to see one or two curled up companionably by my feet. In quieter places they trot along next to you for a while until something distracts them and they wander off. When I first went to Swayambhu, a magnificent hilltop stupa, two of them followed me about for ages and watched, heartbroken, when I eventually made my way down the steep steps away from them. I kept looking back to see them still watching me from the top. When I went back a second time I saw one again and he recognised me, trotting straight up with tail wagging.

The second time I went to Swayambhu wasn’t as good as the first. It was a Saturday, the stupa’s busiest day, which destroyed the peaceful atmosphere although it did allow me to see more of the stupa’s ritual activity. It was also appallingly hot. My bottle of water was stolen by a monkey who took it right from between my feet as I sat on a bench. It dragged it off to a safe distance then expertly unscrewed the cap and knocked the bottle on its side to drink from the ensuing puddle. Swayambhu is overrun with monkeys, lending it the dreadfully disrespectful tourist nickname ‘Monkey Temple’.

I also got into a row there with a seventeen year old trainee monk who wanted me to make a large donation to his monastery’s orphanage, then became very un-Buddhist when I refused. It was difficult to explain to him that an ATM is not a magic lamp of money that all foreigners can draw from without limit whenever they want.

You can see a fair few cows in Kathmandu, but far more in Pokhara, where they wander about the place, having thoughtful conversations with each other in the middle of the road until someone deferentially shoos them out of the way. On my last morning one of them gave me a very loving lick on the elbow with a hot rasping tongue. Ducks, chickens and goats are also a fairly common sight. Yesterday I went to Bhaktapur with an Australian beekeeper, but he was reluctant to pay the extremely steep entry fee to the town so I went round it by myself. I got intoxicatingly lost in the back streets of the town, which is breathtaking – a well-preserved medieval city full of intricate wood carving and beautiful temples. Ducks and chickens milled around in the narrow alleys, as well as the odd goat. One tiny baby goat lost its mother in the middle of a square and stood on knobbly legs shouting out to her for ages until someone took pity and ushered it off in the right direction.

The cow on the left is the one that licked my elbow

The vast majority of the Nepali people I’ve met have been lovely – very friendly and eager to offer advice. I’ve lost count of how many older brothers and sisters and fathers I now have. I keep getting adopted into families when people find out I’m here alone. Last night I went for dinner with one of my adopted families – husband, wife and two children. It was a lovely, quiet, laid-back evening: they really did treat me like one of the family, not like a strange guest from far away. We watched Tom and Jerry cartoons on TV and I read to the kids – a girl and boy – and played silly games with them. They are at an English school & speak English very well, though with a strong posh-Indian accent that sounds very funny on a six or seven year old. We ate dal bhaat sitting on the floor – I copped out and used a spoon, though the proper way to eat it is to scoop it up with your right hand.

Of course a lot of people, like the trainee monk, also see me as a walking cashpoint. Luckily I have been here long enough now that I’m no longer followed everywhere by requests that I buy things – tiger balm, rickshaw rides, woolly hats, Tibetan singing bowls, badly enamelled pendants, hashish, lychees and mangoes. Of that list the only thing I’ve bought are the fruits: small, fragrant, sweet mangoes and slightly disappointing lychees.  The drug dealers are all scrupulously polite: “Excuse me madam? You want high?” Then when you say no they say “very sorry madam” and vanish like cats.

The other travellers here are a mixed bunch. You could divide them roughly into those with something to prove and those without. Those without something to prove – to themselves or to the world – are straightforwardly friendly and interested in everything and everyone, and I’ve had plenty of fascinating chats with people like Steve the beekeeper mentioned above.

Those with something to prove are hard work. There are hi-tech trekkers in expensive North Face clothes who only want to compete about who has done the most hardcore trek – which is lost on me as I haven’t trekked a bit. You also see a lot of extreme hippy types who are too absorbed in finding themselves to pay attention to anything else, or even to return a smile. But my least favourite are those who are obsessed with the difference between a traveller and a tourist, casting themselves very much as the former. They stroll about in self-conscious pseudo-Eastern clothing with expressions of great moral superiority. If they deign to speak to another Westerner (they seem to be in fear of contamination) it is only to prove how much cheaper and more authentic their food, accommodation and choice of transport is. ‘Authentic’ is a very important concept to them – as though the people here really think there’s any significant difference between one type of foreigner and another.

In fact, the most genuine traveller I’ve seen since being here was a sixty-something year old, badly dressed man with a tour group. I saw him in one of the squares in Bhaktapur yesterday. He was wearing criminally bad shorts and swathed in camera cases, cameras, bags and water bottle holders – almost the archetypical ‘tourist’, and certainly someone the Proper Travellers would sneer at.

What made him stand out to me was the rapt, delighted expression on his face. He wandered about the square in childlike joy, head turning this way and that as he tried to see every statue, building, every detail, and absorb it into himself. He was completely, unselfconsciously carried away with the wonder of everything he saw and experienced. I hope I can learn to be a traveller like him.