I made a short stop at Bellabeg, to the west of Aberdeen, and with eager anticipation, bought a “locally sourced” Scotch Egg. I thought, that’ll do me. I chatted with the affable English shopkeeper, who waxed lyrical about his local Scotch Eggs. But then he ruined the moment by telling me that his Alford-based local butcher had sent him a Scotch Egg with a Cadbury’s Creme Egg inside. “FFS” is the politest response to that!
I crossed Lecht, did not stop in Tomintoul, and went on through Nethy Bridge, and onto the long, long pull through the central Highlands to Spean Bridge. Lovely motoring; the weather was kind, not a cloud in the sky. I refueled opposite the Ben Nevis Distillery, with the snow-spattered majesty of Nevis behind, against the blue sky of late afternoon. I say late afternoon: it was 8.30pm. At this latitude, in late May, it doesn’t get dark until almost midnight.
I camped wild not far from the shore of Loch Eilt. Apart from midges, which were, to be honest, a bit out of order, it was all I could have wished for. Dry, quiet, beautiful scenery. A lovely gloaming. At one point, a train clattered along the Mallaig Extension, which ran along the other side of the Loch. As soon as my tent was up, I lit a fire, and also got my trusty 35 year old Trangia stove going. Camping, whether wild or no, should not mean roughing it. I had Fillet steak, mushrooms, courgettes and fried potatoes, with tomato and avacado. A bottle of Badger beer to wash away the dust of the road, and a bottle of Malbec with dinner. I sat outside until 11.30pm and even then it wasn’t fully dark. It was a moonlit night. As I prepared for bed, I was casting a shadow in the silent, silvery moonlight.
In the morning, the midges were biting. I flung the tent into the back of the car, and made a swift, itchy escape. I arrived in Mallaig before 8am, and had a full cooked breakfast in the Seaman’s Mission, served by a cheery Polish lady. The Mission here in Mallaig has a remarkable second-hand bookshop. I picked up a little book of photographs of Derbyshire railways (I was brought up in Derby) and Jeremy Bowen’s account of the Six-Day War of 1967.
Later, I sat with coffee as the terrace of the Tea Garden Café. A very expensive latte at £3.40, but worth it to be able to sit outside in this glorious sunshine. Sitting watching the people go by, it was interesting to be able to spot the tourists. Generally older, thinner, English, German. And the songbirds here are tame.
MacBrayne’s ferry “Loch Nevis” sailed at 12.30p.m. Crossing to Rum and Canna, my fellow passengers were young families on holiday, older and younger sea-canoeists, mountaineers, and quite a few hard-drinking holidaymakers.
On the first evening, we took a stroll and walked into a First Response drama. A lady hillwalker had fallen ill, and advice was sought from the mainland. Modern mobile telephony can make these outlying islands much less remote and difficult to access than they formerly were.
The Air Ambulance was dispatched from Inverness. From far-off Inverness, realistically almost a day’s journey from here by ferry and road, in 45 minutes. The chopper swooped in and took the poorly lady off to hospital. It later transpired that she had a brain aneurysm. Whilst this drama was unfolding, we got talking with a gentleman I’d seen on the ferry – one of the hard-drinking holidaymakers. Turned out my sister knew him; a local electrician who had helped build the Rum Bunkhouse. A very friendly and helpful fellow with a strong Skye accent.
Next day, by Jeep over mountain roads to a beautiful and deserted beach, for a picnic. Pale sand, blue sky, hot sunshine. In the distance, the Black Cuillin of Skye could be seen. The sea listlessly gathered itself into miniscule ripples. Even in a full wetsuit, the water temperature could best be described as “Baltic”.
Someone noted of “island life” here, that there was not a glimpse of reality in any direction. Just this morning for a run out through the woods on the south side of the bay. There, for all to see, is a hidden village. Here is a complete village, concealed from view by trees planted some time during the 1950’s. The village is deserted, I’m thinking, since the Highland Clearances. People once lived here: hidden in the woods, are derelict houses, even a complete street facing the shore. Long overgrown, they are a testimony to an almost unwritten history of sadness and pain.
Rum was never a wilderness, even if it is a “national nature reserve”. As someone with strong ideological views myself, the hidden village acts as a reminder how far from reality, how far from the needs of real people, you can drift when you have the means to put your ideas before reality.
On the way back from visiting the woods, I passed the new wooden bunkhouse. A man was sat outside at the morning sunshine. He was nursing a beer. It was not yet 7.30a.m. We finish where we started: not a glimpse of reality in any direction.
A ride on a mountain bike, over a mountain pass, through rocky countryside oddly reminiscent of the macabre fiction of H.P Lovecraft.
Everything seems to be arid and brown, yet this is no desert – there’s plenty of water around. I went to a place called Harris, to see the “mausoleum” built by the previous owners of the island.
Deer appear everywhere, even in the garden, and particularly at night and in the early morning. These are huge creatures, not at all like the tiny Muntjac and Roe deer seen in Surrey. In recent years, the deer fence surrounding the village of Kinloch has fallen into disrepair. It is a big deal, and would be expensive to repair. It is pointless to keep any kind of garden here. Any growing fruit or veg they will consume. Once resplendent bluebell woods have been eaten up. On the plus side, there are no foxes on Rum: the chickens roam free. They can safely go where they please. It makes for tasty egg yolks – if you can find where they were laid.
Arriving at Guangxhou South Railway Station, I am quite literally stupified by the size of the place. It is a Terminal 5 amongst railway stations. It is hardly distinguishable inside from a large international airport. It is over three floors – like an airport, departures and arrivals are on separate floors.
This is a through station, not a terminal. Coming in by taxi, I counted at least 12 separate tracks coming out from under the canopy, all grey concrete on stilts. The floor is granodiorite tiles; the passengers are everywhere. There are shops, booths, queues, scanners. It does not smell of decay and weak air-conditioning, as do so many large municipal buildings in hot climates.
It is to my eye, no St Pancras: it is not built to last, and I suspect that, rather like Terminal 5, it may look distinctly jaded by 2050.
All must go through luggage scanners merely to get into the building. This is common enough at municipal buildings in China and increasingly so in the West. That said, the people doing the scanning and body pat-down work showed little interest – the scanning process is not strict. Once inside, you then find what train you are on, and go through the ticket check to go “trainside” as it were. Chinese high speed train tickets are not usable by any bearer, as train tickets are in the UK and elsewhere in the world – they are specific to you, as well as to a given seat in a given carriage. Indeed. ours had our passport numbers on them in addition to our names. But once through the ticket check, no-one was interested in our ID. Once “trainside” and upstairs, it just felt like the airside of an big international airport. And the other similarity is, access to the platform is tightly controlled – no trainspotters welcome here. We weren’t allowed onto the platform until only a few minutes before departure, The train had already swept in.
The station is only a few years old. It speaks of tremendous economic growth, this outpouring of concrete: Bill Bryson once wrote something to the effect that half of all buildings in the United States had been built since 1980, and fully 90% of all American buildings, since 1945. A similar thing is happening in China. Natalie Merchant sings, in her song “Motherland”
Where in hell can you go Far from the things that you know Far from the sprawl of concrete That keeps crawling its way About 1,000 miles a day?
It is applicable here in China, at this time of expansion, as viaducts arc across whole cities, as 150mph bullet trains flash through tunnels so expensive as to defy understanding. How do they do it? The growth of high speed rail in China today is rather like the development of the Interstate network in the USA of Eisenhower’s time. And just as the Interstate highways changed America beyond recognition, high speed rail is changing China. The old China is still visible, but it is disappearing. Go there and see it while it still exists. The old ladies brushing the street with straw brooms. The scooter riders with no helmet but an umbrella. The little stalls selling foodstuffs. The little motorcycles converted into vans, burdened under seemingly impossible loads.
Off we go and there are almost continuous announcements in Mandarin. Once through the suburbs, the train perceptibly speeds up and shoots along at 150 mph. The acceleration is noticeable, and audible, an indistinct and distant hum rather like the sound of the original Starship Enterprise at Warp Factor 10.
We plunge through misty green forests and mountains, brown rivers, farms and rice paddies. There are endless tunnels. Some long, some short. Billions of dollars have gone into building this railway – and it is only one of many.
We arrived at Guilin Bey (North) Railway Station at 12,30pm on a hot and humid afternoon. We got off the bullet train, along with myriad Chinese, and followed them down the stairs into the underpass. Chattering, walking, kids laughing, suitcases on wheels rumbling along. The Chinese experience is to be surrounded by people.
To Liuzhou and on to Zhiangziajie
Onwards: another city, another railway station. This one is different; older, more prosaic. The first two, at Guangxhou and at Guilin North, were grandiose to the point of being ridiculous. This one is more intimate, more obviously a railway station rather than a palace, and very much older, dating from the 1970’s or even older.
In the huge waiting room (a departure lounge really) we’re enjoying massage chairs at Y4 (about 40p) for 10 minutes. I say “enjoying”. My wife and daughter think they are great, and had two goes each. I found the massage a bit heavy handed.
By bullet train from Guilin to a city called Liuzhou, from whence we will take sleeper train to another city called Zhiangziajie. So many cities I have never heard of. Here is a train with a front like an aircraft, like a TGV, based in fact on a Japanese Shinkansen train, and the “dwell time” at this station (the time spent stationary in the platform) has been over five minutes. That said, the train did arrive early. As a commuter in the Home Counties, I’m accustomed to “dwell times” of less than a minute – in and out, quick quick quick…
Liuzhou is a city of over three million people. I’d never heard of it, and it is just one of hundreds of cities of this size in China. Here is the railway station:
We walked a little away from the station, having to run some light interference from taxi drivers, in order to be far enough away from the station to find somewhere to hail a “Didi” (the Chinese equivalent of Uber) where it might safely and legally stop. We took the taxi to a second railway station, called Liujiang, located in in an area of the city called Labao – a good 40 minutes by taxi. The driver was an affable fellow; himself a Chinese teacher, and he took our photo when he dropped us off. The second station, whence we arrived at dusk, was something of a disappointment. More in the “Inter-Railing” style of railway station – just a single track, a single waiting room. Outside, some shops and little cafes where we found something to eat. Though not without some stress and difficulty in establishing what we might eat: no pictures, and of course no English menu.
The waiting room was stressful, to a degree: by now we were tired and the train was late. “Do not lie down” the signs said. People laid down. Our tiresome wait was enlivened by the sign above the door for the “Security” people, where the proof-reading had failed. The “r” and the “i” had blurred into an “n”. This slightly rude sign cheered us up as eventually the train roared in, and everyone got on.
My third burger in a row is long gone. This one was average, though the chips were splendid. I’m halfway down a bottle of “Trade Winds”, that fine ale from Cairngorm Brewery which has brought me such pleasure the last two nights. I didn’t know they had it – I had a false start of a pint of some form of horse-piss from Tennants, thinking it was all they had.
It is Halloween Rock Night. Eighties rock music at about 7 or 8 out of 10 on the volume scale – Guns n Roses, later Whitesnake, that kind of thing. Even a little Bon Jovi. The locals are in Halloween costume. The bar is brown; all pine woodwork the colour of a sauna. It may have been cleaned since smoking indoors was banned, but I couldn’t swear to it.
Here is a corner, like someone’s living room, with a flat-screen TV, a fireplace with a lit and nicely crackling fire, and the skull of a deer on the wall. Sofas are drawn up around the fire. The rest of the bar is a tad linoleum rough – my kind of place – and the music only adds to the atmosphere.
Some ladies dressed as nuns have just walked in. The eighties MTV rock has been replaced by Queen’s “Fat bottomed girls” at high volume as a band starts to set up. As Paul Hogan said in the Fosters’ advert, “looks like it’s going to be a good night”.
Later, out into the night air to once again appreciate the holy silence. Nearly full moon and it is very cold tonight at this highest village in Scotland. Me and Tomintoul go back a long way. I first came here in 1996, stopping for tea after crossing Lecht for the first time, on the way to visit my sister on the West coast. Now, as then, I was in Aberdeen at my employer’s expense and took time off for a short break.
I am drawn to Tomintoul, though as a work colleague from Aberdeen notes, somewhat unkindly, “there’s nothing there”. It does not matter. This place is woven into the fabric of times of leisure in my life this last twenty years, that have meant much to me.
At the Duke of Gordon Hotel in Kingussie, a brassy and friendly Scots lady presides over the buffet breakfast. She is the queen of ’em all, having a nice word for all comers and a likeable banter. She is everybody’s friend.
Later, I drive past the ruins of Ruthen Barracks, built on a commanding ancient mound much used for castles over the centuries. John Comyn was here in the time of the Wars of Independence. But these barracks remind us of a much more recent conflict. Here in the Highlands, a blunt and brutal reminder of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 does not sit well to this day.
Past the Insh Marshes, which to my eye as someone who studied geology, is the bed of a huge dried up ribbon lake. Only Loch Insh remains, and the Spey meandering through, rather like the ruined barracks, a misfit in this landscape.
To the top of Cairn Gorm, Britain’s second highest mountain. The little funicular train discounted to £5 return during November. Cheap at three times the price. It is a spectacular mountain railway, but I found it oddly saddening to go be able to go so easily to the summit of a 1200m mountain. All I have written only yesterday about the wild, pure heart of the Cairngorms is arguably undone, at least to a degree, by this development. Yet, it is not crass, not evil, not insensitive. Or at least not too insensitive.
At the top, a sprinkling of early Autumn snow can be seen in the distance. Grey squalls are chasing across the mountains, splashing rain and hail. Far below, Loch Morlich changes in an instant from welcoming cobalt blue to a menacing slate grey, as the rain clouds sweep in. A violently coloured rainbow stops everyone, and everyone peers out, phones ready for that picture. We ought not under-estimate the capricious nature of the weather in these mountains.
Southward over the brown hills, under grey skies, to Pitlochry, where there was light drizzle, and picturesque clouds drifting across the mountainsides. After lunch in a little cafe, onwards again along Loch Tummel and Loch Rannoch. Why? Because I can.
Brown and gold, red and orange, the leaves of Autumn. Mountain and lake vista, and the peace of the empty road through the woods. The changing scenery: woods of birch and glorious splash of autumn colour, then avenues of oak trees on either side of the road, then English-looking farm land with cows and farmhouses. Still more lakeside and rolling hills and then still later on, the land rises. There’s that beautiful, sooth, deep and rich brown of late Autumn, lovely under blue skies or grey. The winding road climbs up onto the Moor of Rannoch. I arrived at Rannoch Station in drizzle. Worth the journey just to see this most remote of British railway stations. Here, Fort William is barely 35 miles away by rail – but by road, more than a hundred.
On the run back I stopped by a B&B whose website said “www.middleofnowhere.com”. I wanted to stay but there were no vacancies. Seems everyone wants to be in the middle of nowhere. I popped into the Kinloch Rannoch Hotel, a grandiose spa hotel, but they wanted £213 for a room. I left, giggling. If you need to know how much it costs, you can’t afford it – never a truer word.
Tiring now, I motored back to the A9 and joined the treadmill at 57mph over the Pass of Drumochter. Pedestrian motoring; no fun at all. A twenty mile passage more tiring than all the country lane driving of the day so far. And on to Kingussie, another one of those compact Scottish small towns with a neat grey high street. And I stopped in the first place I went into – the Duke of Gordon Hotel. A lady called Fran sold me a single room for £40.
So I’ve journeyed along the silver ribbon of highways through the fading glory of Autumn gold. But it’s not the road that has been important this time: this November, it is the silence, the holy silence.
Last night I stayed at the Invercauld Arms Hotel in Braemar. Driving there, in the gathering darkness of afternoon in late autumn, I found the “passing place” signs to be like bright oases against the encroaching night.
The Invercauld is one of those ancient, fading coaching inns, a giant hotel speaking of a bygone age of glory. This one has reinvented itself as a holiday destination for English pensioners – the “grey pound”, so to speak. The bar fills with grey-headed English folk, some walking very slowly; none under 60. A range of Northern English accents can be heard, with perhaps the harsh vowels of the East Riding of Yorkshire, predominant. Strangely enough I am not ired by the presence of this parade of Daily Mail readers, but somehow oddly endeared to them.
The place is clean and does not smell of decay – always a start in a hotel of this sort. The woodwork is thick with old paint. The staff are polite and upright foreigners, as was ever likely in a place as small and remote as Braemar. From my room there is a view of the road and the mountains you could look at for hours, even on a misty day, and learn much about the nature of God and man.
Breakfast was served in a ballroom with a dance floor, and a bay window larger than most people’s living rooms. The room is deserted, almost. The dozens of pensioners of last night have all set off somewhere. Three people come in; hikers. A youth with the longest hair I’ve seen on a man in years, all down his back. His hipster buddy with a neatly trimmed but very full beard, and a dark-haired woman with quiet in her face.
The views from the windows are stunning. Fan heaters rumble to keep the place warm. In the ceiling, there is modern lighting fitted – a subtle indicator that this hotel is successful in it’s quest to be more than just another old inn.
The Linn of Dee – and the stones of Turin’s pride
At the Linn of Dee, I got out of the car and was struck immediately by the holy silence of the wilderness. Almost it is like a church; I walk with quiet tread through the woods, mindful that this is God’s front room.
At the falls there is a mighty bridge across the narrowest part of the gorge. It reminds of me of Ulmo Lord of Waters’ words to Turin in Tolkien: “throw down the stones of your pride”. For Turin would have things as he would have them, and had caused to be built across the full flood of the Narog river, a mighty bridge, the better to access the entrance of the underground fortress of Nargothrond. And Ulmo, herald-angel of the Most High, counselled Turin to cast those stones into the water. For cometh evil that would use that bridge to destroy Turin, lay waste to all that he had created, and bring hideous sack and slaughter to Nargothrond. And so it happened.
But what means this for us? The bridge at Linn of Dee allows vehicular access more easily so that walkers can get into the remote heart of the Cairngorms – one of Britain’s wildest, purest remaining places. And rightly so – this bridge should not be thrown down. But what we might throw down is dependence on stuff – idols. Technology as our master. Social media, handsets, tablets, the Cloud – all good things if they are our slaves. But if we are to hear more clearly what God has to say in the holy silence of the wilderness, then we need to put aside the clamour of our toys, and focus on what is of true value.
Between the Black Sea and the smaller Sea of Marmara, there lies the narrow passage of the Bospurus, a shallow gorge only a few hundred metres wide. It is bridged several times by new and glittering suspension bridges, and on either side, lies the ancient and noble city of Istanbul. It is not hard to imagine that this city is not modern Istanbul, but the Stamboul of Graham Greene’s novel, or the Constantinople of the Middle Ages, or even the Byzantium of antiquity. Even the Istanbul visited by James Bond in “From Russia with love” is full of romance.
To me Istanbul is one of the most evocative and exciting places in the world. At a cross-roads of cultures, neither Islamic nor Christian, not Mediterranean, but influenced thereby. The might of Russia lies to the north like a sleeping giant, the deserts of Arabia are near enough to the East.
And we came there, by ship. Our ship came from Constantza, in Romania, and arrived in the roads on a rainy morning one February. We were taking the ship from Constantza right round Europe to Bergen in Norway, a journey of many weeks, and the majority of the crew were gathered ready to get off and go home – from right here in Istanbul. What a place to go home from…one minute, the exotic banks of the Bosporus, a few hours later – Birmingham New Street. What a contrast!
There were all manner of ships in the roads. Rusting, nondescript freighters from Cyprus. Small fishing boats, huge bulk carriers. The wind whipped the sea, and the rain spattered down. Mist obscured the top minarets of the Blue Mosque and the towers of St. Sophia’s cathedral. It was not a pleasant morning – but this was Istanbul. What possibilities!
Our boss was a man called Marco, a big man in his late thirties, half Italian and half Brazilian, a man who spoke excellent English despite not having heard a word of it until the age of sixteen. Marco took one look at the city and said, “lets go ashore”. Even as our colleagues were climbing onto a small boat to take them ashore to a fleet of taxis and the airport, we were going to be left behind. A word with the Captain assured us we had time to go ashore for an hour or two. A moment to collect our passports and such cash as we could muster, and we were on the boat ourselves – in our work clothes, in sea boots, with no coats. But Marco was taking us to Istanbul.
The rain was against us, but we cared naught for it. Romance was in our veins. Once ashore, the rest of the crew said their goodbyes and melted away. For a brief few hours we were alone with this great city. She would surely give of herself to those who dared for a day to visit her, to those who seized the moment. Could she be romanced for a brief fling? We started with a few beers and a light lunch in a dockside workman’s café – it was that time of day and the place recommended itself to us by being a dry place to sit out of the rain, no more than yards from where we came shore. Thus fortified, we first spent a little time obtaining some local currency, and then we sallied forth in a taxi to see what we could find – we were bound for the Bazaar.
Marco was an interesting character. As a youth he had run carpets out of Iran in the days before the Iranian revolution of 1978. He had spent time in the East and was confident he could find a fine carpet here in the bazaar. He was the kind of person that got things done, quite frequently by breaking or bending the rules. I had a stormy professional relationship with him, but one of the rules of our business, strict and unbreakable, was that work was work, and it was never brought into the bar or the social setting. Here we were amiable companions, work completely forgotten about. Such people as Marco are rarer nowadays, in our modern world of Safety standards, regulations and operating procedures, work instructions, meetings and Powerpoint presentations. And our world is poorer thereby.
The bazaar was a riot of colour and fragrance, all manner of things hung up for sale, every possible variety of cloth, leather and material. Carpets and kitchen utensils, trinkets and tools, presents and gifts. Here of course one had to bargain. Marco, who knew about such matters, warned us solemnly. You MUST bargain. They will not take you seriously otherwise. They will start the bargaining at four or five times the lowest price they could sell it at and still turn a profit. Keep that in mind…
Wandering around the bazaar my eye was caught by a merchant selling waistcoats. These were in gorgeous fabrics, a sweep of colours and styles. I thought they were great, but not so great as to part with serious money for them. The trader saw me and came across to pluck at my sleeve. He named an outrageously high price; insulted, I suggested to him that he might keep his waistcoat at that price. Those were not my exact words. After some bargaining and good natured insults, this peddler of cheap cloth, this charlatan who had tried to get me to part with over sixty dollars, sold me a rather fine waistcoat for a little over a tenner. I was delighted with my purchase. My wife wore on it occasion – it was in very bright colours – for a year or so, and I think it is still in the children’s dressing up box.
I found Marco in a carpet shop, arguing with the owner. He had strung the owner along and had a dozen of so of his finest carpets laid out over the floor, examining them minutely. He clearly knew good from bad in the Turkish Carpet scene, but I don’t think he had the slightest intention of buying a carpet then and there. But Marco was a Poker player and you could not read his face, this not being helped by a big black beard. He nearly caused a scene, mind. One of the pointers to a true Turkish carpet of quality, he had opined earlier, was that it could be washed and would not stain. No substance would stain it. The truth of this assertion I did doubt somewhat, but the evidence at the time – our subsequent escape from the carpet shop – did point to him being quite correct. The carpet merchant served strong Turkish coffee to Marco, as was the custom in such shops. And Marco, sipping this coffee, quite deliberately spilled some on one of the merchant’s carpets. It all looked quite accidental, of course, and he was all apologies, but we onlookers knew he had done it on purpose. A cheap carpet would be ruined by strong coffee. We do not know if the actual carpet on which Marco spilled his coffee was one such, because we made our exit shortly thereafter, as it became quite clear to the carpet merchant that Marco had no intention of actually buying a Turkish carpet.
Alas, our time was coming to an end. We found a taxi, and made a mad dash through the rainy streets back to the dockside, to meet up with the small boat that would take us back to our home away from home. Istanbul, goodbye! You showed us a little of yourself – just a glimpse, a tantalizing glimpse. Not for us a whole night with you, but just a hint of thigh, a hidden curve of bosom. Istanbul – well we remember you, though we visit you again as older and perhaps not so wise men.
“I am returning, the echo of a point in time” – Deep Purple
A pleasant late morning in Buxton brought back thoughts of the past – the echo of a point in time – now sanctified by memory and the blood of Christ. The past, as C. S Lewis writes, becomes heaven even as we approach eternity. We reach heaven, and realise that we were always there….or not, of course.
I pottered around, visiting “the Dome”, flirting with a shop lady whilst buying a Christmas present for my son. The weather was glorious – very cold, clear and blue. The remnant colur of Autumn remains on the landscape, and I’m looking forward to driving down the Via Gellia later in the afternoon. This is what I wanted – this day is as it should be. I spent time last night and this morning with my son in Lancaster. It is true to say that I drove 300 miles to have a pint with my son.
I love this country, this land. I mean the Peak District, the White Peak in particular. I love it so much it hurts. Why in God’s Name do I live in Surrey? Because that’s where the great God above has put me. But my heart is elsewhere – I love this land. The sense of being a stranger in a strange land in East Surrey, an exile, is heightened by coming here on this November day, in this beautiful sunshine. I admit to alienating myself, separating myself from the very East Surrey I have committed to serve as a senior Scouter for the next ten years. It’s not that East Surrey is not a beautiful land; it is full of good people too. It is just not my home.
It’s 3.25p.m and almost dusk and I’ve visited Scarthin Books in Cromford. I’ve not actually bought anything except cake and tea. Scarthin, for all it’s wonderful, quaint nooks and crannies, has not been a particularly productive bookshop for me. Great place to visit though and one day, the right books will be there for me.
It’s a cold blue afternoon and I’m sat looking out across Cromford pond as evening falls. Soon, beer with an old friend. My day off is unfolding as it should – a little image of heaven on earth.
Our epic adventure begins. My daughter Anna and I flew into Moscow’s Domodedevo. We took the airport express into town, met my other daughter Josie, and from there took metro and then a short walk to the block of flats where she was staying.
It is perhaps unfortunate that I am reading “1984” at present, for the Soviet-era block of flats resembles nothing so much as “Victory Mansions” at the start of Orwell’s book.
We went out to dinner at a nearby Uzbeki restaurant. The music was jazz-funk covers of Nirvana, System of a Down, Avril Lavine, Boney M & Britney Spears. As Josie says, “c’est normale en Russe“.
17th August – a short day in Moscow
Our only day in Moscow began on a lovely sunny morning with the smell of cigarette smoke drifting up from the ground and into the open window of this our fifth floor room. After breakfast, we walked to Red Square, which was a good way along a wide and busy boulevard. Every few hundred yards there was a prominent sign offering US Dollar/Euro forex.
We found that we could not walk between the Moscow river and the Kremlin, as preparations were underway for a marathon that afternoon. We saw squads of smart-shirted policemen walking up to take their posts, and some serious hard-looking men with dogs to sniff out drugs and explosives – though the dogs were not serious and were happy to play and scamper about.
Russian – at least Moscow – roads are swept clean regularly. As we crossed the river three street cleaning lorries swept along, spraying water across the road in powerful jets. It is an effective and worthwhile public service in a hot climate. I have seen the same thing elsewhere in the world.
We walked along the banks of the Moscow river, and crossed again to the Church of Christ Saviour, the largest Orthodox cathedral in the world.
One phenomenon we saw a great deal of was wedding parties. On this sunny August Saturday, we saw not fewer than seven or eight wedding parties, with guests in their best dresses and suits, the bride in white, posing for photographs against some landmark or other. On that note, in Moscow nearly everyone – perhaps truer to say most women – dress smartly. Here you will see women in high heels and cocktail dresses popping out for a stroll in the park, ladies dressed fit for a nightclub going down to the shops to buy a loaf of bread.
We had lunch in My My (pronounced “Moo Moo”), a reasonably priced fast food joint serving a fine selection of food. Our lunch – main courses, starters (including Russian “borscht” beetroot soup), bread and beers, cost R1538 which is about £38.
We wandered up and down Arbat – the souvenir shop district – and then retreated from that cruelly expensive place to sit in Gorky Park for a while, listening to faux South American music. There are only so many times you can listen to “Theme from Last of the Mohicans” played in an “Inca” style…
Near midnight we made or way to Yaroslavskaya station, and prepared to join one of the great trains of the world – train 020 from Moscow to Beijing.
18th August – Kirov
Twelve hours in and the first serious stop for the train whilst we are awake. Fifteen brief minutes on the platform. As we stood there, a train from St Petersburg drew in on its way to Perm. Not half so flashy as this train – much rougher looking sleeping accommodation. I took as good a nights sleep as ever I have had on this train bunk bed.
We left Kirov and the afternoon wore on: the sheer size and scale of this country is slowly dawning upon us.
Half past eight and we are at Perm. As we approached the city there was a lovely sunset. Perm is a vast city on the scale of Birmingham or Manchester. On an evening such as this with clear skies and sunshine, it looks great.
Years ago I read a book by Craig Thomas, in which the action was set in a rough oil town in the Siberian Arctic, called Novy Urengoi. It was pleasing to see a long 18-coach train draw into the station, full of noisy and boisterous Russians, bound for just that place.
19th August – Siberia
14:24 – East of Ishym, on an absolutely featureless flat plain. We can see some woods in the far distance. And here is a town – Mangut.
I’ve downloaded and been trying to read E. F Gurdjieff’s “Meetings with remarkable men” which I first read in the late 1980’s. But much water has gone under the bridge since then, because today I find it pretentious and self-absorbed nonsense. For some reason I have vague memories of it being a worthwhile read. Also reading R.A Heinlein’s rare travelogue “Tramp Royale”, William Gibson’s “Count Zero” and John le Carre’s “Our kind of traitor”.
In the next compartment there is a Russian family with a little toddler boy. His gurgling, yelling and playing has enlivened our day and provided much entertainment, and his crying has hardly disturbed us. Last night our relationship with the youth with whom we are sharing a compartment took a step forward when we offered him some wine.His name is Alexei and he is a motor mechanic from Irkutsk. As had no English he had been completely unable to communicate with us – he talked to us in a desultory fashion through Josie, telling us that the train fare was a fifth of the air fare between Moscow and his home city.
18:13 local time (16:13 Moscow time)
The train trundles on across the endless plain. Grass almost to the horizon, and occasional stands of trees. Four or five huge thunderheads tower up over the late afternoon landscape. Here is a town approaching – some old and disused buildings, sidings and goods yards and long rakes of wagons and freight cars. Flats and gardens, pylons and wires. Garden sheds and allotments jumbled together, grey weather-beaten wood. Thunder is in the air, but we are stuck in an air-conditioned train. Every four or five minutes, an east-bound goods train passes.
21:40 local – Barabinsk
A stop in the late evening at a modern looking station. We were getting hungry as the train made its way ant-like across the endless plain. Glad we were to find that this station had lots of little kiosks selling food and such. Here for the first time we saw the old ladies selling dried fish on the platform. We bought from a pleasant and cheerful babushka, some tomatoes, little cucumbers, a box of chicken noodles, a load of bread, a long curly sausage and three deep-fried pasties – for R500, about £10.
The deep-fried pasties (basically doughnut mixture stuffed with egg, onion and potato) were so tasty I went back for more, buying two more with meat in, and a tin of beer. Total spend R700 – about £13.50. Not bad for an evening repast for three adults. At Barabinsk we were comprehensively assaulted by mosquitoes, and had to retreat to our compartment and shut the door. Nonetheless some mozzies managed to get in the compartment, and there were some bites.
Back on the train I stubbed my toe on the heating duct whilst making my way down the corridor. I noticed blood – what seemed to be a reasonable sized cut on my middle right toe, and a badly damaged nail. Treating it took some doing, as it was bleeding like a stuck pig. Dressing a middle toe yourself is no easy matter.
And the train rumbles on through the night.
20th August – what time is it?
12:07p.m local (08:07 Moscow time)
Surprising how comfortable is this bed. We did think that the train would be rougher than this.
Yesterday’s smart purchase of xleb (bread) and kolbasa (sausage) went down very well for our late breakfast (well, lunch really) this morning.
As we move eastwards, we have to keep rolling our watches onwards to keep up with the local time – but this has the effect that we go to bed later and get up later. Not jet lag but train lag.
The weather today is cloudy and drear, and the land outside is no longer endless plain. Rather, there are gentle hills. Trees remain of course, the common factor of the Russian train journey. We have passed a series of picturesque little villages, with wooden houses, each with window frames painted sky blue. Sky blue seems to be a favourite colour in Russia, and they are fond of highly coloured buildings. Currently we lie to the west of Krasnoyarsk, in Western Siberia.
At around 2.30pm local time we came to Krasnoyarsk, a big city set in rolling hills. All the usual stuff to be seen: marshalling yards, endless lines of goods trains, derelict sheds and worn Soviet-era industrial facilities. But this city, like all the others we have passed, does not bear the signs of urban decay or economic stagnation. Whilst there are many old and tired buildings, there is much that is new; much construction is clearly taking place. The station was the most big-city style station we had seen so far, with platform indicators, stairs and overbridge, endless announcements. Whilst there was no Victorian style train shed, the station reminded me of York, in that it was bustling with activity – men unloading brake vans, wheel tappers passing along the trains, policemen, passengers and tourists. Also, like York it is on the edge of railway yards and engine sheds, with lines of coaches and wagons and spare locomotives.
As we took the fresh air outside the train, a suburban electric train comparable to those used in the UK pulled in. The low platform, the broad track gauge and the wide and large loading gauge conspired to make the train seem enormous compared to British trains. From the platform, the floor of the carriage was nearly head height.
Beyond the station, some hills could be seen, and beyond that, there was the Yenisei river. One might compare it to the Seine at Bordeaux – but this is no estuary. This is a freshwater river a thousand miles or more from its mouth on the Arctic Ocean. And they are throwing another bridge across it.
After the river, more hills – more serious tree-covered hills, with picturesque brightly painted chalets (“dacha”) and booths piled up the side of the hill. For an hour or so these hills continued, before the train emerged back onto a rolling plain. This is rich and fertile country – trees, grass, wild flowers.
5.15pm local – the train is crossing what can only be described, cliche though it is, as “rolling farmland”. Huge fields of wheat or other grain are draped across the landscape on both sides. There are still masses of trees, but they are in clumps, thicker towards the horizon. There are hayricks everywhere. I suspect that the railway itself is the centre of a corridor of cultivated land with mostly wilderness on either side. The weather has improved to a golden afternoon of hazy sunshine, though exactly what the local time is, I don’t know.
6.10pm local (2.10pm Moscow)
A sunlit afternoon stop at this town. It is a modern station and one at which old ladies draw up carts and trolleys with wares to sell to passengers on passing trains. There are lots of heavy Russian savoury pastries, pancakes, potato cakes and pies; fruit juice, water and beer. As ever, all this buying and selling takes place in the valley between our train and another – very little of the surroundings can be seen from the platform.
Beyond the sleepy station, it is just a quiet afternoon at a provincial town in the middle of nowhere.
21st August – Irkutsk
In the misty, cloudy morning we came to Irkutsk. It is Wednesday morning – we took train in Moscow at midnight on Saturday night. On the platform, a lady in her fifties held a sign with my name on it. Her name was Helen. She was very friendly and introduced herself to us, talking in Russian to Josie as we made our way to her car. In the car she switched to excellent and unaccented English to address us all.
She took us to a “homestay”. And what a place – it was a well-appointed top floor flat, the home of a lady called Tanya, her husband, and their youngest daughter. It was clear from the furniture and bits and bobs lying around that there were absent grown-up children.
We had separate rooms, which was a pleasant surprise. I had a little triangle shaped room off the kitchen, with pretty ladybird wallpaper, gold stars on the ceiling and good fittings and furniture.
After freshening up we all went out into the chill morning (it had been raining hard during the night) to look for breakfast. The centre of Irkutsk seemed rather dismal and uimpressive at that or indeed any hour. We settled on a cafe called “Travellers Coffee”, which was rather more up-market than the name implied. It was still cheap – nearly everything on the menu, whether it was coffee, cakes, breakfast, or pastries, seemed to cost between R150 and R200 – around about £3. We ordered an Omelette Royal, an English breakfast and a “Bavarian” breakfast, two sides of fries, a macaroon and a cookie, and six Americanos, and the bill was about £30. The coffee was particularly good. I learnt something today, which was that the Russian surname “Korolyev” means “Royal” – from Russian for “king” (korol), which must have its roots in some middle-ages reference to Charlemagne…
From the cafe we walked to the Angara river. A cool summer breeze was blowing as we explored an almost deserted holiday park called “Youth Island”. From there we worked our way along the river to the main bridge. The Angara river at this point is many hundreds of metres wide, much wider than the Thames at Westminster, and comparable with the Mersey at Runcorn or the Tyne at Wallsend. But this is a freshwater river thousands of miles from the sea! The sheer size of Russia can be seen in her rivers.
At the main bridge we took photographs. It is a piece of Soviet-era civil engineering. You can see this because the bridge is best described as “wonky”. It was interesting to see that no-one stopped us taking photographs of the bridge – something that would have been somewhere between most unwise and completely impossible before 1990, even if a westerner had been able to visit Irkutsk back then.
Feeling jaded, we worked our way back to the main square, and we sat in the park enjoying some refreshing fizzy drinks, as light rain fell. Thus perked up, we went to see if the main tourist information centre was open. A sign said that it was – but the door was unwelcomingly closed. We pushed it open and passed within. Two ladies – neither were ethnic Russians but clearly Asiatic or perhaps of Buryat descent – helped us with our enquiries. We were dispatched by tram to the main railway station; this journey was accomplished for the princely sum of R2 (perhaps 5p) per head.
At the railway station we encountered for the first time and only time on our trip the infamous Russian bureaucracy. We were trying to organise and book a trip on the circum-Baikal railway. Visiting first a desk in a first floor hall painted in the most delicate shade of lime green (the Russians seem to be very fond of brightly coloured buildings both inside and out), we were passed from desk to desk by a series of unsmiling and unhelpful female clerks. We were given telephone numbers that did not work; we were referred back to a desk we had already been turned away from. It was the classic bureaucratic runaround.
The only option was retreat to the city centre by tram. We found another travel agency, and in minutes Josie had negotiated purchase of a paper ticket entitling us to join a circum-Baikal railway tour on the Friday – the day after tomorrow. This could not have been accomplished without Josie, for the matter was conducted almost entirely in Russian.
At this point an aside on Michael Bohm’s “The Russian Specific” is called for. This book is proving to be rivetting reading. It is an expose or candid description of the post-Soviet Russian psyche, written for business people proposing to work in Russia, and as such it is absolutely fascinating. For me as a libertarian, an individualist and a firm believer in personal responsibility, it makes for appalling reading. It could make me a Russophobe.
22nd August – a boat trip on Lake Baikal
We had a breakfast of champions; it was Russian pancakes (blinis) stuffed with cottage cheese and served with sour cream and jam. We had a polite conversation with mine hostess while we breakfasted, talking about our respective lives, through Josie as our translator. But it transpired that her English was very much better than she had initially let on.
Then we took car with our guide Helen, who drove us out of town and onto a long straight road through the woods, which she said was still called “Eisenhower’s road” more than fifty years after it was built. It had been constructed for a planned visit to Irkutsk by the President of the United States – but the visit was cancelled after the Gary Powers U2 spy plane incident in 1960.
We passed rows of huge detached houses, set back in the woods, all ostensibly built after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Our guide Helen told us her story, of marriage, motherhood, divorce and making ends meet through the tough years of the early nineties. Originally a translator in the technical field of geology, she told us that she had become a trader of small things – mainly children’s and babies clothes – out of China. She told us that as a single mum she and her children had built a house by themselves, taking six years to do so. But the house had burnt down, and had not been insured. And who wants to buy a plot of land where a house has burnt down? That is unlucky. What struck me about the story was that she expressed little or no regret or bitterness at her poor luck or the circumstances and times in which she lived – but had pressed on regardless. I have met similar Russians – years ago I had a Russian colleague (who strangely enough bore an uncanny resemblance to the murderer Harold Shipman) who lost several hundred dollars out of the top pocket of his shirt, yet who bore his very serious loss with a stoicism and seeming indifference that was truly awe-inspiring to us, his western colleagues.
At the landing stage on Baikal we were ushered onto a small speedboat along with Helen our guide and interpreter, and taken on a boat ride across the Lake. We saw derelict old tugs, a huge floating dry dock, and visited the “Shaman stone” at the outflow of the Angara river. Then we matched pace with the tourist train as it chugged along the side of the lake, through hills and curves and tunnels. We got out to walk through a railway tunnel (Russians don’t seem to bother fencing off railways anywhere) and saw where in 1944 an immense rock, tumbling down from on high, had dislodged a train and flung it into the depths of the lake. The wheels of the locomotive were still visible in the clear water; the carriages, with their grisly cargo of bones, deeper down in 80m of water.
I found our guide’s commentary and interpretation somewhat tiresome. This was only because I was well aware of the cost in human life of the building of the Trans-Siberian railway, and I was well aware that every tunnel, cutting and embankment had been paid for in the lives of many slaves, irrespective of how wonderful an engineering achievement it might have been. But if I am fair, she was just telling the story, and giving her country and its history its due.
After our boat ride we were dropped off at the lakeside resort of Listvyanka. This was “kiss me quick” style tacky, in a very Russian kind of way. There were outrageous mansions and palaces owned by what we in the west call “oligarchs”, though perhaps the Russians use an entirely different word. There were hotels and a few shops and markets selling various kinds of tat, and there were beach vendors selling barbequed food. From one of these we negotiated some tasty mutton pillau, and also ordered some chicken legs. He urged us to sit down at the tables. We did so. Immediately an unsmiling foreigner appeared and indicated that we had to pay for the privilege of sitting at the beach tables. Ah. That’s how it works…
The chicken legs arrived. Not one, not two, but three chicken legs. Each. We could not eat it all. Washed down with Coca-cola this meal cost R 880 – about £17.
In the hot afternoon we looked at the market stalls, making a few souvenir purchases. Then we had beer at an almost deserted beach-side cafe. Because it was empty, this nearly ended in disaster when I burped loudly and openly – as you might after beer or Coca-cola – and there were some dirty looks from the nearby table of heavily armed Russian gangsters. Actually I made that bit up about them being heavily armed gangsters. But not the dirty looks.
Later we took minibus back to Irkutsk. You just wander up to a minibus in the main square, and climb in. When it is full, the driver sets off for the city. Our minibus was lined with brown velour. The fare was about £2 for a ride of about an hour.
23rd August – Circum-Baikal
In the night there was a tremendous thunderstorm, and the sound of the rain on a nearby poly-carbonate roof kept me awake for a while – though it is always nice to lie awake during a thunderstorm.
In the drear and rainy morning we took taxi at 0745 to the railway station, a journey not enlivened, and lengthened considerably, by the arcane one-way systems of Irkutsk. We joined a three car diesel train which was going to take us on a tour of the “Circum-Baikal” railway. In no sense does this railway go all the way round the lake, as the name implies, but merely follows a now by-passed route of the Trans-Siberian railway along the side of the lake. The original railway ran alongside the lake, and was a considerable engineering feat. However, rock falls and other difficulties caused the Soviets to build a better railway through the forests to the west of the lake – and the original route was abandoned, to become a lost tourist railway.
The first hour or so of the route followed the new railway, through the forests and valleys, and down a steep and curvy descent to the lake side, where the train stopped and reversed onto the old and lost tourist railway towards Port Baikal. This part was very scenic, though we were somewhat sleepy and the weather was grey and rainy.
The little blue and white train inched its way along the branch at little more than walking pace, through tunnels and cuttings, past steep-sided tree-lined valleys and clusters of little dwelling houses. The weather improved slowly from quite heavy rain the morning, to merely dull at midday, to a sunny and cloudless afternoon at 4pm.
The train stopped often at points of interest along the route, and everybody clambered down onto the tracks for a look round. For some of the older customers (a very many of whom were Japanese), clambering out of the train down onto the track was not easy without a platform, and use of a step-ladder had to made on occasion. Generally the points of interest were tunnels or viaducts or cuttings or places where there was scenery. A lady of a certain age, some kind of tour guide, spoke loudly and at great length in Russian throughout the journey, both on and off the train, using some kind of portable PA system when were on the tracks looking round.
Around 1pm we stopped for lunch at a picturesque village by a headland. The line crossed a big river via a pretty viaduct and a modern concrete bridge, and here stood the obligatory Soviet-era 2-10-0 steam locomotive which you can see at railway stations all across Russia. At this stop the train crew refilled all the hot water containers, and ladies from the village sold minor food and drink items and a few souvenirs, including oddly flavoured vodka.
As the afternoon wore on we grew more and more jaded and tired, even as the scenery and the weather improved. Visibility was good and we could even see the mountains on the other side of the lake, which we did not see on our boat trip the previous day.
The train arrived at Port Baikal and we all got off, walking round to a quay to await a boat. In due course, a vessel called “Babuchkin” arrived. We nearly missed it. This happened because we were in a little shop buying cheese (R 44) and crisps. When we emerged it was to see a wall of Japanese tourists milling around waiting to get on the boat….hold on, they are NOT getting on the boat! They were in fact stood in front of a much smaller and dwindling crowd of people who were embarking. Phew, that was close.
On the boat there was just time for the three of us to sit on some stairs and enjoy a brief meal of cheese, salami and tomatoes, cutting a 400g loaf into six thick slabs – the word “sandwich” is applicable only in the loosest sense.
At Listvyanka we disembarked and it was a hot and cloudless afternoon – a far cry from that rainy morning. The wind was rising to occasional white horses as we sat on a wall eating crisps, waiting for the coach which would take us back to Irkutsk.
24th August – back on the train, gang
At some god-awful hour of the morning (4.30a.m or sommat like that) we were taken to the station by our guide Helen, to join train no. 4 to Ulaan Baatar. You know that feeling you get when you wake up early to go on a long journey, and departure is delayed? Well that’s what happened here. The train was delayed by over an hour.
We waited in the forecourt of the station, which was surprisingly busy given the time of day. Some more breakfast was obtained from vendors on the station. (We’d already been served some Russian porridge or kasha by mine hostess, which was very kind of her at 4a.m…but English taste buds do not respond well to melted butter and grated apple in porridge – particularly not at that hour of the morning!)
We had a brief chat with a young Indian woman travelling with her husband and her friend before the train swept in at around 6a.m. It was coooold.
The train was Chinese, with Chinese carriage attendants (provodniki) in uniforms and peaked caps. In our carriage the man was a friendly and cheerful fellow, which was a pleasant and refreshing change after the unsmiling Russians. The carriages were pretty much the same size as the Russian ones – that is, far longer, wider and more spacious than sleeper carriages in the UK. There are nine four berth compartments in each carriage, as well as an area for the provodniki to work and sleep. All carriages have a boiler or samovar so hot water is always available. There is a functional but basic lavatory at each end.
The corridor is much wider than those on British trains, and the compartments reasonably spacious for four passengers. A short technical aside on the concept of “loading gauge” is called for.
The track “gauge” is the distance between the rails. In most of the world it is “standard” gauge or 4 feet, eight and a half inches. The Russians (and also the Spanish) have to be different, and they use a broader track gauge of 5 feet.
The more important “loading gauge” is a kind of measure of the cross-sectional area of the train – i.e how tall, long and wide a train can be without colliding with tunnels, bridges or trains going in the opposite direction on the other track. In most of the world this is quite generous, meaning that trains can be tall, wide and long. The UK has a very restrictive loading gauge – a consequence of having been the place where trains where invented in the first place. This means that British trains are very small and cramped – short, narrow and low – compared to Russian or Chinese trains.
The coaches were not air-conditioned, to our joy, which meant we could open the windows. However, only with great difficulty could they be closed again! The carpets in the corridor and in the compartments were completely loose and hence lethal! That would not even be legal in the UK – ‘elf an safety.
The scenery, as dawn came on, was truly remarkable. These few hours were more scenic than the entire four days of travel across the flat plains of Russia from Moscow to Irkutsk. After running through the woods and valleys, there was a switchback descent through curves to the lakeside, and then a long run along the side of Baikal. The weather was crystal clear morning, not a cloud in the sky, and the mountains could be seen on the far side of this immense lake.
The rails here were not welded together so we were treated to a bumpy and comforting “clickety clack” train ride. Goods trains remained ubiquitous and continued to pass west-bound every five minutes. The stench of burning coal became apparent, and we found that the boilers like much else that is Chinese, are coal-fired.
12:54pm local, in the valley of the Selenga river
An undulating, hilly or even mountainous terrain. Though the river bottom is lush enough, the heights look dry and arid. It is a picturesque country and the weather remains lovely.
We have left Ulaan Ude, the last serious town in Russia on our journey. Interesting to note that the only place where any of us were asked not to take pictures was at Ulaan Ude. It was very hot. We have brancjhed off the electric Trans-Siberian railway for the single-track railway into Mongolia and onto Ulaan Baatar, and are now being hauled by a large articulated diesel locomotive, the after half of which is emitting clouds of what my son as a very small boy used to refer to as “dirty horrible smoke”.
As the train climbs up the river valley, the scenery, the vegetation and the climate are changing. Up here, the temperate mixed woods of central and eastern Siberia, the endless grassy plains, the vast swathes of silver birch trees, have given way to a drier, scrubbier land reminiscent of the western United States. You could film a Western here.
Passing through the Dead Marshes, it would seem…“a great battle, long ago…” The train is running through an area of river bottom marsh surrounded by low hills. The Lonely Planet guidebook does suggest that the scenery brings to mind The Lord of the Rings (though to the younger generation and those who wrote the guidebook that probably just means reminiscent of New Zealand…)
Here is a high town: some rows of sheds and some flats in the Soviet style. The surrounding vegetation, having changed from temperate woodland and green steppes to dry scrubby land, has g one green again as we have gained height. Now it is just grass. The temperature has dropped though, and there is 7/8 cloud. It is not as warm as I thought it would be here.
From Irkutsk this morning has been as picturesque and varied a railway journey as any I have made anywhere in the world.
25th August – Mongolia
I would never have thought, twenty-five years ago, that I might be able to visit Mongolia as easily as I might visit Peru or Australia. The changes brought about by the fall of the Soviet Union were profound and far-reaching.
The Russian/Mongolian frontier was harmless. We were there for a few hours, and apart from not being allowed off the train and not being allowed to use the lavatories, there was little if any inconvenience. Policemen took our passports away and brought them back again. A variety of Customs officials from both nations shone torches into dark spaces and rummaged about. No-one was rude. No personal baggage was opened or inspected.
Not long after we set off – just long enough to visit the loo, clean our cups and start on the wine (it was late evening) there was an emergency stop and people were observed running up and down on the tracks with torches. We thought this was great, because it meant we were holding up the train behind us, which had pulled in whilst we were at the border. The train behind us was a REALLY posh train full of folks much richer than us – the dining car was a sight to behold, all chandeliers and gold trim.
We had a fitful night’s sleep on the train. I found it necessary to bed down fully dressed, as I was too tired to remain awake even though the Customs and passport formalities were not quite over. The bed on these Chinese trains is somewhat harder than that on the Russian ones.
Hotel Decor, Ulaan Baatar
We arrived at Ulaan Baatar at around 6.30 am in the delicate light of early morning, 4/8 cloud, the sun just rising. Apart from a slightly worrying few minutes when I shut the compartment door and the handle fell off whilst we were locked inside, there was no hassle at all.
We were met on the platform by a small lady bearing a sign entitled “Anna Hough”. She took us, along with two Englishmen (one of whom was called Nathaniel) to the Hotel Decor. It was only a couple of blocks from the station, and looked like quite a decent place. I had thought it would be a two-bit sleazy dive, a hostel for back-packers. But no; there was a proper hotel-style reception; a lift; a good en-suite and even tea making facilities. We might pay more in the UK for less!
After freshening up we set off on this Sunday morning to look for breakfast. It was not yet 9 a.m. We had a long tramp along Peace Avenue, the main east-west road through the city, finding nowhere open at that early hour. Eventually we found a place open and sat down to good substantial western-style breakfasts, with juice and coffee. The bill was around 46000 of the local currency – about US$30.
Enlivened and stimulated by our repast, we walked into the main square and took photographs. It grew hot. Then we went on a long and ultimately fruitless walk across some waste ground, a railway and a river, through some interminable residential developments, looking for the “Bogd winter palace”. We did not find it, and by now the sunshine and heat were growing baleful. We crossed back over the waste ground (some kind of flood plain) on a fine looking bridge, and stopped for iced coffee and Coca-cola.
At this point another technical aside: both here and in Irkutsk they use electric trolley buses. In fact in Irkutsk trolley buses, trams and ordinary diesel-engined buses all use the same streets at the same time!
After a brief sortie to get more cash out of the hole in the wall, we went to the Mongolian History Museum, primarily to shelter from the heat of early afternoon. From the museum – which was only mildly interesting apart a vast collection of brightly coloured national costumes, we went to a local restaurant recommended by the Lonely Planet Guide, for a very late lunch.
“White Moon” or Luna Blanca is a vegan restaurant and far from it being right on and worthy, had really tasty food and great service. I was not convinced by the vegan cheese cake – ersatz cheese cake more like. The bill for jasmine tea, bottled water, green salad, three good lunches and the aforementioned cheese cake came to T 26000 – less than $30. The White Moon refers to Tsagaan Sar, Mongolia’s lunar New Year festival.
After that very late lunch we strolled back to the Decor Hotel, getting lost briefly in a residential area. Interesting to note that we did not feel unwelcome, nor was the atmosphere ever edgy. Mongolians are very friendly – most unlike Russians. They are generally quite good-looking people (having “good bone structure” as my daughter said with uncharacteristic delicacy of phrase). Because they are good looking, one thing leads to another, and there are LOADS of children and babies. In one day we saw many dozens of babes in arms, toddlers and small children, all doted on and attended by their mothers and their fathers. In fact, even as I write this, the sound of children playing in the back alleys behind the hotel drifts up to the open window of our room.
We never felt oppressed or in any danger. No-one has so much as glared at us. I say that: the traffic is shocking and dreadful. There is no road discipline at junctions; drivers will mow pedestrians down even if they have right of way and the little green man is flashing. Crossing roads in Ulaan Baatar, you have to run for your life – not as a figure of speech, but in actuality.
26th August – Ger camp
Our guide picked us up at 10 a.m on a rainy morning, after a reasonable breakfast of eggs, bread and what we think was luncheon meat. We set off in a Land Cruiser in what we were told would be a drive of some two hours to the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park. A third of that time was taken up with heavy traffic in Ulaan Baatar itself. We stopped on the way to see a guy who had two eagles and two vultures on perches. We were not entirely impressed. Though they were creatures of great wingspan, they did not look very happy. We left without pulling out our cameras. I can’t help thinking that our guide was not entirely pleased with that result.
The next stop was to put a stone on a cairn near the entrance to the national park. We politely followed the “tradition” of walking three times round the cairn, before getting back into the vehicle and setting off again. There were lots of sheep and goats, yaks and cattle. The endless rolling hills of almost featureless grass were for me the most appealing and impressive part of the scenery. As we progressed into the national park the landscape became hillier and more rocky – and somehow less special.
The Land Cruiser was not well and several times the driver had the bonnet up to peer inside at the engine – but it got us there in the end. A metalled road was being prepared, but for most of the way into the national park, there was no tarmac, just dirt tracks. These were easily passable with care, and we saw several large coaches lumbering along them. Such tracks would be impassable in England for six months of the year to anything other than 4WD vehicles. Little if any attempt was made to provide bridges or otherwise easier passage through muddy sections or to limit the routes taken by vehicles, so the dirt tracks spread out to make highly visible wide scars on the landscape.
In this part of the park, close to the city, there was much ongoing tourist development, and the white gers are everywhere. Though gers are a traditional part of Mongolian nomad life, they are still large white circles, resembling fuel tanks or similar, and I found them obtrusive in quantity.
Our camp was in a lightly wooded area of rocks, cliffs and boulders, at around 5000′ above sea level. Whilst pretty and note-worthy, you might see similar scenery in the USA or Mexico, in the High Atlas of Morocco or in Southern Africa, or in Spain or France. To be perfectly honest it could be anywhere temperate in the world. Only the ever-present lines and clusters of gers marked it as being in Central Asia. This part of the national park is being heavily developed; from my bed in the ger I can see a building site!
The gers themselves are built on foundations with concrete paths between them. They are tents only in the strictest sense that the outermost material is canvas. They are not less permanent than any building of wood, brick or stone, and in principle and usage most closely resemble caravans on a fixed caravan site. The inside of the ger is glorious. Lino resembling wood block flooring; three very nice and comfortable beds; tables and stools; a sink (with a little tank of water and a mirror), and a stove for heating purposes, with a chimney pipe up to the middle of the roof. The colour scheme is orange, and the orange-painted spokes of the ger are decorated with highly detailed floral paintings.
Lunch was served in a large cheerful circular room with tables round the outside near the windows. We were the only guests which was a little disconcerting. Lunch was a plate of meat in an excellent and piquant sauce. We thought the meat was beef.
After lunch we set off to visit a Buddhist temple. This was perhaps 7 km distant along dreadful dirt roads. You might walk there and back in a short day from this ger camp – it would make an outstanding short day’s hillwalking. We stopped along the way at Turtle Rock, an immense landmark resembling said animal.
We had to walk in to the temple up stairs, past hundreds of numbered slogans from Buddhism. The view opened out as we climbed, and was pretty spectacular. Half way up there was a pagoda with a big wheel. The pilgrim spins the wheel; the number at which it stops represents the slogan or proverb that the pilgrim has to meditate upon.
The temple was quite remarkable. It was brightly coloured in primary shades with orange dominant. The patterns and detail in the painting, the use of shades of colour, the woodwork and the embroidery were nothing less than visually stunning, a real treat for the eyes. The ceiling was padded in gold and deep red material; gloriously worked renditions of Buddhist saints marched around the walls. Carpets were heaped on the floor. I did not feel it appropriate to take pictures, though I did feel it was not different in opulence from the great cathedrals of Western Europe.
Of Buddhism itself I have less good to say: whilst Buddhists revere all life, I’m unimpressed with the Mongolian stewardship of the earth and life of this national park. There is litter everywhere – bottles, tinfoil, plastic bags. The dirt roads are ugly scars across the landscape, and the ger camps are obstrusive, resembling, to me, tank farms.
After the temple we retreated to the ger camp for a rest, stopping along the way for an extended visit to the Turtle Rock.
At the ger, a fire was lit, which quickly warmed the tent. I went for a walk to the top of the nearest hill, which was interesting, as it afforded good views away into slightly more unspoiled terrain. But it was cold up there in just a cotton shirt, and when I felt it starting to rain, I beat a retreat back to the ger.
After supper, it started raining more seriously – though rain always sounds serious from inside a tent. Darkness fell quickly and early, catching us whilst we were out for a brief walk in the gloaming. It was full night by 8.30 p.m.
27th August – country life and town life
After breakfast we went for a walk up to a nearby col where there was a prominent and interesting rock. There were many strange and lovely plants and flowers to be seen. At the col, we observed a brown dog making his way quietly and purposefully over the pass. There was a great deal of litter in evidence – far more than you might expect at a similar mountainside location in the English Lake District, for example. We looked around for a little while up on the hillside, but rain started in earnest and soon drove us off the hill and back to shelter. I tried without success to light a fire, and the rain came down.
After lunch – which was huge pieces of chicken in a garlicky, buttery sauce – the three of us, our guide and the driver drove in a 22 seater coach (the Land Cruiser having been deemed broken) to the home of a horse herder. This was a moving and very interesting experience.
The inside of his ger was entirely like the one we had camped in – even to the point of the spokes being orange. We were informed that there were areas of a ger – we as guests sat at the southeast side (the door ALWAYS facing south, they told us). The north (or twelve o’clock from the door at six o’clock) was the most important or special part, and this was graced with a solid looking dresser, on which was perched a modern boom box. A valuable saddle was strung up on the wall at about 1 o’clock, whereas harnessing and other leather materials was behind us guests at about eight o’clock. A large bed was at three o’clock; in it, a boy child of about five lay fast asleep. All around were farm-sized plastic containers, and large metal bowls containing mares milk in various stages of being converted to other diary products. At about five o’ clock was a modern set of kitchen shelves with implements and utensils. The actual kitchen was by the stove, on the floor in front of the door.
We were offered a kind of solid substance, being dried curds, and something that resembled (but was not) whipped cream, and also a small bowl of airag or fermented mares milk. This last was not as hard to drink as it sounds: it was cold, and very sour, and clearly moderately alcoholic. No harder to learn to like than any other alcoholic beverage such as beer, or whiskey, or Guinness. I mean, you’ve got to try, haven’t you? None of the substances had that smell that we in the West associate with rancid or unfresh milk products.
The farmer looked like a cartoon farmer, dressed in a suit jacket, shirt, tracksuit bottoms and wellies. He had few if any teeth. He might have been in his fifties; he might have been older. Who can tell with these people? His wife looked very much younger, at least ten or fifteen years his junior judging by her appearance – she might have been 40; I wouldn’t have put her much older. Though she was ostensibly the mother of four children, she didn’t look it.
After visiting with them briefly in their ger, we all went out to see them milking the mares. This was an interesting operation. The foal is brought along to cause the mare to “let down” her milk. The foal gets a few mouthfuls, and is then unceremoniously ejected, and the farmer’s wife moves in to milk the mare. For the most part, the mares stand uncomplaining. The little son, awake by this time, stood watching the operation in deep silence, before starting to wail.
As we left, money changed hands, not particularly discreetly, as our lady guide paid the farmer’s wife for the privilege of us sharing her household for a few moments. Then, back to the bus and back to Ulaan Baatar in heavy rain.
Later on, we wandered out from our hotel onto Peace Avenue, looking for somewhere to have dinner. We had it in our minds to look for an indian restaurant. It was raining, and the pavements and roads were flooded. Rivers of dirty brown water poured across the road at intersections; lakes and seas of mud covered whole sections of the footpath. This was no place for fancy shoes.
After a good traipse, we spotted a restaurant called the Delhi Durbar, and in we went. We had an excellent meal. Two and a half beers, a Mango lassi, a plate of starters, rice, naan bread, chicken madras, a vindaloo (the real thing, not the rubbish that is served under the title of “vindaloo” in indian restaurants in the UK), chick peas and dahl, cost T 71000 or approximately £30. The restaurant was distinguished by having two fridges side by side, with adverts for BOTH kinds of a certain popular soft drink often associated with the United States. I post a photograph of it here for the record, because it is probably not allowed!
28th August – a rainy day in Ulaan Baatar
Today was to have been a day when we could explore Ulaan Baatar as we saw fit. However, the weather was not fit for it. The rain that had started yesterday continued through the night and into today. It doesn’t rain but it pours here in Mongolia. I had not anticipated weather like this. Whilst I brought an umbrella with me against thunderstorms, I brought no raincoat, not thinking for a moment that it would rain like this – solidly for days on end – in August in central Asia.
After a late breakfast we set off in the rain towards a monastery mentioned in the guide book. We had to step over puddles, and edge past rivers and streams of water at road junctions. At a main junction we were appalled to see a little lost puppy dog shivering with cold and wet. Even as we looked at the poor fellow, another dog appeared and made friends, and though that intersection will ever after be called in our minds the “Puppy dog intersection”, we trust that he was alright in the end.
With only two umbrellas, we struggled to stay dry. The monastery was interesting enough, but it was busy with Buddhist monks doing Buddhist monk kind of things, so I didn’t feel it was appropriate to interrupt them or go into any of the sanctuaries, as we had at the temple on the mountainside the other day. In some of the squares within the courts of the temple, there were many hundred pigeons, which many people were feeding. Personally I am with the Venetians here (feeding pigeons is banned in Venice). I think feeding pigeons is about on the same level as feeding foxes, rats, or seagulls. Or wasps: Why?
The rain came down. From the monastery we retreated to a coffee shop for a latte and some cake – although what we inadvertently bought was a tuna slice. Arrggh. Then, a few hundred yards to the State Circus building, which proved to be, not a state circus of any kind, but a market of imported goods, mainly children’s clothes. The rain increased to a crescendo and we were trapped for some time in the foyer of this building, next to vendors of brightly striped donuts and cup-cakes with cheap synthetic butter-cream.
From there, once the rain had abated to merely reasonably heavy rain, we hurried back to the State Department Store, five or more floors of wonder. We wandered round here for a long while, keeping out of the rain and checking out the prices.
We had intended to visit a faraway market in another part of town – but the walk of 3km or more out there, and then 5 or 6 km back from there to the hotel, didn’t look quite so appealing in this driving rain. Over a lunch of burgers we decided to scrap that idea, and spent the afternoon instead in a fruitful browse of the local souvenir and tat shops to the east of the State Department Store on Peace Avenue. Then, after using up the remainder of our Mongolian currency on food for that evening and the train journey tomorrow, we returned to the hotel.
29th August – the third train ride
Tuesday dawned sunny – the rain and clouds were gone and the sky was once again back to what we expect of central Asia in August – a vault of blue. Under cloudless skies and cold, we were driven back to the main station. Arriving, the first thing we saw was bus-loads of European tourists – older folk mostly – arriving to join the same train as us. On the platform, more Europeans, younger this time. In fact, nearly everyone we had seen on the last two trains was here waiting to join the train to Beijing.
The passengers in the train are predominantly European and young. The train is full of tourists. Austrians, Italians, Ozzies, English, Indians, Czechs. The gilded youth of Europe and the west travelling around.
The fourth berth in our compartment was taken by a pleasant Czech fellow called Michael who spoke English with a strong German accent.
The city was soon behind us, replaced by firstly, grassy and featureless steppes, then, later, bluffs and cliffs and low hills. It was noticeable that the Mongolian railway was fenced off, whereas in Russia there was nothing to stop the general public wandering onto the tracks – and they did. It is a single track railway and the rails were not welded together, so we were treated once again to the clickety-clack sound, a sound that reminds me so much of the holidays of my childhood that it cannot but put me in a good mood. In fact, the sight of a diesel locomotive, even the smell of one or the sound of one passing in the distance, is enough to put me in a good mood, so much do I associate diesel trains with holidays.
All of the trains have travelled at what we in the west might consider a sedate pace. Even the trains on the Trans Siberian rarely passed 60mph. Here in Mongolia the train trundles at best, perhaps just clearing 50mph.
We opened the compartment window – but could we close it? For a while we sat in the cold and shivered. but eventually – what a palaver – we called in the chinese provodniki, and these two uniformed gentlemen were unable to get the window shut. They just gave up and left us, suggesting by dumb show that we should instead lower the blind to keep the cold out. We chose not to notice this advice.
Eventually, after herculean effort, the Czech guy Michael and myself got the window shut to within a centimetre of the top.
9:23 a.m: we just clattered through a hamlet with a little station, and the station mistress was stood, almost at the alert, on a little stand especially for the purpose, holding up a yellow flag as the train rumbled through. I can’t say “tore through” or “roared” or “thundered through” as these verbs, applied to trains in English, do imply a greater speed than the train is in fact making. The GPS records 85 km/h – a little over 50mph.
11 a.m: we are now on a featureless, though by no means flat, steppe. I imagine that much of Nebraska or Montana is similar. As time goes by land that was green glass and flat slowly rises to become more hilly. (“Hilly” in the sense that say, the Lincolnshire wolds are “hilly”). Also the land is drying out; vegetation is becoming less green and more scrub-like. We are around 4000′ above sea level. The cloudless skies of earlier in the morning have been replaced by 3/8 cover of fluffy “fair weather” clouds. At 11.45a.m we stopped at Чойр (“Choir” in English).
1 p.m: The land becomes drier still; sand is starting to become more common than grass. The fair weather clouds are becoming thinner and fewer. In the distance ahead, over the desert proper, there is no cloud at all.
Years’ worth of litter flung from the passing trains is drifted against the railway fence – this is rather displeasing to the English eye. Electric pylons and the trans-Gobi road march across the arid plain just a few hundred yards from the railway track. The sole users of the road appea
r to be an endless series of west-bound (in the sense of coming out of China into Mongolia) heavy articulated lorries.
4 p.m: we have passed Saynshand, where the train stopped briefly, and are now into the Gobi desert proper. The landscape appears to be about 3/4 sand and the vegetation is sparse and scrubby. There is not a cloud in the sky.
30th August – the Middle Kingdom
The crossing of the border between Mongolia and China was harmless, although the Chinese officials were somewhat peremptory (the word I would prefer to use is “rude” but we are in a foreign land where it may be customary for public officials to behave as though they own the place. In dealing with officious and generally unnecessary public servants, particularly in the east, we play by their rules.) So I don’t really resent being told (not asked) to take my glasses off, and my daughter Anna could laugh off being told to stand up and made to say how old she was. What I object to is the principle that it is OK for public employees anywhere to be rude to private persons going about their lawful occasions.
The bogie-changing sheds were interesting. The train was divided in two, and the two shorter parts shunted onto parallel tracks in a huge and ill-lit shed. The coaches were all disconnected from one another, and each one lifted up into the air, passengers and all, on hydraulic rams. The Russian broad gauge bogies were pushed out the way, and new standard-gauge bogies rolled in to replace them. There was a great deal of clanking and banging, and shunting back and forth. The coach shook violently and juddered as it was pushed back and forth, though the part while we were in the air was peaceful enough. Horns and bells were going off at seemingly random intervals, and because it was dark, we had no sense of what was going on. The high point of the entire process seemed to be an impromptu ghost show laid on by people in a compartment in the section of the train opposite us. Much use was made of sheets and torches placed under chins, to the general merriment of all.
8a.m: Datong – it is a sunny morning we have woken up to. We have sped noiselessly through the night to this provincial city, and we are back in the realm of modern railways. Electric traction and continuous welded rail. The station is swept clean. Everything is tidy. There are uniformed officials everywhere. I got shouted at when I stepped over the “yellow line” at the edge of the platform. Passengers Must Not. It Is Forbidden. It Is An Offence To.
Early impressions of China as seen from an international passenger train? Poplar trees. Bicycles. Cleanliness and order at stations. Tremendous economic growth – everywhere, tower cranes. The countryside is
terraced and cultivated to within an inch of it’s life: we have come through two countries where there is still much that is true wilderness. It’s doubtful that there has been any wilderness at all in eastern China for a thousand years, perhaps much longer.
At 9.15a.m someone spotted their first glimpse of the Great Wall.
10.40 a.m: Zhang Jia Kou South station – it is hot and sunny. As the train passed through this city, we noticed several wide modern roads – but no traffic at all. There is much that is new here – big office buildings, huge tower blocks of flats in long rows. In the hinterland the land rises up to mountains – we travel though mountains now all the way to Beijing.
13.40 p.m: Approaching Beijing station. The descent to Beijing is through the most remarkable gorge, the railway running through a series of sixty-four tunnels. In Europe, such a gorge (comparable to the Gorge du Tarn in southern France) would warrant people travelling 500 miles to
see it. In America, a thousand miles. Here? No-one. It is not a tourist attraction at all. The bottom and sides of the gorge are farmed in strips, and there are little orchards on the valley floor. The scenery is stupendous – this last few hours is more scenic than the entire six days on the train from Moscow put together.
The railway ran out of the gorge, and the suburbs of Beijing were upon us. We think we know about large cities, but this one is a sprawling king amongst them. As the train drew nearer to the city centre, it grew much hotter, and the sound of cicadas was all around.
Qian Men hostel
The train arrived at the main railway station in Beijing in the heat of the afternoon. Shouldering our bags, we got off and walked down into an underpass to leave the station. As we moved towards the exit, the crowd grew thicker and progress slower, until we found ourselves part of a shuffling mass of humanity moving slowly forward towards the exits. And one by one through the exits we came forth into the bright sunshine on a wide and open square. The heat was baleful; the crowds swirled around. Our bags were heavy, and
A man walks down the street,
It’s a street in a strange world.
Maybe it’s the Third World.
Maybe it’s his first time around.
He doesn’t speak the language,
He holds no currency…
In the heat, we cached our bags in a heap, and the girls watched them whilst I crossed a nearby road via a footbridge, having spotted a bank with an ATM on the other side. We needed cash. Thus armed, I returned to the girls, and we found the entrance to the metro. The queue for the cash ticket machines was legendary – many hundreds of yards long, making the long and unwieldy queues seen for tube tickets at London terminii seem short by comparison. The queue for taxis was the same – hundreds of yards long. We had been approached by a tout offering illegal taxis, and we went back to him. We bargained with him and had him down from Y240 to Y150, though we might have been able to go further if I had kept my mouth shut and let my daughters do the bargaining. Haggling does not come naturally to me. But we bought that ride ‘cos I felt we should cut our losses – we were tired, hot, thirsty and hungry and at least 2km from our hostel through streets we knew nothing about, carrying heavy bags.
Qian Men Hostel was cool and dark, an ensemble of several different buildings, linked by funky little courtyards with tables and benches for sitting and relaxing. It felt very much like a caravanserai. We had an adequate room with good beds; check-in was harmless (simply a matter of a few passport checks), and the showers were clean and ran hot. Can you ask for more?
A meal with a Chinese family
Freshened up, we set out for a walk, having been invited to dinner by the host family of Josie’s friend Emma. This was in an urban residential district, not in any sense “touristy”, and it was pleasing to see a “real” side to the city. People were coming back from work; kids were playing in the street. There were little corner shops and there were groups of old men sat outside on stools, enjoying the evening. This, to me, is worth much more than any great monument or “sight-seeing”.
Earlier we had been sat at beer as darkness fell, and Emma had expressed some trepidation as to how her host family (a father, mother and little boy of 4) would deal with us. How would they take us? They were very keen to have us over, it seemed – but that fact itself was a slight concern.
Our hostess was a lady in her early thirties; her son a typical four year old boy (that is, a bundle of energy, all over the place with toy guns that spark, never still for a moment). We sat on the settee in their spacious eighth floor apartment (living room, dining area, kitchen with no outside wall, two bathrooms and three bedrooms) and chatted over nibbles and drinks. Then her husband arrived home from work, changed, and introduced himself.
English was in short supply, but enthusiasm, welcome and good cheer more than made up for the language barrier. Soon enough we were sat down at table for a delicious meal of home-cooked chinese food, and drinking a 2009 Bordeaux…out of shot glasses. Strong spirits also were served, and there were frequent toasts (and this practice is something that westerners coming to China are warned about). Mine host was gracious relaxed in this matter, however, and chose not to notice that I only sipped at the spirits rather than necked my glass every time he proposed a toast.
After dinner there was more relaxed chat, whilst we were entertained by the antics of the 4-year old. Children in China don’t keep English hours, and there was no suggestion that it should soon be bedtime for the lad, as there might have been in the UK.
The evening finished with some piano playing and some staged singing and demonstrations of musical skill from the little boy, of whom his parents clearly had high hopes. Tired, we made our excuses and went on our way. They were quite happy with that, well aware that we had had a long day of travelling.
31st August – the Great Wall
Whilst waiting outside at 6.30a.m, we’d managed to find street vendors selling breakfast – some deep-fried dough rather like the Spanish “churros”, though perhaps less sweet, and something else that proved to be very tasty; something that was a cross between an omelette and a wrap, with various fillings.
We were picked up outside the hostel and were the first customers in 22-seater coach. The lady guide introduced herself and took our money. She was a young woman in her early twenties from a rural village in Manchuria, come to the big city to make her fortune. When we gave her money, she was less than impressed with the fact that we had booked the tour for only Y120/head; she said that the true price was Y300/head. She went to great lengths to tell us that we should not talk to her other customers about the lower price we had got, or else her day would all of a sudden take a turn for the worse. We did not find such discretion to be a hardship.
The other customers were all collected from up-market hotels in a different part of town. There was an Australian man in his forties with his two teenage sons, who were stopping over in Beijing on a trip to Norway and other European destinations. There was a lone Chinese with his young son, and there was a Philipino family consisting of a pampered overweight brat of 10 or so and his immensely wealthy father and mother. Whilst the father and mother were harmless, the son had seen and done everything and was not afraid to tell anyone who wanted to listen all about it.
To say that our Chinese lady guide spoke at great length would be putting it politely. Using a microphone and cranking the PA right up, she addressed us about everything conceivable along the route. Sat in the front seat I did not feel able to so much as look out of the window, much less quietly read my book; I had to keep my eyes fixed on her in a kind of show of fake interest. Being Chinese rather than European, any nuance of my body language indicating that I had no slight interest in her tedious and over-loud commentary would have completely eluded her.
Our first stop was at the tombs of the Ming Emperors. This was a number of fine traditional chinese buildings set in gardens. Inside was one huge space with a giant statue of some king or other. The roof and walls were in solid wood; the roof beams must have been single trees, the pillars likewise, immense trunks, all of sandalwood. Overall it seemed to me that it was rather like what we might expect the inside of Solomon’s Temple to have looked like. A truly immense space created from some very clever wood engineering. Outside the sky was blue and clear, green tree-covered mountains all around.
From the Ming tombs we went to what was billed as a “Jade factory”. It was nothing of the sort, simply being a large shop (the Chinese know well that a fool and his money are easily parted, though we managed to resist easily enough) with an even larger canteen or refectory behind it. It was enlivened only by the most wonderful globe in the foyer. This globe was over a metre across and made of all different kinds of semi-precious stones and jade. Each country was picked out in a different kind of material. Doubtless it too was for sale, and it would look great as the centre-piece in the foyer of some head offices, or perhaps a 5-star hotel. I could have looked at that globe for hours.
While we were there, we were taken through the refectory (which was half full of noisy Chinese families) into a smaller and better appointed area, obviously for westerners. Here we enjoyed a very good Chinese lunch, although it seemed impossibly early, barely even noon.
After lunch, a long drive through mountainous and scenic countryside to the Great Wall at Badaling. We were fast-tracked onto the cable car, and we were appalled by the queues of Chinese everywhere – at the top, at the bottom. Whilst the Great Wall was visually stunning, the sheer volume of Chinese tourists present meant that I found the whole experience somewhat unsettling to say the least. The only place I have ever visited that was anywhere near as busy was Venice. I’ll go back to Venice; I shan’t come here to Badaling again. The experience was compounded by the queue to get down again from the top – it was about forty minutes spent shuffling through a tunnel, which I didn’t find particularly enjoyable.
After the Great Wall, we were driven back to the city to some form of private clinic, where we were going to be offered foot massages. It all looked a bit flaky to us, and as it was already 5pm and we were all feeling somewhat jaded and tired of our guide’s endless cheerful commentary, we politely told mine hostess that we would make our own way back home without foot massages.This we did without too much difficulty, taking first a cab and then a long and complex metro ride.
1st September – shopping
Our final full day on holiday was spent relaxing – you can do too much on holiday, and end up needing a holiday to recover from your holiday. After a late start (before which I had spent a good while shaving off two weeks growth of beard), we strolled around in the alleys near the hostel. This was magical – a glimpse of the hidden real life of Beijing. Kids were making their way to school in droves. Initially we thought they were Scouts, until we realised that their red neckerchiefs were merely part of their school uniform.
After some local souvenir shopping, we went to the Silk Street Market, which is a modern market on four or five floors, rather like the similar markets in Hong Kong and Singapore. Bargaining is essential here; every manner of goods is on sale. Each vendor will tug your arm as you go past, entreating you to deal with them, all sweetness and light until you start bargaining. Then their eyes turn hard and it’s no more Mr Nice Guy. “You hard man” they say, with no obvious irony. “I make no profit.” Yeah right. You need a while to get used to it – when they tried to sell me a “Rosetta Stone” CD for Russian language, for US$5, only then did I get a grasp of how inflated their marked prices were. Alas, bargaining is not in my nature.
That evening, we went out for snacks with Emma’s host family. This was a great family occasion. The area to which we went must have been something like the equivalent of Brick Lane – alleyways and streets of restaurants, big and small. Some of the food we liked…some, less so. The hardest thing we did was pressing money on mine host: all the food we ate must have cost Y200 (about £20), and we know that their wages are lower than ours. Only after some persuasion and charm were we able to get him to accept some money towards the evening.
2nd September – in summary
Our holiday has been excellent. We were never in a bad place. We were never hassled by thieves, pick-pockets, officials or police. There was no trouble of any kind. As I said of Mongolia, no-one has so much as glared at us.
To my surprise the Chinese section of the trip was the highlight. I thought it would be the tour through central Asia. But Beijing is superb – a magical place, so huge and full of variety, from great palaces and squares, sweeping boulevards, towers and skyscrapers, through to vendors selling tat out of brightly lit and garishly decorated shops, to back alleys where the real life of the city is conducted. We have seen uniformed school-children, each distinguished by a red neckerchief; babies aplenty, often dressed in the distinctive split trousers of the Orient; we have seen the true variety of Chinese physiognomy. How anyone could say that all Chinese look alike defeats me. A single ride on the Beijing metro would give the lie to that notion.
We have seen perhaps five beggars over an entire weekend in a capital city. In London you can see that many during a half hour lunch break. Now here is a difference between Beijing and London: In London the very many beggars are almost invariably able-bodied white Anglo-Saxon men under 40. In Beijing the beggars are at a different level of misfortune, perceived or otherwise: the few we saw were blind, or missing half a face, or with arms or legs missing. We were told a story of a beggar seen recently in a night-club who had neither arms nor legs. Compared to that, the able-bodied men trying to sell the Big Issue on Victoria Street in SW1 cut no ice at all.
I know of only one country with more closed-circuit TV cameras than China. That country is the United Kingdom. The uniformed police in Beijing seemed polite and smart, but they were quite literally everywhere. There were coppers on foot, in cars, and in mobile police stations all over the place. You might have to work quite hard in Beijing to be more than a mile or so from a uniformed policemen – and of plainclothesmen and secret policemen, of course, we know nothing.
The one thing that remained in our minds and hearts was the generosity and hospitality of Emma’s host family. This couple welcomed us into their home for dinner on the Friday night, serving wine and spirits too, and they took us out for snacks on the Sunday evening, refusing to let us pay even for the taxi. Only by great effort and persistence were we able to press money on them as a contribution to the snack evening. We were in their debt. This was “inclusiveness” as one of the four aspects of “Beijing Spirit” that we saw advertised all over the city. The other three aspects were patriotism, innovation, and virtue.
After the snacks I returned to the hostel alone, whilst the girls had their nails done. When they returned, not long after a welcome thunderstorm, they bore a further gift for me from mine host – some binoculars. What am I to do in the face of this kind of open-handedness?
The answer comes back from all around and from the Man Above: “go thou and do likewise!” You might think that in a city of 23 millions in a Confucian culture, that the individual does not matter – but you’d be quite wrong. For two individuals, one couple, one family, made such a difference that my impression of this great city of 23 millions is brightened and burnished forever.
On my way to Aberdeen on business, I had a beer with AK. in “The Head of Steam” at Euston station, with a nice burger and pleasant conversation as ever. I note in passing that over the last few days I felt some slight aches and pains in my left upper back from what I thought was some kind of pulled muscle.
I took the sleeper train from Euston to Aberdeen. This train was heavily delayed. I was woken up by silence when the train should have been thundering along. As a former seafarer silence can often wake me up – sudden silence on a ship at sea, particularly a seismic survey ship, is always a serious matter.
Weds 14th January
I was not best pleased to wake up finding the sleeper train parked at Edinburgh Waverley and that the time was a little after 6a.m – the train was nearly three hours late. It should have been through Edinburgh well before 4a.m.
We were asked to leave the train, which had broken down. I went from being snug in bed, unshaven, in pyjamas, to being smartly dressed for business and hurriedly shaved, on the station platform, in less than 15 minutes. The time was 6.45a.m and I felt dreadful, like death warmed up.
However, feeling rough at an early hour is part of life for the business traveller, and it wouldn’t be the first time, so I shrugged it off. By the time I got to Aberdeen it was 11a.m, and I had started feeling rougher still on the train North, with an unshakeable headache and terrible weariness. I did some business but the flu-like symptoms worsened to the point that by mid afternoon work was no longer possible, and I cried off sick. I recall shivering hunched in my greatcoat in the foyer of an Aberdeen marine contractor, waiting for a cab to my hotel, feeling like a character out of Dickens – “I have the ague”.
I had a bath, and retreated to bed. During the night the hotel turned off the heating, and I needed to call reception to get it back on again, as I was shivering.
Thurs 15th January
I just managed a light breakfast (always a clear sign that I am not well). The snow was sifting down outside as I ate. I managed to do my job as secretary for a certain committee, the primary reason I was in Aberdeen. Back to London by air, feeling rougher by the second. I was blessed mightily by the lady in the BA lounge who (as a favour to my Gold card carrying boss, not to me) allowed me to travel back on an earlier flight. Answered prayers! Shivering in the taxi back to to my home, into the bath and into bed by 8pm.
Fri 16th January
A day of unavoidable hard work which was shared by others in the community. I’d given warning that I needed assistance, being poorly, with the setting up of the Frost Camp. My wife helped, and WC, Mrs P and Mrs D. My strength ebbed by mid-afternoon but there was no escape. I was much blessed and encouraged by the presence and the prayers of Susan Hanson at home.
At Bentley Copse my Scout colleague and I worked ourselves silly putting tents up from 3pm til 6.30pm, at which point I could no longer stand.
I went to give team information to the Wardens up in the lodge, and the Warden’s wife made me a cup of tea and brought it to my hand. This caused me to burst into tears, at which point I knew that I was gravely ill and deeply tired as a consequence. (I am often very emotional when exhausted and in my last job sometimes I had to bite my tongue to prevent myself from crying when absolutely shattered. There would be no sympathy for mere tiredness on a seismic ship.) It was warm inside the hut and I was overborne with exhaustion and a sense of responsibility for all our youngsters.
I could not face staying up and went to bed early at 10a.m. I took a very rough night indeed, and slept not one wink, from pain and discomfort in my back primarily, from the noise of the Scouts and from the sound of wind and rain on the tent. On the plus side one of the few things I do enjoy is being snuggled up inside a tent on a rainy night.
After the fact I note that that from Thursday afternoon onwards I had the symptoms of pneumonia, but it really started to kick in on Friday night.
Sat 17th January
I staggered to life in considerable distress with great pain in the side, upper back and chest. It made my breathing laboured and shallow. After breakfast I made my excuses and walked with difficulty, twisted and bent over, to the office, where I organised a doctor. I sat in the car wondering if I had the strength to drive; I certainly had not the strength to go back to the campsite and make a formal handover, and left all my gear where it lay. Much of my remaining strength was spent on the phone securing the assistance of another Permit holder.
Thence to Dorking to see a doctor, who prescribed “Augmentin”, and thence to Redhill where I was met by my wife who had been kindly driven through by Mrs C. My wife drove me home to a bath and thence to bed with a consolidated infection of the lower lobe of the left lung – pneumonia.
There was no measurable improvement in pain until after 10pm, when I’d had three doses of the antibiotics. Pain became ache. I was much troubled also with waking dreams, hallucinations and unpleasant visions of moving objects, swirling fantastic landscapes of outrageous, out-of-this-world colours. I slept poorly, and for the first time in my life, had to sleep sat up, because it was too painful to lie down.
Sun 18th January
I had a slow day in bed starting the pattern of the next four days or so. Porridge in bed early, then a cooked breakfast in bed, a long hot bath and back to bed to drowse or read. I became feverish and started shivering violently at intervals, particularly after the exertion of a round-trip to the loo – perhaps eight paces there and eight paces back!
I was still troubled, more so, by hallucinations as soon as I closed my eyes. This induced nausea – as the visions were all of violently fast motion – and I reflected that if this is as bad as it gets, it could get a lot worse.
Mon 19th January
Recovery continued almost imperceptibly. I managed a bit of email and stuff. Washing machine breaks down – what a time for it to do so.
Tues 20th January
I watched a movie. I found that I could once again lie on my side for a short period without intolerable discomfort. I was still weak and felt particularly dreadful in the evening and around dinner time. The doc said this was usual – I was fortunate in that a doctor came to the house to see me – I could not have gone to the surgery at all and going to hospital is to be avoided at the best of times.
Ordered another washing machine on the internet – there goes our planned holiday to Lee Abbey at winter half term.
Weds 21st January
It is becoming clear that the antibiotics are not prevailing against the infection – I am not getting better. The doctor prescribes stronger ones. Reading Scripture, esp. Isa. 38:17.
After a tough time of shivering feverishness, following my morning bath, I spent the morning drowsing and could hardly face some soup at lunch. But I rallied in the afternoon to a worrying degree. I remain ill but better than the same time yesterday. Towards dinner time feeling much stronger, but then rougher again as evening wore on. I was painfully hungry and had a big appetite for a good supper of chilli con carne. Later, another shivering attack after a visit to the loo. Did some leg exercises, as I was worried about the atrophy effects of being bed-bound for days on end. It made me tired – I am weak.
Thurs 22nd January
An OK nights sleep. I had high hopes that there would be a dramatic improvement in health today, but instead, it has been much like the other days, with incremental, imperceptible improvement. More walking up and down in the bedroom to get my body going.
Fri 23rd January
Last night I slept on my back for the first time since last week. However I did not sleep well; there were frequent dreams and discomfort woke me up frequently from 4a.m onwards.
After a bath, I went downstairs for the first time in over a week to sit and lie in the study, doing this and that, taking a slow day. I felt I did loads and had a full day. To bed for an almost “normal” nights sleep.
Sat 24th January
Day nine of my illness proper.
Less sweats in the small hours, but still an uncomfortable night with frequent awakenings and nagging discomfort.
My wife and I sat in bed til 10a.m as if it was an ordinary Saturday morning. I had a shave and a shower rather than a bath, and actually got dressed! Following a hearty breakfast in the kitchen this time, I rested up in the study, though I was pottering up and down the stairs (slowly) several times during the day. By 4pm I felt quite worn out, and My wife bade me retreat to the bedroom. After another bout of feverishness I took a bath and so to bed after a relaxing evening at 10p.m. Too much too soon?
Sun 25th January
Properly convalescent now, but the weather is dreadful. Driving rain kept us indoors all day long. A day of pottering, planning aspects of Scout camp with my wife, and other stuff. I was very hungry. I needed a second cooked breakfast at noon, following my first at 10a.m. Nonetheless I have lost half a stone. At dusk my wife and I played Scrabble.
Mon 26th January
Feeling better at break of day, but still experiencing broken sleep in the small hours. Pain much lessened, now a dull ache under the left shoulder blade, without brufen. I did a little work in the study and went for my first walk out with my wife, to the end of the street and back. My wife wants to nurse me back to health as carefully as possible without relapse.
Scrabble at dusk, and a surfeit of energy in the evening. To bed, but not before 10.30pm – feeling almost normal.
Tues 27th January
Still waking up early, around 7a.m, but for the first time, without feeling the residual dampness from perspiration, coming from feverishness during the night hours. My energy levels are coming back up. No need for painkillers.
There is NO repaying what my wife has done for me as a wife this past two weeks; to say that I am forever in her debt is literally true.
Today a longer walk and a full and active morning. Remaining very hungry at intervals. I started feeling “bath-ish” and a little feverish around 7p.m. Later, at rest, I find I have pain in the left lower lobe at the rear, which feels like a step backwards. I do find more pain in the evenings.
Weds 28th January
A good nights sleep. Noting less and less pain and deeper breathing range. Nagging discomfort in left kidneys, otherwise feeling good.
As afternoon wears on, I feel less special. At 2pm I hit the painkillers again – Cocodamol and Brufen. Discomfort and nagging pain in the left lung, front and back. Feels like it is getting worse again. Feeling ratty, particularly as I find myself losing at Scrabble (itself not unusual!)
No lasting city here, but hope in the City that is to come – Hebrews 13:14
Thurs 29th January
To Westerham for a stroll and visit to a café – my first serious trip out. It was to be just coffee and cake but I was so hungry I ordered a Full English and the best pot of tea I have drunk in years.
Back home, some pottering and a relaxing afternoon. I was sketching and drawing. For some reason I am drawn to sketch, draw and paint.
At 4pm to the doctor, who prescribed a further course of strong antibiotics to finish off the remaining infection. Painkillers in the evening and cards, including a rare family game of Black Maria. And so to bed on this long road to recovery, at 10.40p.m.
A further week off is mandated by the doctor, and a trip to the Royal Victoria at East Grinstead, for chest X-rays. The doctor specifically suggested this hospital rather than the less reputable East Surrey at Redhill.
Fri 30th January
Up and feeling OK; to East Grinstead for chest X-rays. Then a sandwich whilst my wife shopped in Sainsbury’s and back home to rest up. Later, some easy work and a pleasant visit from those two affable buffoons DW and WC, which is a lovely gesture and welcome, even if I find I have little enough to say.
Later on, Anna made a nice supper, and my wife and I played Scrabble, then my wife went out. I felt very tired and had a bath, after which I flopped onto bed, exhausted. I find I have an annoying “crick” in my neck which only manifests when I lay myself down to sleep at night.
Sat 31st January – day 16
This period of illness has caused me to pray much. As I grow more accustomed to prayer, I find long-lost habits and tastes for silence before God returning to me.
Cooked some soup and made supper (Chilli) and then played Scrabble. Had a bath and then to bed – again with a crick in the neck.
Sun 1st February
Did not go to church. At 11a.m my son and I delivered the District mailing in bitterly cold conditions. Briefly saw TB at the Scout hut and discussed the new front door and its keys. Snow flurries at lunch quickly turned into a downpour which continued all afternoon.
Weds 4th February
A first day back at work – a leisured start, taking train only at 0923, but it was late! I did not get to 5LBS until 1040. I put in an acceptable day’s work and left still feeling strong – but was weak by the time I got home. My wife prepared tea for me. She had bought several shirts for me and we had a peaceful time together whilst I tried them all on. Then, I made supper, thence to the doctors and made a shopping list for the forthcoming curry night which I was doing for eight paying customers.