Borsch with a Communist

I met him on a train-station platform somewhere in Siberia. It was after Krasnoyarsk, but before Novosibirsk. I can’t quite remember where I met him. Three days and fifteen hours on the #69 train from Irkutsk to Moscow have since simply morphed into a hazy, lazy mush of memories somewhere in the deepest, darkest recesses of my brain, the exact details of which escape me. I can’t even remember his name. It was either Vitaly or Vasily. For the sake of this anecdote, let’s call him Vitaly, for that is where I would put my money, were I a betting man.

He noticed me on the platform, my bright red t-shirt emblazoned with a barley-yellow Hammer and Sickle on the front. I had bought it in Laos quite some weeks before, but all my other t-shirts were utterly foul and in desperate need of a date with a washing machine, so I had no choice but to wear it, however conspicuous I was. Curious, he approached, and asked the obvious question at first in Russian, but then in English.

“No I’m not a Communist,” I chuckled in reply. “I just think it is an interesting t-shirt.”

“Yes! In Russia it is very interesting…” laughed Vitaly, relishing the rare opportunity to speak with a foreigner.

I returned the question, as one does when making polite small-talk with strangers.

“Yes, I work for the Communist Party in Russia,” he elaborated further: “I am government official for Russian Communist Party.” Russians sometimes miss out both definite and indefinite articles when speaking English; the words ‘the’ and ‘a’ do not exist in the Russian language. “I am travelling to Moscow for Communist Party meeting, it is a big meeting.”

“A conference?”

“Yes!” he clicked his fingers and pointed sharply at me, wide-eyed. “Conference.” He raised a clenched fist to his lips, thinking, his eyes darting up to the left and then back down to me once he had formulated the question in his head. He was a very tall man, easily over six feet, with heavily gelled and combed brown hair but not without the odd flake of dandruff, no more than 10 years my senior.

“What…are you doing in Russia?” he asked, rolling his R’s in a satisfyingly stereotypical accent.

The conversation carried on for a few minutes before we headed off back to our own carriages, but with a promise to continue our getting to know each other in the days to come.

Still rumbling through the enormous Russian wilderness, the following morning (or was it afternoon?) I headed down the train cautiously, very wary not to drop my camera, diary or pen, or perhaps all three, on to the century-old tracks as I passed between each carriage.

“This is platskart” proclaimed Vitaly with a heavy irony as I arrived in the 52-berth open carriage.

This is how the foolhardy Russians travel on the Transsibiriskaya Magestral’: there are no compartments, and no privacy whatsoever, and little space to store whatever luggage you may have. The beds, stacked twice above one another, are barely long enough for those who, unlike me, are blessed to be more than 5’9”, their feet dangling in the aisle. Kids with more energy than a nuclear power station toddle and chatter up and down the carriage, disturbing the dozing that anyone might be able to nab in between the providnitsa coming along every now and again with a bucket of soapy water and a mop, keeping her mini-fiefdom devoid of any dirt and rubbish. Occasionally someone may wake from their mid-day slumber, most likely to fetch some boiling water from the samovar to have a brew or to “cook” their third pot of instant noodles in as many days.

I sat down at Vitaly’s table, magically folded up out of his bed. These trains are fantastic: there are hidden cubbyholes and little tables everywhere. You just need to find out where they are.

“Okay I explain how we talk,” he said very forthrightly but by no means impolitely. “I ask you question, you answer, then you ask me a question, and I answer. It is good?”

“Yes absolutely!” I replied, opening the back of my six-week old, Vietnamese-bought diary, now slowly starting to fall apart. Vitaly rustled his many sheets of fastidiously penned questions and vocab lists he had been preparing. I felt guilty, having done no preparation at all, but ran with it all the same.

When starting off language-learning one tends to stick to the simple topics that belong to innocent and totally meaningless conversation. I remember the days of penning answers to “Do you have any pets?”, “Where did you go on holiday?”, and “What do you like doing in your free time?” in Herr Doktor Taylor’s German lessons back in year 8.

“What do you think about migrants?” asked Vitaly.

And so the conversation continued for the rest of that afternoon and the entire day after that about protection of the environment, minority languages of the United Kingdom and Russia, the Syrian Civil War, the most important event in Russian history (this was, according to my new friend, the October Revolution of 1917), the UK political spectrum, attitudes towards homosexuality, King James I of England, and what our hopes for the future are.

“Where would you like to live when you are older?” asked Vitaly.

Having signalled my desire to stay put in the UK, but hopefully to have a job which takes me different places, I returned the question.

As was his habit, the Communist raised a clenched fist to his lips, gazed wistfully out over the endless empty forest of Russian taiga and replied, “I would like to move to America…”

My ears started. Surely not…

“…because I like the free speech and the, erm…”

He paused for more thought. “And free market.”

Had the conversation been in Russian, I would have enquired further into his somewhat mismatched politics. Perhaps he had misunderstood what a free market economy is; perhaps he had misunderstood what Communism is, despite, supposedly, working for the Communist Party; perhaps he just picked the wrong words in a language that wasn’t his own.

I chose not to probe, out of politeness, but needless to say some doubt as to the truth was put in my mind. Speaking of which, Putin.

“What do you think about Putin?” I asked on a different occasion.

Looking around cautiously, but speaking with confidence hoping that no-one around could understand, he gave his opinion.

“I think he is a thief and is destroying Russia’s reputation” was the crux of his argument.

Eager to expand on my Russian vocabulary, I asked for the Russian word for “thief”. Vitaly quickly came over very cold and very stern, unnervingly so, like a teacher about to hand back a less-than-impressive exam. He took out his pen, took my diary, jotted down three Cyrillic letters, gave them back, all with a most serious expression, and before I even had a chance to read it, Vitaly once more raised his right hand to his face, but this time with an outstretched index finger over his lips. His eyes widened.

You never know who’s listening. Not here. Not in Russia.

On our final evening on the train, we decamped from Vitaly’s quarters and made for the restaurant car. Our conversations continued much in the same vain as before, with my new friend’s English becoming stronger by the hour as we sipped on our lukewarm beetroot soup, called Borshch in Russian, but most frequently spelled borsch in English.

I had made it my goal to eat borsch on the Trans-Siberian Railway many months before I bought the tickets. I don’t mind all the stereotypes and clichés. I prefer to embrace them. And so now with the opportunity, I seized the day to upgrade my cliché from simply eating borsch in Russia to eating borsch on the Trans-Siberian Railway with communist.

It could only have got more stereotypical if a tattooed, slightly inebriated football hooligan with a bloodshot eye and a scar on his scalp from having had a bottle smashed over his head by a rival had overheard our conversation and joined in. He was actually a really nice guy!

I arrived in Moscow at 4.11am the following morning.


P.S. Below are some really rather interesting pictures of old Soviet iconography from around the Moscow Metro, which I hope you also find interesting.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

First published: 12th May 2018
Back to my homepage!


A Poem for Durham

I came here to study
but ended up with a life
New friends and new family
opportunities rife

But let us start here
In my humble abode
For it’s where I now write
This short little ode

At the Foot of the Hill
stands St.Mary’s College
The best place in town
You must acknowledge

Women’s education from
Eighteen ninety-nine
But today it is mixed
We’re a sign of the times

Walk down these corridors
You’ll reach the great hall
For eating and chatting
And grand gowned balls

Head off in the morning
For a stroll down Church Street
The SU and Elvet
The monsters of concrete

Now German and Russian
Is how I spend my time
So let’s see if such words
Are easy to rhyme

posledniy, eta pravda
mnogo, kak zhal’,
Es fließt einen Fluss
Im steilen Tal

Down by this river
The ducks paddle by
A towering cathedral
In the cold blue sky

The Shrine of St.Cuthbert
and the Venerable Bede
The Castle, the Library
the Union, Palace Green

Fundamenta eius
super montibus sanctis

The whole aesthetic
Of this beautiful city
When sprinkled with white
Becomes even more pretty

But what I’ve loved most
Has been most time-consuming
It’s never ending, it’s everywhere
By Jove it’s the Music!

I’ve played in Pratchett and
Büchner and Lerner and Loewe
Not forgetting DUPO

Vltava and Mozart
A Blest Pair of Sirens
I Was Glad to have seen
His Royal Highness

Rehearsals quite often
at the college of Trevs
But after, “to the bar!”
For some cheap uni bevs

Or perhaps to the Swan
For a cheap pint of Taddy’s
Or the drunkard’s favourite
Of a pizza at Paddy’s

On a rare night out
I’d head straight for Klute
Or Jimmy’s or Fab’s
But never ever Spoon’s

‘cos Lloyds on a Wednesday
And argy-bargy Blazers
Put me right off though it
shouldn’t really faze us

But I’ve spent too much time
now writing this song
‘cos deadlines are looming
and soon before long

I’ll be back in Watford
But again I will come
Up North to be at
The Uni of Durham.

First published: 10th March 2018

I want more!

A Retrospection

At risk of sounding overly enlightened in the somewhat melancholy haze of my soon-to-be post-gap year nirvana, in this final week of September before I start university my thoughts have turned back to what I have done, not done; achieved, failed at; learned and forgotten, in the past 13 months.


Take care of the world in which we all live.
I fully recognise the hypocrisy in saying the above, having taken boats, trains, planes, cars, busses and even a pooping horse to get around this year, but I mean it, and I say it in the strongest possible terms. I come away from this year with a greater sense than ever before that we owe it to our children, and to the children of others around the planet to look after what we have inherited from our parents, and to ensure that our children inherit the planet in a state in which we would like to inherit it ourselves.

The place where I most strongly developed this sentiment was not, however, travelling around the polluted, litter-strewn cities of South-East Asia. It was in a restaurant on a little island in the Swedish archipelago where I worked as a waiter/runner/bartender over the summer.

I presume pretty much every single restaurant around the world takes the same approach when it comes to left-over food and drink: chuck it in the bin, pour it down the sink.

I am ashamed.

I am personally ashamed at how much food I myself just lobbed in a bin bag, food that was perfectly good to eat. Food which had spent months growing in a field. Food which had had tonnes of water spent on it. Food which had been harvested and transported out to this island. Food which had been cooked using energy harnessed from the burning of fuel, gas, or through other, more sustainable means, only for all of Mother Nature’s valiant efforts to be hurled without consequence or second thought into a rotting pile of ugly modern reality. All in vain.

We owe it to all the children of war, famine and poverty around the world to eat what we have on our plate because others don’t have that luxury.

And if we eat all that we have on our plate for lunch, rather than lob it in the bin, perhaps we might not need so much for dinner.

And perhaps that food we won’t eat at dinnertime will, in a roundabout way, find its way to someone who needs it more than you.


Sunrise in Bagan, Myanmar

Planet Earth is big, and our world is very, very small.
It might only be a straight line on a map, but a flight from the UK to Thailand will take you 12 hours. On this journey, you will soar, untouchable, over Belgium, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, the Black Sea (night falls), Georgia, Azerbaijan, the Caspian Sea, Turkmenistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Myanmar and Thailand (the sun rises as you touch down).

It is a truly mind-boggling distance which you have covered, sitting up there in your metal capsule, ignorant of the hundreds of millions of lives you have left in your contrails.

But they down below, will see you, and a small child will wave and point and ask Daddy where the plane is flying. What will the people on the plane do when they arrive? Who will they meet? What will they see? What are they doing now? How fast are they going?

I live right under the Heathrow airport flight path, and on a clear day in summer a plane will boom overhead at least once every 10 minutes or so – at least. Given this, I reckon the chance of me having looked up to the sky to see a plane that you, my dear reader, are sitting in, or indeed any other person I have met or laid eyes on during my life, is pretty high. Funny that. I find it a puzzling thought. There’s over 7 billion people in the world, God-knows how many houses, and you’re flying over my house.

This takes me on to a different perspective of our planet: the world and how tiny it really is. We all have our own individual positions in space at any given time, and we can all accept that space and time are ginormous.

Given that there are so many people in the world, the chances I will meet others is, sparing nuclear apocalypse, 100%. But what about just one individual?

1 in 7,000,000,000, roughly. So, I ask myself, seeing as the chances I meet just one individual are so minuscule, how on earth did I meet anyone at all?

How on earth did I meet a couple from the same part of the UK as I am from on the top of a viewpoint in Laos? How on earth did I meet the same couple one month later at a restaurant in Hoi An in Vietnam?

How on earth did I meet someone from Newcastle in two different places in Myanmar, only then to bump into him two months later in Hanoi?

How on earth did I meet a guy from County Durham on a train in Thailand, only then to meet him again, through a different friend I’d made along the way, two weeks later in the south of Laos? And speaking of “that other friend I’d made along the way”, how on earth did I meet her again three weeks later, also in Hoi An?

How on earth did I bump into a teacher from my old school, also in Hoi An?

How on earth did I meet a couple from Hungary in Yangshuo, only then to bump into them again a few days later on the top of a mountain a few hundred kilometres away?

How on earth did I manage to take the same train from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar as a woman from the UK and a couple from the Netherlands, who happened to be taking the same flights back home as I in two weeks’ time? Yes, I did meet them again at Domodedovo Airport, and had a good catch-up.

How on earth did I meet a Canadian in the hostel in Ulaanbaatar, only then to meet him again in Moscow two weeks later?

How on earth did I end up working on the same island in Sweden this summer as someone who also studies at Durham University?

How on earth did I bump into a family I know from down the road in Berlin?

How on earth did I bump into someone at the hostel in Berlin, staying in the dorm next to me, whom my older brother somehow met in Shanghai some five months before?

As crazy and as unlikely as these incidences sound, I suppose they are no more unlikely than my having met Stéphanie in Beijing; Alina in Hoi An; Timo in Vang Vieng; Vitaly on the Trans-Siberian Railway; Duc and Chi on the boat to Con Dao; and U Kon Da La the monk, to name but a few.


Chilling with the Chinese Scouts in Xi’an

Help people, and people will help.
I treat other people how I myself would want to be treated. At least I try to. I like to think I don’t deviate from that, though again I recognise that such a mantra can’t hold up when I do or say something stupid, and then regret it.

There is a reason why I always try to be open, warm, talkative, generous, interested in what people have to say, smile and wave over-enthusiastically at those I love. And the reason for doing so is selfish.

I do so in the hope that others will do the same back.

This has, a number of times in my so-far short life, irritated and alienated others around me, and no doubt it does today and will continue to do so well into the future. I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t struggle with it considerably when someone doesn’t quite display the same sentiments back.

A few times this year I have found myself asking, “What have I done to annoy them so much? How could I have got this so wrong? What am I doing wrong? What do I need to change? In my behaviour? In my personality, even?”

This crisis of conscience leads me back to my reasoning for behaving in the way that I do: I do so in the hope that others will do the same back.

Now, I don’t necessarily believe in karma or follow any form of explicit religious teaching. I don’t believe there is any higher power or universal energy or anything down those lines.

Something ought to be said, however, in the name of the following: “What goes around, comes around.” If this is karma, then fine, I believe in karma. Whatever it is, I have come to learn and appreciate this year that this idea is just “how the world works.” It can’t be researched or explained. It’s just “how the world works.”

When I crashed a motorbike and couldn’t walk properly for a week following that, locals, fellow backpackers, total strangers who had no reason to help me, helped me.

Fortunately, I crashed outside a pharmacy. They took every single bottle of distilled water, every single bottle of iodine necessary, to get the dirt out of my cuts. They took every single bandage needed, to have me patched up and on my way.

Yolanda working at the hostel came up to my room every now and again to keep me company, and ordered food for me because I couldn’t bend my knees or put pressure on my ankles to get down the stairs to the kitchen.

Nomi, a trainee doctor, and Bernd, a nurse, worked together to remove my bandages the day after the crash, which was probably more painful than actually crashing in the first place.

(Side anecdote: this whole event was actually fairly amusing as Nomi could speak English, however Bernd’s English was limited as he came from German-speaking Switzerland. The solution? I used my German and English to interpret between the two of them while screaming from behind a pencil during the slow-peeling back of bloody bandages.)

A Vietnamese doctor, who just happened to be in the hostel a couple of days later, also gladly gave me a once-over, and confirmed it looked “good.”

To everyone else at the hostel, staff and guests, whose names I can’t remember, who fetched this and carried that, even though there was no reason why they should, I truly am very, very grateful; I give myself to others because others, in my desperate time of need, did so to me.

Smile, wave, be open, be warm, be positive, be generous, share your crisps, your powerbank, your alcohol, your experiences, your skills, because you never know when you will need others’.


Playtime! – Con Dao, Vietnam

Driving cars.
It’s difficult. I hated it. But it’s a necessary evil.


Time for an MOT? – Myanmar

Work is hard.
Half-hour commutes, twice a day, on a bike, rain or shine, and 9-5pm for 5 days a week for 10 weeks, in an unfamiliar job, in an unfamiliar office, with unfamiliar colleagues, staying with a hostile family for most of the time, without a break, with my nearest friend a two-and-a-half hour train journey away, was tough. It was very, very tough.

But, I realise, this was by no means a difficult job or a difficult life; I am young, naive and inexperienced. There are those who might commute upwards of three hours every day, 5 or 6, perhaps 7 days a week, working longer hours, then to support partners, children, elderly parents, all the while paying taxes and settling debts, none of which (aside from paying my taxes, of course!) I had to do.

Work for yourself so you can support yourself and those around you because you can’t expect someone else to do it for you. After all, why should they?

Should work be anything less than hard?

Man didn’t invent the wheel so we could have a nice time. Man invented it to better get the world to work.


Wednesday Morning

Everyone has problems.
Put down your placards.

Every person who has ever lived has gone through trouble, heartache, pain, injustice, at some point in their lives. I am convinced of it. I believe we would all do well to stop and think before we judge others knowing only of trifles. We have no idea what another person is going through.

People’s background, class, politics, likes, dislikes, are meaningless and trivial in the face of a personal struggle which an individual has gone through, is battling with currently, or shall face in the future. And, what is most important in this, is that the personal struggle of one individual should never be viewed to be “more profound” or “more noteworthy” than that of another.

Some will flee war and terror.

Some will battle cancer.

Some will be bullied at school.

Some will endure poverty.

Some will battle depression.

Some will lose a loved one before their time.

It doesn’t matter what your name is, where you come from, what colour your skin is, what school you went to, what job you have, or even what car Mummy and Daddy drive.

We will all have problems that will shape who we are for the rest of our lives.


Time to go home – Lake Baikal, Russia. This is my favourite photo from this year.

People are, on the whole, very good.
This is what I have come to appreciate most of all.

Let’s first, but briefly, deal with the “on the whole.”

As I have said before in a previous article, there are people in this world who are bigoted, intolerant, rude, unhelpful, nasty and disparaging. Such folk are, thankfully, very much in the minority.

Almost all I have met, at home or abroad, have shown me a kindness, a generosity, an understanding, an insatiable curiosity, from which I draw great strength, hope, and optimism.

There were no grandiose gestures; there were no proclamations of undying love.

My boss gave me a home for an entire month after I was kicked out.

The man who invigilated my driving test didn’t even give me a minor fault for executing the worst parallel park in automotive history.

A monk welcomed me into his temple and offered me bananas, a chat, and an unforgettable smile and charm.

School kids gave me a carton of pineapple juice to celebrate one of their birthdays. A hotel receptionist gave me the most friendly, loquacious, memorable welcome into any country, his country, I have ever experienced.

I gave a tuk-tuk driver my number and he waited all day for my call back so he could give me a lift home from the hospital.

Another Vietnamese man, with whom I shared a taxi, insisted on paying the whole fare.

A Swiss man gave me sea-sickness tablets to help me cope with a rough night.

People took care of me when I could barely take care of myself.

An elderly Chinese man at Guangzhou South train station gave me tea, biscuits and an egg in exchange for my having spoken English with him.

A bunch of students in Yangshuo invited random foreigners they found strolling around for a BBQ that evening. Victor, at the Zhangjiajie International Youth Hostel, happily loaned me the use of a gadget to get my sodden walking boots dry again.

Thank you to Zhangfei, from Beijing, whose curiosity led to a most eye-opening conversation.

Three different nomadic families welcomed me into their gers, their homes, as a stranger, a foreigner, and treated me as one of their own.

Vitaly came up to me on a platform in Siberia, and so began our lessons in each of our own mother tongues.

Customers and colleagues were patient with my endless mistakes behind the bar or at the table.

Friends gave me a sofa when I didn’t have a home.

And that list doesn’t even begin mention all the others I have met during the last 13 months, whose company I so enjoyed and look forward to enjoying again. Some day.

But I still have an awful lot to learn.

Here’s to the next chapter.




First published: 27th September 2017
Back to my homepage!

Democracy Won

Every single party in the United Kingdom General Election of 2017 lost. And lost catastrophically. Except one. And it’s not Labour.

The Conservatives called an election for a party political motivation – who can blame them – and they have lost their fragile but vital parliamentary majority after a disastrous campaign.

The Labour Party joined in on the election act – who can blame them – and despite their strongest showing at the polls in years, still flounder some 50 seats behind their right-wing rivals.

The Scottish National Party fought on a progressive, anti-austerity platform – who can blame them – and were punished for pushing a reluctant Scotland towards another independence referendum.

The Liberal Democrats were hoping to scrape up the Remain vote on an anti-Brexit platform – who can blame them – and made little progress.

The UK Independence Party presented themselves as the staunch protectors of Brexit – who can blame them – and were deserted in droves.

The Green Party got lost in the left-wing quagmire.

The Northern Irish Republicans, Sinn Féin, made important gains but only to have inadvertently shot their own cause in the foot by continuing to run on an abstentionist ticket, effectively reducing the threshold needed by the Tories to form a majority government or, as has now transpired, a minority government propped up by Sinn Féin’s rivals, the Democratic Unionist Party.

The DUP, although winning only 10 seats, won this election. They have won the sway of the House of Commons by just about tipping the number of right-wing MPs across the big 326 line. They have now become the most influential party in British politics by being able to command the ear of the UK leadership to secure what they want for Northern Ireland and the UK. Otherwise, the UK minority government will have defeat after humiliating defeat in the House of Commons.

But influential does by no means mean omnipotent.

The Right’s collective majority will be vulnerable to only a handful of left-leaning Tory MPs unafraid to push back against a so-called “Hard Brexit”, further austerity and some less-than-tasteful social policies. For the new government to last the next 5 years will take a very delicate balancing act between all factions involved on the right of British politics.

Labour is not the greatest threat to the Conservatives. The greatest threat to the Conservative Party is the Conservative Party itself.

A resurgent, rejuvenated and enthusiastic Labour Party, buoyed by a considerable surge in the youth vote will look to keep up the pressure on the Conservative Party safe in the knowledge that, in elections to come, the Blue Team will have to attract the once disengaged and disinterested young if it wants to have much hope of forming a majority government.

And with such a strong showing in the polls, Jeremy Corbyn’s style and politics, once the source of much consternation within the Parliamentary Labour Party, has been vindicated, bolstered and emboldened.

But this was no victory for Corbyn and his allies. Far from it. To think otherwise is a fallacy.

Labour lies quite a way behind the Tories, and were they to team up with a bruised SNP they would still fall short of the Tory tally. Let’s not even begin to think about the inevitable barrage of negative press from working with a party whose raison d’être is to bring about an end to the United Kingdom. Even with the Liberal Democrats involved, they will struggle to bring about too much policy change in opposition if a cohesion between the Tories and DUP is presumed.

Aside from a surprise jump to the forefront of British politics of the DUP, no party won this election. It was a disaster for all.

The real winner of this General Election 2017 was democracy, was the people, the people’s right to effective government.

I voted Tory, so I won’t hide the fact that I find Theresa May’s “defeat” disappointing.

To have, however, a Conservative government with a landslide majority hell-bent on pursuing Brexit, a budget surplus and a burgeoning economy no matter what, but to the detriment of oversight, scrutiny and healthy opposition is no democracy I would want to live in.

What a hung parliament and a divided country will now bring is exactly the opposite of what Mrs May wanted, but exactly what the country and its citizens needed.

A spirit of “enough now, let’s get on with it” is definitely the overriding feeling from around the country. But this arrangement will morph from a dogmatic democratic dictatorship into, I hope, a government and indeed a parliament buzzing with meaningful and helpful debate where all cross-sections of society must be listened to if laws are to be passed.

When I say all, I mean exactly that.

I don’t mean that the poor should be listened to at the expense of the rich.

I don’t mean that the rich should be listened to at the expense of the poor.

I don’t mean that Brexiteers should be listened to at the expense of Remainers.

I don’t mean that Remainers should be listened to at the expense of Brexiteers.

The young and the old; public services and private business, and so on.

What our democracy has offered is the chance for every part of society to be heard, and our democracy has listened. We now entrust our democracy to deliver, lest our politicians feel the wrath of the fickle fingers of democracy once more when the UK next goes to the polls.

Dividing and conquering can’t work.

Divide and compromise is the order of the day, of the next weeks, months, and years.

It’s going to be interesting.


First published: 9th June 2017

Back to my homepage!

The Trans-Siberian Railway

Beijing, China – Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

At 11:22 on 10th May 2017, the K3 train glided silently and without fanfare out of Beijing, China, bound for the Russian capital city, Moscow, on the infamous Trans-Siberian Railway.

There are in fact multiple “Trans-Siberian Railways” (TSR) that divide into different lines after Ulan-Ude in Russia, heading east.

The traditional TSR takes you from Moscow to Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East near the Chinese and North Korean borders.

The second Russia-only line takes you into the middle of nowhere a couple of thousand kilometres north of Vladivostok. This one is called the Baikal-Amur Mainline, or BAM, for short.

There are also two that end (or start) in Beijing: the Trans-Manchurian Railway which crosses the border straight from Russia into China; and finally the most popular and most interesting route, the Trans-Mongolian Railway which, unsurprisingly, cuts through the expansive wilderness of the 19th biggest country in the world before hitting Beijing some 24 hours later.

As I’m now reaching the end of my travels in the Far East, Moscow would be the terminus of my Trans-Siberian adventure, and my first stop would be Ulaanbaatar.

I’m pretty sure you don’t want to hear me droning on about the beauty of the mountains of northern China basking in golden afternoon sun, and then sunrise over the awesome expanse of nothing that is the Gobi Desert. So instead I attach pictures pertaining to the above.

Below, I continue my tale from Ulaanbaatar.

The face of Mongolia’s biggest city looks tired, rugged and brow-beaten, though not at all surprising given that it has the dubious title of being the coldest capital city on Planet Earth.

While rolling into the train station, I first noticed Ulaanbaatar’s outskirts and their innocent, colourful image. From a distance all the orange and blue rooves spread up the side of a dull green mountain made me think of Arctic exploration stations set up solely to house the brave few who venture to those parts in the harshest months of the year.

Up close though, the poverty quickly becomes apparent. And this is only in the relatively wealthy capital. One can imagine that in Mongolia’s rural, dusty, windswept, tumbleweed ghost towns, some of which you briefly stop at on the railway, life takes on an even simpler, even harsher, even more depressing guise.

Alcoholism is a big problem here.

Back in Ulaanbaatar, the grey, sullen, flaking concrete apartment blocks remind you that democracy only arrived in this unique nation in the 90s; Mongolia was a satellite state subservient to Moscow during the Soviet era, and its uninspiring architure, as is the case with many ex-USSR states, is symptomatic of this.

The fact that its buildings have to withstand winter temperatures as low as -30, and summer temperatures of 30 degrees celcius only adds to Ulaanbaatar’s depressing, heartless exterior.

The roads are good though. They have to be. Otherwise the stresses and strains of such extreme weather would render the roads useless in no time at all. That is if you can actually leave Ulaanbaatar in the first place, however.

Aside from maybe rush hour in Yangon, Myanmar, Ulaanbaatar has some of the worst traffic jams I have ever seen.

Due in part to a shockingly bad city design, where four-lane wide roads will filter down into two lanes after a roundabout being controlled by a policeman with a whistle standing on a glorified soapbox, Ulaanbaatar’s status as being the place with the highest rate of urbanisation in the world also plays a part in this mayhem.

Brand new glass skyscrapers, hotels and offices are cropping up everywhere adding an interesting and much needed extra dimension to the city. People, money, and indeed ever more cars, are flocking here as Mongolia cashes in on a booming economy founded on highly lucrative mining and tourist industries.

Ulaanbaatar is slowly but surely moving away from a legacy of Soviet  rule, Soviet architecture, and presumably a very Soviet way of life. It is creating an image for itself as being the next big economic hub in Asia, located in the romantically isolated middle of nowhere.

It is becoming an attractive, international oasis complete with international hotels, international businesses, international restaurants, international pubs and clubs, brimming with opportunity and endeavour.

I did not stay long, however.

One tends to visit Mongolia for its stunning scenery rather than its mildly despressing but simultaneously optimistic capital.

A full account of this you can find here.

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia – Irkutsk, Russia

At 15:22 on 18th May 2017, the K3 train, having originated in Beijing one day before, glided silently and without fanfare out of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, bound for the de facto capital of eastern Siberia, Irkutsk, on the infamous Trans-Siberian Railway.

On this slightly shorter second leg, only some 24 hours, the landscape turned from open and dusty steppe with no real vegetation worthy of a mention, to trees. 

Lots and lots of trees. And the deepest lake in the world, which was pretty cool, in more ways than one, about which I shall write presently. But mostly trees. And little wooden “dachas”, or cottages in amongst the trees.

And then some more trees.

Below I attach pictures of this journey north into Russia.

The majority of tourists taking the Trans-Siberian Railway take a break in Irkutsk, a small city with a distinctly Scandinavian vibe where the streets are quiet, the houses ornate and wooden, and the people softly spoken.

Perhaps the only thing very un-Scandinavian about Irkutsk is that the whole road and pavement shakes when a tram older than that orthodox church across the street rolls by.

That is not to say it is devoid of atmosphere, or appeal, however.

On an afternoon stroll around the city I visited a Fine Art Gallery and walked in on a cellist and pianist rehearsing for a concert later that day (the powerful images of 18th Century Russian aristocratic opulence filled my mind and soul as I gazed around the gallery admiring authentic works of Shishkin and others of whom I had never heard before in my life); I bumped into a group of all-singing, all-dancing Hare Krishnas while walking down the Angara River; and stumbled across a kids’ performing arts show, complete with more singing and dancing, but this time of a more traditional Russian bent.

But this hushed, laid-back European atmosphere, despite still being nearly 4 days of train journey away from Moscow, is not why people stop here.

One hour down the road, through yet more forest and past more very Scandinavian houses, lies Listvyanka on the shores of Lake Baikal.

At its widest, 80km, and its longest, over 600km, Lake Baikal is the seventh largest lake in the world by area, but is the largest freshwater lake in the world by volume with a greater volume than all of the North American Great Lakes combined. It’s also roughly the same size as Belgium.

It is among the clearest, and is also the deepest lake in the world at some 1600m.

And being in the middle of Siberia, it is also frozen for six months of the year, from December through to May, which makes swimming in it any time of year the preserve of the brave or stupid.

This being the case, I took a very quick dip, and ran straight into the sauna afterwards.

Afterwards my lips were as blue as the water in the lake and the air in the sky. And dividing the two, snow-capped mountains lay on the horizon, its mirage reflected on the surface of the crystal clear water.

I have been told that if you take a boat out on the lake, it sometimes feels as if you are flying because the water really is so clear that you can see right to the bottom.

This presumably makes life particularly difficult for the omul’, a local fish speciality, smoked and very delicious; I say, the clarity of the water may be a problem for the poor fish because the fishermen might spot them so easily.

I don’t know how true this may be. It’s probably nonsense, but I hope it’s like that anyway.

Below I attach pictures from Lake Baikal, and move on to the very last leg of my journey.

Irkutsk, Russia (Asia) – Moscow, Russia (Europe)

At 17:18 on 23rd May 2017, the 069 train, having originated in Chita some 18 hours before, glided silently and without fanfare out of Irkutsk, bound for the capital city of Russia, Moscow, on the infamous Trans-Siberian Railway.

This journey of over 5000km took 3 days, 15 hours and, by my calculations, 53 minutes, for I arrived in Moscow, bang on schedule, at 04:11 on 27th May 2017.

Russian trains are super-punctual.

Feel free to correct me if I’ve got it wrong. I’m easily contactable via various social media.

What was the landscape like for three days?

Yup. Trees.

These three days were less about looking out the window, as was the case heading to Ulaanbaatar and Irkutsk, and more about looking around the train to see what you can do.

During these days, I undertook the following: 

  • I read the final 100-odd pages of Robinson Crusoe; 
  • I slept, had something to eat, often bread, an apple or instant noodles, and slept some more;
  • Listened to much music, including Tchaikovsky’s 4th, 5th (this I listened to three times), and 6th symphonies; Borodin’s 2nd symphony, Prokofiev’s 5th symphony, Shostakovich’s 5th, Myaskovsky’s symphony no.24, and various other Russian works for a Symphony Orchestra; and Ed Sheeran’s new album.
  • I also befriended Vitaly, a Russian working for the Communist Party, and spoke much English with him to help him improve, and in return he helped me start my learning of his language; I also had some borsch (beetroot soup) and beer with him the night before arriving in Moscow.
  • And I looked out the window onto the endless forest and field and more forest.

And with that, the journey flew by.

Within 17 days after having left Beijing, I lived in a yurt in Mongolia, dipped in Lake Baikal in Russia, and ate borsch with a communist on a train.

And as we glided silently and without fanfare into Moscow, my journey of 7300km on the Trans-Siberian Railway came to an end.

And as we glided silently and without fanfare into Moscow, my journey of over 30,000km, 4 months, 8 countries, 2 diaries, a few hair-raising moments, and many new friends and memories made, came to an end.


First published: 27th May 2017

Back to my homepage!

A Nomad’s Life

Despite being sandwiched between the two titanic global powers of Russia and China, Mongolia has retained a very unique culture.

It is the only country in the world with a truly nomadic culture in which 40% of its meagre 3 million inhabitants still eke out a simple existence in Mongolia’s brutal, barren but biblically beautiful wilderness.

But once you’re out in the countryside, you begin to wonder where the 1.2 million nomads all are.

A ger (or a yurt to you and me) every now and again, the odd herd of sheep or cattle, and a cloud of dust being kicked up by a horse and horseman galloping across the steppe, is about as much as you will see while cruising the arrow straight roads in your grey, go-anywhere Soviet jeep.

And then you remember that Mongolia, although with a population only a third of London, is the 19th biggest country in the world and has the lowest population density out of every sovereign state on Planet Earth: 2 people per square kilometre.

And then take out the population of the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, and the population density almost halves to only 1 person per square kilometre.

And then remember that a nomadic family will tend to have anything between four to six or seven members, and that tiny population density becomes smaller and smaller and smaller.

And then you realise that despite a very significant proportion of the population having, quite literally, no fixed abode, coming across only one ger every couple of kilometres makes sense.

As much as I generally dislike going on organised tours (for I always feel like a cow, being herded from place to place), doing so is really the only way for silly wannabe part-time nomads like me to see Mongolia in all its natural glory.

And sleep in a yurt, of course.

The first thing you realise while driving off into the countryside is how big, in a literal rather than poetic and soppy sense, Mongolia is.

Four hours of smooth motorway, built to weather 30 degrees in the summer and -30 in the winter followed by an hour of being pummelled and shaken by barely existent off-piste roads should have taken us a fair distance across the country of the infamous Mongol Empire.

Not so.

300km from Ulaanbaatar translated to about 15cm on an enormous wall map some 2m long.

At least there’s lots to explore beyond the cosy, sheltered circle of your hosts’ yurt/ger.

All gers follow a pretty uniform design: circular, some five or six metres in diameter, with a low ceiling some two and a half metres high, sloping down to a door so small even I (who is somewhat vertically challenged by going western standards) had to duck to get under.

Naturally I was constantly misjudging and bashing my head on the frame.

But I’m clumsy anyway, so not really that surprising.

Nomads tend to “move ger” three times a year: once for the winter, once for the spring, and once for the summer.

When “moving ger”, everything must be parcelled up, put on your removal camels, and transported a few kilometres away.
When walking around your ger, don’t break up the husband and wife. This is the name given to two beautifully painted wooden columns in the middle facing each other holding up the roof.

We were told that to not walk in between these two columns, or not pass anything between them, is one of 3000 different rules regarding how to behave. Though I think how stringently this is applied varies family to family, given how liberal one family with whom we stayed the night were in “breaking up the husband and wife.”

Other rules include:

Always accept things i.e. food, drink, money with your right hand. If your feet accidentally touch another’s, shake their hand. Don’t bother asking how long a journey will take, because you won’t get an answer; it’s bad luck in Mongolia to say driving from A to B will take X hours.

And to be honest even if it weren’t bad luck, to do so is a totally pointless task anyway because the reality will never ever match the expectation.

Around the edge are normally a couple of beds, cabinets, often a Buddhist shrine, and that’s about it.

Oh, and a TV connected to a satellite dish outside.

Each ger is heated by an ancient metal oven also used for cooking, with a chimney attached going up and out through the roof.

In English when an endeavour is going well we often say, “Now we’re cooking on gas!”

In Mongolia they say, “Now we’re cooking on shit!”

There is so much horse shit, cow shit, bull shit, yak shit, goat shit, sheep shit everywhere you look. Nomads waste nothing, so they collect their herd’s shit and use it as fuel to heat and cook.

A message to all you vegetarians and vegans out there who do not feel able to adapt their diet to that of a nomad:

Don’t come to Mongolia to stay with local families.

You will be plied with milk tea, coming from either goats or yaks, which it would be rude to refuse.

You will have chunks of beef, yak, or goat floating in your noodle soup. Of course you could pick them out and leave them on the side (although I understand this is in no way ideal) but remember how that may be interpreted by the family who cooked the food for you.

You might even be offered a pan full of goat bones to gnaw meat off. But I reckon this is refusable without causing too much offence.

When living out in the sticks where nothing will grow and “popping to the shops” isn’t possible, where by far the easiest and cheapest way of obtaining protein is to slaughter one of your flock, you understand why lentils or baked beans or tofu don’t make much of an appearance.

I’m sure there must be a vegan/vegetarian-friendly Mongolia tour somewhere, but this may be rather hard to find.

Once your food has been processed, you also need to get rid of it.

If you’re lucky there might be a barely-shack with no door and no roof with a pit of God-knows what below.

Otherwise, it’s short walk over a small hill so no-one can see you simultaneously squatting and admiring the stunning Mongolian wilderness.

At the end of the day, everyone needs some downtime.

If playing games with real-life animal bones, namely sheep and goat ankle bones, doesn’t appeal to you, then you may find yourself without company in the evening.

Families collect the aforementioned bones, clean them and paint them, and use them as dice, counters, pretend horses, anything.

A good game of “sheep”, or “horse” is sure to while away the hours when it is -30 degrees outside.

“Camel” or “goat” are probably a good laugh as well, though I didn’t learn how to play these.

As you may have worked out by now, a nomad’s flock is a nomad’s work and a nomad’s life.

Every single evening, the flock must be brought back, sorted, counted, monitored (though I confess I am clueless as to what the actual procedure is), and then allowed to roam free once more and spend all night and day munching on horrible, short, wispy grass.

Back in your ger, wrap up warm, stoke the fire, have a couple of vodka shots to drop you off to sleep, and get ready to cook three square meals, milk and herd the animals, and get by in the vast expanse of barren, desolate nothingness of Mongolia.

Such is the life of a nomad.


First published: 19th May 2017

Back to my homepage!

The Great Wall of China

I hadn’t given visiting the Great Wall much of a thought while on my travels. Of course it’s an absolute must when in Beijing, but on my “to-do list” it hadn’t featured above Sunrise at Bagan in Myanmar, Boat on the Mekong in Laos or exploring Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

There are three popular places on the Great Wall to visit, not too far from Beijing: Badaling, which is newly restored and hence fairly artificial, and being the closest to the centre of Beijing also the most crowded, probably with those not keen on going a little further out and only want to tick off having seen the Great Wall; next is about an hour and half out of the city, Mutianyu, with fewer people and both restored and unrestored sections; and finally Jinshanling, some three hours out of Beijing with pretty much only unrestored and wild sections.

The second option, Mutianyu, seemed like a happy medium between the new and old, the artificial and wild.

This section of the Wall was built in the 14th Century during the Ming Dynasty and the rule of Emporer Zhu Yuanzhang, and, as is the same with the entire length of the wall, some 6,000km long stretching from high in the deserts of western China into the sea east of the modern nation’s capital, was built to protect ancient China from invaders coming from the north.

They, being easily the most advanced civilisation on Earth back then, did a pretty good job of it.

Maybe Donald Trump could come here for inspiration. Only I can’t imagine his wall will be as outstanding beautiful and impressive as this one.

I had picked the perfect day for it at the perfect time of year, although completely inadvertently: Spring in Beijing is when each day gets warmer, though not yet humid, and the winds pick up thereby blowing much of the pollution away leaving behind blue virgin sky as far as your eyes will take you.

But my trip up the Wall did not start well.

I got out the bus and a bird shat on my sleeve.

A small complaint, I know. At least things could only pick up.

And boy did they pick up.

A quick gondola ride, with smartly dressed staff at either end showing you into and out of your little sky cocoon, took me up to the wall and I was free to walk as far along as I humanly could.

Or rather until I had to turn back so I can get lunch at the restaurant at 1pm. When you’re on a Chinese tour, be punctual. Or else.

The Wall is enormous. Some 10m high, you can trace its path for miles and miles into the distance as it rides the many mountain ridges through the lush green forest. If you spy the towers, those iconic lookout posts built periodically along the wall’s length, you can soon string together one great big snaking dot-to-dot line still commanding the landscape.

In Spring, the trees all around and physically growing up through the unrestored section, bloom with new flowers.

In Summer, babbling brooks dribble down from the wall; in Autumn all the greens fade to browns and oranges and quickly usher in Winter when the snow falls and the frost bites.

I continued following the rise and fall and rise again of the restored part of the wall until I could go no further…and carried on anyway.

Here I am!

Technically you’re not really supposed to walk on the unrestored section, but everyone does it anyway. Climb over a few rocks and a small ledge, and away you go once more.

Here it is plain to see how quickly and mercilessly Mother Nature has ruined this ancient relic. Trees and grasses and shrubs have grown up through the stone as their roots grow down and slowly prise the wall apart, creating a mini jungle actually on top of the wall itself.

Loose rocks on some uphill stretches would always pose an issue to those climbing here, but I was only in flip-flops, so had to be extra careful.

My choice of footwear did cause a remarkable amount of annoyance to one man however.

We passed each other on the rocky and slightly perilous unrestored section, and he took immediate issue with my flip-flops. I can only presume he started castigating me for it (for I am not blessed with the ability to speak Chinese) as he pointed to my feet, shook his head, made cuckoo-crazy gestures with his hands, and then marched off in a huff.

I think he was just bitter. I had come just as far along the wall as him, only he had clearly forked out a lot of money on proper trekking gear, namely fancy walking boots, walking poles, a rucksack with an inbuilt camelback, and reflective sunglasses to boot. Ha. Ha ha ha.

But once the wall got really steep, perhaps thirty degrees, maybe as much as forty or forty-five, a pair of grubby rubber sandals would do more damage than good. While trying to take yet another picture of this amazing showcase of human genius and endeavour, only too easily would I slip or trip, and suffer the same fate as Humpty-Dumpty. So  I headed back, and took my time, to walk along the Great Wall of China.


First published: 11th May 2017

Back to my homepage!

Chinese Myths

China isn’t really a country that has been plied to pieces by the never-ending gaggle of western backpackers in this part of the world. One tends to flock instead to the pubs, clubs and beaches of Thailand et al.

This is, perhaps, for a number of reasons.

China is huge: too much to see, too much to do, too little time.

China is expensive: food is dearer, as are drinks and transport is pricey as well.

China is dirty: the greatest Asian power is renowned for its abominable air quality, particularly in its sprawling capital city, Beijing.

China is Chinese: No-one, that being no-one, speaks a word of English.

China is home of the Chinese: they are rude, unhelpful, hostile, and can’t hold a candle to the open arms and generosity of the South-East Asian nations.

China doesn’t have a ‘gringo trail’: there’s no real fixed route that the few backpackers who come here take; this couldn’t be more different to South-East Asia or South America, where you learn very quickly, far too quickly, that everyone goes to the same places, does the same things, and invariably bumps into the same people in different places.

We’re fed many a scare story or theory about the country, its people and the quality of life there.

The above list, while containing some truths, is largely misleading.

This four-month-long journey from Myanmar to Moscow being my first ‘proper’ backpacking trip abroad, I definitely still see myself as a novice backpacker, but nevertheless I will attempt to debunk the Chinese myths listed above in an effort to improve the understanding of this, in my opinion, much maligned country, particularly by western powers who have had their time in the sun, and must now accept and embrace the new kid on the block.

1. China is huge.

A country is only as big as its transport network is inadequate, and, despite being geographically enormous, with 1.3 billion people to ferry from place to place, China must have a world-class transport network in place so that China, and indeed the rest of the world, doesn’t grind to a halt.

The upshot is a spider’s web thousands of kilometres wide and thousands of kilometres long of railway, with train stations as big as airports and potentially handling more people per day than some major European hubs.

They’re good trains as well. The bullet trains (God I could go on and on and on about them – I’m in love with them) are indescribably fantastic, but even the slower trains stopping at the smaller, regional stations, are clean and mostly quiet.

Except for the toilets. They are foul.

And people answering phone calls by yelling “WEI?!” down the line, and yelling the entire conversation, does get tiresome.

Yes, and sixteen hours on a hard seat with people coughing and spluttering and hawking up phlegm could only be described as purgatory on steroids, but I arrived in Xi’an from Zhangjiajie in one piece after a hassle-free journey.

Exploit the train network, or indeed the wide choice of domestic flights though I have not done so on this visit, and China’s expanse turns into a simple journey.

2. China is expensive.

Granted, food and alcohol are more expensive, but accommodation costs are similar to that of South-East Asia, at around $6-8 per night, but is considerably cheaper than in Myanmar.

Transport is also more expensive, but that comes with the distances involved. However if, like me, you’re as miserly as they come, sixteen hours on a hard seat in a cramped carriage is a small price to pay for only around $20.

It’s a touch more expensive than in South-East Asia, but not hideously so. Make sacrifices, and you can save yourself a lot.

Bullet trains are expensive. But they’re very, very cool. So I didn’t mind paying the money to get from Xi’an to Beijing in 4 and a half hours.

What about seeing things?

University and college-goers, you’re in luck! Many attractions, though not all, have discounts for students, which can save you quite literally a fortune.

Obviously visiting every attraction in every city will cost you, but be selective, and it won’t cost too much more than in Bangkok, and definitely less than the eye-watering $62 three-day ticket to Angkor Wat.

And if you’re happy to just amble around with neither direction nor purpose, then no matter where you are in the world, that is free, until the time comes when you have to refuel.

Food-wise, eating out and drinking at basic eateries is more expensive than other countries I have visited since 1st February. But again, not hideously so.

Street food on the other hand is cheap and full of choice and flavour.

Muslim Quarter in Xi’an, I’m thinking of you.

And if you don’t mind giving bars a miss, get a big bottle of Chinese beer for around 50 cents from a corner shop, and find somewhere to sit down.

Or smuggle it back to the hostel. Shhh. Don’t tell anyone.

Souvenir-wise, this depends entirely on what you buy. Cheap crap will be cheap and crap. Expensive goods will be expensive but good. Simple.

3. China is dirty

This is perhaps what has shocked me the most about coming to China.

I was expecting to see cooling tower after cooling tower, factory after factory belching out enormous plumes of toxic gas.

I was expecting to see piles of rubbish in fields and on streets because no-one can be bothered to take pride in, and clean up the enviroment.

I was expecting to not see blue skies for 23 days.

Only, and only then, once I neared the notoriously polluted Beijing did the power stations and cooling towers start making an appearance. Other than then, I saw perhaps only one or two between landing in Guangzhou and leaving Xi’an some two weeks later.

The only litter on the roads in Guilin was the odd black bin bag filled with rubbish. The centre of Xi’an on the other hand was totally devoid of any rubbish, any dust, any dirt, any imperfection, any noticeable pollution, and this is in one of China’s biggest cities.

Teams of four in high-viz orange overalls would sweep every few minutes down the main road in Xi’an’s famous Muslim Quarter with one at the front holding a megaphone blaring an alarm to get people out the way, and then three others walking behind with makeshift brooms.

Litter bins, with separate compartments for recyclable and non-recyclable, stood every 50m or so down the main roads of the city centre.

Xi’an was cleaner, quieter, more cosmopolitan than Paris, than London, than Stockholm, than Washington DC, than, dare I even say it, Germany?

I enjoyed day after day of glorious sunshine and clear blue sky in Guilin, Zhangjiajie (except for two days of rain), and Xi’an.

Beijing was grey, hazy and polluted, however, but this is well-documented. The morning after I visited Tiananmen Square (amid very high security) and the Forbidden City, I woke up with a headache, sore throat and itchy nose. The air quality in Beijing is appalling. It was particularly bad that day as a dust storm was lingering over the whole city. Cars were coated in fine, sandy particles. And so were my lungs.

To walk around Beijing and see human beings going about their everyday lives with a mask on their face like some post-apocalyptic film, was distressing.

It was above all just plain sad. This is not how we should live.

I have been told under good authority of a South African who has lived in China for nine years that during a red alert in winter, the pollution would be so thick that you couldn’t see more than 10-15m in front of you.

Having said that, if the wind picks up and the sun is shining, Beijing is blessed with clear blue sky. It isn’t always as I describe above.

Blue sky does happen in Beijing. I wonder if my ex-form tutor is reading. He told me the opposite.

Sorry Sir, you’re wrong!

Thankfully the Chinese government is being pro-active in tackling the destruction of the environment, recognising that if remaining unchecked, China may pass the point of no return as far pollution is concerned.

Two-stroke motorcycles, the most polluting of all vehicles, have been banned. 95% of bikes you see on the road are electric and silent. This causes its own problems when you try and cross a road and can’t hear any traffic coming.
More and more electric cars are also taking to the streets. Again, these bloody brilliant bullet trains, are electric, clean and quiet.

And where do they get the electricity from?

Naturally, as with many western nations, this is where the fossil fuels come in. However, even here things are changing.

Wind-turbines are cropping up here and there. The rivers flowing down from way up high on the Tibetan Plateau provide China with awesome hydroelectric potential.

And we wonder why China is so ruthless in making sure Tibet stays Chinese?

That is a big part of the reason why.

The notion espoused back home that everywhere in China east of the Himalayas is choking under the blanket of its own exhaust fumes is simply not true.

But Beijing is bad.

4. China is Chinese

Well obviously it is. But there is a more serious point.

You can still get around China without speaking a word of Chinese; they have bilingual signs in big train stations and airports.

Metro systems also cater for non-Chinese speakers in the same way, as do ATMs.

The problems start to arise when conversing with locals, who more often than not have a very limited grasp of English, if any.

Preempt asking for prices, and get the calculator app ready on your phone so they can type in how much they want; preempt taxi-rides, and get the address of hostels in Chinese; preempt buying train tickets, and ask the receptionist at your hostel to write on a scrap of paper what you need in Chinese to give to the clerk at the station; or do your own research and write your own little note, making sure any person working in any train station in the world could decipher it.

Or, a radical idea, learn Chinese.

This is by no means a serious suggestion. But whatever country I am in I make a point of at the very least learning how to say “Hello”, and “Thank You” in the local tongue.

And the more words you know, the easier communication becomes.

You are visiting their country, their city, their shop, their restaurant. I strongly believe you should have the common courtesy and decency to spend the one minute learning how to say the most basic phrases in the language of the country you are in. To not do so would be ignorant and downright rude.

Communication, especially when the only common language is gesticulation, is a two-way street: the local should not abuse the language barrier by quoting higher prices because the tourist doesn’t understand; and the tourist should be courteous and graceful by showing the slightest effort to adapt to a foreign culture, system and tongue.

If you do that, then the language barrier shouldn’t be much of a barrier at all.

5. China is home to the Chinese.

Again, this should be obvious.

The stereotype is that the Chinese are rude and unhelpful.

As mentioned already, the spitting, phlegm-hawking, coughing, burping, slurping, yelling, pushing and shoving is annoying and unpleasant. And also pretty revolting.

Learn to ignore it, put it in the “experience book” and get over yourself. It’s what they do here. Deal with it.

I should tell myself that more often.

With regards to being unhelpful and hostile, I have experienced this only once: I dropped my money clip in Zhangjiajie train station and couldn’t bend down to pick it up for reasons that aren’t important. I gestured to a man to my left if he could pick it up and hand it to me, despite him having seen I had dropped it and couldn’t pick it up. He kicked it in my rough direction and went back to being an idiot.

Thankfully another person then helped instead.

All other locals I have conversed with, be it a Chinese family at the same hostel as I in Hanoi who offered to get me tea or coffee when I still couldn’t walk well after my motorbike crash; students from a language school at a barbecue; hostel receptionists who couldn’t speak a word of English giving me a gadget to help get my walking boots dry; or just an old man in Guangzhou South train station who wanted to practise his English, and in return gave me tea leaves, biscuits and an egg, have been just as warm and open as in South-East Asia, perhaps even more so?

I get the impression that some locals in South-East Asia wish that we’d just go away, and have tired of tourism, particularly those who work in that industry.

Not so in China. Absolutely no way.

6. Backpackers don’t go there.

Why should this stop you?

Have an adventure.

Do something different.

I hope I’ve cleared up some of the stereotypes and preconceptions that I certainly had, perhaps also you had, of China.

I hope I’ve convinced you to consider China as a new, exciting, different and developing backpacker nation.

Go and visit. It’s not what you would expect.


Escalator to Heaven

It is no secret that China has been, is, and will continue developing rapidly, perhaps more so than any other country on this planet.

Look no further than China’s expansive and expensive network of extraordinarily impressive bullet trains, gliding silently through the sky on enormous concrete pillars at speeds that even some of the very best supercars would struggle to reach for evidence of this.

It is worth mentioning, however, that while you’re in your warm, brightly lit carriage with ample leg room and squashy seats travelling at over 300 kilometres per hour, the view out the window is of uninspiring grey concrete blocks of flats under an uninspiring grey sky in an unspiring Chinese city that foreigners have never heard of and probably never will.

Mind-bogglingly rapid economic development has hit the major cities, namely Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Guangzhou and the like; but also places where you would least expect it, namely going up a mountain.

Note my above choice of words: going up a mountain. Remember it.

Tianmen Mountain, or “Heaven’s Gate”, in China’s central Hunan Province, towers over the city of Zhangjiajie. It’s huge.

I don’t know exactly how far you’d fall to the Earth were you to get tipped over the railings by a Chinese person shoving past you just so they can take yet another selfie with those infernal selfie sticks, only to spend more time posting it on their version of WhatsApp than actually admiring the view, but it’s a long, long, long way down.

A long way down…

When from the top of this colossus you can count one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, and eight layers of hazy green mountains, soaking up the April sun, you know you’re pretty high up.

My brother, bless him, didn’t like it. He doesn’t like heights.

As for the rest of the mountain, it felt like a theme park.

There were restaurants, cafés, souvenir shops, glass-bottomed skywalks hanging over the cliff-edge for the either brave or those with too much money to know what to do with. There was even a chairlift to take those  who couldn’t be arsed to walk the one hour or so from an absolutely gorgeous mountain-top temple, bizarrely largely bereft of visitors, to the summit of the mountain where there stood another temple. It would almost certainly have more shops than genuine religious significance, but there you go.

Before I start sounding like I didn’t enjoy Tianmen Mountain, I did. Absolutely I did. Nowhere I had been on this trip before Tianmen Mountain, apart from perhaps Côn Dào in Vietnam, was as awesome and awe-inspiring as the views from the summit of this place.

And now that I could walk properly after a slight setback some two weeks ago without too much discomfort, it made me once more appreciate the sheer joy of being able to put one foot in front of the other. And what better place to roam around and soak up the shimmering sunlight through lush green trees and endless sky from cliff top viewpoints than Tianmen Mountain.

As to ascending the mountain, this wasn’t as simple as following a footpath to the top. That would have taken ages.

No. This is China. This is the land of bullet trains. They have something much cooler. Much more efficient.

A cable car, that being the longest cable car in the world, was not it.

They had a bus up the mountain swerving around 99 hairpin bends, or so it is said, followed by quite literally an ‘Escalator to Heaven’.

You don’t walk up Tianmen Mountain. You ‘go’ up it.

Cleaner, much cleaner, shinier, much shinier, but with considerably less order than the escalators of the London Underground, this seemingly endless series of fourteen escalators bored its way for well over half an hour deep inside and up through the once untouched heart of the mountain until delivering my brother and me into the sunshine at the top, having just travelled hundreds of metres up through solid rock.

One of the fourteen ‘Escalators to Heaven’

Just like the London Underground, they even had advertising boards on the walls for people to blankly ogle as they floated by.

It was quite literally ‘an Escalator to Heaven’.

As bizarre as it felt, to be climbing a mountain by taking no physical steps at all other than the few metres between each escalator, what is even more impressive is how they must have constructed such a complex in the first place.

First the road up, with hairpins that made look the Monaco Grand Prix circuit look pathetic, had to be built; then they had to get all the dynamite and metal and wiring and other materials needed to make fourteen brand new escalators boring through solid rock; then they actually had to build the things, all hundreds of metres up a mountain, don’t forget; and then to complete the mountain-top theme park they had to somehow construct kilometre after kilometre of concrete path overhanging the sheer cliffs that now miraculously wrap around the circumference of ‘Heaven’s Gate’.

Certainly peering over the edge as you gingerly walk the cliff path, makes you feel like you’re walking in the air, walking in heaven.

The days following our trip up Tianmen Mountain, spent in the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, home to over 3000 otherworldly sandstone fingers up to nearly 400m tall, also gave visitors the same sensation of trekking through the sky, trekking through the clouds.

Whether it’s trains, escalators, skyscrapers or footpaths hundreds of metres above the random restrictions of Planet Earth’s floor, for China’s rapid modernisation and development the sky is quite literally the limit.

And with 1,300,000,000 people, only a fool would place a bet on the limits of Chinese technological endeavour.

Watch this space.


Eurovision – Celebrating Diversity?

Four days ago I had a motorbike crash 25km south of Hué, Vietnam. To be honest, it was only a matter of time, given how much I’ve taken to these ridiculous machines.

It wasn’t particularly nasty, just a few healthy cuts and scrapes that would take a couple of weeks to heal properly. Now that my numerous wounds down my right leg have scabbed over and started to heal, walking is not an ability I possess.

I can hop though.

My left leg came out largely unscathed.

But I have a lot of time on my hands.

Anyway, with all this time with which I have been endowed, my mind is free to wander wherever it chooses, chiefly because my legs can’t take me there.

This morning my mind wandered to Eurovision, now only a month or so away, this year being hosted in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.

Long has Eurovision been the unashamed bastion for tolerance and acceptance, diversity and inclusion. With cheesy, liberal, and totally meaningless mottos such as “We are One” and “Building Bridges”, it becomes clear that Eurovision markets itself as what the viewer views it to be: inclusive, open-minded, and diverse.

However listening to this year’s entries and watching the videos, it is clear that Eurovision has become largely musically, linguistically, and racially homogenous with little “deliberate” diversity at all.

Ironic that this year’s motto is “Celebrating Diversity.”

Firstly, the music.

This has always been a criticism of Eurovision, and will always continue to be one, and for good reason.

Songs can generally be classified into three groups: a power ballad or tinny pop-song about how either love conquers all, or something equally as noble but even more clichéd; an upbeat little ditty about how great life is with guitars and camp fires and woolly jumpers and the like; or a completely bewildering gimmick with strobe lights, gymnasts and ridiculous costumes after which you are blind and have tinnitus.

Very rarely do we see a genuine, heartfelt, honest, well-written and, most importantly, interesting song that is actually worth voting for.

And if one does come around, take Portugal’s entry this year, people reject it because it’s different, and opt for the same old English power ballad sung by a very pretty woman from Serbia.

Taking the example of Portugal’s entry this year, despite being supremely heart-warming, there are two reasons why it is destined to fail.

The first is that it is slow and heart-warming, which I admit, can be a good thing. The Netherlands nearly won in 2014 with their slow, poetic number, “Calm after the Storm”, but this is a rare occurrence. The main clue as to why it did so well is in the title.

It’s in English. Portugal’s entry is in Portuguese, and so it should be.

*14th May 2017 – Well now I look fairly stupid. Anyway, not the first time in recent history when journalists have been completely wrong!

This is the second problem with Eurovision’s self-proclaimed but deluded notion of diversity.

The last time a non-English song won Eurovision was in 2007. Before that it was in 1998. Only really before 1991 did countries sing in their own language, but it has now become largely English-ified, much to the detriment of artistic value and interest of the biggest music competition in the world.

There are, thankfully, still a handful of countries who insist on singing in their own language.

Italy and France are the ones that spring straight to mind, but joining them is also Spain and indeed Portugal, who take pride in showcasing their language to the rest of Europe and the world.

Why do some distainfully look down on them for being patriotic, as if being proud of the country you live in and the language you speak is something taboo?

There is a big, big difference between patriotism and nationalism, I must add. We would be wise to not use them interchangeably.

A diverse Eurovision would be one where every single language of Europe is represented in one way or another; a tolerant Eurovision would be one where we don’t make snidey remarks about the French singing in French because “they’re just being French.”

Sadly this year Spain and even France have buckled under market forces, and have their choruses sung in…yes…English.

Italy has managed to sneak in seven words of English.

That leaves only six countries out of forty-three who are singing entirely in an official language of their country, and half of them are in English: the United Kingdom, Republic of Ireland and Australia; then Belarus in Belarusian; Hungary in Hungarian; and Portugal in Portuguese.

Not much diversity to celebrate there.

This is one time when restricting personal freedom, namely forcing entries to sing in a language of their country, will lead to greater diversity and hence greater enjoyment of the contest as a whole.

There is something satisfyingly poetic and magical listening to a song, of which you can understand absolutely nothing, until you find a translation of the lyrics. Maybe Eurovision could have live subtitles for those who really can’t take listening to a song and not understanding what it’s about.

And if you’re lucky Switzerland and have four official languages to choose from, then flaunt it. Be patriotic. Don’t go and sing in English when you have four others to choose from.

My final gripe is that Eurovision is racially homogenous too. Now, of course fans and followers of this colourful array of mediocre music and questionable clothes come from all different backgrounds, religions, and any other demographic group you can prescribe to the human race.

The performers, the lead singers in particular, are largely all your classic European stereotypes, however.

Invariably it is either a very pretty young, white woman with shiny, flowing hair, be it black, brown or blonde; or a creepily well-dressed white man with nice hair, often black and spiky, with a “trendy” beard to match.

This year, again out of forty-three acts, zero are black. Zero are of North-African origin. Zero are of Asian origin, except for the Slovenian entry, whose father comes from Jordan.

Musicians tend to be very proud of where their family comes from, and how this has influenced their music today. The people closest to you are frequently a source of inspiration for many a musician.

But after having read the biographies of each act and having discovered no racial diversity at all among them, despite coming from such a racially diverse continent, it is without doubt that Eurovision has failed to create a racially diverse contest, as well as a musically and linguistically diverse one.

Or is this the fault of the individual nations?

After all, Eurovision doesn’t pick the acts. A country picks their own act.

So perhaps such a monotone and predictable contest boils down to each country’s own desire to field an act that is stereotypically French, or Italian, or Russian, so as to try and garner as many votes as possible. Who can blame them? It’s a contest. They want to win.

But this contest isn’t really about diversity and tolerance and inclusion at all. We may like to think that, but I hope I have made my point arguing the opposite.

Eurovision is about politics. Nothing more, nothing less.

You can have your soft politics, that being a country fielding an act which the rest of Europe will enjoy simply because that act speaks to Europe’s pre-conceived idea of what that country’s people are like.

Part of the French being “stubborn” and point-blank refusing to sing in English is part of this political appeal, for example.

Part of the more English-friendly countries’ active enthusiasm to sing in English is the opposite side of the same coin.

And you have your hard politics, that being that Scandinavian countries scratch each other’s backs; all the ex-Soviet countries scratch each other’s backs; Greece and Cyprus always give each other points, but woe betide anyone who votes for Turkey; and no-one gives points to the UK because everyone knows we don’t want to be there anyway.

Even Austria’s 2014 drag queen winner, Conchita Wurst, was a hugely overt, hard political statement about the changing role of the LGBTQ+ community in Europe.

Diversity second, but politics definitely came first.

It takes proper, deliberate diversity to sing an original song, in your own language, with someone at least with an interesting story behind them rather than the same old run-off-the-mill semi-famous popstar.

But that’s being picky.

An original song in a language other than English will do just fine.

Will all of these personal gripes stop me from watching Eurovision?

Of course not. That would be absurd. I’m not one of those who boycotts and bans everything I don’t agree with because, ultimately, it achieves nothing and often shows the hypocrisy of both your own argument and the actions you take as a result.

And besides. I love Eurovision. It’s one of the highlights of my year.

Why would I be writing about it if I didn’t love it?

What’s my favourite song?

Most are terrible. There is but one I actively like. I’ll be voting for Belarus. It’s a great song. Have a listen.



First published: 12th April 2017

Back to my homepage!