Problogue: Chinatown, London

Published: May 11th 2008
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Chinatown, LondonChinatown, LondonChinatown, London

Tempting Dim Sum restaurant
I love Chinatown and whenever I’m in London, I always end up here, even if it’s by mistake. I’ll be walking in Covent Garden or Charing Cross, and it’s as though my feet pull me here. It’s not the world’s best Chinatown - it’s small, and Gerrard Street is touristy - but the place has charm. If you come here at eleven in the morning, before it gets crowded with visitors spilling in from Leicester Square, you find the streets jammed with vans and delivery men wheeling boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables to small supermarkets like Seewoo, where I buy my Korean ginseng tea. Hardcore shoppers are already squeezing down the narrow aisles of these stores, carrying instant noodles and vats of Chinese cooking sauces. Girls wearing marigold rubber gloves wash the windows of restaurants and soapy water flows over the pavement and into the road. There are rows of leathery ducks hanging by their necks in these windows, and the smell meets your nose, mingling with the scent of yesterday’s rotten rubbish, which waits in abandoned boxes by the roadside. Groups of men stand outside the amusement arcade reading Chinese newspapers or talking on their mobile phones. At this
Chinatown, LondonChinatown, LondonChinatown, London

Fresh veg on Gerrard Street
time of day, you witness Chinatown in a rare moment when it’s caught off guard, not like now - late afternoon - when it’s all scrubbed up, shining, ready to go until the early hours. After a long day shopping for travel gear and acquiring India tourist visas at the High Commission, (always an event in itself, and a reminder of the brilliantly ordered chaos you will arrive in when your flight touches down), I’ve found a booth in the Hong Kong Diner, and have settled down to write a problogue, to lay out my travel plans for the summer in word form.
First of all, there’s a month in the Subcontinent with Seth. We both love India and this’ll be our third time there. This time we’re hoping to swing by some fairly untouristy areas, a little off the beaten track. Several of these places we only know of from Hindi films we’ve watched that have used gorgeous locations. Seth’s a photographer and I’m a monument junky, so there are a couple of classics on our itinerary, too, like Hampi and Badami. We’re planning to head through Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa to West Bengal. I can’t wait
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Cheeky guardian lions
to be in Mumbai again. Last time we did a lot of star spotting and were lucky enough to meet the Badshah of Bollywood, Mr Shah Rukh Khan. I don’t know if we can possibly top that - I can just picture us now, sat in the Atrium Lounge, sipping Bacardi Breezers and scouting the clientele for a sign of Aishwarya Rai, Hrithik Roshan or the Big B…
The other component of this trip is our plan to see Bangladesh. I’m not stating it as a certainty as, although we have our visas and our fingers about as crossed as they can be, I’ve been in the same situation before and not been able to go at the last minute. Bangladesh is prone to everything - earthquakes, cyclones, flooding, food shortages - and on my last attempt to visit, I was just a day away from heading to Dhaka when rioting broke out there and the international news was filled images of people pelting rocks at each other and setting things on fire. The country still remains in an official state of emergency, and according to the government travel advisories, there are about a hundred things we have to be
Chinatown, LondonChinatown, LondonChinatown, London

Sign outside a restaurant
cautious about, but I’ve got to tell you, I am damn excited about having a chance to experience this country. The people, the countryside, the culture, the crazy race of Dhaka; it all looks and sounds intoxicating. Having seen Pakistan and India, it’s natural to long to see Bangladesh also.
After a brief return to the UK, I’ll then be heading off on the second part of my 2008 travels. This is the two and a half month part that I have had to spend months researching and attempting to get myself in physical shape for. After a quick stop-over in the United Arab Emirates, I’ll be flying to Korea and travelling from there to Japan. (The idea of arriving in Japan by boat thrills me, even if it is typhoon season.) My plan is to attempt to walk the 88 Temple Pilgrimage in Shikoku. It’s 1400km long and pilgrims have been walking this route for over a thousand years. Ever since I heard of it, years ago, I’ve wanted to try it, for many reasons and probably a few I don’t even know yet. I won’t be the first Westerner to do this, not by any means, and
Chinatown, LondonChinatown, LondonChinatown, London

Typical scene
you’ll see the pilgrimage referenced in guidebooks, but to commit to it, to walk twenty plus miles a day, through sometimes mountainous and rugged terrain, to visit these 88 Buddhist temples - it’s a challenge I really want to take, and a trip I really want to write about. Consequently, I have spent months tracking down rare and out of print material from all corners of the globe, from Albuquerque to Takamatsu, trying to find out what the pilgrimage is all about. People have been great, answering my queries and wishing me well. I’ve been heading out in bad weather with an over packed bag to go on 17 mile walks for practise, and making an effort to eat a healthier diet. In a fortnight I’m doing a 43 mile walk with my father on the North York Moors, to further punish my feet. I’ve been reading up on Buddhism and attending lectures on the same. I’ve tried to learn some Japanese and have subsequently forgotten all of it (a situation which will no doubt get worse once I get to India and start talking in my rudimentary Hindi.) I have read books on the pilgrimage, books on Japan, books
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Eating sushi in the rain on a fairly miserable practise walk. I am hardcore.
by other pilgrims and as much travel writing on the country as I can get my hands on. Yet, despite my best attempts at preparation, I will probably never feel quite ready, and I think that first day that I set out on the pilgrimage will be intense. (I’m also sure that whatever level of fitness I might be at now could well be put in jeopardy by the presence of too many delicious butter naans in India… how will I balance the fitness:biriyani ratio?) I get an adrenaline rush just thinking about all this; how ignorant I am now about so many aspects of Japan, despite having visited it twice before, and how much better informed I hope to be, should I complete this pilgrimage and experience everything that comes with it. I feel lucky, too, to have to opportunity to do this.
And with my summer missions thus introduced, that brings me back to the Hong Kong Diner, on a hot Friday afternoon, polishing off a beef satay and a bottle of Tsingtao. I got a fortune cookie, and I told myself that whatever words of questionable wisdom lay within it would relate to the destiny of my summer travel.
This is what it said: ‘Don’t corner anything meaner than you are’. What’s that supposed to mean? Could it be a reference to my over optimistic approach to a nine hundred mile pilgrimage? Will the distance and the heat and the mountains get the better of me? To be honest, I was hoping for something more like, ‘Sometimes a path is laid one stone at a time’, etc. etc. Never mind.
There’s twenty seven days until the travel starts, and those days are going to be hectic, what with picking up my nerdy new glasses, getting injected against various ailments, working full time, writing the two most important essays for my creative writing course, packing up our house and putting it in storage, saying bye to as many people as I can before I go, taking long practise walks, and finishing the rather comprehensive ‘Making Pilgrimages; Meaning and Practise in Shikoku’, and all of its many footnotes. At this rate, arriving in Mumbai will actually be relaxing. Friends, family and anyone with an interest in Asia, please feel welcome to read and enjoy, I hope, the entries that follow.


8th June 2008

near miss
I love that you wrote this when you whole family and I walked through Chinatown and had a marvellous dinner there just a week after you. Somehow I remembered how to use chopsticks and we feasted on sweet-and-sour pork, before heading off to Soho for some comedy. I don't think I'd been to Chinatown since I was about six. I hear Prince Charles has put money forward for it to have a culture-enhancing refurb...we'll see.
12th July 2008

Laura, we should meet up in Chinatown when i get back in October :)

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