I’m here in a motel at LAX watching ‘Stand By Me’ after a long haul from Sydney Australia and an extended stay in the US. These were easy travel: developed, English speaking countries… Before that: a beautiful relaxing holiday with mum in Malaysia; just the antidote for a hectic trip across China, from Nepal, through Tibet and all the way to Tokyo. Suddenly, I’ve been away for over 7 months and am about to embark on the final overland leg of my journey, through Central America, today. So, sorry if it’s a bit fast and slow…
Tibet - the Friendship Highway
I finally found a tour to get me into Tibet - along with 41 other people. Our tour leader told us about how to answer questions at the border with China, what the procedure would be (the two lengthy bag searches), and what we should not take across the border (like Tibetan flags in any form, and maps including Taiwan). But after the stressful border crossing we took the smooth tarmac Chinese-updated friendship highway - a sort of yellow brick road which climbed and curved through the mountains snaking away from people and places behind us and into
thin empty air. The glacial mountains grew opening up great internal distances and ancient sand structures stood owning huge sweeps of the plateau conjuring past civilisations. Each pass (up to 5400m) was adorned by layer upon layer of prayer flags whose primary colours were taken on the frozen air and were found crystallised on the houses and the clothes of the few enduring farmers along the way. The landscape was enveloping and like an invitation from the wizard to leave the path, but our stoic drivers all had eyes on us. As we came closer to Lhasa, the villages and towns became larger. We passed the goliath of Everest and met robed monks and ribboned villagers on the road. Yaks also dotted the pale beige hillsides and flats. Then, at Lhasa, a ‘high street’ with Nike shops and Volkswagen showrooms - a sprawling city on ‘the roof of the world’ with bright new neon, ancient backstreets and a huge military presence (but wise not to notice). This all based around the magnificent looming Potala Palace (where there is also building work!). I’ll never forget Tibet, and some of the people I shared those clockwise pilgrimages around Buddhist temples with. But
then a goodbye, as I left the tour a day early to make the two day train journey; through Tibet north of Lhasa, all the way through China and into Shanghai. This is the highest train journey in the world, and with that scenery and no-one else on the train for the first day, I really felt on the loose amongst the icy lakes and mountains. Best train journey ever.
Getting to Tokyo, Techno
After two nights in very cool Shanghai, just as it was gearing up for Expo, in the coolest hotel in China (thanks to my former colleagues!) and my first proper bath and bed for an age, it was time to leave the mainland for Japan. I travelled to Osaka by ferry amongst some of Asia’s weaker stomached. It was a two day journey, and I made friends with Jeremie on the boat whilst in the lounge counting freighters leaving China (seemingly infinite). Jeremie spoke French, English and Japanese and was a complete godsend in terms of finding a place to stay - and getting orientated when we arrived in Osaka. I have a hundred million photos of Japan as it’s one of the most
picturesque places I’ve seen. Between the temples and the hill forests and the temples and the blossoms and the temples(!) are endless nooks and toys and details to keep your full attention, not to mention the gadgets and gismos. I took in as much as my little brain could in a week, racing around from Osaka to Kyoto to Nara to Tokyo including a short ride on the famous Shinkansen. In Tokyo, I was reminded of the drive and determination of London that guides rush hour residents on auto-pilot through the train stations and streets of the city. Combined with meeting up with a London buddy, my brain began to draw back into a higher gear and already I felt a thousand miles from Tibet (in fact 3000 miles). Japan was a rush, but absolutely a favourite too.
Take Me to Trouble - Thailand
As I arrived in Thailand, Bangkok was empty. Between the Icelandic volcano and the red shirt protests, the hostel I stayed at was barely open. The weather was as clammy as hell, and fans whirred desperately everywhere. That soon stalled the brain - and not in a good way. After trying cold beers as
a remedy, I decided to hop it quick smart to Chiang Mai in the north. A few hostels were already closed, but I saw no trouble on the streets, so I stayed for a (almost obligatory) cookery course with ‘Oat’, the masterchef of innuendo, and then explored the city solo. Temples which would normally be heaving with tourists were again divine grounds of contemplation - to anyone not completely dehydrated. But soon I found myself coming across a few ‘festivals’ with decidedly red dress code and headed back to Bangkok for a flight to Singapore…
Mum and I had a three week holiday in Malaysia and Singapore, which were absolute bliss - especially as we started with over a week on beautiful Tioman Island in a fabulous room on the beach. We drank coconut milk in the morning from the tree at our veranda, ate massive prawns, I finally dived again, and we soaked up the sun and shot the breeze over cocktails. At this time, BBC World was also oozing with news of the lengthy UK elections and the US oil disaster and I felt both back up to date and fully charged when we hit
the road again and headed up to Kuala Lumpur to tour down the west coast. Melaka was a particular highlight, although it meant a taste of some ‘local transport’ as well as a trip with a super friendly taxi driver, who was keen to share his knowledge of the area, and the fun of rubber trees! Melaka is an early Dutch settlement so has the colourful houses, the canal-side entertainment and the multi-culture you would expect. We finished our three weeks with a few days back in Singapore, including some birthday dining and drinks, and some more lovely waterside times - thanks Mum! We had some real giggles and the goodbyes here were hard, but I was U.S. bound and so heading for the familiar and comfortable - or so I thought!
The US of A - isn’t there an ‘I’ in ‘roadtrip’..!?
Because I want to update, I’ll put USA and Oz on a separate update - the ‘Britain’s two baby brothers’ update… :o) Hopefully, I can get plenty of pictures on….
Hasta luego x
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