5 ways to “Super Charge” your adventures

If you’re like me and like to get more out of a trip, you’ll want to go off the beaten path, experience more and come out the other end with a truly amazing story. Some people like to come up with rules that they always follow, like always pack a map and sun cream, but rules are meant to be broken. Here’s some things I like to do to put an edge on my adventures.

1. Don’t bring a map

I’m not saying don’t know your terrain, but having a map generally slows me down. Always checking and second guessing yourself makes you frustrated and unsure of yourself, and often wastes time and valuable daylight. Just follow your gut and use your senses, navigate by line of sight and digest some breadcrumbs to find your way home.

Some top tips on how to navigate on the fly:

  • Pick a reference point on the horizon or up the hill and if you get turned around or have to go round an obstacle, you can always use this to get you back on track.
  • If the sun is out, look at your shadow. Which direction is it pointing in with respect to where you want to go? If you’re headed north west and its 1pm, your shadow will be behind you and slightly on your left, about 7 O’Clock (in the northern hemisphere.) If you can’t use a reference point, just remember to keep your shadow at 7 O’clock and you’ll stay on track for a couple of hours.
  • Path-finding. This can be a difficult skill to master, but there a a few simple ways to start. If you’re looking for a path, look for lines in the natural world. Paths often follow rivers, or natural depressions in the ground. The rocks might be slightly lighter where they’re exposed to more sun, or the grass or flora more down-trodden. You’ll get an eye for it eventually.
  • Look behind you. When you’re on your way home you’ll be going in the opposite direction and things can look very different the other way round. Remember to periodically look behind you and memorise what the terrain looks like that way.

It’s an incredibly fulfilling feeling once you get the hang of it and will make you more confident and independent whilst travelling.

2. Have a time constraint

I’ve often found myself running home after a long days adventure because I’m trying to beat the light, or the last lifts in a ski resort, and it’s these times when you really dig deep and pull out all the stops. It encourages you to push harder and gives you a challenge at the end of the day to keep you pushing on. I’ve often had the most fun trying to beat the clock, running down a mountain and leaping through bushes. It just feels so much more adventurous.

3. Try out new things

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Sometimes having too  much gear can slow you down, but there are things you might never be able to do without specialist equipment. For example: I would not have been able to climb half the peaks I did last winter in Andorra without my trusty ice axe “Bertha.” She definitely saved my life a few times, but then again, I wouldn’t have been hanging off all those cliffs without her in the first place.

Bertha is now my favourite thing in the world and I never go climbing in the snow without her, but I’d been on many climbs barehanded before. Snow shoes and crampons are another two things for climbing in the snow that I’m less fond of, but I tried them all out and found out which one was best for me.

You may want to seek advice or get help from a guide on how to use things for the first time, but that’s up to you.

4. Go nuts

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Don’t just stare longing at that tree, climb it! Many years ago my mother and I were hiking in the Himalayas and I leapt down from a tree in front of our group, having gone on ahead. A girl turned around to me and moaned, saying “err, why were you up there?” to which I replied “Why aren’t you?”  If you’re going to spend lots of money travelling and exploring the world, don’t let what other people think kill your buzz. After all, isn’t that why you’re there?

If you feel like climbing something, do it. If you feel like dive rolling in the snow, do it. If you feel like skinny dipping in a lake, do it! It’s your damned life. Just don’t get frost bite.

5. Don’t just take pictures.

I hate people who just go somewhere, take a picture and then leave. First of all you’re not really experiencing it, and secondly, a picture is a poor representation of a moment. You have at least five senses and sight is just one of them.

Whenever I’m alone out on a precipice in the middle of the wilderness, or in some peaceful forest by a lake, I take some time to really soak it in and remember it.

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Here’s how I do it:

  • Sit in a comfortable spot surrounded by as much space as possible (I like precipices).
  • Listen. Close your eyes and pick out all the specific sounds around you: the birds, the wind, the water. Try and visualise where they are around you.
  • Notice the feelings: the warm sun, the cool wind, the feeling of the rough sand, the smooth stone, the tickle of the grass. all the things that make this place unique.
  • Open your eyes and look all around you in a 180. Don’t try and remember everything you see, but pick specific things and solidify them in your mind. The way a rock formation looks like a face, the way the water swirls around a rock, the curve of a interesting tree.
  • Using all of these things, you can build a sensory map of your environment far greater than just a picture. Meld the sounds, the feelings and the sights together, then close your eyes again and try to picture it without seeing it.
  • This is the important part, because later on you won’t be able to see it. So imagine it, then open your eyes and check it, then close them and imagine it again.

Once you have a full map inside your head, you will be able to recall that specific moment and how it made you feel forever. Once you have some of these maps in your head, sit down at another time and repeat the process, going through each one and experiencing them again. This way you can revisit your adventures from anywhere in the world and draw from those experiences to super charge your life.

If you want some examples of my adventures why don;t you check out my Only in China, or Understanding Africa series.

Stay Strong.

 

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WAW Climb for Justice: Week 3

This is the WAW (Women for Afghan Women) Climb for Justice, a weekly blog to raise awareness about women’s rights and human rights in Afghanistan and around the world. Each week I’ll be climbing a new mountain in Andorra to raise money for WAW, a charity that provide life saving support, shelter and legal aid to women and girls suffering from human rights violations.

DONATE NOW

I thought I’d start off this weeks blog with an inspirational poem by a young Afghan woman.

I can’t lock away my voice

I can be beautiful and put together
Without an occasion
Just for my own gaze,
And I can not.

For my own happiness,
I can adorn myself,
Darken my eyes with kohl and color my lips
And I can not.

I can be angry,
I can laugh, I can cry,
But I cannot tolerate imposition.
I cannot remain silent in the face of pain.
I cannot be neutral to oppression.
I cannot accept being the second sex.

I am not a poet,
But I can write.
I can’t read my words
Only in the bed, in the kitchen,
Within the four walls of my home.
I can’t lock away my voice.

Hosnia Mohseni (Free Women Writers)

Her words ring clear about standing up to oppression and not remaining silent in the face of inequality. No one should have to lock up their own voice, stand up, speak up and take up space in the world.

This weeks climb

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This week I climbed Pic d’Arcalis in Andorra to help raise money for Women for Afghan Women. It was a short but difficult climb, mostly due to the incredibly hard snow and ice on the western face. It had been snowing buckets the last couple of week and the winds had been a gale force, constantly freezing and stripping the soft snow off the mountain and turning it into a thick icy sheet.

I decided that I’d take the most direct route and climb straight up, so with ice axe in hand and snow shoes on foot I set off at around about midday. They were just setting up the face I was climbing for the Freeride world tour next week, so that just goes to show how steep it was. After a brief stroll through some powder i hit the face with a squeaking noise as the spikes in my snowshoes dug into the hard snow.

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It got steadily steeper as I went on and I soon realised that it was too dangerous even to stop to rest, as there were no features flat enough to sit on. This meant climbing the whole face in two goes. My calves were on fire and my back strained from clinging on to and pulling myself up with the ice axe. My breath heaved in my chest and I thought that my legs would fail me, but there were only two options: go on, or fall.

The snow shoes were not the best tool for the job and I would have kicked myself for not bringing crampons, if I had a spare muscle to use. When I finally reached the summit it was with a torn calf muscle and another one pulled in my lower back. The view from the summit was spectacular however and my aches and pains were washed away in the triumph and sunlight. It took me two hours to climb the face and by the time i had gotten up there it was time for me to come back down. But how?

I couldn’t go back down the way I came and I couldn’t traverse the ridges to a safer place as i did not have enough time. Pondering this for a moment, I decided to do what the world cup team specifically asked me not to do, and bum slide down the world cup run. The snow was slightly softer there and so i was able to do some breaking, sliding all the way down the toboggan-like path.

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roughly 30 minutes later I was back in resort, trawling through a powder field back to the chairlift where I had left my skis. It was altogether a quick jaunt, but one of the most challenging so far, both mentally and physically. At the end of the day I skied back to the bus stop and was on time for work!

If you’d like to donate to Women for Afghan Women visit my JustGiving page HERE. For weekly updates don’t forget to subscribe below and follow the campaign. If you’d like to see first hand the work that WAW do, visit their website HERE. Follow the campaign on my Youtube channel HERE and visit the Facebook page HERE

Thanks for reading. See you next week.

WAW Climb for Justice: Week 2

This weeks film: The French Crown

In this weeks film a tackle a crown of peaks leading from Arinsal and spilling over the French border.

At the top of the mountain in Arinsal ski area you get off the lift and look out onto a distant crown of mountains, snow capped, cloud crested and inviting. I’d been eyeing these up for some time now, the solitary eagle circling above. It looked like a very good circuit to attempt and from line of sight, not too time consuming.

Unfortunately these particular mountains fell off the side of my map and so I had to plan my day purely by line of sight. Who needs maps anyway? I set off at 8.15am from my hotel, my new pair of hired (for free) snow shoes strapped to my bag. I’ve never used snow shoes before but always wanted to and since I had a good deal of deep powder last time and my crampons were pretty useless, I thought I’d give it a go.

It was a gruelling 11 hour day and left me exhausted and walking home in the dark. So without further ado, here it is:

Women for Afghan Women: The work they do

Let’s not forget what this is all about. WAW provide women and girls with life saving support, shelter and legal guidance in human rights violations in Afghanistan.

In 2013, one  of Women for Afghan Women’s clients was 17 years old when she was married to a man who already had a wife and children. The man physically and mentally abused her for years. Unable to endure more, the client decided to divorce him. She went to the local Department of Women’s Affairs who referred her to WAW. This woman is currently living in a WAW shelter and attending empowerment classes while her defense lawyer is working on her divorce.

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So If you’d like to donate to this wonderful cause, visit my JustGiving page and tag a friend on Facebook to donate too. Follow my weekly climbs in support of WAW and keep donating each time I release a new video.

Climb for Justice: So here’s what I did

After grabbing a pair of skis from the hire shop I headed outside, but unfortunately I didn’t realise that the first lifts don’t open until 9am, so I was sitting waiting for half an hour impatiently at the top with the other dawn patrol. These dedicated snowboarder and I watched the sunrise over the mountain before the gates opened and got on the very first chair.

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A couple of chairlifts later and I was at the start of my hike. I had originally thought that getting the chairlifts and having skis would save me a bunch of time and effort, but by the time I finally got started it was already 9.30am. I did however, get about 1000m of elevation gain for free, so trade -offs. My route for the day was as follows:

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I ditched my skis and boots at the top of the resort, planning on collecting them and skiing down later, and headed out in an anti-clockwise direction around the crown. The weather was fine and sunny for most of the day and the first part of the hike was a slow and steady walk in regular hiking boots to the start of the bowl.

When I hit the bottom of the bowl at 11am where the forest began, I donned the snow-shoes for the first time and wow! The extra surface area made a big difference in the soft powder and I glided down as if on skis.

The forest was beautiful and the sound of birds filled the air, much more inviting than the constant thrum of chairlifts in resort. I kind of lost track of time here however, and after a slow and tiring traverse I found myself at the first ascent by 12.30pm, much later than I had planned. It had now been three hours since I started and I was only just at the first ascent of the bowl.

Throwing off the snow-shoes, I headed for hard ground and climbed up the right hand side, not resting until I had gotten to the top (Peak #1). The sun was now on my face again and I went from cold to too hot in no time, shedding layers until I was just in my T-shirt and waterproof. After A further two hours I was finally at the top where I had picked out my meditation spot for the day (Peak #2).

But I was still against the clock.

Rising up, had a quick warm up with some Thai Chi and then threw on some beats to get me through the next section: The Ridge.

alone-at-the-topThis one wasn’t nearly as severe as last time, but It still presented it’s challenges and was a lot longer than I had anticipated. In fact, the entire left hand side of the crown had been hiding a nasty little ridge with many ups and downs, constantly losing and gaining elevation. I was very conscious of time by this point and so I pressed on through exhaustion to get round the crown, trying to motivate myself by keeping the end goal in sight: my skis. If I didn’t get back to them on time, I would be walking home…

The technical climb section, previously hidden from my sight, took up a lot of time and required some axe work, but It wasn’t too bad. It was more the time of day dragging on that really took it out of me. I thought to myself “Why do I put myself through this?” and then I remembered: for all the women and girls suffering in Afghanistan and around the world.

Then I hit the ice sheet.

Coming down the final descent towards the road I had planned on making up a bunch of time by sliding all  the way down, but when I got there I immediately slipped and launched myself down at high speed, saving myself with the axe once more. The entire northern side of the mountain was sheet ice, having been kept shaded from the low sun. I then had to be extremely careful, inching my way across, digging in with the axe and inching some more. At one point I slid down backwards, looking through my legs at the world moving upside down, using the axe as a brake. This was quite disorientating, but amusingly original. I always find that good humour can carry you through the toughest of situations, and laughing at one’s self is the best medicine for panic!

I made it down to the road by 5.30pm, a further three hours from my meditation point, pretty much without rest. I was now on safe ground and as the sun had already set, lost hopes of seeing my skis today. It’s one thing to ski home after the mountain is closed, but it’s another altogether to ski home in total darkness. This was not an option.

It would have taken me about two hours to walk to the town, where I could have called a cab, but It was now pitch black, I had been walking for nine hours, and I was now extremely cold. So, what to do?

I called my friend Matt and he came and met me with his van. It was a very pleasant walk for about an hour to where I could meet him and the night sky was spectacular. The old moon was in the new moons arms, a term for when you can see a slither of moon and the dark side is illuminated with the reflection from the earth, a beautiful sight. Jupiter was also out in full splendour just behind it and The Milky Way was splashed across the sky, with not a light to pollute it anywhere.

When he met me I pointed out all these wonderful astronomical sights and we star gazed for a while before heading home to get some food and a cup of tea.

All in all the day finished at around 7.30pm, I was walking for ten hours, and I had to go and collect my skis the next day.

So if you thought I put in a good effort, check out Women for Afghan Women’s website and see all the amazing work they do to further Women’s rights in Afghanistan.

Once again thanks for all your support and don’t forget to follow the blog below for weekly updates, a new video release and visit my JustGiving page to donate. Thanks for reading.

Understanding Africa: Kenya

Kenya is a vast and varied country full of beautiful landscapes and unique blends of tribal life and modernisation. Unfortunately, it is the modernisation and social corruption that makes it one of my least favourite countries in Africa. Nairobi in particular is a sprawling pile of garbage and the coastline, though beautiful is stricken with poverty and malcontent.

Ex-pats

Traffic in Kenya is no joke. The road up to the escarpment from Suswa climbs the wall of the Great Rift Valley, which is aptly named as it looks like someone sliced a huge chunk of cake from Africa. Now I am one of a million tiny ants climbing the inside of said cake, trying to get to the frosty topping. It is a two lane road, but all the heavy vehicles have grid locked the climbing lane and now cars are three lanes deep in the bush.

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We reach a dead man’s embrace between a Coca-Cola truck in the right hand lane and 10 cars and a bus also in the right hand lane, but going in the opposite direction. Further up the road we saw that the obstruction was caused by a sixteen wheeler, which ejected its payload in the middle of the road and fucked off. Rage quit. Our driver – legend as his is – rolls his eyes, careers off into the dirt and overtakes the whole lot, shouting what I can only assume translate as “Noobs! This is how it’s done.” Cheers of applause.

Back in Nairobi I visit one of Mike’s friends, Alex. He is another British Ex-Pat who will never be returning to the UK. He works in international development and his girlfriend Ignes works in international aid services. I cannot fault them for their work. We briefly discuss the Kenyan coast and the situation with Al-Shabab, the local terrorist group.

“It’s kind of winding down now.” Alex tells me. “They are running out of steam.”

“I heard that pirates still own the coastline. I was talking to a guy this morning who works in Somalia and he told me that he had a lot of friends kidnapped or killed in the last few years.”

“Well.” Alex continues, “They have apparently just had a meeting with IS and might team up. That would mean them getting a lot more resources, but to be honest, it just shows how desperate they are. They’re losing the war.”

They explain the hardships of being Ex-Pats.

“The problem is: it’s hard to make friends because Ex-Pats don’t tend to stay for very long. That exact thing happened with Mike. We used to hang out all the time and then suddenly he told me “Right that’s it I have to go.” And that was that.”

“Mike tells me that it can be hard to make friends with locals,” I say “lasting friendships that is. I mean he has lots of Rwandan acquaintances, but most of his good friends are other Ex-Pats. Do you find it’s a cultural difference or language barrier?”

“Well it’s neither and it’s both.” he says, “Sometimes it’s just hard not being just another Muzungu. I suppose it works both ways as well.”

Watamu

When they open the door to my plane at Malindi, other people are actually queuing to get on. Evidently this plane is immediately going somewhere else. Fly540: the Megabus of East African airlines.

Lu with a view winner for today goes to: Malindi Matatu station. I am pissing in a hole in the ground, in a smelly box whose window overlooks a football field length of garbage. The sound of slushing as a woman throws a bucket of something brown and horrible rouses the birds, who descend upon it. There is no hope.

An African Rasta with the Bob Marley T-shirt greets me on the barren road at Watamu. He will lead me, inevitably, on a wild goose-chase in order to find me a place to stay, and then, after having been friendly and proud, will shamelessly ask me for a few shillings for his troubles. This man is different though. After a couple of attempts at soliciting money from me nicely, his whole expression slumps down into a self-destructive sigh. He looks down at the ground.

“Please, support me.” Now I feel sorry for him. This is the product of a false economy!

The beach looks like a tornado might clean it up a bit. It’s desolate. All the beachfront hotels are abandoned, seaweed and rubbish pile up on the beaches, and half built, or half torn down structures haunt them.

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The sound of a solitary mallet creeps through the shadows of a wooden shack. It has no echo. I take a picture. Beautiful white sandy beaches, full of foot parasites; idyllic little islands, harbouring deadly rocks; a soothing tide that punishes the shoreline with a never ending wall of seaweed: Paradise. It is raining. Apparently it’s nice in December.

Its one saving grace is that half the beach is a marine conservation area, though that means you can’t swim without paying $20 to the park authority. It gets better, (for the marine life) you can’t go on the beach at night without being harangued by the park authority for turtle poaching. I was accosted on the beach in the pitch black by an unknown Kenyan. I ran and nearly had a heart attack when I bump into two other black shapes in the dark. I am lonely. There are no white people here.

Kenyan Youth

The next day I met a handsome young Kenyan, Baraka on the beach.

“I like to write love letters.” he tells me in earnest. We have been sitting here talking for some time now. The tide slowly rolls away and dark clouds loom in the sky, threatening rain.

“You have a girlfriend?” I ask.

“I had a girlfriend, my first love. One day she tells me “I have become an actress.” And I say “How can you become this without telling me?”” His expression is taxed and he makes knuckle marks in the sand. “She was very beautiful. She had a figure eight body, like an African. You know what I mean.”

He draws this in the sand and smiles, but it quickly fades. “So she says to me “Baraka, I want to be in another movie. Will you give me permission?” and I say “You have done this without telling me, so continue to do this without telling me. Just go.” So she makes more movies and more music.”

“I do some investigation.” He continues “and I find out that the director of these movies, she has made her boyfriend. When I confront her she says “I am sorry, he means nothing to me. I want you.” I said “No.”” He shakes his head.

“That’s a sad story.” I say.

“Sometimes she still calls me and complains that she is bored with these men, saying “Baraka, I don’t want them, I want you.” But I tell her “You cannot come back until I have money.””

“You see, you cannot have a girl without money.” he says with conviction, “I might say “Hey why don’t you come and we can relax somewhere.” But you cannot do things, you cannot have things. I cannot bring her home if I live with my mother. You see my hair? Shaggy. It was not always like this. I cannot even go in front of my parents without neat hair. No. I know that first I must have money and then I can have a girlfriend.”

Baraka’s story is sad, but it is sad because he is convinced that he cannot enjoy life without money and that he will never be happy living in poverty.

“Do you want to know my dream Dean?” he continues, “My father…” he pauses here and starts to dig a hole in the sand. “My father had a friend. His name was Mr Phillip. He was English like you and my father would say “I want to do business with this man.” My dream is to one day come to England, like you are come here.”

He looks up at me, elbow deep in sand and smiles and my heart melts a little. I know that what he is really saying is that one day he wants to be free.

“Look here. You can see the water.” He removes his arm, I peer into the hole and see the water filtering through the sand from underground. “If it is draining away you know the tide is going away too.”

Baraka and I are now friends and this is the longest conversation I have had in Kenya without someone trying to sell me something.

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We had fun making lunch the next day. He helped me make guacamole and tuna, a strange combination for anyone, especially an African. We talk about family and school life. He managed to make it through most of his life with only a few gaps due to lack of money to pay for school fees, but after his father’s accident, his younger brothers were not so lucky.

“He used to be so talkative.” he tells me, “you would have loved him. But now sometimes he just sits and stares, or will change his mood and say “I just want to be left alone.” He still remembers the accident. He was one of the only ones to survive from the bus. Afterwards, he could not work and so we moved to Gede. I am here because I know he worries about his kids. He worries about when they are not doing anything. So I would rather stay away so I don’t bother him. Then he doesn’t see me with no job.”

As the day goes by, the conversation stagnates. I think we have reached the point at which our cultural and situational differences make it hard to progress with our friendship. It is a sad thing, but now I think I understand what Mike was saying. It’s just hard sometimes to relate without feeling like the empathy is very one sided.

This isn’t such a bad place, it’s just the product of bad times. The sea has a lovely pale crystal colour between beds of seaweed. The beaches are whiter than my feet, smooth and sweeping. The intermittent weather plays dramatically across the sky, giving the day a varied canvas. The sound of the sea through my windows is actually rather soothing.

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Current affairs

So…Larium. Dr Manis listed the possible side effects, including but not limited to: psychosis, depression, suicidal tendencies and hallucinations; but I was sure it had to be better than Doxycycline on the prophylaxis spectrum (Anti-Malarial). So…last night I had a dream. I was freaking out and ran out of my room to get help, when the balcony stretched a hundred feet. A strange dark figure (that my mind told me was a giant teddy bear) approached.

When it got closer it turned into a man with a roast chicken for a head, who then started head-butting another man with a tinfoil tray for a head. I thought how the two belonged together and was happy that they had found each other. Intermittently while this was happening, I would relapse into another nightmare where my head became a screaming jackhammer, trying to beat something out of the wall. I once read the side effects on a pack of prophylactics. The last side effect was listed as “Death.” Maybe I should just get malaria.

Some news articles in today’s local paper: “Millions spent beautifying Nairobi for Barak Obama’s visit.” “Kids burn down schools to not take their exams.” “Lethal vaccines administered to children.” “Muslims break fast of Ramadan at Fort Jesus.” What’s wrong with this country?

While I sit here at Malindi airport sipping coffee and reading the paper, I realise that there is a Kenyan barista right in front of me who will likely be a far better source of local information. I ask him what’s going on.

He tells me that in this part of the coast, local people clump together to buy stretches of beach and then sell them on to Italian developers, who build villas and hotels. The proportion of Muslims to Christians in this region is about 50-50 and relations are good.

“We all believe in the same god.” he smiles.

His name is Francis. Baraka first introduced himself to me as Francis. He then went on to tell me later that he preferred to be called Baraka.

“Because people will baptize you and try and give you other names. This is my name.”

This happens a lot.

Nairobi

Getting from Nairobi airport to Wangige is a nightmare. A two hour bus ride followed by a two hour Matatu ride, though each were only 70KSE. I’m standing at the bus stop on a filthy road, two hours late with my earplugs in because there is a religious concert on that’s so loud I can’t even be near it. A man throws a banana skin over his shoulder into the road without even looking. It joins others and immediately blends in with all the other filth. I hate Nairobi.

My friend Charlotte is overwhelmed to see me. She has been having a horrible time in Nairobi so far, topped off by the fact that she just got assaulted on the way over. She has been volunteering for an NGO, but the rules and restrictions placed on them are ridiculous. She has an 8pm curfew, has to get permission to meet other people and has to do compulsory community service on the weekends.

“I’m so happy to see you I could cry!” she laughs hysterically, “This crazy guy just came out of nowhere, got me in a headlock and punched me in the head so hard. I think I’m concussed.”

“What the fuck!?” I say. “Didn’t anyone help you?”

“Yea the touts came over and pulled him off me and started beating him. No one asked me if I was ok though, they didn’t even acknowledge me.”

This is not the first time she has been assaulted either. She nearly got raped in a Matatu by three guys. They shut her in and started touching her up. When she tried to escape, a tout held the door closed. Luckily she was able to kick it open and get away, but not without significant psychological damage I suspect.

“So what is your NGO doing about all this?” I ask.

“Nothing. They just said “Oh we’re so sorry.” And then that was it.”

“Fuck’s sake Charlotte! If you see the guy, point him out to me and I’ll kick him in the face. You should get an Askari.”

“They won’t even pay for taxis, I doubt I’ll be getting a body guard any time soon.”

Charlotte lives in a little gated estate just out of town, in a tiny room with two sets of bunk-beds. She shares this room with 3 other girls, two Kenyans and one English girl.

Community programs

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“And the bible says that money will pave the way to the future.” This is a direct quote from a female pastor giving an empowered speech about creativity and entrepreneurship in Kenya. We are in a local church where members of Charlotte’s NGO are putting on an action day for the community. Charlotte and her Muzungu friends are giggling at her enthusiasm, whilst the Kenyan members of the group are rapt with concentration and are busy scrawling down notes.

“This lady could be anyone. They don’t know.” Charlotte comments. “They just lap it up.”

“You should only sleep two hours a night.” I’m paraphrasing, “Laziness is a disease.”

She is not all fire and brimstone. She talks about opportunities for young entrepreneurs, giving examples like: group funding to buy real estate, small loan options and volunteering to gain work experience.

“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” JFK.

Her husband has great teeth. He is also a pastor and I begin to see a theme. He is lecturing about leadership.

“Your privacy is your most valuable asset. Most people look good when they know someone is watching them, but inside they are just skeletal…I will go anywhere to upgrade the living conditions of god’s people.”

I imagine missionaries like him invading Masai homes and converting them to god’s work. Are they really happier now? Will they be happier with a thermo-power plant in their back garden?

“Your dignity comes from your work. Amen, praise the lord!” It is turning very quickly into a religious spiel. Apparently all the most successful people are spiritual, like Moses, or Joseph. “We are meant to rule, we are meant to govern, we are meant to master.”

I speak with the pastor after the session. His name is Joseph too. He is actually a really nice man and, like Daniel, has big plans to help the community. I ask him what this area was like 10 years ago and his eyes and nostrils flare.

“This was all a farm.” he says. “It was Kukiu land. The army would harass you or molest you. It was very dangerous.” It is still very dangerous. In fact, several of Charlotte’s friends have been robbed by the police or military.

I am curious about whether or not he is a Kukiu. I tell him I was just in Suswa with the Masai.

“You would get a warmer welcome there than me.” he says.

Daniel’s father fought in the wars against the Kukiu.

Later that night, all the brits from the NGO are out drinking. Friday is the day they get their weekly allowance and it’s party time. The bars we go to are in the nicer part of town and are all gated with security guards. No strips or people drinking outside. Now that they are all more relaxed they admit that they actually quite like Nairobi.

“Despite all its faults, it’s actually quite ok.” Charlotte says.

 

In actuality, she is still not ok.

The thing I’m going to miss the most about Nairobi is…sorry but this place could implode for all I care. Kenya in a word: Rift.

Had any interesting experiences in Kenya? Every worked for a non-governmental organisation? share your stories in the comments and don’t forget to like and subscribe below.

Only in China Day 7: Yellow Mountain Soda

Greater Shanghai

A sprawling flatland of non-identical housing estates, peppered with industry and farming, in a not so charming hot pot: that is how I would describe the greater Shanghai area. It is very green though, and the elevated highways do occasionally pass by nice parks with willow trees stroking little ponds. But mostly the above.

The housing estates, though very communist concrete in appearance, all have their own particularly out of place feature. A Grecian temple entrance for example, or a stack of poorly executed ionic columns. As you get further out there are occasionally charming little stone bridges over canals, bordered by rice paddies, tree fields, and lily looking plantations that I have no idea what are. I later found out that, yes, they are lilies. People like their pods for some reason. Good luck I think.

Chinese medicine

I had planned on getting up early this morning and getting to the bus station, (which is actually miles away from the one I thought it was) but I woke up at around 4am with a splitting toothache. Why, why did I not bring my customary drug kit with all the painkillers and powerful anti-inflammatory in the world?

At a local pharmacy where no-one speaks English and who sells almost exclusively traditional medicine, I manage to find some paracetamol and ibuprofen, only to get a ten minute long lecture by people who clearly have no idea what they’re talking about, trying to explain to me in Chinese that I can’t take both.

“Just give me the fucking drugs!” I say smiling, knowing that they don’t understand me. They’re actually pretty good.

Public busses

Now I’m on a bus! Shanghai long distance bus station (which is at Shanghai South Rail Station, the coach terminal not the bus station, in case anyone ever wanted to find it!) reminds me of a Greyhound bus station in the US.

Unlike Greyhound in Australia or South Africa, which is actually pretty premium, a Greyhound bus ticket is all they give you when you leave prison in America. They are shit. So in short, it’s below average for western standards, but not as bad as say, Kenya, although Kenya’s magic hip-hop, UV light-show coaches are pretty fun.

I am the only white person in this whole station. A girl sitting opposite me is wearing an anime T-shirt with a guy openly fingering a girl. How on Earth, anywhere, is that appropriate to wear, or even make? The coach is pretty basic, but not as bad as I had expected. There are no chicken coups, it’s not a sausage factory, and there is functional, though non-directional air-con.

Anhui

As we encroach on Ahnui the magic and mystery of China finally opens itself, as sharp hills coated in bamboo forests poke their heads out of the mist. A tiny patch of blue sky emerges, but the windows of the bus are still battered with rain. Did I mention it’s been raining for the last week?

At last a taste of Chinese hospitality. The nice English speaking hotel receptionist is doing all she can to help me out, even though I’m not staying at her hotel. She called a cheaper place for me and got their driver to come and pick me up, even though it’s late. I then arrive at the new place, get a cracking room for Y60 and then am asked if I want to eat.

The hotel has a restaurant that, though it’s clearly just closed, stay open for me and give me good grub at a reasonable price too. To top it off the guy is going to pick me up in the morning again at 6.30am and ferry me back to the park gates, and no charge!

Huangshan

The Grand Canyon, or so it’s called, suddenly opens up all its glory from behind the clouds, and is there anyone else here? No.

huangshan-canyon-overlook

I have finally escaped the sea of umbrella poking, trash hurling, megaphone blaring, Chinese tourist groups swarming Huangshan (The Yellow Mountains) from every angle, by going down a little known side route to another valley. This is undoubtedly the finest scenery this mountain has had to offer so far, and the weather has finally cleared enough to see it.

Don’t get me wrong, this has actually been the nicest day since I got here. A pleasant bright morning with the occasional quick shower and some obscuring clouds, but I’m glad that it’s been cool for the epic ascent. What I could not tolerate however, worse than the fact that I was inside a cloud at the apex, ironically staring at a sign that said “Best views of Huagnshan!” was the continuous, obnoxious, unnecessary safety tannoy from the nearby cable car station. Oh my Buddha! How can they not know that it ruins everything!!!! I felt like it was the line for purgatory, but I digress.

The Grand Canyon was spectacular, with brown jagged teeth sticking up hundreds of feet from the bamboo forest, topped with impossible evergreen and hanging vines, splintering into the distant fog.  In the far background, amongst the 3D pop-out of a guidebook’s wet dream, lies a lonely pavilion, barely visible, yet infinitely powerful. Superb. What China lack in audio sensitivity they certainly make up for in visuals.

huangshan-grand-canyon

The canyon just keeps on giving. Many steps and shady forest tunnels later, and I come across something that looks like an old 80’s isometric platform game scene.

The angles and architecture wrought into the imposing scenery are almost too difficult to describe.

huangshan-bridge-over-nowhere

The stone bridge over nothing in particular was breath-taking, apparently the only thing that connects the two valleys together. Unfortunately I cannot go further as the way is closed, probably due to the typhoon.

On another detour I found myself not being able to resist the archetypal adventure photo standing atop a precariously wedged round boulder between two cliffs.

seems-legit

I must admit that getting to it was a scary task and I couldn’t quite make it in 30 seconds, the maximum self-timer setting on my camera, but the photo speaks for itself (insert photo here).

Stealth Camping

Not much of an actual sunset, but the evening light was wonderful over the far hills, disappearing endlessly like a painting.

huang-shan-pavilion

I caught another moment of solitude by frequenting a quiet place, but had my headphones in by this point anyway, to drown out the screaming Chinese tourists. Detours and all it was a punishing 12 hour day hiking up a mountain, heavy pack and all.

I resented paying the extortionate prices for soft drinks, but I could not resist, my anger immediately washed away by the cool liquid Gatorade. Best drink ever…twice. I must have drank 3.5L of water and I haven’t even peed. It’s not had the chance to get that far. I don’t think I’ve ever sweat so much in my life. Totally worth it.

At the end of the day I stealth camped in a bush nearby the sunrise spot at Beihai, my black, waist height Vango Helium pulling its meagre 900g weight. Don’t listen to what anyone tells you about it being illegal to camp in China. Everyone does it, all the time, so don’t worry about it. Take a tent, you’ll save loads of money.

I had to don ear plugs however, due to the myriad of Cicadas. For those of you who don’t know these devils, they are the size of cockroaches, but fly around bumping into stuff, screaming at 90Db in a noise that is a cross between an alarm clock and someone shaving through a megaphone. Bastards.

What a day. Continue to follow my adventures in China by hitting the Follow button below, and check out the albums on the site. Share your stories in the comments. Like and follow us on Twitter or Facebook for updates and titbits from other aspects of MiscEarth, daily quotes, photos and more.

Understanding Africa: Masai

The Volcano

My heart is racing, my arse is sore and my eyes are burning. I am on the back of a 300cc off road bike behind a Masai tribesman, driving over lava tubes towards a volcano.

Some might think this an odd combination, but Daniel is a modern Masai who lives in the active but dormant crater of Mount Suswa, in the Great Rift Valley, Kenya. He has had his motorbike for about a year now and is a proficient driver. I get the feeling that he could navigate this vast expanse of mazy lava tubes with his eyes closed. Before the Challenger he had a bicycle, but I cannot imagine him making this journey in less than half a day that way.

challenger

All I can think about is how cool this guy is. I could talk about Daniel all day. He wears traditional Masai robes but has a smartphone, lives in a mud hut but has solar panels to charge said smartphone, he is a Christian pastor but still drinks cows blood (minus the platelets. Apparently they extract them using a stick that turns into a blood popsicle). He has one wife and five children, though his father had 6 wives and 30 children.

“My firstborn” Daniel tells me as he is naming his kids, “Oh wait, I can’t really call him this because he is not mine. I adopted him. Do you know how old he was when I adopted him? Six days. His mother died during childbirth. This happens a lot because Masai still practice circumcision and female genital mutilation, which causes bleeding during birth.”

We are sitting inside one of five mud huts that occupy this particular patch of endless plateau inside the outer crater: one is for his wife and children, one for his mother, one for his brother Reuben and his family, and one is for guests (don’t know what the other is for). It is dark and cool, but little spots of light poke through the ceiling and walls, which are lined with plastic and a net to keep some insects out (I say some, because infestation by flies is inevitable). I brush them away and Daniel laughs at me.

“You cannot handle the flies? Ah, we are pastorals.” His children have flies all over them but they don’t flinch, even when they are in their eyes.

daniels-house

This is the guest hut, but Daniel sleeps here at the moment because his wife Agnes has a new born and their other four children in his hut, which is also used for cooking. I can’t sit in that one because the smoke makes my eyes burn. I am feeling increasingly weak compared with these stalwart people.

“I bet you did not think you would be sleeping with me when you came here.” Daniel smiles.

He has perfectly white teeth, except the two front bottom teeth are missing. We had a discussion about this and apparently it is a Masai tradition to removed the bottom teeth so that if someone is stranded in the bush and cannot open their mouth, another Masai can feed them and give them water through the hole. Also it’s kind of a right of passage to pull them out, that and the circumcision. I hear that if you flinch during the ceremony you are disowned. Consequently a lot of Masai have burn marks on their legs where they practice suffering pain.

That first night Daniel and I talked for some time about the Masai and his plans for the community, but first: to the bat cave!

“Turn off your torch.” Daniel says once we are far enough inside. I switch off the torch on my phone and it is pitch black. “This is darker than night. They call this the great relaxation, because when you are in here there is no worrying about your car, or your job, or your belly, only this dark and quiet, and when people leave they feel clean.”

“Like a reset button.” I add.

There is a pile of bones in the corner. “Look, a picnick!” he exclaims. “When you see the bones you know that the Jaguar could be anywhere.” There is a shelf above the bones. “This is where he eats and drops the rubbish from his mouth.” I am now looking at every crevice for signs of movement.

The caves are remnants of lava flows that bored tunnels all through the ground. There is a huge system of caves that are all connected one way or another, some hot from still active steam vents and some cold from where the rainwater filters down through the crater.

Daniel gives me another scare story about the bats having Ebola and so we don’t venture any further. Instead we head to the Baboon Parliament. This large open chamber has brilliant acoustics and viewing platforms where the baboons gather at night. A large single vine hangs down from a prominent fig tree through the huge hole in the ceiling and the light falls on a smooth flat rock in the centre of the chamber.

daniel-in-the-cave

 

Daniel is a bit of a poser and I get some great shots with him in the caves. He told me he was once in a BBC documentary about the Great Rift Valley. I can just imagine his perfect teeth smiling for the camera.

“Here they all gather to discuss how to avoid the Jaguar” Daniel tells me, “and to discipline their tribe. They are very clever you know. One baboon will come and sit here and “hoo hoo hoo!” and they all listen to it. This stone is especially smooth because the baboons polish it.”

I find this almost too hard to believe, but when we come back near sunset, the baboons gather and play and sit on the shelves. Unfortunately parliament is not in session today as they are distracted by our presence, so we ride off into the sunset on the Challenger.

Hard Times

After dinner Daniel and I sit down and have a chat. Because of all the orphaned children and his own troubled upbringing, he wants to open an orphanage and even has his own crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter.

“I believe that if you help someone who is in need, they will grow up grateful and they are more likely to help someone else who is in need. That way you plant the seed and it grows in future generations.”

‘I could not have put it better myself’ I think, as I sit there captivated by his shadowy figure beneath the solar lamp, which is now the only light source in the hut.

He also tells me about the Kenyan governments plans to build a Thermo-power plant in the crater. Because of its still active nature, the steam – which the Masai use to condense into clean water via PVC pipes – could apparently provide several Megawatts of power for the grid. If the plans go through, the Kenyan government will buy all the land and displace the Masai from their homes. Roads will be built, land will be fenced off and huge amounts of industry will be poured into the mountain.

“How do you feel about it?” I ask. He looks at the ground in silence for a short while.

“I’m sorry” he says in a defeated tone “I can’t talk about it any more. It is too sad.”

After getting to know him a little better, he later told me: “Do you know what the worst thing is? They will be given a lot of money for their land. It will change them. Some will buy cars, some will drink and kill themselves, but all will die as Masai. It will never be the same. I don’t know what we’ll do.” My heart breaks listening to him.

Sadly this happens all too often. The damn in Jinja flooded huge amounts of land and changed the whole ecosystem, all for power to be sold to Kenya. Further up the Nile in Egypt, the Aswan damn flooded thousands of acres, forcing the Bedouin people off of their land and creating huge lakes. They even took apart Abul Simbel, a 5000 year old ancient Egyptian temple, piece by piece, and re-assembled it 5 miles uphill.

A testament to modern technology: they actually got it wrong, and the event which should happen on the solstice, where a beam of light shines down the centre of the temple, lighting the faces of the four gods, is now a day later, on the 22nd of December. The Pharaohs would roll over in their graves if they weren’t locked in a basement at the British museum.

I am standing outside staring up at the full beauty of the Milky Way, pondering the problems that these people I have come to love now face. A shooting star passes by and is gone. I make a wish for their future.

Family life

And winner of the “Lu with a View” award goes to Squat Box Suswa!

lu-with-a-view

I am sitting on a comfortable mahogany toilet box completely in the open, in the middle of the grassy plains of a volcano. The sun is shining, the wind blowing pleasantly and as I do my business, Gazelles prance in front of me beneath the Acacia trees. Paradise.

Daniel caught me escaping with the necklace of shame, a toilet roll on a rope you hang around your head so that everyone knows you about to do your business.

“Where are you going?” he asks.

“Urgh, the bathroom.” I reply timidly

“I am not finished building it yet.” he laughs, “Do you want to see?”

“Um, ok.” I reply tentatively. This diet of bread and butter sandwiches and Jappatis is really taking its toll. “Proper Masai food!” Daniel calls it.

We walk about 100ft from his house and there it is, pleasantly concealed behind a low bush. It is a toilet shaped wooden box with no bottom that covers a foot deep hole. There is even a shovel with a little pile of dirt to finish. Nice.

It was a hell of a hike around the inner crater today and this is the perfect release after having held it in for fear of squatting in a bush.

It was just as I had imagined, the crater that is. It is difficult to see until you are right at the rim, but then a sharp drop takes your eyes down to an undulating bowl of verdant green that sweeps round a full six hours hike, about 800 meters from trench to peak. In the centre is the hidden island, surrounded by little pillars of steam and looking back westward you can see the half crescent of the outer crater towering above, giving the full effect of the power of this explosion.

daniel-rests

Apparently Mount Suswa erupted twice, creating the two craters, the inner plateau, the mote, and the hidden island. The tribe elders sometimes go to the hidden island in the centre of the volcano to pray and perform rituals. This is only very rare nowadays however, as Christianity is fast taking over the Masai here. Around 1982 Missionaries reached this valley and swept down, imposing Christianity on all they could find, condemning the heathen ways of the locals. Within a single family, the elders will follow the old ways while the middle aged impose their newly found religion on their children.

On the way down Daniel complains that his leg is hurting.

“You’re getting old.” I joke, knowing full well he is a great deal fitter than me.

“How old do you think I am?” he asks.

I have no idea. He could be fifty for all I know. Guess low. “45?” I ask.

He laughs. “I am not so old. My father is 93.”

“Wow.”

“We have a woman, she is…130.”

“Now that’s old.” I say, trying to remember what the world’s oldest person is in the Guinness book of records. I thought it was 126.

“She cannot see now for maybe ten years.” He says dismissively. “And she has no teeth.” It suddenly gets hot as we walk past a steam vent.

“Time for a footbath!” Daniel says.

suswa-plains

We are almost home, it is about 3pm and the plateau is an oven. We head over to one of the steam vents and Daniel pulls over half an oil barrel. He fetches a cup of hot water from the steam condensation tank and pours it over my head. The water quickly evaporates leaving me feeling refreshed. He helps me wash my feet and I think about the religious significance. He is a pastor after all.

That night Rueben, Daniels brother, invites us in for tea. I met Rueben earlier when he asked me if I was stealing his son. I was walking back from watching the sunset out by the crater and a small kid came up and held my hand as I was walking by. Embarrassingly enough I didn’t realise it was Daniel’s son and asked Reuben if the boy was his. Reuben’s English is very good and he looks nothing like Daniel.

“So you are brothers from another mother?” Hanga, Reuben’s Romanian guest asks.

“Exactly.” Reuben laughs.

I didn’t get much chance to talk to him that night, but the next day we were all hiking around the crater and I sparked off a conversation.

“So your father was a guide?” I ask.

“My father was a warrior.” he replies casually. “He fought in the wars against the other tribe. He once killed a jaguar with his bare hands. He cannot move these two fingers because it bit him.” What a guy.

“Are you afraid of anything?” asks Hanga.

Reuben laughs. “I do not like frogs. When they are in the grass and they are all wet.” He screws up his face.

“Ok, so if I see any frogs I will kill them and if there is a lion, you can kill it for me.”

“You know” says Reuben “In the past you were not allowed to marry if you had not killed a lion.”

“What if you couldn’t kill one, like there wasn’t one? Could you still marry?”

“Well, yes, but you would not be recognised as a man.”

“Did your father ever kill a lion?”

“He had six wives.” He laughs. “Lions used to be everywhere.” He down-plays the fact that his father was basically Russell Crow.

Daniel has a very different view of his father. He abandoned his mother when Daniel was just a boy and so he was driven into education, which funnily enough was only for outcasts back then. He is actually only 34, so that shows how recently views have changed. I can see that life here is hard for Masai and it’s only going to get harder as modern society continues to encroach on their traditional way of living.

Where to find them

daniel-close-up

The hospitality I received in Daniel’s home was not that of royalty, but rather of equality. He made me feel like family and that’s the greatest gift I could have hoped for. So where did I find Daniel you ask? My friend Mike gave me his number. If you want to meet him and the rest of his family, check out Reuben’s Facebook page at https://goo.gl/Ja7CSx and help support their traditional way of life.

If you find enjoyed hearing about my experience with the Masai why not share and follow the blog below, or on our Facebook or Twitter page. As always check out the relevant galleries linked to the blog and watch my short film Africa Finale, including some good face time for our Daniel.

Only in China: Day 5 The Jade Buddha Fiasco

Thai Chi

The air is alive with the sound of Asian flutes and strings, a peaceful cacophony of intermingling boom-boxes strewn about Lu Xun Park in northern Shanghai. This is where the Taiwanese congregate each morning to practice the art of Thai Chi on mass. It is a spectacle to behold and one well worth getting up at 6am for. Every space is taken up by some movement, from large groups to single denizens swaying slowly amongst the bamboo groves.

The precision and fluidity with which they execute their movements is breath-taking: such a peaceful and inspiring existence. Most of the practitioners are old, but look in the prime of health, I a young man, sitting here yawning and sweating at the same time just watching them. It’s incredibly hot and humid and I can’t even fathom doing exercise right now.

thai-chi

There are a number of people practising with swords as well, one handed slender blades, straight and double edged, with small winged cross guards. The weapon is an embodiment of its use, light and flowing, balanced and decorative, a true extension of its user.

Lu Xun Park is a memorial for the political novelist of the same name, who promoted Mao’s movement. In honour of him, Mao built this park and monument, burying him here even against the artists own wish, which was to be buried in a small family grave in his home province. It seems his fame owned him even after his death.

Besides its political irony, the park is beautiful, with small tea houses harbouring local card players, a tranquil lake with in impressive stone bridge, and lily ponds to boot. The only downside is that by 8am the park is overrun with dance classes, choking every possible space and converting the peaceful atmosphere into an insufferable rabble. I feel for the birds in their cages hung from the trees. Apparently it’s tradition. Chinese don’t seem so good with pets thus far.

Pudong & Xintandi

Pudong is the neck breaking skyscraper capitol of China. Being a restoration project in the 1950’s, Pudong used to be a slum, but now is the financial capital of mainland China. There are skyscrapers of every description here, from the art-deco Mao tower, to the phallic 60’s space station of the Pearl TV tower.

There is a series of elevated modern walkways suspended above lush parks that wind through the glass jungle. The most impressive buildings are undoubtedly the Mao, International Finance Centre, and Shanghai tower, which are a perfect example of architectural evolution. They form a triangle from Art deco Mao, to post-modern straight line Financial centre, and then mind-bogglingly curvatious Shanghai tower, the second tallest and most beanstalk like building in the world.

DCIM129GOPRO

I sample all three interiors, but there’s not much to be seen without paying up to Y200 for the observation decks. After sunset amongst the shimmering trees I headed to the cool artsy district of Xintiandi , a restored Shikumen complex just west of the old city. It was almost like a posh restored dock, with lively cafes and restaurants set amongst a rather fake looking pastiche of an old-school Chinese housing estate.

Beautiful though it was with its dimly lit wood and stonework, narrow alleyways and modern statues, I suddenly realised what it is. This is a place where rich Chinese people go to eat expensive Western food. Nearly every building was an Italian, French, or American restaurant, with Starbucks to boot. It’s also surrounded by a series of shopping malls, sporting boutique, upmarket fashion stores. After absorbing the cool ambience I ate my cheap ramen noodles and went home.

The Jade Buddha Fiasco

In an extremely poorly lit room, a fair distance away, there sits an exquisite Jade Buddha behind two oil burning candles, which, if you buy a bottle of oil from the guard, she will pour into the vat amongst all the other un-burnt oils.

“No photography!” she yells, as I sneak a quick pic while she’s busy pouring tourists money into the pot.

img_1069

Yufo temple in North Western Shanghai was built to house two Jade Buddha statues, the largest of which I am looking at. It is situated in an out of the way residential area, amongst soaring communist housing estates with peculiar architecture. I mean, who creates a natural rock effect on one part of a thousand strong occupancy estate, leaving the other 90% plain concrete? It is one of these highly overrated places that has no real significance unless you’re Chinese, something I would later discover is a bit of a thing in China.

The Great Treasure hall is far more impressive, with giant statues of past and future golden Buddha’s everywhere. This is the kind of thing you get really excited about the first time and then realise that every temple in China is exactly the same. The temple itself looks like it was built yesterday, as all the ramparts are shiny and plastic looking. Surprisingly, even though it’s a weekend, it’s not rammed, being primarily a functional temple.

I am a little late for the morning service, but I catch the end of a prayer session, which is quite charming. Locals and pilgrims don their robes and sing along to chants as the Buddhist monk leads them along with his microphone.

People everywhere are praying, burning incense (which you have to buy in the shop) and throwing money into little pots in front of statues. I hear monks make a killing selling blessings here as well. No wonder all the statues are adorned with gold. The place is tiny and there’s not much to see other than what I already mentioned, apart from a couple of giant lumps of green glass for sale outside the gift shop.

One thing that does catch my eye however, is a just larger than life-sized shiny wooden statue of Zhang Fei, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms legendary “Warrior of the magnificent beard” hidden away in a shady corner. He holds his beard to one side as if presenting it to be inspected. It is magnificent, as is his expression, both fearsome and with a slight airy humour about it, as if with one laugh he could cut you down.

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Zhang Fei was the giant warrior who was renowned as much for his beard as much as for his chivalry: the ancient equivalent of a modern David Beckham. When I heard about it, I bought the book to read whilst travelling, but I didn’t realised that part one is 1000 pages long, so I had to leave it at home.

On my way in to grab my camera and head back out to The Bund (I accidentally deleted all my photos from the last 2 days, no biggie) I bump into my new roommates (Had to change hostels as part of the Jade Buddha Fiasco), who turn out to be completely un-interesting. They all want to go out for dinner and then drinks at a place they admitted was lame yesterday just so they can get drunk. I hate backpackers like these.

Back at the Bund, night has fallen and the light show is out in all its glory. It’s actually spectacular. Purples and blues and whites blend into the foggy sheen of the Fouzhou Creek, the top of the Shanghai tower still shrouded in cloud. I take a series of long exposures in order to filter out the crowds of spectators in the way.

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The city comes alive at night. It’s even busier than it is during the day and there is a choke of Chinese tourists heading up East Nanjing Road. I get offers of prostitution twice. Strangely one block south and there’s almost no-one. Tourist traps always amuse me. I must be less than 50m from the choke, the view is identical, and there is almost 90% less people. Noobs, everywhere!

When I look back at all my adventures in China, somehow Shanghai feels very disconnected. It was my first experience of China, and yet my memories of everywhere else are fonder. I think for me, I just hate big cities. I grew up in London and I’ve seen tourist traps all over the world, and although they all have their own uniqueness, once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. I far prefer the countryside and the natural beauty of a place, not human-kind’s blight upon it.

If you enjoy my ramblings don’t forget to like and subscribe below. In the next episode I’ll be leaving the big city and sampling my first course of the Chinese railway, my home for the next four months. First stop: Huang Shan (Yellow Mountains).

AdventureTime: Andorra week 1

Welcome to my AdventureTime series. Here I’ll be detailing some of my climbing adventures in Andorra. Being a professional ski bum has it’s benefits. For example: I get one day of a week! But I like to spend it making the most of these beautiful mountains by giving them a thoroughly good climb.

For my first week I thought I’d start out big and attempt to summit Comapedrosa, the highest mountain in Andorra, but I don’t like to make things easy for myself. The conventional route starts from the town of Arinsal and takes approximately five hours and is outlined in blue below. I would call this a moderate climb and so I went for something a little more challenging.

adventuretime-1-map

 

The route I attempted included several other peaks in a kind of full circuit of all the mountains you can see from town, outlined above in red. The day began at 8am with a hefty ascent through some rather charming forest, rising up from the foothills, past mountain refuges and finally ending up in the valley of my first proper ascent. All in all this pre-amble took about three and a half hours, a bit longer than I had anticipated, and landed me at the snowline at around 11.40am. Now’s where the real fun begins.

adventuretime-1-2

Here’s where I lost the path in the snow. Donning the crampons and ice axe, I then tackled the above route. You can see where I changed my mind half way and decided to go for the difficult looking climb on the left hand side. the traverse across the snow was particularly interesting, requiring constant anchoring with the ice axe in order to shimmy over across the sheet ice.

After that I put away the crampons and tackled the technical climb up the rocks towards the first waystone. Around about the middle of that climb I reached a rather vertical wall. This wasn’t so tough, barring the fact that half way up a major supporting rock came lose and nearly sent me falling to my death. The following scramble put me in such a tight spot that the cap popped off my water bottle and spilled all down my back.

After two hours and twenty minutes of climbing I reached my first major objective at 1.42pm and for the rest of the day hydrated exclusively by eating snow. That out of the way, I was then faced with my next challenge: the ridge.

adventuretime-1-3

Now I love ridges. They are pretty much the reason I climb all the way up to these places and I’d been sizing up this one for days. By this point however, I was beginning to flag, having been going for nearly six hours already, and having spent more time axing than your average Viking. But I was determined to smash this rock.

The ridge was actually far more difficult than I had anticipated and involved a lot of ups and downs, some very careful balancing, and a good dollop more of the axe, now my favourite thing in the entire world.

img_4545

After sizing up my tools with the challenge ahead, I gritted my teeth and got on with it. I definitely had some moments where I thought I couldn’t go any further, but somehow I always found a way. In one particular instance, I was faced with a jagged tooth with a sheer drop on either side. The sides were too icy to shimmy round, the tooth was higher than my reach, and there was no visible hand holds.

I was stumped here for a while until I started feeling around the rock face with my axe and found a peculiar spot. Somehow the axe caught a good niche, though I couldn’t see and it looked like a bare wall to me. Trusting in my new best friend, I abandoned any foothold and using both arms, hoisted myself up onto the tip of the tooth and got a hold of the top. I then raised myself up and straddled it, perching there for a while to see if I could actually get down the other side.

adventuretime-1-4

The route above actually took two hours and twenty minutes, landing me at the bail out point at 5.05pm. This put me in a difficult situation. The summit of Comapedrosa was about a forty five minute good climb ahead, but the sun was setting and I was exhausted. On top of that, there’s no easy way down from the summit and I didn’t want to be stuck on the mountain in the dark. That ridge had taken up all my time and energy and I had to call it. On later inspection of the map, I was about 100m of elevation off. Gutted.

So I pulled out my bum board and went careering down the mountain, using my feet and the ice axe as front and rear brakes. This was probably the most dangerous thing I did all day. At points it was six foot of powder and I swam down, at others it was sheet ice and I had to axe it down one step at a time. I had to save myself from uncontrolled high speed descents over rocks a few times, frantically hacking at the ice with the axe like a scene from “Vertical limit.” It did however, save me a bunch of time and I was back down in the valley in an hour, just in time for me to hit the grass before it got completely dark.

andorra-stars

I then switched my phone torch on and walked the rest of the way, admiring the Milky Way as I went. I got home at around 7.30pm, making it an eleven and a half hour day of climbing. Not the longest day I’ve ever had, but the longest technical day.

In summary then: Comapedrosa, not quite, but adventure, definitely. I’ll have to do the conventional route some time just to put my foot on it, but for now I’m happy to be safe and warm and enjoying a lovely lobster spread (another perk of being a ski bum: living in a fancy hotel for free).

If you have any advice for me as a climber, or want to share similar stories about your adventures, feel free to comment below. If you found this at all inspiring, scary, or just want to make sure I’m still alive, follow the blog for more adventures, hopefully on a weekly basis.

Understanding Africa: Uganda

Uganda is not the cleanest, nor the best maintained country in East Africa, but it has its own particular style. Continuing on my journey through East Africa, I caught the overnight bus from Kigali to Kampala, and what a striking difference.

Kampala

When I get off the overnight bus to Kampala, it is still dark and I am disorientated from lack of sleep. After swatting away a few mosquitos and taxi drivers, I spot just outside the bus station, a stylish, handsome Ugandan on a 60’s red racing motorcycle. He has a leather jacket with a feathered rim and looks like an ex-movie star from the 40’s. He should be smoking a cigarette and complaining about all the gin joints in all the world, but instead he is wearing a beanie hat. He nods and I jump on the back.

I notice he has a helmet on the front of his bike, but he doesn’t offer it to me or put it on himself. These Boda Bodas are a different ballgame to the Motos of Rwanda. I have to hold onto the back and don’t quite get the right spoonage. He stops to fuel up and I get off perplexedly. I might have thought it rude if it weren’t so early and he so damn handsome. He tops up 0.84l of fuel for the equivalent of about 50p. There must be some serious maths involved in fuel economy on these things.

After an epic nap in my run down hotel, I have the second best coffee I have ever seen in the Nakumatt mall. It is a mocha served in a tall glass cup with froth and chocolate powder on top, and most touchingly, the words: “One love Boss!” written on top in fantastic calligraphy with a chocolate syrup gun. I look over to the counter and expect to see a black James Dean barista smoking another cigarette and winking at me, but he is just a regular guy. I take a picture.

uganda-coffee

I’ve been walking around for half an hour trying to find this park I saw from the first floor of the mall and as soon as I sit down to eat my border cakes I am assaulted by a group of cheerful, raggedy dressed Ugandan children. They want my cake. They can’t have it: false economy.

Don’t judge me, but my decision was based on pigeon politics. Once you feed one you get swarmed. I feel bad, they are lovely and they make me smile, rolling around on the floor with their beaming smiles and hardly any teeth. The owner of the cardboard sheet I have been sitting nearby settles in as the sun is getting low and so I take my leave.

Kampala is “same same but different” as the East African saying goes: they drive on the left and have British style plug sockets; have something silly like 82 languages but the official language is English; their food and customs are similar; looks and smells and tastes; but are all part of the same tribes that occupy the region. It seems in the 1800’s German’s colonized East Africa and drew lines on maps that had little to do with cultural and tribal identities. Hutu, Tutsi, Twa, Massai and Swahili all lived in relative harmony until they were fenced in and told to share the same space. Playground politics ensue. And I’m not even going to go into the whole evil history of it all.

Later, in my hotel, I order some local vegetarian cuisine, but it backfires. What I received was a nothing tasting green slosh with the definition of stodge: maze starch lumps, to dip into it. Malakwang and Uglai sounded so tempting in Swahili. My stomach burns.

Camp Muzungu

When my alarm goes off at 6am I am delirious. Breakfast is a rushed blur and I am soon on the bus to Jinja to do white water rafting on the Nile. Some observations:

Ironic sign in chipped paint: “Our paints last a very, very, very long time.”

Unnoticed copy write infringement: “Yellow Bull phone accessories.”

A Ugandan on a Harley Davidson motorcycle with a handlebar moustache.

Razor wire everywhere.

Exclusively white mannequins and pictures of white babies on “New-born” congratulations cards. Really? There can’t be more than a handful of white babies born in Uganda a year. Where is their target market?

It is plethora of randomness that can only be observed through the windows of a small minibus, on the way past tiny villages and places likely not even on the map. It makes me smile to experience. There’s no other way to travel.

As I’m drowning I try and remember the advice of my cheeky Scottish instructor. “The river has a mind of its own, if it wants to pull you in, spin you around, suck you down, let it, there’s nothing you can do about it. Just relax and hold your breath. Try to go feet first down a rapid, you’ve got a lot of meet on your butt, but not much on your shins you know.”

uganda-white-water-rafting

He is a huge man, bare chested and tanned with tattoos and a pink baseball cap style helmet. As he speaks to us you can tell that he has told these jokes a hundred times before and that he is investing no more of his personality than is necessary to give you a good day and then forget you after lunch. He does this every day.

I say hi to him at the bar that afternoon and he barely acknowledged me with a shrug. He has been rafting on the Nile in Uganda for 10 years now. I ask him if he will ever go back to Scotland. He says no, but doesn’t think he’ll stay here either. It is the classic Ex-Pat mentality. Not entirely an immigrant, but also not a patriot.

A week earlier Mike, Melba, Ben and I were having a rather controversial conversation about this, whilst driving down the Nile Congo trail that ruined our car.

“So you think any non-British person in the UK is an immigrant, but every Brit abroad is an Ex-Pat?” Melba asks Ben in a not un-annoyed tone.

“No…” Ben replies, but he has dug himself a hole. “Well…What’s the difference then?”

“The difference is” continues Melba in a definitive, empowered, but also non-aggressive manner, “That an immigrant is anyone seeking permanent residence in a foreign country, while an Ex-Pat is just someone living abroad temporarily. Most British Ex-Pats come home eventually for the good health and social system in England, because they can. Immigrants who – for whatever reason – have chosen to live in another country, won’t go back because they’re country is less fortunate, or is dangerous and they don’t want to spend the rest of their lives, or their children’s lives there. It’s not so much a choice as a necessity.”

I have stayed tactfully on the outskirts of this conversation, but I have my ice breaker: “I think we should round up all the British Ex-Pats and put them on an island and let them fend for themselves.”

“Like Australia?” says Mike. “Trololololol!”

We all laugh, Melba swerves the car around a ditch and we continue.

Back in Uganda, I have made a little group by merging 3 smaller groups together, in an attempt to rekindle my sociable nature. There is a Belgian couple whom I rafted with, two Austrian girls who I made friends with earlier over photography and Sophia, a Ugandan woman who works at the other camp, who told me that she liked my walk earlier when she mistook me for a tour guide.

“It isn’t like a proper Muzungu walk, it’s got style.” She is the life of the party and the first bubbly, energetic and modern Ugandan woman I have met.

We are laughing about African clubs and how it is so easy to dance and copy what the locals are doing. “Shake what your mother gave you!” she laughs after an hour long spiel about how Africans have big asses for a reason. “Or if you don’t have it, shake your back!” she gestures to the two Austrians. “But it is not like in your country where if you dance with a guy you are telling him you are going home with him tonight. No. I will dance with a guy, shake what my mother gave me and if I don’t like him, afterwards I say, ok thank you, goodnight. There are some local guy of course who will be like that, there is always somebody, but you just have to look out for yourself.”

Everyone is in stitches. “One guy, he came up to me and put his hand like this, straight down my pants. I punched him in the face, but I did not make a scene. I told him. “Mister! If you want to touch my pussy you have to ask for my permission. You are lucky it was me, because if it was anyone else and they screamed, everyone would come and beat you.” They will club you with this.” She holds up an empty beer bottle. “I have seen it before, it is their weapon.”

“But the dancing is just having a good time. It is like holding hands. Men will hold hands, it is not like in your country where it is gay. If a man is caught in bed with another man he will be beaten, but if they are holding hands, this is nothing, it is just what we do. We have no association with this in Uganda, it is nothing.” Sophia explains it all.

She also hooked the girls up with a place to stay in Sippy Falls with her ex-boyfriend. She even got him to come and pick them up from town and drive them up there. “He is the only one of his family who is here.” She told them, “He is the only one who got deported from England. Silly boy, did he not know that you could not carry a pistol? But don’t tell him we met yesterday! Or he will be like “Whaaaaaat? You are ruining my business!” He is filthy rich though.”

Later that night, the stars are out in full bloom, so bright that they even reflect off the Nile and the Milky Way is splattered across the sky. One of the Aussie girls and I have snuck onto the house boat docked at the bottom of the steep, secluded bay. Now it is just the two of us.

uganda-lake-victoria

“Look a shooting star!” she exclaims in an excited whisper, “I haven’t seen one of those the whole time I’ve been here.”

“What did you wish for?” I ask.

“I can’t tell you that.” she giggles, “I could stare at this all night.”

The next morning, the Austrian girls walked right past me while I was having breakfast. It was 11am and they were just coming back from a rather expensive hour and a half of horse ridging. All the organised activities here are overpriced, specifically targeted for foreign travellers, for whom the perceived value of the thing is proportionate to the payment. There is a sign that warns about unlicensed tours and activities, but these are likely far more reasonably priced and conducted by local Ugandans, earning an honest living and offering their culture and proficiency to share with travellers.

Yesterday I was slack lining with some Ex-Pats who were staying with a host family in the nearby village. They loved the whole experience and she cooked them spectacular meals every night, offering her home and love at a very fair price. I can’t help but think that these foreign owned touristy establishments set up a syndicate in poor areas and create a bubble, sucking in all the money and spitting out photocopied experiences. It is comfortable though.

Charity

As the girls walk back past me I say hi and break the embargo on awkwardness. I know that Theresa has told Greta all about last night, but everyone is casual. They come and join me and show me pictures of what they had been doing in Uganda. They both study occupational therapy and have been doing a placement at a local hospital, in a small town between Kampala and Entebe that treats children with crippling disabilities. They are teaching parents and doctors how to treat these children and offer them a better life.

As I see the pictures of these poor children with MS, cerebral palsy, and the condition whose name I cannot remember that makes your head the shape of a giant melon, I cannot help but feel horrified. The atmosphere and the photos however, are overwhelmingly positive and the girls speak about the children with delight and good humour. I feel bad for my initial reaction. After all, the whole point of this project is to help communities be more positive about disabilities.

“Aww Timmy, I miss him.” They smile over a picture of a joyful looking boy with cerebral palsy. “He is always so happy and energetic. When he laughs his whole body tightens up and you have to hold onto him really tight.”

There is a little boy who looks less delighted in a small wheelchair. “That wheelchair is no good for him. He still cannot move himself because the streets are too bad.”

“Also it is very expensive.” Greta adds.

There is a picture of a poor girl with a giant swollen head. Every picture is of her either crying or looking very unhappy. “Poor Emma.” Greta says with a deep empathy. “She is always in pain. Before she was just left in the corner, they did not know what to do with her, but we teach the parents how to help their children. She has a special chair with a head cup, because she cannot support her own head.”

There are more photos of them with the kids, and then some of a rather nice looking apartment. “Woops! Our photos are all mixed up.” Says Theresa. “This is where we were staying. There is the hospital, and there’s our apartments attached to it.”

Having seen the state of the hospital and the children, this comes as a bit of a surprise. Their apartment is the nicest house I have seen in East Africa so far. Suspiciously so. It makes me think that although these projects that bring in foreign volunteers do help the community, they are housed and treated specially at the cost of these institutions. You would think that they would be proportionate to the needs of the clinic, but is seems a bit of a contradiction. On the other hand, it must make these placements seem more attractive to perspective volunteers. Otherwise they might get none at all.

The last image is of a sleepy looking little boy. “That’s Anthony.” Theresa says gravely. “He is so full of medication all the time. He is in a constant state of delirium.”

More pictures of the house and of them cooking pizza. I trade some photos of the scenery with Theresa via an SD card. All my photos are of me having a good time. I would feel guilty, but instead I have another opinion.

Africa has a bad stigma. The only time you hear about people going to Africa is to do volunteering in impoverished communities. They then come back with stories about all these poor children and their families and how much westerners can help. Volunteering is all very well and good, don’t get me wrong. As long as it’s sustainable, i.e. projects continue after you leave and build on the effort year after year, instead of just showing up, making a small impact at a relatively high cost and then disappearing, leaving the locals feeling disenfranchised. Sadly a lot of “Voluntourism” is the latter.

But who do you hear about travelling around Africa on a holiday? Only rich elderly colonial looking Europeans on safari. The rest of the world stay away, like it’s some wounded animal, or the homeless person you know is there, but never acknowledge as you walk past with your morning coffee. He is a real person. Africa is a real Continent.

Saying Goodbye

I say goodbye to Theresa and Greta, take a selfie, exchange email addresses and never see them again. We are a polaroid picture, quick to develop and disposable.

Jinja is apparently the second biggest city in Uganda by population, but it could not get more different to Kampala if it tried. It is very run down and dirty – not that Kampala wasn’t – and has the feeling more of a truck stop than a town. It does however have the bustle of being very over populated and polluted by old vehicles. The back streets between cramped houses are dark and vacant and full of rubbish and unwanted things. Heaps of trash burn on the sides of roads, simply left to evaporate into the air and become someone else’s problem.

The VIP seat on my Modern Coast coach is bliss. No loud music, better suspension and a larger, more comfortable seat. The Ugandan / Kenyan border is relative bliss. I am directed towards one, orderly line to passport control where I have a pen at the ready to fill out my exit form. I am not the only Muzungu and can share a pleasant conversation with a German Ex-Pat girl, who accompanies me across no man’s land as she has been here many times before. She has a minor hiccup however, when she doesn’t have her Yellow Fever vaccination card.

Charlotte pre-warned me that if you don’t have proof of the vaccination, they jab you at the border with the same needle as everyone else, so you won’t get Yellow Fever, but you might get AIDs. Fortunately for my friend, she is a permanent resident and so they let her off.

The thing I will miss most about Uganda: The Rolex (an omelette rolled up in a pancake).

The thing I will miss the least: burning trash on the side of the road.

To sum it up in a single word: well, I didn’t really see much of it, but I suppose “Mosquitos.”

So I hope you enjoyed my ramblings about Uganda, if you like my stories there’s plenty more coming in this series! 8 more countries to go and several featured posts on tribes, game park life, youth culture and more. Hit the follow button for updates on the series and check out my other blogs about China and mountain life.

Disclaimer: these are just my observations, feel free to discuss in the comments below. follow the story in pictures on my gallery page.

Only in China: Day 3 Shanghai Bund

Up at 5.30am yippee! Backwards jet lag rules. Time to go get some noodles.

“Wo lu cha.” I add to my order. Definitely ordered green tea. Got no green tea. Must be the pronunciation. Oh well, I pop into Costa coffee on the way to the bank anyway, though at Y24 for a coffee it’s more expensive than the UK. The time of writing was two weeks after the whole: Post-Brexit pound crash and I only got Y8 to the pound.

I’m wired when I enter the bank and ask to open an account, all seems well until the teller tells me that I don’t have the right kind of visa. Fuck. I was sure that having a Chinese bank account would be better than paying the £7 per transaction fee my bank demands from me like some 16th century tax collector.

It’s ok I’ll just carry this huge bag of money around with me (roughly £3000 in cash) like a mother kangaroo, until I get mugged or spend it all on overprices coffee. Off to The Bund. This is Shanghai’s London South Bank, though the skyscrapers are far more impressive.

If you catch the giant statue of General Lord Mao, God of communism, at just the right angle, he looks over the water at the Pearl TV tower, which, at this particular angle, combines with two domed shaped glass auditoriums, to create the biggest phallic object on the planet. Well done Shanghai Town Planning, I might visit your museum later for some more future lols.

As I stroll down this surpassingly vast and open walkway, I absorb the sights and the UV rays this great city has to offer, walking endlessly without finding a bridge to cross over to Pudong. There is a tourist tunnel that you have to pay for, but it’s apparently the tackiest thing on earth, and I don’t want to do that. No I want to get sunburn and heat stroke, stubbornly walking down river. There are no bridges…looks like the jokes on me this time Town Planning.

Surely a tropical rainstorm will cool things down? What’s that, it makes it hotter? How is that possible? I’m playing ticket machine roulette at shanghai train station. There are ten or so ticket machines, but every time I get to the front of the queue, the ticket machine breaks down and I join the back of the neighbouring queue.

The poor repairman works tirelessly, jumping from machine to machine, sometimes multiple being down at once. It’s like some strange kind of arcade game, or this guy’s own personal hell. The crowds all yell at him and he shushes them. This happens five or six times before I get my ticket.

The rooftop bar at the Phoenix Hostel isn’t bad, or so it seems as the sun sets behind the spikey purple wizard tower on the high-rizon. Beer in Shanghai is expensive and the barman clearly has never poured a pint before.

“Would you like me to do it?” I ask and he is more than pleased. I pour the perfect pint and take it for myself, allowing the newly schooled gentleman to pour the one for the lady. It seems that the ladies in my room, plus several others are all going to Hainan to teach some undefined English culture to a school tomorrow. I enquire further.

“So the twenty of you are all being put up in a hotel for two weeks and you’re getting paid for teaching these kids?”

“Yea, pretty much.” explains Georgia, my sexy roommate who walks around in a bra and hot-pants all the time. Drool. She’s actually really adventurous and interesting too. Shame she’s leaving tomorrow.

“This school must be rich.” I reply.

“Well it’s a summer school, so I assume it’s for kids with rich parents who want their children to do well.” I bloody well hope so, or else this is the worst case of unsustainable voluntourism I’ve ever seen. At least it’s not as bad as Africa.

We all go for dinner down the Nanging road, which is lit up like Christmas, a mix of classy and tacky giant billboards and flashing neon. The guidebook describes it as a combination of Time Square and Oxford Street, and I’m inclined to agree, though it is much quieter (at this hour) and more spacious. The wide, smooth pedestrian pathway cuts down towards the river, splicing through ritzy department stores and, of course, an M&M World.

The one thing that I am surprised not to see however, are street performers. I thought it would be brimming with them, but there are none. How odd. Perhaps the yoke of communism has kept them off the streets. Ironically this is the one place I would actually quite like to see them. Never mind.

“Seven ladies?!” exclaims a helpful woman whom I am enlisting to find us a bar.

“Eight is the lucky number.” I wink and she laughs wholeheartedly. Unlike touts in other places, she is genuinely friendly and helpful, not asking a penny for her troubles, and leads us to a nondescript dive bar just off the main fair.

There is a bar, a few tables, a pool table, and a small stage, where it looks like dreams go to die. When we enter, the owner looks puzzled and immediately changes the giant TV screen to play an endless stream of Lady Gaga videos, presumably for our pleasure. I manage to wrangle us some shisha for free from our Senegalese interpreter. He is a cool guy who looks like he’s getting some sort of side deal in translating for us, but once again, he is genuinely helpful and asks for nothing in return.

The girls are impressed.

“Ask and ye shall receive.” (a dive bar) I say.

The girls and I converse over the loud music and our statutory one drink. I try to liven things up with some games, but they all seem set on going to bed early. Once our one drink is done I ask for the bill and of course there are a couple of minor discrepancies, but they are very apologetic about this and sort it out.

“Where the fuck did these rabbits come from?” I ask when we get back to the hostel rooftop bar. “How could I not have noticed these before?”

“Yea they’re getting a larger pen soon, apparently.” explains Brit the Machine, a party loving northern girl from our group.

“They’re so fluffy, they must be sweltering. I’m sweating just in a T-shirt.” They seem highly inappropriate pets to keep on a rooftop in a tropical country.

Let’s sum up today’s purchases:

  • Breakfast: Y20, though it was the biggest noodle soup / omelette / steamed buns ever
  • Coffee: Y24
  • A train ticket: Y3
  • Ice cream: Y24
  • Dinner: Y30
  • Tea with dinner: Y49…really?
  • A beer: Y30

There are some lessons to be learned here about relativity here. It seems anything that’s considered imported, such as coffee and beer (or Chinese tea?) is ten times the price it should be. I think Einstein would roll over in his grave if he read this.

If you find my ramblings interesting, why not follow the blog? I’ve got 120 more days of farcical comedy and adventure on the way. As always feel free to comment and share your stories. Thanks for reading.

Only in China: Day 1

Introduction

This blog is about my meanderings through China on one of my little adventures. Follow me using this rather crudely edited map and see what really goes on in this vast and interesting country. I try to present it as honestly and ironically as possible, and comedy is often implicit, though not always sought after.

Of course, this has all already happened, but since China has a no tolerance blockade on the internet, I can only tell you about it after my return. So without further ado, here’s day 1.

Day 1: London – Guangzhou

“Oh, just a second.” I say hurriedly as someone walks in on me whilst peeing in the aeroplane toilet. God, I should really learn how to say sorry in Mandarin, and how to lock a door. Not quite what you were expecting for the beginning of a travel story? Well, you’ve obviously not met me. My life is the kind of farcical adventure that features on TV sketch shows that people make up, but you can’t make this shit up.

“Fuck.” I said when I realized I didn’t know the pin code to the card that has all my money on, whilst trying to change £3000 worth of GBP into shiny pink Chinese bank notes this morning, at a Thompson booth in Surrey Quays…but no fear, there’s always a backup plan.

Online banking, switch money between accounts, buy 24,700CYN (special staff rate of course), stash it in my backpack and head to the airport. I heard a saying once, can’t remember where it was from but it goes:

“If you haven’t used your plan B then you haven’t tried hard enough.”

There’s another saying in Chinese that reads: “Shou zhu dai tu.” Which literally means:  “To guard a tree stump” but actually means: “To stand by a stump waiting for hares to come and dash themselves against it.”

It’s an ironical poke at leaving things to chance that I found quite insightful, whilst translating random garbage on my phone, trying to rapidly learn Chinese.

So I learnt a bit of Mandarin, have enough cash to buy a Chinese bank, have a Rough Guide to China, and am now downloading the Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon soundtrack. Totally psyched. I like it when things go to plan, but I also like a challenge. Example: sent off to get my Chinese visa a month in advance. Receive the following phone call from a charming older Chinese man struggling with English:

“Ah, Hello, Mr Ocean?”

“O’Shea, but yes, who’s calling?”

“It’s Chan from a the Chinese visa centre in Edinburgh. We receive a your application, but there’s a no passport.”

“Fuck.”

So my passport was lost in the post. No problem, book appointment for 1 week rush service, get new passport the day before I go to Spain, book new visa appointment for the day I get back. Visa application denied. Fuck. Who do I know in China…?

“James, I need to ask a huge favour. Can you get your girlfriend to write me an invitation letter?”

James doesn’t really know me. We went to school in the same area when we were kids and had some of the same friends, ironically all Chinese, but apart from that, I haven’t spoken to him in ten years. He just so happened to like my post about going to China on Facebook and I found out that he actually lives there.

“If you promise to bring me some Sainsbury’s Strawberry Laces to Wuhan.” He says.

“Deal.”

Invitation letter received, new appointment booked, visa accepted. Fuck yeah! Collect visa and passport the day before travel, quick Sainsbury’s trip. Now to get my travel money…

I also have a detailed map of china, which I have drawn lines and circles all across; a map of the Chinese rail network; a list of trains, journey times and costs of all the major journeys on my list (which I will forthwith ignore); a list of all the places I want to go, with a rough schedule, taking into account that I need to pop into Kasakhstan to renew my visa by day 90; and of course, an MP3 player full of classic rock and Chinese meditation music.

I’m about to spend the next four months in China. What could possibly go wrong?

 

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