We have touchdown so signing off…

52 weeks later, we’re back to where we started, amongst the engorged cows of the Rhone-Alpes, the manicured countryside of Helvetia. I can see the cows from where I sit, precariously perched on the hill about 200 metres above the house, with a view of the valley. But as Seetha and I look at each other with ‘what now’ looks, I can’t quite dislodge the pain of Liyaan not being here with us. It stains like a bruise, colouring everything – it dulls the sky, the apples in our trees, the warmth of the breeze.

London was a different matter. London and the Olympics were bathed in sunshine. It felt like a summer of love (no, not the film). Everyone we knew seemed to be around, many more came to town – it felt like a renewal of our ties, a gathering together of so many different lives we’ve led.  We’ve all been our ways, ridden the treadmill, found ways in which to be happy, to cope, to live our lives.  But the true ounce of self, naked and open, found the old ones come to us the way they had in the past, and felt drawn to them, as we had been when we first met. There were really too many people to list here and even more we simply did not manage to meet – Lani now back in her lovely Eng-er-land, had too many places to go to for her exeat weekends.

Mum Says bye to Liyaan

The whole Sarwal clan came together around Shyam Tayaji’s death bed. Mum was there and so was Karan uncle, the brothers and sisters and cousins prayed wherever they were. I felt Dad looking down. After years I felt the whole Sarwal clan, again, together as one.

London was when we were still moving, when we had some wind in our sails. Now, at home, it feels as if we have reached dead calm. The occasional gust of wind makes the sails flap, but there is no movement. I can only hope the momentum of the journey will continue on land. I am determined that it will, but it will take a different kind of energy I feel. People ask us for the high points, the low points, the lessons.

First of all it’s been unexpected, immense, a real gift – something that I’m so grateful for. So many times it felt as if there was some hidden hand just ensuring we had a great time. Apart from the people who we already knew and generously opened their homes to us, we were met by incredible people, our angels as I like to call them, who opened their worlds to us. It has always been better seeing places through the eyes of those who live there, and this year we saw even the most remote places through the eyes of those who seem to appear miraculously for us. Even in Outer Mongolia!

Then despite paying humungous insurance premiums to cover ourselves against every eventuality, diving in 3 different locations, sailing the Atlantic, climbing, skiing, swimming in shark-infested waters, collectively we didn’t even stub a toe!  Only Liyaan (once) caught a cold in Buenos Aires. And despite my best efforts (leaving my iphone on buses and a wallet fallen in the street ) we didn’t lose anything of significance.  Well, we did lose all Liyaan’s precious Galapagos photos thanks to a technology issue and some laundry in Shanghai that never came back…The lone truly rude person we met on the journey across the entire world was the lady who looked at our boarding pass as we boarded our last flight back to Geneva on Easyjet! 

Sure, my entire wine collection is gone, we have depleted all our savings and re-mortgaged the house, but I think truly and forever, our eyes have changed. I’ll never forget the warm wind of the Ocean in my hair, or what it felt like to cuddle a Llama, or see Liyaan lie under the water in the hot springs in Chiang Mai. And  that’s what both excites and frightens me now. I am Tarun again. We are as close as we have been as a family, ever. We’ve learned once again what makes us tick and why without the pressures, the compromises, the sedentary lifestyle. Our barn has over 120 boxes full of our essentials (!) – do we open them and gorge ourselves – or do we live as we are now – lightly, as clouds floating across the sky?

One final thing – we’ve had almost 14,000 views of the blog. This has made us feel so incredibly supported and cared for I cannot explain. Thanks to everyone who looked in and for all the comments you sent. We never ever felt lonely because of you.

Signing off…..

Dad Says Bye to Liyaan

 

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Metropolis on Sea

We flew in to Venice via Riga in Latvia. It was as magical as ever. Our lovely apartment, far from the madding crowd on Guidecca island was only two vaparetto stops from San Marco. As Tarun the romantic says ” We promised ourselves a long time ago that we would end all our holidays in Venice and when we get on the Vaporetto and glide towards Guidecca, the reason is clearly apparent. The blue of the sky, the pink of the buildings, and the green of the sea push me back into silence. Once again I can only imagine the age that gave birth to all of this. How did art, money, religion and politics come together like this – if it has been done elsewhere, then please let me know. ”

We were in Venice to join an enormous cruise ship for a week’s tour of the Greek isles. Apart from Tarun’s mum, none of us had ever been on a ship of that size: it was overwhelming. As Liyaan said, “Mum, it’s like going on holiday with 2000 other people, it’s a bit scary.” As we cruised the Ionian Adriatic and Aegean seas and visited Corfu, Santorini, Mykonos and Katakolon, it became apparent that this was a floating self-sufficient city. Every possible variety of food on tap 24 hours a day, a spa, casino, shops, lavish evening entertainment, lectures on everything from Ancient Greece to acupuncture. We learned how to avoid the pool deck with its enormous mounds of human flesh drenched in sun lotion and we were all able to choose how to pass our time. Grandma and grand daughter rather liked the bingo and I really enjoyed the fiercely competitive trivia quiz .

What a journey it has been for Greece from the wonders of Ancient Greece to it’s current state of Euro distress. Tourism, it is clear will survive. The landscape on all the islands except Katakolon was arid and sparse, not enough green for me at all. It was fun to see the site of the Ancient Olympics at Olympia especially as we were soon going to be in London the witness the modern version. It was an action-packed week and there was something for everyone so a good holiday formula for multiple generations but a week was more than enough and I am unsure that I would want to go on another big cruise ship again. It is interesting to reflect on the many boat trips we have done this year and each one has been very different. The first was our week learning to sail off the coast of Gibraltar on Nix, the 40 foot Janneau, then the epic 2 week voyage across the Atlantic on the 72 foot Challenger, One Hull. In Ecuador, we first explored the Galapagos on the Coral 2 with about 20 others and then the Amazon river with 6 others. The adrenaline rush as we sped right up underneath Iguassu falls in Brazil and the high speed transfers from Belize city to San Pedro and Koh Samui to Koh Tao in Thailand were in complete contrast to the incredibly peaceful Yangtse river cruise on the Victoria Jenna, the fascinating historical journey on the Moscow river and the ferry ride from Buenos Aires to Colonia in Uruguay, on the Rio del Plata, the widest river mouth in the world . I think I prefer river cruises with smaller numbers of travelling companions and definitely prefer my metropolis to be on land!

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What Happened in London – sorry out of sync

Summer in London is like a girl’s smile and we wake, hoping we will be bathed in her heart-stopping warmth. But she is sad one day, indifferent another…..I have never loved summer more than in England and when, unexpectedly, at the end of the week I feel the soft embrace of the sun on my arms, I am once again smitten.
Liyaan has come to choose a school, but we do not realise at first when we look at Haileybury and then Bedales through her dreams and fears, that we are visiting and re-visiting our own. What have we become, did our own schools prepare us for our yet unfulfilled dreams, how did we sweat and struggle sitting at those desks, playing on those fields ? I feel that perhaps too much water has passed under the bridge. Although the Haileybury timetable is identical to Bedford’s 30 plus years ago, the children feel at once both older and then younger than I have ever felt. Liyaan loves the schools, but as for most 14 year olds, the children are intimidating. The schools themselves have been selected for us like some cosmic joke. They are on opposite ends of the spectrum.

http://www.haileybury.com/

Please check out for pictures. Although there aren’t very many.

The huge quad at Haileybury was put down when George III still sat on the throne, and the East India Company needed the right kind of people to administer India. Rudyard Kipling and our own (he was headmaster at Mayo, my first big school) JTM Gibson were students here. But unlike the stern uniformed men that look down from the portraits in the dining room, everyone we meet is kind and caring. It seems , at first, as if time has stood still on the large cricket fields, in the freshly mown grass.

Bedales was built expressly in opposition to schools like Haileybury – it marks the shift from the Victorian notion of the child as the devil to be beaten into shape, to the  current belief that the child is an angel (who came up with this?!) and all you had to do was to give him or her wings. It is jaw-droppingly amazing, with children getting together to bake bread and play music in informal groups, in a campus that seems to grow organically like a honeycomb. It is both extremely liberal and creative but the children, they feel different, in Bedales, in their casual wildness they feel less like angels, in Haileybury, demure and understated in their uniforms they feel less like devils.

We spend two days in suspense, while we wait for the results from Haileybury – will Liyaan, who has really struggled with her Maths, hasn’t attended school since June 2011, get a place ? We sit, tense and completely strung out, the ridiculousness of our situation becoming increasingly clear to us as the place at La Chat in Geneva also comes through.

The decision between the schools masks the bigger decision – whether Liyaan should go to boarding at all simmers under the surface; all of us knowing how close we have become this year, how we  turn to each other, to share, to confirm every idea, every observation. Of course, it breaks through as everything seems to, in tears and shouting. We are acutely aware that when we do finally get off Planet Sarwal it will not be as we first intended, the planet will not be the same anymore and our primary concern is to make the best possible choice for Liyaan.

I think Liyaan decides based on where she thinks she will be most at ease, so when Haileybury offers her a place, she does not want to even take the exams at Bedales. We talk to Bedales and they would like her to come; we are ourselves a bit conflicted – the mind says Bedales, but the heart says Haileybury. Bedales feels like a leap too far, too much like university than school, too loose, especially after a year off. For the rest of the day we oscillate between our thrilled-ness and sad-ness that our little Lani will not be there when we wake up every morning. If she wants to scream at us in the morning it will have to be via skype.

Meanwhile in another part of town

I see the email, the feedback on the script. There are 14 pages of feedback, on 103 of script. Feedback on all of the hundreds of hours of work in libraries, bedrooms, planes, boats, across the world. I have been bracing myself for the onslaught, and here in forensic detail all the limitations of the script – about characters that don’t work, premises that don’t stand up, the quality of the dialogue. I read the 14 pages with my heart in my mouth as if they are a indictment of the whole project, of the Gap year, of myself. Then I find I can slowly sigh with relief, in fact it doesn’t tear me to shreds, it just gives a really good critique. It feels almost like a victory. I feel insanely happy, if you can describe happiness as knowing that I will have to go through hell and back again, to make it work. But, best of all they have selected it for sharing officially with the film community, which means that this influential group of writers will send it around the industry – once it is re-worked.

It feels this week like all the world is changing. There were two deaths recently. We go with Mawa and Avva to meet Daya aunty in Burgess Hill. It is impossible to think of the house without Arul, in every plant, in every blade of grass, his spirit is still there. We all feel as if he is in the room with us. His two sisters are there and we have a lovely visit from Yves and Loulou. The Chinnappas and Durais friends since Daya aunty and Mawi were college room mates over 50 years ago have always felt like the same family – part of my larger family.

We also hear that Kamal Tayiji has passed away in London. Our thoughts inevitably go to Shyam Tayaji and the boys and Poonam. To see them over the years, both living in Kew, spending time in the gardens, with the family has been lovely. The family is pulled together by grief, we do not manage to visit them before we fly off to Beijing.
We go to Drummond street, with the entire Chinnappa family for some dosas. Of course I have to pop into our favourite Raavi’s to pick up some Haleem. It has been our favourite ever since we were at university. Everyone goes to the vegetarian restaurants but there sitting in between, grubby and forlorn sits Raavis. It has always looked like the poor relation but unknown to nearly all of London, it has always has the best Indian (well Pakistani food) available in London. And there sitting in front of a poster that resonates with us we see this lovely lady, reading Anna Karenina. She is the owner’s daughter, full of life, thrilled to hear about our adventures. She wishes she could join us and wants to do a long trip with her family. I don’t know why it makes me so happy to meet her, it just does.


We also meet the gang in a new resto behind the new St Pancras station. It is Maznah’s birthday; we are meeting her after years. Vipul sis also there as are the Subjallys, Dodhias and Wickremasinghes. I swear this place used to be an old S&M bar, but all we do tonight is drink too much, behave badly, get told off by our spouses and leave happy that some things, like Dodhia’s jokes never change.

 

We spend a wonderful evening with the Durdys. Cameron and Liyaan were at nursery together, at Daisies. After an early supper we all head off to see the launch of The Shard, the latest skyscraper on the London landscape. The excitement is that we will be attempting to witness the official laser show from an unofficial place – Matt’s office in Guy’s hospital, right next door! What fun we had as we ran through corridors and up and down stairs looking for the best vantage point. We never did find a good spot but that did not stop us from feeling that no one was closer to the Shard that night than us.

It feels like we have come home but then tomorrow, we leave for Beijing.

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Summer in Siberia

My contributions to this blog have been rather like summer in Siberia – a rare event, feeling the need to pull my weight, so here goes.

Early July found us back in Beijing to board the train to Moscow. Actually, it turned out to be 3 trains. One of the myths about this journey is that there is a single train called the Trans Siberian. In fact, the original name in Russian is for the railroad route – The Great Siberian Way and there are multiple trains covering the route. You can begin the journey from Beijing like us on the Trans-Mongolian via Ulaanbaatar (UB) or Trans-Manchurian via Harbin or start from Vladivostok on Trans-Siberian only.

Our first train was # 23 a Chinese train that left Beijing at 8 am on 10th July and delivered us to UB at 1320 the next afternoon.  Several hours were taken up in the border crossing where our passports were checked and the whole undercarriage replaced with a narrower gauge, 10 cms different. The train was fairly basic but comfortable with clean linen and we had a compartment of 4 to ourselves. Our carriage was bustling with excitement, mostly tourists and all of us knew we were setting off on an epic journey. Our route via Mongolia would cover 7621 kilometres and cross nearly 10 time zones. The Atlantic crossing was only half this distance.

I really knew little about Mongolia before we arrived. The archetypal image I had was of yaks and yurts but modern Mongolia sounded intriguing as Sean had told us about the enormous copper mine that had been discovered. Our arrival coincided with the opening of the biggest festival of the year – Nadaam, kind of like the Mongolian equivalent of the Olympics and Independence Day. Their sports consist of wrestling, archery and horse riding, nowadays the only reminder of what a fierce warrior race they once were. UB itself is an ugly concrete town but it was filled with happy smiling people just enjoying the festival spirit. So we forgave the enormous traffic jam as we tried to leave town for our Ger camp and just enjoyed the colours and people watching instead.

We knew we had left the city behind when the van stopped and we had to transfer into a large tank-like vehicle to continue. Then it became off-road or rather, up hill, down valley and through river till we reached Tuul Riverside Lodge, our home for the next two nights.

Recommended by the Hintons as the best camp in Mongolia because it has en suite facilities and good food, it certainly lived up to its promise.

We could feel the efficient German hands behind the camp and on our last day met the wonderful Suzan Samandari and her husband for ourselves. Suzan went beyond the call of duty and invited us into her lovely home to use the internet as we waited for a show at the Opera house (folk singing and dancing and throat singing and an amazing variety of instruments from the National Orchestra), before boarding the train. Nearly two decades in Mongolia, they are the ones who run Nomad Tours now, the company originally set up by the Hintons as newlyweds and it was inspiring to see a glimpse of their fulfilling lives. Thank you. Later, bumping into old friends of the Hintons from Sydney, Silan and his son Rehan made us realise what a small world it is really, for certain types of people who are always chasing new frontiers. Although the copper rush is going to be significant for the Mongolian economy I could not help feeling that the gentle, simple nomadic way of life is dying fast, although Tarun and Liyaan who had an afternoon with a nomad and his seemingly rather wild horses may disagree.

A beautiful young Mongolian guide Tsetseg Jargal, befriended Liyaan as she was trying to paint the landscape and painted our names in Ancient Mongolian.  We will treasure this reminder of an ancient land and fearless people always. Go soon.

Our second train was a modern Russian one – # 363 left UB at 21.10 on 13th July and arrived at Irkutsk about 8 am on the 15 th. Actually, after two nights on the train, no dining car and Moscow time being observed everywhere – when we were clearly nowhere near Moscow, our body clocks and minds had begun to lose track of time and space.

The provodnitsa (attendant) on the train looked forbidding but was in reality very sweet and Liyaan thought the train was really cool because it had sleek upholstery and hidden compartments.

Definitely a step up from the Chinese train. As we drove away from Irkutsk, the capital of Siberia, my knowledge of geography was about to be vastly improved. A visit to the museum at the limnological institute on the shores of Lake Baikal taught me that 20 percent of the world’s fresh water can be found in Lake Baikal, at 1637 metres, the deepest lake in the world with over 2600 endemic species.

Lena our guide took us to our homestay in Listvanskaya  village.  Apparently, Galina’s modest wooden cabin, is the most luxurious in Listvanskaya village because it has a shower and hot running water. This journey has certainly reminded the three of us of the many things we take for granted in our everyday lives of privilege and hot showers and laundry facilities are high on the list.

Nigel and Linda our Kiwi neighbours from the train continue to the homestay with us and we enjoy their stories about living in Japan for 3 years and Tarun is intrigued by the idea of attending a job fair, instead of retiring, ” just to see what happens”, as they did. Wandering around the village on the first afternoon I was struck with how such a beautiful place could also be so bleak, even in the summer. The weather was cold and grey and wet and Siberia, even in summer was living up to its reputation of being the end of the earth, where everyone was sent as punishment just like the Decembrists.

Is the link between the weather and character fully examined and documented somewhere? Or was I just being unkind and forgetting the luminosity of the evenings and the people picnicking and bathing?

Moving on to the last train – # 63 which left Irkutsk at 19.10 on the 15th and arrived in the early hours of 21st in Moscow. It was a basic, rather old-fashioned Russian train with wooden fittings and our fellow travellers were all Russian.

I was bitterly disappointed to find that my knowledge of Russian from my teenage years had all but vanished. I could still read everything and understand a few words here and there but absolutely no chance of a conversation. This was in many ways the most difficult part of the journey and also the dullest. The Siberian scenery is monotonous and the towns are drab industrial wastelands. The stations are not exciting like Indian ones either, no decent food and only vast tankers of oil and sombrely dressed people with mostly dour faces.

We had plenty of time to reflect on our 44 weeks and laugh and cry at the treasure trove of memories we have collected. The combination of too much sleep and not enough food (I don’t think I can ever eat another pot noodle again!) and the stark realisation that our Planet Sarwal adventures must end soon made it an emotionally charged few days full of reflection. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen was NOT the right choice of book for the journey either, it was too raw and too bitter. I wish I had chosen to re-read Anna Karenina instead as Tebby had suggested.

Rather like a character in a Chekhov play, I started longing for and dreaming about Moscow, wondering whether we would ever get there. Suddenly, in the middle of the night we arrived. My last visit was the summer of 1981, a wonderful carefree student summer spent with my uncle and aunt Lali mama and Maya aunty and my cousins Nandu and Pavan who were living in Moscow at the time. The garrulous taxi driver who picked us up at the station insisted on giving us a wonderful tour of Moscow by night and I marvelled at seeing the brand new luxury shops and restaurants along the broad boulevards and the size and beauty of the old iconic images of the Kremlin, the Bolshoi and St Basil’s cathedral.

Tarun’s mother had arrived at the hotel just before us from Delhi. She turned 83 last week and Russia has always been on her list of places to visit – it is a relief that our careful co-ordination of visas, flights etc. has yet again miraculously worked out.

The next morning, as I wandered around Moscow, looking for a hairdresser and later, on our guided walking tour exploring Moscow’s rich literary and cultural heritage, I was struck by how easy it is just to wander around now and how 30 years had changed Moscow beyond my 18 year old self’s imagination, then gripped by the politics and propaganda of the Cold War. A deep sense of well-being has somehow returned and in retrospect the journey had a lot to do with it.

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London Calling

This dash to London will be the longest emotional journey of our year and like a giant blue streak across the atlas it feels like a violence to our wandering. But, we will be back in 10 days in Beijing to continue where we left off. And so, as we land I think of that as a small treat this lies in wait for us. I will keep it at the back of my mind.
Meanwhile, we have to confront our choices, as they seem to gather in London, one on top of the other, like some upside down emotional pyramid. Liyaan has to sit for tests, to explore schooling options; we have to confront living apart from each other, depending on the outcome. I am expecting feedback on my script and will go in and see the BRCS to talk about the return to Geneva. Seetha will think about her own work and career, we will look at the Camberwell house and decide whether to put it on the market.

We stop to pick up much missed treats at the M&S in Earl’s Court and watch the early morning walk to work. New eyes and the early morning light make each person a character, each journey a story. The Londoners have put on their shabby best, telling themselves in the mirror that it will do. In the shirt that is not quite tucked in, the pink tie with the dark suit and a bag that will not match with anything else all the character floods through. Most are thinking about what’s to come, some are already on their telephones, but one girl is walking slowly replaying a happy memory, one boy is walking his younger brother to school ( he clips him around his head) then they smile and seek each others hand, an old lady looks worried for some others.

As we pass the embankment our own memories return, of a whale lost and stranded in central London, of the hallowed ground (for me) where I would pick up and bring Liyaan every day after school. The buildings look old, grimy brick and grubby concrete, but London wears it true colours on the inside. I imagine I see, and then feel myself, the joy of a beautiful London day – singing in my heart. Fluffy white clouds scudding across blue skies and the long green grass tousled by a playful breeze.

We reach Pimlico, where Moose and Zuleikha are there to welcome us. I go down to the basement to park the Kia. There is a Porsche to the left and a vintage Bentley to the right, a Maserati around the corner, all gathering dust, waiting for their owners to come and give them a spin in the summer. I feel like I am in a 70s movie and that a moustachioed man in a black turtle neck will suddenly appear with his dolly bird and drive away.

Upstairs, hanging over the balcony we look out at the Thames as it slides past the window. It feels contained, controlled, fit only for purpose, quite unlike the Yangtze. Cyrus is also in town and a few minutes later we are all hugging each other – pushing 50 and fat, but so easily we slip back into being our 20 year old selves – even the jokes have not changed. Moose smiles – we are at home. Liyaan, her emotional antennae on high, senses that we are having a moment.  Our reunion sadly lasts only a couple of hours, then Moose leaves for Denver, Cyrus to spend time with Dinu and Dolly before returning to Bombay. We say bye to Zuleikha and cross the river to go to Camberwell for a very welcome home cooked family meal at Radha’s.

As the light continues well into the night and we return to look again over the river, despite all our wanderings, for a moment, it feels like the centre of the universe, like Cuzco for the Incas –  as if all distances are measured from here.

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Planet Earth calling Planet Sarwal

The days seem numbered all of a sudden. That delicious feeling first thing in the morning that you do not need to rush out of bed is tinged with an afterthought – this is about to end.   And despite all that I have promised myself, it takes the shine off the light. The last weekend at the end of a very long summer and I cannot stay lying in the grass.

Which is a pity because we are in Chiang Mai, where those who worship the lotus will come to feast. This is not Shanghai where they will put up buildings in a matter of weeks, it is not the West coast, the birthplace of ideas that will take us into our future, this is a place, where simple pleasures, momentary and everlasting, lie in wait to catch you unawares. Mervyn who has been in over 60 countries knows that is why he chooses to call it home.
I stop taking notes for the blog, it seems like too much effort in the dwindling light. But then I see Liyaan, her eyes closed,  lying in the stream letting the water wash over her face. Later as we climb the stairs it seems like somehow we are being pushed upwards. Then from the Buddhist temple nestled in a cave, looking down on the rainforest, time, for a moment seems to stand still, as if at some level, everything stays still, despite everything that goes on, everything we are doing, have done.
When we get back we join the throng walking up and down the night market, it feels less like a place to buy and sell, but to be. Most around us are Thais, taking the air on a Saturday night, eating from the small stalls, having their feet massaged. It is a moment of loveliness. The sign on the way up to the temple said ” to live in the moment” . This is what they seem to know how to do in Chiang Mai, there is no desire to be elsewhere, no desire to be different, other, they know deep in their souls that at some level time stands still for us all.
In the morning we have to get up on time, do some work before we go explore. We end up fighting and screaming. It is like getting up from the long summer grass and going indoors. We will be in London later this week. It feels like a world away, 52 weeks of summer coming to an end – but hopefully we take some of Chiang Mai with us.

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Chinn’s blog on China

Trying to write this sitting in a lovely chalet at Sensi Paradise, Koh Tao aka Turtle island, Thailand – a one hour flight followed by a two hour ferry ride from Bangkok. Tempting to listen to the gentle waves  off the Gulf of Thailand or snorkel, swim or best of all just dream!! But have to get on with Blog Backlog apparently! Just a few random thoughts on China to contribute follow here.

It was with a little trepidation that we took our first steps with the Sarwalian Planeteers. We could not make South America but had a soft landing in China. Seetha met us at Beijing Airport on 26th June after a routine almost boring overnight flight from Bengaluru via Bangkok. The airport was a fabulous curved building – vast and functional at the same time aesthetically pleasing – lots of curved wooden ribs on the roof, like the inside of a whale?  Plenty of very helpful staff – even a small keyboard to assess the Immigration officials or complain. We learned later that people actually look at this data – someone who travels often had complained a few times and was picked up out of the line when he next came in and asked about his criticisms/suggestions. Somewhat frightening as it means Big Brother is always around. The New Otani Hotel where we were booked, was  Japanese owned, well appointed but dated.  I mentioned in the appraisal form that many of the staff did not know enough English – before we reached the Airport our tour guide got a call about it from the manager of the hotel! Our guide Shirley worked for Ritz Tours and our Beijing agenda was packed. We started at Tiananmen Square, so vast it can hold a million or so, The Forbidden City, The Summer Palace and Kunming Lake, the Olympic Site (Birds Nest stadium, the Water Cube), the Ming Tombs, the Temple Of Heaven. Rani will never forgive me for making her walk for over an hour on the Great Wall. Over 4 days we were given enough time for a good look around but as always could have done with more.There were plenty of tourists but I would say over 90% were Chinese – very well behaved and almost always in neat groups lead by flag waving guides all with individual loud speakers – these were too noisy. Plenty of uniformed staff, loudspeakers with piped music and announcements in public areas, parks and monuments. Excellent Roads, never saw a pot hole, some 8 lane highways with service roads and signage in both English and Chinese. Everything was clean, neat, no sign of litter – someone always around sweeping /cleaning, lots of useable free toilets- a few up to international standards. We had one free day and we spent it in the Hutong Area with the Sumanth family, fellow Coorgs from California. These are the alleyways of old Beijing, full of shops, restauraants and old houses. Lots of food including strange edible insects like crickets and even scorpions!! Reminded one of some areas of Delhi.

Later, we did our cheap clothes shopping in Yashow market – like Fashion Street in Bombay with Electronics. This is the Capital of the Knock off world of Fashion – Gucci,Armani and more. We had to bargain furiously -Tarun did it so well that the shopkeepers almost beat him up!!! The shop keepers will insult you and ask you to go away if you ask for ridiculous prices. It was interesting to see lots of Tamilians in a group, shopping – men in hitched up Mundus and women in glittering sarees – like Singapore was some 20 odd years ago. Right next door to this mall was the genuine designer mall, all leading brand names but fewer shoppers. Lots of restaurants and we had a great Western meal.

Shirley, was over-efficient, over-enthusiastic but kind and ever considerate to her honarary GrandMa and Grand Pa. Shirley was with us for the full two weeks aided by local guides in all the places we visited. Seetha chose the tour well thanks to the Sumanths, who also booked their China trip at the same time.

31st May to 3rd June was the YANGTZE RIVER CRUISE. After the flight from the national terminal at Beijing Capital Airport to Yichang we were taken to the cruise ship VICTORIA JENNA. All the transfers were painless and well organized. All local guides including drivers expect to be tipped – 3 to 5 dollars per person per day. No bones are made that it is a large portion of their earnings. Very comfy ship and definitely ship shape – 200 passengers and a similar number of staff to look after us. Very similar to our previous cruises, this is a new ship, 10,000 tonnes. Good choice of food, even for vegetarians like me, no Indian though! All buffet style but if one is prepared to pay extra, a la carte available in a different restuarant. Massage, exercise, entertainment, bars, library, all available. We disembark for the high pointof the trip – the 3 gorges dam site – mind boggling in every way, tour arrangements were perfect. Lots of climbing was avoided by banks of escalators ascending over 300 feet, sprawling viewing areas, excellent landscaping and great visual charts maps and descriptions in English. Lots to learn for us Indians – will we ever??

After our return the ship was moved by five locks up nearly 200 meters.Watching the water fill up in the locks was a full time occupation for many. In the morning we were at the largest man made lake in the world. Chairman Mao was credited with dreaming, planning and making this a reality. He is still revered and always referred to as Chairman. His portrait is everywhere and the little red book is a tourist must buy!

Chongqing- we came to this enormous but ugly city to see the pandas. In contrast, the pandas were very cute indeed and as it was raining lots of them were out and about to entertain us. Next stop was Xian to see the Terracotta warriors. Excellent museum/warehouse, so well kept, almost as if artificially manufactured for the adoring Chinese tourists and wondrously ooh-aahing foreigners like us. Again, massive crowds, extremely loud guides and click-clacking cameras and iphones. The visit to the large wild goose Pagoda was enhanced by chanting Buddhist monks and nuns. In-between we had lunch where we watched noodle preparation and dinner was followed by a Tang dynasty dance performance in a splendid old fashioned music hall.

Guilin was all it was said to be – mist veiled mountains seen from a silken Li river as we sailed to Yangzhou – with every day life all around – fishermen, farmers and of course small boats selling fish and vegetables of all sorts. Shanghai certainly a world class city on all counts – I am sure Tarun will be more eloquent so back to him while I go back to relaxing!

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Up the Yangtze (China part 3)

Bye bye Beijing

Our numbers have swelled. Eleanor and Tom are from California, taking time off their normal cruising to get an in depth view of China and Cambodia. Eleanor has the spirit of a young colt, she wants the world and she will get it. Tom has seen the world through the eyes of an artist and a businessman – they have seen it all but they have liked what they have seen, and so they are great to have along. You’re never far from a drink either, very useful for me.


Judith is almost exactly the same age as me and we seem to have kindred souls. Along with hubby Michael they remind us of London and are great foodies and adventurous travel mates.


Chinese wall
The wall stretches out like a giant tape worm across China, over 5500 miles in length. Up close it is rugged, unyielding, stone against stone. As it snakes across the landscape towards the horizon, hugging the highest peaks, I feel I want to go along its length one day, into the unknown distance. The image I have is of a small group of horses maybe 10 riding under a moonlit sky, their hooves sparking on the uneven stone. Today, we have a choice: We can take the steeper route to the left or the more gentle climb to the right. We see hundreds of other tourists in a long line across several towers reaching to the distance. Some of us decide to take the steep route with fewer people. After about an hour we have reached the top – we feel literally and metaphorically far above the throng. We have aching limbs to show for it and I cannot breathe so well. No horses could have climbed up what we did. As I catch my breath, I can see at least 10 towers further along the wall, about 3 miles away. I try to  imagine what it would have taken to build the entire length of this wall, the distance from London to Beijing as the crow flies.  A builder from up North has also taken the steep route up. “I’m in the trade he says, I just don’t know how they did it.”

We have done the wall and the we have done the mall, Mawa now wants to check out the metro. Is it up to the standard of Bangalore. The signs are thankfully in Chinese and English. It is easy to navigate, clean, with relatively short waiting times. Our fellow travelers are more Coorgs from California.


But the thing that somehow moves me more is the heavenly gate. The gate itself is pastiche, designed to impress, built to dazzle with science, to show the people that the emperor, not only defines this world, but also has a map of the heavens. He knows when the seasons will come, how to appease the Gods when the rains leave the land dry. Although the granaries are now empty the birds following some atavistic memory dance around the gables, searching for grain. But the people, the old and retired, they throng here, to be close to the gate that they will pass through. Hundreds of them, thousands, sit, play cards, do tai Chi, knit, play dominoes, mahjong, strange musical instruments, chat, flirt, try and find new girlfriends and boyfriends. No one called them here, they just came to be with others just like them. I have never seen such a heart warming pleasure in being old, without cares. It takes our breath away and Judith says she wants to be here when she is old.


Yangtse
We fly to Yichang in the southern interior of China. Christine our local guide tells us that from here the boat will head to Chongqing where both the food and the girls are the spiciest in China. As our bus travels through a canyon of tall high rise the conversation turns to property prices, the tax the government levies on everything. Christine, clutching her (real) Gucci bag says that despite the apartments being much too expensive for people like her, with half of them lying empty the building goes on. The market is fuelled it seems by speculators who are waiting for the prices to rise. They have risen by several times in the other cities, the men with the money, they will wait, while young brides whisper to their husbands at night, so that their mother-in-laws only just hear, that it is time to move into a place of their own.


We are let off the bus at a park near the river for a walk. There is a local swim club, its members wearing orange jackets, swimming with the current. Very soon they are specks in the water, almost at the other shore. As the sun loses its heat and falls closer to the earth I see another man contemplating the river on his own.It looks like he just shaved his hair off, himself, there are tufts of hair still standing on bits of his head. A man tells me not to move, he is taking a picture of me taking a picture. He is fat and friendly – the kind of man of whom we see a lot in China, who laugh at every detail of life as if it is part of a cosmic comedy. I like him instantly. Amidst all the building, there is time for simple pleasures it seems. The river, the mighty Yangtze streams past silently bearing witness, to the millions of lives that for ages have lived on its shores.

We have ordered a spicy dinner and we get one – wiping our sweat and drinking cold water we get ready to leave. On the way to the toilets we spy for a fleeting moment the private rooms, served up with banquets, of men and women gambling at cards, Karaoke, the business of pleasure Chinese style. It is unexpected and surprising. After the obligatory shopping stop we board our boat, the Victoria Jenna. The cabins are lovely, spacious, better than we have seen on any boat so far this year. The crew, young and liveried, is there to greet us in front of the gangplank. There are 170 of them on board, we will be about 200. It is a pleasure craft. We take the lifts up to our rooms and fall down on the cool white sheets. The Jenna is waiting for more crew and will not sail tonight, but the rumble of the engine and the streaming river make us feel we are already moving. The river is covered in mist, warm mist – she will hide her sights from our prying eyes.

The main villages in this area are somewhere below us under the rush of the current. The 3 gorges dam displaced 1.3 million people, and most of the locals have been re-settled in new apartments built on the tall riverbanks. We take a bus over one of the many hundreds of bridges we will see, to the dam site. We get off our bus and newly built German escalators carry us up. It is all colossal and breaks numerous records, but from our viewpoint on the side looks less than impressive, a bit cold, like a modern port. What is impressive and what we will navigate through later that evening is the system of 5 locks that will take our ship up over 140 metres.

We have plenty of time to watch the water flow past us before we start our journey upstream. We watch Dr. Lee in the stateroom give a talk about Chinese medicine , about Yin and Yang, about the meridians that allow the flow of Qi through the body. It seems to me as if the Yangste is also one of these meridians that flow through China, the 3 gorges dam seems like an obstacle to the flow of Qi. Then Dr. Lee demonstrates the use of vacuum cup suckers, to re-invigorate the flow of blood on a hapless volunteer. The poor man cannot see the 5 red smudges left on his body. Dr. Lee strokes them, they will disappear in a week or so he smiles and tells us. The volunteer’s wife is not pleased.

We have started moving again towards the locks. It is dark, foggy and the huge gate opens in front of us like the tanker in the the Bond movie. Two barges carrying cargo enter ahead of us and the gate closes with a clang behind us. There are floating bollards to which the ship is tethered, as our lock fills with water, we are raised up incredibly quickly, 30 metres in a couple of minutes. The sound of the floating bollard as its wheels chafe against the concrete makes me think of the sound of the gates of Hell opening. I can almost touch the wall on one side of the boat. We have reached the top and we can see the trees set out under the florid orange lights at this level. In front of us, a new set of gates starts to open…

In the morning the fog clings to the river, like a translucent glue. We can see the flow of the river below us, every so often, the sun or the temperature opens the vista of the first gorge. I finally understand all those strange landscape paintings found in in every Chinese restaurant in middle England, middle France, middle America. They were all inspired by this landscape.  The strange towering mountains, washed in green, veiled in fog, the dark lumbering rocks that rise out of the river – are not some imaginary Chinese creation like dragons and Xian Tings but real. It feels exceptional to be gently sailing through the gorges, as if we have entered some magical world, some Xanadu where strange beasts look at us as if we are passing prey.  Every so often we see a few homesteads, bounded by small fields of corn, with a few pigs and sheep, snouts down in the mud.

We have been told about the 55 non-Han ethnic groups that live here. About the Miao where the bride is obliged to cry at her wedding, in order to have a happy married life, about the Ba who learn to sing so that they might entice their lovers with their voices between the valleys. In the evening the cabaret on the boat plays out these rituals with the waiters and waitresses dressed in beautiful silk costumes. I go on to the top deck and find myself alone, the fog allows me to see the watermark that shows how high the water will rise in winter. Looking at the strange scenery , I honestly do not know for a moment, where I am.


At night we see the lights of a huge city on the banks of the river, no one knows its name. There is a light show on several of its buildings, and the neon is reflected on the water like Las Vegas. It is distant and silent and a bit eerie. I am reminded of the scene where Kurtz’s boat turns around a bend in the river and they reach the bright lights of a US army camp.

The boat docks at China’s largest city, at 7 am in the morning. There are 33 million people living here in an area the size of Ireland. It’s not Shanghai and not Beijing. Any guesses? We are lifted out of Yangtze valley by industrial ferniculars into a foggy and damp Chongqing. This industrial city is deep in the the heart of China, and it is in the process of developing  further. It already produces 3 million cars and 30 million motorcycles a year, but in a few years it will produce 30% of all the tablets and laptops in the world.

The buildings are tall and although the fog restricts our view, they reach endlessly into the horizon. It is awe-inspiring, both a bit frightening and wildly exciting for its unknowability. We are here to beat the morning rush and see the pandas. Lyang Lyang is sitting in his luxurious garden his big stomach stretched out before him, munching at some delicious bamboo shoots, he looks strangely human, like a fat man reading the newspaper before the rest of the household wakes up. Our cuddly noises do not disturb him.

We see lions, hippos, a bear with her 3 cubs, tigers, including a cub in an incubator, and then return for one last look at the pandas. The zoo is filling up so we rush to the next site on our itinerary – to see some restored family associations that helped the new migrants settle into Chongqing centuries ago. The old wood and stone houses, the square yards, the elevated thresholds talk of another era, of a time when the new migrants did not crowd the city 1500 families a day, as they do so now. Above, the roof of the main temple a building crane is already moving, the family association will it seems become an even more precious reminder of a past that was full of symbol, meaning,   superstition and respect.

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Beyond the Blogosphere (China part 2)

We follow our tour leader Shirley (Chinese name, Xue) and go to see the Emperor, but the Forbidden Palace, all 9999 and a half rooms of it, is empty. To get there we walk through numerous gates. It feels as if we are walking through history, a tumultuous history. Each gate is a defensive project, designed to concentrate the enemy, to allow the emperor’s archers to get rid of them. Some of these gates have been breached and with each breach, the empire has changed.


We start at Tiananmen square, all several kilometres of it, with the museum on one side, Tiananmen Gate on the other and numerous other buildings in the distance. Shirley says it once held over a million people – we look around at the sea of mainly Chinese faces and think we might reach half that figure, even today.  The open gate remains un-breached, the party is still in charge. Its flag with the brightest star representing the party flies high on the national flagpole with the 4 other stars representing the workers, farmers, students and soldiers. Chairman Mao, freshly painted, presides benignly over Tiananmen gate. We will hear from people that he was an egotist, the cultural revolution that he unleashed was a desire to control even the past, but it seems that people will not change their symbols of reverence so quickly. It may have taken only 20 years for the new China to rise gleaming into the modern imagination, but the founding of modern China, Mao’s legacy, the cultural revolution and the Tianenmen incident with the man and the tank, all seem to have happened in the blink of an eye, compared to what stands before us.


Beyond the gate we enter into the heart of the ancient empire, where such minor politics, such temporary concerns would have scarcely troubled the emperors. The forbidden city that housed 100,000 people was forbidden to all but the closest administrators to the emperor and his favourite concubines. Again, it is built as a series of gates, a series of entrances culminating with the throne, where I find my imagination roam as to what he might have got up to in a city built in the image of God on earth. It is jaw dropping-ly immense.  The man who built the forbidden city also built the 5000 km long Great Wall of China. It is difficult even today to imagine the scale of his conception of empire. How could he have felt way back in the 13th century that these things were necessary, what would it have taken to make them possible.


As we go past the forbidden city into the gardens and see where the Ching Dynasty gave way to the Ming, the trees give a clue. The ones marked in red are over 200 years old, the ones in green are less than one hundred. China has time and China has people, there are more man hours here, than anywhere on earth, time goes on endlessly – the only thing that will limit China is its imagination.


In the bus Leo and Shirley tell us about about modern China as we drive through the traffic of modern Beijing towards the Ming tombs. Shirley has had a son and she is unhappy as this means she will have to work hard to pay for a dowry. She is not keen on taking a chance on another child – it does not make economic sense, so even if the one child policy is watered down, she will not go for another. Leo meanwhile is single, there is a shortage of women and it is a buyer’s market. They must be wined and dined. The Beijing women when they meet the men, look away while the men eye them up. The men who fancy their chances may go up to the girl and whisper into her ear ‘ I am an only child’ . Two only children getting married are allowed to have two children. She may go on a date to assess his bank balance – then there will be dowry discussions – it is almost love at first sight. The emperor with his 3000 concubines would have understood.


The tombs are built outside Beijing, amazingly not all have been properly disinterred. They remind us of Tikal, they have a calmness as if the gates towards heaven open with some humility. We follow the path that the emperors would be carried through on the way to their mausoleums. There are 3 gates, one for the dead who will accompany the emperor , one for the royals and one for us plebs. The Chinese are very superstitious, and we get infected by it, so all of us go through the gate for plebs. On the side are statues of animals, real and imagined. It is a lovely walk, and at the other end we find the half turtle, half dragon that ensures a long life in eternity (eh?).


All this talk of everlasting life and walking down the pathway of eternal longevity has made us hungry. We are taken to a restaurant with terrible food. They give us a free bottle of whisky, Eleanor steals another from the table next door. The whisky is even worse. I am surprised to find it for sale in the foyer.


Free evenings mean we can skip forward several centuries and take in the atmosphere of modern Beijing. We find ourselves, quite naturally at the wet dream of designer shops – Yashow, designer goods at prices even the designers are surprised at – you mean the rest is all brand value? Even the massages here are cheap. I have a head and a foot massage together – only time I expect I will have two women’s hands all over me.
But shopping at Yashow is not so easy. They only want you to mention a price – any price, if you do, you are doomed to buy the object. If they say 600 a reasonable starting point is 20. The game is one of acting. “20 yuan, you want me to kill my mother. I sell this for 20 yuan I have no money for food, my mother is a poor farmer ….. so I counter with 600 yuan, I have 3 children in India no one child policy – each child has to go to private school. If I pay 600 yuan they all grow up senseless ….
I do not win them all but I do get these shorts for 100 yuan. I take them out of the shop and am attacked by all 6 pink shirted women on the floor. One takes the shorts and hides it in her shop.  I find it and try to pull it way but she hits me on my bottom.  “I no give you until you buy me a drink.” It seems that the shorts should not be less than 110. I try to fight but she is having none of it – she drags me to another shop and chooses a drink. I pay , then she gives back my shorts. The man looks at me and nods his head as if I am mad. I need another massage.  We will leave Beijing tomorrow, but I feel we only have a small sense of it. It feels free and easy, people seem very relaxed, with a kind of timeless self confidence.  It is clean and has these sweet little men in even sweeter little scooters go around and pick up the rubbish as it is being dropped. There is clearly money around, but with everyone else – the government is in most people’s mind, the main recipient is the government. The government is everywhere and nowhere, a bit like the police in Switzerland. We are told that we have been lucky with the weather, the skies are blue not grey with smog. We are a bit surprised and bemused that we cannot access Facebook here, nor You Tube or even our own blog. But in the end I like the place – as in India it feels like just through sheer numbers, the people’s ideals  will inherit the place. It may however take longer here in Beijing.

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Empire (China part 1)

Empire


Beijing airport is built for volume but also to define the scale of China. Although clearly some of the old communist architects were involved in the design, the gateway to China signals a picture of modernity that is not idealised like some Utopian dream, but one that will be spectacular, whatever it may be. It may be the market that will design modern China or it may be the party, but one thing is being made clear, it is China’s turn to be part of defining that future for the rest of the world. The ipad-type screen cameras at the immigration counter display your passport details for you to check, take a picture of you and allow you to give your feedback on the experience simultaneously. There are 48 baggage claim counters in the baggage hall, and our luggage arrives just as we breeze in. The trolleys at the airport are free – no doubt because of the surplus that exists from selling airport trolleys to all the other airports in the world. It is a world that is built for the consumer.
Tebi’s driver took us down the Olympic lane of the highway but in a few moments wandered off into a small village, through lanes which just about allowed the car to squeeze through. We stopped at a broad wooden gate with Chinese lettering in two sashes down the front. The door opened and we found ourselves in the most exquisite old Chinese home, traditionally designed and artistically renovated, with open spaces, and cosy rooms built around an enclosed courtyard. This was home.


Jasmine, Camille and Zoe still have the pictures of Hill House on their walls, and although they miss England, their Mandarin has come a long way. The cuddliness of being 5 and 7 and 3 has morphed into the self conscious growth of teenagers – seeing where and how they fit in and how and why they don’t. It’s clearly been a big shift from London, but all the closeness remains, 3 girls together. Liyaan has known Jasmine since she was four and it’s interesting to compare notes.
In the evening Tebi takes me to what is a much more traditional Beijing condo – it looks like a well designed Indian colony. Inside, we find a gathering of family and close friends who all look like they come from Iran via somewhere else. They have come together to see the first showing of a film made in 48 hours as part of a global competition. There was bona fide film talent present – a director whose movie starring Kevin Spacey is currently showing on the screens in China, his actress wife Baby, who acted in the film.  A young 17 year old is making a point to his father about wanting to go to film school and a 40 year old lawyer is interested in changing careers. The film was called ‘Sector 4’ – a futuristic Romeo and Juliet – all the actors were from the neighbourhood and were sprawled across the various sofas.  It was a moment of joy – of people sharing lives in China, of optimism, and of the need to tell new stories.
Dulwich College, which is not 3 miles from our house in London, now has a Chinese franchise and we find ourselves at their International day, walking amongst the proud food stalls set up by the parents, after a flag waving march past. There are 40 International Schools in Beijing and as we sip Pimms in the Beijing heat and look at the large Korean stall, I start talking to an Australian. For a moment I feel like a German biscuit in a Chinese supermarket, between the Jammy dodgers and the strange green sweets that look like Jelly. There is something about the nationalism that I find so deeply exhausting, it worries me. I look at Liyaan and the girls, they will be products of this, and I wonder if they will choose to go home or lose themselves where no one can identify them.


We have to go to get permission the next day to visit Mongolia in the form of a visa. They make us feel like naughty schoolchildren, only three of us are allowed into the gate at a time and we sit in line on a large brown leather settee as we wait our turn. A blonde Mongolian looking woman crashes the queue. She is dressed with such precision, I imagine that this must be a sign of power, and somehow enables her to push to the front of queues. Her two sons, look embarrassed at this display and would rather stand outside. We will need to pay our visa fees at the bank, but even though we are sent back and forth, we will get our visa on time.
But to wander through the streets, no matter how hot it is, is bliss. I can’t help myself notice so many echoes of India. The way people wait in traffic, how they stretch their tiredness away, push their bicycles ever so slightly in front of them. Their lack of self-consciousness is exactly the opposite of the self-consciousness of the city – that seems desperate to appear modern, casually chic, designed. It feels like a foreign import, as if an urban China will not create its own indigenous urban scape, but like the toys it sends to fill happy meals, it will adopt the faces and facades of the West. I see it happening in India, I thought maybe the confidence of a new China would stretch far enough to develop its own identity.
There are some old buildings left and we find ourselves climbing one to the offices of the Monkey Shrine, the people who are helping us book the Trans-Siberian journey. The office was set up by two Belgians who travelled through China twenty years ago. Lovely Matt sits in his lovely office with his colleagues, with many monkeys on the walls, a Balinese table in the middle, a pedestal fan generating a gentle breeze. We love it. We go down to the Monkey tree restaurant, where we eat delicious pizzas.


Sometimes I feel that we have no memory as a family. Being with Tebi and watching the kids together brings it back. In the evening we switch on the DVD and watch videos of the girls when they were 4 and 5 and 6. Of Liyaan and Jasmine dancing on the sports ground and answering their teacher’s questions at French class. Liyaan we all notice separately looks exactly at that age like Maya does now. We never saw that before. We see the expressions on their faces as they dance. Where did all the time go, how did we scatter ourselves across the world like this?
Then Mama and Mawi arrive from Bangalore, we are all delighted to broaden our family group. We will leave Tebi and Sean’s wonderful home and join them later at the hotel. In the evening we are invited to an alfresco evening with the Hintons, in one of their favourite parks in the centre of the city. We will eat Peking duck in Beijing. All the rest of the dishes are surprising and wonderful, but we miss the crispiness of the duck we are used to in London !  Plebs!  Around the table we have a professor teaching film at Beijing’s premier institution, one of his students, a visiting BBC film producer, the director from the day before. The park moves me more, why I do not know but it feels sad. It may be the weeping willows catching the evening light, it may be the forced gaiety of the band at the bandstand, but I imagine sad stories as I see an old man talk slowly to his impatient daughter, a couple holding hands but not talking, a woman curled up on the bench, as if she were sleeping, but with her eyes wide open.  We are close to the hotel and when a lady rickshaw driver arrives Tebi shows her the address of our hotel, but she says she is illiterate. Tebi says she is illiterate too, and they laugh. She says she knows the hotel and she will take us. We are excited but also feel somewhat guilty. She must be in her 40s, we will be heavy for her. But we heave ourselves in and find that she does not pedal but there is a motor that propels us along.
We reach the hotel and they want to see our passports. But our passports are at the Mongolian embassy and we have a receipt to show them and copies of the passports. They will not move, we must go to the police station. It is almost midnight and we have an early start, and it’the last thing I want to do ( although it would probably have made a good story). I am a tourist I tell them and not a criminal and I will not go to a police station in the middle of the night. We are at an impasse tempers rising. They will not send the manager of the hotel with us, so I dig in my heels. Finally I ask them to ring the police and tell them the problem. They have not tried this before, but do. The police it seems also do not want to talk to irate foreigners at this time in the morning – so we are shown to our rooms.

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