Nomadic Gatherings – Travels in Asia and Australia
To have a published copy in my hands after all those years of travel is quite a feeling.
For those of you interested in reading the book, here’s a preview.
NOMADIC GATHERINGS – Synopsis of Chapters.
1. Taking Off:
To Japan, where a booming economy meant a healthy tourist industry. I was quite often the only blond foreigner surrounded by the ceremonious Japanese tour-guide and her flock of homely punters.
So much of Japanese life seemed uniformed with rules, rituals, and ceremony; keeping grace and saving face. I bowed; they giggled.
2. Kimchi and Gold Medals:
The Olympic ceremony was on in Seoul, and the event was being transmitted live to the on-board television above the driver. He was interested in the proceedings too, and looked up continuously while travelling in excess of the speed-limit on the outside lane.
People in the ‘Hermit Kingdom’ were open and forthcoming; often in an almost missionary way.
3. Little Sister:
Taiwan was a brief stop en-route from Seoul to Hong Kong. They found it amusing that I was heading for China.
4. Colonial Gateway:
Between the modern financial offices of Central Hong Kong, old trams still trundled along Des Voeux Road, and peddlers tinkled bicycle bells almost unaware of the diesel-fuelled double-decker buses behind them.
No-one stood still for a moment, it seemed that until 1997 at least, there would be a New York edge to ‘making-it’. I had to get a visa for China.
5. China Travel:
The hard-seat section of the train was already overcrowded. Heads poked out of open windows to escape the stuffiness inside, the little tables were piled high with food and soft-drinks for the two-day journey, and in the restaurant-car kitchen staff sweated and chopped vegetables.
Buying tickets can often be a problem with five-day waits and people camped at the station. And what if you can’t speak the language?
6. The Northern Capitals:
Beijing (before democracy protests), and Harbin. Japan invaded Manchuria in the early 1940s, and the Soviets followed in 1945. Some of the dome-shaped architecture remains from the Russian period, although much was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.
7. Grasslands to Terracotta:
With temperatures that drop below -35 degrees Celsius and stay around -20 on a good day in the winter, it is a hard existence for the people of Inner Mongolia, and unfortunately many are giving up their nomadic way of life to pose for tourists or prospect for gold.
8. Central China:
Workers ploughed, hoed and fine tuned the cloggy soil, while their children carried straw baskets on their backs to help with the work load. Further on, fishermen punted small craft on a river. One of them pulled up his net, but the train had passed before I could inspect the catch.
As with the rest of China, the day in Chengdu starts early. Still in the dark of night at six in the morning, figures swing through a restricted motion in a space between the trees; Tai Chi is a physical, meditational, art form popularised by the elderly. It seems a way of keeping fit without the need for fitness.
9. Minorities and Tourists:
The area in the deep south of Yunnan Province, bordering Burma and Laos, is inhabited by a dozen of the minority tribes. CAAC flights are notorious for cancellations, and when that happens in remote areas, a two-day bus journey is the only alternative.
The daily flotilla of tourists from Guilin has turned Yangshou into a Chinese Capri, complete with English menus and ‘traditional Chinese massage’.
10. Leased Lands:
I had flown into Britain’s leased land, left it by train, and now I would return on the waterway that many Chinese have risked everything in an attempt to float down undetected by the authorities.
When the British used aggression against the Chinese in the Opium War, the Portuguese diplomatically kept out of it; and today Macau finds itself the poorer relation of a more dynamic Hong Kong.
11. Down Under:
I was not emigrating, but as I flew from Hong Kong to Melbourne I was just as apprehensive about the land I was approaching: the World’s largest island and smallest continent, with a red centre and the largest monolith on earth, the largest coral in the world, and snow-fields larger than those of Alpine Switzerland.
Sophisticated commercial centres alongside outback cattle-stations and flying doctors; modern films, theatre, and music juxtaposing ochre-toned bark-paintings, and Aboriginal rituals; mixed with the imported colour and culture of the Mediterranean Europeans, the Lebanese, and the increasing number of Asians.
A young nation seemed to be making an old land work.
12. The Track:
After Adelaide’s social event of the year, the Formula One Grand Prix, it was time to hitch-hike up the Great Interior.
13. Alice and Nurses:
A car crash after my visit to Ayers Rock blurred events at The Centre, and I was flown to Alice Springs by the Flying Doctor Service.
14. The Top End:
Even without a railway link between the two major Northern territory towns of Alice Springs and Darwin, traffic on the road was still slight.
The road quality changed at the Queensland border. The bitumen was only wide enough for one lorry. When two trucks passed, both had to drive half on the dirt edge. If a car came, the lorry-driver held his course, and the smaller vehicle drove on the dirt.
16. A Trip to Cairns:
The reason for hitch-hiking was not to save money, but to get the whole of the country’s nothingness into perspective and perhaps unearth a few local gems by meeting the natives, or at least those on the move or on some personal mission. Albert was one.
17. South No Schedule:
I only had a directional skeleton plan, but I was subject to outside influences that could not guarantee time.
18. Along The Coast:
‘Beachies’ may look for work, but they prefer having fun in the sun on the sands of Noosa, Surfers Paradise, Byron Bay and Coffs Harbour; also known as the Sunshine Coast, Gold Coast, and Holiday Coast.
19. City of Culture:
Whole books are written about Sydney, yet I try to condense the conscious capital into a chapter. With so much going on, I hope that I’ve managed to pull it off.
21. Coming Back:
The return flight to Australia.
I was told that anyone who spent more than a week in Canberra, the diplomatic meeting place, would find themselves attending the House of Representatives for entertainment. But the capital in the parkland was also the place to finalise visa formalities for onward Asian countries.
22. The Indian Pacific:
A two-night party of a train from Adelaide to Perth.
Tourist or traveller? Paradise or an attempted retreat from the prying eyes and long lenses of the world’s press?
24. Surabaya to Singapore:
The crowded island of Java. And most of them seemed to be in the streets of Yogyakarta to see the Coronation and parade around the Kraton of the new Sultan.
Where was the genuine smile in Lee Kuan Yew’s towering-modern-triumph-in-the- tropics?
25. North Borneo – Not The Jungle:
“The Jungle?” the Dutchman in Jakarta had shown surprise when I expressed a desire to travel to the Philippines, via North Borneo. In fact there is a preposterous oil-wealth, alongside houses-on-stilts-in-the-water poverty, and a King with two wives.
26. Catholics and Communistos:
The only Catholic nation in Asia, Filipinos take their belief seriously; to the extent that in San Fernando, Pampanga, they are prepared to flagellate themselves and carry out genuine crucifixions on Good Friday.
The baranguay (local) elections were also approaching, and the ‘risk areas’ were in their thousands. The media contemplated rebel strongholds and announced the daily shooting toll, guerrilla leaders were being arrested, and Cory Acquino’s holiday movements would not be revealed.
27. Days Between Night Trains:
From Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok, via Penang and Koh Samui.
The best trains are the long-distance overnighters, where everybody lives on it for the moment. The restaurant car, sharing a bite to eat or a drink or two; the queue for a trickle of water to attempt to wash and clean your teeth in the morning, when no one looks quite how they like to present themselves; and the time-passing occupations of the passengers with their guard down.
The Vientiane I found was nothing like Paul Theroux’s visit, where ‘a naked waitress jumped on to a chair and puffed a cigarette in her vagina by contracting her uterine lungs’.
29. The Saigon Scene:
The Vietnamese march of communism in South-East Asia was retreating in a bid to restore its ravaged economy. Even Communism needs capital, and Le Tho could return confidently with an US passport and his Dollars, twelve years after his bid for freedom.
Twelve years on, people were still sailing for the unknown; stories of piracy and almost terrible conditions did not deter them. Perhaps in ten or fifteen years time they too could return with an adoptive passport and gifts for relatives.
30. The Return:
On my return to Bangkok, I needed to think about where was home.
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