Hanoi Traffic

Hanoi Traffic

Or, If This Is Anarchy Then I Broadly Approve

 

Hanoi arrived in the way that Asia usually does. Stepping through the airport doors and it's instant Asia! The noise, the dust, the busy frenetic activity of taxi drivers, bus drivers, fellow passengers, various scooter riders racing everywhere and the uniformed airport staff going about their work day activities. There's a definite smell to Asia, a delightful earthy musk, a welcoming warmth with a hint of the exotic all wrapped up in a hot, humid, dense, fuggy comfort blanket. Hanoi did not disappoint.

 

The taxi driver continued the acclimatisation process. The journey from Hanoi airport to the old quarter of Hanoi passed uneventfully. Uneventfully for Asia that is. Should a London taxi driver swerve across several lanes of traffic on a frequent basis, sound his horn at every opportunity, answer his mobile phone whilst driving, then answer his other mobile phone when still talking on the first and you'd be dining off the stories for months to come. However this is Asia and it appears that every other driver on the same piece of road is doing pretty much the same thing. And then there's the scooter riders. Mopeds, scooters, small capacity motorcycles of every description are everywhere. Zooming in and around us, swarming and darting like insects around this slow ponderous water buffalo of a taxi.

 

After my first taxi ride in Asia many years ago, it came as a great surprise that we arrived at out destination intact. In fact it came as a great surprise that anyone arrived at their destinations intact. But of course we did, as indeed did everyone else, the first five minutes or so in the taxi provide an acclimatisation period, the rest of the journey is simply accepted that this is the way it is.

 

Breakfast the first morning provided an opportunity for further study. The hotel's dining room was on the second floor and our breakfast table was by a window. Hang Bong street, the one on which our hotel stood, is a main Hanoi thoroughfare, it's narrow with tall buildings on both sides. Several roads cross it at right angles and also carry similar levels of traffic. Bikes, by that I mean small capacity motorcycles, scooters and mopeds are everywhere. They flow like blood cells through an artery, filling every available space with a dizzying blur of motion. Except of course blood cells flow in only one direction, here they flow both ways. There appeared to be a broad consensus that riding on the right was the preferred option, but it was by no means universal.

 

The road was not divided half and half as one might expect; half for bikes going in one direction and the other 50% for traffic going in the other. Here, should there be a greater volume of bikes going in one direction over the other, then that lane would automatically grows, occupying a correspondingly larger percentage of the road. Sensible? Certainly. But how this was achieved unbidden, like a massive flock of starlings wheeling and darting in flight remains a mystery.

 

Across Hang Bong, many other roads crossing at right angles. Theses roads carried similar volumes of traffic to Hang Bong yet they merged like tributaries flowing into a river; neither stream of traffic yielding to allow the other progress. They didn't need to, they melded together like streams of molten metal flowing to fill a mould. The traffic may have been mostly bikes, but that was certainly not a guarantee of uniformity. Some were solo riders, some carried a pillion. Several carried more than one pillion, up to a maximum of three. It's not just people that get transported by these marvellous little bikes, but goods also. Tiny motorcycles carting improbable loads stacked well above the rider and adding at least a metre and a half to the overall width of the bike, teetered and staggered through this corpuscular flow as the height and weight of their loads created instabilities as the bike lurched over the pot holed road.

 

Some of the bikes carried goods too large to be strapped directly to the bike; ladders, chairs, a coffee table and on one occasion a large oil painting. Here the rider held the item in his left hand leaving the other hand in solo control of the motorcycle.

 

A westerner, upon seeing this scene for the first time would recoil in horror at the scant regard for the rules of the road. His second thought might be how can anyone ride these roads or worse be so irresponsible to take their children onto these roads! Even if they were securely strapped into their CE approved car seat and sitting in a 4×4, surely that would be tantamount to child abuse? And yet here are mothers taking their children on the back of these bikes. Not just the back, but standing on the foot plates of scooters or squeezed in-between two adults or both. Let's put away our thoughts of disbelief, utter disbelief, that any, let alone the vast majority would survive this anarchy and wonder why they do.

 

Vietnamese riders appear to operate without any recourse to the rules of the road. They will occasionally stop at red lights if the situation utterly demands it, but that's about the only rule they do follow. Priority to traffic from the left (they drive on the right remember) doesn't apply. Pedestrians giving way to motorist is unheard of and just having one side for overtaking would be considered absurd.

 

In the UK we have rules! Rules to keep us safe from each other. Rules that are strictly applied and rigidly followed. Woe betide anyone who transgresses! Even inadvertently. Any motorist who even just witnesses, let alone become mildly inconvenienced, by another motorist is felt fully justified in unleashing a whole salvo of insults, from angrily honking the horn to flashing the lights or even unleashing tirade of verbal abuse!

 

The riders of Hanoi without the rules of the road have to make do with common sense, good humour and civility. If a fellow rider wobbles a little in front of you because he's carrying a coffee table in his left hand, then give him space to do so. It is consider that he has a much right to be doing what he's doing as you have to be on your journey. This level of non aggressive riding makes the basic and fairly obvious assumption, given a moments thought, that nobody would be carting a coffee table on a Honda 50 unless they have a very good reason for doing so. The mother riding with three small children on her bike knows that the safety of her children is in her hands she also knows that it's in the hands of her fellow riders. A fact fully known and accepted by all her fellow riders. She is not derided for taking her children on a bike, but afforded the opportunity to do it safely. If this is anarchy, then I broadly approve.

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A Time-warp Before Vietnam

A Time Warp Before Vietnam

We live in changing times.

About as uncontroversial a sentences as I can write. I can say that with absolute certainty because not only is it true, it has always been so. We have always lived in changing times. Queen Elizabeth 1st said as much, as did William the Conqueror before her. King Alfred the Great, Marcus Aurelius and for all I know the first Cro-Magnon leader who lead his people into the virgin territory of Western Europe around 30 000 years ago also said as much.

 

The point of all this preamble is that with such a constant state of flux and uncertainty it's hardly surprising when we find things that are new, novel or exciting. What is fascinating however, is finding something that's unchanged. Something that has passed through the generations largely unaltered for so long as it passes into folklore, and into our collective tribal memory. One such discovery befell me yesterday.

 

The Great British Guest House! As if plucked from a museum, or perhaps assembled from the collective memory of countless generations of holidaymakers, I found one that matched every preconceived idea and stereotype I could imagine. In Surrey, not too far from Gatwick Airport, I entered a time warp. Driving through the gate onto what was once the front garden, but now concreted over to comply with modern planning regulations, could not have been more auspicious if I'd driven through Alice's looking glass.

 

The red brick, late Victorian era property was as large and imposing as an elderly dowager, and who was clearly made for better things than an overnight stay and cheap parking for holidaymakers eager to jet off to Florida or Cancun. The large heavy wooden front door looked a little dull and lack lustre as if she had now accepted her fate and has ever so slightly slightly let itself go.

It mysteriously opened with a slight groan as we stepped up to it. Actually, no mystery, merely coincidence. A fellow guest was leaving just as we arrived. Convenient maybe, but just a little disappointing as I was quite looking forward to locating the red flower pot under which we were promised the key would be hidden.

Once inside, the quiet, an almost anacoic quiet, descended. The dark sober tones of the heavy carpet, flock wall paper and velvet curtains added to the almost claustrophobic sense of security. There was no one there to meet us just a room key left on a hall table with a hand written note saying “Mr. Crew Room 7. Up the stairs.”

This was not the only note to read, the two short paces from the front door to the hall table revealed many others; “Breakfast is from 7:15 to 8:30.” It didn't say as much, but the tone implied that that there could be no exceptions.

I was made aware of the fire procedure; “…call the fire brigade or ensure that someone else has done so”. The TV operation procedure was also made abundantly clear “use the grey remote control to switch the TV on and the black remote to change channels”.

My favourite, and it's only concession to modernity was “please don't ask for the WiFi password as it's written in your handbook on your bedside cabinet”. It was too, along with three pages of instruction. And a fourth containing an explanation of the typing error in the password on the previous three.

 

The room was small. Smaller that the wide, heavily carpeted and massively newel posted stairway led me to expect. The plasterboard walls revealed much about the building's fall from grace. Her large bedrooms had been divided and then further subdivided into smaller more economic units to cope with a more challenging economic climate. It was well equipped for all that and comfortable in the way you'd imagine it to be. I slept well, if briefly. The early morning breakfast and a desire to use to the communal bathroom before my fellow guests ensured this.

 

 

The dining room was a magnificent a piece of 1960's reproduction as you could wish for, except, of course, it wasn't reproduction. It was un-changed. The heavily patterned carpet, an excellent choice as far as longevity is concerned, but now looking rather too garish and fussy for modern tastes. The tongue and groove pine clad walls had darkened considerably with age whilst the ornaments and trinkets collected form every cheap and exciting package holiday destination the 1960's had to offer, had faded to a uniform gentile grey; the bull from Toromalenos, still with pics in his poor back, the single clog from Amsterdam with a tulip painted on the instep, various barometers and thermometers from locations so far flung and exotic that only a meteorological instrument would serve as a reminder of the holiday.

 

Breakfast fulfilled every expectation. Not that it was particularly good but it exactly fulfilled every expectation that I had of it. Don't think that I didn't enjoy it. I did! It was, well, a nostalgic meal. A breakfast from the days when bacon was pale pink and more chewy than flavoursome. When toast was thin, sliced and cold, and when coffee was a light brown colour, which was about the only indicator you had that it was really coffee. My delight was complete when I retrieved a pot of jam from a shelf set into one of the ornament adorned walls and opening it to find mould!

It was a meal from a time that I thought had passed or maybe had started to believed, had never really existed.

 

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World’s Greatest Biking Country

 

What is the worlds greatest biking country? Is a question, to be honest, that I've never been asked, but nevertheless deserves to be answered. I've asked the question many times and of many bikers usually in the form of 'where would you like to ride?'. A very similar question really just phrased differently. The answers tend to range from the cliched Route 66 through the various alpine passes – something that should be on every bikers to do list – to the extreme and slightly masochist Kadong La, nestling in in the high Himalayas of northern India and reputedly the highest metalled road in the world. All worthy motorcycling goals but does that make the countries that contain these roads the greatest motorcycling country? Probably not.

 

Route 66 has a certain certain cache after being popularised in the 1946 Bobby Troup song of the same name. And, like the writer of the song, could be something of a surprise. Yes, I thought it was Chuck Berry as well. Route 66, apart from being mostly missing these days, is largely straight, flat for a great deal of it's length, passing through unvarying scenery and has a blanket speed limit of 55 mph. Hardly the stuff of bikers' dreams. I'm not suggesting that it follows that all of the USA would also be dull biking country, not at all, these's no doubt plenty of excellent bikers' roads to be found there, but with such a vast country they must be sparsely distributed. The USA must therefore be ruled out as the world's greatest biking country on this basis alone. The same goes for Australia.

Rather than go through the world's countries one by one and finding fault as to why they can't be the World's greatest biking country, it's probably more productive to list the qualities that must be satisfied in order to fulfil the requirements for the accolade of the World's Greatest.

 

The weather. An obvious place to start, It must be pleasantly warm, sunny and dry, mid twenties Celsius with blue skies and the occasional fluffy white cumulus to give a contrast to the expanse of blue. The scenery must be beautiful, the roads all made from a smooth tarmac flowing with twists and turns, climbs and descents, every bend in the road offering both a interesting riding challenge and offering a new vista on the unfolding countryside. High craggy mountains, green rolling hills and lush verdant valleys must all fall within a couple of hours riding to ensure that the palette is constantly refreshed and never jaded. A coastline of spectacular cliffs and towering headlands also needs to be added to the mix. This motoring paradise must also, paradoxically, be largely free of traffic.

 

This perfect bikers country also needs a well established and fully functioning infrastructure. Petrol and coffee stops should be so plentiful as to require no advanced planning. As soon as the fuel light blinks, or a craving for caffeine surfaces, theses requirements should be sated just a few minutes after either the rider or bike has made the demand. Similarly pubs, restaurants, hotels and guest houses should all be readily available the moment the desire to stop for the night has become apparent.

 

Finally, and here's where we come to the nub of the matter. The should be a high density of these exceptional roads, a high ratio of the great to the boring. In a great biking country there would never be the need to travel to find great roads, all journeys would be great. Hours spent on a motorway to find that one gem of a great biking road would, if not exactly negate the thrill of riding that road, then it would certainly detracf from that countrie's claim to being a great biking country. This latter consideration obviously rules out virtually all of the larger countries. Tavel, involving vast distances becomes a very pragmatic affair motorways, autobahns, interstates and autostradas will always rule.

 

Then there are days which turn out to be perfect. Sometimes the sun shines and the sky is blue. The wind as you ride along is warm and pleasant, not too cold – when your shoulders hunch and your neck squats down into your jacket to keep out the chill. Nor too hot when you sweat under your leathers and your breathing becomes laboured inside your helmet. These are the days when the clear sunlight falls on the countryside giving it a clarity and a depth you've not noticed before, or at least not for a while. The roads are smooth, twisty and largely traffic free, the cars that are encountered are efficiently dispatched and merely add extra interest to the journey. Sometimes the journey begins immediately, as soon as you leave your driveway. This was the case in the late spring of 2013, the ride from Cwmbran to Abergavenny, on to Buith, then Brecon. Followed by a swift dalliance along the northern edge of the Brecon Beacons before delving deeper into the heart of the National Park and then, finally, home as the shadows lengthened and the world turned orange. On such a day I can report that there is no doubt, Wales is the greatest biking country in the world.

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Renaming Islamism

Renaming Islamism

A reply to Ghazala Salam (Huffington Post 1/10/13)

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ghazala-salam/reclaiming-islam_b_4017719.html?utm_hp_ref=tw

Ghazala Salam may have a point in her legitimate objection to the use to the word ‘Islamism’ in her piece in the Huffpost. However, even if her semantic claim to the root of the word ‘Islamism’ being corrupted by the Western media when reporting on the more extreme violence perpetrated by followers of Islam is true, the rest of the article falls victim to the Normal Distribution Curve.

The curve, which many will remember from school mathematics and looks like the outline of a bell, illustrates a basic truism to all randomly selected populations. It shows that the vast majority of any population falls in the middle, in the tall bit, and very few fall into the extremes on either side.

The central theme of Salem’s piece, that of the 1,6 billion that self-identify as Muslims fall into the middle bit and are nice, easy going, reasonable people, who do normal things; go to work, wear nice jumpers and eat cheese is simple stating the blindly obvious!

The 1,6 billion who self-identify culturally as Muslims covers an enormously wide based group, from violent and psychopathic extremists to atheists. Salem offers us a simple platitude that ignores certain hard evidence – the 9/11 attackers and the 7/7 bombers were, quite undeniably, motivated by the teachings of Islam and its interpretation of a requirement for violent Jihad.

A reasoned argument from Salem as to why the Koran was mistakenly interpreted in this way or why the bombers were completely wrong in this interpretation of the Koran or indeed, how these interpretations contradict the central tenants of Islam itself may have been more interesting.

It may have been more interesting, but it would be pointless – they were motivated by Islam.

To what extent is the extremely repressive, brutal and misogynistic political system in Saudi Arabia – a system about as far removed from civilised values as can be imagined, built upon Islamic values? Of course it’s a question that needs no answer, it was built upon Islamic values, albeit the extreme Wahhabi version of Islam, but Islam nevertheless.

More subtle questions such as to what extent the seven men from Oxford, who were prosecuted in May for serious sex offences toward young women and girls, were influenced by their adherence to Islam; a belief system which actively denigrates women? The same question could be asked of the Rochdale, Rotherham and Telford gangs.

I have chosen these two examples of the negative aspects of Islamic influence out of a vast list, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Egypt, the list goes on. To carry on listing situations where Islam is at least an underlying influence, if not a prime mover, would be pointless, my point has already been made; merely pointing out that the majority of Muslims don’t identify with the more extreme interpretations of Islam is not only obvious but pointless.

Islamic countries embracing values espoused in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, particularly toward women is probably unrealistic. Imams speaking out and interpreting the Koran and the hadiths into a less extreme form of Islam may be a little too much to hope for, for the time being at least, but a more robust condemnation from Islamic commentators on the extremism that’s carried out in the name of Islam would be a welcome start.

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Diana

Diana

 

I'm sitting on the island of Levkas, having just sailed from Ithaca – Odysseus' island and one of my favourite places on Earth. It is said that when you touch Ithacan soil you discover your true self. Well, I've been there many times over the years and I've been generally happy with the person I've found there. Perhaps I'm one of the lucky ones…………

 

I heard this tale from a taxi driver on Ithaca. He was an old guy who remembered the Royal Yacht Britannia being anchored off Ithaca in 1981. On board were Charles and Diana. It was their honeymoon. The plan was that Britannia would be their home for the entire honeymoon and neither would go ashore. But, the old man told me, on one starry night, when the sea was black and the full moon sparkled across the water, he saw a launch leave the Royal yacht. On board were two people, a man at the helm wearing the the uniform of one of the more lowly ranks of the Royal Navy, and a beautiful young woman who sat at the stern trailing her hand in the water. He recognised her immediately.

 

It was one of those hot and sultry Mediterranean evenings that Diana had chosen to sneak ashore. It was such a warm evening that Diana went barefoot – she allowed her foot to touch Ithacan soil and in that instance realised what a terrible mistake she had made………

 

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An Ithacan Odyssey

An Ithacan Odyssey

 

I shall tell you a tale of the sea. A tale of heroism and tale of self sacrifice – a salty yarn if you will. This tale takes place in the Ionian sea off the coast of Ithaca.

 

The Ionian and Ithaca! Two names synonymous with courage, and fabulous adventure. For Ithaca was the land of Odysseus, the fabled Greek hero, whose name has passed into our language, and even given us our word for 'Great Adventure' – odyssey. For you to appreciate this tale I will have to tell you two background facts to help our story on its way.

 

The Ionian Sea is a placid, warm and friendly sea, for the most part at least. This first fact leads us to the second; the warm inviting nature of these waters has led to the mooring up technique of swimming the lines ashore. A technique where a vessel drops her anchor in a harbour or bay and a rope from the other end of the vessel is swum ashore by a crew member. This line is then tied to a tree or rock or even, in our modern world, a lamppost. This line then prevents the vessel from swinging about her anchor and allowing all the crew on board to have a restful night, secure in the knowledge that their ship is firmly attached to terra firma.

 

Our yarn begins on a beautiful summer's day off the northern coast of Ithaca. On board the yacht 'Alkis Dimitra' is my crew, consisting of my wife Alison, my sister Anne and her husband Paul. Alkis is nearing the end of a day's pleasant sailing and is about to enter the port of Frikes (pronounced frik-ass). The harbour entry is negotiated easily and soon Alkis is securely berthed. Her stern safely attached to the harbour wall by two short stout lines and her bow held securely by her anchor buried deep in the sandy bottom of the harbour. It's one of those warm sultry Mediterranean evenings that late summers brings. The sort of evening that Virginia Wolfe and the Bloomsbury set would have constructed steamy holiday romantic affairs around. My crew were preparing for a run ashore and looking forward to a delicious meal in one of the many tavernas surrounding the harbour. While Paul and I had put on clean t shirts and shorts for the occasion, Anne and Alison had dressed for dinner; beautiful strapless summer dresses, exquisitely applied makeup with hair to match.

 

Alkis' gang plank had but touched the harbour wall when pandemonium broke out! It was as though Alkis' gang plank had touched a secret switch on the harbour marked DO NOT PRESS! For out of nowhere the Meltemi – that late summer scourge of the eastern Mediterranean hit with full force! A hot blast of gale force ferocity struck the harbour out of the north west, heeling boats over to 45 degrees or more. Mooring lines strained, boats creaked under the loads and anchors were beginning to be eased out of their sandy burrows on the harbour bottom at the behest of this mighty force. At exactly the same moment as the Meltemi struck, a huge swell, at least a metre in height began to feed into the harbour an unending rhythmic procession of marching waves sending boats into violent, sickening rolls. Masts clashed, ropes broke, one boat had a hole ripped into her side as the relentless army of waves continued to roll in.

The inevitable happened. A boat broke free. Her anchor torn from the sea bed. Now with this new weapon at their disposal, the waves and the wind could really go to work. The wind sent her across the harbour, her crew unable to regain control as the waves sent the boat into violent drunken rolls as her anchor began dragging the bottom, scouring the harbour for other anchors, first locating them and then releasing them one by one from the seabed. With their anchors no longer set into the bottom they too joined the rampage. And the chain reaction started – more and more boats joined the fray as the wind and waves continued to work their malevolence unabated.

 

Alkis was soon amongst the rampaging mob, albeit as an unwilling accomplice I like to think, we had barely enough time to get back on board to start the engine, haul in the anchor, separate our anchor chain from the others that Alkis had inadvertently scraped up and head out to sea for a rethink.

 

Back out at sea, we regained our composure, We tidied up Alkis and discussed a plan of action. Frikas, despite the lure of decent tavernas and the promise of good food and Mythos beer was clearly an untenable option for the night. There was a couple of inviting bays which looked not only inviting but also peaceful but, being bays they lacked tavernas. The thought of doing without tavernas would quite likely be too much to bear.

 

Kyoni, a delightful harbour with a beautiful name, lay to the south, about an hours motoring away. It was decided to make for there. The short passage was uneventful, actually it was pleasantly relaxing after the trauma of leaving Frikas. The entrance to the harbour was easy, but what we saw once inside was a disappointment: the place was jammed full of yachts, all with exactly the same thought as us. Get into a harbour with good shelter, and then a decent meal.

 

Kioni is truly beautiful. Brightly coloured houses and tavernas line a small harbour which are themselves in turn surrounded by steep pine covered hills. A harbour, both picturesque and practical, but sadly for us, it appeared full. We motored around for a while looking for a spot to moor up. Our first thought of mooring against the harbour wall next to a taverna was soon abandoned, there was not so much as a space to fit a canoe in, let alone Alkis. We widened our search area until we found a likely looking spot. It might not have been against the wall, nor was it close to a taverna, in fact the journey from it to a taverna would involve a trip in Alkis' inflatable tender, safely stowed in one of the cockpit lockers. However, it was a berth and it looked both peaceful and safe for the night. The was a bit of a sea running and a bit of a wind blowing, but nothing like Frikes so we thought it perfectly suitable. The chosen space was against a steep cliff face offering a snug little berth, away from the northerly Meltemi. My plan, or at least my original plan, was to drop the anchor in about eight metres of water then reverse the yacht gently up to the cliff, feed two mooring lines, one from each quarter of the stern to two mooring rings that we had spotted on the cliff face, presumably put there for this purpose. Alkis was put into astern and, I like to think skilfully, reversed toward the cliff face. All went well, initially at least. The anchor clattered out of its mounting on the bow and quickly buried itself into the seabed. I felt the drag o the anchor chain and eased back the throttle to slowly manoeuvre Alkis into her allotted berth for the night.

Alison and Anne were on the stern with me as we searched below the waves for any rocks. Closer and closer we got to the cliff, no rocks, just nice deep water. We gingerly edged further and further back. Paul was steadily paying out the anchor chain. Ten metres to go, still plenty of water, I steered toward an iron mooring ring that I'd spotted earlier. Eight metres to go.

 

“OK get ready with that line Anne, as soon as we get within reach quickly tread the line through and bring it back on board please”. Five metres to go,

 

“Rocks!” shouted Alison. She was right. Just about a metre behind Alkis were indeed rocks. Great big chunky ones immediate blocking our path. “Hold the anchor!” I called to Paul There did appear to be a little room to manoeuvre around the rock and continue toward the morning ring. In fact it would have been a pretty straightforward task to to so if it wasn't for the Meltemi, which, at that very moment, had decided to reassert itself. Not the full force of the Meltemi you understand, just a capricious little side gust. Just strong enough and certainly malicious enough to send Alkis swinging on her anchor toward a neighbouring boat! There was no way we could get a rope around that mooring ring. I though flashed through my mind – a Greek hero from the 'Age of Heroes' would now have dived over the stern, swim strongly toward the ring with the rope in his teeth, threaded it through the ring and averted disaster.

Anne may be my sister, but I'm guessing that she can't read my mind. But, somehow, it was as though Odysseus himself was on board. There was a splash! Anne was swimming strongly through the water toward the mooring ring towing the rope behind her! She swam swiftly toward the ring, skilfully threaded the rope through and without so much as pausing for breath swam back to the boat. I was absolutely in awe and about to lavish praise of her when there was another splash, smaller that the last, but clearly a splash. I was filled with horror! Alison is nowhere near as strong a swimmer as Anne. 'Oh my god!' she'll drown! I remember thinking. Actually, before that thought had even fully fully crystallised in my mind, I spotted that Alison had not so much dived over the side, more stepped onto the rock and was now walking toward the other mooring ring! Alison has spotted that although the journey to Anne's mooring ring was through deep water, her's merely involved a short walk over rocks, not more that 30 cm below the sea!

 

When both Anne and Alison were safely back on board, I called to Paul “OK Paul haul in the anchor a little please, let's take the boat further from the rocks”. “No wait! Stop please!”

 

You'll no doubt remember the short stout mooring lines from Frikes? Well I stared in horror! I'd given Anne the short line! Way too short for mooring here. I retrieved the longer rope from the locker. “Anne…..?” I said. Without saying a word or even a moment's hesitation, she dived back over the side towing the new longer rope.

 

With the longer ropes in place Alkis settled peacefully for the night. I looked at both Alison and Anne. Alison was looking a little splashed, with her hair rearranged by the wind giving her an interesting windswept look. Anne however, looked drowned! Her dress soaked and quite possibly ruined, her hair stuck to her head and her makeup had run and streaked. She had every right to begin to admonish her brother for being so stupid as to hand her the wrong rope in the first place. But she didn't. She simply smiled whilst panting heavily from swimming that heavy mooring line ashore.

“I'm surprised that I had so much difficulty swimming that line ashore”, she mused.

 

“Ah yes, umm sorry, that'll be because, umm, I gave you the wrong rope again…..” I said “We have a lightweight floating line on board for that………….”

 

Anne looked at me from her makeup streaked face, looking not a little unlike one of the early 'Hammer Horror' gothic zombies, she didn't say anything, because sometimes sisters just don't need to……..

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Motorways, Motorcycles, Motor cars and Me

It's been a while, quite a while in fact. A long while since I got back from Tibet. A long while without planning a new adventure. And, owing to an unusually long winter in Wales, It's been a long while since I last rode my bike. It's also been a long while without writing a blog. Time to amend matters.

Time to get the motorcycling season underway, the weather has relented a bit; temperature almost reaching double figures, the rain's not scheduled to start before seven o'clock tonight and the Bristol Classic Car Show is taking place in Shepton Mallet, a mere 55 miles away – so no more excuses.

What is it about motorways that makes them so loathsome? It not really practical to get from south Wales to Shepton Mallet without using at least one of them as the River Severn has to be crossed. Although I'm hugely impressed with the engineering masterpiece of the bridge, and who wouldnt be, I'm sorry to report that that's about it, I really don't like motorways. I have, at best, a feeling of pragmatic acceptance and in exceptional cases of engineering masterpieces such as the Severn bridge, of gratitude.

There's just no avoiding it, motorways are boring. Their sole purpose of moving traffic from A to B swiftly and efficiently comes at a heavy price: boredom. If it was just boredom then I would more readily accept motorway travel, however, it's not. With the boredom comes a deep feeling of dissatisfaction. The rhythm of the ride doesn't arrive, the scenary changes slowly or not at all. Your brain dwells on the cold – motorways are always colder. The wind noise is more intrusive – motorways are always noiser. So much so, that the only thing to look forward to is arriving. The destination is not only more important than the journey, it's the only thing which has any importance. The journey has been relegated to a process, something that has to endured to achieve a goal.

The car show was excellent in the way that these things are; wonderfully snippets of overheard conversations, “……the Mk III was such a disappointment after the promise of the Mk II's adoption of helically cut primary transmission gears” or “……her bottom end was largely intact so I just had her head skimmed.”

There were also some wonderful examples of motor cars, going right back to the thirties and even earlier, right back to the dawn of motoring and the modern internal combustion age. There were also plenty of beautifully restored cars from the sixties, in fact most of the cars on show were from this age. lovingly restored, pampered, polished and preened, they were proudly displayed for all the world to see, overlooked by their devoted and adoring owners. A few of the cars, a very few it has to be said, were that rarest of the Classic Car sub-species, the intact original. The car that has been kept in working condition, often by just one family, for over fifty years. Never having gone through the cycle of disuse, abondonment, deterioration and rebuild, they lack the, slightly false, to my eyes at least, 'showroom fresh' look of the rebuilds. But they have a patina, a careworn look to them, a look that at once conveys all the love that the owner has lavished on them over the years in keeping, what is quite frankly, an outdated and impractical vehicle on the roads for so long.

This period, the nineteen sixties, really was the dawn of the motoring age, at least it was the dawn of motoring for the masses. It was the period when the modern motorway network was being built in earnest. It was the period when the, now familiar, British road sign was designed. It really was the dawn of the new Elizabethans – of the new Motorists' age. The cars from this period, were mostly beautiful and varied, to a degree that has now largly disappeared. The cars were shaped to the designers whims, engines were installed either in the front or the rear according to individual manufacturers' preference; after all, at this time nobody really knew which would prove to be the best, thus inspiring sharply polarised adherents to both schools of thought. Whether the front wheels should be driven or the rear, was again a matter of fiercely divided opinions and passionate loyalties.

As the modern motor car configuration had yet to be finalised It was the journey to this that mattered. It was the journey that inspired such passion. Whether it was the journey in terms of the physical configuration of the car or the real journey that one undertook upon the road, it didn't matter. Without the reliability of the modern motor car, the journey was under taken in a spirit of adventure. It was undertaken because it mattered. It was important and a spirit of adventure and enthusiasm was needed to see it through.

Now I have no wish to decry the modern motor car it has a level of comfort, performance, reliability, safety and fuel efficiency that were only dreamed of in the sixties. However it has achieved this through a bland uniformity – we now know what works. The modern motor car has been reduced to just an other consumer durable, inspiring as much passion as the purchase of a refrigerator. Likewise the modern transport network, has, like the modern car, made the destination the sole focus of travel. Travel now exists only in the form of reaching a destination by the most efficient manner possible. Anything else is an anathema.

The return journey through the minor roads of Somerset sparkled. Despite the glowering, threatening sky and increasing wind strength the journey delighted, as I wound through villages and small towns that I'd not visited for a while. By the time Bristol arrived the sky was noticeable darker, it was much windier and there was a distinct threat of rain, heavy rain, in the air. By the time the Severn bridge came into view it had already started to rain. “It's just a short ride from here”.' I allowed myself this comforting thought as I rode over the bridge. 'In the nineteen sixties, before the bridge was built', I reflected, 'this would has involved a seventy mile detour through Gloucester or a choppy crossing in an open car ferry across the river'.

You might not have to enjoy, but you do have to marvel and be grateful.

 

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The Road Ahead

The Road Ahead

clip_image002I awoke at nine o’clock with the light streaming through the gaps in the door, through the window shutters and through the door frame where it didn’t quite fit the opening in the wall which had been formed to accommodate it. I felt fantastic, fully refreshed and ready for anything. I would normally comment on the hardness of the bed or otherwise. However, I have absolutely no recollection of the degree of comfort offered by the bed, had I tripped going through the door, landed starfish like on the floor, I’d have slept where I’d fallen and still be in no position to comment on the relative degree of comfort offered by the concrete – I’d slept soundly.

After my morning ablutions, which consisted of inserting my contact lenses into my eyes having first giving them the most cursory of swills from the remains of my small bottle of water, retained, with untypical forethought, for the purpose. A swift visit to the Gents, the swifter the better as a Tibetan toilet is not a place to linger.

Perhaps a word on Tibetan toilets here may clarify exactly what this fully entails. I do, of course, fully understand if anyone reading this wants to skip this next paragraph or two. You see, Tibetan toilets, the one attached to guest houses at any rate, are indescribable. However I shall try. Before entering such edifies, I usually take a few deep calming breaths, as I like to confine breathing to the absolute minimum once inside. This is particularly difficult at altitude where I find it impossible to hold my breath for more than a second or two in order to take a photograph, even this short a time results in panic breathing. Any more than that and I’m sure I’d collapse – and believe me there are very few places in the world where I would choose to collapse and a Tibetan clip_image004toilet is somewhere near the bottom of the list.

Upon entering such a place, having ensured that it is both absolutely necessary to do so and it is a matter of the utmost urgency, and of course, there is absolutely no alternative available, one is faced with the hole-in-the-floor. They will always be of the-hole-in-the-floor type, the stand and deliver, the squat and drop type – western toilets are never used. I desperately attempt to avert my eye from falling on the hole-in-the-floor, but somehow this is never possible. For one thing, one has to locate the foot plates upon which to stand, and worse, there is a morbid fascination that inexorably draws you eye to the hole-in-the-floor.

In the particular case of this one in Pelbar, or new Tingre (Tibetan towns frequently seem to have two names), light was emanating from the hole-in-the-floor, that and a light breeze. It appeared that the entire toilet block was suspended over the communal rubbish tip. This did give me some degree of comfort, seeing the light so to speak, as I was once advised in Tanzania, when using the dark hole-in-the-floor-type, to take a large stick and bang heavily on the hole-in-the-floor to scare off any bats that may be roosting below. I can imagine that frightening bats into flight once proceedings had commenced, must be, on a personal level, one of the world’s most shocking moments.

Once you have, to use the airline phrase, adopted the brace position, it allows you to check that the door is firmly closed, there is no lock, but as the door was only half height, the necessity for a lock is rendered largely superfluous. Should I encounter someone else during my hopefully short visit, I thought a cheery ‘Good Morning!’ might be the best greeting – first impressions are after all lasting ones.

I’m hoping that I’ve not exhausted my supply of euphemisms before commencing the last paragraph, because here’s where delicacy is paramount. After completion of the act one will, quite naturally, look about the small concrete cubical. You will find a large vat of water and a small, hand held witches broom. I shall draw a veil over the implied usage of these two items; suffice to say that the broom bore testament to frequent usage.

clip_image006I like to think of myself as a worldly wise traveller; however there are certain matters that do expose me as a squeamish westerner. However, how much greater must the culture shock be for Greg, one of the film crew, who enquired of me “if I knew where the bathroom was?”

This was to be our last ride in Tibet, from Pelbar to the border town of Zhangmu. How we covered the final 135 km or so into Tibet and on to Kathmandu was left open. We could ride it on our Changs, that’s assuming the Chinese Authorities would allow the bikes to be taken out of the country or by taxi, it that was the wish of the Chinese border guards. It was, I was going to say in the lap of the Buddha, however, and not to be too prosaic, it was quite frankly, in the lap of the Peoples’ Liberation Army.

……the sky Tibetan blue and the air cold and Himalayan fresh it was a lifetime away. This was a moment to be lived in.

That was all in the future though, something to be resolved later. It was a whole day away and on such a beautiful Tibetan day with the sun shining, the sky Tibetan blue and the air cold and Himalayan fresh it was a lifetime away. This was a moment to be lived in.

“This is your last ride in Tibet, so how do you feel Mark?”

Such questions from the film crew I’d become so accustomed to answering that I’d assumed flippancy was appropriate. “It’s a fabulous biking day, what can possibly go wrong?” I seemed to remember answering.

The road out of Pelbar was tarmac, and smooth – beautifully smooth. Crisp clear watery sun bathed us with high altitude brilliance. This is a perfect day for Chang riding – slow, steady and purposeful – riding toward Kathmandu; to warmth and a climate more suited to human physiology.

After about an hour of probably the best riding I’ve ever done we pause to take our last views of Everest and her eight thousander sisters. We stop to take a few photographs and say our goodbyes to the mountains. Our next stop will be Nyelam, a small town with a main road running through it, a few hotels for trekkers and some restaurants dotted about. A lunchtime stop, before we plunge off the Tibetan Plateau; a two kilometre free-fall in less than twenty as it snakes through a narrow twisting gorge, over the Friendship Bridge and into the Kathmandu valley.

About an hour outside Nyelam, the sky darkened, low clouds scudded in from the south west, the direction we were travelling, what’s a little rain? It’s hardly the first time I’ve ridden in rain.

The warm moist tropical air that blows in from India is forced over the Himalayas where it turns, not to rain, but snow. OK, still no problem, I’ve ridden in snow before, only this time I’ve got a third wheel, so hardly an issue.

This snow, I will admit, was impressive stuff, supercooled at high altitude over the Himalayas, but as it doesn’t have far to fall to reach the Tibetan plateau, it lands supercooled. It stuck with unimaginable tenacity to whatever surface it hit, sucking every last drop of residual heat out of every surface it made contact with, freezing instantly into a solid mass.

The snow piled up on my visor with such ferocity that I was riding one handed, the right one on the throttle, the left one continuously clawing at my visor

My headlight was on full, although you wouldn’t think so as no light could possibly penetrate the supercooled, super-dense, snowy substrate that formed on its surface. The dynamo on a Chang barely has the power to illuminate the bulb, let alone find enough surplus energy for excess heat to melt the snow.clip_image008

The snow piled up on my visor with such ferocity that I was riding one handed, the right one on the throttle, the left one continuously clawing at my visor to allow brief, fleeting glimpses of the road ahead.

Our first sign of Nyelam was a stationary queue of trucks stretching back several kilometres from the outskirts of the town. Overtaking them, we arrived at a military guard post; there was a barrier across the road. ‘There’s been a landslip’, we were told. ‘Road’s blocked you can’t go on’.

The guard only let us through as we were cold and very tired after riding through the snow. We could go into Nyelam, but only to find a hotel. We would not be permitted any further.

It was a relief to be allowed through. It was about four in the afternoon, the snow was still falling and it was getting colder, A hotel would be unbelievably welcome. With the road closed, it wouldn’t be long before all those people, who like us, thought they’d just be passing through Nyelam, on their way to the border, would also now be trapped here in Nyelam. It wouldn’t be long before the rather limited number of hotel beds would be used up.

As it turned out, finding a hotel wasn’t too difficult. What to do next was the harder decision to make. Information abut the road closure was in the true spirit of Chinese information dissemination; non-existent. In the absence of any official word on the subject, the rumour mill went into overdrive to fill the information vacuum.

clip_image010‘It’s only a small landslide it’ll be cleared tomorrow’.

‘Thousands of tonnes of debris have fallen into the roadway, but heavy earth moving equipment will be brought in and the road will be open in a week’.

What was lacking in official promulgations was more than made up by unofficial pronouncements.

“I was there when the land slide happened, never seen anything like it. I was lucky to survive!” one Canadian told me.

Wherever the truth of the situation lay, a decision would have to be made. We were safe and comfortable in the hotel, but as is the case in the modern world, deadlines had to be kept, the world of work beckoned and our ordinary lives outside being intrepid motorcycle explorers lay there for us to return to, with increasing impatience.

The following morning a decision was made. We would check out of the hotel, ride through the barriers closing off the road and toward Tibet. Maybe a motorcycle would get through? The truck and its owner-driver were paid off. ‘We won’t be needing them any more’. We naively imagined.

The following morning, as planned, we checked out of the hotel. The bikes and the sidecars were loaded with our luggage, the cameras and the film crew for the attempt on the border. We left Nyelam discretely, that is as discretely as seven men on four vintage motorcycles, carrying film making equipment can be discrete. It appeared to us that the whole town had assembled, lining the main road to see us on our way. The interest in the success or failure of our mission suddenly became the focal point and the main conversation topic for every walker, hiker, trekker and mountaineer trapped in Nyelam. If we didn’t return then clearly there was a way through. However, should we return then the road was well and truly impassable. If a motorcycle couldn’t get through then there was certainly no hope of anything larger getting through. The implication of that would be obvious; unless you’re prepared to wait many weeks, even months for the road to be repaired. It’s a return to Lhasa, 1200 km along the only road. Our return would instigate a mass exodus from Nyelam. Every availed truck, taxi and Land cruiser would be commissioned for the retreat to Lhasa and the airport – the only remaining route out of Tibet.

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Everest Base Camp (Part 3)

Everest Base Camp (Part 3)

clip_image002It’s never a good thing to retrace your steps, in motorcycling as in life. The return ride from Everest Base Camp took a different route to the way up, Peter, the owner of the motorcycles, believed that there was an ‘old’ road that run from Everest base camp to Pelbar. A road now seldom travelled, so it would be unlikely to be heavily washboarded and by the same token, unlikely to be easily followed.

The night spent at Everest Base Camp was not a restful one. We all retired early after toasting absent friends, or in my case absent siblings. We not only toasted them, but we also drank a toast to George Everest, a great unsung Welsh hero after whom the mountain is named. Jon, Nick and myself were given a bottle of whisky in Shanghai along with strict instructions that is was to be carried to the ‘roof of the world’ where it would be opened and drunk at Everest base camp. In the event it was only myself out of the three of us that got a taste of the whisky and that’s all it was – a taste. Drinking at altitude is not recommended and in my case not possible as the altitude had begun to reassert itself again, with nausea and joint pain.

We followed the road that we used on the way up to Everest Base Camp for the first 20 km or so, and then swung to the left of our original track onto the western side of the Kama Valley. Col. Howard-Bury, during his reconnaissance of Everest in 1921, the first westerners to enter the Kama valley described it as “…..one of the most beautiful valleys in the world.clip_image004

Ninety odd years later I can fully concur with Colonel Bury, it has an astonishing beauty, but it’s far from the Wordworthian, Lake District beauty. The Kama valley has the most terrible, harsh, brutal beauty, a beauty with a complete indifference to human life. This part of the valley sees far less traffic that the route up. In over 100 km of riding we only encounter two other vehicles.

This is a very ‘new’ part of the world. The first western explorers came here less than 100 years ago, in fact humans only came here at all in the eighth century. I reflect upon the fact that my Chang was designed only 12 years after Mallory’s ill-fated attempt on Everest, indeed my Chang was already an old fashioned, 15 year old, design when Everest was eventually conquered in 1953.

Despite my tiredness – sleep at over 5 000m is at best fitful – I’m enjoying the ride immensely. I like the isolation, I’ve never been in such a landscape, it’s not just the stark beauty of the landscape that impresses, it’s the scale. The sheer vastness of everything, even the valley floor is over 4000 m above sea level. The snow covered mountains surrounding us are giants, the highest on Earth. Away to the south east I can glimpse Mount Makulu only 400 m lower than Everest making it the fifth highest peak in the world and with its four sided pyramid shape, it is in many people’s eyes, the most beautiful.

The first part of the road was easy to follow, it was rough, from the rock and stones that inevitably roll down from the valley sides, but, mercifully, it wasn’t washboarded. As we begin our first climb to around 5000 m, it starts to get colder, much colder, and the wind picks up to near gale force. The bike is pushed around by the wind, but this I find reasonably easy to control especially when the bike is on an un-cambered road.

The bike’s much harder to control when we’re riding along part of the route that’s been cut into a steep hillside. The valley sides are steep and with little or no vegetation to provide anchorage for the rocks and soil, they tend to be unstable.

Riding along the right hand side of the valley is where the problems begin to manifest themselves. A Chang has the sidecar on the right. To my left is a drop of around 100 m, not a vertical drop, just a very steep drop. A drop so steep that should you start to fall down it then stopping or steering would be rendered impossible, and sudden uncontrollable acceleration would be the only inevitable outcome.

Over many years the rocks, dust and soil from the top part of the mountain side have slowly percolated down to the road surface giving it a definite and quite pronounced camber to the left. Attempting to ride this road with the weight of the sidecar, now elevated slightly higher than the motorcycle, has the effect of wanting to turn the whole combination sharp left and over the bank. The only way to prevent this happening is to steer hard right. And to continue to steer hard right, for kilometre after kilometre. The bike will now (hopefully) plough straight on despite the bars being forced to the right. Changs are heavy bikes to steer on the finest tarmacadam, here on this loose, rough surface and at this altitude, it’s exhausting work.

At other times we ride across the valley bottom, where the track disappears and we can ride anywhere we choose. I ride through a small herd of Yak, who are widely dispersed over the valley floor as they seek out the sparse vegetation on which to browse. It’s one of those moments, a reality check moment. I go through my mental check list– yes this is me. I am riding a motorcycle in Tibet. That is Everest behind me and yes, those are Yaks.

Toward late afternoon after clip_image006we’ve ridden around 70 km, we arrive at a small village. A village, but only in the only loosest sense of the term; it’s a collection of mud brick houses, surrounding a central compound. There’s no school, no shops, no village hall, no church, no temple and no doctor. In fact nothing that appeared to give it any sense of a place, a place that is, with a community identity. Nobody seems interested in us being there, this is unusual in China, as a more curious and friendly people you’ll be unlikely to find anywhere in the world.

Eventually a couple of children come to see us and to hold out their hands for money, they have beautiful smiles but precious little else. They’re dressed in rags. Rags which have years of dirt engrained in then. In exchange for 1 Yuan each I take their picture – in the shadow of Mount Everest.

As we ride away, it’s hard not to wonder what the future holds for those kids.

Years of grinding poverty?

No education? And certainly no prospect of them even knowing more that their ancestors did a thousand years ago?

A premature old age without medical care?

Cataracts from the UV?

I feel uneasy. Guilty even, that I only gave them 1 Yuan, but should you give them more? Should you give them, say, 10 Yuan? This is quite possibly as much as their parents clip_image008will earn in a week?

Should I have given them food?

Should I even be here at all? A westerner on a motorcycling holiday, who moans because his motorcycle is a little bit old fashioned. Time for another reality check; yes, and this is hard to accept, yes this really is the 21st century.

The following hours riding takes us back onto the friendship highway, the G318 linking Lhasa to Katmandu, just a few short kilometres brings us to Pelbar or New Tingre, same place, different name, not such a rare occurrence in Tibet, and to the guest house for the evening. A guest house that has forced me to reconsider my opinion about the first guest that we’d stayed in back in Nangadse. If I’d described that as primitive, it was in comparison, palatial. But frankly I was beyond caring; it had green tea in copious quantities and a bed. I could want for no more. I fell into my bed at 7:00, pausing only to remove my motorcycling kit; I’d removed my helmet earlier to assist with the tea drinking, and slept for 14 hours.

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Everest Base Camp (Part 2)

Everest Base Camp (Part 2)

clip_image002The second half of the ride is harder than the first, not because the road itself has become harder or that the bike has suddenly become more recalcitrant. It’s tiredness creeping in, the lack of sleep over the past two nights is starting to take an effect, that and the wash boarding, the endless wash boarding is beginning to take its toll.

When large 4X4s continuously use a piece of dirt road, the road yields to the resonant frequency of the 4×4’s suspension, creating a uniform, rhythmic, corrugated wash boarded surface to the road. Further 4×4 use exacerbates this problem as the road is now feeding back the resonant frequency into the vehicles suspension, which has a further effect of the road…….

The result on my poor Chang was a medium frequency, uncontrollable shake, the suspension crashed around underneath me, completely unable to prevent any of the crashing and jarring being fed into me. I was becoming exhausted – we were steadily climbing to the 5250 m height of Everest Base clip_image004Camp – show any weakness to the altitude and it is merciless.

In my tired and oxygen deprived brain, I began to long for a modern bike, a KTM or something similar, with huge suspension travel and the power to accelerate over the wash board, when the front wheel goes light and the bike begins to float over the ruts, I would get to my bed in about a third of the time the poor old Chang is taking. A more positive take on the Chang is that I was by now going so slowly that a crash would almost certainly just have me rolling off into the dirt – probably, the peace from the endless crashing would be a relief, allowing me to fall asleep exactly where I fell.

This thought also put my KTM fantasy into perspective a crash at far higher speed could be more problematic – the nearest western hospital is probably Shanghai 5 000 km away. Kathmandu is much closer and has, by all account, a good hospital, being closer may not be much help though, the route is blocked by the Himalayas.

I wondered at the wisdom of building a monastery in such an inhospitable, one is tempted to say god forsaken, place.

At around 10 km from Base camp, we pass a monastery, claimed to be, and I have no argument with this, the highest monastery in the world. It was a crude mud brick building, which had once been painted white. The usual Tibetan prayer flags, frayed and faded by the sun, were flapping in the wind – now blowing at near gale force and cold, bitingly cold. The forecast was for -6C at night, but it felt colder, the wind cut into every part of exposed skin.

clip_image006I wondered at the wisdom of building a monastery in such an inhospitable, one is tempted to say god forsaken, place. But, maybe that’s the point; to build one in a more conducive spot may have seemed less devout.

I would like to say much more about the last 10 km, my final approach to Everest, but all I remember is cold, tiredness also, but mostly cold. Everest base camp arrived suddenly I just remember riding in and lining my Chang up with the other three.

There was great whooping and cheering, high fives, handshakes and hugs. Actually there wasn’t. All I and everyone else wanted was to get out of the wind, and the cold, and the dust. I’ll be honest; I was disappointed with my reaction to being here as well!

Tibetan tents are the most homely, comforting and inviting places I have ever been in. You walk in and it’s instant peace, instant warmth and very possibly instant Karma.

Thick, heavy and made of closely knitted yaks’ wool, Tibetan tents are astonishing! They have the cossetting comfort and warmth of a well-loved duvet and they generate the same feelings of security, solidity and permanence that you expect of a room at the Savoy.

We were invited into this warm palatial tent, warm because the yak dung stove in the centre was working flat out. We were gestured to sit on carpet covered sofas and given copious amounts of tea. I was just allowing myself the thought of well that’s it were here, when our Chinese fixer, downed his tea and said “hurry last bus leaves soon!”

As a nation, China amazes, irritates and simply dumbfounds in equal measure, even to the point where you’re not sure exactly which emotion you’re experiencing or indeed should be.

“Micmar, I thought we were at Everest base camp”.

“Yes, yes we are. But the best views of the mountain are 4.5 km away at the very top of the valley – and there’s a bus!”

Mount Everest is a sensitive border region with Nepal, it’s a border therefore sensitive, goes the Chinese logic.

Mount Everest is a sensitive border region with Nepal, it’s a border therefore sensitive, goes the Chinese logic. The Chinese military won’t allow personal vehicles to be taken up to the head of the valley for that reason. However, they do lay on a fleet of small rugged busses for the sole purpose of ferrying all the visitors who wish to make the trip to the foot of the mountain.

“And bring your passport!” shouted Micmar.

This being China, you don’t question such requests. I really didn’t want to leave the warmth, and peace of the tent, but being stoic and dismissing such thought as unworthy, I put on my full motorcycling kit (apart from the helmet so as not to look too silly) and got on the bus.

The bus stopped at a military check point where we were ushered inside for passport and permit checks. This being China, and this being a military region, I was, as usual, unsure as to exactly what emotion I should be feeling at the overt stupidity of this pantomime.

“I appreciate that this is a border, but have you not noticed that it is arguably one of the world’s most secure borders, barred as it is by an 8000 m mountain, several in fact?”

Everybody thinks this, and everybody is wise enough not to say it.

The head of the valley is flat bottomed, no more than 600 m wide, its end is barred by Everest. I walk toward a small hillock in the centre of the valley; it’s only about 10 m high but takes most of my remaining strength to climb it.

When I get to the top I do as most visitors do, I take a few photographs of Everest.

Then I sit. Without really intending to we’d caught the last bus of the day so there were far fewer visitors than there usually would be on that hillock. It’s only now that it begins to filter through my brain, maybe it’s lack of oxygen, maybe tiredness, maybe I’m a bit slow on the uptake, whatever it is, I now suddenly become very aware of where I am and what I’m seeing. That is Mount Everest, this is me.

This is me, that is Mount Everest.

There’s no one in front of me. I have a completely uninterrupted view. And I sit. And I stare.

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