Saturday, 29 November 2008

no smoke, no cook

We are picked up from our hotel by another slip of a girl, who - ' call me Janet'- takes us first to the local market. We are delighted and entranced by the first hall, piled high with all manner of colourful vegetable, and then pass below an arch into an altogether darker realm, the Fish market. On all sides creatures, short and long and thin and stubby, with and without scales, are expiring in large vats. They squirm and slither and wriggle, or lie defeated on their sides. I pass a row of giant carp heads, separated from their bodies, lying on a stone slab. They are still mouthing their silent despair.
I hasten through another arch and enter the infernal realm of the Animal market. Again the produce is mostly alive in myriad tightly-packed cages. The Chinese, it seems, will eat anything. (I pass no judgement.) I quicken my step and leave to a dreadful cacophony of bleating, crowing, shrieking, whimpering, whooping, snuffling, bellowing, barking and meowing.

Chastened, and grateful that we have chosen the vegetarian option, we are whisked off to an idyllic farmhouse in the karst (for geological clarification of this, see Kieran's message of a couple of days ago, and for correction to my Cohn-Bendit story see Claus's of the same day - thanks guys, I'm grateful for your prompt interventions).
We are a rum crew - an Antipodean, some other Brits, a camp gentleman from Seattle and a modern lady from Xian who has always resisted her mother's attempts to inculcate her with cooking lore.

First lesson : let your wok start smoking on a high flame before proceeding. This must be where I have always gone wrong back in Blighty, nervous of triggering my hypersensitive smoke detectors. The ingredients are ready waiting for us in tidy dishes, and all we have do is chop and shred and smash and sizzle, and have a lark. One dish done, we go out to eat it and sip green tea in an arbour surrounded by bougainvillea, and contemplate the karst. Back in the kitchen, our woks have been miraculously sluiced and dried, our worktops gleam afresh, and a new set of peeled and prepared ingredients await our attention. Bliss. Why can't cooking always be like this?

Today we return to Guiling upstream, a delightful place.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

ps calling krakow, berlin, mauretania and primrose hill

Many thanks Kieran and Claus for factual clarification, and to Nityabandhu and Mauricio and Mussy for your kind encouragements! I'm enjoying writing my blog, and thinking of you all, and appreciate your comments. love to all.

karaoke nights

Today we cycled through the karst and are none the wiser as to its geological origin. Its a flat plain with the most extraordinary hills just shooting straight up into the sky, and goes on for miles and miles. Our guide is Bin (call me Maggie) Yan, a slip of a girl more used to filing her nails and dying her hair orange than cycling. She spends a lot of time looking at her mobile phone, perhaps trying to coax messages out of it to alleviate the boredom of our frequent photo stops. The landscape is astonishing, and the orchards are full of citrus fruits , and cotton, and bougainvillea in glorious blossom.

After a few hours my bum is very sore. We all know how the sinews and flesh of the body hold a remembrance of things past; I am taken back directly to the summer of 1984. I was nursing a bruised heart after a confusing love affair, and thought the only thing to do was get on my bike and cycle alone across France . It took me 11 mostly blissful, and certainly saddle sore, days to ride from Dieppe to Nimes and my heart was mended for a while. More lastingly, the beloved's sister was an Alexander Technique teacher, so I had heard a lot about the Technique and been advised that I would even benefit from it. On my return from France I searched Time Out and found an Alexander workshop advertised. After that I never looked back . I began lessons and within a year had been accepted on to a three year training course which changed my life. So thanks Ben! I saw Ben recently at the theatre with his two teenage sons. We chatted pleasantly, and there was no tugging of the scar tissue around my heart.

Tomorrow we do a Chinese cooking workshop on a farm nearby. If local delicacies are anything to go by - pig hand with sauce, steamed cuckold, fried pig face meet, spicy cattle hoof with local pepper, crispy pig lung, crab porridge, bamboo leopard cat, masked civet and snake (soup, pepper, braised) - we are in for a treat!

Our idyll here is shattered nightly by dreadful sounds arising from a hundred karaoke bars. I want to tear out the perpetrators' tonsils, which on reflection might make a nice soup.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

seven men on a boat

Undeterred by our recent trials on the Yangtse, we embark on another rivercraft, this time a small speedboat, in the company of two New Zealanders, a girl from Melbourne who wears bewilderingly few clothes, and a Frenchman from Bordeaux. This last, Fred, is the spitting image of Daniel Cohn-Bendit in his revolutionary prime. Remember him? Paris '68? Were you there? Daniel stormed the barricades, and speechified at the Sorbonne, elbow to elbow with Jean-Paul Sartre, then already a superannuated 'philosophe' trying to ingratiate himself with youth. Daniel ended up many years later as member of Parliament in the German Reichstag, a shadow of his former firebrand self. (Is this correct Claus?)
That heady summer of '68 I turned 21, and twiddled my thumbs while Rome burned around me.I went on no marches, set fire to nothing except the odd joint, and was very depressed, wondering when my life was going to start. It clearly hadn't. Until then, and for many a year after, it seemed just a painful simulacrum of a life.

Back to the river Li, where we careened and swooped, and shuddered and juddered, and sent the local flora and fauna rushing for cover. Our macho helmsman clearly fancied
himself as 007 in a movie, but was ever sensitive to our photographic needs (our craft bristled with Nikon zooms jabbing at the landscape) and would decelerate vertiginously at the sight of local colour - some poor fisherman trying to keep afloat on his bamboo raft in our shocking wake, water buffaloes minding their own business ( strangely the Chinese have not yet invented mozzarella, considering they had invented most things while Europeans were still daubing themselves in woad, and grunting) clouds of white egrets and fishing cormorants. These latter have a cord tied loosely round their throats so they are unable to swallow any fish they catch. The fish are squeezed out by the fisherfolk, and the cormorants are allowed to eat every seventh fish so they don't go on strike. Cormorants are sinister old birds at the best of times; here they are the size of vultures.
And the scenery, which after all is why we are here? Fifty miles of the most stupendous hills and rock formations (karst our guidebook tells us, but none of us can remember what that means).
I have forgotten again where I am, but its quite charming , by the banks of the Li.
Tomorrow we hire bikes and will cycle amongst the karst.

Monday, 24 November 2008

yangtse capers

Embarking at the port we approach a splendid craft, dining-room ablaze with chandeliers, and a white-uniformed and helmeted brass band blaring away on the quayside. Surely our budget does not stretch to this opulence? Indeed it does not. We slope on despondent to the furthest dark reaches of the dock, and pile on to a fleapit of a boat. Fleas would have been the least of our travails. Within minutes of entering our ghastly dingy berth David has killed our first cockroach, gallantly. And then came the rodents. Difficult to know if they are modest rats or supermice, such a scuttling and scrabbling is there in the ceiling. We pull the foetid bedding closer around us, and I remember with horror the Sukhavati Rat. It entered, unbidden, our Buddhist community in Bethnal Green, and caused havoc for days. One night I returned and everyone on my floor had decamped to other quarters. The rodent had last been seen on my bed! I went to sleep tremulously. At some stage in the night I imagined ,or actually felt, a creature run over my head, and my screams woke the neighbourhood. How many Buddhists does it take to dispose of a rat? In the end we fudged and summoned Tower Hamlets Pest Control.
Was history to repeat itself in this riverine context?

On our last evening aboard our sordid craft we see evidence of a visit. A dropping or two, and macaroons scattered cavalierly about the room. David goes storming about asking the startled staff (who speak little English) what their 'rat procedure' is. We are assured, after much miming and leafing through a dictionary jabbing at hieroglyphics, that mice bring luck ( the rat word is never mentioned). Chinese smiles and titters (what are these whitefaced creatures making such a fuss about?) David, enraged, decides to dismantle the antique central heating system, from which we have heard much scuttling. I retire to my top bunk, wanting only to read my novel, a very good one by Xiaolu Guo who almost won the Orange Prize last year. The rat has clearly scarpered by now, seeking respite from this unwelcome and unaccustomed attention Our pleasant roommate reassembles the heater.As I gingerly go to sleep, I am less concerned with the tectonic plates far beneath me shifting in the night ( some scientists claim that the Three Gorges Dam, which is downstream from us, is responsible for recent earthquakes and will certainly precipitate further ones) than with whether ratus ratus will choose tonight to gnaw its way through the plasterboard above my bunk.

Apart from these inconveniences (I'm sure Colin Thubron would not have made such a fuss) we had a lovely time, although grey-glaucous sky like phlegm hung over us for the duration, and the waters of the Yangtse were a ghastly glabrous green.. We passed hideous vertiginous cities, sprouting high-rises which clung to the steep slopes. Belching chimney stacks wafted thick smoke over the river. Improbably, heavily- laden orange trees and bananas flourished here too. We stop at Ghost City. An empty place. The river will have risen a staggering 175 metres when the filling behind the dam is complete. There are only 3 metres to go! Hundreds of thousands of people have been rehoused in other provinces, while remaining communities creep further up the mountainsides. At Ghost City you see roads and lines of lampposts disappearing into the water, and muse on these massive displacements of populations, which seem to characterise our times.

The folk on the boat, apart from half a dozen of us Europeans, are all Chinese. And mostly men in large groups, returning from training trips. We befriend a few.
'John', who works for the Government speaks bizarrely excellent English, although he has not practiced for five years and has never been to Engand and on his wage is unlikely to for 30 years, and is our articulate guide to contemporary Chinese reality, for which we are very grateful. He is charming, and once he has the linguistic bit between his teeth is unstoppable.
The Gorges were great , and the Dam itself stupendous.

We are now apparently in Wuhan. I have just had to ask David, as with all these displacements over huge expanses of terrain, I had lost the plot. I'm not sure where we are going to next , but there is a train to catch in the afternoon, and mosquitoes are in evidence and it can't be long till we start on our anti-malarials. The joys of travel!

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

ps bliss on the battlements

Bliss indeed to walk the eight miles of city wall, high up above the streets, at one remove from the clamour and bustle below. I could stay up there forever....... but there's a train to catch!

terracotta tourism

Xi'an may be the start of that fabled, most alluring -sounding of all routes, the Silk Road, but on a wet misty morning you could well be in Birmingham. (Apologies to my Brummie readers). Our first day here we all have traveller's fatigue. David wants to be back in Sugar Loaf Walk, warming his slippers; I want to be in my garden at Primrose Hill, admiring the autumn colours of all the Acers I planted in the spring and am entirely missing; Joanna nibbles at things all day long.

This is a metropolis of 5 million, and renowned for its textiles. It is a dowdier sister to Beijing, where everything sparkled and gleamed. Here they glister. The Chinese love shopping and the shops remain open long after my bedtime. All the great European Queens are here: Yves St.Laurent, Versace, Louis Vuitton, Ermenegildo Zegna and the newest of them all on the block Alexander McQ...... You can just imagine the whoops of joy on the Champs Elysees and the coffee haunts of Milano, not to mention the Stock Exchanges, when the trade barriers came crashing down. The Chinese learnt in less than 20 years to replace their blue suits with haute couture.

For over a millenium Xi'an was China's capital. We visited the Big Goose pagoda which once stored Buddhist scriptures brought back here here in the C7th from India by a monk Xuanzang, who travelled for 17 years in the sub-continent collecting sutras, and then spent the rest of his life at the Big Goose translating them into Chinese; he was thus responsible for re-introducing Buddhism to China after it had been banned by some mad emperor. Buddhism here never looked back after that.
The next day the sun returned, and with it our 'esprit de touriste'. We book on to a tourist bus (our first) for the day, and in the company of Columbians, two pretty Marseillaises, a Los Angelino and a Chinese-Australian exploring his roots, we set off for the suburbs where we visit first an ancient Neolithic settlement, to whet our appetite for things to come. Then a Disney-esque re-creation of what the mad emperor's (another one) tomb might have looked like. Great fun. Then a vast studio churning out replicas of all manner of thing, from pottery to furniture. Then a vast lunch in a vaster (obviously) dining hall. And then, only then..... do we enter the precincts of the Terracotta Warriors. In the 30 years since the first clay head was uncovered by a farmer digging a well, the site has grown to mammoth proportions and is probably China's prime tourist destination. In spite of this it is absolutely marvellous!
You enter first a vast hangar, which could house several Concordes (remember those? sleek glamorous beasts that flew at vast expense between London and New York - now as dead as a dodo, and entombed in Aerospace museums up and down the M1). And there is a stupendous sight - rows and rows of soldiers and horses, some bathed in sunlight from the glass roof. It does not disappoint. And then two more vast hangars with thousands more of the same. What megalomania created all this? The actual Emperors tomb has not yet been excavated. He had his catafalque, reputedly, placed in a great lake of mercury, to deter visitors. Traces of mercury have been discovered; health and safety panic......!

Last night I walked down a boulevard of petshops - goldfish in vast shoals, a small pig out on the pavement in a cage hardly bigger than its body, all manner of pooch.... and budgerigars in the greatest abundance outside the antipodes. In another Proustian moment I recall Bobbie the blue feathered companion of my childhood. One day when I was at school he dropped off his perch, dead . In a panic to protect me from the truth of impermanence, my mother consulted a neighbour and together they performed a clandestine funeral in the neighbour's garden. When I learnt this I was furious, deprived of due obsequies for my mate. At the time I was incapable of expressing fury. It stayed stored up and festering, being added to over the years, until perhaps 40 years later it erupted in my mother's kitchen in St.John's Wood in a very messy moment of things being thrown around - eggs, flour, china, nothing was spared in an attempt to make my mother HEAR me. It was a terrifying moment for both of us. A very dodgy few months ensued, where sometimes I could not stay in my mother's presence for more than 5 minutes without having to leave, for fear of repeating the brouhaha. A great deal of therapy smoothed out our relations, eventually. But I'm still not sure if she ever really heard me.

Last night too, as for the previous couple of evenings, I stood outside the China Construction Bank, watching the dancers cavort on the pavement with fans and parasols like Geisha girls (whoops, wrong country!), and that was just the men! Who are they, these ordinary folk, whom you see everywhere, practicing their Beijing opera arias, scraping away at strange instruments, blowing on their hurdy-gurdies? Were these after-hours bank employees letting their hair down after a day at the tills? Or a group which chose the venue for its acoustics, a vast wall of plate-glass, reflecting the cacophony and high spirits out onto the boulevard? The music rises to a tremendous climax of kettle drums and cymbals, which sets off several car alarms; a hallucinatory hubbub, Dervish-like. And then its over. No applause, although a big crowd has gathered, and clearly appreciated the event. A lot of smiles, and shaking of hands, and people slope off into the evening, satisfied. Me too.

This evening we set off on another night train to Chong Qing, south of here, where we embark tomorrow for a three day trip down the Yangste, to visit the Three Gorges. I'm putting my sea legs I'm off round the city walls, 12 kilometres of them!

Friday, 14 November 2008

footsore and fancyfree

This is our last night in Beijing. We spent it at the Chinese Theatre watching some very inscrutable goings-on, interspersed with wild acrobatics and spectacular high jinks. It was great fun, although I kept dozing off during the quiet bits only to be woken judderingly by falsetto shrieks, and flame-throwing.
I'd spent the whole afternoon walking round the Olympic site, I who have had no interest in sport since David Beckham left England, and little before that. It was magnificent.

I'm afraid I can only come up with superlatives to describe this city. It has blown me away, and that is just the fabric of the place. The people are something else. If the Russians were unexpectedly friendly, and the Mongolians friendlier, the Chinese have been friendliest. And that still surprises me. Where is the fabled inscrutability? Where is the dour dress, and drab uniformity? This place sparkles.

Although I've had the Internet in my room at the Bamboo Garden I've hardly been at home to use it, wandering as I have. Perhaps things will quieten down in the provinces. We leave tomorrow on the night train to Xi'an, which is south-west of here.

ps for Erin and Sam: I can't get into my email tonight - another gremlin perhaps, so here's a public message. I wish you both well on your journey, and will follow your blog attentively. Thanks very much for your comments on mine. If you are still in Beijing and looking for English books, go to Wangfujing Dajie just a couple of big blocks east of the Forbidden City. There are two huge bookshops there, and one is called Foreign Books Store just down from Dong'anmen Night Market (which is worth a visit anyway, even if your stomach heaves at the sight of what they sell there). The other is huger, and magnificent, and further south on the East side of the street. Happy reading and bon voyage!

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

as sick as a parrot

Last night just as I was putting finishing touches to a compendious account of our stay in Beijing thus far, it vanished into thin air! A gremlin? Perhaps someone from the 'Philatelic Society' wielding the stick. I went to bed as sick as a.........

( note to Oiuna: hello! in future I'm not going to alert you anymore to English idiom. Your English is very good, and if you don't understand what I'm writing about the chances are I am using idiom; if you have a butcher's {this is in Cockney rhyming slang which is different from idiom, and means 'to have a look', as it rhymes with ' butcher's hook' etc. etc. etc.......who said English is easy?} in your new Oxford English-Mongolian dictionary you may find it explained; if not just email me; lots of love to you and Elisa!)

So just some vignettes; besides I can't, and won't even try to, do verbal justice to this magnificent megalopolis.

Even after several days here it still seems strange to see dogs. I don't mean the feral canines that have dogged our steps from Moscow to UB, either cowering against walls expecting the boot rather than caresses, or like the overbearing Mongolian hounds trying to make love to us as we peed in the snow and ice. I mean the boulevard dogs - the primped Pekinese, perky poodles, intolerable chihuahuas and spoilt pooches of all types, taking their owners for walks through park and down avenue, quite oblivious to travellers' tales of dogs being served up for dinner.

Today we walked sections of the Great Wall (what the Rough Guide calls 'that pointless product of state paranoia'), about 50 kilometers north of the city. We got there by bus and taxi and cable-car, and finally Shank's pony. Pointless or not, it was an eerie experience following it as it melted into the November mists.

Enough; time to turn in and hit the sack

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

flâneurs unite

Mussy, Mauricio and Claus! Many thanks for your encouragement! I went to bed as sick as a parrot, thinking I'd failed to convey the essence of the flâneur. I wake to your messages, and feel accompanied in the world!
There are many wonderful websites on the 'flâneur'. Here they are mostly blocked, which is very interesting. Innocent enough fellow the flâneur, you think, strolling around minding his (and possibly her) own business. But of course he is the archetypal loner, individual, spectator and commentator, and clearly seen as subversive. Enough. I don't want to push my luck, or push the boat out too far, and certainly not stick my head my head above the parapet (idioms for Oiuna) or you may not hear from me again. Mum's the word........I passed a very strange building on my walk yesterday. It claimed to be the Chinese Philatelic Society. It was VAST, filling a whole city block, faceless, and a guard stood outside...........

ps Baudelaire coined the term, and Walter Benjamin wrote extensively on shopping arcades and the flâneur. Benjamin, who is still read in art schools today, was a Berlin Jew who fled to France and in 1940 found himself at the little fishing village of Port Bou on the Mediterranean, just on the border with Spain. Thinking his papers to cross over to Spain and safety were not going to come, he committed suicide. His pass came the following day.

Monday, 10 November 2008

flâneur in beijing

Today I walked around the city, alone, for eight hours with scarcely a break. This solitary walking is a reflection of a deep need that goes back decades. There is a kind of opening to chance, to adventure. I feel myself in a lineage of 'flâneurs'. Edmund White writes beautifully about the 'flâneur' in his book, not coincidentally, on Paris. He describes him as someone in search of aesthetic and erotic delight.
The 'flâneur' was born in Paris in the late C19th. Baron Haussmann had torn down great swathes of Paris, to build wide boulevards (that troops could swiftly enter in case of popular insurrection) full of bourgeois apartment blocks and shopping arcades, and thus created the first recognisably modern city (I simplify!). Ancient neighbourhoods were broken up for ever.............I have decided its quite impossible to describe the 'flâneur'! If you are one, you may recognise yourself. Let me know.
I don't know if women can be 'flâneuses'. A woman in search of aesthetic and erotic delight might attract a different and less flattering epithet. A woman, besides, cannot slip as easily as a man, alone, through the interstices of city life. (Do prove me wrong, girls!) There have however been some great women photographers of the city, Berenice Abbott to mention but one, so I guess a woman behind a camera must count as a 'flâneur' - 'flâneuse' as a word is just too hideous, and perilously close to 'floozy'.

The baser elements of Eros, fortunately, play much less of a part in my life than hitherto. My interests and explorations on my solitary perambulations are largely aesthetic, but having now exhausted myself trying to explain the 'flâneur's' impulse, after a hard day's walking, I need to turn in, hit the sack. ( More idioms for you, Oiuna!)

ps re: format

If you are receiving this blog in standard email format you may like to try at directly, for the full Monty!

Sunday, 9 November 2008

put in our place by erin and sam

Our companions, from Wyoming, on the train between UB and Beijing, were Erin and Sam. Charmers though they were (hi guys!) they have seriously dented our amour propre. Our hitherto heroic (-seeming) crossing of a continent has been knocked into a corner, pipped to the post, dwarfed, cut down a peg (more idioms for you Iouna!) by their enterprise.
While we have Scrabbled, potnoodled, and gazed somnolently out of the carriage window at the passing scenery, they have been toiling through it on bicycles! They left Kazakhstan in August, and by circuitous routes aim to reach Prague by the early spring of 2010! Snookered! Buggered even.
Why are they on a train? It's apparently very troublesome crossing borders on bikes (officialdom can't cope with cyclists) and besides the Gobi is an inhospitable place at the best of times and in winter unpitying. Only a shaggy camel would survive. As it is we enjoy their company, share cakes and tales, and rejoice together in Obama's victory (they had tippled at the US Embassy in UB the night before).
The Gobi was uneventful, mostly flat with distant swells in the landscape, and quite awesome; I was glad to be watching it unfurl from behind glass. Eventually we passed into China, the military who checked our papers smiled and chatted a little in English to my great surprise, we followed sections of the Great Wall as we breakfasted, went through a series of monumental gorges to debouch into the plain of Beijing.
And here I am at the Bamboo Garden Hotel (Internet in every room) about to walk through the ornamental gardens full of gingko and fruiting persimmon, for a copious breakfast. Then perhaps the Forbidden City.


All day as I wandered around the Imperial Summer Gardens in autumn sunshine I thought about the events of 70 years ago tonight, when all over Germany hundreds of synagogues were torched and destroyed. It was a harbinger of things to come. I watched the news tonight. Plus ca change.

We delight at Obama's victory at the polls.

We are alive and well in Beijing, and are making plans to stay here longer as it is so marvellous!

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

bye bye 4 now 2 UB

Am brain dead. Have spent the afternoon helping Oiuna with her English idioms homework. After a while I felt like throwing in the towel, at the strangeness of it all. I could not keep my eye on the ball. One could become as mad as a hatter trying to explain things like catching the waiter's eye, let alone changing the goalposts and being boxed into a corner. And how about hitting the road, and being wet behind the ears? Is this what Alice felt like in Wonderland, when the familiar suddenly seems wondrous strange?

Tomorrow we leave for Beijing by the 8am train. 30 hours later we will be there. Back to the confines of our compartment, and to pot noodle.
I part reluctantly from this Internet Cafe, as I have become familiar with it, and can operate solo without help from strangers (although I will be glad to see the back of screeching teenagers).
I part sadly from Mongolia too. Its been great here, and I don't imagine I'll be passing this way again.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008


Przewalski's horse is a charming and intriguingly named sort of proto-horse, which once trotted in great abundance all over Mongolia. It became almost extinct, but with help from zoos all over the world it has been reintroduced into the wild with some success. Przewalski was aPole!

przewalski's horse

"The Ulanbaataar is establishing of the introduce by the named." But one of many charming captions at the City Museum. "The first story of the under the jurisdiction of the retail trade tryst's in the state of Ulanbaataar."
The Museum is housed in one of the city's last remaining wooden buildings, from 1907, and is a charmer. Where else will you find a full-length portrait of Brezhnev, in embroidery? And a porcelain plate depicting Leeds Town Hall, recalling some long-ago celebration by comrades? Marvellous old photographs of a city full of temples and gers, before the First War, and of a new city being built in the 20's and 30's with wide empty avenues. Proud ministries, and model factories. Opposite the museum is another wooden house, now crumbling, once the city's first Post Office, festooned with telegraph wires.
Last night David and I went up the Irish Pub for some male bonding. Joanna stayed at home nursing the aftermath of a migraine. We hope for Guiness but there is none left! I guess it's a long way from Dublin to UB. We make do with a pint of Chingghiss, in this very popular and noisy watering hole. Recently tempers have been a little frayed. Moods have swung. Hormones have played their part. Released from the confines of a railway carriage into the vastness of Mongolia, we have had to make plans, and this has sometimes been a little fraught. On the trains one falls into a strange trance-like state (at least I do - which probably accounts for the fact that I have not won a single round of Scrabble since St.Pancras), and the only decisions to be made are when to go to the toilet, get hot water from the samovar, and which pot noodle to open. The Chinggiss soothes, and the excellent french fries sustain, and harmony is restored. We watch English football, and then retire to our guesthouse when the very loud, homegrown, Goth band makes conversation impossible.
The night before, a glance at a souvenir plate from London up on the kitchen shelf, with its depictions of Big Ben and Buckingham Palace and other familiar places, induces a Proustian moment of recall, and we are soon discussing the Royal family. Tears are shed, in this corner of a foreign field, when we contemplate the Queen's demise. What a big moment that will be for the national psyche to cope with. And whither royalty after?
Prompted by this discussion I begin Alan Bennett's hilarious short story, (An Uncommon Reader) of the Queen, who after half a century of leafing through little more than Country Life, develops a passion for literature after a chance encounter with the City of Westminster's mobile library van in a backyard at the Palace. It is mercifully short (I have become hopelessly bogged down with "In Siberia", excellent as it is), and also very moving in its descriptions of love of literature. I could happily spend the rest of my life travelling and reading.
How can I wangle that one?
I go most days to the Cafe Amsterdam. It has a charming raised deck up above the pavement, and on a sunny winter's day one could be in St.Moritz. It serves Illy coffee. Illy were a Jewish family from Trieste. Ever since I read Jan Morris' account of Trieste, called something like 'Nowhere Place", I have wanted to go there - perhaps it will be my next trip. Once it was the Hapsburgs' great port on the Adriatic. Decades of confusion later, it found itself in a remote corner of a new Italy, quite irrelevant.
I once bumped into Jan Morris at the Wallace Collection. I was looking at my favourite Poussin Painting, A Dance to To The Music of Time, and heard a gentle voice beside me. A greyhaired lady in a cardigan was commenting on the same picture to her companion. Jan Morris! My hero/ine!
For those of you unfamiliar with Jan, one of our finest history and travel writers, she started life as James, fought valiantly as an officer in the Royal Navy during the war, and in the 60's went to Tangiers for a sex-change operation. In those days operations of this sort were not available on the National Health. She returned as Jan, and described her experience in "Conundrum". She continues to live with her wife Elisabeth, and writes beautifully.
With Alan Bennett, she is a national treasure.
A last caption from the City Museum: "The socialist attitude of the name's medalion".

Monday, 3 November 2008

more from UB

Testosterone departed, calm and decorum has been restored to the Internet cafe. The rowdy youngsters are back at school.
Yesterday we went skiing. My own efforts were rather feeble. While the others gambolled about on the slopes, I struggled with my unfamiliar cross-country skis that have untethered heels, and only ventured a few metres from base, uncomfortably.
The occasion was a visit with Oiuna, who has followed us to UB from Erdenet (she studies here) , to her sister's place 10 miles out of town. Sister and brother-in-law treat us to a gargantuan meal of mutton, cooked with superhot stones in an iron bucket in the garden. They used to be skating champions for Mongolia, and we looked amazed at old photographs from the 60's, of lithe streamlined bodies winning medals. Today they are more comfortably shaped, and marvellously hospitable in their dacha out of town.
UB and environs have been full of delights and surprises. We visited a mountain top Observatory where we gazed at the stars through a large telescope that is twinned with the one in Krakow! My own active interest in astronomy dates back to fifty years ago, when I wanted to be an astronaut. Since then I have not kept abreast of discoveries, and was surprised and bemused to be looking at 'black clouds' and supernovae. It was also bloody freezing in the observatory, with the roof wide open to skies. We were staying alone in the adjoining deserted hotel, which recalled 'The Shining" and the Bates' Motel in Psycho.
We travelled 50 miles out of town to see a gigantic steel statue of Genghis (pronounced Chingis, there being no hard 'g' in the language) Khan, 40 metres high on a rearing horse, and climbed to the top to survey his ancestral lands. His name is everywhere, and enshrines Mongolia's aspirations. Contrary to what I learnt at school he was a wise old bird, and was indeed voted Man of the Millenium by Time Magazine in 2000. I was intrigued to learn, from a museum caption, that his warriors wore silk underwear. "One would not normally consider underwear to be military equipment," it opined. Apparently silk has miraculous powers to resist penetration by arrows. A must therefore for your next forays to Hackney and Peckham.
We travelled by taxi through an amazing National Park that recalled the Dolomites, and seen superb dinosaur skeletons in the Museum. The Gobi desert, which we will cross in a few days, was once verdant pastureland, and is the world's prime source of preserved bones (together with California). Moving indeed to study those skeletons, not so different from our own, give or take the odd claw or 20 metre long tail. Familiar shapes from my human anatomy studies many years ago at medical school.
Stopping for lunch at a Czech restaurant we are assailed by the Pet Shop Boys, who transport me back a couple of decades to the unhappiest, and maddest, moments of my life. The Boys were the soundtrack to a doomed and crazy love affair, which opened up a Pandora's box of pain. Years of therapy, and meditation, and new friendships, shifted all that, but the tears I shed for that distant time, and for the main protagonist, now dead, are hot.
China begins to loom large in our thoughts. We travel there in a few days. We move from a friendly population of 2.8 million to one of 1.3 BILLION. How are we to cope? Are they all as unfriendly as Mongolians say?
Love to all.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

teenager mayhem

I am surrounded by screaming youngsters playing noisy computer games, so not conducive to blogging.
We are all very well however, and in UB for another 5 days.
Lucy, thanks for your postcode, but what is the rest of your address ?- I want to send you a postcard!
Off to Cafe Amsterdam for a cappuccino! love to all, and thanks for your emails - they are still not arriving in floods, but are very welcome, however brief!