Having promised Jo and John that we would visit them this year, we bought two round the world tickets and stopped off at Los Angeles on the way and China (Suse was lucky with the timing and managed to catch a tai chi training trip) and India (John refused to go to China because of the country’s poor track record in so many areas) so booked a walking holiday in northern India) on the way back.
We were worried about the temperatures so made sure that Los Angeles would not be too hot for us. 30 degrees seemed ok so we planned to book a campervan and tour the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Painted Desert and Las Vegas, as per the campervan hire leaflet. We were rather surprised to discover that the campervan would not have any water in in case it froze. Our first lesson – they work in fahrenheit in the U.S. of A! So plan B came into being and we booked a car and motels, using vouchers from the free magazines.
The planned trip which we had read about obviously didn’t involve getting out for a walk at any point so it was quickly shelved. We went to Palm Springs to see the immense wind farm and the place which gave its name to the typeface we used for many years printing the magazines. From there we went to Joshua Tree National Park and fell in love with deserts. Route 66 took us to the Grand Canyon which was everything we had hoped.
Words can not describe the constantly changing views in the sun and snow and we were lucky to be there off season. We went round the east end of the canyon and headed north through more deserts and Indian reservations to Las Vegas, where we booked a night to see Love, with Cirque du Soleil. It was a fantastic show and well worth the urban detour. On our last day in Los Angeles we booked a tour round the major places that you’d expect – Venice Beach, Chinese Theatre, Holywood sign, Farmer’s Market (saw John Malkovitch!) Beverley Hills and Sunset Strip. We decided that we would like to go back to the Grand Canyon when it isn’t so icy and walk through it.
Jo and John met us at Melbourne after a reasonable 14 hour flight, thanks to the travel scrabble, crossword and killer sudoku books. That night we went to the equivalent of the League Cup final which Melbourne Victory won. (I think that’s good!) Then it was a quick tour of Melbourne and a visit to my cousin Marion and Michael before we headed off to Tasmania.
An old hill running friend had moved there several years ago and we stayed with him and got some tips for places to visit as well as crewing for them in a Wednesday evening yacht race. Tasmania was lovely in many ways and on a manageable scale after the sprawl of Melbourne. Our trip was beginning to look like a tour of World Heritage Sights with Cradle Mountain the probable highlight. Unfortunately we hit bad weather there and didn’t quite make the top.
We experienced some pretty extreme weather in Victoria too – an earthquake (originally thought to have been Elliott the cat jumping off the table), the bush fires which were still burning but past their worst and high winds which closed some of the parks we passed through on the Great Ocean Road. A hurricane was also threatening to wipe out parts of Queensland (Fraser Island) which we hoped to see. Before heading north with Jo we fitted in another visit to my cousin and my aunt who had returned from visiting my other cousin in Adelaide.
Jo had booked 2 weeks leave and had pretty well got the trip organised. We flew to Cairns and drove up to Cape Tribulation where the rain forest meets the sea. The humidity wasn’t unbearable and I was fascinated by the fruits that could be grown. Back in Cairns we went snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef. It was our first time doing anything like this and once we got the hang of it, it was just amazing.
We then flew south to Brisbane and went on a 2 day trip to Fraser Island which is made entirely of sand. Still more world heritage sights! On the way, John had lost his wallet so he was rather preoccupied about how this would all pan out with a passport and Indian visa in there as well. We needn’t have worried. He had left it on a wall in Maroochidore and it had been found by someone from the bowling club who had handed it in to the police. We bought a bottle of malt as a thank you but the finder refused to accept it or even let it be put behind the bar, or raffled. Meanwhile when the lady at the campsite/motel heard about our plight she invited us to stay at their bungalow near the Glass House Mountains. Aren’t people just so kind? After a visit to the Mountains and to Australia Zoo, we returned to Brisbane for 3 days before all going our separate ways.
It had been a busy but very enjoyable visit, and wonderful to see Jo and John in what is now their own environment. But more adventures were to come!
I was immediately overwhelmed by being unable to read or speak the language. With a note of the hotel in chinese script and the English translation (Fraternity Hotel, Sun Palace Park Road) but nothing in pinyin, which is the phonetic pronounciation of the chinese, I couldn’t ask anyone where to go and they couldn’t understand the English. It was a problem that arose quite often! I then had 2 days before the rest of the group arrived and did it all on foot, except when I got lost on the way to the Lama Temple and asked a teenage girl for help. She took my arm and pulled me along to a tube station, pulled me on the tube and pushed me out at the right station, waving goodbye as the doors closed!
Opposite the hotel there was a park and I went there to practice tai chi in the mornings before breakfast. It was full of other people doing tai chi, qi kong and all sorts of exercises, including ballroom dancing. Once the others arrived we got down to serious training with Professor Li of the Deyin Institute in Beijing. We also had time off to visit various places, the Great Wall, jade factory, silk factory Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.
We then flew south to Wudan Mountain (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon country) and made a pilgrimage up the mountain but I didn’t learn to fly through the trees, despite some more training with one of the monks. From there we went to Deng Feng and Shaolin and trained with one of the oldest martial arts schools, before seeing the show that night, dressed in hired ex-army great coats. It took place out of doors over more than a kilometre of the mountain and included flying sword fights and some remarkable choreography and music. I bought myself a sword there, hoping that some of the magic would rub off! Then it was a very long train journey back to Beijing and a trip to the Beijing Opera, organised by one of the group whose friend is the only westerner to perform in Beijing Opera and now directs it. There was one more day for shopping and sightseeing on our own. It was a fabulous, unforgettable trip.
John meanwhile had not fared so well. To start with, his plane was delayed in Brisbane which meant that he would miss his connection in Singapore. As it is all one ticket, they delayed the plane for him and two other travellers but he arrived in Delhi in the middle of the night. He had booked with Village Ways, an organisation which takes you to remote villages for walking and accommodation, thus providing employment where it is needed. They were very good about the revised arrangements and he was met at the airport and taken to his hotel for a rest before an abbreviated tour of Delhi. He wasn’t impressed! The train journey to Kathgodam was also not straightforward but he eventually made contact and began his walks. It soon became clear that there was a mis-match between John’s idea of an “all day walk” and what the guides had found suitable for most of the other walkers in the past. The food was vegetarian, there was no alcohol and although eventually, this was ok, lemon tea can take the place of Deuchars for so long! However, with so much “down time” in prime walking terrain, it was only a matter of time before the guides were dumped and he went off on his own which was infinitely more enjoyable. The scenery was magnificent, the walking trails more than adequate because they are the only links between villages and the weather very kind. John did meet other people doing similar things some of whom were also disappointed with the lack of walking but there were also others who found the walking more than they could comfortably manage, especially if they were incapacitated with stomach upsets – fortunately John missed out on the Delhi belly syndrome and stayed healthy. His impressions of India remain pretty extreme, the poverty in the countryside may allow some of those people who chose to remain to get by without a total loss of dignity. In the larger towns and cities, however, this by and large, doesn’t seem to be the case. Throwing rubbish out of your back door wherever you live seems to be the norm. Occasionally burning it in the streets seemed to be an alternative but mainly it just lies around giving the dog packs somewhere to forage. He doesn’t think he’ll be back!
The flights back to London went ok and we met as planned in Heathrow to make the final leg back to Edinburgh together. It felt kind of weird being back in a country where you could read the signs and understand the chatter around you and it took several days to get used to it again.
Altogether, we had a wonderful trip and although it is hard to justify on environmental grounds we felt it was valuable culturally!