High/Low

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So. We’ve been back now for nearly three weeks, strange as it seems to think about. The trip home took somewhere in the region of 36 hours, and involved perhaps three or four hours of light dozing. I won’t describe Dubai airport at five in the morning, local time, hiving with disoriented travellers from all over the world. If you’ve ever been in that place – sleepless, so dislocated that you no longer have any idea what your personal time is – you can imagine it.

We’ve done surprisingly well with jet-lag, all things considered. We arrived home around 1:30pm London time on Friday, after leaving our hotel at 2pm New Zealand time the previous day. Thankfully, Loz’s lovely parents, Sue and Pete, picked us up at Heathrow and drove us home. At 2:30pm, I decided to go to bed. “Oh, I’ll sleep for three hours, and then stay up until bedtime,” I thought. At 5:30pm, I turned off the alarm and didn’t wake up again until 4 the next morning. I saw 6am while drinking tea at my kitchen table for several days in a row, but it could have been much worse.

There are two questions that we’ve been asked repeatedly since we got back, and I’m going to write a post that covers each of them. One is, “So what were the best and worst parts?” The other is, “So, is everything, you know, different now?”

Question 2 might take a while to answer, but I think I can tackle Question 1 now.

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Loz’s answer might be different, but the best part of the trip for me was Nepal. I was answering this question for a friend over lunch a week or so ago, and while talking about the stomach ailments and the myriad effects of altitude, she cocked a sceptical eyebrow at me: “You’re not really selling this, you know,” she said. But I think the fact that this portion of the trip involved some physical hardship made it more of an achievement. Nepal was almost certainly the poorest and least developed place we were, and I don’t want to sentimentalise the “unspoiled” nature of a place where the capital city is overcrowded and polluted and the power cuts out nightly. But the Himalayas are beautiful beyond description, and travelling through the villages and valleys exposes you to a friendly and largely peaceful life. The Annapurna circuit is a long and demanding trek, and being with the same group throughout builds a companionship and sense of achievement; our guides also helped us to learn a little Nepali and a great deal about the economy, culture and lives of the people we met, from Tibetan refugees selling handmade jewellery to teahouse owners. The challenges of our two weeks in India directly afterwards threw some of the contrasts into sharp relief; we travelled in far more physical comfort in India, but the hassles and pressure we experienced, and the effect of being insulated from the day-to-day life of the cities, were much harder to deal with. I was happier between the flimsy, chilly plywood walls of remote Nepali teahouses than in a five-star Delhi hotel.

Some of the other high points:

  • Standing on Brahma ghat in Pushkar, Rajasthan, for the “fire ceremony”. There is a spirituality to India that I can’t put into words; you breathe it like you breathe the smells and the colours. Pushkar is a beautiful town with less hassle and sensory overwhelm than a big Indian city, and that undoubtedly helped, but that’s not it either. I will never be able to explain quite what I felt when I was listening to the chanting and the bell ringing out across the lake, crushing petals between my fingers, and that’s fine with me. I don’t need to.
  • The New Zealand scenery. Watching the sun go down and the moon rise while sitting on a hill above Lake Wakatipu. The volcanic landscape of Tongariro. Floating down the underwater rivers of Waitamo in the faint unearthly light of a ceilingful of glow-worms.
  • Leaning out against the heeling of the racing yacht Cave Canem as we sailed out of Hong Kong harbour.
  • Watching zebrafish swim almost between my fingers at the Great Barrier Reef and thinking, “It’s a Monday afternoon”.
  • The people that we met on trains. Young, older, experienced travellers or newbies, generous, thoughtful, figuring it out as they went along.
  • Seal shows. I don’t know what it is about seals offering me a high-five that reduces me to an overawed and delighted five-year-old, but they do. This effect was enhanced at the Nerpinarium in Listvyanka by the impenetrable quality of the Russian narration, but I defy anyone to watch one seal romance another with a bouquet of roses and not cry tears of pure joy.
  • Cat Ba island, Vietnam. Kayaking around and between the karsts, jumping off the roof of a houseboat, eating simple fresh food at the village restaurant, and riding a motorbike through the fields to the harbour with the wind streaming through my hair.
  • Getting overcome with giggles in a Beijing hotpot restaurant, looking at the plates and plates of unidentifiable foodstuffs we’d been brought and clinking beer bottles. Finding ways to surf the bizarreness of Beijing and coming out feeling exhilarated.
  • Seeing in age 30 with a dawn flight around the jagged summit pyramid of Everest.

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There were lows too, of course.

  • The cheap, uncomfortable, sleepless red-eye flight from Delhi to Hong Kong on India Air.
  • The staring in India. I think I could have handled the noise, the traffic, and even the heat more easily if it had not been for the incessant staring by men. It wears away your fortitude somehow.
  • The costs of Australia and New Zealand made me wince. A beer tended to run you around £5, and the current exchange rate doesn’t help.
  • Emerging out of Beijing Central station into a storm of people and smog.
  • Sleeplessness: in Saigon, Cairns, Nelson, Irkutsk, Kuala Lumpur. Noise, humidity, and cockroaches.
  • The endless, sweltering Russia to Mongolia border crossing: almost eight hours in place. Boredom, hunger, mosquito bites and immigration shakedowns.
  • In a way, I hesitate to describe this as a low, but: Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I’ve never been anywhere where I was confronted with the consequences of cruelty and misuse of power in quite the same way, and I don’t want to forget.

If I had to pick one moment, though, I can, without difficulty, and it was the “high point” of the trip in more ways than one. At Thorong Phedi, 4500m above sea level, casually looking upwards as I emerged into the freezing darkness of 3:30am, and staggering backwards under the weight of a thousand jagged glittering stars.

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