lean back, crane, gape.
15 mi, up up up
unaffected visages, strings of browned beads
swirling orange fabric
hewn in rock
before the sun rose on this time.
did those monks know, care, we’d come –
build catwalks and stairwells and handrails
windhowl through wire mesh –
for glimpses into dark caves, where
some painted faces waited.
you can see them hanging
robes dangling, swaying feet inside
carving an eyeball, a simper, a hand aloft
up this cliffside
flying apsaras of mogao
circling around sakyamuni
with music, dune-curved dances
scarves floating round their waists
never touching fairy skin-to-silk,
a lotus flower, legs crossed, sublime.
i get lost in the language
like sand, smooth,
as if water were
cast in time.
the sun crests hot
and dry through dust and smoke from
then fades into a watercolour of peach, brown
now an azure empyrean heaven
sand mountains outlines of where we can’t go
the taklamakan wilds, the qilian shan feeding
dry riverbeds here
with bursts of mudgush come spring.
red lanterns, orange LEDs on a hotel to the west
reminders of this life
and those that came before.
eating abroad is hard, no matter where you are or who you are. it’s hardest when you’re travelling solo. no manner of language skills can ease the agony of looking into the windows of a restaurant you know you should go into and thinking, dear god help me. what will i order and will they serve it? what if everyone looks at me when i come in by myself? what if they don’t have “it”, whatever it is that i am agonisingly not sure i’m going to order? what if, worst case scenario, i am for some reason turned away and everyone laughs at me as i leave? or i sit down and try to order whatever it is that i am agonisingly not sure i’m going to order and the server says “what? what is that? we don’t have that? you are a fucking joke!”
i love eating. eating is one of my favourite things about travel. food glorious food in all its forms is something i take great pleasure in, and i think that food is probably the best way to understand another culture. and yet i still have these feelings almost daily when i am on the road somewhere. a friend of mine at work often regales us with his tales of being terrible at choosing a restaurant or food when travelling – and ending up walking for miles before finally stuffing some sort of awful junk/fast food into his mouth and skulking away in shame. i consider myself to be a ‘foodie’ although i hate that word and all of its connotations, but this is still my experience, too.
asia has the reputation of being a great place to eat, and as a continent it really is. but you have to know your way around. and even then things don’t always go well. it depends largely on the place you’re in and the culture of that place.
which brings me to my point. beijing is a tough place to eat. don’t get me wrong, there are bags of good food here. you can have almost anything you want, from perfectly crispy peking duck (local specialty) to simmering thai food, hand-pulled noodles from western china, pizza or, these days, a kimchi burger. that doesn’t mean it’s an easy place to fill your stomach.
first of all, beijing is giant. it is like an american city times a thousand: perfectly straight, giant five-lane highways, i mean roads, criss-cross the city in arrow-straight lines. the roads are giant, as are the distances between subway stations, and there are a lot of subway stations in beijing now. so getting anywhere is your first issue, particularly if you don’t live locally and have a scooter like most people here. you get off at a subway station and might still be walking for 20 minutes to reach your destination.
which brings me to my next point: you need to have a destination. there might’ve been a time, hundreds of years ago, when beijing was a town of neighbourhoods, but now it’s just giant block after giant block of giant glass buildings, hidden underground malls and under-junction stairway tunnels. it sounds awful, and it can be if you don’t have a plan.
there is no way to have a bit of a wander in beijing. to let the city take you where it wants you to go. i am a big fan of this – flaneuring, to give it its french name – and it works so well in the old cities of europe and even north america. please, friends, do not try this in beijing. you will end up walking 3-5 miles with the unintended consequence of low-blood-sugar rage, disorientation and carbon monoxide lightheadedness.
the best way to eat in beijing is to make a plan. do your research. define your target (a recommended restaurant, even a hole-in-the-wall) and make a break for it. do not pass go, do not collect two hundred yuan. and do not try to ‘wing it’.
this weekend, i have been enjoying a few days in ireland’s west with an old friend over visiting from boston. in addition to trying (perhaps unsuccessfully) to recreate the types of travel adventures i got into on my very first forays abroad to ireland in my early twenties, we did get down to the business of seeing some real stuff. driving a portion of the newly-dubbed wild atlantic way was a particular highlight. this series of connected small roads dips up and down through the irish landscape, which goes from craggy and ethereal in the western reaches of connemara, to soft and ancient further south into county clare. in theory, the aim of our drive was the stoic cliffs of moher – a must on any itinerary to this part of the world – though sadly the irish weather being what it is, the cliffs were completely shrouded in a fog blown up onto the crown of hag’s head by a wind that several times threatened to steal my woolly cap away into the crashing, foamy atlantic.
in fact, the rough weather gave the drive a spiritual quality that encouraged old friends to dig deep in memories and erstwhile conversations whilst the rain not so much pounded but rather gently tousled our little hire car.
i am admittedly a sucker for connemara. i love its rough rocky edges where corners give way to rounded bulbous mountains blanketed in purple gorse and ponies with long manes look away at you as if waiting for the next round of uninvited visitors to pass through.
but county clare has charms that may be even more difficult to pin down. sure, it is home to some of ireland’s most famous landscapes, including the aforementioned cliffs of moher, as well as the faeryland-like burren, a karst rockscape broken up by streaming grikes that fill up like rivers with all manner of strange herbs and flowers come summer.
the coast along clare is sometimes oddly low, given that it rises into a 120-metre pinnacle at hag’s head. you feel like the land just sort of…stops…and the sea begins, sometimes after a small beach of rocks or grass tufts covering bits of sand and seaweed. in my imagination, the world starts and ends here.
this morning, a wistful farewell for two old friends, and then i’m on the road solo in pat (the moniker we’ve given the shitty little white skoda i’ve hired). today is sunny, the sort of elusive cold, bright, clear day that only presents itself once in a very long while during an irish winter. there’s no wind; i make perfect time down the n18, and then the m18. few cars are about, and i find myself closer to shannon airport than i want to be for so early in the day.
a small brown sign beckons me to knappogue castle (don’t even ask me how to pronounce that, i’ve no idea), and so i find myself navigating a tiny laneway buttressed by giant damp hedges and the odd thatch cottage. i’m aiming for knappogue, but a few kilometres find me in the village of quin, a one-street affair with side-by-side pubs – the abbey tavern and the monks well – both named for the imposing quin abbey, which juts into my lefthand view as pat and i coast through the village.
the abbey is striking – perhaps moreso today than usually, as its pointy roofends and tall crumbling bell tower make a stark grey punctuation mark on the the blue sky and patch of soggy emerald in the middle of town.
i’m the only person at quin abbey, apart from an older gentleman i pass leaving with his dog on my way down the path to the gate. normally the abbey is open, but as it’s monday morning in mid-february, there are no visitors. quin abbey was a franciscan friary founded in the early 15th century by the macnamara family (the most powerful clan in this part of ireland at that time) on the site of an earlier anglo-norman fortress. parts of an accompanying church, apparently built a bit earlier around 1350, are located a little ways up the path.
all of the macnamara chieftans are buried here, including the last of them, john ‘fireball’ macnamara, a notorious character who was as the stories go prone to duels and an excellent marksman and swordsman, with a pair of duelling pistols he named bas gan sagart, or ‘death without a priest’.
knappogue castle, it turned out, was closed for the season, and so i set off happily for the final few minutes’ drive to shannon airport and, now, a flight back to london. after an airport guinness (or several), of course.