3am, mount everest.

i wondered how the stars would be. belle and sebastian have been in my head for days. days of climbing, slowly. first gyantse, 4000 metres. shigatse after, where crimson-robed monks wander in and out of dusty shops selling saran-wrapped golden buddhas and rolls of prayer flags in primary colours. then shegar – a pitstop on the way to the top of the planet.

by 3am, the stove inside the base camp yak-hair tent has gone out. it’s a two-room tent; me, my guide, driver and one random chinese guy who says he works in the military are sleeping on beds along the edges. the tibetan family who run the tent are asleep in the next room. the stove’s in the middle, where we huddled last night before bed, drinking hot water out of giant thermoses and trying, basically, to breathe.

these days, i feel like i am always in search of the stars. even bright arcturus – one of the few visible under london’s blanket of light haze – is a comfort when it pops through the clouds. but a deep yearning to be utterly overwhelmed by the starmap overhead seems constant.

the stove has gone out and i am wrapped in three thick blankets, on a couch-style banquette layered with tibetan carpets. i can’t breathe or sleep very well. the bathroom is a grim proposition (everest’s toilets have a deserved reputation of being the worst in tibet, maybe on earth) and it’s easily -5C outside, maybe -10. i uncoil the blankets from my appendages and stick a hand into the cold in search of my head torch and flick it to a gentle red glow.

feet into frozen boots, barely tied, and then i unlatch the tent door and step out into the frigid air.

just dressing and standing up at this altitude – 5200 meters or 17,060 if you measure in shoes – is difficult. muscles ache from the cold and the lack of oxygen, lungs struggle to keep blood flowing. there is a constant gentle dizzy and every single step has to be taken at a careful pace.

the moon is out, a half slice that at this altitude is bright like a fluorescent lantern. qomolangma sits a perfect white triangle at the top of a narrow, glacially-carved valley filled with boulders and rock scree. the moon has illuminated its north face so that it stands like a sentinel above base camp. between the glow off the mountain and the starshine, i don’t need my headlamp.

i wondered if this sky would beat kyrgyzstan’s epic remote stargazing session last year. it’s different, not comparable. there are fewer stars here, partly because of the moon, but the chilly glow of the mountain overseen by the big dipper and a million friends is tough to top. even with the stinky toilets.

it’s been a rollercoaster ride. but the trouble won’t keep me inside.

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poem from a high hard sleeper

 

swirls of red dust
grey mountain line
non-descript
and, above,
some black clouds threaten.

an engineering marvel
they always say
utility poles, wires, disrupt dirt
and thousands of li
of green fence.

two ladies in the berth opposite
watching loud chinese soaps
on a mobile
while i drink an imported IPA
bought in xining.

more flat miles pass
trundling ever upward
but this does not feel

(unfinished)

IMG_3160

guanyin and longshan temple

taipei. humid. a final day, and with no plans, where to go and what to do? it’s an easy choice. the city (and the island for that matter) is stocked with temples: buddhist, taoist, a mix of folk traditions. big colourful, scary-looking gods guarding doorways. and goddesses, lingering in shadowy halls. like guanyin.

guanyin is the bodhisattva of compassion. sometimes male, most times female. always gazing off with a wry simper, like she knows how it all turns out, and it’s fine, and your worries are ill-advised. guanyin is one of the most popular and beloved deities in the chinese pantheon.

it’s humid and even by 10am in early march, i am that sort of uncomfortable-warm in unmentionable places and relish every moment of metro air conditioning on the three-stop ride from my capsule hotel to longshan temple.

for reasons i still can’t really explain, i started really reading about guanyin last year, at the outset of what turned out to be the most difficult year of my life.

but i’ve encountered her numerous times before. first on putuoshan, an island off of shanghai dedicated to guanyin. there’s a 100-foot-tall golden statue of her gazing out to the east china sea here, and at the age of 24, seeing this had no effect on me, or so i thought. that trip, i was concerned about visceral things: winds that blew up and stopped the ferry crossings, so how would we get home (via a slow night ferry it turned out). but guanyin stuck, and looking back over myriad years visiting chinese temples, i am now sure she got in, somewhere, sometime.

a small park fronts longshan temple, and it is full of retirees playing chess, doing taichi and sitting around gossiping. there are signs everywhere bidding you not to smoke, and because this is taiwan, no one smokes.

the temple is heaving. i step over a raised wooden slat through the threshold. a group of domestic visitors pushes up to a window to buy bundles of incense sticks, candles and bags of oranges and bundles of steamed zongzi rice dumplings to use as offerings.

the crowds are mainly taiwanese tourists, but they take temple-going seriously, lighting sticks of incense and starting at the bottom of the temple, moving clockwise, visiting each deity in a circumambulation.

i keep to the back. this isn’t a new drill to me, but i remain uncomfortable: maybe i am too foreign, too white, too uninitiated, too unlearned, too sweaty…to partake. i shouldn’t be here. i didn’t buy the incense or the oranges as offerings, i shouldn’t be here.

my heart says i should be here. i am not religious anymore, i keep telling myself. and why do i feel things in a buddhist temple that i cannot explain. put these thoughts away. move to the next deity. not sure what this one is either, and too embarrassed to try bowing or praying or whatever anyone else is doing with such ease of rote.

i go all the way around, pausing at each deity but nothing else. at the far northwest corner, students are making offerings to the god of literature – exam period is coming up and the statue of wenchang dijun with his long flowing beard is one of the few i can easily guess.

the whole east side of the temple seems to be taken up by windows where small queues have formed of people looking for guidance from fortune tellers, operating kind of like bank tellers. line up, pay your price, get some guidance. it is tempting.

but i have to get to guanyin.

it’s a tiny climb up a short set of wooden stairs painted dark red, and then you stand in front of the central hall of the temple. inside, behind a low wooden fence, is a tall seated statue of guanyin with her usual unaffected countenance – not really surveying the crowds lined up. they are bowing, waving incense up and down, and candles, and trying to say thank you to her or offer some word or prayer to her.

i am with them, and i still feel like a fraud, but whatever happens when you feel something spiritual that you can’t explain happens, and then tears run hot down my cheeks through closed eyes.

a lot of taipei, and taiwan in general, hearkens to its founding when hakka immigrants from fujian province in mainland china came to taiwan, and they brought religion with them, starting temples all over the island. longshan was one of them, founded in 1738, and it has been rebuilt a few times, surviving wars and earthquakes and typhoons and still remains a centrepiece of the capital’s religious (and touristic) life.

i stand here talking to guanyin, or to myself, for a short number of minutes. there are tears, and there are also beads of sweat inching down my spine. the year floods over me in a wave of emotion, but i don’t feel alone in this crowd. everyone loves guanyin. we are here together, we are all experiencing compassion somehow.

the tears burn less hot, then stop. against my sense of self-consciousness, i make a short bow, then move off into the crowd, darting between couples and groups of families, back out into the taipei heat. back out into the world.

a russian train, and peter the great

Around Moscow, the country rolls gently up from the rivers winding in silvery loops across the pleasant landscape. Small lakes and patches of woods are sprinkled among the meadowlands. Here and there, a village appears, topped by the onion dome of its church.

Peter the Great: His Life and World, Robert K. Massie

midafternoon, and the nevsky express is trundling through the countryside somewhere outside of saint petersburg. everything i’ve read about the bleak landscape of russia in winter is true: it is a great, flat expanse covered in snowy crust and blanketed by thick pines. sometimes this is broken up by a town of wet-stained grey houses painted over in anaemic shades of pink and blue.

though it’s barely past 2pm, the light wanes. a meek sun tries to push through menacing white snowclouds. the hour becomes pink; we cross a frozen river. it feels right being carried across this coldscape to close a year that, for me, has been fuelled by grief and heartbreak.

where do we get our desire to travel, and how do we decide to go where we go? cheap flights make things easier than they were generations ago, but that deep-seated wanderlust seems hard-wired into me in a way i’ve never fully been able to explain.

and the mystery of how we choose where we go. do the destinations, in fact, pick us at the times we are ready? i’ve wanted to go to russia since i was 22 and read robert k. massie’s peter the great. this led me to a temporary college major in russian history, quickly abandoned once i tried actually learning russian and took a moment to consider where a career in this arcane subject might take me. in fact, it probably would have been more useful than i thought back then.

why, then, after all these years, am i only here now?

i read peter the great and fell deeply in love with the early 18th century world i imagined peter the first lived in. a man larger than life (quite literally for he was 7ft tall!), an outsider to the murmuring, bearded world of old muscovy, it was peter’s inquisitive mind and search for things beyond where he lived that put him down in history books as an enduring world leader and the man who single-handedly built backward russia into an empire.

some might say peter was a visionary. to me, he merely followed his heart to the places it took him: lake pleschev outside moscow, where he first encountered a boat and learned to sail it. the city’s german suburb where he made his greatest friends from all over the world. travels in europe. an excursion in england, living in deptford, not far from where i do, and learning the naval arts from great british shipbuilders along the thames. and eventually the frozen marshy gulf of finland, where he built his own perfect city hundreds of miles from the dark, old capital.

rereading massie’s book over these few days in russia has led me to question what exactly it was about peter that captured my imagination, for he was also a deeply flawed man, prone to bouts of anger and overindulgence that led him to an early grave at the age of 52.

it seems to me peter lived with reckless abandon, an underrated quality and one we are taught will lead to our own destruction. for peter, it helped him build an empire and, it seems like, have fun while doing it. and so maybe it is possible to live our wildest, most improbable dreams, find our craziest moments of bliss and still be someone great and build something enduring, too.

the nevsky express slows upon entering an eerie patch of frozen fog. a dead forest of tree stumps closes in on the tracks from every side. the world goes charcoal-grey and suddenly the train compartment’s lights offer a warmth of contrast to all that, out there. another frozen river carves a snaking path of black ice below, and then there’s a small village of shanty wooden huts, roofs sagging. more fog, more pines, more snow.

and somewhere ahead, the steaming lights of old muscovy.

poem from the train to bukhara

dusty, dry, golden
the fan mountains silhouette
a line of white chevys,
blue soviet trucks

a level crossing
then dushanbe, and
afghanistan after.

vestiges of trade routes that criss-crossed
this land like vines
creeping up trellises, along shanty
warehouses, next to a
dwindling river
carving a ribbon of
jade through the
desert.

in some other universe

there is a caravan
packing your heart
next to mine.

7 september 2017

travelling outside your age (or, an ode to my cool aunt and uncle)


my aunt jane and uncle dave are legends.

they grew up in the 50s and 60s and have a million stories from high school in pasadena, california. surfing, playing in bluegrass bands like the smooothies, the heady early days of the rose parade, smoking in the mountains, seeing steve martin with an arrow through his head at the ice house. when all four egenes siblings (that’s my dad john, jane the youngest, aunt lonnie and uncle tim) get together under one roof, a lot of eating, drinking, swearing, arguing and laughing usually ensues. normal family things, and things i treasure, for they are rare and wonderful.


it doesn’t feel right to start writing about aunt jane and uncle dave without putting on a record, like rubber soul or django & jimmie. my family is musical: jane a professional violinist and teacher, dave an excellent guitarist, my dad a music lecturer and general music savant. i have meddled in music throughout my life, but was never as cool as my dad and his siblings; never cool enough to have a bluegrass band in high school.


my earliest memories of jane and dave are foggy visions of their house in albuquerque, clad in houseplants and mosaic coffee tables and home-knit throws, and a great big grandfather clock that struck resounding echoes on the hour – and still does.

tonight i stick joni mitchell’s blue on the turntable and wonder if they are gonna hate it that i’m about to write about them. probably, because they are nothing if not counter-culturalists and hippies in a way, as a slacker and member of generation x, i always envied. gen-x’ers wanted to care about causes but we were too busy not giving a shit about the man to bother doing anything.


friday at 3pm in santa maria novella railway station in florence. they appear off the rome high-speed service, dave with his signature lumbering six-foot-five, white-haired lanky figure and jane with her wave of pulled-back dark hair fronted by grey streaks in the exact same place my greys are coming in. hugs are brisk and conversation is immediate and easy despite a year apart.

we are spending six days in florence for what has become an annual international trip together. jane and dave started travelling later in their adult life; they are american baby boomers discovering the world as semi-retirees and they have definitely got the travel bug. watching them figure out the italian public transportation system on their own for the first time, for example, was truly beautiful.


the joy of intergenerational travel (what a terrible term) is not something i’d ever thought about. when we are travelling together, it isn’t like a ‘family trip’ where i imagine bickering and bad meals and complaining. we have pretty similar interests (wine, food, culture, chillaxing), and that makes it easy. but i find myself seeing the world through their eyes, and hopefully they are seeing it some through mine.

one thing that happens is that i slow down. being with them makes it pretty obvious just how fast i take life. i walk at a london pace, quite literally, and a gentle stroll through the piazza della repubblica now becomes a moment of wonderment, as opposed to something you just get past or through. queries about what a building corner’s embellishment is call me to question, wonder, then google a lot of things i probably would not notice. musings on just what, exactly, makes this particular pomodoro pasta so much better than any before it create amazement in the everyday, and confusion with a waiter causes questions in my mind about whether the term ‘marinara’ has a different meaning in the united states than it does in italy. now i’m thinking about things.


these interactions also lead to mindful questioning in a way that maybe my generation never would. we are slackers, we are jaded, we think we know, and a lot of the times we do know. if i may generalise, baby boomers wonder at things, and it is a joy for a member of my grunge generation to experience that purity of questioning.


on tuesday evening, our final night in florence, we crack open the last bottle of chianti classico we bought on saturday’s tour of tuscan wine country. three plastic chairs are perched on a narrow, high patio at our airbnb on the 7th floor of a suburban florentine building. before us, the arno river carving a rust-coloured ribbon through red-tiled roofs and the moon and saturn raising a ruckus over the duomo’s cupola, pinkened by the just-set sun.


dave lights up a cuban and talks about his father and fishing and high-school buddies; jane rolls her eyes having heard these stories a million times before. they got married young in LA city hall (or was it pasadena? because i am a slacker, i fail to remember these details, but i’m sure they will correct me, with the clarity of memory they maintain).

cigar smoke wafts over us in the heat of the italian june evening and we savour this moment, for it is the stuff of life.

old friends and the wild atlantic way

wild indeed, where is the water coming from?
wild indeed, where is the water coming from?

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.

connemara dusk over the twelve bens
connemara dusk over the twelve bens

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.

flaggy shore: clare's low, ancient coast
flaggy shore: clare’s low, ancient coast

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.

quin abbey all to myself
quin abbey all to myself

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.

chieftans' resting ground
chieftans’ resting ground

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.