Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Living out of a bag

February 23rd, 2012

I’d returned to the hostel dorm after my early morning swim. As curious about the regular crowd that did this sort of thing as I was for the clarity of thought I invariably found in the solace of my lengths. Medicine man was sat cross legged by his bunk, a large array of foil tablet strips spread out neatly in a large arc before him. He nodded. I smiled.

I’d risen early. Little after five thirty. Quietly made my way down to the bathrooms below. At the bottom of the stairs a patch of vomit. Covered with a small strip of toilet paper. Ineffective but at least a little modicum of consideration. Decided I needed a cup of tea. Kick myself into life. I was trying to shun the usual coffee, my staple for the last few years in a world where a decent brew had invariably been as elusive as much of the fauna.

A Japanese student in an oversized black down jacket sat in the otherwise empty cafeteria, illuminated only by the unwelcoming green glow of the escape signs and the harsh light of the television on the wall above his head. Cartoons. I didn’t think he was watching. And thought he’d been there a while. Quite possibly all night. I headed off into the crisp morning air. Collar of my heavy cotton top turned up. Thick gloves on. But no jacket. Wanted to enjoy the refreshing sharpness without being too chilled.

Ten minutes brisk walking. The odd cyclist, dog walker. A few business opening up. Traditional butcher pulling down his old-fashioned awning. Fine cuts in the window. Cafes yet to unstack their chairs. The local swimming pool was council owned but run by some sort of local co-operative. I approved. The mixed changing area felt clinical and smelt strongly of old ladies perfume even though none were to be seen. The sort of odour that lingered.

Lengths done in a lane marked ’Keep it slow’ and then quick scribblings in my pocket book. An abundance of ideas, random thoughts – mostly single words I hoped would be equally meaningful later. I’d had lots to think about and lots to do. Hot shower. Then ready to venture back outside and see what unfurled in the day ahead. I liked plans. Structure. A very logical mind. But now I also found myself intrigued – compelled even – to indulge in uncertainty. Made things a bit more interesting.

Soon strolling purposefully back towards Portland Road and the hostel. Children heading off for school. Closer to the main thoroughfare smarter houses and sharper uniforms. Satchels and wind instruments. I turned by an Estate Agent. The window display alluringly suggested buoyant sales. One family home just sold for a snip over five million. It was detached.

French pâtisserie. I’d had to insist on English Breakfast tea. Not Earl Grey. Too much of a soapy after taste. Smart place. Authentic oak beams in a new setting. Reasonably priced breads. Expensive looking cakes. A young woman sat at the next table. She’d especially frizzy hair and stared intently at an e-book. Most the clientele sought coffee to go. Overly enveloped in scarfs and heavy coats.

Stopped briefly to buy lunch at a local supermarket. The cashier smiled and then croaked a few words. Bit of a sore throat I’d asked? That time of year I’d added. No, she’d replied. Surgery to remove lumps on her throat. And it’d not get better than this. I gulped, nodded and then left. Kensington High Street.

I was heading for the Royal Geographical Society. Next to the equally prestigious Royal Albert Hall. The sort of place where you might easily drag a dead tiger across its well-worn dark wooden floors, Blunderbuss under one arm, Pith helmet under the other. And nobody’d care to mention it.

In one stairwell a collection of photos of Past Presidents. Household names. The odd Admiral. And one chap who closely resembled Lord Lucan. I was hopeful of election to Fellow shortly. But admiration wasn’t my purpose. Sound advice had been that an expedition without a report was called a holiday. And mine had been no beach towels and bathrobes. A few suitable examples from the archives to be studied before I compiled mine in earnest.

Amidst the Society’s large collection of expedition reports I’d stumbled on a couple that intrigued rather than informed. A 1978 project cycling along the banks of the Nile by students from a public school close to where my parents lived. I especially liked the quotation on its cover.

"I would think twice of an Englishman’s view of his neighbour, but would trust implicitly his account of the Upper reaches of the Nile"

I also liked one of their entries in a list of publications they’d featured in. Playboy. No explanation given. Or extract enclosed. Teenage boys. Another report – chance find once more – shed light on how a friend had mostly likely met his wife.

Brief detour on my way back to the hostel. Gentlemen’s Outfitters. Abdul had me quickly measured up. Explained I needed black tie. Prestigious function I’d emphasised, the sort where you’d be wise to consult Debretts before attending. My copy had gone astray so I’d plans to sneak a peak in nearby Waterstones. Winged or classic he’d asked. I’d done formal before but not in this fashion.

Back that night at the hostel I’d sunk into one of the deep sofas in the lounge. The lights were dimmed and the television on. On the next sofa someone with passable facial features for a woman in her late sixties. But the sizeable Adam’s Apple was unmistakable. I christened her Bob. Unspoken of course. Engrossed in University Challenge.

Struggling to read in the gloom I wandered back to the reception area. It was busy, the previous night’s group of French students and their teachers being replaced by another equally large one from across the Channel. But I was able to find somewhere to sit, quickly returning to the relative comfort of Huxley’s Brave New World and oblivion to the orderly chaos around me. I’d still to finish the various prefaces that’d been added over the years before the book proper.

Next day another early start. Just after five. Synapses all fired up. I emerged from the bathroom as Bob entered. Padding around in boxers. Pre-op I presumed. At reception staff were trying to eject a middle-aged man and not for the first time. Ignoring the altercation, I headed off for another swim.

On my way back I’d found Bob nodding to a passing dog walker. The man continued on a few paces then stopped. Turned around slowly and then stared for a few moments. I’d hurried back to the hostel. Packing to be done and the check-out time was getting close.

A short while later, as I strolled across the hostel courtyard, I observed Bob now sat in the cafeteria, engrossed this time in quiet discussion with medical man. Lots of appreciative nods. Time for another railway encounter and some sea air. Soon finding myself grabbing a tea on the train from the trolley. Refreshment whilst I wrote. The attendant – his badge said host – spoke only to tell me the price. Another gravelly voice. Probably used to be a sixty a day man. This time I was silent.

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A bit depressed

August 18th, 2011

Two nights were quite enough. I’d planned to spend a couple of days in Lakes Entrance. The hostel hadn’t impressed. Tired motel units, mostly occupied by equally depressing long term residents. Damp and dreary outside, it was little better indoors. Penny pinching perfected. In the kitchen, never more than a dribble of washing up liquid. A single tea towel I’d doubted had been that clean and dry to start with.

The town itself was little better. A few charity shops, several outlets offering everything for two bucks. Not one, but that’s par for the course. Everything costs more in Australia, even the cheap stuff.

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Places to stay

November 3rd, 2010

Accommodation - montage

For the Western traveller at least, accommodation in China is remarkably affordable. Few exceptions, mostly international chains catering to the business community. And quite diverse. A bed – just a bed – in a truck stop for the equivalent of a few pounds. Provincial three star hotels for between ten and twelve pounds. Even the odd generously sized business suite in the cities for around twenty. Many with wet rooms. Always handy for cleaning the bicycle and kit. Discreetly.

You may have to barter a bit, the aim being to pay what a Chinese person would, no more. I’ve learnt what to expect. Like a forty to fifty percent discount on the room rates displayed at reception. Which is usually what I’m offered at the outset. Takes the fun out of it, but not unwelcome at the end of a hard day.

Anything other than a truck stop usually comes with the standard complimentary items – always neatly presented – toothbrush and paste, comb, soap and shampoo. But, wherever I’ve stayed, the bedding is always clean. Never seen a bed bug. And I do look. Carefully. And rarely an objection to the bicycle in the room. In which case I go elsewhere.

Just two challenges. Assuming you’re not on a guided tour, haven’t pre-booked, and don’t have a reputable guidebook with decent maps. Finding the various establishments. And being allowed to stay. Cities are straightforward enough, big enough to accommodate places that actually look like hotels. Often showing their names in English. Provincial towns a bit more tricky. Often just a small foyer, usually distinguishable from neighbouring businesses by a line of clocks on the wall behind the reception desk.

In smaller places, or if you want a cheaper option, a case of asking around. In the towns the bus station is a good place to start. Requires quite a bit of patience, but I’ve never failed to find somewhere. In the end. And what the more basic establishments lack is often made up with by really friendly, helpful staff.

And being allowed to stay? Strictly speaking, only establishments registered with the authorities should admit aliens. Obliged to register your presence with the local Police. That’s the theory at least. In practice, rock up on a heavily laden touring bike, light failing, and you’ll be met with compassion. Warmly welcomed. Not sure what reception you’d get if you pitched up in a four-by-four.

And what of the other options? For the solo traveller, there’s always the a question of security. Flat, featureless desert providing little cover for wild camping. Further east, so far at least, opportunities for discreet pitching equally elusive. Besides, why take a risk if there’s a very affordable alternative. And backpackers hostels? To be found only in tourist destinations, and I’d passed through just a handful of those.

[Author’s note: Guidebooks and websites seem to be very vague on the requirement to register your presence with the local Police. My understanding is that the onus lies with your host, be it a hotel or a family home, to do so within twenty four hours of your arrival. I might be wrong, but nobody’s arrested me yet… And in hotels expect to pay a cash deposit – known as “yajin” – as much as two or three times the daily rate – refunded when you check-out. Assuming no breakages to pay for. They always check]

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