I have never been to India, but that country featured significantly during two very different periods in my life.
My father was a regular soldier. He had joined the British Army in 1936, and served in the Royal Artillery. When war broke out in 1939, he spent some time with coastal defence artillery. Then when Japan entered the war in late 1941, he was transferred to India. It was believed that Japan would try to invade India, and my dad’s job was to train Indian Army soldiers to use combat artillery weapons.
As we know, India was not invaded. As a result, my dad enjoyed a happy war. With the rank of Regimental Sergeant Major, he lived a comfortable life as a Warrant Officer. He travelled around many parts of India, living in style in his own bungalow with servants looking after him. He played Cricket and Football for the Army teams there, and went on many hunting trips, shooting almost every known animal in that country.
When Japan surrendered, he stayed on in India becuase he was a regular, not returning to England until after the partition of India in 1947.
Once I was old enough to understand, he would talk to me about India constantly. He taught me about the different cultures and religions, gave me his opinions on the soldierly qualities of Sikhs, Punjabis, and other ethnic groups. He spoke about the wonders of the ancient temples, the extremes of weather, and also the poverty and caste system. Using the big map in my atlas of the world, he traced his travels around India, describing each different region to me in great detail. He also spoke highly of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and how he would dearly loved to have settled down there.
To accompany his talks, he used four albums of black and white photos he had taken whilst living there. They were small prints, carefully attached into the albums using ‘photo-corners’. They showed snake charmers, temples, dancers, festivals, numerous animals, and photos of my dad and his comrades doing all kinds of things. He also gave me some of his souvenirs, including a Gurkha Kukri battle knife in its leather case. Other souvenirs were animal skins from Antelopes of some kind, and a deerskin. They served as rugs for many years.
Pride of place was for a stuffed leopard’s head, and its full skin. That trophy was in front of the fireplace. I am talking about the 1950s here, so at the time such things were admired, and there was no talk of how bad hunting was or how cruel it was.
Because of those years being enthralled by his descriptions of this exotic land, I resolved to visit India as soon as I was able.
Fast forward to late 1984. I had been married for 7 years, and I was living in Wimbledon. I was an EMT in London, and my wife was a University Lecturer in Biology and Ecological Sciences. She came home from work one day and told me she had been asked to go on a trip for the British Council For Overseas Aid, leaving in a few months. She would spend six months in India as part of a group of lecturers, taking along a large amount of used school scientific equipment, including microscopes and soil analysers. The team would tour India helping trainee teachers learn how to use the equipment in schools, later donating it to them. She added that she had accepted.
I was excited. The destinations reminded me of many places my dad had told me about. Bangalore, Lucknow, Kashmir, Delhi, Hyderabad, Jaipur.
For the next few weeks, I spent all my free time doing research. I bought detailed maps of India, checked on necessary vaccinations, purchased travel guides for each region,and even bought a large zoom lens for my camera. I went to my Area Headquarters and asked my Ambulance Service manager for time off. I was told I could use all my paid leave, then be unpaid for the remainder. But I could come back to my job as long as I was not away for longer than six months.
My wife was aware of all of my research, and she also knew about my dad spending all those years in India, and my lifelong anticipation of visiting that country. We were quite well-off financially, and a few months unpaid leave would not affect our situation. Besides, she would be getting paid by the British Council, in addition to her University pay. It was considered to be something of an honour that she had been asked to go.
One evening as I sat surrounded by maps of India, she told me that it was not considered to be ‘appropriate’ for spouses or partners to go. Hotel accommodation and flights had already been arranged, and she would be working up to 10 hours a day. I saw no problem in that. Hotels were cheap, we could easily afford my return flight, and I would not need much money while I was there. I could get a hotel nearby, and meet up with her when she was free. Meanwhile, I could explore the area, and take photos.
When I explained that, she seemed exasperated. She said she did not want me to go, adding that it would be ’embarrassing’ for her husband to keep appearing. I was surprised that she had not mentioned that from the start, saving me the preparation and anticipation. I felt incredibly deflated, and her best answer was “I knew you wanted to go there, and didn’t know how to tell you that you couldn’t come”.
So I never made it to India, and we split up in 1985 just before she was due to leave England.
I suppose I could have gone on my own later in life, but my heart was no longer in it.
Some of my earliest memories are of going on our annual summer holidays when I was a child. They were always in Britain, and usually by the coast, or an easy drive to the sea. I was constantly car sick as a child, and with no motoways then, the trips from London to Cornwall took so long, we stayed overnight on the way. Cornwall was favoured, as we could stay with one of my dad’s relatives in Penryn, a man I called ‘Uncle John’ who was in fact my dad’s oldest cousin.
It always seemed to be sunny and hot in those days, and our two week holiday consisted of sand castles, ice cream, and huge beaches like Praa Sands, and Newquay. Evening meals would often be fish and chips, or the famous Cornish Pasties.
Then when I was 11 years old, I went on a school trip to France. That gave me the bug for foreign travel, and I eagerly went back on more organised trips to places further south in France, like Biarritz and Royan. Those trips were always by sea ferry followed by train-travel, and I loved how everything seemed so different to England, and more exotic.
By the time I was 14, I considered myself far too old to go on holiday with my parents, and they travelled without me. But as my mum had no desire to leave the UK, they continued to holiday there. As a result, I spent a considerable time not going anywhere on holday, and just stayed at home.
When I met my first wife, she was incredibly well-travelled and had already been to every continent except Antarctica. She was eager to introduce me to places she knew, as well as those she had not yet visited. I went on an aeroplane for the first time at the age of 23, to travel to Tunisia. Once we were married two years later, we could afford to take two holidays every year, and my travels really began. We went to Greece, Crete, Turkey, the Soviet Union, (Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev) France, (three times) East Germany, West Germany, (Berlin) and Kenya.
After we split up, I lived with a much younger woman for a time. She was also interested in travel, and we took a long trip to Soviet Central Asia and a part of Mongolia, including Tashkent, Samarkand, Dushanbe, Ulan Bhator, and Alma-Ata. With the holiday starting and ending in Leningrad, I got to go back there too. We also visited the WW1 battlefields in Belgium and France, staying in Ypres and Arras.
Then I married again, and with my second wife I visited Egypt, taking a Nile cruise. We also had a long weekend in Amsterdam, and a week in Paris. Other holidays were closer, including the Cotswolds and Pembrokeshire. We also went back to Cornwall, but had a rain-soaked holiday in Looe. One highlight was a trip to Northumberland, taking in Seahouses, Alnwick, Holy Island, and Bamburgh. Whitby provided another holiday location, and we explored North Yorkshire from there.
Following a second break up, I travelled with a girlfriend to Bruges, Normandy, and Edinburgh. Then I went to China alone, to visit a friend who was living and working there. He lived in central Beijing, and that offered me a memorable stay in and around the capital of China, where I finally got to see The Great Wall.
Once I met Julie, we had to consider her children. We took two of them (the younger girls) on enjoyable holidays to Somerset, Bulgaria, and Turkey when they were still at school. But we were also able to get away alone later, going to France, (Carcassonne) Morrocco, Singapore, Malaysia, Barcelona, Ghent, Rome, and Prague.
That trip to Prague in 2011 was the last time I left England. I retired the following year, moved to Norfolk, and we got Ollie. Holidays were now something to also accommodate our beloved dog, and since then we have returned every year to the Lincolnshire coast, save for one year when we rented a cottage in Kent.
I had finally lost the urge to travel abroad, and allowed my passport to expire in 2016. We didn’t want the hassle of airports any longer, and the problems of car parking and dog-kennels. We had seen some great places, and were now content to stay in England.
When I was 17, I met two brothers at the office I was working in. Through those brothers, I met a large group of people, some of whom played together in a band. Two years later, I moved out of my parental home and shared a rented house with four of them. Since then we have kept in touch, and seen each other when we could. But people move around, circumstances change, and those meetings become fewer.
In 2020, one of those original house-mates and a lifelong friend, Brian, died of Covid-19, and I could not go to his funeral because of restricted numbers. It was decided that we would have a party to celebrate his life, but that couldn’t happen in 2021 either. It was finally arranged for last Friday.
The chosen venue was 125 miles south of Beetley. That meant we would need hotel accommodation, and someone to look after Ollie overnight. My cousin in Essex agreed to take him. She has two small dogs, and Ollie has visited her with us many times before. I booked a decent hotel three miles from the venue, and we travelled down to my cousin’s in Essex on the way. The weather was not great, starting the journey in fog, and ending it in rain.
After a light lunch and a catch-up, we left her house in plenty of time to get to the hotel. Once we arrived, taxis were booked. One to take us to a restaurant booked for 5:30pm, and a second to collect us from the venue at a golf club at 11:15pm. By the time we were leaving to go the restaurant, it was raining at a monsoon standard. We were the first to arrive, at a table booked for eight people.
The next couple to show up was Martin and his wife. Martin had lived in the house with us, but I had not seen him since, almost fifty years. I had never met his wife, as he moved to Cornwall when I was 21. They had just driven for over seven hours in awful weather to be there that evening. Despite a half-century apart, we recognised each other immediately. Next to arrive were two friends we had not seen since we moved away from London in 2012. Finally, Roland turned up, soaked to the skin having walked the twenty minutes from the golf club where he had been setting up with the other musicians. He brought one along, and though we had never met him before, he settled in easily.
There were a lot of laughs as we ate, teasing each other mercilessly. When it was time to leave for the party, we were lucky to get a lift in a friend’s car and not have to wait for a taxi to avoid the torrential rain.
On arrival, the venue was already packed to capacity. So many people wanted to be there to celebrate Brian’s life. Old friends, family members, his ex-wife, his daughter, as well as many of his golf club comrades. The band was already set up for an evening of Blues music. (Brian was a vocalist in many bands over the years) Musicians had come together from all over England to take part. So many that they took turns on instruments, and turns at the microphone.
There was a large TV screen showing a loop of photographs of Brian from his schooldays to his latter years. Most of us were in one or more of those photos with him. I found it too emotional to look at, and had to stand with my back to the screen.
The band played in various configurations until 11pm. With so many in the audience, there was no room for dancing, so we all stood or sat and just enjoyed the memories of songs we had seen Brian perform for over fifty years. After a tour of the room to say our farewells, it was back to the hotel to collapse exhausted.
By the time we got back to my cousin’s house the next day, Ollie was beyond excited to see us, and almost hysterical with happiness. He had not been left overnight for almost six years, and though he had settled well with my cousin, his delight at seeing us was a joy to behold. Not long after, another cousin arrived to see us, and we settled into an afternoon of lovely memories, more laughter, and that good feeling of being with family.
Despite more heavy rain and thunderstorms, we slept well that night and had breakfast with my cousin before leaving for the journey back to Beetley. It had felt like an incredibly busy and tiring weekend, but I was so glad we had made the effort to go.
Thailand is legalising the growing and sale of full medical grade Cannabis from next month. I anticipate a tourist boom.
Some quotes from various sources in Thailand.
Authorities are also exploring the idea of a “cannabis sandbox” that would allow tourists to visit the country while recreationally using cannabis in select areas, to help create destinations synonymous with the drug.
Linn is optimistic that the bill will help Thailand rebuild its economy post-Covid. “Nothing as small as marijuana use can save [an economy], but I think it could provide a spark,” he said.
Kitty Chopaka, an independent cannabis advocate based in Bangkok, says “industry people” from places including Australia, the UK and Canada are already contacting her about plans to visit Thailand following the announcement. “People are going to come to Thailand trying to find cannabis,” she says.
Cannabis is Thailand’s ‘secret weapon’ to lure back tourists after Covid, public health official says.
Amsterdam had better watch out. There’s a new kid on the block.
I was thinking about my mum today, and smiling as I remembered something she once said.
In 1978, my mum was 54 years old. She had never been outside of Britain, happy to spend all her holidays at seaside locations in England, or visiting friends in Scotland. She had never been to Wales or Ireland, and was content not to have done so. At the time, we still had a shop in south-west London, an off-licence. I had taken a full time job, got married the previous year, and she employed a full-time assistant to help her run the business. I helped out whenever I was free.
One weekend, I was looking though some newsletters, and found one offering a trip to Rome for anyone who held a licence to sell alcohol. It was a five-day tour, escorted by guides, and included all flights, meals, and accommodation. I suggested to my mum that she should go. There would be other single people taking the trip, and it was a small group who would all have something in common, of owning a pub or off-licence. She had never flown in a plane, or owned a passport, but she had seen the Audrey Hepburn film ‘Roman Holiday’, and had previously mentioned a desire to see Rome.
Once I assured her that I would take time off from my job and run the shop for her, and that my wife and I would move back into the upstairs accommodation for the duration of her holiday, she gave in and applied for a passport, sending off a cheque for the deposit on the holiday at the same time. So in June that year, she headed off with a small suitcase, taking a taxi to the airport to meet the tour organiser at the terminal. I was envious, as I had never been to Rome. (I eventually got there in 2002.)
On her return, she looked less than excited. I asked her if she had a lovely time, and she shrugged before replying.
“It rained twice.”
“The food tasted funny”.
“It was too hot, even at night”.
“Everyone hangs their washing out over the street”.
“All the buildings look shabby and run down”.
I reminded her that the buildings she was referring to dated from as long ago as 300 BC. But she shrugged again.
“Well they could do them up a bit. It’s a long way to go to look at someone’s washing and some ruined temples”.
At that point, I gave up.
Many years later, (2009) when I was working for the Police in London, one of my colleagues booked a holiday of a lifetime to Egypt. A full tour of the ancient sites, including Cairo and The Pyramids, and a luxury cruise down The Nile to Aswan. As I had visited Egypt in 1989, I told her what to look out for, and added that I was envious, as I had not seen Cairo or The Pyramids on my trip.
When she got back to work, looking very tanned, I asked her what she thought of her wonderful experience.
“Well, there are lots of stones, beige stones. And beige columns. Once you have seen one, all the others look the same. The food on the ship was good though”.
This is the second part of a re-post, in 1595 words.
The next day, we went to look at the Koutoubia, and the gardens that surround it. Due to the celebration of Ramadan, the whole area was full of sleeping worshippers, resting during their time of fasting, and awaiting the call to prayer. We did not go into the Mosque, but walked around the gardens, which were dry in the heat.
We then went to explore the extensive market, set around the main square. This is a maze of tiny stalls and shops, most of which are selling the same things; souvenirs of Morocco, and different types of clothing. There were also spice and juice stalls, and a range of fruit sellers as well. The dreaded mopeds were much in evidence, buzzing in and out of the passages between the shops, occasionally bumping you, as they tried to wriggle past.
It was all much as you might imagine. Exotic at first, but with endless haggling, and shop owners pestering, until you soon tired of it all. We retreated to the oasis of our hotel, to relax by the pool with a cold drink.
The following morning, we took an open top bus tour, supposedly the best way to see the sights in and around the city, with some stops further afield in what was essentially a palm-tree desert. This was actually very amusing. There were so few tourists, the bus was presumably running at a loss. As a result, there was no guide commentary, and the headphone commentary advertised on the side was also notable by its absence.
The young lady supposed to be guiding spent the whole time downstairs talking to the driver. We were left to work out for ourselves what we were seeing, with the aid of a map in the tour brochure. We did make the most of the hop-on-hop-off facility though, so managed to see a fair bit of the area, including the famous Marjorelle Gardens and a stunning view of the Atlas Mountains surrounding the city.
The bus returned when it was supposed to at least, so we were thankful for that. The older parts of the city within the walls of the medieval Medina were a real delight, and exactly what we had hoped to see. With the lack of tourists, life was going on much as normal, so we were able to see the place as it should be seen, and not just as one giant gift shop.
The hotel staff had recommended two places to visit in the evening, as an alternative to eating in the hotel. One was a swish-looking courtyard restaurant, some distance away in the ‘new city’. This restaurant also featured in our small guide book, and was advertised in a ‘Marrakesh’ magazine we obtained. The other was an evening of folklore and entertainment at an all-inclusive price, with collection and return to the hotel included. We reserved both, though we had serious doubts about the evening of folklore, at a place called ‘Chez Ali’. The staff were insistent that it was a great evening, with unlimited food and drink, and lots to see and do. I imagined a large restaurant, with dancers and musicians.
We went to the nice small restaurant first, having negotiated a return taxi fee with a Mercedes driver who constantly parked outside the hotel, and who was recommended by the staff. (Undoubtedly on a commission) The place did not let us down. After a high-speed journey across most of the city, the taxi dropped us off, arranging to collect us later. He said the staff would call him on a mobile when we were ready.
The restaurant was excellent. We had drinks in the courtyard before going in for our meal, the interior set off by an indoor pool, and beautiful lighting. With superb service, and first-rate food, it was the ideal romantic evening for a honeymoon night out. The higher prices there were about the same as they would have been in London, as was the taxi fare. We got back to the hotel in time for a late drink around the pool, and reflected on a marvellous night out.
Two nights later, we were collected by minibus, to be taken to Chez Ali. We were the only passengers, and discovered that the driver would also serve as a guide, wait for us during the evening, and collect us after the entertainment. Another long drive began, this time into the desert away from all built-up areas. After some time, we asked the driver how much longer it would be, and were surprised to hear that it was still at least fifteen minutes away. We soon spotted what could only be our destination, lit by rows of coloured lights, a good five minutes before we arrived. The size of a small town, Chez Ali was actually a huge complex, surrounded by old walls, and entered by a long driveway.
As we got to the car park, our hearts sank as we saw dozens of coaches and umpteen minibuses, all jostling for space to drop off hundreds of people. It was like going to a football match, to have dinner. The driver told us not to worry, that it would be very nice, and that he would guarantee that we got a very good place. He was obviously in the know, as he was soon chatting to the door staff, and whisking us along -via a ‘photo opportunity’- to our tent where we would be served the meal. What followed, was a far from pleasurable experience, only saved by our sense of humour.
Inside the place, there were dozens of tents, all lined up along something resembling a ‘main street’. There were literally hundreds of harassed staff, suitably dressed in various versions of traditional clothing. Musicians played to welcome us, and our guide took us into a well-lit tent, the size of a circus big top. The first problem was that we were not part of a group. It appeared that it was very rare for couples to book this trip, and all the other tourists, from every country in the world seemingly, were in large groups of twenty or more. As the only couple, we were taken to a table at the head of the tent, and seated separately from the others.
Everyone looked at us, with that look that is a cross between ‘are they celebrities?’, and ‘who do they think they are?’. The food and drink arrived. It was an enormous bowl, containing meat that we thought might be chicken, vegetables roasted to extinction, and piles of rice and potatoes. It was pretty repulsive, and we felt the need to record it on video. We had to eat some at least, and some bread, as we had saved our appetite all day for the anticipated feast. The fruit, brought as a dessert, looked like what was left after the market had closed, and packed away for the night.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the entertainment began. Groups of musicians, dancers, and singers, did the rounds of all the tents, repeating their party piece for each one in turn. By the time it got to us, we had already heard it from the tent next door. It was also all so loud, it was impossible to hear yourself think. This was not a terribly expensive excursion, so it may sound churlish to complain. It was just that it had been built up to us as something very different, so we were disappointed. But at least we were laughing!
After the food was cleared away, we followed the crowds towards a large open area, with tiered seating. It was completely dark by now, so the dramatic son-et-lumiere that followed was surprisingly effective. There were various tableaux of historical re-enactments and parades, culminating in a display by riders dressed as Berber tribesmen, firing guns as they rode their ponies around the arena at breakneck speed. It might have been worth the trip, just to see the historical events in the arena. Might have been, but not really. We were pleased to be making our way back to the hotel soon after, happy to put the whole evening down to experience. One we would not be repeating. Here is a link, if it sounds like something you might enjoy. http://www.moroccotriptravel.com/activity-fantasia-dinner-show-moroccan-folklore-chez-ali.html
The last couple of days in Marrakesh were spent peacefully relaxing around the hotel, which had returned to its former state of calm after the weekend invasion by the trippers from Europe. That had not turned out to be at all bad, as there were still not enough guests to make the hotel feel crowded.
The evening before we were due to leave, we went to the market to engage the services of a horse and carriage for a gentle tour of the old city. We had been advised to haggle, but I took just one banknote, worth slightly less than £18, and said to the driver (in French) “This is all we have left, we go home to England tomorrow.” He accepted this tactic, and we set off for almost an hour of gentle driving around the area. This was definitely the way to see the place in comfort, and far better than the bus, or walking. It was also the perfect romantic ending to a memorable honeymoon.
I have no connection with the hotel where we stayed, but I will add this link to their website, so you can see for yourselves just how nice it is. If you are ever considering a trip to Marrakesh, it is one to put on your list.
I am reposting this from 2013, as not many of you have seen it. I Have divided the original very long post into two parts. This part is 1480 words. The second part will be posted tomorrow. There are no accompanying photos, as I was still using a film camera at the time.
I got married for the third (and last) time, in September 2009. We had a fairly traditional wedding, though in a hotel, rather than a church. It was a lovely day, and I will always have great memories of it. We decided to go on honeymoon to somewhere that neither of us had been to before. We had to consider the cost, as the wedding had used up some of the budget We thought that a week was long enough, so we could not go too far afield.
Places for consideration that would be new to both of us included Mexico, Cuba, Hong Kong, South Africa, and The Caribbean. These were rapidly ruled out, due to either the long flights involved, or the weather conditions in mid-September. North Africa looked promising, but I had been to Tunisia and Egypt before, which left Morocco as a good option. We had a choice of beach, probably Agadir, or inland, with Marrakesh as the most attractive prospect.
After some perusal on the Internet, and a flick through some brochures, we paid a visit to a large travel agent in Oxford Street, in London. As luck would have it, the agent had just returned from a junket in Marrakesh, and unhesitatingly recommended a hotel in the heart of the city. We looked at her suggestion online, and it really looked the part. It is called Les Jardins de la Koutoubia, as it is directly opposite the famous Koutoubia Mosque. The courtyard location, outdoor pool, and cool-looking terraces inside, all exuded Moorish style and architecture at its most desirable.
We decided to book independently, and get our own flights as well. Unfortunately, we were sorry to learn that Easyjet was the only airline with direct flights to Marrakesh. Other airlines go there, but they do so via other places first, putting hours on the journey. Undaunted, we booked with them, and arranged car parking at Gatwick. Holiday booked, we were suitably excited, and got on with the wedding plans. The hotel had been easy to arrange, and they even offered to collect us from the airport.
On the day, we found that it was not as bad as we had expected travelling with Easyjet, though we did make certain to comply with their notoriously draconian baggage regulations. On arrival at Marrakesh, we were pleased to see the promised good weather in evidence, and we were collected without fuss, for transfer to the hotel. We knew beforehand that Ramadan would be beginning when we arrived, and had expected this might cause some problems with cafes and restaurants being open, and possible restriction of service in the hotel. This was not the case at all, as the touristic nature of the place means that only the locals have to endure the privations of this religious season.
Arriving at the hotel, we could have been forgiven for being disappointed. The small driveway leading to the entrance was full of cars, and some very run-down looking workshops. The few shops looked to be stacked with unappealing goods, and a long wall running along the right side, gave no indication of the city beyond it.
Once through the unprepossessing entrance, all fears melted. It was simply wonderful. The reception was cool and shaded, and was home to one of the largest vases of red roses that I have ever seen. The cloistered courtyard, with the serene pool surrounded by sunbeds and relaxing leather chairs, was an early indication of the service and luxury to come. When we were shown to our room, we were not unhappy either. Everything we could have wanted was there. From a huge bed, to lovely Moroccan decor and fittings, as well as a TV if we desired to catch up on the news, and a balcony looking directly over to the Mosque that gave the place its name.
Also in view were the small but well-tended hotel gardens, and the half-size second pool. The hotel had an extensive underground spa facility housing its third pool, which was surrounded by dozens of candles, as well as lovely mood lighting, all providing a relaxing semi-darkness.
As we had opted for bed and breakfast only, we looked into the choice of the hotel’s three restaurants for our meal that evening. We had a choice of eating outside or in, and for the first evening, we chose the local food, stopping off first in the delightful old-fashioned bar, for a pre-dinner drink. The speciality of the house, the Koutoubia Cocktail, was the first on our list, and delicious it was too. The staff were all exceptionally friendly, and we learned that there would be few other guests until the weekend, when French and Spanish visitors arrived for just two days. The whole hotel felt half-empty, and in a good way, as we almost had it to ourselves; the perfect honeymoon location.
The meal was excellent, and I thought that we should explore after dinner. Leaving the hotel, I decided that the landmark of the Mosque would serve as a beacon, so we could not get lost. I thought that we should turn right, to look for the famous ‘Night Market’ in Djeema El Fna, the main square, which is also the main attraction of Marrakesh.
As someone who normally has a good sense of direction, I let myself down that evening.
Turning right, we entered what can only be described as the ‘Kwik-Fit’ district of the city. Every shop front seemed to be involved in the roadside repair and servicing of some of the thousands of mopeds that buzzed around the place. The pavements were clogged with vehicles, tyres, spare parts, and busy mechanics. The locals gave us quizzical looks, and it was impossible to make progress on the pavements, forcing us into the very dangerous roads.
Traffic is something not mentioned in the tourist guides. If you are considering a visit, then give traffic some serious thought. Crossing a road is almost impossible, and potentially suicidal; add to that the mopeds, and there are seemingly unlimited numbers of them, all appearing to try to run you down. They drive at you along the road, along the pavement, down alleys, across squares, even inside shops. In fact, anywhere you happen to be, or want to go, you will have to contend with moped riders whose one rule seems to be, ‘take no prisoners’.
After some time moped-dodging, we had still not come across the market. I carried on further, into the heart of the old town, passing tiny Mosques, bijou hammams, women-only bath-houses, and some Medresas. (Koran schools) It was a fascinating glimpse of real local life, but time was getting on, and we had still not found the market. We were hot and tired, and Julie was uneasy, as low rooftops and canopies now hid the Koutoubia Mosque from view, losing me my point of reference.
We were saved from further embarrassment by the arrival of a small group of street urchins. Probably no older than nine or ten, they latched onto us, and one of them said the magic words, ‘Night Market?’ I said yes, and they indicated that they would show us the way, by following them at the fast pace of a fit young child. It felt like a route march, and took some considerable time. There was always the possibility that they were leading us along some back alley, in the hope of robbing us, but I was not unduly concerned, as they seemed friendly, and the place did not feel remotely threatening.
After what seemed like an hour, but was probably twenty minutes, I saw the reassuring shape of the Koutoubai Mosque ahead, and moments later, they led us into the Night Market. Just to our left, perhaps ten feet away, behind that large wall, was our hotel! We had been within throwing distance of the square as we had gone out, and I had turned right instead of left! They asked for a reward, but as I had only large denomination notes, I gave them some small change, about 30p.
This was considered an insult, and they asked for cigarettes as well. Luckily, I had a packet spare, and handed them over gratefully. (This leads me on to something else about Morocco. It is a place for smokers. Smoking is allowed everywhere, in hotels, bars, and cafes. Some have non-smoking areas, but none were smoke free, at least in 2009. For a smoker, it is a paradise.) The Night Market was impressive, but we were too tired to enjoy it then, and resolved to return the next evening. This visit would be a lot easier, as it was only yards from the hotel, after all…
This is a re-post of the second part of my visit to China in 2000.It is a long post, at 2,900 words.
By the end of the first week, I had more unusual experiences to recount. I had been for a meal in a Turkish restaurant, in China! It was different, to say the least, being served traditional Turkish fare, by Chinese waiters and waitresses. They even had the large Shisha pipes available, as well as totally authentic coffee. If it had not been for the staff, and the view from the window, we might well have been in Ankara. We had also been out with the previously mentioned hedonist, the Turkish friend, businessman, and ‘diplomat’. I got the feeling that he was a shady character, underneath his urbane, party-going exterior. If Turkey has the equivalent of the CIA, I would bet my car he was in it.
We went to his large house for drinks, before going out to eat. He had a ‘houseboy’, and other servants, and I was amazed at his ability to drink huge amounts of whisky without any apparent affect on his demeanour. He then took the whole group of us to a Japanese Teppanyaki restaurant, in a very smart area of the city. This was a really exclusive place, and served delicious food cooked in front of you, on sizzling griddles. I ate until I burst, as everything was so tasty. At the end of the night, this unusual man covered the whole bill, for everyone. When we left, he invited us to accompany him to a bar the following week, and my friend accepted on our behalf.
The weekend excursion was arranged through the Turkish Embassy, a family trip by small coach, to last all day Sunday, and including lunch. We left the apartment early, to get to the embassy by taxi for 8am. There was a group of around ten people there already, and I was introduced all round, instantly forgetting everyone’s name. I was also told the name of the place we were going to; a park in the hills, with amusements for the children, scenic views and country walks, and a hilltop restaurant. They had been before, as it was a popular summer day out for the more affluent Chinese, as well as foreign residents. I had forgotten the name of it, so looked it up; Muianyu. This is now called The Great Wall Slide, as on the way down, you can see a section of the Wall, at some distance. It was not called this when I went there, at least I don’t remember that.
This place is about fifty miles outside Beijing, so we got to see some countryside at last. On arrival, we went up the hillside on a cable car, that was a bit like a ski lift. The restaurant at the top was basic, but we had a lunch booked, and enjoyed a set meal in excellent weather. The small rides and amusements were very old-fashioned, and only for smaller children. I don’t think that they are there anymore. We walked around a bit, but did not get close enough to the Wall, as we had not arranged to go to this section. For our group, the attraction (apparently) was the ride back down the hillside, on the famous slide.
This is more like a toboggan run, the sort you see in the Olympics, though more sedate. That said, it does reach a fair speed at times, and the individual toboggans are supplied with a large brake lever, to slow you down. I was encumbered with an enormous, overstuffed camera bag, that I had to wedge in between my legs. I cannot recall seeing any of the Wall at any time on the way down, as I was preoccupied with not crashing into the rider in front. I did enjoy it, but this was marred to some degree by getting covered in thick grease from the brake gears. As this sounds a little crazy, I have included a video clip from You Tube, showing what it is like. It takes over five minutes to descend, and it seems a long time, as you are clattering down.
The next week started with a suggestion that I ought to arrange some trips for myself, as my friends were busy for a couple of days. I went over to one of the big hotels, and asked about a trip to the Great Wall at Badaling, and the Ming Tombs combined. I was assured that it would be a small group, only ten people, and we would have an English-speaking guide. It would last all day, from 7am, and lunch would be provided, with an afternoon stop for refreshments too. At less than $30US, I thought it was OK, so booked up for the following day. I had an early start, and met my group outside the hotel. I was the only English person, along with two Japanese, three French people, and four Chinese tourists, from other parts of China.
The minibus headed out of the city for the long trip ahead, and I got to see more of the China I had anticipated. Small villages, roadside shops and stalls, and a look at the agricultural lands outside the built-up areas. It was very hot, and I started to feel a little unwell. The rich food, heavy drinking, and constantly being on the move, was getting to me a bit. By the time we arrived at the Ming Tombs, I was not feeling too good. I told the guide to go in without me, and waited in the shade, with a cold drink from the cafeteria there. I was sorry to miss it, after coming all this way, but I had nobody to support me, and felt that I might pass out, or disgrace myself by being sick. I had to content myself with a wander around the edges, and some of the sights there. It proved to be a wise move, as by the time they got back, I was re-hydrated, and feeling much better.
We pushed on to The Great Wall, and it was worth the effort. This was a section that I had not seen on TV travel shows, and consisted of small forts, or bastions, connected by long stretches of the Wall. I was unprepared for both the sheer scale of it, and also the incredible steepness of the stepped sections. After being shown around some of the first parts, we went for lunch in a lovely old building, with an airy terrace where we could get some relief from the 38 degree heat and humidity. The guide then told us that we had two hours to explore, before leaving on the journey home.
I suffered badly, mainly from taking too much camera kit. My large Billingham bag was stuffed to capacity. I had three camera bodies, five lenses, a flash, two power winders, as well as an assortment of accessories, filters, and ten rolls of film. In the heat, on the near vertical steps, it became very difficult to manage. Ironically, I shot almost every picture with a Canon T90, on a 24mm wide-angle lens. I could just as well have left everything else behind, and I was taught a valuable lesson that day. The Wall was a sight to behold. It stretched as far as the eye could see. At one stage, I put a 400mm telephoto on the camera, with a x2 converter, just to see how far it went. I needn’t have bothered, as I later realised that it followed the contours of the hills and mountains for hundreds of miles of course.
I had to keep resting, because of the heat, and also from searching for photo opportunities that didn’t show too many other tourists, which was difficult. When it was time to leave, I was very pleased that I had seen it, as there could be nothing like this anywhere else on the planet. The afternoon stop was at a cafe that was part of a shopping ‘opportunity’, somewhere that sold expensive Jade souvenirs, and other carved items. I didn’t buy anything, but presumed that the guide must be on commission, as he tried so hard to get us to purchase things.
The rest of the evening at the flat was very peaceful, with a visit from another Turkish diplomat who came for dinner. After he left, we spent some of the time on the small balcony, getting the cooler air, and drinking Jack Daniels, chatting about the old days in London. When I went to bed, I put on the noisy but welcome air-conditioning unit, and slept like a baby.
I decided to stay in the city for my next trip, which was to be to the Temple of Heaven. Situated in a large park in the Chongwen district, this was about as far from my friend’s place as you could get, so I decided to take a taxi. I showed the driver a picture of the temple, from a tour leaflet, and he took me straight to the entrance. I bought a ticket to go in, and looked at a map on a board there. I suddenly realised that the place was vast, and actually covers an area larger than the Forbidden City. There are various temples, including the iconic building seen in so many photos of Beijing. The grounds are full of the most amazing trees, and it is all very peaceful there, despite a considerable number of tourists. I spent a couple of hours there, taking in the most impressive sights. I could easily have stayed the whole day, as there was so much to see.
Opposite the gate was a modern indoor market, full of local people shopping. I crossed the road, and went inside, finally coming face to face with real life in China. There were no tourists or foreigners there, and no prices or signs in other languages. The sights, sounds and smells were wonderful, and I saw everything for sale, from strange live amphibians (for eating), to jewellery. I bought a small piece of jade jewellery as a gift, once again bargaining with the help of an electronic calculator.
Leaving the market by a different entrance, I resolved to walk back, at least to see how far I got. I had travelled from east to south-west in the city, so I reasoned that a right turn would do to start with. I was soon wandering inside the fascinating Hutong district. This quarter had remained unchanged for hundreds of years. The Hutongs were small dwellings, with outside taps, shared toilets, and no bathrooms. The families lived in one or two rooms, in a communal fashion. Were it not for the modern clothes, I felt that I could have been wandering around in the seventeenth century. People looked at me suspiciously, unused to tourists.
Before the Olympics, eight years later, the government demolished many of these dwellings, and forcibly re-housed the occupants. They did not want the outside world to think that people still lived that way, in modern China. Some remain, and are now a tourist attraction. I walked around a large area, as I was no longer carrying all my camera gear, having restricted myself to one camera, and one lens for the day. I did get a bit lost, but in a good way, as I later found myself out on the main thoroughfare again, approaching Tianenmen Square from the west. It was more by luck than judgement though, I am sure. By the time I arrived back, I had been walking all day, including the trip home from the park, which took just under three hours. I was pleased with myself though, as I had got off the tourist trail and managed to find my way around, unable to ask for help from anyone.
Other trips that week included the TV tower, a very high building affording great views over the whole city, and a trip to a different market, a special souvenir market, run by local people selling lots of interesting memorabilia from the Maoist era. I did buy a fair bit of stuff, including a classic ‘Mao’ hat, a ‘little red book’ in Chinese, and a nice assortment of posters and painted ceramics. I had to leave it at that, as I needed to cram all this extra stuff into my suitcase.
We then went out for the evening trip with the Turkish diplomat, arranged the previous week. It was just the three men, and we started off once again with drinks at his house. He then took us to the Sanlitun district, where I had been during the day. At night it was very different, with flashy bars and night clubs, all catering to well-off foreigners, and the more affluent Chinese. He was well-known everywhere, and relished his popularity. This was soon evident, when he was draped in a couple of Mongolian prostitutes, within minutes of arrival. I declined the offers of some of their friends. I wasn’t being prudish, I just found them unattractive; their gaudy make-up, and incredibly flat faces didn’t ring my bell. They did seem very popular with most of the men there though, and I was told that they were ‘incredibly good value’.
My friend and I spent most of the evening buying pirate DVD films from vendors who came into the bars. They had every film imaginable, and at $1US each, I couldn’t resist. Most of them played well when I got them back to London, though the three rows of subtitles, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Indonesian, did get wearing, after a while. We eventually left the mysterious Turk alone with his girls, and got a taxi home. I didn’t see him again, and I wasn’t sorry. Despite his generosity, I felt uneasy around him.
Before departing for home, my friend’s Chinese boss insisted on taking us out for dinner. She viewed me as a kind of visiting dignitary, and despite telling her that I was only a Paramedic in London, in a very normal job, she seemed to imagine I was some sort of government executive. Anyway, her sense of hospitality would not allow her to let my visit go uncelebrated. She took us to the famous duck restaurant, Quanjude. Arranged over seven floors, and able to seat 2,000 diners at a time, this is one of the most famous restaurants in China. With the menu in Chinese, she ordered for all of us, telling me that we would have numerous courses, which would all be different styles of duck. It was a veritable duck feast.
We had it roasted, boiled, in a terrine, a soup, and fried with noodles and ginger. There were also the shredded duck pancakes, as well as duck livers, and other offal. I managed it all, and found it delicious, with the exception of duck feet. These were served as you might imagine, webbed and clawed, as if they had just been severed from the unfortunate bird, and fried. They were almost impossible to eat, with a texture like rubber bands. The Chinese diners actually ripped them apart with their teeth, but I had no appetite for these, and after sucking them politely for a while, left them on my plate. It was a very enjoyable evening though, and a great experience.
After paying the entire bill, the lady mentioned that she would be in London early the following year, and that I could return the favour.
(I am pleased to report here, that I did just that. I collected her from her Knightsbridge hotel, and took her to a specialist English Food restaurant in Bayswater. One very strange evening, I can tell you. She asked me what was good, and I recommended a few dishes, so she ordered them all. Unaware of the starter/main course tradition, she expected to get a variety of small dishes. I didn’t have the heart to correct her, and she must have wondered what was going on, when it all arrived at once. She did manage to eat most of it though, so full marks to her. I spoke to her that evening about how we found eating small dogs distasteful, as they were so loyal, and we had them as pets. She thought about this for a while and then said, ‘But you eat baby sheep’, before forking in her next mouthful. Back in Beijing, she told my friend that she had really enjoyed the evening, and that she found me interesting company.)
My trip came to a close, with a taxi to the airport, where I had to wait in the ‘luxury lounge’ reserved for foreigners. This was the only place where smoking was allowed, and all drinks and snacks were sold at an extortionate price. A very small coffee was $5US, and it went up from there. It was their last chance to get your currency, I suppose. I had really enjoyed the trip, though it was more of an experience, than a holiday. I had met some nice people, some strange people, and eaten some fantastic meals, the like of which I have never seen since.
I am the first to admit that I did not see a great deal of this vast country, or a lot of the ‘real’ China that I had expected to encounter. But I was glad that I had gone, and even looking back today, I would do it all again.
Next Monday, the lockdown restrictions in England will begin to be eased.
All school pupils will return, depite some opposition from the teaching unions. One relative will now be allowed to visit the elderly who live in Care Homes, though they must wear full PPE, and be the only ‘nominated’ visitor.
On the 29th, outdoor gathering will be allowed, with the previous limit on numbers (six) applying, and outdoor sports such as Golf and Tennis will once again be permitted.
In late April, hospitality venues such as pubs will be allowed limited opening, restricted to outside service only. Not good news for businesses that have no outside space of course.
A full return to ‘new normal’ is estimated to happen by midsummer, but that might change if infection rates go up again.
Here in Beetley, Julie had her second Pfizer vaccination last night, and my second dose of Astra-Zeneca is due in May. We will continue to wear masks where appropriate or complusory, and keep any social mixing to the minimum.
Some people are rushing to book foreign holidays, in the hope that full international travel will be allowed again. I still think this is very risky, but it is up to those people of course. Let’s just hope that they don’t bring back new strains of the virus, and start it all up again. Just for the sake of two weeks on a beach in Spain or Greece.
For us, including Ollie, it will be a week on the Lincolnshire coast, 90 miles north. It is not until September, by which time travel in England should be permitted.
If all goes to plan, this will hopefully be my last lockdown report from Beetley.
Watching some tiny children swimming in the river near Ollie last week, a lady sitting on one of the benches said to me, “Don’t you wish it was deep enough for us to swim in?” I had to admit to her that I had never learned to swim. She raised her eyebrows. “Never?” I could have pointed out that had I learned to swim at any time and then stopped, I wouldn’t have used the word ‘never’. But I went on my way with a smile.
That got me thinking about things I have never done. Things that many people have done, even some people I know well. They are not necessarily things I ever wanted to do, and didn’t get around to doing, just things I have never done, for various reasons.
I have never been mountain climbing.
I have never flown an aircraft.
I have never jumped out of an aircraft.
(With a parachute)
I have never been bungee-jumping.
I have never written a book.
I have never been on a surfboard.
I have never kissed a complete stranger.
(A real kiss, not a New Year’s Eve kiss)
I have never had to have a surgical operation.
I have never felt my hair touch my collar.
I have never been up in a hot-air balloon.
I have never been to America, North or South, or to Australia and New Zealand.
I have never been on a fairground ride that turns upside down.
I have never read a Harry Potter book, or watched one of the films.
I have never been religious.
I have never been on a zip wire.
I have never had a tattoo, or body piercing.
I have never been to a rave.
I have never been to Ibiza.
I have never been to a music festival.
I have never tried inline roller skates.
I have never played golf.
(Except Crazy Golf at the seaside)
I have never tried windsurfing.
I have never flown a stunt kite.
There are many more things, I’m sure. But that’s a big enough list for now.
Feel free to add your own things you have never done, in the comments.