Asia

An Earthquake in Tokyo and a lesson in Fear

Its 5.30am and the entire room has just shifted from left to right. 

My 75 year old father and I are spending three nights in Tokyo just across the road from the Park Hyatt where Scarlett Johanson first coyly flashed her eye lashes at a jet lagged Bill Murray in “Lost in Translation.” 

It happens again. 

I sit up and hold my breath, as if making myself quieter will help me feel the vibration of more tremors. 

There is a pause and nothing.

Nothing but an oily empty swilling feeling in my stomach, the fizzing of adrenaline starting through my nervous system and the strangely, calm and rational shifting of options as my mind hurriedly pulls through its old filing cabinet of experience to look for possible explanations. 

No, my mind reports back to my body. This is an earthquake, we can sit still, we can leave the building or we can look out the window for what to do next.

And yes, uncontrollably and inevitably the next thing I think about is the World Trade Center. Its hard not too stuck on the 23rd floor of a skyscraper that is now swaying from side to side.

I've never felt so physically and primally vulnerable surrounded by steel columns and shaded glass.

I was awake already of course. 

One of the great things about being on the road by myself was that the middle of the night insomnia bursts stopped at the same time the day job did. 

 

But now my mind has conjured up lots more things that for some reason I absolutely have to try and solve at 4am in the morning. In addition- having stripped my life of absolutely everything that could preoccupy me from doing what I love I can now see how thickly set the obstacles are that stop me from making progress. And most of them are internal.

Procrastination - in all its forms -  laziness, lack of discipline, and perfectionism. 

An American I’ve become friends with says later: 

“Oh god that whole thing, like we can’t do anything unless its 100% perfect, who ever came up with that?!”

“I think you’ll find that was my father” I wisecrack in truthfulness. The man I'm now sharing a hotel room with. 

Back when I was little my drawings were never good enough, my piano playing was never done with feeling and my writing was “verbose.” 

 

School teachers came and went but a sexually inappropriate English teacher and an art teacher for whom everything was “just about OK” meant my creativity went screaming in the opposite direction and years later perfectionism and procrastination are reigning queens. But they are just fear dressed up fancy. 

The fear of change, the fear of doing something new, the fear of not being good enough and perhaps with this blog, the most pertinent of all, the fear of being truly vulnerable and exposing exactly what i’m feeling to any random person at any given moment. 

Fear, in and of itself isn’t a bad thing of course.  Its our natural survival instinct kicking in. But the old flight or fight system that once upon a time protected us in as hunter scavengers somehow got passed over modus operandi into less life threatening situations. 

Our brains still think we’re in an episode of the Hunger Games when in fact all we’re trying to do is set up a new website or start a creative project. 

That’s the kind of fear that normally wakes me up in the early hours of the morning. 

Now, however i’m suddenly right in the middle of experiencing real survival fear. And it feels different. Every fibre of my being is awake, alert and responsive.

Suddenly I have a benchmark with which to compare.

I get up and go look at the window.  It is eerily silent. I suppose it is 530am. And at this height everything feels like that anyway - so removed from the heat and scrabble of the real world. 

As if on cue my architect father wakes up and- ever the master of sanguine understatement - says:

“well that was a bit of a shock wasn’t it”

“Don’t worry”  he explains. "The Japanese architects plan for earthquakes when they design buildings like these, so it can absorb the shock.”

Hollywood, up until this point,  has been having a party in my brain. When something so infeasible starts to happen in reality the first reference point perhaps my only reference point,  is the movies. 

Bright lights big city, Tokyo

 I envisage a thousand smoky glass window panes being blown outwards from the skyscraper opposite, people screaming and flooding through the doors, swarming out onto the perfectly manicured gardens of the hotels; maybe its Godzilla rampaging around the corner to shake my building between his great scaly paws my sleep addled brain jokes to itself hysterically. 

Although i’m not entirely convinced even if the great lizard himself made an appearance that it would cause this most polite and gentle of people to run screaming, eyes bulging in the opposite direction. 

Everything here is run with such pristine elegance, safety and consideration.

Impeccably uniformed ticket collectors on trains bow deeply before entering carriages, men in bright, starched uniforms pick litter between exquisitely white cotton gloved fingertips. Even the leaves on the trees seem to grow in an orderly fashion. The great lime starbursts of the trees that festoon temples and shrines create perfectly ordered starlike geometric patterns against the sky. 

Here no one jaywalks but waits patiently for the lights to change. 

“Why would anyone want to walk early? we follow the rules because they work!” says my Japanese friend Dai genially.

I’ve only had a glimpse of Tokyo, we’ve spent three nights here and i’m not exactly tripping the light fantastic until dawn but what i’ve seen is the electrically charged blinking, glinting mans world of neon,light cubes and glass or order and precision. 

I can’t imagine anything as chaotic as the zigzagging earth split of a natural phenomenonsuch as an earth quake would dare to disrupt this glinting, electronically lit, perfectly ordered man’s world. 

Later in the trip, we escape to the soft waters of Lake Ashi and a traditional Japanese Ryokan. 

I’m enjoying the tradition of a Japanese onsen (a hot spring) andstart chatting to the young student i’m sharing a pool with who is also from Tokyo.  She asks if I was there when the earthquake happened recently. 

“Yes! I was scared….was it a big earthquake?” 

She giggles at my question and shakes her head.

“hahaahha nooo not big, not that one…” 

And then in explanation

“No Tsunami!!”

Well that is a relief. 

And an important lesson. 

I have a feeling my fellow bather wasn’t scared by the minor tremors that had me clinging to the bed covers because to her they were a known quantity, she’d lived through them before, she knew what to expect and could expand herself and experience to tackle bigger, better or worse head on.

And if you can do that by wrestling Hunger Games survival fear to the ground and stepping over it rather than around it or backing up the other way then suddenly perhaps my pursuit of creative freedom, individuation and setting up that all important website, doesn’t really seem so terrifying after all. 


END


Naked Lady Bathing in Japan

sakura (cherry blossom) in Japan

One of my favourite parts of a recent two week whistle stop tour of Japan with my 75 year old father was getting to escape the neon lit,  smog filled cities of Osaka and Tokyo (and my father) and enjoy the ritual of a female only hot spring bath in a traditional Japanese Onsen. 

We have travelled for hours on the famous bullet train and taken a winding local bus up the hills towards the shores of Lake Ashi near Mount Fuji and are staying at a traditional Ryokan where the walls of our room are made of rice paper dividers and the only place to sit is a small mat on the floor. 

The Onsen are divided into male and female bathing quarters and the rules are strict. One washes first and bathes, naked. 

A young student in her twenties laughs in delight when i ask if i have to get in naked.

“It is strange for you, are you embarrassed?” she asks.

Although i’ve never been body conscious it makes me wonder - there is a second of discomfort due to the strangeness and unfamiliarity of disrobing in front of so many of my own sex that has never happened taking my clothes in front of a man before.  

I drop my towel and perch on the little plastic stool, and then wash using the shower handle to rinse myself down.

Peering over the steam drifting in layers over the sunken stone baths I make my way over and ease my way into the hot water. The onsen is beautiful. A sunken stone pool outside, lit up in the early spring sunshine with bright pink bursts of cyclamen decorating the grounds. 

I gaze at all the different women’s bodies I'm sharing this pool with. I look at their thick, creamy white legs and the heaviness their hips, of the young student who talked to me and the xylophone of her ribs and study with envy the sheets of their black, shiny hair twirled up into chignons.

It's like a Degas painting in here, beautiful and sensuous and steamy. Women of all shapes and sizes huddling in corners or floating in the water in a world of their own. 

Old ladies help each other over the slippery tiles, giggling and a mother guides her little girl down into the waters. 

There is a something I find so special about this ritual of communal bathing with our own sex and soothing - the softness, camaraderie and safety of women of all ages gathering and bathing naked.

It reminds me of other times and other cultures where i’ve had the pleasure of experiencing something similar.

I oncespent several happy nights in Luang Prabang, Laos wandering through the tumbling rain and jumping over the puddles in the broken stones of the road to join the local women at their herbal steam room. 

Here young girls in their twenties showed me how to wrap my cotton sarong and tie my hair up in a knot. They handed me barley tea outside when i needed to cool off and gave me the communal pumice to slough away dead skin on my body. I will always remember the deep, steamy heat and medicated air of that steam room and the soft hushed giggles and whispers of the women I shared it with whilst the dark, chilly rain pounded outside. 

In Morocco and Turkey I’ve stood naked and shivering whilst a little old lady in plastic knickers throws a bucket of foam and water at me and then scrubbed me down with a brush. Laying on a thick marble slab i remember anticipating a relaxing western style spa massage only to endure an hour long torture of my poor muscles being slapped, poked and pummelled into submission.

It reminds me of an anecdote one of my friends told me,  who also experienced the baths of Morocco and, unable to believe that one should enter naked,  found herself standing in soggy bra and knickers in ornately decorated tile room where everyone else was naked. I wonder how much i’ve missed not having a ritual like this in my Western world where its more normal that women have been pitted against each other in the office or are held up for scrutiny in the gossipy trivia of the glossies.

Would we be as fixated with the body beautiful and burdened by the pressure to conform if we had this regular ritual in our day to day experience in the UK.  Sharing a zumba class together and then getting changed after at the local gym just doesn't cut it. 

That sense of female bonding seems so far removed from the smoothies and hipster cafes and mindless TV and grafitti of South East london. Perhaps my female friends who are mothers get to share a female solidarity in baby and toddler groups with each other i've missed out on so far - but even that portion of our lives is such a small segment in comparison with the whole. I imagine having a place when I was a teenager where, instead of the likes of Page 3 or Conde Nast dictating how and what our bodies mean, we were able to experience the whole gamut of female body shape and life from the very young to the very old. Where we could find solace in a regular ritual amongst women of all ages and use that to define both our comfort and our relationship with our own bodies as well as with other women.

I like to think, if i ever have a little girl, I would try and incorporate this ritual into her life...Not sure how achievable its going to be this side of Waterloo Bridge though... !

 

Lonely in Pai - Part two

Pai, Thailand

Last week I talked about how I combat feeling a little lonesome on the road. This week I'm trying a new strategy cheerily entitled "letting the loneliness in!"

KK Hut (situated up in the hills of Pai, Thailand near the circus school) is run by quite possibly the nicest two people you could ever hope to meet. Kwan and Kon are a husband and wife team who are accompanied by their psychotic rooster Shalong at all times (warning - do not wear black flip flops*.) They offer a mosquito net suspended over a mattress in a bamboo bungalow with hammock and the three quid price includes a fab breakfast of fresh fried eggs with toast and jam. It’s the cheapest place to stay in Pai and also one of the friendliest.

First thing in the morning I brush my teeth at an outdoor sink in front of the toilets in the breeze block shelter and feel like I’m at Glastonbury. It’s amazing how far I’ve come from the Champagne and Chanel of my London corporate life. If some of my city friends back home could see me now they’d hold an intervention. After travelling the world for a year I’ve spent the last 6 months in Thailand working on what’s next and now the rainy season is upon us.

It’s Forrest Gump kind of rain. You know the type:

"Little bitty stingin’ rain… and big ol’ fat rain. Rain that flew in sideways. And sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath"

The corn fields opposite are lit up from the thunderheads. I spend the rest of the day lying in my hammock watching the broad leaves of the banana trees drip and glimmer in the drizzle and reading "Remains of the Day" with a steaming mug of hot tea. It’s all making me feel very homesick for Britain. A central tenet of Buddhism is trying to accept things the way they are - because it is our craving for our present situation to be different that creates "dukkha" or suffering. But I am not being very good at accepting things the way they are! Right now I don’t want to be in Thailand. I miss roast lamb dinners, a crisp glass of Chablis and cups of PROPER English breakfast tea! I want to see fine art and wear mohair jumpers and hear the crunch of autumn leaves under my boots. I miss dancing the night away with girlfriends or snuggling up on the couch with a boyfriend and the latest HBO dvd box set. How can you accept something when you don’t want to be here?

Recognising Resistance

I come to realise that recognising my resistance is the first step. There is a difference between being alone and feeling lonely and perhaps loneliness is actually my resistance to being on my own. Eventually after tiring myself out with feeling miserable I gradually come to realise why most spiritual practices harp on about acceptance and letting go - its actually rather practical advice. If all we do is stay in the negative mind set of not wanting to be where we are - how can we find the perspective and clarity needed to find a way out of it. The Tibetan Buddhist teacher Rinpoche gives this example: Buddhist travellers used to have to take an isolated path in Tibet high up in the hills and invariably those crossing it would get attacked by bandits but they had no choice but to make the voyage. The clever ones made friends with the bandits, and offered them money to escort them safely to the other side thus warding off other bandits and allowing the robbers to make more money as well.

The lesson he says – is to become aware of our problems and then let them in:

"Once you've made your enemies your friend there is nothing left to fight anymore..."

Understanding Impermanence

I'm helped in moving to a state of acceptance by remembering another tenet of Buddhism, Vipassana meditation. This technique encourages us to focus on listening and reflecting on the impermanence of the world around us and in ourselves. Listening to, for example, the sudden whirring into life of a cicada's wings or noticing the sensation of a flaring up of pain in one of our joints and then also noticing when the sound subsides or the pain dimishes. Right now because I’m alone I’m able to do exactly what I want and when I want. I spend long lazy days, swimming and writing and reading and eating amazing Mango Pie (found at Art in Chai.)

Who knows when I’ll get the chance to do this again or even where i'll be this time next year. Soon I may be married with a couple of kids in tow or living abroad with an exotic argentinian lover (here’s hoping!) Maybe i'll be ensconced in another capital city working on my own business. The times in our life where we really get to pare everything away and be by ourself are few and far between and I may not have the beauty of this alone time again for a very long time.

Appreciation through Mindfulness

Pai Chan Cottage, Pai, Thailand

I move to a beautiful place in Pai called Pai Chan Cottage. For just four quid a night I get a little wooden bungalow with big ensuite hot shower and they have a great chill out area with hammocks, a swimming pool and restaurant that does some seriously good breakfast bagels. Now that I’ve become conscious of how temporary this state is I know I can truly begin to appreciate it.

Mindfulness is a non spiritual form of meditation that encourages us to let go of thoughts and just concentrate on what we are experiencing in any given present moment. When I wake up in the morning I try noticing the intense luminous green of the sun light filtered through the melon tree outside my bungalow, how the crisp water of the pool envelopes my skin as I go for my early morning dip and the ripples on the water left by the dragon flies that skate the surface. In the distance the rice fields are filled with bright yellow butterflies. I feel truly blessed and lucky to be here.

The Pain of Being Human

As I've got older I've come to believe in the Jungian concept of the collective consciousness. Somehow, somewhere - I believe that on a spiritual level we are all connected. Or to put it in a more poetic way - No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main. As written by the 17th century poet John Donne. Yet the very nature of taking earthly form in a human body and becoming an individual means that from the beginning of our life we bear the pain of our separateness from the whole. It is this pain that we feel - I’ve come to realise - when we are truly alone with out any distractions. it’s easier to work a 50 hour week, read a newspaper, jam our ears with our ipod , row with lovers, watch mindless tv,or drink the night away than face the fact that - as Rilke said:

We are all unutterably alone.

When we peel all of that away and just connect into silence and being alone we also connect into that deep emptiness and pain of isolation that is a natural part of the human condition, that is both exquisite, and terrifying in equal measure. And then something else happens too. With no job, no lover and no family around to make demands on me and having stripped my life of all external influences I’m able also for the first time to see clearly the internal obstacles I create all by myself. Who would have thought that it would be my perfectionism or my need for recognition or a million other little insecurities that have probably been so much more expert, insidious and skilled at holding me back from achieving what I want all this time than anything the external world threw at me. And yet up until a couple of years ago – it was so easy just to blame the shitty job or the wrong lover. How much more insightful and valuable to know that its actually me that's my own worst enemy! And scary too - but at least once you see that part of your self you can take responsibility for it, own it and change it - see the darkness and shine a light into it.

There is a great interview on Conan with the stand up comic Louis C.K on what it means to face up to the deeply exquisite pain of what it means to be human. I highly recommend a quick look here if you haven’t seen it :) The truth is this year has been difficult at times, for all those travel blogs out there who witter on about how easy it is to make friends on the road and how you’ll never be lonely the truth is however many new friends you make there will always be times when you find yourself alone and if you end up doing some long term travel there may well be points where you find yourself feeling lonely. But that doesn’t need to be a bad thing. Let the loneliness in. Because what better opportunity do we have than when we are off travelling the world and have left behind all of our relationships, work, friends, family and the bombardment of media that assaults our senses on a daily basis to take the space and time needed to live with ourselves and see ourselves just as we really are.

Have you had a similar experience on the road or off? - I'd love to hear your stories in the comments below.

 

  • PS Shalong the Rooster thinks black flip flops are other roosters and tries to engage in a cock fight by racing at your legs, flapping his wings and pecking you on your feet (the little b****d.)

 

 

Lonely in Pai (part one) or "How to make friends for travelling introverts"

Pai, Thailand

Just ask any traveller you bump into what the best thing about solo travel is and you can bet your bottom baht that at least one bright - eyed buddy will pipe up:

"Ooooohh you’ll never have a moment alone if you travel by yourself - You’ll meet more people than you ever would with friends!"

So it was I came to be sipping a fresh brew of crystallized ginger tea in a bookshop cum cafe aptly named - Lonely in Pai - pondering this most common of travel platitudes in hippy hang out Pai - Northern Thailand and coming to the conclusion that…well for me at any rate… it ain’t necessarily so.

Now before you throw your hands up in despair and say you thought this site would encourage and inspire solo female travel let me just say this - OF COURSE its easier to meet people on the road. Whereas smiling, making eye contact and inviting someone out for dinner may have had me pegged as a nutter in London - its practically de rigeur once on the road. If you are a natural extrovert: gregarious, charming and full of the joys of spring and being around people is what charges your batteries - then you can easily manage your travels to make sure you are never alone.

But I’m an introvert. I prefer to build a few, deep friendships rather than hit the 1000 friend mark on facebook and I need plenty of time and space alone to recharge. This has had some distinct advantages for solo travel. I like to think its my independent, pioneering spirit that has had me confidently tackle 15 strange new countries in 19 months, got me through 3 days of mountain trekking in Southern China and survived 7 days of silent meditation in Thailand.

But I’ve also realised that its my need to "vant to be alone" that can become my own worst enemy when constantly travelling to and settling in new places. I’ve found it all too easy to use the comfort of being in my own company as "my go to" default setting. How much easier it is to sit and read a book than strike up a conversation with someone new, so much more hassle free to organise the days activities by myself than compromise with a group, so much less work than having to answer "and where have you travelled to so far" for the umpteenth time that day. And because its so damn easy to have dinner by myself that is what I will then do for 5 days on the trot with nothing but a voice in my head for company until suddenly I realise I’m feeling not just alone but…lonely.

And the realisation strikes that what is most easy for us isn’t always what’s best for us. I find when I’m by myself for long periods of time that it gives that voice in the head free reign to rear its ugly head. That’s the problem with us innies (introverts) we have a tendency to ruminate - and before you know it my harmless analysis has turned to anxiety and wondering to worrying.

If, like me, you don’t always find it the most natural thing in the world to make five new best friends an hour ;) then here are 7 ways I’ve found useful in getting myself out of the loneliness trap and out there connecting with people on the road.

1) Just Say YES 

It was Guatemala - Antigua, he was a tall, gorgeous, twenty something German with a goatee. I was wearing a strangely ok looking long black vest dress. They were all going off road quad biking and they’d invited me to join them… "I can’t ride a bike" I stammer… eyes locked onto his chocolate browns. "It’s ok, you can ride on the back of mine" he answers. So of course I said…………. "Er no thanks," Whhhhhyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy? Perhaps it was not being able to think that quickly off the top of my head or because I was still mooning after my last romance . More likely than not it’s because I was afraid. Afraid of saying yes to the unknown connection. So make a decision to just SAY YES and be spontaneous to whatever offer comes along and not just if the asker is a tall, gorgeous German dude with a goatee. 

2) Get Out there and Do Something less Boring Instead!

Even if no one else has made you an offer - make a decision to get out there and do an activity anyway. One of the best ways of taking my mind of …well my mind… and meeting new people is to do a day excursion or an activity. If you’ve been travelling or living somewhere a while on the road you may have decided that your adventure is oh so much more authentic than the hordes of other tourists and holiday makers passing through and heaving themselves up to the temple on the hill or the cooking class - BUT it’s still a great way to meet a bunch of new people and just get yourself out in the (hopefully) fresh air…

3) Have an Impromptu Art Lesson in Hoi An.

hoi an, Vietnam

Or rather say Hello to someone you’d never normally meet. I ended up having an impromptu art lesson in Central Vietnam when I wandered into an artist’s back room by mistake and asked him where I could buy some drawing paper. He cleared out his own beautiful ink drawings, got out some scraps of rice paper and handed over the brushes to me patiently watching my own half assed attempts at minimalist art with the instructions "no wrong only right." :) Try to cast judgements aside on the road, you may not be sure the strangely bearded man in the bob marley tee and the luminous board shorts is going to be your next best friend, but you never know. Part of the fun of travelling is meeting people you wouldn’t normally ever meet and they could at least end up making a very interesting dinner companion.

4) Slum It in Shared 

can be tempting as an older traveller - to go for a private room but staying in a dorm for at least the first night of your arrival somewhere new makes it so much easier to meet people. If the thought of "getting down with the kids" makes you come out in a cold sweat then take heart that not all dormitories are created equal. Some - notably the IHA branches - seem to deliberately cater to teens on their first trip abroad but many are suitable for older travellers as well as being cheaper than a guesthouse. They’ll often have communal hang out areas as well as organising group activities and entertainment.

5) Put down the shield and smile

Portland, Oregon

I read once that if you are attending a networking function you should never eat the canapes because in group situations we retreat back to our primate days and animal behaviour dictates that we leave each other alone when we nosh.(Just think how growly and riled dogs get when you try and get near their dinner bowl while they are eating!)So if you are dining alone be sensitive to that and strike up a conversation before the food arrives. Likewise if people see you glued to a computer screen or engrossed in a book then they are unlikely to start chatting. It can be tempting to take some reading material along for company but its easier to make new friends without the shield of glowing screen or spine of book to hide behind.

6) Surf Couches, Meet UP

Couchsurfing was a godsend when a 3 week trip around Colombia was canceled at short notice and I found myself with an unexpected month to hang out in Buenos Aires. I joined and posted a notice saying I was soon to be arriving in Argentina and got a flood of 30 or so invites out. Yes - if you are a solo female traveller - you may need to pick through the dodgy romantic offers but it’s worth it and when I decided to settle in Chiang Mai for a little while I made a couple of close female friends through the site who helped me discover the eclectic and jazzy nightlife of the little city.

Pai, Thailand

7) Find the Communal in your Community.

There are some places both on and off the backpacker trail that become legendary in traveler circles as natural hang outs where communities form. Pai in Northern Thailand is one such place. Here - as Otto (a long haired, beared Thai hippy and owner of Art in Chai)explains: "It doesn’t matter who you are…what you look like, where you from. In Pai no one judge you. If you love Pai…Pai love you." Perhaps that’s why travellers who visit this village nestling in a valley of Northern Thailand intend to stay for a few days and find themselves here days, weeks and even months later.

It isn’t just the attitude of the cheery Thai Hippies with their skinny tie dye clad frames and long hair that makes this place so relaxed and welcoming, there are some great communal hang outs where you can meet other travellers too. "Art in Chai" that Otto owns is a great place for coming and chilling for an hour or three. They make fresh chai latte with delicious soy, vanilla or coconut milk and grind up the spices in front of you. There are bookshelves for reading material, art (designed by Otto) to browse and its also a place where local and travelling musicians are welcome to turn up and jam. As one long term expat Mike said:

"This is the kind of place where its easy to make new friends."

It stays open late though most regulars move on to the live acoustic music sessions at Edible Jazz off the main walking street once the sun goes down. Another great communal hang out. So there you have it - that’s 7 ways to deal with loneliness on the hoof but the truth is however many friends you make there are inevitably going to be parts of your trip where you find yourself alone.

In Part 2  I'll be looking at how to embrace and accept those moments of down time on the road. 




Shangri La - Shangri L'aint.

The next morning I am enjoying breakfast and online when Jane (or her replacement) asks if i'm going to Shangri La – beause they are organising a mini bus – swweeeett. 

So with minimal effort on my part I hurriedly shut down the computer and get on board. It takes around another 2 hours to get to Shangri la – formerly Zhongdian district on the border of Yunnan province and Tibet. You can only get into Tibet as part of a tour group as a Westerner – but my tour into Tibet was cancelled by the Chinese authorities – official reason – change in requirements means they need 5 of each nationality in a tour group for it to be viable. Unofficial reason – I suspect - is because of the recent immolations (setting fire to oneself) from Tibetan monks in protest at the Chinese handling of Tibet and fear of the Western media. 



Although the bus is one of the better i've been on in China the journey up North is truly terrifying – as we ascend the mountains on a perilously windy mountain path – the hill side becomes shrouded in mist. On my right there is a sharp drop with only an occasional calf height barrier that breaks away every now and again -the driver can't see two foot in front of him and in the other lane is oncoming traffic. If I was a Christian I would start crossing myself about now – I can't bear to look so I keep my eyes tight shut and just hope its over soon. Gradually we start to descend a lttle bit towards town and the mists begin to clear. 



Shangri La was renamed in a marketing ploy to attract more tourists to the area and references the James Hilton book -The Lost paradise which is where the name first appeared. Shangri la – a fictional place, a paradise. You can see the landscape alter as we move towards Tibet – the dark wooded mountains of the gorge rise and fall and rise again into the vast snowy peaks heralding Tibet. 

The bright lime green of the paddy fields blur into into the dark green cabbagy patches of leaf vegetables and fields starbursted with bright scarlet shrubs. The The locals are all tanned a deep nut brown because of the intense mountain heat and have bright pink candy apple cheeks. Their clothes are brightly multi coloured woolen scarves wrapped around heads and little fat cheeked babies papoosed to their back. 



The bus deposits us somewhere and I get an ungracious female cab driver to drop me near the old town. Zhondian or Shangri La is huge – I was expecting a couple of windy roads, the odd hairy yak wandering down the street, bright glistening mountains against a china blue sky and yocals laughingly welcoming me into their home. No not quite – its pouring with rain, the new town is large and neon and the first thing I see is a Nike. I get deposited outside the old town which is a few criss crossing streets of tourist tat- and think Shangril La? - Shangril'aint'. 

N' kitchen is the hostel i've booked. I go in and am ignored for a good 10 minutes. I finally make my way to a crammed dormitory with a cleaner singing tunelessley. I put my back pack down and start to take my shoes off, when I pick it up again its covered in a white powder. I don't know why -but I know STRAIGHT away what it  is. I look at the wall where it was lying and I can't see anything. I cover my hand with my jumper and wipe it off. I look again more closely – there are holes in the wall with little innocent white crystals poking out. Its asbestos. I know this because I was FORCED to attend a presentation on the subject at work. Out of the entire 30,000 strong company I was one of the last to go. Although i've worked in the property industry for years I really didn't see the relevance for a marketer. To give credit where its due – the man who insisted on making the presentation mandatory for all employees had lost his father to asbestos poisoning and gave as passioned and interesting a presentation as could be given on the subject .It was also terrifying – how evil, corrosive and noxious the substance is – and how you just shouldn't ever EVER come into contact with it. Unfortunatley since then – and maybe because of that presentation and my penchant for travelling in third world countries where asbestos regulataions don't apply i seem to have done nothing but come into contact with it. In

 

South America two years ago I went down a silver mine in Bolivia where the guide cheefully told us we were leaning on raw asbestos and now this. 

Bet you are glad you are reading my blog now aren't you?? – sod Fifty Shades of Grey i'm referencing the Asbestos Regulations of the 1970s. Rock and Roll people. 

I wipe the stuff off as best I can, put my jumper in the wash (which in hindsight probably just dispersed it amongst the rest of my clothes) and tell them i'm leaving again. 

I find a hostel down the road and move in there. There is no restaurant or cafe attached and the beds are all lind up in two vertical rows so that people sleep head to toe - but the walls and floor are wood lined so I take it. I go out in the pouring rain and am already out of sorts – I think "I shouldn't need good weather to like a place and have a good time..." but...ohhhhh i kind of do!!! 



The next morning a gentle Japanese student - 19 year old Dai – asks if I want to go for a walk. So we head out and have a little wander round. It is absolutely freezing. I suppose I should have known this – we are near the mountains – the little streets are lined with over priced mountain gear, woollen scarves and pashminas. Dai ends up buying a beautiful dark blue and violet scarf that he lends me in the dorm room. He then heads off to the monastery -which is the main – no only sight to do here... and I have a walk around town. At 115 Y to get in – i'm going to give it a miss – its only around twelve pounds but is also under rennovation at the moment and has apparently become very touristy with the monks trying to flog you their home made medicine. 




The sun comes out and when it does its very very strong and of course everything looks a little better. I have a little look around the back strets – the street food are pickled eggs, fried baba (the Tibetan unleavened bread) which Dai buys for breakfast and Bao dzur – steamed buns filled with meat. I buy some bracelets of silver shapes on red string and a turquoise pendant. The main square – has a free museum with propaganda written by the Chinese Government in worship of the Red Army. They have locals in traditional dress you can have your photo with and a man with a huge hairy tibetan dog in a scarf – that I reluctantly part with a quid to get snapped with. I do like big hairy dogs quite a lot though.

 



There is also a temple in the main square and the walk up has me wheezing and the lactic acid beginning to burn in my calves. At 3200m high Shangri La is one of the highest cities in the world (sometimes called The rooftop paradise) I'm lucky I don't get altitude sickness (some people vomit or feel nauseous from it) but I do feel a little lightheaded and the beer at lunch probably didn't help! The Traditional Tibetan temple is decorated with streams and streams of pastel coloured flags and at the top there is a huge bright gold Dharma wheel with ropes attached that you can grab hold off and help keep turning. At one point it stops and everyone makes a pitying whine - until some more people grab hold and join in. I make my way back to the hostel and en route find myself standing outside a cafe with the bloody Arsenal Crest on the front. Typical! i think. You come all the way to the border of Tibet up 3500 metres surrounded by nothing but mountains and toothless locals and yaks and what do you see - Bloody Arsenal...well they have just renamed it Shangri La! 



Our dorm is joined by a few more people – a bubbly little chap from Hong Kong called Marco, Mark – a short Southhamptonite with a strangely bristolian accent and Georgia - a Bristol university student with baby face who manages to last about 12 hours before deciding that Shangri la isn't her cup of Yak milk butter tea. 

Mark and I decide not to do the monastery but instead visit the Temple of 100 chickens. After what seems like a lifetime's walk we get to the top of a hill and am greeted with the brightly coloured bunting that is traditional here. Two monks in dark red robes greet us as we pay our respects inside and walk around the perimeter, a chicken obligingly stands in the doorway for a photo opportunity. The sun has come out again and on the way up the hill locals are sitting and chatting. You get a beautiful view over the whole of Shangri La from here with the mountains in the distant- and for free. Well worth a visit. 


That evening we are all planning on shipping out as soon as possible- its cold and there is really nothing to do. Marcus and Dai have been to the Napa national park which costs around 30 quid and worth it if you ca afford it. I would come back only with more money and time and a companion who could either drive a bike or a car into the surruonding countryside. Mark and I have had a yak cheeseburger for lunch – juicy and salty! 


At around 4pm I say..."right lets get pissed then shall we?" ... 

"It doesn't matter how old you are... (what's he trying to say) 

 



or where you are from in the UK" says Mark...."If you end up in a town with nothing to do for the day and the weather is crap there is only ever one solution - getting pissed." Its true! I'm more British than i thought... 

And decide to spend the money we've saved not going to the monstary on sharing a yak hot pot for dinner. It comes in a huge black earthen ware carved pot that has glowing embers at the bottom to keep the stew hot. The meat is on the bone and surrounded by root vegetbles and glass noodles in a soupy broth that gets topped up by a waitress from a tea pot. We order some barley bread to go with it and a long awaited beer and tuck in. It tastes great. time. 


The next day I say goodbyes to the boys who are heading back to Lijian and head back to Dali –one of my favourite places so far - where i'm hoping its warmer...

Beauty, botox and blowdrys in Chiang Mai

And now to address the burning issues of the day, where to get a decent hair cut on the road? 

 

Hair that  needs help

The great thing about South East Asia is how cheap everything is, but cheap doesn’t always mean good right? Chiang Mai is rammed full of dental whitening studios, plastic surgeons and all the obligatory spa and massage places. But sometimes paying 3 quid for a manicure means you get…well…a three quid manicure. Forking out just a small amount extra at a decent place means you can avoid paying sky high city prices from the west and still maintain fabulousness on the road.

Here are my top 3 beauty bargain hideaways in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Blowdrys…

Vera at Icon Hollywood in Nimmanhemin (the posh, boutiquey part of town,) is a long willowy Thai with fashionably cropped and bleach blonde hair. She honed her trade in San Francisco and New York before coming back and setting up shop in her home town. She picks up my hair like its a piece of drift wood or old straw (actually it is) and asks: Riiiiggght what are we doing with this then?? After a year on the road with only one other pitstop to see a hairdresser my roots and highlights have transformed into a two tone head with more contrast than a walnut and mahognay table top. My roots to my ears are my natural dark brown, the rest are the remains of blonde highlights that a year under Asian sun have turned bright yellow. “Which colour did you want to go for?” she asks hesitantly.. Oh god. The blonde the blonde!

She manages to tame the birds nest and rehydrate the straw and cuts it so that the layers nicely frame my face and the ends are left chunky and dare I say it…almost healthy looking. Then she tackles the roots and gives me perfect, sun kissed, fresh from the beach highlights. She is officially my new favourite person in the world. I think she might be the one. You know -the hairdresser you spend your life searching for. I’m worrying about how I’m going to fly all the way back to Chiang mai just for a hair cut after I leave Thailand - a 700 quid flight price seems excessive from the Uk but then I have been searching for someone who does my layers like this my whole life! The best news is, the cut and blow dry itself only sets me back 500 baht - or a tenner. I have two colours on my hair for highlights on long hair which costs around 40 - 50 quid. Still a good twenty to thirty pounds cheaper than back home and as good a quality too.

Beauty

So having sorted out the mane its on to nails. You can get a manicure anywhere in Thailand, most of the massage and spa places offer it, and charge around 100 - 150 baht (or three pounds.) My advice? It’s worth finding a nail salon that specialises in manis and pedis and paying a bit extra. For a fiver (so lets face it still not breaking the bank) the girls at Thai Nails over the other side of the Ping River - agonise over my colour. They buff and they scrape and they massage. It’s a little embarrassing… traipsing around the world in flip flops has left my feet with more than its fair share of hard skin, callouses and brittle nails. How attractive.

Botox and other Skin Care Essentials.

 Forget Argentina. Chiang Mai is fast becoming the go to place for cheap cosmetics.I have been monitoring the line developing between my brows for about 15 years now - I’m nothing if not obsessive. It still has yet - in my humble opinion - to reach the critical stage. However I’m dismayed to see what a year under Asian sun has done to my upper arm and decolletage skin. I’ve been applying the factor 50 religiously and since I stopped travelling I’ve bought an umbrella and when that didn’t help given in and covered up with long sleeved tops and hippy pants. This didn’t however, un do the great swathes of the previous year where I dressed like a 20 year old back packer in cut offs and vest top - because - well quite frankly -because I could.

Or correction, thought I could. Turns out you really can’t get away with using coconut oil and a string bikini and excessive arm exposure and not pay the price at our age. I feel like such an idiot. There is something about us British. The old Noel Coward song “Mad Dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun,” is so true. It doesn’t matter that everyone knows all the sensible advice about covering up, and not sunbathing between 11 and 3 etc as soon as I get anywhere near a beach and the sunshine comes out I feel compelled to strip off and lay myself prostrate on the sand. So as an aside - prevention of sun damage is much cheaper and more effective than anything the beauty industry has come up with to combat ageing. Keep the tops of your arms and chest covered in strong sun as well as wearing a high factor and high quality UV sun cream (some of the sun tan lotion sold in Asia is actually fake and not that effective.) In more traditional areas such as Chiang Mai and the North you should be keeping your legs and arms covered anyway so invest in long sleeved cotton tops and trousers and an umbrella - which comes in handy in the temperamental rainy season.

Dr Danai is married to Miss Thailand and is a preternaturally young 49 year old who looks 25 if he is a day. He cheerfully has a look at my skin, peers dubiously at my cleavage and then the tops of my  arms.

"Weeeell"  he says

"You should wear sunscreen."

 Yeah great thanks for that. He puts one of those scary mirrors in front of me (the kind that magnifies your face so you can see every single open pore on your nose) and then draws imaginary lines across my face horizontally dividing it into three sections, eyes and forehead, cheeks, nose and jowel and chin and mouth. Botox he explains - is his forte. He goes into a long winded reason about the fact that it's a  preventative measure as it is repeated frowning and pulling our faces into these shapes that eventually leaves the lines - however the more I look at my face the less I want to have I done.

I quite like my laughter lines.  There, controversial - i've said it. 

I know that men find youth and beauty attractive but I think they make my face warmer and more interesting than the blandness I had in my twenties. I ‘d like better quality skin and some facial exercises to stop the jowels would be good but overall I dont think I look to bad for pushig forty. Dr Danai is very disappointed. But cheerfully sells me a micro peel and microdermabrasion for around 30 pounds (half of what I would have paid in London) He leans over and confides: 

"Before your menopause the best way to stay young? Eat anti oxidants and exercise. "

So there you have it and from the horse's mouth. Do exercise and eat lots vegetables. It really isn't rocket science after all.

His  clinic is clean, hygienic and the staff sweet and attentive. The treatment I have is good value, they pummel and use diamond tone microdermabrasion. And then a face cream. 

But if the needle’s your thing then this is the place to go. And as an aside, the only skin cream sworn to work by beauty therapists is Retinol A - and the only percentages you can buy high enough to do any good won’t be found over the counteri n the west.

 You need to buy Stevia A or Retin A 0.05% and in Thailand its available over the counter at Boots for a fiver. That’s what I call a result.

 

The Silver Temple and other Chiang Mai Secrets...

Chiang Mai, Thailand

OK - I spent around 3 months in total in Chiang Mai - and let’s get something straight.

1) I do not (Mr Tuk Tuk driver) want to visit some zoo on the outskirts of town and lie my weary traveller’s body against the flank of a Tiger and get it’s whiskers all up in my grill

2) Ok I’m still on point 1 - but really? People want to do this? Sensible, intelligent friends I met did this. Am I the only one that thinks this is crazy? Not just distressing for the animal - but logically speaking - the tigers have either been drugged which is why they are docile enough to have hordes of idiot back packers having their photos taken with them. Or they have not been drugged - which means they could - if they so desired - snap (their jaws) at any minute. Either way - I’d rather see majestic wild animals in the wild - not in captivity.

3) It’s not a Butterfly and Orchid farm without butterflies in it. It’s just an orchid farm.

4) When a 60 year old man tells you he loves Thailand because the barriers don’t exist between ages and he enjoys partying with his 21 year old Thai twins who are just “friends” it’s time to move to another venue.

Rant over.

So where do you go and what do you do in Chiang Mai - if, as a slightly more discerning traveller you don’t want to rest your head against the chops of a tiger; traipse up the top of Doi Suthep with 900 other people; cram yourself onto the streets of its night market to look at hawkers selling rip off tat or chug back the cheap cocktails at backpacker haven Zoe’s in the centre of town with the rest of the 21 year olds, Thai teenagers and sexpats?


I based myself in the less touristy part of town - at a place called Life in Town (a clean a/c room with smart ensuite and cable tv - plus secure gated access) by Suan Pung Gate (south gate) for around 150 quid for the month - and spent the next couple of months discovering places off a little more off the beaten track.

Wats Up? The Silver Temple.

If you have been travelling around Thailand for any amount of time you may well reach a point where you feel “all Watted Out.” It’s not that these beautiful temples or Wats with their peaceful courtyards, intricate and bejwelled exteriors, and glowing golden rooves aren’t fascinating but even the sight of a monk with a bright orange strimmer the same colour as his robes - trimming his hedge - wasn’t enough to tempt me inside after the 100th on the journey so far. Until I discovered Thailand’s only silver temple - practically on my doorstep. The temple was built in the 16th century and is situated down Wualai road -the traditional silver making district of Chiang Mai. It really is a view to behold. On the day I’m there it sits shimmering like a steel pan behind the deep blue of the October sky.

The entire temple and roof is clad in silver panels and the grounds are also home to a silver making school as well as a Monk Chat programme where you can pop along and chat with a monk about Buddhism, meditation or anything else that takes your fancy!

The main ordination hall is called the Usobot and women are not allowed to enter unfortunately due to ancient Lanna tradition. Ah well. It’s also very close to the Saturday (Wualai) walking street which offers a slightly less hectic version of the Night market - filled with colourful little stalls and street food.

An Art Lesson with Nonnie.

I have been vowing to take up drawing again since I hit the road. I’ve met a couple of painters on my travels and thought it would be lovely to keep not just a written and photographic record of my journey around the world - but a painted one as well. Oh the best laid plans etc - it never came to anything. But I did manage to go to one art class! Nonnie runs a studio of the main touristy road - MoonMuang. She’s a slightly intimidating and non smiling - self taught artist who works out of a studio rammed with half finished oils, charcoals and other offerings from her students. Rin - my friend and I are first given a box of postcards - to find a picture we wnat to copy, and then we are set up at an easel. Nonnie brings us a ginger tea and clucks at her demented pussy cat that’s making a strange howling noise (i didn’t think my artistic skills were that bad.)When it looks like I’m perilously close to cocking the whole thing up, she deftly takes my paintbrush off me and with a few sharp and confident strokes sorts the whole thing out. I’m not a terrible artist - it was always one of my favourite subjects at school no thanks to the villainous Ms Sage who - unfamiliar with the concept of positive praise - hissed every vitriolic comment out of her mouth through an aggressively snarled lip. However I’m sorely out of practise. It’s a little bit painting by numbers - for the very artistic this class doesn’t offer much creativity and I expect those far more talented than me may resent someone else stepping in and taking over with their masterpiece every once in a while. But I’m grateful for all the help I can get. It’s a calming and satisfying way to while away a morning with the brusque but kindly Nonnie, her ginger tea and her unhappy pussy.

A Haven of Tranquility

For a small city, Chiang Mai can feel suprisingly hot, polluted and crowded at times. For some sweet sanctuary away from the madding crowd - why not try a class in one of the healing arts or wellness centres that the town is known for. Tucked away down a little side street around the back of Chiang Mai Gate Market is Wild Rose Yoga - a beautiful little oasis in the city with brightly coloured wooden parasols in the garden area and an intimate little yoga room. I tried the Vinyasa flow class there in one of Thailand’s hottest months (kind of like getting a bit Bikram thrown in for free. ) http://www.wildroseyoga.org/


YogaTree studio, Chiang Mai

The Yoga Tree studio on the west side of the moat also offers free meditation classes and yoga as well as Bio Danza (a joyful and liberating type of dance class where the emphasis is on non verbal communication and reaching a state of Vivencia - pure joy!) I took part in a 2 day dance festival earlier this year - and found myself dancing along to Flashdance with 40 other women (and one slightly scared looking man) at 11 o clock n the morning - which was, quite frankly, a brilliant way to start the day. The studios are set far away from the main road in lush green gardens.


 An’ All that Jazz*

Hipsters, ChiangMai, Thailand


If you want to avoid the tourist trail and coffee shop mecca of Thapae Gate, and can give the central backpacker night club Zoe’s then hie thee to a couple more out the way establishments for a classier evening. The Gossip Gallery and Bar is situated on Wichayanon Road just outside the the north east side of the old town. It’s a very small and cosy venue with some large leather comfy seating and lamps. It features live jazz from local musicians thursday through to sunday and there’s an art gallery upstairs with regular exhibitions. For a more scenic view - cross the Ping River and make your way to The Good View for a meal and live music overlooking the water. I visited Windy’s - another intimate live music venue - filled with trendy young Thai’s drinking whiskey and a Thai hipster duo on acoustic guitar. It was a bit like being in Shoreditch - except of course the G&Ts were 70p instead of 7 quid ;)

Any secret places you’ve found in Chiang Mai that you want to share? Let me know in the comments below :)

*Please note that I was in Chiang Mai between April and October 2013- and that many bars and restaurants seem to change owners, close and reinvent on a regular basis in this city!