MONGOLIA: STILL IN THE GRIP OF GENGHIS by Glenn A. Baker

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It helps to understand the sheer scale of the conquest. No Roman Emperor, no British monarch ever controlled more of the planet than the Mongols. The grand sweep of the Khans took them west into Europe, east into China and south to Java – the largest contiguous land empire in world history. As the text books tell us, Tenggeri, the sky god of the Mongols, gave Genghis Khan the mission of bringing the rest of the world under one sword. He near enough succeeded.

Mongolia no longer has aspirations to bring the world’s citizenry under its control, though it is determined to entice as many of them as possible to its sumptuous realm, where the Central Asian steppe, taiga forests, blue lakes, the Altai mountains and the Gobi Desert meet in a high landlocked plateau between Russian Siberia and northern China’s plains.

Of the mighty array of attractions, there is none more potent than Naadam, one of the most dramatic and exhilarating events of its kind in the world. A summer festival believed to have existed in some fashion for centuries, it is a Grand Final of sorts, a summit playoff of horseracing, archery and wrestling events (the ‘Three Manly Sports’, with some earnest knucklebone throwing tossed in as well) staged during the year throughout a country the size of Alaska peopled by only two and a half million.

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But, more importantly, it is an affirmation of the Mongolian spirit. To witness ranks of riders surging into the central stadium of Ulaanbaatar on the same compact, sprightly horses that the great Genghis rode into battle – surrounded by athletes, monks, dancers, soldiers, musicians and nomad herders – is to glimpse the grandeur of a civilisation that shaped the world as we now know it. Then to see horses race, at ferocious pace, in their hundreds through vast valleys, while tens of thousands cheer them on; and to observe rotund but almost balletic wrestlers trounce an opponent and then prance across an arena in a traditional victor’s Eagle Dance, is to be enveloped in a culture of extraordinary strength.

Though fiercely proud of their rich heritage, modern Mongolians are neither hostile nor warlike; a hospitable warmth is at the heart of their collective character. And while some visitors venture into seemingly untouched terrain where a GPS co-ordinate is more useful than an address, they first pass through a city of shopping malls, supermarkets, boutiques, restaurants, yellow cabs and mini-skirts. Unexpected contrasts pile one atop the other. A Lenin statue a block from a swish fashion catwalk, a 4WD sharing a road with a yak cart, a plush western hotel a short drive from a ger (traditional round felt dwellings) camp.  Some stately buildings are topped with massive signage from the days when Moscow called the shots, patriotic exhortations ranging from Let’s Improve Mongolia to May Mongolians’ Faith Always Improve And Develop Like Their Fire.

Nowhere are these contrasts more intriguing and more rewarding than in Mongolia’s startling wealth of music and performance arts. There is a spectrum of sound that can scarce be believed. At one end, the grand and sweeping classical orchestras, sustained in showpiece style by the Soviets over decades but thoroughly Mongolian in their use of local compositions, and traditional performers playing the Horse Head fiddle and other Mongol-designed lute, wind and percussion instruments.

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At the other end, a range of powerful rock bands of long standing – Jargalsaikhan, Chinggis Khan, The Hurd and Haranga – whose CDs are stacked in Tokyo-type record shops alongside the offerings of hip hop, rap, dance and new age entities such as Saraa, Funksta, Gennie, Urna, Hulan and, famed for the anthemic Born In UB, Masta Flow.  And straddling them both – acclaimed and ethereal Mongolian throat singers such as Booyoo, who somehow simultaneously bring forth from their voicebox both high and low notes in spell-binding manner.

There is so much pouring out of this long locked-away country that it is hard to keep up with it all. Those who come expecting to be confronted by the past in a nation that has just celebrated its 800th birthday are soon caught up in the present, with promise of the future. Jasper Becker may have titled his essential book on Mongolia The Lost Country, writing of “wandering tribes, prophets, shamans and mystic kings – where the wolf still stalks the wild horse across the treeless plain and where the eagle hangs in the blue sky searching the bare mountains” but what strikes visitors now is a real sense of making up for years lost. Not only those who make their way there – an easier exercise than may be imagined, with relatively brief air links from Seoul and Beijing – but those who seek out at home groundbreaking and award-winning Mongolian films like The Story of the Weeping Camel and The Cave of the Yellow Dog.

All carried on under, it would seem, the watchful eye of Genghis Khan, the relentless thirteenth century warrior who fathered over a thousand children and struck fear into more hearts than any leader before or since. The very mention of his name was forbidden by Russian overlords but today it and the accompanying image is absolutely everywhere in Mongolia – from towering statues to vodka bottles, hillsides to t-shirts, banknotes to postage stamps, airports to cultural spectaculars. Leaving you in absolutely no doubt as to where you are and who was there before you.

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His was an incomparable genetic footprint. Because Genghis (or Chinggis as he is known at home) had a particular version of the Y chromosome and was no slouch when it came to spreading his seed, it has been possible for an international team of geneticists to determine that one in twelve men in Asia, or about 16 million men in total across the planet, today have him as their forebear. A few years ago, a London restaurant, Shish, offered daily DNA tests at its two branches, with free meals to those found to be descendants of the legendary warlord. That promotion was just a tiny part of a global fascination with a late bloomer hailed as a murdering savage on one hand and a wise father of international diplomacy on the other.

A dichotomy left unresolved by the Japanese-funded big budget feature film set to arrive in 2008. Gen

Modern Mongolians are as fascinated by themselves and their heritage as everybody else. In this land without fences, the last “wild west”, where near toxic fermented mares’ milk is swigged like cola, all ride high in the saddle; that is when they bother with saddles. The horse to human ratio is 13 to 1 and there seems to be permanent blur in your line of sight as sturdy steeds fly by. There are popular eight-day horseback expeditions through the mountains outside Ulaanbaatar, undertaken alone or in a group. With the horses as certain of the terrain as the camels are of the Gobi desert, there is a rare sense of absolute unfettered explorative adventure.

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As agreeable a city as Ulaanbaatar may be, the primary attraction of this country and the principal business of its slew of tour operators, is road trips across its vast surrounds and to its far corners made both possible and comfortable by an uncountable number of Ger (or yurt) camps which have opened up the county to pretty much all-comers with the portable communal tents that have housed nomadic herders for centuries.

Now there are refinements – restaurant, modern shower block, gift shop – but the essence is pure. Across steppe, mountain and desert, by blue lakes and under mountain outcrops, this is where you stay and the experience is both agreeable and unforgettable. There’s sheep stewed in a pot, yoghurt delivered by passing nomads (half the population qualifies for the term in some way), a brace of swift horses on call, and visiting serenading throat singers and Mongolian movies on a small screen to pack you off to a serene sleep.

The ger girl comes by at about 6 AM to stoke your fire. By prior arrangement, of course. Apart from the odd crackle from the steel stove that is the centrepiece of your circular felt world, you hear nothing; she’s done this before.

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Increasingly popular are two- and three-week expeditions, out to Western Mongolia or in “The Big Loop” that sweeps down south to the Gobi and north to the alpine lake of Khovsgol Nuur. They take in massive dunes, mountains, glaciers, canyons, raging rivers, dinosaur quarries and desert monasteries, with hiking, fishing, riding, swimming, climbing, kayaking, dune sliding and camel trekking integral to the experience.

Most of the visitors arrive around July and not just to catch Naadam. Just as Antarctic visitors take advantage of a two month “window” that starts around the middle of December, Mongolian venturers are generally keen to avoid winter temperatures that descend to minus 30 centigrade. As your Lonely Planet guide will warn you, “Ulaanbaatar is possibly the coldest capital city in the world”.  But in July and September the dust storms have settled, the days are warm, you’re still taking photographs at 10.30pm without need of a flash, the skies are clear, the air is pristine, and the atmosphere enormously amenable.

Ulaanbaatar is not just a gateway to Mongolia. Take the two-and-a-half hour Korean Air flight from Seoul and you can join the daily sleeper train that will take you, with a connection, past Lake Baikal and on to Vladivostock, or link you to the Trans Siberian Express. Next door is the equally vast Kazakhstan, with its own array of compelling societies and terrains. (its cloaked eagle handlers cross the border to entertain tourists).

Freed of the Russians, indifferent to the Chinese, the Mongolians have eagerly aligned themselves with the globalised world, claiming the right to pick’n’choose, with feet in myriad camps, whatever comes their way. With one foot in the thirteenth century and another in the twenty-first, they are a people to contend with.

Capital-dwellers eagerly frequent a branch of the Californian-based Mongolian Barbeque chain, even though, as one young patron admitted, the expensive fare on offer bears little relationship to anything ever served at her family table. It’s all about the thrill of the new and there’s no shortage of that.

Yet it is the thrill or at least the promise of the very ancient, the uncovering of things once hidden, that is bringing the world to Mongolia. If there’s a red carpet at Ulaanbaatar Airport, it would be rarely rolled up. In recent years, a path has been beaten to the exotic and intriguing land by an illustrious array of planetary citizens. Not just George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin but the Dalai Lama, Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, a Chinese premier, a Japanese prime minister and prince, a Thai princess, Turkish, Vietnamese, Hungarian and South Korean presidents, a Canadian secretary of state, a UNESCO director-general and Julia Roberts, who went to live with nomadic horseman and learned to milk yaks.  But then, given a chance, who wouldn’t? It’s a mental checklist sort of place, a destination that even the vaguely adventurous factor in for some stage of their travelling life.

So cogent is Mongolia’s representation of freedom and possibility that it has become a starting or staging point for investigation of what may well be the world’s last great frontier. Some fly in from Seoul or Beijing to join the daily sleeper train that connects with the Trans Siberian and will take you past Lake Baikal to Vladivostock, Russia’s easternmost port. Others venture off toward neighbouring Kazakhstan, Manchuria, or the bordering Russian republics of Tuva, Buryatia and Altai, each with its own array of compelling terrain and societies. A Hamburg To Shanghai car rally snakes through the country during the summer (few would dare it during the winter harshness).

Horses remain a constant as you shake the dust off your boots in Ulaanbaatar and prepare to depart. You can see them prancing near acrobatically indoors in the city, bringing to life tales of Genghis and his Mongolian hordes through handlers of far calmer demeanor. You are never allowed to forget just where and in whose company you are.

©2014 Glenn A. Baker. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.

 

WALKING WAIKIKI’S CIRCUS SANDS By John Borthwick

“Lovely scenery, quiet, pure air, clear sea water, and heavenly sunsets,” reckoned Robert Louis Stevenson when he holidayed at the Diamond Head end of Hawaii’s Waikiki Beach in 1893. You can still sense the beauty that he celebrated, albeit in clichés, even if a large hotel now squats where the Scottish author once mused. The waves still roll out of an ocean that’s as blue as a postcard’s promise but now there is a Legoland of some 35,000 hotel rooms looming before it.

 

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Take a walk with history for a couple of kilometres along the Waikiki shore and its smaller beaches and coves reveal a deeper self. I start with the folksy-corny and much photographed Hula Show at the Waikiki Shell. Since 1937, this free performance has packed ’em in with hula dancers swaying demurely (no lusty Tahitian-style groin-grinding here, please) to the strains of the matronly Royal Hawaiian Girls Glee Club. A century ago, manic repressive Christian missionaries almost succeeded in stamping out Hawaii’s supposedly obscene “hoola”. Today, the show’s finale, in which the lumbering Moms and Pops of Middle America – dressed in flowered mu-mus, socks and sandals – attempt the hula, suggests that the missionaries had at least an aesthetic point.

 

Waikiki beach, Oahu Island, Hawaii Copyright 2008.  John Borthwick

 

Waikiki means “spouting water.” In pre-colonial times, when lush with fishponds and food gardens, it was a haven for both royalty and commoners. With the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 by US business interests, the area degenerated until it was, according to one citizen, “most unsanitary and unsightly.” The mess of mosquito-riddled swamps was drained by the construction of Ala Wai Canal in 1922 and the rest, as they say, is real estate history.

Sugar-plumed swells roll shoreward all day. Long before haoles (Caucasians) came, Waikiki was a surfing mecca. Today, the break is a mosh-pit of kayaks, canoes, tandem malibus and a bulbous yellow catamaran. It’s hard to believe that surfing — he’enalu — nearly died out here by 1900 (thanks to the censorious missionaries) before it was revived by Honolulu locals, including Duke Paoa Kahanamoku (1890-1968), who spread surfboard riding around the world, including to Australia.

 

Waikiki beach, Oahu Island, Hawaii Copyright 2008.  John Borthwick

 

At a stretch of Waikiki known as Kuhio Park Beach, I watch the Duke’s descendants, Hawaiians of all ages and races, flinging themselves shoreward on body boards. Not far away stands a large bronze statue of the great waterman. When it was erected there were dark murmurings about why he had been stood — wrongly, in local opinion — with his back to the sea? The answer was simple, symbolic — photo-opportunism. The Duke was made to face inland so that Gidgets from Ginza and sand-challenged flatlanders from everywhere might frame themselves before him in an instant of surreal authenticity, with his once-regal beach as their backdrop. The Japanese love of Waikiki contributes greatly to its prosperity and the proliferation of surfers from Nippon, many with bleached blond hair, means that Honolulu Lulu, Queen of the Surfer Girls, today looks more like office lady, Yokohama Yoko.

 

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With the presence of millions of domestic and international visitors each year Waikiki today is like a Surfers Paradise squared, a Cancun cubed. Its tsunami wall of accommodation glares back at the Pacific, an empire of balconies where everyone is Sun King, or Queen, for a day. New arrivals, fluorescent with first-day sunburn, weave amid a group of women struggling across the circus sands in high heels. A bikini-clad girl gets swamped in the shorebreak while nattering on her phone. Massive Hawaiian beach boys on equally massive boards dance like ninjas across lines of bluebird surf. Inescapable are the voluble, exclamatory haoles, often from inland mainland USA. “Are we on the island of Waikiki?” yells a conference escapee from Utah. A teenage Beavis emerges from his first dip in an ocean, hollering to his friends, “I got sand in my pockets! Hey, I got sand in muh butt-crack!”

 

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I stroll north towards lunchtime, which presents me with the choice of the four essential local food groups — chilli dog, shave ice, burger or spam sushi. I settle for a sandwich. (And why not? The early British colonial name for Hawaii was the Sandwich Isles.) Munching, I fall into step with a surfer, Rocky who’s striding towards the reef break at Ala Moana. He’s a local, one of Waikiki’s 30,000 permanent residents. Like many people on Oahu Island, Rocky is a bitsa, “hapa” (half) this and that. As he says, “Hapa-Hawaiian, hapa-haole Portuguese, hapa-Chinese – you know, da kine, all-Hawaiian.”

 

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There’s no mistaking the cochineal-pink confection I’m soon standing before, Waikiki’s most famous pile, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, a Moorish-Deco seraglio of colonnades and archways. A royal coconut grove of nearly 10,000 trees once stood here, along with the summer home of Queen Kaahumanu, a powerful, 19th century Hawaiian regent. The 384-room Royal Hawaiian that sprouted in their place in 1927 was touted as the “finest resort hostelry in America”. Nearby, in the courtyard of the nearby Sheraton Moana Surfrider – known as the “First Lady” of Waikiki’s hotels – I relax under a huge banyan tree that is some 130 years old, with its branches spreading 50 metres.

In some places, Waikiki’s shore at high tide is no more than a few metres wide. With the sands regularly washing away, urban myths flourish about the source of their replenishment – everywhere from Florida to Port Kembla. The actual source is the nearby island of Molokai.

 

Waikiki beach, Oahu Island, Hawaii Copyright 2008.  John Borthwick

 

For early Hawaiians, the next section of Waikiki that I reach, now called Gray’s Beach, was a place of healing, of strong mana where the sick and injured came to be treated by kahuna physicians. Their beach is now much diminished in sand and probably mana, too, but soon it widens again at Fort DeRussy Beach, which is home to, of all things, a US Army Museum. This huge, anomalous structure was once a gun battery that the army tried to demolish in 1969 but the task proved almost impossible and so the building was turned into a museum.

Toe rings, tattoos, $29.99 aloha shirts, hula dolls and newbies surfing in sandshoes. Tourist culture reaches both its apogee and nadir in Waikiki. Alongside the tour groups is another set, the involuntarily transient, aka the homeless. Beached here in alleged “paradise”, they sleep beneath the trees of Fort DeRussy Park. Just behind them is a hotel, the aptly named Hale Koa (“the house of the warrior”) for US services personnel. Beefy military police attempt to blend in by patrolling the shore while jammed into a golf cart.

 

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By Paoa Park at the northeastern end of Waikiki, I’ve walked sufficient history. The Hilton Hawaiian Village now sprawls where Duke Kahanamoku’s family once lived and the legendary waterman learned to swim in the old-fashioned way, by being thrown in to sink or conquer the world. Out on the reef, his heirs, Rocky and his pals are pulling into the snappy, left-hand barrels of Ala Moana reef.

 

Waikiki beach, Oahu Island, Hawaii Copyright 2008.  John Borthwick

 

Sunset is coming. Soon the balconies of those 30-storey hotels will erupt in a flashbulb fire fight of cameras straining to catch infinity in a 35mm frame. I find a bar-with-a-view, the Duke’s Canoe Club, and ponder why — amid the relentless spam of tourist culture — do rubbernecks like myself still make the trek to Waikiki? Then again, to sit below this lavish, cocktail syrup sunset in a place where the Duke once rode giant, bluebird waves and kahunas strode the earth, and still be asking “Why?” seems like missing the obvious.

 

Waikiki beach, Oahu Island, Hawaii

Copyright 2008.  John Borthwick

Waikiki beach, Oahu Island, Hawaii

Copyright 2008.  John Borthwick

 

All photos and text are world copyright John Borthwick and may not be reproduced, copied or retransmitted by any means.

More: http://www.waikikihistorictrail.com

MIND GAMES AT MICHI: A PLACE OF TROPICAL NOIR DREAMS AMIDST THE JUNGLES OF UBUD, BALI by David Latta

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Sometimes the mystery is enough.

Over the span of more than 35 years as a journalist, mostly writing about the tourism industry, I’ve experienced some truly remarkable hotels and resorts. Those forever lodged in my memory have a consistent thread. They’re not the usual, cookie-cutter mass-market properties of bed, bathroom and balcony, marble vanities, 1000-thread counts, pillow menus and duck down duvets.

The truly special have a blatant disregard for the ordinary. They’re flights of fancy, balancing whimsy and imagination with an occasional nod towards function.

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The wow factor (to use that hollow phrase so beloved of marketers) is, to me, something that tilts expectations off the axis and spins them far out into the Twilight Zone. They’re usually the pet projects of truly inspired individuals, people who can only function in what the rest of us call the real world by taking their own dreams and ideals and fashioning them in bricks and mortar, stone and glass.

Some work, many don’t, for the simple reason that, all too often, that which the mind can envisage can never be satisfactorily realised in the real world. The visionary mind is an abstract; trying to fit it together like Lego compromises its very essence. Luckily, that doesn’t stop people from trying; we mere mortals can do little more than pick our jaws up from the floor upon experiencing the truly transcending.

As I did at the Michi Retreat in Ubud, Bali. I’m not sure I’d ever want to stay there but I’m sure I’ll go back, time after time, just to marvel at the audaciousness of the place, wonder at what could have been and hope it never goes away.

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The Balinese town of Ubud is said to have magical properties, a place of healing and spiritualism, and it has long attracted those seeking a different path than the rest of humanity. It’s no surprise, then, that in a place where alternative therapies, past lives regression, crystal healing, kinesiology, transformational breathing, reiki, aura cleansing, chakra realignment and dozens of different kinds of yoga are considered normal avenues for the attainment of enlightenment, that there are places to stay that complements such beliefs.

Ubud accommodation veers across the spectrum. There’s the Four Seasons Resort Bali At Sayan, which is a monstrosity or a stroke of genius, depending on your point of view. The Four Seasons spills down a deeply rainforested ravine with the Ayung River at the base, anchored by an ultra-modern tower that looks either like a spaceship or an airport terminal, again depending on your mood, inclination and generosity of spirit.

Further along that same ravine and river is the Royal Pita Maha, encompassing a selection of private pool villas. Owned by the royal family of Ubud, it is much more a traditional villa resort except for the long entrance driveway with some startlingly explicit statues of animals – elephants, pigs, frogs – with generously proportioned human genitalia.

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Traditional guesthouses, modern resorts, private villas surrounded by Ubud’s impossibly green rice paddies, there’s something for every budget and level of consciousness.

And then there’s the Michi Retreat.

The official website tells the story of a retired Japanese-American professor of history and sociology who built his dream some fifteen years ago. On the edge of yet another steep ravine, this time tumbling into the Wos River, the sacred river of Ubud, at the village of Jukut Paku, and opposite a rural vista of palm trees and rice terraces, he drew on a lifetime of influences to craft a rambling hotel complex where no one part is the same as any other and surprises await at every turn.

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Standing in the midst of Michi, as we did on a hot cloudless spring day, was a very different experience. There was an eerie, deserted atmosphere. The doors were open to the rooms and we wandered from one to the other, checking out the studios that evoke an ancient hillside Berber village as envisioned by Hundertwasser and the upstairs suites including one with subcontinental Indian and elephant motifs.

And the bathrooms! In every room, it was hard to tear our attention away from the bathrooms, each wildly different and supremely exotic confections.

Mosaics, stone, pebbles, mismatched ceramics, mirror fragments of all sizes; on the pool terrace, undulating concrete benches studded with jig-sawed tile pieces evoked the Parc Guell. The adjoining restaurant area postulated a fantastic pop-cultural meeting of the minds, its shabby post-apocalyptic opulence like a Eurotrash 70s disco designed by Gaudi.

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Aside from the restaurant, there were few signs of life. There were areas, dusty with neglect, that must have been, not that long ago, shops, a beauty parlour, a spa. The jacuzzi is dry, the swimming pool not quite sparkling. The villas, nestled into the wild jungle ravine at the other end of the property from the hotel, displays a spooky desolation, terraces crack, a private swimming pool drained save for a thigh-high wash of rancid water. It’s evocative enough during the day. Sweet dreams wouldn’t come easily within these walls.

There’s no reception at Reception except for leaflets announcing houses and apartments for rent within the complex on a daily and monthly basis. Amongst the facilities are listed “Kafe – Restorant”.

Where is everybody? A clue may be on a website now unavailable. It had the bizarrely honest admission that Michi’s “management is journeying through a paradigm shift”. When I last found the website, sometime in 2015, it hadn’t been updated since 2011.

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Michi is a hotel you’d expect to find on the edge of the American desert, perhaps envisioned by Sam Shepard and directed jointly by Antonioni, Jodorowsky and Ralph Bakshi with Tarantino relegated to second unit, run by a guy who looks disturbingly like Harry Dean Stanton.

It’s a familiar theme. You don’t want to stay there, it doesn’t feel right but your car has broken down, there’s a suitcase full of cash in the trunk and the cute little blonde at your side, the one with the elongated vowels and even more elongated limbs whose humid gaze can melt metal, is the mistress of a Texas cattle rancher with no sense of humour whatsoever.

You know the movie. You’ve seen it dozens of times under a variety of titles. And Michi seems like the perfect setting, even with the rice terraces and palm trees and the slim sleek cat who guides us around like a new best friend.

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As the fantasy fades, so the realisation dawns that, quite possibly, despite the air of neglect, Michi may be as magical as Ubud is meant to be.

I’ll come back to Michi. I’ll eat in the Kafe, swim in the pool, maybe even stay a night or two. Hopefully, I’ll meet the Professor. In a 2009 magazine article republished on the website, it mentions he’s 79 years old, which would now put him in his mid-80s. He’s had an amazing life, wandered the world, made fantastic friends, appreciated the arts and turned his dreams into a potent reality. I’d really like to hear his story.

There aren’t many opportunities to understand the genesis of a place as special as the Michi. If the Universe allows, I’ll get that chance. If not, then the mystery will have to do. I just hope the Michi endures.

© words and photos David Latta 2014

MOVING AT A FASTER CLIP by Glenn A. Baker

Classic Clipper in Andaman sea by Glenn A. Baker

 

They were the daredevils of their day, the Top Guns of the sea. Often barely in their early twenties, the near-fearless clipper captains of the mid-1800s drove their bonus-hungry crews savagely to please international trade barons engaged in fiercely-competitive ocean commerce.

Built “to move at a faster clip” and to “clip the waves”, in the days before the opening of the Suez and Panama canals, the young captains’ lean, sleek and heart-stoppingly swift vessels, jammed with cargo, rode the trade winds down one side of the African and South American continents and up the other; dancing around the globe at speeds never seen at sea.

British clippers, such as the famed Cutty Sark, carried passengers from London to the Far East and Australia via treacherous Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope, then hurtled home with holds bulging with grain, wool, tea and crates of fragile china.

Historian Carl B. Cutler, in dubbing them the “greyhounds of the sea”, described a classic clipper ship’s dimensions as: “lines clean, long and smooth as a smelt. Sharp arching head. Thin, hollow bow, convex sides, light round and graceful stern.” For another chronicler of the past, Samuel Eliot Morison, they were: “The noblest of all sailing vessels … our Gothic cathedrals.” Common crafts they were not.

The clipper era was brief but frenzied – introducing the now-familiar cult of the speed demon into an otherwise stately world. With gold discovered in California and Australia, the whole world seemed to be on the move. Prospectors had to be ferried about and new communities sustained. The British and American thirst for tea and fascination with porcelains saw the Sea Witch set a record of 74 days for the New York-China run.

Clippers were turned out of shipyards in England and Scotland, the American east coast (notably Baltimore), Scandinavia and other ports as fast as the craftsmen could fashion them (160 between 1850 and 1854 alone), with many now-legendary names, such as the Flying Cloud, Storm King, America and Ariel spoken of in awe. The clippers’ heavy rigging enabled a vast amount of sail to be spread and they commanded attention wherever they sailed, inexorably growing in size from the Sea Witch‘s modest 195 feet length to the Great Republic ‘s 335 feet.

But, almost in a blink, the era was over. The Suez Canal opened, a railroad was built across America and steamships made redundant a reliance on the wind. In 1870, when Buffalo Bill and Billy The Kid were astride their mounts and Lenin was being born, the Black Ball Line, the last hold-out, ceased its trans-Atlantic passenger services under sail. A decade later, it stopped its clipper cargo services, conceding that steam was cheaper and faster overall. Notwithstanding the Titanic‘s fate, steamships ruled until air travel became generally affordable.

The great clippers were gone but they were certainly not forgotten. At least not by Swedish schoolboy Mikael Krafft, who grew up in the shadow of the Plyms Shipyard at the port of Saltsjobaden in the Stockholm archipelago a century after the clipper boom’s peak and marvelled at tales of the Pommern, a four-masted steel barquentine still anchored off the Swedish-Finnish island of Aland. At the age of six, he was carrying varnish and wood stain for old-timers at the yard; not that many years later, he was dodging watchmen to climb the Pommern’s rigging. With a degree in Maritime Law, he embarked upon a business career that allowed him to indulge his passion as yacht-builder, ship owner and internationally-recognised yachtsman.

Krafft’s irrepressible dream of returning “thoroughbred” clippers to the world’s seas – which required an investment of US$80 million – was realised in July 1991 when the Star Flyer entered service in Caribbean waters and again in May 1992 when her sister ship, the Star Clipper, entered service in Mediterranean waters; both becoming the first clipper sailing ships since 1911 to be granted the certificate of highest quality by Lloyd’s Register of Shipping. These Belgium-built clippers also became the first sail vessels in 122 years to maintain scheduled passenger sailings between Europe and the New World.

The tallest of the tall ships were on the waters, to be marvelled at all over again. Though this time, with crates of cargo no longer stuffing the holds, comfort and luxury became the new imperative. Built to cater to the needs of somewhat spoiled late 20th and early 21st century wayfarers in search of the much-eulogised “romance of the sea” and what the travel industry terms “soft adventure”, Krafft’s crafts of polished teak and mahogany trimmed with gleaming brass are tastefully appointed (with an eye to clipper history) and artfully constructed.

Designed to carry up to 180 passengers apiece in 90 spacious air-conditioned cabins, they offer marble baths, queen-sized beds, a carpeted Edwardian-style salon dining room ringed by portholes, two swimming pools, cabin phones and televisions (with films and world news bulletins), an antique Belle Epoque fireplace, a cool library of Dickensian ambience, a Tropical Bar, a grand piano, regally furnished lounges, silken service, fine food and wines, and a remarkable amount of open, uncluttered deck space (some 11,400 square feet). Krafft had certainly tapped into a new age desire and fascination with his grand steel-hulled barquentines. The New York Times thought the Star Clipper “struck a pleasant balance between private comfort and conviviality, laid-back relaxation and island-hopping adventure”.

At 360 feet overall, the opulent Star Flyer and Star Clipper are longer than even the largest of the old clipper ships. The tallest of their four gleaming steel masts tops 226 feet, and the sixteen white, light dacron sails (far easier to raise and lower on the run than the old canvas variety) spread out to a massive expanse of 36,000 square feet. Most of us are dazed and confused by numbers but to set off in a small tender boat or zodiac and circle around these things of beauty from a distance which allows full perspective is to feel a puff of pride that one of those cabins, if only for a week, is actually yours.

Cutty Sark model

One was mine, on a cruise in the Andaman Sea along the Malay Peninsula in the company of about 130 passengers of diverse origin; a deeply-etched travel experience to be sure. Where once I had difficulty differentiating port from starboard, I was, within days of clambering along the gangplank, casually dropping into such jargon as jigger, mizzen staysail, halyards, hawser, luffing and furling – with not a “hey hey me hearties!!” to be heard (though there is a ship’s parrot).

In 1996, the Star Flyer began an annual sojourn in South East Asian waters after its Mediterranean program, effectively chasing summer. On its debut run, it recreated history, becoming the first passenger-carrying clipper ship to enter the Straits of Malacca in more than a century. Now it bases itself out of Phuket for a season, taking every advantage of Thailand’s famed white-sand beaches and islands, such as Surin, Rok Nok, Similian, Phi Phi, Dam Hok, Khai Nok and “James Bond Island” (as featured in The Man With The Golden Gun ). There is a certain amount of languid sailing-in-circles but it is a voyage of discovery.

On my journey, Captain Jürgen Müeller-Cyran, a German who went to sea at 18 as part of a family and regional tradition, was admirably well versed in sea lore, history, and even a spot of philosophy and creative conjecture. At his morning and evening “Captain’s story time” sessions by the bridge, the sailing neophytes in his care began to care passionately about reading the weather, recognising the stars and using the prevailing winds. All aspects of exploration and navigation seemed to hold him in thrall and, with only a little prodding, he would regale you gently with some of his seafaring theories, such as the origin of Christopher Columbus (would you have ventured Norwegian?). “Land is a ship’s enemy,” he has been heard to declare.

This is not a cruise experience for those who want glittering floorshows, pulsating dance floors, lavish casinos and an inexhaustible selection of cocktails. “We can’t copy what the large cruise liners offer,” says owner Krafft. “These are sailing ships …… what you will experience is the equivalent of a very large private yacht.” A yacht which, with the assistance of powerful diesel motors, is able to steal into shallow bays and remote ports and tie-up at docks which cruise liners would never dare approach. It is, as one writer has put it, the exotic “sensation of sailing on a classic tall ship to islands and ports of call where mariners have been blown by the winds of fate for centuries” which proves so irresistible to those who forsake the packed ‘party boats’ or ‘booze cruises’.

Clipper passengers – half of whom return – seem more inclined to climb out along the 46 foot long bowsprit and prostrate themselves on the ‘widownet’ (a vast hammock of rope and steel suspended high over the prow), feeling the breeze and the sea spray and watching the flying fish and the stars. Or to consult on plotting the course in the open-to-all charthouse, or to help the eight or nine top deck crew members hoist the sails, or to elicit tales from the First Mate about his hair-raising Whitbread around-the-world yacht race experiences.

There are invariably lifelong sailors on board as paying customers, living out their own dreams of childhood. For it is under sail that the ship comes alive and fulfils the measure of its creation. Where possible this is not “sail-assisted” cruising, as shamelessly practiced by most of the other tame ‘tall ships’ plying the leisure routes (and often charging considerably higher tariffs). Every propulsion advantage is taken of nature’s forces and on a standard week-long voyage a clipper is powered by sail 40 per cent of the time, sail and engine 50 per cent, and engine the remainder.

It is the former that most on board find themselves wishing, hoping and quite possibly praying for. When the sails fill and the ship bends to the wind to slice almost noiselessly through the water, even the most jaded travelling spirits soar. Little wonder that many of the passengers first saw the clippers from the decks of other cruising craft – while waving wildly, exposing a considerable amount of film and making a mental note to ring their travel agent as soon as they got home.

It is when the motors are silent that, Canadian scribe George Bryant has written, “She ghosts along, a thing of spectral beauty, gliding over the swells and through the waves like a trim, white apparition from another century, as graceful as a ballet dancer, as powerful as the winds which drive her.”

Yet, for all the ornate extravagance, there is no sense that this is a precious artefact that can’t be touched. An absolutely relaxed, informal mood pervades; nobody will tell you that you can’t drape yourself languidly over a polished railing if that is what takes your fancy. Meals are taken when and with whom you choose. There is basically no dress code. The casual mood of the 73-strong multicultural crew – drawn from 23 countries on my sailing – engenders an easy camaraderie among the passengers. Infectious West Indian laughter rises constantly.

There is also no strict schedule. As a rule, evenings and nights are for sailing and days are for landings and water sports (kneeboarders, sailboaters, windsurfers, snorkelers and scuba divers are indulged to the point of exhaustion by a set of indefatigable Scandinavian instructors and supervisors). As the sun sets and the sails are unfurled, the bars come alive, bets are often placed on a crab race, tales as tall as the masts are unleashed by crew and customers alike, ad-hoc talent show routines are cobbled together for a laugh, and books are read from scattered deckchairs. The backdrop to it all is the sense of inescapable history; pages torn from the journals of swashbucklers, discoverers and hardy mariners.

Yet, in some regards, appearances can be deceiving. The clippers, while intended to evoke the past, very much belong to the future when it comes to technology. Old salts and tars would no doubt roll over in their graves at the very thought of it but power winches with computer aid can have the sails aloft in a flash and a state-of-the-art ballast tank system can stem the ship’s roll sufficiently to keep the wine in your glass at dinner. An even keel, a smooth ride and quease-free passengers are a high priority at this end of the market. Adventure is one thing but few paying passengers are prepared to go green in the pursuit of it. On the Star Flyer in the Andaman, on the rare occasions that the sun was not shining and the waters not sparkling, it was case of monsoons, schmonsoons! These crews are hard to faze.

A writer for Diversion magazine on board the ship during a rare Force 10 gale in the Mediterranean in 1994 reported how “Resolutely, the Flyer sliced through the angry, purple sea with just one sail unfurled against the 60 mile-per-hour wind. Were we panicked? Hardly! This was sailing in its truest form and, for most of us, the ultimate in high adventure.” A communal bravado no doubt reinforced by the knowledge that the ship carries the highest safety rating of any commercial vessel in its class and meets rigid U.S. Coast Guard safety specifications that are often beyond many passenger ships outside American waters.

Krafft’s clippers usually slip along at a controlled 8-12 knots per hour with the ‘understanding’ that when conditions permit both ships are prepared to cut loose and exhilarate passengers. The Star Clipper, sailing erect with strong winds astern, was clocked at over 17 knots off Corsica just after it entered service. The Star Flyer, on one of its trans-Atlantic ‘relocation’ cruises regularly topped 14 knots. On its westbound ‘shakedown’ voyage in 1991, it averaged 11.5 knots for 2,600 miles, much of it under reduced sail after passing the Azores.

I doubt if we set any new records in the Andaman and I’m not sure if I wanted to. A few days in, my seven day journey seemed far too short to be hastening toward its finish.

©2014 Glenn A. Baker. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.

PERSIAN NIGHTS, IRANIAN DAYS by John Borthwick

 

IranCopyright 2009.  John Borthwick
Iran Copyright 2009. John Borthwick

 

“If men had to wear these things, they’d be outlawed tomorrow,” sighs a foreign woman who’s dressed in an obligatory, full-length black chador. We’re in a cool vault in Iran’s National Jewelry Museum in Tehran, but the perspiration on her brow tells that it’s more than warm inside her modesty marquee.

We peer into a display cabinet, at the crown of Iran’s last Empress, that features an emerald the size of a tail light. The walls flicker with refractions from the gem trove known as the Iranian Crown Jewels, an astonishing swag of pendants, scimitars, scabbards and tiaras that might make the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London seem like baubles from a cut-rate kingdom.

I notice a number of Western faces among the museum visitors. The men are dressed in short sleeves while all women are obliged to shroud themselves, with only face and hands showing. A glimpse of stocking is still something shocking.

 

02 Tehran teashop

 

“You son-of-a-witch!” cackles our taxi driver as we career through the streets of the capital. He’s gesticulating at other cars while showing us that English of sorts is fondly remembered by some Iranians. Despite the program of mutual demonising that the West and Iran have conducted over decades, during my week in Iran almost no one treats me like one of the real Satan’s lesser pitchforks. Despite being governed by theocrats and thugs, ordinary Iranians are courteous, eager for foreigners to enjoy their country’s sights and friendships.

Tehran is gritty and far too big, a metropolis of over 25 million people. The snow-capped, 5000-metre Alborz Mountains overlook the city’s faceless, blockhouse architecture and its deltas of traffic that are awash with seemingly rudderless cars. Within the melee we find the National Carpet Museum, a temple of the weaver’s infinite art. Its cornucopia of story-telling rugs embodies the decorative genius of regions like Tabriz, Kerman, Qum and Kurdestan. These 135 masterpieces make my finest rug at home look like so much linoleum.

On the forested slopes above the capital is the Green Palace, used by the last, and unlamented Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi for receptions and, it is said, his love trysts. Its chandeliers drip like crystal stalactites; the interior walls are tiled with thousands of mirrors. Meant to resemble a Persian Versailles, its effect is more akin to being trapped inside a palace of hallucinations.

 

IranCopyright 2009.  John Borthwick
Iran Copyright 2009. John Borthwick

 

Foreign tourists are again rediscovering Iran, although the annual total is still small. Tourism disappeared overnight when the 1979 people’s revolution ousted the Shah (only to be swiftly stolen by the mullocracy). In need of cash, the country’s theocrats toy with the Faustian bargain: risking cultural contamination in exchange for tourist lucre.

Travelling around Iran by air is cheap and efficient. Foreign tourists can wander freely through Iran’s great cultural centres, the heartlands of classical Persia. Shiraz, 900 kilometres south of Tehran, was the 12th century literary capital of Persia and is still celebrated not only for its Farsi poets, but also for silver filigree, silk rugs and (until the junta decreed otherwise) its namesake wine.

Beyond the town, dense groves of fig, pomegranate and almond trees leaven the desert scenery. At the Shiraz tomb of the mystic poet Sa’di (1201-91) our little group is surrounded by schoolkids eager to be included in any photo that’s going and clambering for our autographs. Welcome to your ten minutes of personal Persian Beatlemania.

 

IranCopyright 2009.  John Borthwick
Iran Copyright 2009. John Borthwick

 

Shiraz’s star attraction is Persepolis (“city of the Persians”), one of the world’s great archaeological sites. Intended by the Achaemenid emperor Darius I (who ruled 521-486 BC) to be his grand capital, Persepolis was torched before it was completed by Alexander the Great in 331 BC. The surviving stone staircases, terraces, fire temples and pavilions, covering 12 hectares, show the Achaemenians’ artistic brilliance.

Delicate reliefs on the walls of the Apadana Palace depict Libyans, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Turks and others bearing tributes to Darius. Less delicate is the graffiti carved on a plinth: “Stanley. New York Herald. 1870”. Henry Morton Stanley, I presume – the Welsh journalist-explorer who, one year later, waxed less destructively immortal in Africa with the words, “Dr Livingstone, I presume.”

 

IranCopyright 2009.  John Borthwick
Iran Copyright 2009. John Borthwick

 

Iran’s population, of 80 million, ranges from urban technocrats to traditional Bakhtiari nomads. While shopping in the bazaars, or over rich brews in coffee shops, and at all those grand monuments, we chat with many of them – strangers, exuberant schoolkids, proud parents, not to mention moderate clerics.

 

IranCopyright 2009.  John Borthwick
Iran Copyright 2009. John Borthwick

 

Esfahan, Iran’s second largest city, is 30 minutes’ flight from Tehran. This capital of the 17th century Safavid dynasty can keep a visitor in awe for days. One of its most picturesque structures is the two-storey Khaju or “Wooden Bridge” (that’s actually made of brick), stretching across the Zayandeh River. A tea-house tucked under it is described curiously in my guidebook as a place, “to sit and drink tea or smoke the hubble-bubble, surrounded by slumbering Esfahan manhood.”

 

08 KhajuBridge,Esfahan 2

 

We briefly visit Esfahan’s ornate Vank Cathedral, where Christian Armenians have worshipped since 1660. Several girls here have dropped their headscarves and after, less than a week in Iran, I find myself surprised by the sight of their lustrous (and allegedly lust-inducing) tresses. Equally “shocking” is the vision of men and women worshipping side-by-side, rather than segregated.

Our guide, Sassan, keeps Esfahan’s best until last, the grand Imam Square. Five hundred metres long and 165 metres wide, this grand maidan built by Shah Abbas in 1612 is hemmed by arcades, palaces and a pair of mosques whose domes and walls are covered in millions of blue faience tiles. UNESCO has rightly designated he area as “a masterpiece of the human hand”.

 

IranCopyright 2009.  John Borthwick
Iran Copyright 2009. John Borthwick

 

Dominating the square is the sumptuous dome and portal of Imam Mosque – as thrilling a structure as any on earth. Thirty-eight metres above my head, the dome’s blue ceiling might well be Heaven tiled. I clap softly, once – and seven echoes return in a volley of thunderclaps.

The turquoise and yellow calligraphies within the smaller Sheikh Lutfollah Mosque constitute yet another act of adoration in mosaics. This exquisite mosque honours a 17th century cleric whom my guidebook, in its inimitable way, describes as, “a sort of Islamic Billy Graham of his time”.

 

IranCopyright 2009.  John Borthwick
Iran Copyright 2009. John Borthwick

 

In a nearby bazaar I thumb through postcards of Persia-Iran’s passing parade of sometimes brutal rulers – sultans, shahs, mullahs and demagogues. In doing so, I recall the words of perhaps the most enduring Persian ever, the poet Omar Khayyam:

“Think, in this battered caravanserai

Whose doorways are alternate night and day,

How sultan after sultan with his pomp

Abode his hour or two, and went his way.”

 

IranCopyright 2009.  John Borthwick
Iran Copyright 2009. John Borthwick

 

Words and images ©2016 JOHN BORTHWICK. May not be reproduced or reposted, in part or whole, without written permission.

THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE: THE SEARCH FOR INTELLIGENT LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE DEAD-ENDS IN ROSWELL, NEW MEXICO by David Latta

RoswellNM83

It’s where it all began. UFOs, little green men, Mulder, Scully, the whole shebang. Most likely, it was also the beginning of conspiracy theories, the wide-spread public belief in government cover-ups and the modern day malaise of never believing anything we’re told, especially by authority figures. Roswell, New Mexico, has a lot to answer for.

It was part of a rambling road trip through the south-western United States; that morning, I’d left Las Vegas (the quaint and historic New Mexico town rather than its better-known neon-and-nihilism namesake) and had stopped off in Fort Sumner to visit the grave of Billy The Kid (which, despite all the odds, was actually there that day). The next stage of the trip was on to Roswell before heading to El Paso, Texas, to spend Thanksgiving.

It was late November and the expansive canopy sky was clear and blue yet with little warmth from the sun. The nights were freezing. On the northern edge of Roswell, I passed by the site where the “reputed” crash of a UFO and the recovery of the bodies of its alien inhabitants by the US military had occurred back in 1947. The black helicopters that seemed to track my progress were mere co-incidences at this time, as well the bulky dark SUVs that occasionally appeared in my rear vision mirror.

I reached the city limits of Roswell and that’s when things really started getting weird. If there had never been an “alleged” UFO crash, there would be no tourism industry to speak of and no other reason to visit this mildly pleasant but barely rememberable spot on the map. Roswell, to its credit, has taken the ball and run with it. Far out of the stadium, showing no signs of ever wanting to stop.

RoswellNM57

UFOs and aliens are everywhere, not merely inside the damaged craniums of the tinfoil-hat brigade. The Walmart has plenty, the many fast food franchises, including Arby’s, Denny’s KFC and Chilli’s have even more. The galaxies of gift shops hold nebula of T-shirts, shot glasses, ashtrays, beer coasters and snow globes. Everything you need to fit out an intergalactic space-age bachelor pad or the rumpus room of the Millennium Falcon.

The official City of Roswell website buzzes with spaceships and alien life forms, only a few of which are elected officials. Each July, there’s a UFO Festival that includes an Alien Battle Of The Bands and an Alien Wine Festival, although it should be noted that consuming alcohol while travelling at warp speed is not recommended. Long-suppressed reports of the 1947 UFO crash state that numerous empty beer bottles along with Doritos packets were found in the spaceship.

Ground zero for tourists to Roswell is the International UFO Museum and Research Center on Main Street. Dioramas and displays carefully explain the area’s history and little green men abound. Comfortingly, many look exactly as we would expect, cute creatures with big heads and certainly not the type to burst through the chests of unsuspecting humans or inhabit the bodies of loved ones when your back is turned.

In the gift store, I uncovered another disturbing link between Roswell and world history, a slim volume written by Donald R. Burleson titled UFOs and the Murder of Marilyn Monroe (Black Mesa Press, 2003). Trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, I made the purchase in cash, in small unmarked bills, and smuggled it back to the Hampton Inn and Suites.

RoswellNM63

On check-in, I’d asked the receptionist whether she’d seen anything other-worldly lately. It seemed to strike a nerve. She looked evasive, as if she knew everything she said was being recorded and beamed straight back to Area 51. Then she nodded and grimaced wearily. “Just my ex-boyfriend,” she muttered in a low voice.

I read Burleson’s book from cover to cover that night. His central theory was that John F. Kennedy had told Marilyn Monroe all about Roswell, crashed UFOs, alien autopsies and the subsequent political cover-up. She was murdered days before holding a press conference during which she intended telling the world of her discoveries.

Interestingly, Burleson had also published studies of H.P. Lovecraft which opens the possibility that Marilyn Monroe was killed not by the Mafia or the CIA but by Cthulhu itself.

I fell into a deep and undisturbed sleep while a harsh wind whipped the grassy plains outside. In the morning, I had no recollection of the previous few hours. I knew I had to get out of town. There was barely enough time for the free breakfast buffet although it was fair to say the blueberry muffins were out of this world.

The black helicopters followed me all the way to the city limits, then turned west. The spy satellites, I’m sure, are tracking me still.

©2016 David Latta. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.

OLD SOUTH WALES by Glenn A. Baker

Counties

You don’t need to go looking for Dylan Thomas in south-west Wales, he finds you – through exhibitions, museums, festivals, statues, cafes, pubs, street names, paintings, posters and snatches of words still hanging in the salty air.

Good Celts them all, the Welsh share the Irish bent for tale-telling and, around Swansea, so many of the best ones concern the man Hollywood legend Shelley Winters dubbed “The Horny Welshman”. In 1950, she took him home for dinner where he drank pitchers of gin martinis served up in milk bottles by flatmate Marilyn Monroe while singing Welsh songs; the sort of ditties he’d learned at The Mermaid and The Antelope, his Swansea pubs of choice when “this sea town was my world”.

I came late to the Welsh bard. Before Under Milkwood and Do Not Go Gentle, at least for me, it was Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. He’s there on the front cover of the 1967 Beatles album, in Peter Blake’s esoteric collage above Marlon Brando, beside Aldous Huxley, nearly clipped by cowboy Tom Mix’ hat. Blake has confirmed that John Lennon – who is said to have sometimes carried a battered volume of Thomas on his person during his Hamburg and Liverpool leather years – was insistent on the inclusion.

As I leave Swansea and wind around its bay to Mumbles and the Gower Peninsula, on the pilgrimage trail to the boathouse and writing shack at Loughnarne, there’s a copy of his Selected Poems on the car seat beside me. The back cover blurb is the right length for a traffic light stop. “Most notable for his verbal inventiveness, image-making power and almost pagan metaphysics, Dylan Thomas celebrated the glorious particulars of inner and outer landscapes in the face of weakness, mortality and decay.” Not hard to see why Lennon liked him.

Old South Wales - Swansea city centre 1 (GAB)
Swansea

I’m prepared to accept, though with not much graciousness, that not everyone who now trails this terrain has him as their filter. Mumbles, the busy seaside town beneath Mumbles Head, a popular resort since the Victorian era, which he summed up as “a rather nice village despite its name”, has a new fame. For this is where Catherine Zeta-Jones grew up and she still maintains a home there for regular returns. Chef Michael Knight, of Knights In The Mumbles restaurant in the town, makes himself available to cook privately for the actress and her family at said home. It’s a fascination, certainly, but will it last seventy years?

Mumbles is linked by a promenade to Swansea, Thomas’ “ugly lovely town”. It is to Cardiff as Glasgow is to Edinburgh – earthier, artsier, less accustomed to praise and patronage, ever obliged to try harder. It has tried particularly hard and, with considerable success, to showcase it – and Wales’ – pivotal role in the Industrial Revolution. A new National Waterfront Museum, built of Welsh slate, steel and glass and featuring 15 themed galleries and a hundred visual exhibits (three dozen of them interactive) graphically tells of a time, around 1850, when two-thirds of the families of Wales were supported by activities other than agriculture and copper smelting’n’shipping was Swansea’s distinction.

It’s a watery environment, to be sure, with masts in many lines of sight. It seems that there’s a Yacht Harbour Association and apparently they bestow an annual award upon marinas (five gold anchors no less). In 2005 Swansea’s took it out along with Singapore’s Raffles Marina and Australia’s Nelson Bay Marina. The brine also seeps indoors and in the vast Swansea Market teems local delicacies Penclawdd cockles and black laverbread, (made from edible seaweed).

Before leaving Thomas’ “blowsy town” to head “some miles [to] a very beautiful peninsula”, for which Mumbles is effectively a doorway, I’d been made aware of a certain status. Back in 1956, before such things had become commonplace, the Gower Peninsula was the first location in the U.K. to be officially designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. There’s been no small effort to keep it that way since.

Old South Wales - A beached marina at Tenby (Wales) by GAB
Tenby

Scattered across Gower are things that remind you that this is one of the world’s oldest countries. Along with Tudor manor houses, medieval fortresses and famed fly fishing sites are ancient standing stones, burial chambers, Iron Age hill forts, tools and flints. Truthfully, more than I expected. If you’ve not been before there’s a temptation to believe, as you pay your fiver and sweep across the high bridge over the River Seven, that you’re just popping in on a few counties of England Lite. I’d heard it described, or perhaps denigrated, as England’s unloved backyard – so close that it could not be given its independence but far enough to be conveniently forgotten.

The great reward of Wales is not only that it is so very Welsh – as distinctive as Ireland and Scotland – but that there is so very much of it, a torrent of villages, towns, motorways, roadways and laneways, coastline and mountain, and everywhere the handprint of human history. Somebody has gone to the trouble of counting its castles and it seems there are 641 of them – one of the world’s highest concentrations of ancient fortifications, with the oldest erected more than a thousand years ago.

Off and out of Gower (preferably after a Rhossili Bay sunset) heading west, it’s a motorway sprint and an inland spike to twist around the Towy River estuary to make it down to Laugharne on sweeping Carmarthen Bay, there to conclude the Thomas trail. Not just peering into the clutter of the work shack and then walking about the cramped boathouse residence some way beneath it but dropping into the photo-festooned Brown’s Hotel where he is said to have drawn inspiration for his characters. A starkly different sort of verse would be inspired by those who frequent the place now – more punters than poets.

Laugharne sends you to the seaward side of the A40, unquestionably the place to stay, notwithstanding that Carmarthen town, on the other side, is the legendary birthplace of Merlin The Magician and that the landscape is dotted by sites sacred to those who hold to be true the tales of Arthur and his knights – those who like to think they’re connected to the convergence of the power lines of the mind.

Old South Wales 3

Clinging to the coast is slower but infinitely more rewarding for the western side of the bay is the start of the ragged, jagged, tossed and towering Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, the only coastline in Britain so designated. With 70 named bays and beaches – one of which, Whitesands, recently ranked with St. Tropez and Copacabana for a Best 20 Beaches of the World award – it is a more dramatic and less-developed Cornwall.

Pembrokeshire will never be damned by faint praise. The recognition is constant, plaques are plentiful – coveted Seaside, Green Coast European Blue Flag Awards, citations from the Sunday Times and The Independent. There were 14 in 2005 alone, all acknowledging the charm of pastel-coloured Victorian terrace houses, walled towns, castles, inlets, havens, heads, off-lying islands and all those beaches.

Tenby is the showpiece, endlessly photographed but still startling upon first sight. It has three beaches and, high above them, an old walled town with some of the wall still intact. There’s a ferry out of Tenby Harbour to Caldey Island, where the orders of monks who have been in residence since the 6th century make perfume, fudge, shortbread and chocolate in the moments left outside the regimen of seven worship services a day. Those still intrigued by codes Da Vinci or otherwise explore the Old Priory with a certain fervour but most are content to stroll about St. Illtyt’s Church to locate the Caldey Stone inscribed in Celtic and Latin.

At Bosherton, around the coast a way on the Castlemartin Peninsula, is the 6th century St. Govan’s Chapel that requires visitors to make their way down a set of sprayed steps to the base of a sea cliff and gives the appearance of having grown out of the rock. The descent is accompanied by the sound of migrating seas birds – auks, skuas and petrels. Puffins, gannets, manx shearwaters and guillemots nest nearby. Isolation encourages plentiful wildlife. Badgers and otters are elusive but they’re there. A couple of thousand dolphins a year visit, as well as porpoises and humpback, fin, orca and minke whales.

Old South Wales - Hay-On-Wye bookshop window (GAB)
Hay-On-Wye

Between Tenby and Pembroke is, on different roads, Manorbier Castle – actually a medieval manor house on a hilltop above plunging cliffs – and Carew Castle with its famed Celtic Cross and the only restored Tidal Mill in Wales. Pembroke itself is a walled town near a century old with one of Britain’s finest Norman Castles. Henry VII, founder of the Tudor Dynasty, first drew breath there. The surrounding area is a gourmet’s preferred destination. The great foodhalls of London eagerly stock the region’s crabs, lobsters, cheeses, herbs, organic lamb and vegetables along with wines of the Cwm Deri vineyard.

It all gets a bit rugged and weatherbeaten beyond Pembroke Dock on the final leg through to the westernmost point of the park and of Wales. Solva is a village of great seafaring tradition that floods at high tide; the lower half nestling in a ravine at the head of a natural harbour. Then it’s just a little further along the shore of St. Bride’s bay to the city celebrating the patron saint of Wales, indeed the only Welsh saint to be canonized and culted in the Western Church.

While all around you is a town or village, St David’s is a city, though you’d be hard pressed to understand why if not armed with the information that it had been granted such status by Queen Elizabeth in 1995 because of the presence within its precincts of a magnificent cathedral that has been a dominant presence since the 12th century and a pilgrimage destination throughout the Middle Ages.

Unless you’ve a mind or the means to look in on the breeding colony of Atlantic grey seals on Ramsey Island or you’re driving a little north to Fishguard to take the ferry to Ireland (less than two hours) it’s a matter of turning around and heading off north to Snowdownia or east over the first rises of the Cambridge Mountains, past the spectacularly-sited and powerfully atmospheric Carreg Cennen Castle, into the Brecon Brecons National Park.

Now a determined dash will certainly take you from there to the addictive Hay-On-Wye near the English border – a village of some thirty bookshops. But there is a very well-stocked used book shop incorporated into the impressive Dylan Thomas Centre back in Swansea, and if you’d not spent enough time there first time around …..

©2014 Glenn A. Baker. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.