PETER PINNEY: THE MAN WHOSE HEART LAY ON THE FAR HORIZON by John Borthwick

Dust On My Shoes front cover

 

‘In a cobbled lane with a pompous name there was a well appointed tavern …’ So wrote Peter Pinney in one of his luminous tales of travel adventure. From Mozambique to Martinique and almost everywhere in between, Australian traveller and writer Peter Patrick Pinney (1922-1992) often found the tavern door to adventure standing ajar. He made a career of nudging it open and then stepping across the threshold.

 

‘Nobody ever lived their life all the way up except bullfighters,’ opined one of Ernest Hemingway’s alpha male characters. As far as I know, Peter Pinney didn’t ever fight a bull (most likely the foppish machismo of matadors would have struck him as vapid) although he did do battle with a spectrum of foes, from World War II Japanese invaders in New Guinea to sour French bureaucrats in a dozen colonies. Probably more than anyone else I have read – and certainly anyone I ever met – Pinney lived his life “all the way up”, and yet he was not an aggressive or self-aggrandising man. He was, by his own description, ‘just an ordinary, unremarkable sort of bloke – which often was very helpful in certain tight situations.’

 

This “ordinary, unremarkable sort of bloke” made a true profession of travelling – not as a tourist or explorer, but as an in-it-up-to-the-neck vagabond adventurer. His 1948 to 1950 overland journey (which became his first book, Dust On My Shoes) from Greece to India and then Burma pioneered the route which later generations of hippy trippers turned into the “Overland Route”or “Dope Trail” pilgrimage. Whereas many of them became trapped in the eye of a chillum in Goa or Pokhara, Pinney and his tearaway Dutch pal Marchand trekked on, illegally, across Assam and into headhunter country in upper Burma. There they were told, ‘No white man has come through those mountains since the British forces in ‘forty-five … and they took an easier route than you.’

 

Chindwin-Irrawaddy Map

 

His books are replete with frontiers: some physical, some political, and many bureaucratic. (He regarded “bickering with the Law” as the “natural corollary of travelling”.) But journeying for Pinney was not just the storming of backwater colonial borders or the accumulation of anecdotes as “next book” fodder. Instead, it was his work, both physical and intellectual, and his pages carry self-reflective passages where, often in conversation with some more sedentary local soul, he ponders the traveller’s philosophical conundrum: the slings, arrows and joys of the peripatetic life, versus the surgical drip certainties of hearth and taxes. A fat but unhappy baker somewhere on the Niger River warns him ‘… no man can be happy if his heart lies in another place, apart from him.’To which Pinney considers the possibility that: ‘Unhappy, then, is the man whose heart lies on the far horizon, and always moves ahead.’

 

Original early 20th-century Burmese 'steamer' passenger boat.
Original early 20th-century Burmese ‘steamer’ passenger boat.

 

Peter Pinney’s continuous “moving ahead” commenced while he was at a Sydney boarding school. He learned to “ride the rattlers” during his holidays and saw much of east coast Australia from freight trains. By the time he had matriculated (having hung by the knees from the arch of Sydney Harbour Bridge), his senses of both adventure and irreverence were sufficiently well honed that all he wanted (or was suited) to do was travel. But that was 1941, and “travel” then meant becoming a “dollar-a-day tourist” in the Australian Army.

 

WWII Commando Peter Pinney by IvorHele

 

‘I was firstly a traveller, then a writer,’said Pinney. ‘If I hadn’t travelled, I wouldn’t have been moved to write.’ With Army “travel” he started a life-long discipline of diary keeping, which in the Australian wartime Army was illegal. When the military censors captured his tiny, secret book, written in miniscule script, they “filigreed” it with a razor. Undeterred, Pinney continued recording; when posted to a jungle commando unit in New Guinea and later in Bougainville, the cat n’ mouse game of preserving his diary from preying officers continued.

 

As a writer, Pinney was an untutored natural. Riding freight trains, crawling through Japanese lines and living on your wits from civil war Salonika to Burma’s fateful Chindwin River may merit a double PhD from the university of life, but it is no particular apprenticeship in the art and crafting of prose. Yet, from the beginning his writing style was spare, observant and witty, with a novelist’s feel for dialogue and plot. Of writing his first book Dust On My Shoes (at age 28) he said:

 

‘… there seemed to be a great deal of work involved; and it nearly didn’t get written at all. I was in Calcutta, and I was broke, my last few rupees having been stolen as I was standing in a tram. But having dealt me several unkind blows, Fate allowed me to make the acquaintance of half a dozen airline pilots – American, English, Australian – who proved anxious to have someone look after their house. In my spare time I could write. I had no idea how to write a book. My only feedback was when one of the pilots picked up a typed page and read a few paras, laughed with friendly derision and handed it back.

 

But I stuck at it. I wrote 180,000 words and sent the manuscript to [publishers] Angus & Robertson. They said they would accept it – ‘but cut out 60,000 words’. If someone takes you to the top of a high mountain and says, ‘All these lands I will give you, if you cut your wife in half’, what do you do? So I cut out 60,000 words, whole sheaves of pages, adding a line here and there for continuity. And it became a best-seller, despite that derisive laughter.’

 

Smokin' Chindwin monk

 

For some 20 years (while encountering six civil wars, among numerous other crises), Peter Pinney lived to travel. He didn’t just travel in order to live by his subsequent writings. His peregrinations through Asia, Africa, Europe, the Americas, the Pacific, New Guinea and Australia became the grist of six travel books and one novel. After decades aboard, he returned to Australia. During the 1970s, he skippered a lobster boat in the Torres Strait Islands and in the 1980s finally came ashore to settle in Brisbane where he wrote television scripts and a trilogy based on his Pacific jungle war experiences – and those tiny, secret diaries which had preserved. Twelve books, six civil wars and at least ten passports is not a bad innings for any writer. Not to mention hanging out in Tahiti in the early 1960s and playing Marlon Brando’s double in Mutiny On The Bounty.

 

When I discovered his Dust On My Shoes, I devoured it (as only a restless, stuck-in-Sydney teenager could do) and then went on to read everything else of his that I could find. Credit, blame or thanks are due to him for having presented vagabondage to me as a perfectly worthwhile career option. Thus I travelled, and later became a travel writer.

 

Fishing canoes at morning on Ayerawaddy (Irrawaddy) River

 

The year before he died, his publishers asked me to edit an anthology of Peter Pinney’s best travel tales, which became The Road to Anywhere (University of Queensland Press, 1993). The question soon became (and remains): How can I leave out that bit — and that one? And so on. It was soon evident that the quartet of books that covered his extended absence from Australia, from 1947 to 1962, formed an extended narrative, a unique tale of out-there adventures “on the road” before travel (and then tourism) became not just a rare privilege but, as today, virtually an obligation.

 

I had the privilege of meeting Peter and his wife, Estelle, at their home in suburban Brisbane. Having the chance to meet a “hero” in the flesh is to run the risk of encountering perhaps a shadow of the person one has imagined. Peter, on the contrary, turned out to be all the humorous, compassionate and fair dinkum things that his pen had suggested – and much more. Like me, many people I know who’ve read his travel books remain secretly envious of how Peter Pinney lived his life, fully –  indeed “all the way up”.

 Shwe Moat Htaw pagoda beside Chindwin River

 

Burma’s Chindwin, Pinney’s river of no return

 

Most books don’t change your life. When I first came across Pinney’s Dust On My Shoes, I all but peeled the print from its pages, such was my enthusiasm for his epic tale of travelling in the late-1940s, overland from civil war-torn Greece, via the Middle East, Afghanistan and India, to Burma’s Chindwin River.

 

Whether among minstrels in the Sahara or smuggling booze in Central America, Pinney made an art of outwitting border guards and baiting colonial desk-wallahs, while befriending locals and staying one step – rarely more – ahead of broke, if not busted. Every few years, he would pull up a deserted beach somewhere – Zanzibar was one such place – and write a rattling good book about travelling on a freedom road that now is pretty much (as the Beatles said) “gone forever, not for better”.

 

Shwe Moat Htaw pagoda beside Chindwin River

The little town of Kalewa overlooks the Chindwin River in remote, northwest Myanmar – or Burma as it was in Pinney’s day. An old Buddhist pagoda, Moat Htaw, crowns its hill on the western bank. Raintrees shade the shore below the temple where people come to wash and chat each evening. Other than a growing population and a few satellite dishes, Kalewa’s riverfront probably doesn’t look dramatically different from how the twenty-seven year-old Pinney and his resourceful Dutch companion, Robert Marchand, 31, found it in 1949. They had worked their way overland from Europe, living off their outrageous if not larcenous wits while heading ever eastwards. Upon reaching Assam in northeast India, border officials detained them and absolutely forbade the pair to attempt to enter Burma.

 

Naturally, they did just that, escaping from arrest and hiking east from Nagaland through hazardous jungle terrain and mountain passes, at times in the company of tribal Kula head-hunters. Upon reaching Burma, they found their path again blocked, this time by the Chindwin River in monsoon flood, as well as by a communist insurgency on the other side of the river. To top it off, the British district officer arrested them (again), pending deportation overland back to India.

 

Older Burmese woman smoking cheroot

 

Determined to cross the Chindwin and press on to Mandalay, they climbed the hill to Kalewa’s monastery and asked the abbot for a letter of safe conduct once they had somehow crossed the swollen river. The monk first insisted on reading their palms but, foreseeing great misfortune in Marchand’s hand, he refused to assist in their plan.

 

Burmese Buddhist monk

 

Myanmar is a land of courteous people (if not generals), a place of both beauty and decrepitude where the 1950s are leap-frogging into the 21st century. When offered the chance to join the river ship Katha Pandaw on a cruise to the upper Chindwin, and in monsoon season, I grab it. Departing Yangon, we head up the Ayeyarwady River to Bagan’s treasury of 3000 temples. (“Are you stupa-fied yet?”quips our guide at the end of our day among them.) We soon join the Ayeyarwady’s main tributary, the Chindwin and witness Burmese time in rewind during our daily rambles ashore through market towns where streets are still called The Strand and where old European forts, warehouses and abandoned mansions recall the country’s colonial past.

 

British colonial-era buildings.

 

We wander through pagodas dense with intricate art, meet cheroot-smoking folk who smear their faces with white thanaka paste – local sunscreen – and sometimes we just take the pulse of day by sitting in a riverside chai shop. Rafts of precious teak logs head downstream while skinny canoes edge crab-wise across the current. Near Monywa, we visit Thanbodi Temple and its forest of half a million Buddha statues, plus an absurdly tall 125-metre Standing Buddha with a 100-metre long Reclining Buddha at his feet. Understandably, even devout locals sometimes call the place Buddhist Disneyland.

 

On board a Chindwin River cruise boat.

 

Our good ship Pandaw Katha is a teak-and-brass descendant of last century’s Irrawaddy steamers. Just add 16 ensuite cabins, good food, a wizened skipper, a for’ard viewing deck and ample gin and tonic. I wince to think what hard-travelling Pinney would make of it all.

 

We reach Kalewa towards the end of our 1000-kilometre, two-week journey. I hike up the hill that six decades earlier Pinney and Marchand had climbed in order to consult the abbot of Moat Htaw monastery. From here the broad river seems deceptively benign even in monsoon tide. Fishing pirogues drift on it. Women whack laundry on slapstones at its edge and labourers climb the bank unloading beer kegs from cargo boats.

 

Chindwin River

 

The two adventurers scanned the same landscape but a different river. The blue Naga Hills that they had just crossed lay behind them to the west and, beckoning somewhere ahead, was the proverbial road to Mandalay. Unlike my vista today, their Chindwin River was in full flood with whirlpools and eddies churning its surface. As Pinney wrote:

 

‘I looked at that swollen river racing past – we timed it at 12 knots – and listened to the boiling of the current as it turned the waters over and over and played with logs like matchsticks. I wondered whether there would be any chance at all even without the whirlpools.’

 

Regardless of the current and the abbot’s warning, early one morning the pair “borrowed”a local canoe and set out to take their chances. The canoe bucked in the torrent and soon capsized mid-stream. Pinney saw the seemingly indestructible Marchand swept away to never be seen again, while he, on the point of drowning, was rescued by villagers. Stunned, he later wrote, ‘The debonair, the cynical, the light-hearted, proud and resolute Marchand … the Chindwin had claimed him and rendered no return.’

 

Chindwin River

 

With our good ship’s safe, cushy journey over, like Pinney, we too leave the Chindwin River at Kalewa. For us, it’s only a bone-rattling bus trip to an airfield a few hours away and then an easy flight to Yangon. For Peter Pinney, expelled from Burma, it was a sombre turning-back westwards. He wrote, ‘Along the road to India I walked, away from the dawn, away from the river and out of the town, alone; and looking down I marvelled that there was so little dust on my shoes.’

 

Dust in my Shoes covers

 

Peter Pinney bibliography (travel, fiction and biography)

Dust on My Shoes. 1952, 1967

Road in the Wilderness. 1952

Who Wanders Alone. 1954

Anywhere But Here. 1956

Ride the Volcano. 1960

The Lawless and the Lotus. 1963

Restless Men. 1966

To Catch a Crocodile. 1976

Too Many Spears. 1978

The Barbarians. 1988

The Glass Cannon. 1990

The Devil’s Garden. 1992

The Road to Anywhere (anthology). 1993

 

Burmese mother and infant child.

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A JOURNEY THROUGH AN OLD WORLD MADE NEW by Glenn A. Baker

Glendevon 6

The years have not been entirely kind to Sri Lanka. The uprising of the Tamil Tigers, the closing of rail lines, the withdrawal of the national carrier from our part of the world, the devastation of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami . Tourists could fairly have concluded that there were more welcoming places on the planet.

 

If there has been a determined fight against this perception, it has been waged by the genial and determined Chandra Wickramasinghe, a Colombo travel agent who formed Connaisance de Ceylan in the 1980s, and has, over the past decade, established a chain of seven largely boutique hotels spanning the island of his birth, with a keen eye on the most evocative and appealing corners of the teardrop-shaped land.

 

You need to climb high in the lush tea plantations of Nuwara Eliya in the central west for the most recent and possibly most desirable acquisition. With just five rooms, the estate now known as The Scottish Planter Glendevon Bungalow has long been a fixture in this realm of planters and pickers. Built as a stone cottage along the lines of the traditional architecture of Scotland, its first owner was one Geo Armitage who passed it into the hands of the Anglo-Ceylon Tea Company.

 

Tea 1

 

There are more than thirty thousand years of recorded history in Sri Lanka, with remnants of the “Balangoda Man” and of hardy hunters and gatherers. There have been 181 kings and queens and an astonishing array of legend and fable; there have been settlements of the ancient Sinhalese, forts of the Dutch and Portuguese.  But, it was the arrival of the British during the Napoleonic Wars and their conclusion that the uplands of the island – which they named Ceylon – would be suitable for rubber, coffee and particularly tea cultivation, that the indelible image of the place was stamped on international consciousness.

 

By the middle of the 19th century, Ceylon tea – as much the resonance of the name as the actual substance – was pivotal to the British Empire. A small cadre of white planters, overlords of indentured Tamil labourers from Southern India, shaped the island in their own likeness and, though they have long decamped, their mark is inescapable – from cultivated fields, factories and extended families intertwined with the land who have known nothing else but tea and all its connections, for generations.

 

Inside Glendevon Bunglalow, in the spacious and elegant rooms which have been sympathetically restored and reconfigured to meet contemporary elite hotel standards within a framework of colonial charm, are remnants of the tea culture from original planters’ artefacts to promotional posters of the day. Guests who come seeking a near incomparable historical ambience – and a serenity which allows there to be Honeymoon Suite – stroll, cycle and hike the gentle hills, occasionally interacting with villagers who have encountered few foreigners in their lives. The Liddesdale tea factory, with processes largely unchanged for a hundred years, welcomes visitors; for those who feel the need for a connection with the bustle of a degree of civilisation, the substantial town of Ragala is a short drive away. In the evening, it really is a case of it being a misty mountain hop, as a chill largely unknown in Sri Lanka descends.

 

Glendevon 4

 

Temperature played a large role the establishment of the Nuwara Eliya area, overlooked as it is by Pidurutalagala, the highest mountain in the country. Like the British Raj in India’s Simla and the French colonialists in Vietnam’s Dalat, British civil servants sought it out as cool retreat for their tender sensibilities. That it happened to be the most important location for tea production in Ceylon was rather fortuitous. The main city, some twenty kilometres away, was known as Little England, when the Brits could still call the shots on such things, and is today visited by busloads who seek out a series of quaint buildings, including a well-preserved post office that could well be in Sussex or Lancashire. There is even a Windsor Hotel.

 

With original floors, massive four-poster beds, white linen breakfasts with tea pickers in ready sight, open fireplaces, Sri Lankan cooking classes for those addicted to the taste of it all, and a spa under construction, Glendevon Bungalow has in mind an environment which will encourage any families who stay to feel “like they’re at home”, just as the original inhabitants did well over a century ago.

 

Although Kenya has now risen to the top of the international tea production rankings, the industry in Sri Lanka employs over a million people and accounts for about a quarter of the global output. Its origins were in the city of Kandy, the second largest metropolis in the country and the location of Glendevon’s “sister lodge”, Mountbatten Bungalow, so named for having functioned as a war office during WWII and being one of the residences of Lord Louis Mountbatten, the 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma. Originally owned by The Mount Pleasant Tea Company this six-room establishment (with another six garden chalets) – with similarly spacious traditional leanings to Glendevon – sits atop the city, exuding elements of Victorian grace and beauty intertwined with an up-market boutique hotel approach.

 

Glendevon 2

 

A Scotsman of some foresight by the name of James Taylor grew tea commercially in Kandy in 1867, on a 19-acre coffee estate called Looleconder, after a baleful fungus came close to wiping out the coffee crops. A switch to tea saved the planters’ day and, within a decade, Taylor’s green bushes were flourishing on 5,000 acres in the hills of Kandy and Nuwara Eliya. It was a move hailed by Scottish novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame, with the words: “Not often is it that men have the heart, when their one great industry is withered, to rear up in a few years another as rich to take its place, and the tea fields of Ceylon are as true a monument to courage as is the Lion of Waterloo.”

 

If Chandra Wickramasinghe, who also operates larger five-star resort hotels such as Maalu Maalu on Pasikuda Bay, the Aliya in the cultural triangle near Sigiriya Rock (maintaining a strong social conscience of training residents and employing local staff at both) and the tented lodge Wild Trails in the Yala National Park, has recognised a desire on the part of visitors to Sri Lanka to be transported to another place and time, to touch a past that incorporates all the comforts of the present, then his logical next step has been to help save a heritage home in the very heart of Colombo that has been a home to five generations of a family.

 

Adrian Mahes Basnayake, who could have yielded to offers from developers to have an apartment building or office complex rise on the site of his magnificent home at 129 Kynsey Road in the capitol but, taking the admirable view that “the world does not need another skyscraper”, he spent five years painstakingly restoring and expanding the house where he had raised his two children, channeling proceeds from his successful career in pharmaceutical supplies. With eight rooms named after strong women in his family line, who had once called his ‘heritage home’ their home, Maniumpathy took shape. His daughter, three years into a medical degree in Melbourne, Australia, chose to come home and take over the running of a grand dwelling that, had it remained as a family residence, would have required five or six servants, a burden that Adrian was not prepared to pass on to his family in an era now removed from the tranquil days of privilege.

 

Maniumpathy heritage house

 

Chandra and Adrian are banking on the fact that not only afficionados of boutique heritage properties but businessmen more generally given to chain hotels on their visits to Columbo will be won over to a place where Sri Lanka’s past has been artfully preserved, with grand dining tables, polished wood staircases, free-standing bath tubs, well-stacked bookshelves, classic furnishings and family portraits taking pride of place.  Adrian feels that keeping this landmark property open acknowledges those who appreciate “not only beauty but architecture, hospitality, graciousness and an old way of living”.

 

These are early days, as they are with Glendevon Bungalow, but the signs are good. Maniumpathy in taking on the big name hotels, with a pool and spa, an instantly popular restaurant, wi-fi, a 24-hour front desk, private parking, a strolling garden and special touches such as bakelite telephones and vintage lamps. In the heart on Colombo, it is within reach of art galleries, shopping centres, chic emporiums and national monuments. It is five minutes away from the Royal Colombo Golf Club.  A more vigorous stroll will have you at the R. Premadasa Stadium, the various embassies, and the Asiri Surgical Hospital. The airport is a drive of less than 30 kilometres.

 

These three heritage properties will not be the last for Chandra’s Theme Resorts and Spas group, which pursues a distinct identity influenced by the cultural traditions and symbolism unique to each area. His antennae waves constantly. “I want to expand the Sri Lankan experience for those who are just coming to know us after thirty years of war and I try to do something different each time. I establish hotels in a primarily Buddhist country, with people who work hard and bring a gentle quality to everything they do, and I think that sets us apart. There is much good that I can do, in places where people have hardly seen a tourist. My philosophy of preserving through sensitive development, seems to have appeal across Europe and even in Russia but also in Australia and New Zealand – fierce rivals on the cricket pitch but close friends in every other way. I believe we will be seeing visitors from all those countries in Sri Lanka before very long.  After all these years of our civilisation, we are being ‘discovered’!”

 

Mountbatten Bungalow

 

©2017 Glenn A. Baker. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.

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

MONGOLIA

 

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.

 

 

MONGOLIA

 

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.

 

mongolia-line-of-gers

 

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.

 

MONGOLIA

 

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.

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.

 

MONGOLIA

 

 

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.

 

Falconer in Mongolia

 

 

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).

 

 

MONGOLIA

 

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.

 

MONGOLIA

 

 

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.

©2017 Glenn A. Baker. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.

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.

THE LAST OF THE WHITE RAJAHS by John Borthwick

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The tall, fair Englishman might have been ruler of an Asian kingdom the size of England, but he was right out of his depth in a London restaurant. When Sir Charles Brooke, the second White Rajah of Sarawak returned to England in 1869 to marry, he took his bride to a restaurant for an extremely modest post-nuptial celebration.

A waiter enquired whether the Rajah would like a full meal, but the parsimonious Brooke was aghast, retorting, “Oh, no. Too expensive. Grilled legs of pheasant, bread and butter, tea and half a bottle of sherry will do.”

Margaret Brooke, the brand new Ranee of Sarawak, ate only the bread and butter, and later wrote in her diary that it was, “A nasty, sloppy sort of meal … all very dull and queer.”

The three Rajah Brookes – famed as the “White Rajahs of Borneo” – ruled Sarawak from 1841 to 1946 and were the only resident European dynasty to ever rule in Asia. July 15, 2016 will mark the 70th anniversary of the cession of their private fiefdom to Britain. (In 1963 the territory, as part of British North Borneo, was absorbed into the Federation of Malaysia as the state of Sarawak.)

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Sir James Brooke, the first White Rajah, was an adventurer with a private income, an armed yacht and – possibly – not quite all of his vital parts. As a young lieutenant fighting for the British East India Company in Assam in 1824, he had plunged into battle on his charger, roaring, “By God, this is what I was born for!” – only to be almost killed by the next bullet. With his “manhood” allegedly damaged, James Brooke retired for a long recuperation.

In 1839, at age 36, he travelled to the East again, arriving in his armed yacht off the coast of Sarawak just as a local Malay prince from the Sultanate of Brunei was entangled in a civil war against native tribes. Brooke, with equal measures of guts and gunpowder, led the prince’s side to victory. In return, in 1842, the Sultan of Brunei had to reward him with the province of Sarawak. Establishing his capital at Kuching, Rajah Brooke began to clear his coastal rivers of the Malay rulers who practiced piracy and slavery and were supported by tribes of “Sea Dyak” headhunters.

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During his 27-year rule, Sir James expanded his territory by 15 times that of the original grant. In 1868, Brooke (who had no heir) bequeathed Sarawak to his nephew, Charles. The second Rajah ruled for almost 50 years and expanded the territory until it reached the size of modern Sarawak, some 125,000 square kilometres. He came within a whisker in the 1880s of also absorbing the Sultanate of Brunei. Charles died in 1917 and was succeeded by the third and last White Rajah, his son, Charles Vyner Brooke. Vyner lacked the panache of the first Rajah and the absolute devotion to his country of the second, although he seems to have been well enough loved by his “subjects”.

If the first Rajah was a man of action (Errol Flynn wanted to portray his derring-do life on screen), the second was an eccentric whose austerities were legendary. Sir Charles Brooke never sat in an armchair and scolded those members of his staff who did; he personally ordered even the typewriter ribbons for the small band of European officers who administered his jungle domain. If this extreme parsimony was a fault, it was tempered by his apparent overriding dedication to Sarawak and its people.

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Sir Charles, once described as, “hopelessly and pitifully British, chilly, aloof and totally unable to express himself,” proposed to the future Ranee Margaret in as strange a manner as he conducted their later wedding “feast”. Supposedly in love with her mother – who wasn’t available for marriage – and also in a hurry to get back to his country with a bride, any bride, he settled for Margaret. He hurriedly dropped into her lap a proposal whose verse was so tortured that it’s a wonder she didn’t reply with her own double negative.

With humble demean
If the King were to pray
That you’d be his Queen,
Would you not say, Nay?

Charles Brooke lost an eye in a fox-hunting accident in 1912. One day when walking in London, his son Vyner said, “Father, don’t you think it’s time you got yourself a glass eye?” The old Rajah decided to do it at once. As they passed a taxidermist’s shop he stalked in and bought the first eye he saw – one destined for a stuffed albatross. His daughter-in-law recalled that the eye, “gave him for ever afterwards the ferocious stare of some strange solitary marine bird.”

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The last Rajah, Sir Charles Vyner Brooke was a shy, awkward and nervous man. His farcical efforts at a marriage proposal outdid even his own father’s. He visited England, intending to propose to one Miss Doll Brett. Having rehearsed the proposal scene in his mind, he entered the room where Doll awaited him. Finding her not sitting in a chair – as he had envisaged – but instead standing at a bookshelf, Vyner was so overcome by confusion that he fled. He returned years later, only to ask her sister, Sylvia, to become Ranee.

George Bernard Shaw had been a great admirer of Sylvia Brett. On hearing of her marriage he wrote to her:

Ride a cock horse to Sarawak Cross
To see a young Ranee consumed with remorse.
She’ll have bells on her fingers
And rings through her nose
And won’t be permitted to wear any clothes.

Sylvia and Vyner were the best of friends, but probably the least of lovers. In her autobiography, Sylvia said that the Rajah “made love just as he played golf – in a nervous unimaginative flurry”. Neverthless, Vyner had a taste for mistresses, one of whom lived in a small house not far from his palace. There was a well-worn track between the two. When the Japanese captured Kuching, they found a number of his love letters to her, which were so “warm” that they framed and hung them on the walls of the Astana.

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Headhunting was practiced by certain Sarawak tribes for a compelling reason. It established a young tribal man’s credentials in proposing marriage. One Dayak’s calling card was another man’s skull. No head, no wed. The practice was outlawed by all Brooke administrations, but the interdiction was conveniently revoked during the Japanese occupation of 1942 to 1945.

The Dyaks would send their prettiest girls to the river to bathe. A Japanese would creep up to consider their delights. Thwap! a poisoned dart from a blow pipe; then – slash! – the machete, and another head was destined for the rattan bag of skulls which, to this day, hangs from rafters in many longhouses throughout the country. One house still boasts the head of a Japanese Director of Education, whose gold spectacles are lovingly polished each day.

Sarawak skulls

In most circumstances, the Brooke administration observed Sarawakian customary laws – Dyak, Chinese or Malay – as interpreted by a local elder who sat on the bench with the English District Officer. The rules of court for longhouses were very simple: “Not more than three persons shall speak at any one time, and no drinks to be served until after a decision has been made.”

Sarawak was the last places on earth where “trial by ordeal” continued. If a District Officer and his advisors were utterly unable to reach a decision, usually in disputes about land or heirlooms, each party would pick its champion and the whole court adjourned down to the river. The two men dived in, and the one who could stay under water longest was the winner. No one dreamed of questioning such a verdict.

It would be easy to dismiss the White Rajahs as paternalistic at best or, at worst, as Ruritanian pretenders as scripted by Cleese out of Kipling. In fact, the Brookes were trenchantly opposed to the exploitation of Sarawak. Almost no foreign entrepreneurs were admitted because of the Brookes’ apprehension (perhaps self-serving) that, in the extraction of timber, rubber or minerals, they would harm the country or corrupt its half a million people.

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2006.

If the Rajahs’ laissez-faire attitude to their people resulted in little industrial development or “progress”, it also generated (after the initial conquest phase) even less cultural upheaval. The Brookes would collectively turn in their graves to see how the state’s rainforests and Penan natives have been literally bulldozed by Malaysian politicians and loggers, and foreign consumers.

It is now almost seven decades since the last White Rajah Brooke ruled. Vyner Brooke sat out much of the Japanese occupation of his country in Australia; his return after the war lasted only as long as it took him to cede Sarawak to Britain – and he did so against strenuous local opposition to the change.

The cession of Sarawak to Britain was the last Rajah’s response to returning to a war-shattered economy. Believing he could not finance his country’s recuperation, and opposed its trampling by entrepreneurs, he handed the problem to England. He did so clumsily and, among many Sarawakians, the cession was bitterly resented.

The Brooke reign ended at the right time, before its relatively benign paternalism became a resented anachronism. It is regarded as one of the least traumatising European regimes in Asia and as having established the stamp of peace and cultural tolerance that remains one of the hallmarks of modern Sarawak. Yet the sesquicentenary of the founding of the Brooke rule (in 1841) passed almost unheralded in 1991, as did the 50th anniversary of the ending of their rule, in 1996. Hardly surprising in a Malaysia that was then ruled by almost Anglophobic Mr Mahathir.

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In 1946, prior to the departure of the 72-year-old White Rajah, several Sarawakian Malays and Dyaks asked Ranee Sylvia whether their new ruler, the King of England, would come to live in Kuching? The question was telling of how the later Brookes had conducted government.

Any person who had a grievance could go to Kuching, cross the river to the Istana palace and speak their mind to the White Rajah. In some cases this might cost up to six dollars in travel from up-country. Thus, if the King of England would not reside in Kuching, the people wished to know if they could still go – for about six dollars – to wherever he lived and tell him their problems?

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©John Borthwick

KARAKORAM HIGHWAY: THE HIGH ROAD TO CHINA by John Borthwick

JB looks back at a classic road journey, a drive on the wild side, albeit one done in more peaceful days, early 2001.

Karakoram Highwy, China

“Ava Gardner, the renowned showbiz of Holly Wood stayed in this suite in the year 1955 during the shooting of Bhawany Junction,” declares a tarnished brass plaque at the old Faletta’s Hotel, Lahore. I can only hope that Ava’s suite was a cut above the exhausted quarters I occupy.

Then again, who cares? A brief night in this crumbling, colonnaded ghost of Empire is a fitting start for a Karakoram Highway journey, from Pakistan north to China, that’s all about seeing time – cultural, geological and who-knows – in dramatic rewind.

The Karakoram Range is a seven-thousand-metre speed hump, Nature’s way of slowing everything that would move north from the Indian subcontinent towards Central Asia, including the subcontinent itself. Fifty million years in the making, these massive earthworks aren’t so much the hand as the fist of the gods.

Katoomba, Blue Mouintains. NSW. 2007Copyright John Borthwick

For millions of years, the only force to penetrate this white-knuckled seismic knot was water – rivers like the Indus, Hunza and Gilgit. In much more recent times, pilgrims, Silk Route traders and imperial invaders followed these watercourses through the mountains, travelling on paths that clung like spiderwebs to the valley walls.

Our minibus weaves along the new route that hangs somewhere below the remnants of the earlier filament trails and above the snow-fed torrents. The modern road that will carry us 1300 km from Rawalpindi, Pakistan, to Kashgar, China, is the Karakoram Highway — the “KKH” — lauded by one promotional poster I see as “The most brilliant achievement of mankind of the 20th century”.

The nine of us in the minibus are out to test the proposition. More than guiding us is Asghar Khan, an avuncular Hunzakut, whose capacity to arrange for small mountains to be moved (if necessary by bulldozer), palms to be greased and dinner to arrive on time makes the Karakoram, for us at least, a pushover.

We leave behind the bazaar shenanigans of Peshawar – wandering ear-cleaners and Internet shops (surely this close to the Khyber Pass there’s one called the Cyber Pass?), naked weapons and veiled females – and head into the North West Frontier Province. The mountains rise before us like dragon’s teeth. Trundling down them are trucks, gaudy land galleons bedecked with fringes, wild paintwork and rampant over-cab prows – big show-off rigs that announce themselves with a belching of diesel and hashish fumes and the blast of tremolo air-horns.

Katoomba, Blue Mouintains. NSW. 2007 Copyright John Borthwick

We roll past apricot orchards and Pepsi signs, heading into the North West Frontier Province through the Swat Valley, a former feudal kingdom that acknowledged it was part of Pakistan only 40 years ago.

Revenge and hospitality are among the sustaining tribal traditions here, along with the sequestration of women. It’s odd to see a street where the ratio of males to females is around 300-to-1. Still, serial religions (and their persuading armies) have flowed through here for five thousand years: Aryans, Darius of Persia, Alexander, the Emperor Ashoka, Buddhists, Bactrian Greeks, St Thomas the Apostle, Mongols and Islam have been among the passing parade.

Katoomba, Blue Mouintains. NSW. 2007 Copyright John Borthwick

And now us – a group of mostly “over-50s” travellers. There’s Gloria, an incessant tripper who broke an arm in Nepal and set fire to her hotel room in Cuzco, and now cheerily awaits new disasters. Monty, a retired IT man has been to “Koola Lumper” and “Kuz-koo”, too, although the only significant events to have occurred anywhere he’s visited seem to have been his own shopping forays. Astrid, a farmer and self-confessed “carpetoholic” asks us to restrain her should she be seen lingering near any carpet stall.

The landscape goes vertical. Sawtooth wedges of air and mountain interlock. Below us, romping rivers squeeze between the folds of the earth. There are deodar forests and donkey carts, smoke-cured villages, ancient petroglyphs and unctuous souvenir vendors. A ripple of excitement runs through the bus at Besham with our first sight of the washtub torrent of the mighty Indus River. The colour of wet cement, it churns its way south, slowly returning those gate-crashing mountains to the Indian Ocean. We would celebrate with a beer, but this is teetotalling Pakistan, so we settle for tea, rice and chicken, and more tea.

Katoomba, Blue Mouintains. NSW. 2007 Copyright John Borthwick

“By your age, your brains have already shrunk so much that fluid pressure – cerebral oedema – isn’t a significant risk,” declares our group leader, Ian Williams, as he briefs us on possible altitude sickness. With what remains of my shrunken brain, I deduce that the risks are minimal, as the highest altitude we will sleep at is 3,200 metres, in the Chinese town of Tashkurgan.

The mountains now rear before us like terrestrial tsunamis – snow-peaked surf in five-thousand metre sets. The treeless, eroded faces slide from sky to river, their scree fans cut at the base by roaring torrents. We pile out of the bus to view an earth-sky-water vortex of literally Himalayan proportions: the point where the Karakoram, Hindu Kush and Himalayan ranges converge, where two continents – Asia and the Indian plate – collide and where the Gilgit and Indus rivers are thrown together in wild confluence. Not a place to linger should the mountain ogre decide to crack his tectonic knuckles.

The giant peaks of Nanga Parbat (8,125 metres) and Rakaposhi (7,790 metres) glow in crystal serration against the sky as the KKH climbs towards China. Other than local traffic, there are few tourist or international trade vehicles on this tortuous road, which was built by China and Pakistan between 1958 and 1978 (the unofficial death toll is reckoned at around one worker per kilometre). The Pakistan section runs through the most difficult terrain, constantly affected by glaciers, washouts and landslips – after all, Karakoram is a Turkic term for “crumbling rock.” Crews of Pakistan Army engineers and fearless bulldozer drivers are permanently deployed to keep the route open.

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We follow the river north to Asghar’s homeland, the legendary principality of Hunza, whose people were once said to live for over a century, sustained by fresh, 2,400-metre air, blissful bowels and, presumably, Hunza Pie. In fact, they’ve never heard of Hunza Pie in Hunza. Nowhere among the bazaars and tea shops of high Karimabad can I find the succulent wedge of cheese, spinach and wholemeal pastry that epitomised 1970s “hippie vego” cuisine and which came, one hopes, with a of side-serve of Himalayan wisdom.

The 10,000 people of Karimabad, the main town of Hunza, inhabit one of the most picturesque vales of the Himalaya–Karakoram chain. The fields of maize are shaded by orchards weighted with stone fruits. Tourism provides a modest cash flow and, as followers of the liberal Ismaili sect of Islam, Hunza girls (unlike many others in Pakistan) receive equal education with boys, and women are not obliged to veil their faces.

Katoomba, Blue Mouintains. NSW. 2007Copyright John Borthwick

Life looks so benign here that, along with the immortality-through-Hunza-Pie sect, “Shangri-la-ists”, too, fixated upon Hunza, proclaiming it to be the prototype happy valley of James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Far Horizons. That sunny vales from Bhutan to Mustang to Zhongdian, China all claim the same mythic mantle makes little difference to any of their boosters.

Ian, our guide is far more pragmatic, marvelling, “Where else could you simply drive in — rather than walk for a fortnight — and find yourself surrounded by six-thousand metre snow peaks?”

Katoomba, Blue Mouintains. NSW. 2007 Copyright John Borthwick

“Noisy with kingdoms” was Marco Polo’s take on this region in 1273. Even then, Baltit Fort towered over the town of Baltistan (now known as Karimabad). Seven centuries later, the 62-room palace-cum-fortress, once occupied by the Mir (king) of Hunza, still stands, framed by gothic pinnacles of stone and snow.

I am invited to dinner in the same palace room – now beautifully restored – in which Captain Francis Younghusband confronted the Mir in 1889, demanding that he cease raiding the caravans that passed on their way from Central Asia to British India. The Mir protested to the effect of, “Raiding is our only income – but, if your Queen Victoria is unhappy, I can cut her in on the action.” Preposterous. As Great Game warriors were wont to, Younghusband politely withdrew, then sent in the British Army to better explain the imperial point of view.

The KKH’s highest point, the 4,733-metre Khunjerab Pass in China, is closed by winter snows from November to May. We approach the Pakistan border town of Sust one week after the scheduled reopening of the pass, only to find that due to late snows there’s still a queue of trucks, Haj pilgrims’ buses and a score of French tourists. Asghar warns us that the latter may have priority over us and, since all foreigners must transfer to Pakistani government vehicles for the journey between Sust and Tashkorgan in China, we may have to wait several days.

Katoomba, Blue Mouintains. NSW. 2007 Copyright John Borthwick

We wake next morning to learn that the pass is open and, thanks to methods best not queried closely, Asghar and Ian have secured several Land Cruisers for our immediate departure. Having leap-frogged, as it were, the French, we set sail for the Khunjerab Pass. The journey is a mixture of transcendent beauty – the sky above the high plains of snow burns like sapphire – and low farce. A Pakistani driver eager to be first over the icy pass slides his bus sideways into one of our vehicles, almost toppling us off the mountain.

Entering Xinjiang and China, we immediately spot unfamiliar creatures – shaggy Bactrian camels, even shaggier yaks and marmots, and women. There’s a nippy, overnight stop in Tashkorgan, followed by the 300 kilometre, seven-hour run to Kashgar. China’s KKH now widens into a military-capacity highway, an endless ribbon unrolling across a high desert plateau of pastel dunes and witch’s-cap peaks. In other places, the road seems merely borrowed from the banks of the roiling Ghez River, the cliffs that teeter above it being constrained only by the begrudging acknowledgment of gravity.

Katoomba, Blue Mouintains. NSW. 2007 Copyright John Borthwick

The main event for visitors to the so-called Uigur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang is the fabled Sunday market at Kashgar. As promised, Asghar gets us to Kashgar right on time. “Like Genghis Khan come to Chinatown,” is how a friend once described this former Silk Route caravanserai on market day. We step straight back into old East Turkestan, into Marco Polo and Tamerlane time. The faces and dress are Uigur, Kazahk, Tajik and Tartar. In terms of “race,” Han China plays a very second fiddle here. The market erupts around us, with 15,000 people buying and selling everything from kitchen sinks and samovars to air-conditioners, camels and carpets.

Carpets! Mindful of my vow to rescue Astrid from her “carpetoholic” compulsions, I plunge into the bazaar just in time to interrupt her all-but-completed purchase of a large Bukhara rug. A string of robustly autonomous Uigur epithets follows our empty-handed retreat from the carpet-wallah’s stall. We rejoin the group, finding that Monty, instead, has become the proud owner of a carpet, a silk prayer mat the size of a large tea-towel. “I bargained the fellow way down – got it for only one thousand Aussie bucks!” he hoots. Not too much more, I’d guess, than he might have paid in Melbourne.

©John Borthwick