On the road, April 15th
After four months sailing the high seas of Southeast Asia, money was becoming a problem. It was time to return to the classroom. I had heard Vietnam was THE place for teachers of fortune, so I thought I’d try my luck.
Luck, as it turned out, was not needed. Within two days I had a full-time contract teaching academic English to adults. I soon met others who had arrived without teaching qualifications and had still been swamped with offers.
The challenges of working life in Vietnam were novel, to say the least. Steering a motorbike through the hordes to and from work without flooding my shoes in monsoon floods did seem Mission Impossible at first. The local cuisine also presented difficulties, in the form of blood stock, duck embryo, snake heart and liver, and mam tom – a fermented shrimp paste so foul American troops used to call it ‘Viet Cong Nerve Gas’.
Vietnamese, with its complex vowel sounds and tones, is not an easy language to learn, but, fortunately for us, the Vietnamese are easily pleased and very encouraging, almost to a fault. Desperation and divine inspiration conspired in a restaurant one day, when I managed to ask “nha ve sinh o dau?” (where’s the bathroom?), making understandable noises in the correct order, and with a fair attempt at the correct tones too. The owners were visibly impressed and told me how good my Vietnamese was. From my vacant, but slightly pained expression (I was still crossing my legs) it was obvious their compliment was completely untrue. Still, they persisted for ten minutes until they found someone to translate the message, allowing me to hobble off to the bathroom.
Only a few years ago, a common complaint about Vietnamese students was that after decades under Communist rule they had no concept of other nations and pop culture. Nowadays, however, they see all the latest movies, watch MTV, and are well and truly part of modern consumerist society. The main challenge for teachers is to break down habits developed at their still very traditional schools.
Tax laws in Vietnam are slightly unusual, and to avoid paying a much higher rate people must work in the country for at least 6 months. For this reason, and also because I couldn’t bear the thought of another 3 months at sea with someone I didn’t like, I resolved to stay in Vietnam until April, before continuing on to Europe by land.
In March tense negotiations began at the Chinese and Russian consulates for my visas. Suddenly April was upon me; I woke one morning to find my replacement knocking at the door with his suitcases. I shouldered my pack and caught a motorbike taxi to the bus station, to begin the journey north.
Hanoi, April 23rd
I have spent most of the evening picking midges out from behind my eyelids, after the long motorbike ride to Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital. I went on a three-day trip south to Ninh Binh and Tam Coc, exploring temples and churches amid forests, rice paddies and towering limestone karsts. Unfortunately, at dusk, when it gets too dark to wear sunglasses, the insects rise out of the rice paddies in great twisting clouds. There is no option but to grit your teeth and plough through them.
In the last three weeks I have travelled north up the coast of Vietnam, visiting old Chinese houses in Hoi An, eating my way around the imperial city of Hue, and kayaking between the stunning limestone peaks in Halong Bay.
Luang Nam Tha, May 6th
A new border crossing between Laos and Vietnam near Dien Bien Phu has just opened, and I have taken advantage of this. The Laos consulate (which seems to be run by the security guard) gave me a visa and I caught a train north to see Vietnam’s minority hill tribes. North Vietnam is famous as the home of the Black H’mong and Flower H’mong. Their spectacular clothes are rivalled by the breathtaking landscape they live in, a fact which should be accounted for before embarking on a motorbike tour of the north. On a temperamental old Minsk motorbike you need both eyes peeled to negotiate the half-built muddy mountain roads – several times I nearly met an untimely end by keeping one eye on beautiful people and the other on spectacular waterfalls and passes.
After catching the bus down from the hills to Dien Bien Phu, I caught a bus into Laos. The border guards did not have a functional toilet, but more than made up for this with their well-kept badminton court. From the little border town of Muang Khua the Nam Ou river wound south between forests and limestone peaks. I took a boat downstream, picking up orange-robed monks and monitor lizards along the way.
After a vomitous ride in an epileptic truck to the northern town of Oudomxai, I travelled south towards Thailand and a small village called Vieng Phuokha, from where I went trekking with some friends I’d met along the way – two guys from Barcelona, and several hundred leeches.
Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia, June 4th
With leeches still clinging to my shoelaces, I caught the bus to the Chinese border. There, officials read every page of my diary. My first mistake, it seems, was to have been born with dual nationality and two passports. My second mistake was to tell them. I imagine files on British citizens are placed in one box, and files on Australians in another. Until I arrived there was no box for people who were both.
I eventually escaped after missing every possible bus connection of the day, and spent the night in a town with no pronounceable name, before catching the bus to Kunming the next day. Three days later still, I rolled into Chengdu in Sichuan province. In the afternoon, while trying to bump across town in a local bus, the world started to move. The bus began to bump even more than before, the driver began to swear even more, and several million people all decided to run outside as facades shed tiles and traffic lights flailed.
It took four hours to return to my hostel. Fortunately, being a fairly new building in a nice area of town, it had survived the quake. My room looked like a broken eggshell, with horizontal cracks encircling all four walls and two large vertical tears stretching from floor to ceiling. Aftershocks continued to ripple through the city, sending the hostel employees (and everyone else) shrieking outside. In the chaos, I tried to find something to eat. Everyone else had had similar ideas, and most of the shops in my part of town had been stripped bare. Fortunately, struggling locals still needed to earn a living, and a number of food stalls opened up amongst the tents that had blossomed along every street. No one was sleeping inside that night.
All train lines to the north were destroyed, news reports continued to get worse, and supplies were getting stretched more and more thinly. Every able-bodied person in Chengdu seemed to be pitching in – while I had been rendered completely immobile, and more or less redundant. My plans, which had previously involved heading into the politically unsavoury west, now involved travel into the natural disaster of politically and geographically impossible Sichuan province.
After two days, highways to the south and east were becoming passable. I decided to travel south-east to Chongqing, from where I could continue my journey north and avoid Sichuan province. When I arrived at the bus station, it was immediately obvious that everybody in Chengdu who could escape, was. From the ticket office, the line stretched five-across through the ample bus station, out into the car park, and onto the road. Now, I know a lot has been said about communist inefficiency and red tape (my experience at the border crossing included). However, after joining that line from hell, they attended to everyone in front of me, dealt with my appalling attempts at Chinese, and had me on a bus to safety within forty minutes. A truly superhuman effort.
Ten days later I was in Beijing, trying to get on the train to Mongolia. This involved two phone calls, two bus rides, and a labyrinth of unmarked high-rise apartments. A ticket to Ulaan Baatar is not nearly as profitable as one to Moscow, and as a result certain trains are nearly impossible to book. Waiting in line for my visa at the Mongolian embassy, a German couple gave me the name and address of a woman they said could help. The following day I was looking for her ‘office’ somewhere on the tenth floor of a high-rise in a residential area of Beijing. By late that afternoon I had made my booking, escaped the labyrinth, and was navigating through another maze in search of Peking Duck.
Armed with a backpack of instant noodles and a tea flask, I stepped aboard the express train to Ulaan Baatar in Mongolia. I pushed through to the sleeper compartment to find my German friends already right at home, making their beds for the long journey. After thanking them for their much-needed help getting my ticket, I settled back to watch the landscape of northern China sweep past our window. Once we passed the mountains to the north of Beijing, we rolled out onto the plains at the end of the world. The Gobi Desert, powered by fierce northerly winds and aided by poor environmental practice, is slowly choking the north of China. As in the rest of the country, even in the most far-flung, out-of-the-way places, you can stumble upon large residential settlements. Here, everything was in disrepair, with tiny ramshackle homes clinging to their threadbare trees behind piles of rubbish. At times even high-rise developments disappeared from view in the fierce dust storms.
Sometime in the early hours of the morning, the train stopped and two gargantuan customs officers squeezed into our compartment to check our luggage and passports. We had entered Mongolia.
Sunrise brought open grassy plains, mountains, and the last remnants of snow on the steppe. After months in bustling south-east Asia and China, it also brought space – vast, mind-blowing open spaces. I can’t breathe in deeply enough here. My repeated failures to bring home a trophy landscape on film do nothing to curb my itchy trigger finger. Nothing has been able to dampen my enthusiasm for the country, not the horrible sprawling communist-era mess of the capital, Ulaan Baatar, nor the freezing temperatures at night, nor arguably the worst cuisine of any country I have yet visited. I bolt down my flour with mutton grizzle at every meal – and ask for seconds – just so I have the energy to take in some more scenery.
I would like to stay longer here, but I don’t have any option but to speed up – if I don’t, I’ll miss the only possible meeting with my family for a long time, while my parents are in England visiting my brother and sisters. I’m leaving tomorrow on a train to Russia. It’s time to go to Europe.
St Petersburg, Russia, June 15th
The only similarity I could find is that Russia is also geographically stunning, although in a very different way. Everyone who could speak English was quite amused to hear a young British guy rising sleepily one morning to look out of his window and exclaim, “Oh my god, it’s the sea!” Huffing and puffing for literally hours around the edges of Lake Baikal, our train really did seem to be wandering the shores of a vast, uncharted ocean.
This vastness is of course entirely in proportion to the rest of the country. Avoiding crushing anti-tourism bureaucracy in Russia means staying no more than three days in any one place. However, staying any more than three days was a logistical impossibility for me anyway – it would take a year just to make it to Moscow.
Every time I have been forced to buy train tickets here I’ve thought longingly of China, and my experience in Chengdu. Russians have actually developed a complex system of place-saving, so that they can go to the toilet, do their shopping, and perhaps go home for meals in turns while someone reserves their place in the cue. I have spent a minimum of two hours queuing up each time, more often than not without success.
I’m now in St Petersburg, having pushed the limits of my three-day pass here and in Moscow. The art and architecture have been stunning, but what has perhaps made the greatest impact on me has been the gap between rich and poor here, and the incredible displays of wealth in Russia’s two greatest cities.
Brighton, United Kingdom, September 10th
No continent deserves such short shrift, least of all Europe. Unfortunately, time again proved a cruel mistress and I couldn’t linger more than a couple of days in any of the half-a-dozen cities I stopped at on my way to England. In Lithuania I tried to get acclimatised to being around tall blonde people. In Warsaw, the charm and vibrance of a city once destroyed by war surprised me. My camera didn’t pause for breath in picturesque Prague, and Paris – on my now literally whistle-stop tour – lived up to the hype. It was an unsettling feeling throwing my bags aboard the bus in Paris, driving toward the ferry at Calais and my family waiting in Brighton.
Email, July 1st
Apologies for lengthy absence from Internetland, and for unsatisfactory nature of update. The important news is that your friend/relative/acquaintance Edward has achieved greatness by joining that rare group of individuals who have travelled between Australia and England without flying. The only other legends to do this are: the Lonely Planet founders; Captain Cook; William Dampier; the First Fleet; and about a million twentieth century drifters. Oh, and Barbara Haddrill from page 43 of New English File Upper Intermediate. Three Cheers for Ed.
While moving across borders within the European Union is now quite simple, strict controls continue to be enforced when reentering the family unit. After being met by my parents at Brighton train station, I was whisked away to a secure facility (my brother’s flat). There, the cork was popped on a vintage bottle of truth serum, and I was force-fed and interrogated for what seemed like days. Eventually they seemed satisfied that my travel tales stacked up, so I could wander about a bit more freely and bask in the occasional sun of a terrible English summer.
All good things must come to an end, however, and after a couple of weeks my parents had to return to Australia, and face the reality of my nomadic lifestyle. I was looking towards my next job, in the Basque country of northern Spain.
San Sebastián, Basque Country, February 15th
Here I am finally, at what is for the moment the end of my journey. Everyone has been quick to tell me that the Basque Country is NOT Spain, and avoiding the subject of politics in class is imperative. While it took time to recognise, the cultural differences between my Basque students and their Spanish counterparts have become apparent. They make different mistakes for a start – Basque being a mysterious language completely unrelated to Spanish or French.
What took no time at all to recognise was that children and adults are not the same species. My carefully planned lessons, which worked perfectly with adults, somehow fell flat when I repeated them with a teenage class. Walking into class felt like going to war. Fortunately, with a DELTA-qualified support team in the staffroom, help was on hand. I’ve started the IH course for young learners, and I’m getting used to Basque cuisine – not too hard when you live in a town positively sparkling with Michelin stars.
I am starting to find my feet, but the internal conflict still rages between loving family, new home, and the need to keep moving and seeing everything the world has to offer. I often think of how difficult it was to farewell Australia, and how easily a backpack becomes your life.