A Wary Embrace: From China to Japan by Ship

A gentle kiss and then an embrace – so does a ship touch the shore of a new place. Before that kiss, the ship draws patiently closer. After first sight, it carefully regards its new (or perhaps old) lover, considering best how to approach the shore. But eventually it does so, edging ever close until the first touch, kiss and embrace.

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Voyage

My first arrival in Japan was by ship, voyaging from Shanghai across the North China Sea to Osaka. Two days it takes, although obtaining the ticket and actually getting on board took some patience and deft footwork. The smiling guard at the terminal simply would not open the gate for me. At a loss, I tapped on the shoulder of the first passer-by to act as a translator. After much discussion, I was directed to shipping company’s office – in a small corner on the floor of a high-rise many blocks away. Here a sour-faced woman was filing her nails and having her hair done by an older woman. With immense reluctance, she rose and summoned a young man, who spoke in a whisper.

Would I like to pay for the ticket now? Do I have enough cash, for they take no credit cards? I answered in the affirmative and followed him into an office. He held his finger up to his lips and pointed. A man was comatose on a stretcher on the floor, wrapped in a sleeping bag. I handed over the cash and he wrote out the ticket for me – in silence. I was to arrive at the terminal tomorrow, at 9.00am. On my way out, I said a few words in Chinese to the sour-faced woman. Her face lit up, and she beamed at me all the way out.

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By next morning I was at the terminal early, almost too early. Ticket in hand, my passage was smooth. I boarded amidst crowds of Chinese voyagers, off to see Japan for a few days. Our ship was the Suzhou Hao, a modest ship of uncertain vintage. Boarding involved clambering up steep stairs – more like a ladder. With each step upward, the whole structure creaked and swayed. And the final step onto the ship itself was more like a leap over the abyss, with a narrow plank for guidance. A safety net was slung underneath, in case one of the many grey-heads stumbled and fell.

Already I felt in my element, evoking deep in my bones a love of the sea. Who knows, it may well be that such feelings come from a heritage of Dutch seafarers. I managed to score a rare cabin with a view over the bow and the port side through a couple of windows. For much of the voyage, I would stand or sit before the windows, if I was not on deck. I gloried in the silence and solitude.

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Soon enough, the engines rumbled, the deck hands wound in the mooring ropes, and we pushed off from the pier. An announcement came through in Chinese, of which I could understand the odd word, but the gist – I assumed – was that we were now setting off on our voyage. We joined the throng of ships on a tributary of the Chang Jiang (Yangze), only to turn into the main passage. Barges full of all manner of goods passed, larger ships mingling with them. Along the shores, the cranes of port facilities spread in all directions. Ship building yards appeared, constructing oil and gas tankers. Other yards were refurbishing some container ships, with the dust of the work blowing across the river.

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At the wide mouth of the river, we left the busiest port in the world. It was like a naval highway, with lines of ships running to the horizon. The yellow, muddy plume of the Chang Jiang pushes far out into the sea, but eventually we slipped into clearer water. The swell became more pronounced, with the ship developing a roll and producing an impressive bow wave. Out at sea again!

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Simplicity

A fancy ship it was not. Already this was clear the moment I stepped on board. In all but a few cabins, space was shared. One could opt for the ‘backpacker’ room, which was no more than an open room with thin mattresses arranged on the floor. To be sure, the women had a raised platform with seaweed matting, but the men simply slept on the floor, lined up next to one another. In second class one at least had bunks. Would first class perhaps be more ‘private’? Not at all: the rooms were still shared, albeit with four in a room and the bonus of a toilet. As with second class, showers were shared in a separate room.

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Intrigued, I set out to explore the ship further, keen to find out where we would have our meals. A passenger ship such as this usually offers a number of options, from snack stations, through cafeteria-style meals, to an à-la-carte restaurant. I searched in vain, for the only place to eat was the canting, the dining hall. As I was soon to find out at meal time, only one menu item was available – take it or leave it. Everyone – barring the Italian and Dutch couple – was perfectly happy with such a fare, assuming this was the norm. Fortunately, the unassuming meals were freshly cooked and palatable – actually, more than palatable. As for our Italian-Dutch friends, they seemed to find it all a bit much, asking for coffee at breakfast, complaining that the cold dishes were, well, cold.

Our vessel did sport a bar, namely, the beer dispensing machine, and – naturally – a mah-jong room where the old fogeys gathered to play and watch. And the duty-free shop? To say that is was sparsely stocked would be an understatement. The wide selection went all the way from the odd carton of cigarettes to a few bottles of alcohol, with some chocolates making up the middle ground. The browsers and purchasers were as few as the items on the shelves.

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Simplicity – no discoes, expensive ‘duty-free’ shops, elaborate restaurants, spas or open-deck bars were to be found. The main purpose of the ship was to take passengers from China to Japan and then back again. It may have carried a couple of containers, but it did not take cars or trucks. Only passengers. It seemed to me China in microcosm.

Encounters

That feeling was enhanced by the fact that nearly all the passengers were Chinese, mostly of the doddery and retired variety. A mother with a young child stood out, as did the group of young men skylarking on the deck. All of them were in tour groups of one kind or another. The respective group leaders would hold aloft a distinctive flags, bustle about and shout to keep their flocks together. Some of the groups wore brightly-coloured new caps so as not to get lost, or at least so that the group leader could identify them quickly – unless of course, the caps looked the same, as was the case with some of the groups.

The rest – six of us – were laowai, but none Japanese. A couple from Switzerland had been travelling the Silk Road, taking seven slow months to reach the Pacific. They were living on $30 per day, couch-surfing, staying in cheap hostels, eating simple food. They also travelled in cheaper countries (Japan would be a problem), avoiding those with a reputation for being expensive (Australia was out). Yet they were inescapably European in their outlook, no matter how progressive or even alternative they might have appeared. They dreamed of building a youth hostel in Central America, in Ecuador perhaps. And they operated like any couch-surfer one encounters, passing over contact details and blog addresses, keen to find yet another couch on which to sleep should they be passing through.

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The Italian and Dutch couple looked out of sorts, or at least the Italian male half. He seemed to find all matters Asian disconcerting and distasteful. His eyes longed from home. Both of them tended to keep to themselves, only chatting with us in the last hours before Osaka.

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For me, more intriguing was the sole American on board, a serious mountain climber who was now on his way to Japan to scale some precipitous cliffs. He lived by the adage that it is better to keep your mouth shut and let people think you are a fool, than open it and let them know you are a fool. But he was no fool. Although he initially said that he was still – at 40 – looking for a purpose in life, it turned out he actually did have such a purpose. When the two of us had a chance to talk, he spoke of his desire to achieve the highest global accreditation in mountain climbing.

‘I already have the highest accreditation in the United States’, he said. ‘But global accreditation is another matter entirely’.

‘What does that involve?’ I asked.

‘Exams and climbing’, he said. ‘You have an intense burst of climbing in a remote place for a couple of weeks. Then you study and sit for the exam’.

‘So where have you climbed?’ I said.

‘I’ve ice climbed in the Canadian north, during winter’, he said. ‘I’ve climbed in the tropics during the wet season, dangled off cliffs overhanging the sea or raging torrents in gorges below, clambered up cliffs beneath the earth in massive caves’.

‘Do you have to go to the moon as well to scale precipices there? I asked.

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In the midst of these encounters, the most entrancing was the retired Chinese labourer.

‘Are you a back-traveller?’ he asked me.

‘Yes, I suppose I am’, I said, pointing to my backpack.

‘I’ve been back-travelling for ten years’ he said. ‘I worked in heavy industry and workers like me are allowed to retire at 55. Since then, I learnt some English and have been travelling’.

‘Where have you been?’ I asked.

‘Most continents’, he said, ‘except Antarctica! But I like to travel on my own, staying in back-travelling hostels, searching out new places, and meeting people’.

‘Have you been to Japan before?’ I said.

‘First time’, he said. ‘But this time I have to travel in a group. I don’t like it so much, but the Japanese government does not allow Chines people to travel there on their own’.

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A Difficult Relationship

With that, he raised a host of issues that set me thinking for some time. The ship’s passage may have been quiet enough, with the East China Sea relatively calm. But the passage, from China to Japan, is one fraught with a long and difficult relationship. China may in our time be recovering its traditional sphere of influence, pervading Japan in terms of culture, language and economics. One need only consider the Japanese alphabet, with its obvious dependency on Chinese, or the cultural norms of Confucianism, or indeed the number of container ships stopping by Japan after an extended run up the Chinese coast, to see how this influence works.

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Not so long ago, it was another story. By the turn of the twentieth century, Japan had ‘modernised’ – a euphemism for shifting from feudalism to an aggressive capitalism. Its armed forces deployed the latest advances, enabling it to thrash Russia in the 1904-5 War, leading to the abdication of the last tsar. Japanese armies overran the Korean peninsula, seized the eastern reaches of the Trans-Siberian Railway, and occupied large parts of north-eastern China. In the end, the Japanese did the communists a great favour, for they enabled them to develop effective modes of guerrilla warfare against the Japanese themselves and thereby gain immense credentials with the bulk of the Chinese population. In turn, this contributed to the success of the communists against Chang Kai-Shek and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Indeed, it was Chinese communists, along with the Russian Red Army and the Korean communists who forced Japan into surrender at the end of the Second World War.

But not before a series of atrocities were committed that run deep in Chinese (and indeed Korean) memory: summary beheadings, ‘comfort women’, the rape of Nanjing – the list is long. The fact that Japan continues to drag its feet on admitting and apologising for such acts only adds to Chinese anger. Today, the Japanese government engages in little provocations from time to time, with senior government figures paying visits to the shrine commemorating war dead, among them convicted war criminals.

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As a result, both sides view each other with a mixture of wariness and respect. The Chinese often look to Japan in admiration for its achievements. For instance, only recently has China surpassed Japan as the second largest economy on the globe. Japanese learning and culture too are admired. As more than one Chinese person has said to me, ‘China is so big and Japan is so small, so how can Japan have become so powerful!’ Yet, the Chinese constantly watch for signs of Japanese aggression, for that militant streak that always lies just below the surface of an impossibly polite culture. On the Japanese side, they are caught, with the old protagonists of China, Russia and Korea on one side, and the more recent protagonist of the United States on the other. Faced with this unenviable choice, they have opted for the time being to side with the United States. One can only wonder how long such a situation will last, especially in light of the decline of the American Empire. Japan may continue to assert itself in small ways – such as unilateral claims to small islands belonging to China or Russia – but in the end it will have to decide which alliances enable its survival.

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Our approach to the Japanese shore, then, felt warier than usual. We passed by a nosy aircraft carrier from the United States on our way between the southern islands. Our Chinese ship perused the Japanese coast with extra caution. But eventually we would touch, with the lightest kiss on the cheek. The embrace was made more out of politeness than affection. I cannot help wondering if such a kiss and embrace will one day be a little warmer.

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Last Ride on the Sunlander

‘Hurry up!’ The door handle jolted up and down, up and down, while the door itself banged and rattled with the pressure.

‘It’s locked!’ said the same young vocal chords to no one in particular.

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Without a shred of clothing on me, I opened the shower door a crack and peered out. Before me was small, curly-haired Aboriginal boy of about six, somewhat startled at the naked apparition before him.

‘I won’t be long’, I said and closed the door again.

As I emerged from my morning shower, someone yelled, ‘Shower’s free’. The boy grabbed his backpack and raced up the aisle.

‘Coming through’, he yelled, with his father following in his wake at a more sedate pace.

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Everyone smiled. Apparently, he had been running up and down the aisle, climbing on the seats, retrieving his small backpack from the overhead luggage rack, and busting for one of the great experiences on a long-haul train – a travel wash.

He was but one in a carriage full of Aboriginal people from the north – curly-haired and wearing variations of the black, red and yellow, the colours of the Aboriginal flag. Already in Brisbane, a number had joined the train heading north: a mother with four little children, a solitary man or two with magnificent grey and black beards, a young handsome couple. But by the time I woke from my lengthy slumber, our carriage in particular was full of Aboriginal people. At some time in the early hours of the morning they had joined our journey north.

By this time, we had already been on the Sunlander, the old and sturdy train between Brisbane and Cairns, for most of the previous day. With the night past, we had another day to go. The train trundles along at a little over 50 kilometres per hour, covering the distance of 1700 kilometres more than 30 hours. Generous stops along the way – 27 in all – allowed the smokers to get a breath of nicotine and tar and the rest of us to stretch our legs. And those stops are legendary: Bundaberg, Rockhampton, Mackay, Proserpine, Townsville, and on. The Sunlander may not be as well-known as other long distance trains in Australia, but it is a journey that rivals the best.

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For a change, we had opted for the economy seats. Since the train was in its last year of travel after more than half a century of service, the seats were heavily discounted. At $61 each, it was an option hard to refuse (the sleepers were over $600 for a cabin). It was to be one of the last rides on the Sunlander.

Back at the beginning, as we waited at Brisbane’s Roma Street Station, she said, ‘Won’t it be romantic’.

‘Let’s see how we feel after sleeping a night in the seats’. I said.

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The train rolled into the station. Paint peeled from the carriages and rust holes poked through at alarming points. Each little movement was accompanied by clunks and groans and squeals. Between the carriages, you could peer directly onto the tracks slipping by beneath the train. Inside, the carpet had clearly known better times and the seats bore the stains of ten thousand travellers. If you are going to ‘retire’ a train, then it makes little sense to spend money on sprucing it up. Yet it still bore plenty of signs of its former glory: the toilets were spacious in the way of bygone assumptions; each ‘sitting car’ had a glorious shower with full running water at one end; and the seats themselves reclined forty degrees back so you could rest your head without it lolling about when asleep.

To be sure, we had asked if any late cancellations for the sleeper carriages had come in at the last minute. It was not to be, even though the sleepers made up two-thirds of the train. A ‘sitting car’ it was, for the long, slow haul north. I did manage to persuade the conductors to re-allocate us seats in the last carriage, where the two-plus-one formation gave us wider seats and more leg room. But we were to share what was essentially a large dormitory with a bunch of fellow travellers for the next day and half.

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The result was one of the best rail journeys we have had for some time. But the big question is: what do you do for those long hours, especially in a ‘sitting car’ seat? To begin with, bring your own food. We could have opted for the microwave-warmed items of the buffet in the ‘lounge car’ (aka. mobile bar) or the overpriced fast food of the dining car with its variations on hamburgers. We could have brought on overflowing bags of chocolates and sweets, as some of our fellow passengers did. Or we could have gone Russian, and smuggled on endless bottles of vodka to wash down sliced sausage and cheese. But we did none of the sort. Instead, we went for bags stuffed with loaves of bread, oranges, apples, cucumber, mushrooms, bunches of celery, bags of nuts, cans of beans and a travel favourite of mine, processed cheese. At regular intervals from our seats, the sound of crunching could be heard as we devoured yet another meal of relatively fresh stuff.

And we made sure we brought plenty of material to pass the time. For me that included my Chinese workbooks and a few volumes of Stalin’s works – as one does on a long rail journey. More often I would put my feet up on the back of the seat in front of me and watch the land roll by slowly. Or hike the train: it was long enough for a serious expedition on foot, with its endless carriages strung together. At one end was the baggage car, which I could see through the window of the last carriage, and at the other end were the sleepers, into which I slipped on my explorations towards the front of the train.

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On those hikes, I engaged in studying the most intriguing part of the whole journey: other people. What do they do? Now the real advantage of travelling in the economy seats became clear. The seats in the various carriages were full of doddery old fogies, the down-and-outs using the cheapest form of transport available, the families with children who could not afford a sleeper, the couples who had struck up a relationship from the time we left Brisbane, and the odd backpacker. The two drinkers fidgeted, waiting impatiently for the bar to open. One in particular was obviously driven by his multiple addictions. Diminutive, with grey hair and a ragged red face, he was either dashing out at each stop for hasty puffs on a cigarette, or to the bar in his quest to empty their stocks single-handed. Meanwhile, the old fogeys snoozed and read and stayed put, amazing me by their ability to sit for hours on end without needing to go to the toilet. The children fidgeted and clambered over the seats, especially in the ‘lounge car’. One woman avidly read a massive book while chewing through endless packets of confectionary shaped like ‘bananas’. A plump couple sat and knitted for the whole journey – producing enough to clothe all of their grandchildren. Young couples pretended to sleep under the cover of checked blankets.

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At last, we arrived in Cairns, deep in the tropical north. Now it seemed like ages ago since we had left the relatively familiar (and for me alienating) surrounds of Brisbane and the reaches of the Sunshine Coast. There we had been farewelled by a big kangaroo that lazily scratched its belly as we passed – as if indicating that we would have plenty of time on our hands on the journey to come. Soon enough mango and palm trees grew freely among the eucalypts, with banana plantations and then swathes of sugar cane the further north we pushed. Alongside the cane fields ran the narrow tracks of the cane trains – really toy trains with tiny engines and oversized carriages for hauling their loads of cut cane. Even further north, the mountains begin to hug the coast. Here they trap the topical rains of the wet season, so they are covered with a jungle of vines and thorny plants and the towering trees of the rainforest canopy. Yet, on the other side of the rain shadow, the dry tropics soon appear. On the border between the wet and the dry snakes love to gather: the deadly taipans, innocent tree snakes, and massive pythons with a love for small animals, birds and especially chickens (which have the unfortunate combination of being both incredibly stupid and incredibly delicious for so many). And in the hinterland of Cairns, one finds the lands of old and not-so-old hippies, who had acquired land cheaply some years ago and were now sitting on real-estate gold mines. Long ago, they had made the jungle their home, amongst the pythons and bandicoots and cassowaries. To one such place we headed for a few days, the highlight being the open-air toilet.

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But as I sat and the pondered the universe on my throne, watched by a chicken and a couple of horses, my thoughts were already moving towards another journey: westward of the coast, the dry sclerophyll forest passes into the open grassland of the plains and then the arid zones of the interior. In this direction too does a train run, all the way to the mining town of Mount Isa. The Innlander, it is called, and it takes one across to the Northern Territory border. Next time.

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Is Australia a Western Country?

‘What is the West? I ask.

‘You know, what is opposite to Eastern Asia’. She says.

‘But what about Africa?’ I say.

‘No, that is not the West’. She says.

‘What about Russia?’ I say.

‘That is also not the West’. She says.

‘Is it in the East?’ I say. ‘After all, most of Russia is in Asia’.

‘No, it is not Eastern either’. She says.

‘Japan?’ I say.

She pauses. ‘Well, it is geographically in the East’, she says, ‘but culturally and economically it is Western’.

‘And Australia?’ I say.

‘It may be in the Eastern part of the world’, she says, ‘but it is culturally Western’.

‘Like Japan?’ I say.

At this point, the distinction between East and West begins to break down. I have had similar conversations in ‘Eastern’ Europe, where the differences between East and West shift once again. So also do the problems of identifying what exactly is eastern and western: what about Austria or Greece? What happens in each case is that the terms are reproduced for the sake of defining what ‘East’ means. ‘West’ becomes the useful, if somewhat elusive, Other in order to define what is not Western.

But let me return to Australia.

I am intrigued by the fact that many who visit Australia come here with the preconception that it is a Western country – much the same as, say, England, or the United States, or perhaps parts of Western Europe. Time and again, they are disconcerted and thrown when they arrive.

There was the woman from England who was completely thrown by the presence of Indigenous place names throughout the country, mingled in with place names of a European provenance. Or the woman from China, who was disconcerted when walking the streets to find that most people were obviously not white and did not speak any language she knew. Or the man who had lived for some time in the United States and England, who thought he knew what to expect in terms of religion and politics, only to find that the situation here did not quite fit any of his known categories.

I could multiply the examples indefinitely, but I am interested in the disconnect between preconception and disconcerting experience, especially in light of that distinction between East and West. Let me begin with the question of history. Australia is a curious meeting of the oldest continuous culture in the world and one of the youngest. Archaeological and textual evidence indicates the presence of Indigenous Australians for 45,000 years or more. Over that immense expanse of time they developed more than 400 hundred languages and complex societies. By comparison, the initial European settlement began barely more than 200 years ago – a mere moment in light of that longer history. To be sure, the meeting of the two was fraught with conflict, with the only wars fought on Australian soil ones of conquest and attempted annihilation.

Initially, this may make Australia seem like any other colonial country, such as those found in South America or North America. The difference is one of the massive gap and discrepancy between old and new, between the sheer age of Indigenous culture and very late invasion and settlement. However, a further factor plays a role. Europeans were by no means the first to engage with Australia. Although no firm evidence exists, it is highly likely that Chinese ships touched on Australia’s northern shores centuries before Europe emerged – late in the piece – from its backwardness. Then, some four centuries ago, Muslim Makassans searching for trepangs (sea-slugs) came to northern Australia – to what are now known as north-eastern Arnhem Land, Groote Eylandt, and the Cobourg Peninsula. This engagement was long and fruitful, with the exchange of turtle-shell, pearls, and cypress pine, as well as metal axes and knives, rice, cloth and tobacco. The local Aborigines did not generally regard the seasonal appearance of the Makassans as a threat, even travelling to Makassar in marriage arrangements. Linguistic, cultural, artistic, technological and ritual traces run deep even today, when the Muslim influence is more openly claimed among the Yolngu of Elcho Island. When it first became aware of such long-established contact, the colonial governments outlawed interactions between Asian and Aboriginal people, so as to benefit colonial enterprises. Yet Aborigines and Indonesians continued their interactions, in shared political strategies of resistance. This shared resistance also appears with the central Asian (‘Afghan’) cameleers, who came to central Australia in the mid-nineteenth century. They were simultaneously vital for transporting supplies to colonial outposts in the deserts and shunned by the European-derived communities. Indeed, these cameleers found more in common with Aboriginal communities. Just as interactions between Aborigines and Makassans were outlawed, ‘Afghan’-Aboriginal relationships were strictly prohibited by many state governments. Despite this, descendants of such relationships are part of the more than 1000 members (a conservative estimate) of the Australian Aboriginal Muslim community.

These facts make me profoundly suspicious of the focus on the story Australia’s European colonial history – from the late eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century – as the key to understanding Australia today. This focus means an overwhelming focus on European models for understanding Australian society, culture and institutions. It may take the form of focusing on the conflicts between convicts/settlers and indigenous peoples. It may appear as a focus on the constitution of a federated Australia, with its European shape. It may be a focus on the various institutions established in the colonial era. It may take the form of contesting the master narrative of colonial history. And so on. To be sure, this is one component – a ‘Western’ one – of the formation of Australia. But the danger of focusing on it is that it becomes determinative, for the reconstructed origins become the source of identity today. The catch is that the majority of Australians are not partakers of this story, for their backgrounds are exceedingly different.

That suspicion is enhanced by what is arguably the most significant point: since the end of the Second World War, the demographic, social, cultural, and especially religious nature of Australia has changed dramatically. Up until the war, 95 per cent of the nine million population had a background in Europe, particularly England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Now the majority of Australians are not from a north-western European background. This is the main reason why the colonial narrative I mentioned earlier is dangerously conservative and alienating for so many.

These changes in demographics have led us to the current situation in which the very identity of what ‘Australia’ might be is up for profound and long debate. On one side is a strident minority, who still hang onto the myth of a glorious colonial story, to the ‘anglosphere’, to the political alliances and comparisons with Western Europe or North America. The louder the noise they make, the more it signals that such a story is losing what grip it might have had. On the other side is the majority, for whom that story is meaningless. For them the fact that Australia is part of south-east Asia is more important. I do not speak of geography alone, for it also entails economic, social and cultural factors.

The debate over ‘Australian identity’ goes on, swinging now one way and now another. A good symbol of this debate is the national election of 2013: on one side was a candidate for prime minister, an immigrant from England who proclaimed that Australia is part of the ‘anglosphere’; on the other side was a Chinese speaking candidate, with his eyes firmly set on the Asian context. Other signs are the inability of Australia to decide whether it is still part of the economic and military sphere of the United States, or whether it is part of the Asian sphere. My own sense is that Australia is already part of the latter, since Australia is already primarily tied to Asia in economic matters, and increasingly so in terms of culture and society. Even the BBC world service identifies Australia as part of Asia.

Will Australia then become an Eastern country? This would be a mistaken perception. The main reason is that the whole East-West distinction is one of the northern hemisphere, with its land masses and imperial conflicts. Instead, we need to trouble that distinction. One way of doing is to suggest – and here I follow others – is that Australia is a Southern country. It is neither Eastern nor Western, but Southern. It has more in common with Africa, South America, New Zealand and the Pacific. In fact, we are in between the Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean and south-east Asia. However, this entails not some fixed cultural identity that can be opposed to others. Rather, it indicates the possibility of avoiding that curious fiction of finding some sort of ‘Australian national’ identity (although some try). Instead, I prefer the in-betweenness and instability of any identity. Of course, any national political myth or imagined community is inherently in between and unstable. So is it not better explicitly to build that uncertainty and instability into any political myth?

Sense of Space

Making Space

‘I’ll never get off’, I thought to myself. The Beijing metro carriage was impossibly crammed with bodies. Faces were squashed awkwardly against the windows; doors bulged from the pressure; few held the overhead bars for stability since one could not move anyway. My stop was seconds away. Having given away any thought of being able to get off, I studied the metro map to find out how far this train would go – the theory being that the end of the line would see fewer people and a chance to disembark.

Anxiously I nudged my shoulder and shifted one leg a centimetre or so. Miraculously a ‘path’ began to open up. Or rather, the smallest of space appeared between the two people before me. I shuffled into the opening and yet another opened up. As I did so, other people were also moving to the doors, and a subtle shifting of bodies began. I was at the door not a moment too soon. How did that happen? I wondered. Somehow in a completely jammed carriage, space appeared all over the place. Not vast swathes, but just enough between bodies – if one does not mind full body contact in the process.

Filling Space

‘I’ll never get a ticket’, I thought to myself. I was in what may euphemistically be called a ‘queue’ in some other places. Forget a carefully guarded line, in which every one gives room to the person who has arrived earlier and is before you. Instead, the queue in question was really a scrum at the ticket window. A man wedged his shoulder between those in front, held out a wad of cash, and yelled at the ticket seller. Would she tell him, calmly and firmly, to get to the back of line and stay in his place? Not at all. She quietly responded to his call, took his cash and handed over a ticket. A woman pushed in from the side, wedging her way through and asked loudly about a train. Again, the ticket seller answered her as though it was the most normal thing in the world. So it went on, one after another person walked around me, in front of me, and even through me (or so it felt). The ever-changing crowd at the window simply shouldered, reached or sidled within vocal range and managed to get their tickets.

What was I to do? Wait patiently until they were all gone? I decided to try my luck. A closed the space in front of me and became somewhat intimate with the woman in front. A man worked his way out of the crowd, ticket in hand, and I immediately filled the space he had briefly carved through the crowd. As another tied to sidle around me, I blocked his way with my back and legs. And I used my height advantage to reach over the heads of those before me to thrust my cash in the face of the ticket seller. ‘Nanjing’, I called out, ‘T23’. I called again, and as she finished with the previous customer, she took my cash, processed the ticket and handed it to me.

I was keen to try out my new skill: at shops, vegetable markets, metros, food stalls. Sometimes it was easy enough, at others a thrilling challenge. To order dumplings and soup at a milling food stall on a holiday is a feat for a foreigner, but I have emerged from such encounters in triumph. How so? The other side of people willingly making room for you when trying to leave a crammed metro carriage is that they also instinctually fill whatever small space opens up. A gap here, an opening there, it must be filled. After all, the space is there for you to fill.

Always Room

‘I’ll never get on’, I thought to myself. The bus had pulled up among half a dozen others, out on the roadway itself. A stream of people – all black haired with a few grey ones amongst them – rushed out to the bus door. Already the bus was to my eyes overfull, but one by one the new passengers found a way in. By the time I came to board, I had all but abandoned the idea of ever joining them. Thus far, I was immensely proud of myself, for I had negotiated the matter of bus stops, routes and the destinations – all in Chinese characters. No language I knew was used alongside such characters, not even pinyin. After all, foreigners take taxis, don’t they? But now my pride slid as I contemplated the bus door.

In a last-ditch effort of wishful thinking, I grabbed the handrail and lifted a foot. The continual shuffling of people on the bus – undertaken subconsciously and without yells from the driver – left me a ledge at the door. Further shuffling and I had space for my chest and head; a little more and my bum and shoulders were on board as well. When the driver was satisfied I was actually on the bus, he shut the door and hit the accelerator. We were on our way. How did this happen? Were people being nice to a bewildered foreigner? Did I appear stern, threatening perhaps, so that people involuntarily moved out of my way? No, in a country such as this no-one claims space as a private fiefdom – or as they say euphemistically in some other places, no-one has a large ‘personal space’. Instead, there is always room for one more.

Flexible Space

Making space, filling space, always room for another – by this time it was becoming clearer that space is produced hereabouts in different ways. Space is to be shared, not hoarded. For a foreigner, this reality can be thrilling and daunting: thrilling if you are seeking to get on a bus, metro or train, or indeed to get off; daunting if you need to engage in filling space in order to achieve anything at all – eating, travelling, finding a seat, walking, even sleeping. Actually, space is not merely shared, but it is also flexible.

On a long-distance train in the sleeper carriages, the corridors are often full of people, passing by with luggage, or for a smoke at the end of the carriage or perhaps for the toilet. At my first encounter with a fellow corridor walker, I slipped into the nearest cabin to let him pass. He did so with a slightly bemused look on his face. Puzzled, I walked on, only to encounter another. Before I could re-enact my evasive action, she simply shifted her shoulder slightly and swivelled her hips. She suddenly made the narrow corridor seem as open as the plains outside the window, passing by with the least trouble.

In the corridors of such trains, there are fold-out seats just large enough for smallish bum-cheeks. Should the sleeping compartment become too confined, you can always take a seat outside the door, in the corridor. The first time I did so, I stretched my legs and calmly looked out the window. In a matter of seconds one of the attendants came striding along. I duly stood up to let her pass, but she motioned for me to sit down again and simply slipped by me. I felt not even a brush of her clothing. So I settled down again to resume my peaceful gaze. Before long, the loud call of the man wheeling the food trolley arrived in our carriage. Surely he could not get past without me standing. Yet once again, he did so deftly, the trolley designed to deal with such situations as a matter of course. People continued to pass to and fro, gliding past me without even noticing my presence. Flexible space indeed, but in the midst of it I felt as though I had all the room in the world. At last I could relax.

2010 June 71a

Before Creation: Hiking the Great North Walk

The light was gone. I had a stark choice: camp here in the dense bush, with half a bottle of water to last the night and morning; or push on with a sliver of torchlight.

The torch it was, to help me avoid twisted tree roots, clamber over tumbling boulders, and negotiate wet and slippery footsteps beneath seeping rock-faces.

After that decision, I had little time to ponder anything – apart from the identifying the next twist in the track, or indeed finding the track itself. Often it all but disappeared in the gloom. The moon may have been out above the trees. But here, in the dense foliage, the only light was my slender torch.

On this bone-chilling evening in the middle of winter, I was forced to take it easy, treading carefully, a marked change from my rush to beat the light not long before. Now my mind began to work again, pondering the simplicity of light and dark. I felt I was returning to basics, to the mythical first moment of creation when light is separated from primal darkness.

Darkness and Light

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‘And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good. And God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day’.

This simple but all-pervasive awareness of light and dark was one of the two experiences that etched themselves most deeply into my consciousness. By this stage of a long day, I had already hiked almost 25 kilometres – about the limit for my ageing legs as they bore a pack full of camping gear, clothes and food. That day was part of a larger whole, for it was the second last day of a two week hike: the Great North Walk from Newcastle to Sydney. For years I have felt the invitation to do the hike, beckoned by a sign near my home in Newcastle. It reads: ‘Great North Walk. Sydney Cove – 250 km’. I have dreamed of it over the years. And since I have covered the distance in nearly every other way – train, bus, car, bicycle – why not walk? Yet it is far tougher than those other means, winding through the bush, up and down every mountain in sight, over every slippery rock, and through the densest forest you can possibly find. Precipitously rugged – the words can barely catch the bodily feel of the hike. Walk that distance?

I had decided to undertake the hike in winter, with its long nights and short days. Nights on the mountain tops required a winter sleeping bag inside my small tent, along with multiple layers of wool on my body. I like to sleep warm, toasty even, for then my mind and body close down for a lengthy sleep. But the darkness began almost too soon, usually within half an hour of finding a campsite. Just enough time to decide on the optimum place for my tent, to let the sweat dry so that I could don my warm night-gear. As the last of light went – before 17.00 – I lit a fire to cook up a magnificent repast of dried peas, tuna and mashed potato.

Soon enough I learnt to avoid the well-used camping spots in the damp clefts of valleys and ridges. Leeches and a dripping tent in the morning made for less than pleasant overnight stays. Instead, I preferred the dry and less frequented ridge-tops and their hard ground. Here was space for perhaps two or three tents and a small campfire. Here was a more open bush and here I could lie beneath the vast canopy of stars. The mornings with their cool winds would leave the tent dry and ready to pack. Of course, no water is to be found in such places, which both keeps them under-utilised and more attractive. So I had to make sure my water bottles had been filled at a stream before arrival.

But what does one do on a long night of fourteen hours? We have become so accustomed to trying to defeating the darkness, to banish it with all-pervasive lighting. But our efforts are feeble, creating little pockets of light in the surrounding gloom. Only a creator God can make a permanent change to the surrounding darkness. Even in this case the blackness of night is primary, the state of the cosmos before light is created. So I found myself enjoying the darkness, and my body responded. A simple meal, a bush wash (a corner of a cloth dipped in water), and brushing of teeth take up only so much time. I would check the map by torchlight for the next day and sit for a while watching the embers of the fire die down. But with such an early sunset, I was snuggled in my sleeping bag by 19.00 and asleep five minutes later. Occasionally I would wake very early, perhaps after nine hours sleep and well before any glimmer of light. For I moment I would ponder a pre-dawn start on the day, but as soon as I pulled the sleeping bag tighter around me, I would fall asleep for another three hours. With sleep like that, it takes little time for the body to become attuned to first light and the sound of birds trying to warm their chilled bodies.

The best light is God’s light. I was up quickly, keeping on the warm clothes of the night while I break camp and have a quiet breakfast – of dried fruit and nuts. In fact, the chill remained well into the morning, so that only much later did I strip down, pull off my woollen long johns, and don my hiking shirt, now well dried from the sweat of the previous day. Yet in winter the sun gave me no more than ten hours of hiking. More than enough, it seemed in the early morning as I strode along refreshed and eager. But the sun had a strange habit of staying low and racing towards the horizon, especially in its last few hours. At times I paced myself well. With plenty of distance covered in the morning, I could ease up in the afternoon and know that the sun would not beat me to the camping spot. But at other times, I aimed a little too far. Then I found myself racing the sun’s light, sprinting up mountains and stumbling down them to ensure I arrived before its light faded. And on that second last night, it well and truly beat me, leaving me with an hour or more of deep darkness before my destination for the night.

Empty Mind

An empty mind may well be a second key feature of the moment of creation, a return to the primeval state before thought is formed. I first noticed – if I can put it that way – my empty mind on the third day of the hike. It was an afternoon, when I would typically tire of the steep climbs and sharp drops, when I began to sense that my feet had had enough, when I automatically put one foot in front of the other with little thought for what is to come. All of a sudden, I had a thought. I do not recall the thought, but at the time I was struck by the fact that it was actually a thought. Or rather, I became aware that this was the first thought that had come to my mind in more than two hours.

Until that moment, my mind had been completely empty of any thought whatsoever. Normally, my mind is full to overflowing. A crucial part of hiking, day after day, is that my mind may run freely. Thrillingly pleasant and completely unpleasant thoughts run across one another without hindrance. I revisit old arguments and win them. I recall journeys once made, places where I stopped and camped, even retracing in detail the trails once followed. I talk to trees, thanking one for giving me some dropped wood for a fire or another tree for taking care of my pack as I lean it up against the trunk. As I become older, I have ever richer memory tracks, conjuring up moments I thought forever forgotten.

But I have rarely had an empty mind. Once that solitary thought had come and gone on the third day of hiking, my mind became empty once again. Half a day it continued – blank. The next day was the same, and the next. In the mornings, I went through the routine of packing the tent and sleeping gear without any thought for what I was doing. The evenings were the same, with pitching camp, lighting a fire and cooking a meal.

The day after I had finished my mountain hiking, some thoughts began to return. Above all, I wondered about – indeed, I marvelled at – my experience of an empty mind. Was it exhaustion, when all my energy was devoted to finding water, to determining how much food remained, to making it to the next camping spot? Not really, since I was not that exhausted. Normally, tiredness brings out old annoyances and arguments, even people with whom I no longer have any contact (in fact, I see little point in maintaining any contact whatsoever with such people). Out on a trail, I clear those annoyances from my system, leaving them beside the trail as I hike on. By contrast, the empty mind was akin to the effects of meditation. My body’s repetitive acts, of walking for hours on end, brought my mind to a state of complete calm. Not an easy achievement in a time of information overload and endless stimulus, of massive diaries and appointments to keep. But it is one I wish to achieve again.

Solitude

I must confess to a third primal experience: solitude. I may have passed by the tent of a weirdo who liked to pitch it in the midst of the track and stay for days. But we did not speak to one another. I may have met a beautiful woman with a sad face, but we uttered barely a word for we both sought solitude for our own reasons. Mine was sheer pleasure and release. Away from other human beings, words become minimal, the needs of life basic, the issues fundamental. So accustomed do I become to my own company that I find it difficult to communicate with others when I emerge. The prattle of company becomes unnecessary and trivial.

I mean of course solitude in relation to other human beings, for I had plenty of other company: the wallaby, initially startled at our encounter but then intrigued enough to stop for a longer look; the wombat taking a dump on a flat stone (as is their wont), who quietly finished what he had to do as I strolled by; the curious lyrebird in a remote corner, who had obviously not read the textbook that says lyrebirds are immensely shy of human beings; the towering trees in the temperate rainforest, whom I slapped affectionately and with whom I shared a story concerning light and dark, an empty mind and solitude.

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Sweating My Way Through Sichuan

I wipe my knuckle under my nose once again, and all of my companions follow suit. The universal signal of Sichuan it is, repeated countless times each day. Sichuanese do so as a matter of course, an act so instinctual it barely registers even on the subconscious. But I am acutely conscious of the constant prickling in my nose, the drip that keeps forming on its tip, the cough and splutter with yet another mouthful of food, the sweat that forms readily on my brows … Make no mistake: I have eaten hot food plenty of times before, even priding myself on the ability to handle a spicy dish. But this is a whole new dimension to eating.

2014 May 272a

Domesticating Spice

I am in Sichuan for the first time, having arrived by long-haul train from Beijing. My first discovery is that three main types of dishes are offered here: very hot, extremely hot, and infernal. If they want to show mercy to a foreigner, they offer you a very hot plate, but if you have the temerity to say you are used to spicy food, they gleefully produce a range of dishes that burn their way through from one circular muscle in the body to the other. As I sweat my way through another meal, my host tells me that the signature chilli used in nearly all Sichuan cooking is not a native plant. Or rather, it may be so now, after 500 years, but it was introduced from Central America. When the Spanish set up their trans-Pacific routes – running from the west coast of the Americas through the Philippines to the east coast of Asia – they brought with them two main items of cargo. One was precious metals, gold and silver for the imperial coffers. The other was the small plant with its fiery red fruit – chilli peppers. It would not be the first time that staple local food actually had a foreign origin, but the Sichuanese have incorporated the humble chilli – combined with garlic and the distinctive Sichuan pepper – into a cuisine that is the envy of most.

Yet, for some reason that is beyond me, the food sits well on my stomach. How to make sense of this apparent contradiction between the burning feeling in my mouth and the calmness of my guts? After another glorious meal, I ponder two possibilities. First, the multiple uses of chilli ensure that any bugs you may have lurking in your nether regions are burned away. The food cleans as well as satisfies. Second, I find that I know clearly when I have had sufficient food, since the sucrose and fat found in so many dishes elsewhere in the world is simply not present here. Fat may make the food taste good (for tongues that have grown up with it), but sucrose is the real culprit. It masks the body’s satiety indicators, so that you keep on eating until overloaded. Not in Sichuan, where one’s body recovers its old mechanisms for determining what is enough.

Fiery Independence

But Sichuan has more, much more to offer than its food. Its distinct identity is not merely defined by its suspicion of the northerners, with their political power and industrial might. Nor is it defined by dialect, or physical characteristics. Or rather, its identity is made up of these factors, but the sum is greater than the parts. They are indeed suspicious of northerners and that suspicion has a long history indeed. It may have been the Tang Dynasty, based in Xian, or the Song dynasties of Kaifeng and Luoyang, or the Ming and then Qing Dynasties of Nanjing and Beijing. Thousands of years of northern dynasties, seeking to hold their away over those in the south-west. By the time the communists came to power, this tradition was well and truly established. Chairman Mao’s decision to make Beijing their capital – a relative newcomer on the scene of possible capitals – ensured the tradition of suspicion continued. And this despite the fact that Mao himself was also from the south, from Hunan province (although that too is north of Sichuan).

The people here have their own proud history. Even though they are very much part of China and have been for millennia, they like to tell of the times when Sichuan had its own power base. ‘Power base’ is perhaps too strong, but in the dim and very distant past it was not under distant imperial sway. For example, in the city of Chengdu is the Jinsha archaeological site. The Shu people had relocated their political centre from Sanxingdui (2050-1250 BCE), forty kilometres to the north, to Jinsha, where they settled down for more than half a millennium – 1200-650 BCE. The site itself was discovered by accident in 2001 during some reconstruction work, and the site has since become a distinct and well-preserved location, trying to present a glimpse of what life was like. Remains of ivory, jade and gold are plentiful, as are stone and bronze implements. Clearly, both technologies existed side by side. But I was most intrigued by learning that elephants and lions and deer were plentiful, in a lush plateau teaming with plant and animal life.

But as I tour the site, what strikes me is the way the uniqueness of the ancient Shu culture is highlighted. They lived in the Chengdu basin, a plateau ringed by mountain ranges. As far back as Chinese culture is known, the Shu had developed a unique cultural presence for almost two millennia. They did so largely isolated from the rest of China, which began to note their presence – through a mix of fabulous stories, legends and miscellanea passed down from one writer to the other – only in the fourth century BCE. This was probably due to the first official contact between the Qin and Shu states in 476 BCE, when the latter sent emissaries with gifts to the Qin court.

With such a long history of independent existence and subsequent domination by one emperor after another, it is no wonder the people of Sichuan value their distinctness. The land itself certainly helps. In order to get there, I travelled by train, journeying westward from Wuhan and passing through Chongqing. From the vast river flats of the Chang Jiang (Yangtze), we burrowed through tunnels and crawled over mountains passes, following the river upstream. ‘Upstream’ is really a euphemism, for in order to pass from the basin to the river flats, the Chang Jiang has to tumble through the precipitous Yangzi Gorges. We rolled over bridges beneath which were narrow valleys with towns and the ever-present rice paddies. To me it seemed as though the ranges were impossibly steep and perilous. But to the north and south are even greater ranges, the Qinling and the peaks of Yunnan respectively. Yet even these are nothing compared to the Hengduan Mountain system in the west half of the province. Range towers above range, with peaks reaching above 7,000 metres. Only through these formidable mountains can one reach Tibet.

Surrounded by such a natural fortress, it is no wonder Sichuan was able to maintain its distinct traditions for so long, as also for endless independence movements when the faraway empires waned in power. So also has the local dialect has been able to flower, and the people with their lithe physiques.

Bodies and Feel

Physique is hardly the word, unless one wants to speak of wiry and petite frames (with their gender associations). I am interested in the barely perceptible signals of how people are with their bodies – how a shoulder may move, a chin, the hips on walking. The women carry their bodies in a way that is both restrained and relaxed. Minimal may be the best word: minimal in terms of clothing, makeup (usually none), and body parts needed to walk. That is, a Sichuan woman manages to walk without apparent effort, using the fewest parts of her body to do so. Is it laziness or perhaps avoidance of physical exertion? No. It signals a deep comfort with their bodies.

The men too tend to be diminutive, as is more common in the southern parts of China. But they have an almost indescribably nonchalance that is captured in the slight nod and shrug at a comment or observation. This is all that is required for acknowledgement. Or, if you need correction, they do so quickly and easily. They walk and stand with a knowing nonchalance, that is perhaps best captured in the old saying, ‘You’d better not go to Sichuan; it wouldn’t help your career’. Often this is understood to refer to the many opportunities to unwind, to the distractions posed by members of the opposite (or same) sex. If you want to be a workaholic, to make your way in the world, then Sichuan is not the place to go. But I suggest it may be read in another way. Sichuanese know that too many other things in life are important – the passions, acts, and pursuits that make us human.

Such as food – to which I cannot help returning. In the end real feel of Sichuan is its food. Chinese may be among the only people that travel according to their stomachs. Before I departed from Beijing, many people asked me, ‘Are you going to Sichuan for the food’ – as if that was the major reason for going at all. I may not have set out with my stomach in mind, but it certainly turned out to be the key experience.

Each day, my host takes me from one of his regular, everyday eateries to another. ‘I want to show you a little of everyday life here’, he says. One place serves only three dishes, each one a variation on rice noodles in soup and pickled cabbage. For dinner it was mapo doufu, with its signature combination of ‘heat’ and ‘numbing’ spiciness. ‘We don’t say the food tastes spicy’, he says, ‘we say if feels “tingly-numbing”’. Upon my request, he writes down the character: 麻 or . He tells me of the way this doufu is made, with salty broad bean paste, fermented black beans, chilli oil, Sichuan peppers, garlic, green onions, rice wine and the secret ingredient, chilli flakes of the heaven-facing pepper (朝天辣椒). Another is an impossibly fiery and pungent hotpot, into which we dump meatballs, strips of vegetables, noodles, and all manner of things, only to retrieve them a few minutes later when cooked and spiced. The endlessly flowing beer is merely to keep one’s throat a little cool. Yet not all is spicy. On an afternoon, we stop by a well-known roadside stall to buy a cool drink. Or rather, it is more like an iced jelly, made from a local plant and with nuts and herbs and whatnot sprinkled on top. Each of them is a sensation, each of them a feeling of what is really important in the day.

2014 May 264a

 

Knots and Knots

What does one do on a long voyage, not on one of those cruise ships that try to make you forget you are on your own at sea, but on a container ship? I was on a voyage half way around the world, from Melbourne to Tilbury (on the Thames), via Panama. For more than a month we crossed two great oceans and five seas. For the whole time the only source of entertainment was my own imagination. So, at those moments when I was not on the bridge, sneaking up to the bow, reading, writing, destroying the weight machine or playing table-tennis table, I practised … knots.

Beside the map of the world, on which I traced our route with strips of white paper, I found a chart with knots. And so, as the ship belted along at twenty knots, I learnt to make knots. A couple of old pieces of rope and I had entertainment for hours, practicing something I had wanted to do as a child when I first learnt how to tie a reef knot (that’s as far as I got then).

I began with a simple noose or slip knot – the sort you make by mistake when trying to find a knot that won’t slip. I progressed to the figure of eight knot, double eight noose, before realising there was a theme here: the nooses are among the easiest and most common knots. And the most effective. The heaving line knot is your classic hangman’s noose from the movies – a loop with half a dozen neat curls that look like a neat pile of rope. Easy to make; efficiently tightened. Time to move on, nervously.

The carrick knot is a skilful bit of ropemanship, as is the carrick rope ladder: it reminded me of a sly, fast-talking Irishman – some superficial good looks and impress-a-woman kind of thing, or perhaps an elaborate pastry, rather than anything eminently useful. The double-eight noose fell into the same category, as did the surgeon’s knot (unless it was for tying up veins after an amputation), and even the French bowline and bowline on the bight (see below).

Others are fancy names for the sort of knot you would tie instinctively and roughly, saying ‘I don’t know the first thing about knots’. Now I can say, ‘I reckon two half hitches should do it’ and do exactly the same thing. Sure to impress.

Some drove me nuts at first, like the manharness knot or lighterman’s hitch or rolling hitch, which are basically ways of hanging something securely from a pole. They look like an extraordinarily complex thing until you get the hang of it, and then the beauty of their simplicity shows through. It did not help that I was figuring out how to tie these knots from a completed display with mini-ropes on a wall hanging. Some simply had to be pried loose and examined closely before being returned to their place, sagging a little. The display is not quite what it used to be.

My favourites? The bowline, mainly for its name but also the way it seems to come naturally. A small loop, large loop paid out and a quick twist and fold-back through the first. Beautiful piece of work, although the variations seem to me unnecessarily elaborate when the simple one does the job perfectly well: the French bowline (an extra loop) and the bowline on the bight (great name, but …). The sheet bend is a delight (single better than double), a simple way to tie two ropes together securely so that one is an anchor and the other can pay out two lines from there. But the one that seduced me is the sheepshank: a simple twist, curl, loop, fold-back and tie-off, it produces an impressive and very functional knot. Its purpose: I actually don’t know, but I suspect it may be for tying sheep’s rear legs together …

Yet the Everest of knots is the Spanish bowline, the second last knot I taught myself (the last was the rope ladder, a variation on the heaving line knot). Gradually ascending the scale of difficulty, I moved through the stage of the bowline, the French bowline, the bowline on the bight and then … the Spanish is a beautifully symmetrical piece of ropemanship, looking a little like a pair of testicles. Two loops hang down, topped matching twists and curls above the loops before the two ends of the rope, having magically turned inside out and then outside in, line up together at the top. A tug on the loops and the ends and the Spanish bowline announces itself.

La Tour 343 (29 07)a