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Beautiful women come from Suzhou and Hangzhou. Or so the proverb goes (referring to Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces). Why here? According to local lore, more than half of the beautiful women in southern China are in Suzhou and Hangzhou. They are reputed to have light skin due to the cloudy weather and their delicate complexion comes from the mild humidity. Small, graceful hands speak of considerate and desirable lovers. Indeed, the women of these parts are the ideal of beauty. As Journey to the West would have it (p. 339):

All had moth-eyebrows glistening blue,

Pale and spring-like faces.

Seductive beauties who could tumble kingdoms,

Disturbing men’s hearts with their quiet charm.

Elegant were their ornaments of golden flowers;

Their embroidered sashes floated above the worldly dust.

Their half-smile was a bursting cherry;

Their breath was perfumed as they walked with slow steps.

But beautiful women are to be found in places other than Suzhou and Hangzhou. I tell one young man I am going to Chongqing.

He turns to me with a look of longing and says, ‘Ah, the most beautiful girls live in Chongqing’.

‘Why Chongqing?’ I say.

‘It’s in the mountains’, he says. ‘Chongqing girls are always climbing hills, so they have long, beautiful legs’.

‘Is that all?’ I ask.

‘Oh no’, he says. ‘Like the food, they are fiery, charming, and full of personality. I wish I was coming with you’.

Some (men and women) may prefer the savvy and sophisticated women of Beijing, or the stylish and exquisite women of Shanghai, or perhaps the fashionable women of Hong Kong. But those with more discerning tastes look elsewhere.

In Chengdu (Sichuan province), for instance, the women are petite and pure. The soft, rich soil is said to produce a deep natural beauty that does not rely on makeup. They are reputed to be delicate, with soft, white skin. Or in Nanjing, the ancient capital of empires past has created women with effortless grace. No need for elaborate clothing or efforts to impress, for that grace is part of their very bearing. Quiet simplicity speaks far more powerfully. Or in Changsha (Hunan province), women are said to have faces from southern China and the slender bodies of the north. But if one seeks a true northern woman, then Dalian is the place to go. A Dalian woman is tall, with long glowing hair. She has a simple boldness that defies the timidity of other places, and yet a distinct gracefulness emphasised by long legs and an athletic body. Since they love to swim, Dalian women may have darker skin that defies the ancient norm of lightness.

All the same, this map of desire in all its variations has one common feature: all the women are supposed to be young, light skinned (except Dalian women), with natural beauty and a hidden allure. Some have attributed the desire for light skin to foreign influences, especially of western women with white complexions. Yet, this misses a much older tradition, in which upper class girls were kept indoors under the watchful eyes of parents and servants. They were certainly not to be seen in public on their own, and any courters would seek their attention at a distance and with parental approval. Out of the sun they should be kept, for otherwise their skin would darken far too much. A girl outdoors and with a tanned skin was too much like a peasant girl.

The key, however, is youth. Men prefer a young woman. In fact, much of Chinese society sees beauty in youth. Age may bring profound respect, in that particular Confucian way in which parents and elders are honoured (although also regarded as decrepit). But youth is the basis of beauty. Thus, a woman who has passed thirty years of age and is yet to be attached is regarded as an ‘old girl’. She is passing, as some say, into the ‘third gender’. Parents worry, their peers press them, and men are not interested. If an older man has a lover, she will be a woman in her twenties.

I beg to differ. The true beauty of China is in the tanned and lined face of the older countryside. Here a woman works in the fields all day, soaking up the sun. Bodies have been toughened by many seasons of hard work. A woman’s creases and wrinkles speak of experience, as do discerning eyes that assess you quietly. Faces become darker and more defined, with stronger lines and dimples from laughter. And she has learned to take no crap from men and their foibles. This is the time in a women’s life, graced with the lines and calm of experience, when she reaches in some way beyond herself.

For all his faults, it was Mao Zedong who saw the beauty and strength of China in these people, the farmers and workers. After all, beauty comes with age.

Puffed and peaked hats weave around one another. At times, they dip in concentration over a wok or large saucepan; at others they sway as the wearer lugs a heavy pot from stove to bench; at yet other times they lean towards one another as they work on the same dish. I see them from my window at first light, preparing for a breakfast that begins at 6.30 am.

Is this some trendy café or restaurant preparing signature dishes for well-heeled clientele? Are the chefs stoned and chain-smokers, as is the case so often in other countries? No and no. I am looking upon one of many dining halls at a school or university campus in China. And these are hard-working chefs preparing food for the masses, so there is little time to indulge in the past-times of chefs in other places. Needless to say, such preparation requires not one or two chefs, but fifty or more, decked all in white.

Soon enough the masses arrive: hundreds upon hundreds of students and staff for the first meal of the day. My empty stomach draws me to the fining hall too, where I join the throng. Despite the milling crowd, everyone makes way for one another. I grab a simple stainless steel platter with indentations for different types of food. Chopsticks complete the collection. What will I eat? Long, fried breakfast buns to dip in warm soymilk? Noodles and freshly cooked vegetables? Fried dumplings or Chinese breakfast pancakes? Rice porridge with red bean paste? Flat cakes filled with green vegetables and egg? The possibilities are almost endless, but I opt for the soymilk, a long bun and the flat cakes – for less than a dollar (in comparison).

Sitting at a table with three others (for sharing space is the norm), I pause to look out across the vast dining hall. I am surrounded on all sides by heads of straight black hair bent over their meals. Chopsticks blur, slurps are loud, talk is subdued during the more important task of eating. I estimate about three hundred people as my breakfast companions – and this is only for the fifteen minutes or so that it takes for me to eat my own morning meal. Multiply that number for the full breakfast period, for the two and half hours from 6.30 to 9.00 am. Multiply again for lunch and then dinner, each of the same length of time. And multiply again for the dozen or so dining halls on this campus, let alone the sixty campuses across Beijing.

As I look out I ponder whether this is the practical response to a massive population. Perhaps it is of the same ilk as the practice of half a dozen students sharing the same dormitory room for their undergraduate years. The same may apply to sleeping berths on a train, which are also shared with many others. I wonder whether those practical issues are overlaid with the history of socialism in this country. To be sure, one can find plenty of relatively expensive restaurants in town. But even those are less patronised now as the president (Xi Jiping) invokes Mao’s call for party cadres and many other to continue to live a simple life. So in the dining halls, students, staff, children of staff, even visitors may be found. Everyone eats in the sample simple manner – freshly cooked food costing next to nothing.

What about those chefs with their puffy hats? What do they do when the meal time is finally over? On one occasion I arrive a little late for a meal, when students and staff have departed. The dining hall is full of white hats, all of them bent over their own bowls. A moment to eat after the hard work, to chat and rest. Not for long, however, since preparation for the next meal time soon begins. It starts in a little over an hour.

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‘Li govorite po-angliskii?’ I asked the solid woman with bleached hair behind the counter at the brand new railway station in Minsk, Belarus.

She peered at me over her reading glasses and uttered a stream of Belorussian. Tentatively, I showed her the travel vouchers I had obtained from a ‘reputable’ travel company back home. They were for the only train – the overnight 087Б service – from Minsk to Riga, vouchers that we were assured could be exchanged for tickets after we had arrived in Belarus. After barely glancing at the vouchers, she handed them back to me.

Milling about aimlessly, we approached one person after another, each of them shaking their heads and pointing vaguely to the other side of the station. When all seemed lost, a couple of young girls came to our assistance. They took us straight to the senior ticket administrator.

Eventually, one of the girls said, ‘No, you can’t exchange the vouchers for tickets here. Only in Russia can you do that’.

I quietly cursed the European rail ‘experts’ who had sold me the vouchers. ‘We’ll buy new tickets’, I said.

‘Luxe?’ She asked.

I nodded vigorously. ‘Yes, luxe is perfect’.

At the luxe window, seconds seemed like hours. I wondered whether you could buy tickets so late, minutes before the train was due to depart. I began forming plans for a rush to the airport, to make sure we left Belarus before our visas expired. At the last moment it was our turn. Tickets purchased (much more cheaply than those cursed vouchers), a rush to the platform, a sigh of relief as we stepped on the train.

And a glorious train it was. Four old wagons pulled by a diesel from USSR times. Our quarters for the night were plushly carpeted, padded with velvet, and festooned with lace. Clean towels sat atop thick pillows. The beds we could make ourselves – at least after we had caught our breath and calmed down a little.

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As the train chugged out of the station, the svelte attendant knocked. ‘Do you speak any Russian?’ she said.

I held my thumb and index finger millimetres apart. ‘A tiny bit’ I said.

‘Wait’, she said.

She returned with a thin, tall man with a broad, fangy smile.

‘Do you have your tickets?’ He translated. We nodded and passed them to the smiling conductor. ‘Would you like to watch television?’ He translated again. ‘How about tea, coffee, coke?’ We shook our heads each time.

At last some peace. Time to unwind, settle into our beds and be rocked off to sleep …

A few moments later he returned, on his own. Revealing his impressive if somewhat scary dental arrangement, he said, ‘Would you like to buy some Russian souvenirs?’ He held out a box with aloe towels and a notepad. Nothing distinctly Russian could be seen anywhere upon them, except perhaps the writing. We shook our heads again; we were becoming tough prospects. “If you need anything,’ he continued, ‘I am in the next car. But make up your mind soon, since I am getting off at the next station – Maladzyechna’. We had indeed made up our minds quickly. We would not be seeking him out in the next car.

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At last we could sleep, although I needed to unwind a little. So I let my thoughts run over the last few days in Belarus. When we left Minsk, the train had only four carriages, two with ‘luxe’ accommodation and two with standard. Within a couple of hours we had joined a dozen more at Maladzyechna, from where our longer village in motion veered in a north-easterly direction to the Russian border. Unfamiliar stations and towns rolled by in a country relatively few visit – Viliejka, Ventrina, Polatsk, Verkhnyadzvinsk, and then into Latvia after a sharp turn left. At each station, no matter how small, the station master would stand to attention by the station door and see the train through safely.

I decided on some light reading – Chairman Mao’s Selected Writings. That set me drifting back over the last couple of days, thinking over a visit to a country that was part of the former USSR, a country that few think about all that much. Belarus has remained socialist by refusing the ‘shock therapy’ visited in retributive glee by Western forces on other countries in Eastern Europe. Indeed, Belarus is now part of the Customs Union with Russia. With open borders and significant financial assistance from its big partner to the east, Belarus has made it clear that it wishes none of the tainted deals to be had with the EU as it attempts further imperial expansion. Of course, Putin is no communist and his plans for expanding Russian influence have more to do with nationalism than any socialist project. But that has not affected the distinctly soviet feel of Belarus.

To be sure, it is that version of authoritarian communism that was needed in the USSR as it struggled to find the right path to communism, a path that no-one had travelled before. That authority was modelled perhaps on the proto-socialist Russian religious groups with their charismatic leaders – Old Believers or Dukhobors or others. It may also have been force of circumstances that generated such authoritarian communism, surrounded by perpetual threats from bourgeois states keen to see the end of communism as a viable alternative. Indeed, Belarus remains surrounded by more than enough forces who wish to crush it, so Lukashenko has continues to invoke the powerful soviet heritage and its leadership model.

For this reason, red stars still abound on government buildings, such as the stations we pass. Often, one encounters hammer-and-sickle relief sculptures on their facades, or perhaps the Belarusian version with sheaves of wheat enveloping the images. Belarus’s own coat of arms features the outline of the country itself, bright rays of the sun and abundant sheaves of wheat. They meet at the top at a red star. The countryside is indeed covered in fields of grain, for the soil is rich and dark. Part of the fabled bread basket of the USSR (along with the Ukraine), Belarus still provides grain to the Russian Federation just across the open border.

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Much of the land through we passed is undulating farmland, with the only hills appearing after we cross the border into Latvia. But were we part of a mass exodus from Belarus? One would think so, at least if one reads Western press accounts of the country. A ‘dictator’s regime’, a ‘police state’, economic ‘collapse’ – these and other terms pepper such accounts. For some strange reason, few people are keen to leave the country. Could it be that the reports of the Western media are a little tainted, a payback for Belarus’s rejection of the brutal models imposed on other Eastern European countries? Like the locals, I too was not keen to leave the place.

By next morning, we steamed into Riga, capital of Latvia. What a contrast! Firmly ensconced in the EU, the old city core was one of those Disneyfied affairs and thoroughly alienating. Faux carriages, cobbles, trendy sellers of ‘local’ crafts – these and more were for the tourists who are supposed to flock to the place. Not that they have helped the economy all that much. The ship to Stockholm could leave soon enough. To Latvia I have no desire to return, but to Belarus – absolutely.

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Twenty years ago I walked into a local bicycle shop, seeking my first serious and well-made machine. I knew little about such matters, except that I wanted something reliable, comfortable and sleek. Much discussion and many test-rides later, I settled on a bright red Giant Kronos. Soon enough it came to be known as the Red Giant. Little did I realise at the time, but it would become a parable of a life.

My loathing of cars meant that the Red Giant was my prime mode of transport. A ride to and from work, the shops, to meet people – these are obvious. But it was the unexpected uses that made the bike what it was. My two daughters were still small and needed to get here, there, and everywhere. So I acquired a trailer attachment, with its own wheel, handlebars, brakes and pedals. A squeal of delight on the first ride by each daughter ensured that it soon became a staple mode of transport – to school, to parties, to swimming lessons, to baseball games …

The bike became a work-horse in more ways than one. My love of books, either borrowed from libraries or purchased second-hand, meant that its panniers were more often than not full of books. Weekly I would ride from Parramatta to Sydney, a 65 km return ride, in search of books. Before designated bicycle routes became a feature, I found my quiet route – along rivers, on forgotten ferries, through the waves of expansion that the city has undertaken.

The bicycle also had its days off, when we would free-wheel over long distances, either alone or together with others in organised rides. At the Sydney Spring Cycle we would meet thousands of others to ride roads closed off just for bicycles. Out of the city, we would be free to run on open roads where cars rarely ran. We also learnt serious mountain climbing, through the tough slopes in the wilderness north of the city. Yet, these were merely a taste of serious tours to come.

Eventually, the daughters grew up and rode their own bikes, along with their brothers. Eventually, my marriage broke up and the Red Giant found itself alone on cold, gravelly tracks in Melbourne, riding from humble lodgings to a small lonely office. Eventually, after the first decade of riding, it was no longer able to do so. A snapped seat stay, a worn drive mechanism, and cracked wheels meant that its future was in doubt. For a lost year or two, it was only a frame, stripped down and hanging in the corner of a work room.

But then I decided to rebuild the Red Giant, at the same time that I decided to get out of a disastrous relationship and rebuild my life. Slowly, the Red Giant came back together. New wheels, new drive mechanism, new leather seat, new headset, reconditioned brakes – all on a cleaned out, repaired, and repainted frame. I still recall that first ride in the Dandenong Hills after the Giant had come back to life. It was overjoyed to be back on the road. And I too was overjoyed to free as well.

Soon enough, the Giant and I moved to be closer to my children. Now we rode regularly and eagerly to see them, the girls an hour away by bicycle, the boys two days by the same means (three hours by train). By this time, I had ridden a couple of other bicycles. One was a dead loss, an expensive Cannondale tourer, and the other a useful addition, a fold-up Dahon on which I toured extensively. Yet, the Dahon was not as durable, and soon enough the frame cracked and I sold its repaired version.

I had one bicycle left: the Red Giant. And I had a big ride in mind: 1200 km from Melbourne to Sydney. Would it manage such a long haul, with camping gear, food and clothes in the panniers? Not sure, I went to see the local bicycle shop. Here I met Margaret, who had set the world record for Melbourne to Sydney in 1969. She took one look at the Red Giant and said, ‘Of course, it will make it. It’s far stronger than anything you can buy today’. So we did the ride, over two weeks along the southern coast and then into the mountains as it pedalled northward.

There was no stopping me. For the next five years, I toured every couple of months. Short camping trips into the wilderness; long hauls in my beloved Hunter Valley; even longer rides from Brisbane to my home (900 km). I would long for the day’s ride, for the camping spot in the bush, for the cooking fire at night, for the immensely long sleeps after a day’s ride.

By now, the bicycle was showing signs of age. I had patched it so much with red paint (actually nail polish) that virtually none of its original paint remained. It began popping spokes a little too often, the chain rings were worn, and the gear changes sluggish and slipping. The wheel bearings were no longer as smooth and the cables were worn. Should I rebuild once again? I sought out Margaret’s advice. ‘Twenty-year frame?’ She said. ‘It’s like an eighty year old man. I wouldn’t rebuild it, since you never know whether the frame will hold out’.

What to do? Sell it; leave it to gather dust in a corner? No, the Red Giant has moved into semi-retirement. We still ride locally, around town and maybe for a day ride. The panniers are still loaded with books, and I still use it for my local form of transport. But now it has a younger cousin, a Surly Long-Haul Tricker. It enjoys the long tours into the mountains, and on return the two of them share stories, the one reliving its past and the other with new tales to tell.

2011 January 017a

The feel of the air, the sense of a track, the lie of the land, the geometry of a bicycle – many are the triggers for unexpected bodily memories. Even a reasonable amount of long distance cycling in different parts of the world is enough to build up a collection of memory tracks; except that they are not mere memories but intensely felt experiences, returning with a bodily intensity and vividness that continues to surprise and delight.

The preconditions: leave the world for a couple of days or more. Mount a bicycle, loaded with enough supplies and gear, and set off into remote parts. Soon enough, the great pleasure of a ride is upon me. To be a dualist for a moment, while my body settles into its rhythm, my mind is free to wander according to its own preferences. Or rather, my mind finds itself subject to the messages my body is sending. And unexpected messages they are.

Geometry

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On a recent ride and on a new bicycle (a Surly Long Haul Trucker), I began to recall my many rides in Germany on an old Pegasus. I had bought it second hand, and over a couple of years I had cycled the route of the Berlin Wall (Mauerweg), along the Spree river from its source (Spreeradweg), and many rides around Herrnhut in the far east of Germany. Fond I became of that worn but reliable German bicycle. I even began to taste lunches of ryebread, cheese and cherry tomatoes, as well as the chocolates for energy that cost next to nothing. I felt intensely the bumpy farm tracks, the empty single lane roads through forest and farmland, the dirt paths through biospheres, and even the dedicated bicycle paths that criss-cross the country. But why those rides, tastes, experiences? And why that bicycle? Unable to answer the question, I let my mind wander again, only to return the Pegasus. At last I realised: the geometry! Both bikes put my body in a similar position. The position of the seat in relation to the pedals, the places for my hands on the handlebars, the angle of lean – all felt the same. But it went further, for the gear shifts and ratios, the cornering, and the comfort with a load brought the two even closer together.

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Lie of the Land

Moments later my memory tracks were in the Netherlands, on a glorious ride of self-discovery a decade ago. My body began recalling not the bicycle I rode then, but the way seas and land are inescapably part of one another. Dykes and polders seemed to be about me, as did the exhilarating experience of finding myself all alone on the Waddenzee in the north of the country. Mostly, however, I felt I was in the midst of waterways and opening bridges, which would be raised to allow canal traffic to pass. Why did I recall the Netherlands so vividly? I pondered this question while salt spray hit my face, born by a sea breeze that ruffled the waves and formed white caps on the chop. I was actually passing through Swansea, south of Newcastle. Here Lake Macquarie passes into the sea, the passage winding its way like a sea canal. The low-lying land on either side is bolstered by seawalls to protect the land in a storm. As I rode up to the bridge crossing the passage, the red lights came on and I pulled up. The bridge began to open to allow some boats to pass through. The Netherlands indeed.

2010 August 009a

Sense of a Track

A little later, my senses of balance, sight and smell had me transported to a glistening wet fahrradweg (bicycle path) through a deep European forest. A ribbon of black twisted its way through ancient and dripping trees. Rain spattered on my jacket, soaked through my helmet and splashed up on my shoes (mudguards seem designed to direct all water into the tops of one’s footwear). About me I felt a biosphere, and I began to recall that intense feeling of wishing that the path and its forest would never end.

2013 April 092 (Spreeradweg)a

Actually, I was cycling along a relatively rare experience in Australia: a dedicated bicycle path through a forest. These paths tend to be rail-trails – old railway lines (for coal mines, sugar cane or fruit orchards) that have been converted the bicycle and walking routes. Rare though they may be, I seek them out whenever I can. On this ride, the day was cool and threatening rain, and soon enough the track was a glistening wet black ribbon through a dripping forest. No wonder I found myself in a European forest.

Warm Bed

As I gradually became soaked from the driving rain, an intense anticipation came upon me. A dry, warm hostel, with a massive meal and a chance to dry out – my body leapt at the expectation. Now I could have been anywhere: towards the end of that endless fahrradweg through the dripping forest; crossing the border in Jutland between northern Germany and Denmark; the soaking rain along a quiet track in the Dutch Veluwe; autumn rains on the North Sea Bicycle Route in Norway; or a squall blown in from the sea in Denmark. On each occasion, I felt the bodily pull of dry clothes, a grand meal, a shelter for the bicycle (after its wipe-down), a warm and dry bed.

‘Would you like to hear the talk?’ She said.

‘Yes, why not’, I nodded.

‘But you won’t understand anything’, said her friend. ‘How can you sit and listen for an hour to language that makes no sense. Surely you want a translator’.

‘Not at all’, I said. ‘I’d rather just listen and watch.

I was in Bulgaria, having completed a road trip from Sofia to the Black Sea Coast. The talk in question was about one of Bulgaria’s greatest women writers, and it was to take place at the town hall of Dobrich, a little inland from Balchik, the seaside palace of a former princess.

So what is it like to listen to a language one does not ‘understand’ in the conventional sense? Obviously, language involves so much beyond the ostensible content. Yet, so fixated are we on the content of the message that we miss all that goes on. Language training has as its aim the ability to ‘communicate’, to be understood and to understand, in written and spoken form. But it thereby misses the richness of language. Often I prefer not to be distracted so, released from the shackles of content. That way you can pay attention to all the other dimensions, such as the intonation, the type and mix of sounds, the movements of tongues, faces and bodies.

Let me give three examples. The subtle lilt of Bulgarian demands little if any movement of body and face. Eyes, nose, facial muscles remain largely still. The head barely moves and the body is kept still. Everything relies on the voice, its loudness or softness, its pauses and rushes, its consonantal conjunctions. By contrast, Russians throw their whole body into a talk. To make a point, a Russian pushes her whole body forward, projecting the words into the midst of the listeners. Her face runs through a gamut of expressions, whether defiance, disdain, charm, sensuousness, seriousness, or a lighter touch. The arms assist in the process, while not drawing attention to themselves. And the Russian sibilants, the breathed consonants, give a weighty feel to what is said – only to be lightened by the ever-present ‘y’ that precedes so many vowels.

What about the Chinese? Once, I attended a group discussion for over two hours, of younger men and women. The men embody in subtle ways the demeanour of the ancient scholar: the goatee being grown, both elbows on the table, which keep the shoulders up. The body is in constant low-level movement, and the hands, holding a pen or perhaps a page, lean over the text. Rarely do they put a hand on the face – to lean, scratch, stroke or pick (hygiene!).

The women have no such ancient model to be absorbed quietly and subconsciously over many years. Still both elbows are on the table, pages and arms move, and they too lean forward. Occasionally one leans back, but the head is held at a tilt.

A speaker is actually quite animated, although rarely does anyone look directly at the speaker. Thin-fingered hands touch, fold and unfold, hold a page, make a note, rub, straighten and curl. Now the elbows move back and lift a little. The head moves minimally and continually, tilting and turning. The eyes are quite expressive, darting about. Eyelids lift and fall, while eyebrows draw together and then part. All while the Chinese tones rush out in a fast-play musical score. As for the sounds, all one need do is rapidly move from curling the tongue slightly back, to pushing its tip up against the upper teeth, to pulling the lips back, to rounding them momentarily…  Soft gutturals emerge, myriad vowel-diphthongs, ringing syllables – all produced effortlessly. As for me, I continue to ponder the strange places my tongue would have to find to make such sounds.

Who did that?’ The driver barked at the few passengers. A polar bear had just reached up the side of the vehicle – a tundra buggy – sniffing and searching for food.

‘Who did that?’ He glared at us. ‘Someone tossed a sandwich out of the window. That’s why the bear is here, looking for more’.

Not a word was said, although we were delighted that a polar bear had come so close.

‘If anyone had so much as a hand out of the window’, he explained, ‘or even a dangling scarf, that bear would have hauled you out’. We were somewhat less delighted, but no one owned up to the sandwich. I had my suspicions: later, it would turn out that my younger son was the culprit. Although he was now six, he was still in the midst of the terrible twos – and would be there for the next couple of decades …

We were out on the tundra on the shore of Hudson Bay, Canada. It was late October, when the polar bears come out of hibernation and await the freezing up of the bay so they can hunt seal. Meanwhile, they are ravenously hungry, seeking out whatever food is available – kelp, the town garbage tip, any stray human being who might be out on their own.

How did we get here, in the frozen north of Canada? ‘We’ were three small children (aged 8, 6 and 1) and two parents, and we had wanted to see the bears. Easier said than done. To do so, we had to overcome the great temptation of buying a house, two cars, squabbling about money and ceasing all travel – an assumed condition once one has children.  Actually, that vision of ‘familial bliss’ was no temptation at all, so we spent our last cent on a long rail journey.

Six days it took us, from Montreal (our home at the time in 1989) to Churchill and back. The Canadian Pacific (now Via Rail) from Montreal to Winnipeg may have been a sleek affair, with modern cabins (we needed two) and a panoramic viewing car, but not so the old locomotive from Winnipeg to Churchill. This ancient machine takes two days to cover the 1700 kilometre route north to Churchill. In fact, this is the only overland way to travel to Churchill, for no road has been laid. When we first left Winnipeg, I watched the lights of the city fade as I tucked the boys in bed. The train was travelling at a good clip, so I thought it had some life in it yet. But within a day it slowed and began to rock significantly. Was there something wrong? Would we soon be stranded in the frozen north? Looking out, I noticed that the telegraph posts had begun to change. No longer were they single poles driven into the ground, for now they were tripods, resting upon permafrost in which is it is dicey to dig a deep hole. Looking down, I also noticed that the rails lay lower the ground. They too had been laid on permafrost, which is below the surface and a relic from the most recent ice age. Disturb the permafrost by digging and you encourage it to melt, disturbing the landscape for kilometres around. Track ballast can sink or even be washed away during the artificially produced thaw. Laying tracks on permafrost is a time consuming and intricate task (just ask the builders of the Trans-Siberian Railway). No matter how carefully you do it, the tracks are always uneven. No wonder the train was rocking so much.

What do you do with three small children for days on end in a small train? Did they drive us crazy? Not at all. We would go for walks in the train, occupy a whole table in the dining car, play games, read stories, go for walks at stations where we stopped for a while, watch for wild animals (outside as well), and the boys would fill in their diaries (for school). On the Churchill train, the two sleeping cabins opened out to become a room during the day, so we had a little more space to move – or at least we didn’t have to sit quite so much on top of one another.

Churchill at last – where the outside world felt very roomy indeed. Here, the early winter of October was as cold as Montreal in deep winter (about minus 25 degrees). Here, the buildings of the town centre were all part of one complex, to maximise heating efficiency – a couple of shops and eateries, a hospital, police station, library, municipal offices, and what not. Here, we met locals who had grown up in town, with parents working at the port facilities, or posted to Churchill by the government, only to stay on. Here, I was mistaken for the new priest at the Anglican Church that faced an icy bay. Why else would I ask to see the various places in town, meet the hospital administrator, attend worship, and seem just a little too inquisitive? And here, we took that tundra buggy ride to see the polar bears.

Bears we saw, including a mother with two cubs in tow and a couple of males wrestling. We also saw a ptarmigan and arctic fox. But we did not need to take one of these massively wheeled machines to trundle and smash its way over the tundra (this act is described as ‘environmentally friendly’). We need not have done so, for the bears were much closer to town. In fact, they were in town. I mean not the night of Halloween, when our children joined the others in town, driven from door to door in a minibus to prevent a bear attack. I mean the bear we met at the front door of our hotel room.

The day after our arrival, I had taken the boys for a walk and a play by the river, where we tossed ice out as far as we could. Up on the rise was a strange cylindrical structure, which I realised only later was a polar bear trap. Afterwards, my oldest son had spent some time playing amongst the riverside boulders, for they were covered in a layer of ice. Harmless fun, really … until I stepped out of the hotel door, about to lead the rest of us into town, which was couple of kilometres away.

I did not get far, for a polar bear came lumbering around the corner. Immediately I stepped back inside and locked the flimsy door – the whole hotel felt as though it was made of plywood and would fall down in a mild breeze. The bear stopped to consider matters more closely. It rose up on the railing outside the panoramic window of our room and surveyed the delectable morsels inside. We were transfixed and could not help returning his gaze. He could easily have knocked down the door or smashed the window. As he pondered such matters, I concocted crazy plans, such as herding everyone into the bathroom and smashing our way through to the next room. I realised in a flash why the bear trap was nearby, and later I was to learn that the bears particularly love the boulders by the river, where they sleep. We had been there, by the trap and amongst the boulders, oblivious to the bears thereabouts – until now.

After the proverbial eternity captured in a minute or two, the bear thought the better of his various plans and lumbered off to amuse himself elsewhere.

Somewhat anxiously, I soon phoned the polar bear alert line. The woman on the line was understanding and helpful, although I detected a slightly suppressed amusement. And the taxi driver of the only taxi in town laughed when he met us.

‘I hear you met a bear’, he said.

‘How do you know?’ I said.

‘My wife’s sister took your call earlier’, he said, smiling. ‘Now the whole town knows’.

I guess when you experience polar bears as part of everyday life, meeting one is of little consequence.

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