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


‘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.


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.


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.

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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.

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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.

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Smells, Spaces and Tea-Houses in the ROC

The passport stamp at Chiang-Kai-Shek international airport in Taipei stated that I had entered R.O.C. – the Republic of China. Once upon a time, in fact not that long ago, the only Republic of China recognised by most countries in the world was that tiny island, Taiwan. And I am sure that once, not so long ago, you would not arrive and feel that something was missing. But it took me a while to identify that missing feature. The first hints came with the cracks in the tile floor, the old fittings in the bathroom, the faded decorations in the main hall: this was an airport not undergoing renovation. Most airports one visits (and I like to visit as few as possible) are in the process of one or another or multiple upgrades – to improve your flying experience, they claim, but really to fleece you more readily. But not at Chiang-Kai-Shek airport. Everything seemed to work, the airport staff alert, but there was simply no need to upgrade, for this airport was not expanding.

Walking the City

The fate of Chiang-Kai-Shek airport, and indeed the legacy of the man himself, was tied up with the convoluted politics of that island. I had time enough to ponder such matters in the days to come, but for now my thoughts were broken off by the arrival of our guides: Michael and Yu-Yeh. He felt rather important, having been delegated to chaperone an overseas ‘professor’ – a title that stuck no matter how much I tried to disabuse him of the moniker. Yu-Yeh had far greater depth, preferring to stick to her Chinese name.

We buzzed off on the freeway to Chung-Li while I got my bearings. Freeways are not among the most beautiful of human creations, easily run down, full of heavy metal pollution, scars on the landscape. But the trucks belching along beside us were battered, the articulated buses tipped up in the middle, and the air was a permanent soup. It was obvious that this part of what is really a beautiful island was the dumping ground for filthy American-style industry. Thankfully we slipped down to Chung-Li soon enough, but not before I had asked about their names.

‘How come you are Michael?’ I said. ‘And you are Yu-Yeh? One in English; one in Chinese’.

‘Huilin is my Chinese name’, said Michael-Huilin.

‘And Lisa is my English name’, said Yu-Yeh Lisa. ‘But I don’t use my English name much’.

‘How does that work’, I asked. ‘Do you get two names at birth or do you choose a name that means the same in English? I remember a girl of five who moved to Montreal a few years ago. Her name was unpronounceable for English speakers – Xi Xun I think. In a week or so she became Michele’.

They both laughed. ‘No, we simply choose an English name that we like, or perhaps that has a meaning we like’.

‘So you are like a parent choosing a name for its child’, I said. ‘Except that parent and child is the same person – you – choosing a name for yourself at your own birth!’.

They dropped me at the university rooms where we were to stay for the night. Simple rooms, firm beds, disposable indoor slippers (which I still love to get), a fistful of travellers’ toothbrushes and small tubes of toothpaste.

But we were to go to a Hakka restaurant, deep within Chung-Li. The sun had set and we had to walk the city to get there. Anyone who has threaded his or her way through an Asian city will tell you about the new and battered motor-scooters, with parts and people hanging off them at curious angles, billowing smoke and pushing through the smallest opening, brushing pedestrians and cars on their way through, or about the bicycles themselves, ancient, bearing loads of every conceivable and even inconceivable item, or about those who choose to ride with face masks at silent protest against the poor air quality, or about the people weaving and winding their way through the organised chaos, dodging puddles and cars and motor scooters and bicycles and piles of vegetables and fruit and tables with goods.

But what intrigued me about Chung-Li (and, I was to find later, Chinese cities in general) is the organisation of space. It is though it is organised to ensure the immediate presence of human breath: shops much smaller, often mere alcoves with a pot and a few plates, signs impossibly large and bright in the night sky and of course tumbling over one another. In any other culture it would be would call a crowd, crammed, claustrophobically suffocating, but not here. It is perfectly possible to find a quiet spot of one’s own – a table in a corner where two or three could sit quietly and talk, a chair in a place not stepped in as often, a chance in the to and fro of people to reflect quietly, oblivious to the world a hand’s breadth away.

Visitors from Taiwan to my town – Newcastle – comment on how few people there are on the streets – and this during the busier times of the day. To me, of course, the streets seem full enough here, while those in China are at first overwhelmingly dense.

But our group threaded its way without wavering to the restaurant, where we were treated to a magnificent array of food, from succulent and mouth-watering vegetables, through glorious fish dishes and those that used parts of animal and plant I had never imagined possible for food, to a final triumph: a vast bowl of soup with every conceivable and inconceivable ingredient. From this we poured out helpings into our small bowls and sipped from the bowls themselves.

Not only was it a celebration of simplicity and the sheer pleasure of eating, but it also began to explain why Chinese toilets smell the way they do (the habit of throwing the toilet paper in a large bin, emptied every hour by some poor soul, only enhanced the aroma). After a few days of eating such food, my turds too began to have that distinctive, rich and earthy smell that only Chinese food can produce. The subtle transformation of the interlaced tastes of the food into the pungent and aromatic smell of what comes out the other end is impossible to describe, but it is certainly not the dull and cloying smell of a Western ‘poo bat’.


With a camel hump of a stomach and more Chinese beers than I care to remember, it was time to leave. But not before we had said our profuse thanks to the proprietor and cook. The reverential passing over of business cards – with two hands, a bow and an admiring study of the card (and its frequent spelling errors) – along with the introductions in strict order of rank were all done with comments about how the proprietor was a very good friend of our host, whose wife also is Hakka.

Our group was a grand mix: Kenpa, the impossibly young professor who seems to found the elixir of youth, Philip, the academic entrepreneur who kept talking of settling down quietly and writing but enjoyed the hurly-burly of deals and travel and opportunities, and Gan, the old Chinese theologian who wrote in German, for Germany provided one strong model of the intellectual life even here (that his wife was German no doubt strengthened the links for him).

In fact, it was during his presentation later on that I felt as though I had suddenly joined the United Nations. Gan had handed out a thick wad of notes for his lecture, all of it written in pompous German; he delivered his talk in Chinese; but we had a translator working away simultaneously, whispering English into one ear while the Chinese seduced the other ear.

Here too the question of status returned with a vengeance. Too used to the intellectual flexing and subtle competition between silverbacks that characterises intellectual life in the USA, here there was no question about one’s status: prominent place markers indicated that the professors should sit in the first row (partners were given the status of professor to ensure their place in the first row), the slightly less important guests should sit in the second row, and the unidentified riff-raff was permitted to sit in the outer row. No contest, no need to put on a posing routine, no worries.

But it did mean that a faux pas was all too easy to make. The keynote speaker, who had already horrified people by blowing loudly into his handkerchief at dinner in the midst of a swine flu epidemic, decided to stand rather than sit during his talk. He felt more comfortable standing, he said. So when my turn came to speak, I turned to my colleague and said,

‘Should I stand too?

‘Oh no’, he said, ‘That’s only for the president (of the university)’. At the brief opening ceremony and opening of the gathering, the president had stood while every one else sat. Even in his absence we were to show our respect by remaining seated.

The catch is that I am not one for such genuflection to external marks of status and privilege, preferring the first name basis of comrade for any transactions. So I found greater pleaser in our student guides, Michael and Yu-Yeh – especially the quiet and profound Yu-Yeh. They took us to museums and local eateries, but the crowning moment was a tea shop (minus Michael).

Yu-Yeh and two student friends ensured that status and respect was thrown out the window, for one a butch lesbian and the other a Marxist radical who could tell what side of the mountain the tea came from and how it was cut. The three of them led us through the rituals of the tea shop – the serving board with pot and small cups, the way to pour the hot water over the leaves and into the pot, how long to wait, how to pour and drink, and what was best eaten with the different teas. The English might pretend that they know what tea is, the Indians or Sri Lankans might proclaim that tea is their natural drink and flog it off to the world, but the Chinese know that tea is theirs by origin, that the skill of growing, drying and drinking is not learned in a lifetime or even in a century or two, but that it can become part of cultural wisdom only after the odd millennium or three.


Over tea politics was never far away, especially with a theologian, a lesbian and a Marxist. The first thing I learned, to my surprise, is that Marxism is a vibrant topic of inquiry and debate. But I should have known, given the mainland’s proximity, and yet I had assumed that Taiwan’s resistance to the mainland, US military protection and economic favouritism of that tiny island would have ruled Marxism out of court. Not at all: the proximity of the mainland and the fact that Taiwan has for too long been the dumping ground for the fag-end of filthy capitalist industries means that Marxism is a lively option indeed.

But the overwhelming political filter through which so much passes is the relation to the mainland: to cooperate or not to do so – on that question hung so much. With a surging economic superpower across the Formosan straight, isolation and belligerent talk meant economic exclusion. Cooperation, on the other hand, may mean jobs but it also raises fears that China would act on its long-standing policy of reintegrating Taiwan within its borders. As I was there, the ruling political party was distinctly on the nose and soon to be ousted, not least because of its isolationist stance. With the change of government that followed and the abandoning of the old Chiang-Kai-Shek polemic, direct flights and even passage by ship had been opened up once again. Above all the flow of goods and human interaction has sped up, revealing once again that a soft takeover is far more effective and subtle.

Review of Christian Wolmar’s ‘To the Edge of the World’

Review of Christian Wolmar. To the Edge of the World: The Story of the Trans-Siberian Railway. London: Atlantic Books. 2013

No reliable recent history of the Trans-Siberian Railway exists. Unfortunately, Christian Wolmar’s book does not fill that role. It is many things – advocate of the railway, entertaining read, anti-communist, ode to tsarist faithfuls – but it is not a history that will stand the test of time. For that, we still have to go back fifty years to Harmon Tupper’s To the Great Ocean (1965), and even there one encounters a curious mix of history and anecdote that also appears in Wolmar’s book.

This is not to say I did not enjoy reading the book. I did so in bed in the evening, racing through the chapters and dreaming of my next journey on the Trans-Siberian. Wolmar writes lightly, if a little too hastily, so the text is easily digestible. To his credit, he focuses mostly on the railway itself. It is the real actor in this story, which runs from the long process in the late nineteenth century of deciding on such a massive project to its role today. Almost half the book concerns the railway’s construction, from the slow process of deciding to undertake the project, through a loving portrait of the man who made it happen (Sergei Witte), to the extraordinary engineering achievement of completing a 9,288 km line in a little over a decade (1892-1903). It passes through some of the most difficult terrain in the world – through remote mountains, vast forests, marshland, endless steppe, permafrost and areas with constant seismic activity.

The initial line ran in its eastern section through what was known as Manchuria, cutting out a long loop, running north-east from Lake Baikal and then down the Amur River to Vladivostok. It also relied on an ice-breaker to take the train across Lake Baikal, due to the forbidding terrain around the lake. Manchuria, of course, became a flash point, for the Russian tsar turned the Chinese concession to build the railway through their land into outright imperial expansion. A modernised Japanese navy also had imperial ambitions, so it was inevitable that a clash would ensue. The Russo-Japanese war (1904-5) was the result, and the railway was one factor, although not the prime factor, as Wolmar suggests. Due their severe losses in the war, the Russians decided to complete the north-eastern loop to Vladivostok, which was ready by 1916 – the year before the October Revolution in 1917. Yet, this focus on wartime is one of the weak points of the book. Wolmar has a hawkish bent for military matters, having a written a book called Engines of War (2010). Railways were, of course, as much military constructions when they were first built as anything else. Until the advent of aircraft, they were the fastest way to move troops and military hardware. So we find long sections on the Russo-Japanese War, the Civil War, and the Second World War. All the same, wars are interludes to the much longer peacetime running of a line, and Wolmar leaves one unsatisfied on that account.

He cannot quite decide whether the railway was a triumph or a tragedy. On the one hand, he exults over the greatest railway in the world, writing of its profound effect on Siberia. The commission in charge of the railway spent more money fostering Russian settlement in Siberia than on the railway itself. Whole towns were built, settlers were given reduced fares and financial assistance, and the agricultural and mineral wealth of Siberia began to make an impact. Some of the richest coal and oil fields in the world were opened up, and agricultural products such as grain and butter (yes, butter) flowed westward. The railway – at least the regions close to it – became woven into Russia as never before. On the other hand, he constantly notes the mistakes made. While he berates western naysayers, who were vocal from the moment construction began, he too joins the chorus from time to time. The line required constant upgrading, from the initial single track with its too-steep gradients and light steel, to the multi-line arterial that it is today. The cost of the construction was astronomical, a cost that the tottering tsarist regime could ill-afford during revolutionary times.

However, he reserves most of his carping criticism for the long era that the railway was crucial to the Soviet Union. No lover of anything that tastes remotely of socialism, he praises the monarchist Sergei Witte (minister of finance and in charge of the railway commission) to the skies. Meanwhile he berates the soviets for their misuse of the line. In passing, he cannot help note that the railway provided both the means for the massive industrialisation under Stalin, as also for the extraordinarily rapid relocation of industry eastward after Hitler’s invasion in 1941. Indeed, he hints that were it not for the railway and what it enabled, the Red Army may not have won the Second World War. Yet, he betrays a distinct wish that the White Armies might not have been so brutal, that the massive support (in money and equipment) for those armies might have been better coordinated, that they had used the railway to better effect, so that they might have triumphed in the Civil War that followed the Russian Revolution. That Wolmar’s father was Russian, sympathised with the White Armies and hated the socialists until his death is clearly a factor here.

However, it was the soviets that made the line what it is today, a massive arterial route that is fully electrified from Moscow to Vladivostok. Some of the most difficult aspects of reconstruction, with tunnels, better gradients, and multiple lines were undertaken by the Soviet government. Much of the line had to be rebuilt after the Civil War. The soviets too constructed the BAM, the Baikal-Amur Mainline that runs hundreds of kilometres north of the eastern section of the Trans-Siberian, from Tayshet near Lake Baikal to Sovetskaya Gavan on the Pacific Coast. Perhaps one of the most formidable projects ever undertaken, it is 4,324 kilometres long, passes over and through impossible mountain ranges, alpine rivers, permafrost, and required the construction of 60 new towns. Begun in the 1930s, it was completed only in the 1991.

The paradox of the Trans-Siberian is that one usually thinks of it in terms of a passenger service. It takes seven days (six nights) to travel the full length, as I did in 2010 and will again in 2014. Wolmar cannot help providing anecdotes, either from his own trip on the line, or more often from others who have written of their varied experiences over more than a century. This practice is of course part of the genre of travel writing. One attempts to give a feel of the landscape, the people met, the quirky moments and crises overcome. I was often absorbed by these accounts, especially of the BAM and the appeal of travelling on the remotest line in the world (Wolmar relies on the entertaining account by the septuagenarian, Devla Murphy, in Through Siberia by Accident, 2005). While entertaining, it also reveals a dilemma Wolmar is unable to resolve. He cannot decide whether he is writing a travelogue or a history, and often falls in between both. The catch is that the prime purpose of the line was and remains freight. Massive amounts of minerals, timber, agricultural produce, and finished products are hauled over its length day and night. Indeed, it is far quicker to go overland with such freight than by the ocean. But the story of a freight line is far less interesting for the travel reading public, even though that would be a proper history.


Ten Tips for Bicycle Touring

The bicycle is checked, the panniers are packed and the road beckons. It may be a couple of days’ escape on quiet back roads, or it may be a slightly longer haul, such as the back way from Melbourne to Sydney, or perhaps the cyclist’s mecca, the Nullarbor Plain. Whether you are a seasoned tourer or a first-timer, let me offer some tips with a difference – assuming the basics have been covered, such as bicycle roadworthiness and letting someone know you are off.

1. Keep it simple. You don’t need the latest, fancy tourer with expensive running gear. If you do set out on one, inevitably you will find that a crucial, intricate part will break down in the middle of nowhere and that it requires a highly specialised tool and a university degree to fix it. Once, when planning a long haul over a few weeks, I walked into my local bike shop with a fistful of cash. Thinking that my 20-year old bicycle was not up to the task, I was all set to buy the latest pair of touring two-wheels on offer. But out from the workshop came Margaret, who had set the world record for Sydney-to-Melbourne back in 1969. She took one look at my ancient bike and said, ‘that’ll make it, no trouble’. In fact, she pointed out, it was probably better built than anything I could buy now. I walked out, cash in hand, and hit the road with the old bike.

2. If you are in another country, buy second-hand. Do not worry about carting your bicycle half-way around the world to ride. It is a massive hassle getting a bike on a plane, especially with airlines becoming ever fussier about such bulky items and almost bankrupting you in the process. Find a reputable second-hand bike shop and buy one. You can sell it when you leave. I know people who have ridden across Europe on a second-hand bicycle that cost $300, with absolutely no trouble.

3. Steel is better than aluminium. Why? Steel absorbs the inevitable bumps you will meet on the way, flexing and providing a more comfortable ride. Notice the way aluminium (or indeed other compound frames) often have shock absorbers in the seat or perhaps on the forks. They are there to soften a harsh ride. And steel can easily be welded in a farm shed should you be out in the sticks and find a crack in your frame. Isn’t steel heavier? Slightly, but by the time you add the running gear, racks, panniers, water bottles and so on, it makes little difference

4. Travel light. This one is obvious, but usually forgotten. Even if you are setting out with camping gear and winter gear, everything should still fit in two rear panniers. One change of clothes, tent, sleeping gear, food, cooking and eating utensils, tools and spare parts, even a book, can easily be loaded that way. Staying in accommodation? All you need is a small bag strapped onto the back rack.

5. Mudguards. I may be old-fashioned, but the cost-saving move (by manufacturers) not to include mudguards on modern bicycles is a crime. They are simple but wonderful devices. Wait until the first downpour or muddy track, and the spray of mud in your face or in a line up your back will become a complete nuisance. Panniers covered in road grit are no fun either.

6. That extraneous item. Every touring cyclist has at least one unnecessary item they bring along. I have seen riders with a complex solar recharging unit sitting atop the rear panniers, a fold-out stool, a laptop, a mosquito net for morning and afternoon tea … My own indulgence is a book. Desperately, I try to restrict it to one book, but I never get through even that one.

7. Rear cluster wrench. That said, one or two items are a must. One is a rear-cluster wrench. If you are going to pop a spoke, then it will be on your rear wheel on the cluster side. The reason is that those spokes are under most stress. They are on the drive (chain) side, and they carry the panniers and most of your weight. A rear cluster wrench will enable to you to remove the cluster and replace the spoke.

8. Carry a cigarette lighter. Another must-take item is a cigarette lighter, not so much for the smoke you may wish to have over a beer upon meeting another rider, but for a fire in the evening. Or during the day, for that matter, should you wish to boil a billy, as I like to do on a break.

9. Ride within yourself. Again, this may seem obvious, but on a tour you need to be able to get back on the bike the next day. 150 km may feel like a real buzz, but the next day won’t. About 80km is a target than can easily be achieved without wearing you out over the long haul. More than that and carbohydrate depletion sets in. Plus, it gives you time for either a leisurely morning before departure or a quiet afternoon on arrival. Time to read, wash some clothes, enjoy a beer, cook some food, ponder the universe over a campfire.

10. Take your time. You would not be on a bicycle if you were in a hurry. And it is neither a race nor an event to set the world record for cycling around Australia, or China or Europe. Instead of looking constantly at the speedo (which is really not a necessary item at all), you can enjoy the world slowly passing by.

2011 April 025a

Stalin, the Priest and the Donkeys

In the market of Tseva, a small village near Zestafoni in Georgia, the local priest was minding his own business. He was greeted by young man who was obviously not a local.

‘I am Koba from Gori’, said the young man. ‘May I request some private business?’

‘What do you mean?’ Said Father Kasiane Gachechiladze.

‘I need to get to Chiatura, over the mountains, and I have heard that you have some donkeys’, said the young man.

A little nervously, the priest looked up and noticed that another man was standing guard in the bazaar. He recognised him as a member of the local Red Battle Squad. With no police in the area, the Red Squads were in control. Seeing the priest’s anxiety, Koba asked after his family, mentioning the names of his wife, parents, and children.

‘I would like to offer you fifty roubles for your troubles’, said Koba.

The priest thought for a moment and said, ‘Deal’.

‘Let’s go for a drink, to celebrate’, said Koba.

As they were toasting each other’s health, the future of Georgia, and their respective families, Koba said: ‘They will let you know when I am coming’. He waved his hand towards a number of other Red Guards. ‘Father, don’t be late. I must make the journey to Chiatura and back in a day. After all, we are both still young’.

Stalin as a young man 03

So it was that a priest met ‘The Priest’ – the nickname for one who would later be known as Joseph Stalin. The nickname was no accident, for Koba – his personal name – had studied for the priesthood too, leaving the Spiritual Seminary in Tiflis on the eve of sitting his final examinations. As he left the seminary, he passed from one faith to another. Or rather, he realised the continuity between the two faiths.

Within a couple days, Father Gachechiladze received the word, and ‘The Priest’ met him with two comrades. They loaded the donkeys with pieces of a printing press, money, and ammunition. ‘The Priest’ wanted a safe passage for his cargo, far from the prying eyes of the police, who often searched the trains looking for socialists.

Stalin in Georgia 03

On the trek over the mountains, the priest and Stalin talked. Stalin recited poetry, from the Georgian classics and from his own compositions.

‘Some of my poems have even been published’, confessed Stalin after one of recitals in the clear mountain air.

They drew closer, both of them singing songs as they clambered up to the mountain pass. Stalin rested his head on the priest’s lap when they rested. The young priest found him restrained, serious and decent. Stalin even recited the traditional blessing over their meals.

‘You see, I still remember it’, exulted ‘The Priest’.

‘You’d have made a great priest’, said the Father Gachechiladze.

‘I the cobbler’s son did very well against the offspring of nobles’, said Koba. Stalin had indeed topped his class at the Tiflis Seminary.

Too soon did they arrive in Chiatura. Stalin took the saddle- bags and returned with them empty.

‘At least I can use them as pillows on the train home’, said ‘The Priest’.

They parted, never to meet again.

Stalin as priest 01