Cabin of the Mind

A cabin in a remote place – in a fold of the hills, on a hilltop, in the desert, on a quiet beach. It matters not where, but often have I contemplated its appeal. Perhaps it has two rooms, with a wood fire for heating and cooking. Perhaps it is made of raw timber with an earth floor. Perhaps it has no more than a bed and a small table and chair. Its appeal continues whenever I encounter it, while hiking, on a long-distance bicycle ride, or glimpsed from a passing train. And from time to time I have pondered finding one for myself and retreating into it to write. For my criterion is not whether I can escape the world as such, but whether I can write there. A remote cabin is one such place.

The appeal has been stronger during some periods. When I was undergoing a difficult breakup from my first marriage, feeling out of control of events as they unfolded, I longed for such a cabin. When I was under pressure at work, with an alarm clock waking me every morning before I was ready to rise, demanding I head off to do something I did not want to do for someone I did not like, my cabin became very appealing. During the lost years, when I lived far from my children, the cabin beckoned so that I might bring them there. When conflicts have arisen, over petty matters that seemed to draw everyone’s energy inordinately, I felt the cabin’s call. When I was weary and tired of the world and its ways, I thought of my cabin often. And if I was merely passing by, on a forest trail or on a lonely road, my cabin would appear and invite me to tarry for a while.

Yet I slowly began to realise that the cabin need not be a physical place, a structure of timber and iron and stone. My cabin also became one of my mind. It is a place I enter often, especially when the world is loud and maddening. The furniture is simple, with a corner to read, a small desk and chair at which to write, a view over vast vistas of the mind and the thoughts that lie there.

This cabin too is a place of retreat, of reclaiming myself and what I love to do. I can switch off to what is immediately around me and switch on to what is more important. No longer do my ears here the noise around about, no longer do my eyes see what comes from immediate impressions of light on my retinas. No longer to the demands of clamouring people, thinking only of what they can gain for themselves, call upon me. Soon enough they realise that I simply do not respond. Instead I am in another world, the cabin of my mind. Here my thoughts run, ideas arise in peace.

On this journey I have found the cabin again.

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Travelling the Soviet Union

Gennady Andreev-Khomiakov was one of the many anti-communists writers who came to live outside the Soviet Union and direct many of their energies to undermining the Soviet project. Arrested while still a teenager for counter-revolutionary activities (probably in the White Armies, but he does not say), he was given a commuted death sentence in one of the labour camps. After ten years (1926 to 1935), he was rehabilitated – as many were from the camps – and then spent a happy number of years working various parts of the Soviet Union before Hitler invaded in 1941. Voluntarily enlisting in the Red Army, he was captured by the Germans and chose to stay in West Germany after the war. What intrigues me about his memoirs, Bitter Waters, is that he found himself drawn into the socialist offensive, the amazing, chaotic and productive years of industrialisation and collectivisation in the 1930s. Despite his best efforts, he cannot conceal the ingenuity and enthusiasm that characterised most people during that time.

However, I am most drawn to his depictions of travel after he was rehabilitated, one a brief account of living in a small village after his release and of walking, the other a longer account of an early motorcar journey.

Living in the Village and Walking the Steppes

The house had a typical provincial yard, spacious and thickly covered with a shaggy grass – called ‘broomstraw’ by the locals – lilac bushes, and dozens of fruit trees. In the back yard the widow kept a goat and five or six chickens. The animals, the fruit trees, her hand-knitting, and my rent were her livelihood. Constantly busy with her domestic chores, the fussy old woman inaudibly and unhurriedly moved about the house, accompanied by a lazy old cat whom fate also smiled upon. Evenings I went out into the yard, lay down in the grass, and for hours idly gazed upward at the magnificent sky, the brilliant, starry abyss. Alone with the rustling grass, the lilac bushes, and the dark foliage of the trees in the quiet reverie of the southern night.

As a teenager I had been a great wanderer and loved to spend the whole day out in the steppes. Traveling around the district, my former passion was rekindled. Sometimes I would walk ten or fifteen kilometres just to feel again the thrilling closeness to nature that I have fully experienced only in the steppes: the road, weaving in and out among the hills and foothills; the endless hum of wires buzzing overhead; a dung beetle suddenly appearing out of nowhere, droning resonantly; the song of an invisible bird filling the endless sky. Vast expanses, and in my chest the exact same expansiveness, happiness, and light, peaceful calmness. No one is visible for tens of kilometres around. I walked alone, with nothing but the eternal quiet and calm of the steppe surrounding me – no past, no future. Walks like these are like a bath. You are absorbed in them, cleansed; and afterward, you breathe more easily.

The Motorcar Journey

Once I was getting ready to go to Moscow on business. Neposedov, who had no travel plans, suddenly announced that he was going, too. He proposed traveling by car via Rybinsk and Yaroslavl, I was surprised: ‘For pity’s sake, Grigory Petrovich, that’s more than six hundred kilometres away! What do you think we are, champion auto racers? Six hundred kilometres on our roads! We would devour so much gas that it would cost us a fortune. And your tyres couldn’t take it’.

‘That is exactly why I am going – because they cannot take any more’, winked Neposedov. ‘We can swing by Volga Construction in Rybinsk and buy tyres from the chauffeurs there at a good price. Get my drift? The gas is a trifle, and the road from Rybinsk isn’t bad; we can somehow manage up to Rybinsk as well. How about it? I don’t want to go alone’.

It would be easier, of course, to go by train and be in Moscow in three hours. Neposedov’s route would take a minimum of twenty-four. But the weather was marvellous and the thought of more travel to new places was tempting. I agreed.

It was mid-morning, about ten o’clock, when we left. We drove hastily through town, scattering chickens in the dusty streets on the outskirts, then set off down a soft country road. A cool breeze wafted through the open windows. The road wound along a meadow with yellowing birches, set like a picture in the quiet drowsiness of Indian summer.

Twilight was rapidly approaching. The farther we went, the worse the road got. The car tossed about mercilessly on bulges in the pavement, pushed up by tree roots. ‘Let’s hope we don’t wreck the shocks’, worried Neposedov, letting up on the gas.

‘Shouldn’t we stop for the night in the next village?’ I suggested. ‘The road is lousy, and our tyres are no better; if we rip them up, we’ll be stuck’.

‘I’d rather not’, Neposedov said, twisting around in displeasure, ‘but since there’s no hurry, I suppose we can stay over one night’. (61)

The high cottage with four windows also looked uninviting. The walls had been darkened by time, and paint was peeling from the intricately carved window frames, which were rotting in places. The sharp peak of the roof leaned forward, as if the house were frowning morosely. Yet the thick log walls revealed that in its day the house had been built wonderfully well, to last many years.

We rapped on a small, sturdy gate, which also had weathered many a year, but received no answer. We went into the yard – not a soul in sight. There were no carts, sleighs, or harrows leaning against the barn, either. The doors of the wide barn had been thrown open, and one surmised that it was also empty in the darkness behind them. Beyond the barn, a few sheds and coops huddled together. Farther on, behind a picket fence, there appeared to be a kitchen garden. The yard, too, had been converted into a garden. The only footpaths were right next to the house and farther back, near the coops. Cultivated beds, either bare or with the withered remnants of potato plants, occupied the remaining space. There was no movement or sign of life anywhere, A broom leaned against the door on the high porch—evidence that the master of the house was away.

We sat on the little porch for half an hour, awaiting the owner. It was already dark when a tall, spare, sinewy old man of about sixty appeared from the back yard. He greeted us without apparent surprise. We informed him why we were sitting in his yard.

‘You can spend the night, we’ll make room for you’, the owner responded unenthusiastically, stepping up onto the porch. ‘Come on in’.

In the house he lit a little kerosene lamp and we looked around. The room was orderly and clean: a table; a wide bench along the outside wall; several Viennese chairs; a little fireplace; darkening lithographs on the walls. The place looked shabby, but it was evident that at one time its inhabitants had lived well. Neposedov inquired whether we could get some milk, eggs, something to eat.

‘Of course you can, but do you know what they’re charging for milk and eggs these days?’ asked the owner in a dry, unfriendly tone, ‘They really sting you’.

When Neposedov responded that we would pay city prices, the owner softened a little. ‘My wife will be home soon and give us a bite to eat. Till then, why don’t you have a seat?’

We sat down. Our host puttered around the house morosely. Conversing with him was going to be a hopeless task. His wife turned out to be the exact opposite. About ten years younger than her husband, friendly in appearance and efficient in movement, she greeted us cheerfully: ‘Welcome! Be our guests’. She brought us an earthenware jug of fragrant milk, some bread, and a bit of butter. Supper for herself and her husband was bread, milk, and boiled potatoes. ‘Take some potatoes, too; so tasty with milk! And even more so with butter; they will jump right into your mouth!’ the loquacious woman rattled on in a pleasant Yaroslavl accent. Neposedov, who always felt very much at home with simple people, began to joke. By the end of supper the host had also thawed, and he did his part to keep up the conversation.

After supper we sat and rested, offered cigarettes to our host, and chatted about life. The old man had come out of his shell completely and now talked readily.

It had rained a little in the night, and the sun gleamed brightly in the puddles as we drove on. The dust had been dampened down by the rain, the air was intoxicatingly clear, and we cheerfully rolled along the soft country road.

There wasn’t even a whisper of trouble in the air, and we were in a great mood. The weather was perfect, the car was running well, the road was smooth, we had lots of gas – what more could we want? Forgetting that good fortune always goes hand in hand with bad, we would pay dearly for our complacency.

We had gone about ten kilometres when the ear began to weave strangely, as if it were lame on one foot. Neposedov’s face fell. He stopped the car and threw himself out of it as though it were on fire. Following after, I found him already squatting next to the right, rear wheel, sombrely examining the tyre casing.

‘Well, here we are’, growled Neposedov in response to my inquiring look.

The casing had come apart – lengthwise, no less. Not only the rubber, but the inner cloth layer had been abraded, leaving only a swatch about a foot long, riddled with holes, through which the reddish rubber of the tender inner tube shone pitifully. Give it a little more pressure and it would completely disintegrate. We could go no farther; we were finished.

‘Well, here we are’, Neposedov repeated thoughtfully. ‘What should we do?’

What could we do in such a situation, stuck without a spare tyre in a dense forest about fifty kilometres from Rybinsk, on a country road travelled only by a Volga Construction gasoline or other truck once or twice in twenty four hours? There was no way out of this situation.

‘If only we had something to hold the casing together’, remarked Neposedov. ‘Perhaps we could somehow hold out until Rybinsk. But what could we tie it with? We have nothing’.

We dug around in the trunk, in the tool box – sure enough, nothing there.

We looked around: a wide clearing, with forests on both sides. No sign of anything we could use to secure the casing.

Suddenly I detected an amused glimmer in Neposedov’s eyes. Smiling, he flung open his coat and took off his belt.

‘Uncinch yourself!’ proposed Neposedov, laughing. ‘Your trousers won’t fall down, and if they do, you can hold them up with your teeth! We won’t be sitting in the middle of the road, but getting out little by little’.

With absolutely no other way out, I also removed my belt. Fortunately, my trousers stayed up without it. We bound the casing tightly with the two belts and proceeded cautiously. But no matter how soft the road, the belts did not hold very long; they were worn out after a few kilometres. However, we had gotten closer to civilization. A field appeared on the right, surrounded by wire fencing. In it we found good pieces of telephone wire for binding up the casing.

‘Just hope it doesn’t cut the inner tube’, worried Neposedov. So we crept along at the speed of a horse, checking the casing frequently. A farm village came into sight. There Neposedov bought dozens of rawhide thongs – long, thin belts. We substituted the thongs for the wire and crawled along farther at the same pace. The stops, the unwinding and rewinding of the casing took up a lot of time. The hands of the clock passed twelve. It was more than a little wearing on the nerves. At first it was funny; then dealing with the casing became tedious; finally, we were fed up.

After a couple more hours we came to a large village. In its centre stood a rural cooperative retail store. We went in and greedily eyed the shelves. Wouldn’t something be suitable for our casing? Learning what we sought, the saleswoman led us to the harness department. It was a treasure trove of saddle straps and small belts of all kinds. We were dazzled. We picked over strap after strap, testing its durability and elasticity, and stumbled on some thick, soft rawhide strips, as wide as the palm of one’s hand, which could not have been more appropriate for our purpose.

‘What are these things for?’ queried Neposedov.

‘I do not know, myself’, responded the saleswoman phlegmatically. ‘On the invoice they appear as lassoes, but nobody knows what they are for. They are not in demand in our locale, so they have been lying here since they arrived. No one has bought any. Almost all the goods here are defective: either too short, too narrow, or too wide’, the saleswoman explained with the same indifference.

‘Well, we will relieve you of some of your defective items’, remarked Neposedov. ‘Give us five of those lassoes’.

Not to be embarrassed in front of anyone, we drove out of the village and stopped in a field for capital repairs. We wrapped the torn casing so well and firmly with a lasso that all of the holes were covered. We also wrapped another casing that looked to be in danger.

Finishing our work, we stepped back, entranced: The vivid, bright yellow belts looked splendid against the black background of the automobile.

‘They turned out fine’, Neposedov shook his head. ‘We’ll be just like a circus, entertaining the public. Since everyone who sets eyes on us will be amused, we can collect money for providing a diversion’.

At first we drove slowly, frequently checking the patches. The straps held. We quickened the pace – the straps held. Our spirits rose. Perhaps we would get to Rybinsk? We arrived in Rybinsk – the straps were holding and nothing had happened to them.

We could find no tyres either in Rybinsk or in Yaroslavl, so we travelled on the lassoes all the way to Moscow, which we reached only toward evening of the third day. Neposedov had driven the car from Yaroslavl to Moscow at a good clip, because by then we had a strong faith in the durability of the lassoes.

The Innlander: One of the Unknown Great Rail Journeys

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I believe I am on one of the great unheralded rail journeys of the world – The Innlander. The train leaves from beneath the smoke stacks of the Mt Isa mine, in northwest Queensland; in fact, the station is part of the mine and the line is integral to that venture in the northern outback. It runs for almost a thousand kilometres, west to east, until one reaches Townsville a day later. And yes, given the distance and the time, it is a slow train, rolling contentedly across the arid landscape.

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We board as two of thirteen passengers, at a nondescript corner of the mine. The train has an engine and four carriages: one for luggage and freight, one for staff and two for passengers. Many seats will be filled at the stops on the way.

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We have seats only for the overnight journey, but comfortable and wide seats they are – three only across the width of the carriage. Two toilets at one end and a shower at the other, spacious and, again, comfortable.

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We are greeted in that curiously warm northern way, with an offer of free sandwiches, tea and coffee, and, should the need arise, a request to press the call button in the event of any ‘emergency’ – such as the need for chocolate. Dinner packs too seem to be complimentary, as is breakfast. So much for the pile of food we had brought for the journey (based on experiences from other trains).

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I am mesmerised by much all at once, the cares of the world falling away in a moment. The arid land out of the window, with its ant piles, tough trees and bushes, rough hills and red dirt constantly drawing my gaze. But then I find the lounge area – completely unexpected, for this is usually granted to first class passengers.

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Except that there is no first class on this train. Or rather, we are all first class as a matter of course. At discount prices. So here I sit, trying to look out of all windows at once, amazed that more people do not travel on this train. Perhaps they will, as we stop at station after station on the way.

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I talk with one of the attendants and find out that less than twelve months ago, the former conservative state government had cut out the dining car and sleepers, which attracted more to travel on the long journey. The logic is baffling unless aforesaid (and rather unpopular) government’s agenda was to close the line completely. Fortunately he and his minions are gone and the railway people are struggling successfully to have services restored. The lounge section is one such example, as are the free meals. An old couple follow me into the lounge, regular travellers on the service. He is stone deaf and would do well with an ear-horn; she is unable to make the hot water work for her tea. As she ponders what to do, we talk about the train – at some length. The sleepers, they tell me, should be back in a few months, for they have been fighting for them.

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I am unable to determine whether the scenery or the people on board are more intriguing. While I continue the relish the desert, its dust storms and bare hills, I become involved with the passengers. Some alight at Cloncurry, while others join us. A few solo men in search of work or adventure set off on the few streets of the town. One has a work shirt on, the other an old pair of jeans and pack with nothing but a book and a toothbrush. But the greater number are local Aboriginal people: a mother and two children, a triple of younger people, a few men and women travelling alone. At first there is relatively little interaction, but interact we do after a while. One woman with a weathered face discusses power options for recharging a phone or a computer. I offer to watch her phone while I sit in the lounge car. A large man waits while I take a photo, before we discuss toiletry needs.

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Night eventually falls and weary do I become. Time to finish writing, brush teeth and put my feet up with a book to read until sleep comes upon me. Such is the arrangement of seats that I am able to stretch out my legs horizontally, recline the seat and fall into a deep slumber. Other passengers take different options. The large man I had met earlier opts to sleep on the floor, right across the aisle. He does so for about half an hour, with some of us simply stepping over him to make our way through. A conductor comes along and wakes him. Unlike most trains, she does not scold him and tell him to get back in his seat. Instead, she takes him to the other passenger carriage where he can stretch out in a similar fashion. A teenage Aboriginal boy stretches out beneath the single line of seats and sleeps well into the morning. During the night we creak into quiet stations across the north of Queensland, pass through a dry bush full of nightlife, and stop for more than an hour due to an electricity pole that has fallen over the track. Police and electricity maintenance vehicles light up the night sky as they deal with the pole.

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I wake after more than eight hours of good sleep and make my way to the end of the carriage for a highlight: the train shower. Towels and soap are present and the hot water flows freely. For some reason, beginning a shower at one place and completing it at another – in motion – never ceases to give me a thrill. I return to my seat to find a breakfast package waiting for me. A new conductor, who has joined us through the night, walks by and lets us know we will be an hour or so late, due to the electricity pole. We’ll get there, she says, at some time. As with previous announcements, no loudspeaker system is used, but rather quiet announcements to each group of passengers.

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After breakfast, I return to the lounge car and my spot of the previous day. Now I am joined by some more Aboriginal people, who snooze, talk in their local language and identify sights along the way. The laughing deaf man and his dapper wife soon appear, full of jokes and their ubiquitous cups of tea. Given their knowledge of the train, my sense is that on any journey on this train they will be here.

Too soon does the journey come to an end, with the now unfamiliar sights of buildings and human occupation. Townsville it is, one place in the massive tropical parts of Australia. We haul our untouched food supplies along in the sun, soon enough sweating away. We will eat it, some time soon.

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As we walk, I wonder: how can this rail journey be so unknown? Why do train travellers coming to Australia opt only for the overpriced Indian-Pacific and The Ghan? They are missing one of the quiet gems of rail travel.

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Girl or Boy? What Do Chinese Couples Prefer?

What gender do Chinese couples prefer for a first child? I must admit that until now I had assumed the conventional wisdom of the international media: traditional Chinese couples, especially in rural areas, prefer a boy first. Indeed, such an image suggests they will go to the extent of seeking illegal abortion if they know that the embryo will be a girl. Or, if they do have a girl first, they can have another baby in the hope that it will be a boy. The reason: the family’s name, tradition and inheritance passes down through the male line, so a boy is the pride of a couple – given that traditional Chinese society is hopelessly patriarchal

Recently, I heard a somewhat different perspective from a woman who grew up in the countryside, where traditional practices have a greater hold.

‘A couple prefers a girl first’, she said.

‘What?’ I said. ‘I thought a boy was more desirable’.

‘No,’ she said. ‘The birth of a girl is a great relief for the couple in question, especially if they are of modest means’.

‘Why?’ I said.

‘If a boy is born’, she said, ‘the parents already have nightmares about the costs involved’.

Now I was truly puzzled. ‘Do Chinese boys demand more?’

She laughed. ‘Not in that way’, she said. ‘If a boy is born, then the parents know that later they will have to pay for a wedding, if not a house for the couple. It can cost quite a lot’.

‘So they prefer a girl first’, I said.

‘Yes’, she said. ‘Then they can relax a little’.

‘What about the second child?’ I said.

‘Well’, she said. ‘If they have a boy first and then decide to have a second child, then they worry endless whether it too will be a boy’.

‘That would clearly be too much’, I said. ‘So they sweat out the possibility of the second child also being a boy’.

‘Yes’, she said.

‘But what if they have a girl first?’ I said.

‘Then there is less worry’, she said. ‘If a boy is born then, then that is manageable’.

‘And a girl for the second child?’ I said.

‘That is the easiest’, she said.

Why Would One Join the Chinese Communist Party? Or, How Socialism Has Become Ingrained with Chinese Society

Is the communist party of China a bunch of mean, nasty and greedy old men, terrorising and suppressing a fearful population? Do they merely use socialism as a thin veneer for outright greed, maintaining power by authoritarian means when needed? I have heard not a few voice such opinions. Yet it jars somewhat with my experience of finding many young people keen to join the party. Why would they desire to join a party that is supposedly widely disparaged and held in disdain? In order to understand rather the impose presuppositions, I set out to find out a little more. This has required an increasingly extensive series of discussions and interviews – an early component of a much larger project called ‘Socialism with “National” Characteristics’.

A few basic facts will help set the scene. The CPC (Communist Party of China) itself has a little less than one million members. One cannot simply join the party by paying a membership due and gaining admission. Instead, it requires significant preparation, with the usual path requiring precursors in the youth organisations. As with other communist parties, the two main organisations are the Pioneers (中国少年先锋队), for children in schools up to the age of 14, and the Communist Youth League of China (中国共产主义青年团), which has members between the ages of 14 and 28. Only when people have attained the age of 28 may they become full members of the communist party. Membership – particularly of the Youth League – requires courses of study and then entry examinations, testing one’s knowledge of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’.

Yet the key question is why children and students are attracted to such organisations. Are they picked out early and then ‘brain-washed’ to join – as a foreigner once suggested on a boat voyaging down the Yangze River (Chang Jiang) – thereby ensuring the continuity of the party? It seems not, although this may come as a surprise to many outside China, even those among the international Left.

In my interviews, a breakthrough moment came when one of my interlocutors suggested that socialism is becoming, or has actually become, integrated with Chinese culture at deep and almost unnoticeable levels. In other words, it has become part of Chinese tradition, along with Confucianism and Buddhism. How does this work? What are the reasons why young people want to join the youth organisations?

An almost universal, albeit knee-jerk, response to this question is that young people decide to join for the sake of a better job. For some, this reason is presented as a dismissal of the youth organisations and the party itself: membership is thus a self-serving act with little interest in socialism as such. For others, the reason is perfectly legitimate, although it needs to be seen in light of a wider collection of reasons. Indeed, the prospect of a better job is a relatively minor feature. When hearing this answer, I cannot help comparing it to the appeal of Christianity when it was the ideology of a state. Many are the reasons for joining in, not least being the opportunity to improve one’s lot in this life. And the church wisely knew that people join the movement for myriad reasons.

A second reason, I have been told, is that membership – especially of the Young Pioneers – is seen as a sign of merit. If a school child is recommended to join the Pioneers, it is a clear distinction among one’s class mates. Particularly noteworthy is an invitation by teachers to be among the first to join the Pioneers. In non-socialist education systems the signs of merit are usually academic and sporting achievements. In China, a crucial if not primary sign of merit is to be invited to join the Pioneers. Yet, such a desire for signs of merit can be misread at an individualistic level in terms of a meritocracy: in the incessant competition fostered by schools from an early age, signs of merit can be seen as merely person achievements.

This misreading brings me to the deepest reason: I have been told again and again that the focus is heavily collective. This focus takes two forms. One depends on the wider family, which in day-to-day life is the most obvious collective reality. At times, the emphasis on the family can have a negative effect, as when corruption takes place. A corrupt official does not skim off riches for him or herself, but for the sake of the family. Thus, when arrests are made for corruption, it involves more than one member of a family.

But I am more interested in how the family can encourage a young person to join a youth organisation. Often a young person wishes to become a party member because someone in the family is a member. It may be a grandfather, as one young woman told me. He inspired her through his model of integrity, honesty and directness – typical old communist virtues. Or it may be parents who are members, which means that a child and then young adult too will become a member as a way of continuing a family tradition and showing respect to his or her elders. Or it can be parents and grandparents and even great-grandparents; in such a situation it is a foregone conclusion that the child will wish to join. Not to do so would entail a significant break in the family. In this respect, the crucial role of the family in Chinese society has also become part of a wider socialist identity. That is, socialism has become ingrained even within family patterns.

Another form of the collective focuses on Chinese society itself. Indeed, it became clear among my interlocutors that this form of the collective is the most deeply ingrained. Here the influence of socialism’s emphasis on the collective runs deepest. To be sure, it also connects with a Chinese tradition infused with Confucian and Buddhist values, but it is presented and understood as a primarily socialist value. Thus, the merit for a school child is understood as a sign of one’s contribution to a greater collective good. Or a university student – of all types, from comprehensive universities to specialist universities and colleges – feels that joining the party provides an opportunity to make an improvement to the collective.

That collective, I am told, is primarily China as a whole. The danger here is that such an emphasis can become another manifestation of nationalism, which then twists the socialist stress on the collective to some of the more rebarbative features of nationalism. Yet, not all nationalisms are regressive, and socialism has found again and again that it needs to come to terms with nationalism in its progressive forms – not least being the modes of anti-colonial struggle. Discernment is obviously the key.

Closely connected with China as a collective is the communist party itself, which is still regarded by most as a collective project, even if they feel the party is not living up to expectations and could do with some improvement. Indeed, this need for improvement is crucial to the collective incentive to join the party or one of its youth organisations. One seeks to influence the collective in a positive direction.

In light of all this, it becomes clear that if a school child should refuse the invitation to join the young Pioneers, it is seen as a very strong anti-social, anti-collective statement, challenging the good of China itself. This is a tough call, and few do so. And it becomes difficult to refuse the pull of the Youth League, especially if one seeks a better job, comes from a family tradition of membership, and feels the pull of contributing to collective good. It is not for nothing that more half of the students in my classes at the university have joined the Youth league or are studying to do so.

Of course, not all are interested in the party, for many also are focused simply on getting married, establishing a family and finding a stable job. And there are plenty who are interested primarily in material gain – also a less desirable feature of Chinese traditions. Further, some long-time members do seem to develop a sense of cynical distance from the party. It may the cynicism of age that affects their sense of the party; it may be a disappointment that the party does not always live up to its ideals on a wide range of issues; it may simply be a feature of long-standing membership of a socialist party. But this does not lead them to give up their membership or their involvement, nor does it mean they will let such cynical distance influence the decisions of their children concerning the party. Others are more firmly opposed to the party, not due to some vague notion of bourgeois democracy, but because that party – they feel – has betrayed its socialist roots, especially in relation to workers and farmers. These people may be seen as part of the Left Deviation, which feels that the party has veered too much to the right. Yet, I cannot help noticing that their opposition is predicated on the same collective reasons that leads others to join the party.

Even with these caveats, it seems that the insight I mentioned earlier does have some truth to it: socialism has been and continues to be increasingly integrated within Chinese culture. This reality has finally enabled me to make sense of a feature I have noticed for some time. More often than not, the research undertaken by the people I know – from postgraduate students through to scholars – focuses on a specific problem in China and seeks to find a solution. It may be economic, environmental, social, cultural, technological, and so on. And it obviously entails criticism of what is happening now in such areas. But the underlying motivation is a deep desire to improve the collective good.

Campers Kitchen

‘Happy hour’, said the hand-written notice on the door of the campers’ kitchen. ‘Relax, meet other travellers, share your adventures, dream of new places to visit: 5:30 to 6:30 pm’.

No-one was there when I arrived, so they were obviously not happy yet. I was sweaty, overheated and busted after riding my loaded bicycle for almost 100 kilometres, having ridden from Tamworth as part of a longer summer ride. Through the seemingly endless Goonoo Goonoo plain I had peddled, with its vast cattle stations and relentless sun. Just when I had almost hit my ‘wall’, the plain came to end and I was faced with an unforgiving and grinding climb to the top of the Liverpool Range. Sure enough, the drop on the other side into the first reaches of the Hunter was glorious, with my speed generating enough wind to drop my body temperature a degree or two below boiling. Murrurundi was as far as I would ride today. It was as far as I felt like riding for a few days.

While waiting for the party animals to arrive, I undertook a familiar ritual: pacing about to choose the best spot for the tent, pitching it, unpacking the bike, wiping it down and locking it, folding out bedding in anticipation of a comatose sleep, and – when all is done – finding a welcome shower. Al last I ambled back, a little stiffly, to the campers’ kitchen. Now the happy people were present: a red-faced man with a gold chain around his neck, a wrinkled and energetic woman, an expanding man with a grey beard and constantly moving mouth, and his chain-smoking partner. They sipped beers, breathed in cigarette smoke (willingly or unwillingly) and seemed to be happy enough, in obedience to the requirements of the hour.

‘We almost stopped to offer you a lift’, said the mouth. ‘We saw you on the climb and thought, “How can anyone pedal up that!” But we were struggling as it was’. I was later to find out why: their ‘campervan’ was a mansion on wheels. I was sure one would need a special escort for such a vehicle, with flashing lights and a sign, ‘Warning, wide load ahead’.

Indeed, much of the talk was over vans, maintenance, prices, good deals and bad. Not a topic one which I had much to say, given that the only thing in common between my steed and their heavy-movers were wheels. So I cooked a meal on the stove, a mix of beans, tuna and instant noodles – keen to build up my store of energy for the day to come. I joined them with my billy full of steaming sustenance, but as I listened to stories of vans and places visited, of plans for further travel should health hold (for they were not at the youthful end of life), my thoughts drifted to other campers’ kitchens.

This one had been recently built: half open-air, half enclosed. Unwittingly, it invited you in, to sit a while and ponder the universe, especially if those present were holding forth on matters of life and death that seemed strangely of great interest. But I have encountered other kitchens with far less appeal. Great caverns of concrete and steel and glass, they are as enticing as a family barbeque with one’s in-laws (or out-laws as the case may be). Function may have its – well – functions; something to be used without further thought. A stove, a kettle, a table, especially if it is raining – all are useful. But if a television is present or even – God forbid – an internet connection, then the place is clearly aware that it has no inherent appeal.

Yet three over long decades of journeying have stood out, for very different reasons. The first was a few lifetimes ago, tucked away on the edge – in Frankston – of Melbourne’s sprawl into the Mornington Peninsula. Perhaps it was more the turmoil of my own life at the time that made it seem like a sanctuary. Amidst the neat rows of tiny cottages, the permanent van dwellers, and the occasional tent, I had the campers’ kitchen to myself. Here I could cook in peace, read a little, shelter beneath the awning, even survey the ancient and empty fridge that stood proudly at the centre. A worn table and a couple of chairs completed the furniture of my home for a night or two.

The second was on the coast road between Sydney and Melbourne. Here it was less the tumult of my life than the unexpected discovery it provided. On the headland of the fishing town of Bermagui stands the council-run camping ground, with terraced areas for tents and vans. Bermagui itself evoked ancient memories, of camping with my father and my two brothers in the bush nearby, of the legendary hills and green slopes of Mount Dromedary and Tilba Tilba, of journeys through on the way to Tasmania. But I had not been in Bermagui itself for three decades. With dusk falling and the tent pitched, I went in search of the kitchen. Eventually I found what seemed to be a kitchen: it boasted a partial roof and a plank or two for sides, a picnic table and a solitary and rusted gas burner that had seen service in at least three centuries. That was it – forget any other unnecessary appurtenances. With the coastal wind cutting straight through, I struggled to keep the gas flame alight under my billy. An eon seemed to pass as I awaited the contents to cook, but the eventual meal was one of the best I have eaten.

Yet the one I recall in almost legendary terms was on the north coast of Tasmania, many, many lives ago. We – for then I was married and two young daughters were with us for a few weeks of exploring Tasmania – happened upon a village called Stanley for our first night. Stanley’s claim to fame was its fishing and The Knot, an outcrop into Bass Straight. We rolled into town, seeking a spot to camp. One appeared, miraculously, right beside the water. Who could refuse? We soon found out why anyone with a tent would refuse: the upper reaches of the roaring forties do their thing in these parts. Included in their thing is the flattening of any tent that foolishly tries to stand up to the gale. By morning we were sleepless, having endured the flapping, banging and popping of wind-blown tents for the long hours of the night.

So we sought sheltered parts. At the back of the camping area was one such part: vast spreading trees provided a wind-break and a timber structure a refuge. It was painted yellow and red, with solid walls, tight-fitting doors and a sign, ‘Campers’ Kitchen’. One would not describe it or its contents as new, but they had endured the times, and I hope they still do. From its walls I strung a washing line, where clothes would dry in an instant in the wind. Inside we cooked, talked, read, played games, enjoyed a cup of tea or, in the evenings, a beer. And since our tents sat tight by the wall in the lee of the wind, we also slept.

Train out of Pyongyang

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Nervously we sat, not daring to leave our train cabin. A border guard was searching through our bags and asking questions. But this was no ordinary border and this was no ordinary border guard, for we were attempting to leave the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). Would everything be checked in minute detail? Would most of our purchases be confiscated and photographs deleted?

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We were on the T28 train, from Pyongyang to Beijing, about to pass over the border crossing, from Sinuiju across the river Dandong in China. More of that in a moment. I had been in the DPRK for only four days, although it felt like four months. Our small group had seen key sites in Pyongyang, rattled along a bumpy road to Kaesong in order to experience country life and see the Demilitarised Zone, and given a full dose of the DPRK’s perspective on the world. We were a sceptical liberals, social democrats, curious seekers for a real communist experience, and some older travellers with a wiser view of the world. Oh yes, a few communists were among us, keen to see old style communism still in action.

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But the rail journey was a real highlight, albeit for a handful of us brave enough to travel in such a fashion. Soon enough I realised that the rest, who had opted to fly out, had really missed an extraordinary opportunity. At Pyongyang station, I was astounded at the platform: not at the architecture or layout, but at the sheer number of northern Koreans. Were they seeing off visitors, I wondered? Were they here for the sight of foreigners in their ‘closed’ country? No, they were heading out of the country for work, study, sport and what have you. I should not have been amazed by now, but old preconceptions linger. Yet each day, the T28 train leaves Pyongyang for the 24-hour journey to Beijing, full of northern Koreans, while the T27 does the journey the other way, bringing Koreans back to their country. So much for the ‘closed’ borders.

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Some wore the badges of rank in the government. These were lapels pinned to one’s shirt or top. In some cases, both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-Il appeared on the background of a DPRK flag. In other cases, it was a single image of Kim Jong-Il in a small circle. The Russians once called them the nomenklatura – those who had shown their loyalty to the government over generations and were thereby given extra privileges. I could not help thinking of the Christian church during the Middle Ages – the last time another ideology was dominant in states. And I could not help appreciating the need to ensure that significant numbers have an investment in keeping the show on the road. They have done so now for almost 70 years.

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Departing Pyongyang Station, we trundled along at a perfect pace for rail travel – about 50 kilometres per hour. Our eyes looked outward, watching the countryside roll slowly by. The train passes northward from Pyongyang, in between towering and mountain ranges capped with snow even in early summer. The narrow valley was full of crops in every conceivable corner that was remotely level – even between the railway lines. Not to be outdone by the rugged landscape, farmers also grew hardy crops on hillsides. Arable land is valuable indeed, dotted as it was with groups of soldiers and farmers working the fields. Some mechanisation was evident, but the methods – especially for the rice paddies – still used traditional hand methods.

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Time passed, we talked, found our own spaces, and continued to peer out of the windows. And then it struck me: the land and its villages were incredibly clean and tidy. In Pyongyang and the other towns, I had seen many groups taking care of their collective public space, ensuring that the city remained spotless. But the countryside too was clean. Not a stray piece of paper or can or wrapper was to be seen. Did people reuse everything? I wondered. Is this a cultural tradition or perhaps due to the simpleness of life?

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By now I began to feel the pangs of hunger, as did my fellow travellers. I asked a conductor in broken Chinese: is there a dining car? Apparently not, even though the brochure boasted of such a car. My companions looked askance and tightened their belts. Until I mentioned that I had some food. Ever a cautious traveller, I had stocked up with various goods on the platform at Pyongyang: water, rice crackers, fresh vegetables and fruits. My stock became the lost dining car, supplying the five of us with necessary sustenance. Yet my stocks were not designed to last the whole journey and soon ran out. To our relief, at dusk and in China, many carriages were added – including a resplendent dining car with somewhat inflated prices. All of us made our way there, to stock up with freshly cooked food and Chinese beer.

Yet before we could get to China, we had that border crossing to negotiate, on empty stomachs.

Back to our friend, the khaki-clad border guard: he questioned me about my mobile phone, since he did not quite seem to believe that all I had was an old Nokia. ‘No smart phone?’ he said. ‘No, this is it’, I said. All of the books I had bought – mostly authored by Kim Il-Sung – drew scant attention. Not so a book carried by one of my travel companions. ‘What is about?’ He asked. ‘Who is that?’ He said, pointing to the cover. It happened to be a book about a Chinese philosopher and not a foreign book about the DPRK (of which they are wary).

Another companion had a large and prominent camera, to which our guard was drawn. He sat down and skimmed through the pictures. She was nervous indeed, for she had photographed pretty much everything in town and country. The guard spun expertly through the hundreds of photos and stopped at one. It was of two women in the countryside, topless and washing clothes. Our guard laughed! Yes, he laughed and said, ‘You can’t keep that one’. My companion laughed with him, apologised and deleted the photograph. But that was it. The rest were perfectly fine.

The examination turned out to be cursory and focused. We soon realised that our anxiety was generated by stories we had heard about leaving the DPRK. Everything would be checked in careful detail, we had been told by earlier venturers. Art work would be confiscated, most photographs deleted; even socks would be turned inside out to find anything prohibited. Not so, it turned out. The guards were polite and efficient, doing a job. The art work I had purchased was not even checked, my camera was given a quick glance and not examined, and my socks remained in my bag, along with everything else.

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And so we passed into China. Immediately, the contrast was obvious. How can one socialist country be so different from another? From quiet order we passed to typically noisy Chinese chaos. From painful politeness, we were immersed in Chinese openness. From simplicity we passed to complexity, from relative poverty and smallness, to relative wealth and sheer vastness.

We had little time to experience the contrast, for it was dark by the time we left Dandong, after yet another and even more cursory border check. So we settled into our bunks. ‘Soft sleepers’ they are called by local standards. If you have ever slept on a real Chinese or Korean bed, they were indeed soft. For many of us, they seemed hard enough. But that did not prevent my companions from snoring the night away. Nor did it prevent me.

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Too soon Beijing arrived, my second home. Out the front of the bustling Beijing Central Station, we parted with a shake and a thanks. As is the way with travel companions thrown together for a few days, only one of them contacted me by email afterwards. Her email was laden with photographs – the ones that the border guard had waved through with a well-practised glance.

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