Leaving Nanjing

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‘Nanjing has bad Feng Shui’, she said, when I mentioned I was heading in that direction.

‘How so?’ I asked.

‘Oh, you know’, she said. ‘The way the water is with the mountains, the slopes and sun. The problem is that no government has lasted long when it has been based in Nanjing’.

‘So it’s a political Feng Shui’, I said.

‘Maybe’, she said. ‘The south (Nan) capital (Jing) is simply not a good capital. On paper, everything seems good – the navigable Chang Jiang River, the way nature assists fortifications, the location close to the seaports of Shanghai, the openness to the inland’.

‘So what’s the problem?’ I said.

‘The river’, she said. ‘It lets power seep away to the east’.

‘That’s why governments never last in Nanjing’, I said.

‘Yes’, she said. ‘The Eastern Wu in the Three Kingdoms Period of the third century CE, the Southern Dynasties in the fifth and sixth centuries, the Southern Tang in the tenth century, The Ming in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Southern Ming in the seventeenth, the Taiping Revolutionaries in the nineteenth, and the Guomindang in the twentieth – you see the list is long indeed of those who tried and failed to make Nanjing the capital’.

‘Only the Southern Dynasties of 1500 years ago managed to last for a while’, I said.

‘And that was only because of the chaos and conflict between different states’, she said.

‘Otherwise they came to a swift and usually brutal end’, I said.

‘Power simply wouldn’t say in Nanjing’, she said. ‘It is great as a second city, or maybe southern capital, but not as the capital itself’.

‘That must mean layers and layers of history’, I said.

‘Oh yes’, she laughed. ‘The city has been destroyed plenty of times and its people have suffered and been massacred so often – most recently at the hands of the Japanese. But each time something is preserved – ancient walls, homes, tombs, palaces’.

‘I must go’, I said.

‘Be careful,’ she said. ‘You may lose something – not just power. The Feng Shui flows out of the place’.
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Go to Nanjing I did, by my preferred mode – train. It was a sleek, smooth affair that managed the more than 300 kilometres from Shanghai in barely over an hour. I had been invited by an intriguing woman – all smiles and ‘welcome to Nanjing’ were on her lips. But it was to be a professional visit, since she lectures at a university there.

Or was it?

She greeted me at the station with a smile and a flower in her jacket. If I had entertained any thoughts of a reflective, intellectual visit, they were soon dispensed. She drew me immediately to the old city wall, where we walked, talked, and posed for silly photos. I looked one way and saw the contours of the old imperial city. Yet when I looked out from the wall, through one of the many apertures for observing and firing upon an enemy, I could see the skyscrapers and bustle of a modern city. I pondered the tensions generated out of the desire to keep and transform millennia of traditions and the century-long project of Chinese modernisation, a project that has catapulted it into being the most powerful economic nation on earth.

By evening, she led me from one temple to another – Buddhist, Taoist, even Confucian. As I paused before statues and incense burners and written ‘prayers’ – even for a human figure such as Confucius – I found myself pondering the apparent contradictions between religious observance and the atheism of the communist party. I would later learn that what appear to be contradictions are not so in China. Or rather, the contradictions find their place next to one another.

The next day we visited the old houses of the rich ruling class, now owned by the people for the people. Here I pondered the old world of emperors and their hangers-on and the new world of the communist party. But here too I thought of the way ruling class women were treated: protected and sequestered inside the houses, even courting was done under strict supervision and even with special chairs that allowed a hint of intimacy without letting the passions of young people run amok. As for the vast majority of young women and men on the farms and fields, that was a different matter entirely.

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Meanwhile, she concentrated on getting my tongue to do strange things. Early in life do we learn the habits of the tongue in order to make the sounds that we know. And those habits stick. So to learn a new language, with unfamiliar sounds and placements of the tongue, is a task requiring endless patience and practice.

Push the tongue into the back of the upper teeth and force the air out, sibilant fashion. Curl the tongue backward and make, yes, another and very different sibilant. Or perhaps an ‘r’ as I have never managed before. On it went, with some frustration, laughter and limited success.

But soon I realised that the way our ears become accustomed to certain sounds means that we hear other sounds in terms of the sounds we know. Call it a sonoscape, if you will. It is the collection of sounds we hear and know, assuming they offer the complete range of all sound. Of course, our limited collection of known sounds does no such thing. Time and again, I thought I heard a standard ‘j’ and would repeat it as heard. ‘No’, she said, ‘like this …’ Again, I repeated what I thought I had heard. To me it sounded exactly the same as the sound she had made. To her it was entirely different. Instead of one ‘j’, Chinese manages two or three ‘j’ sounds, registered in pinyin as ‘j’, ‘zh’ and ‘ch’.

As I struggled with the sounds, we walked, visited imperial tombs, temples, grottoes and those extraordinarily manicured gardens. I enjoyed the visit, but she – I realised later – much more so. In her eyes, her Australian friend was becoming much more than a friend. No wonder that she was showing me her town, her ancient city, perhaps hoping that I would one day she her mine. No wonder that she divulged accounts of her childhood in a Shandong village, her parents and siblings (for they were born before the one-child policy), her recent divorce, her inability to have children, her difficulty in finding a new husband at her age …

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As is my wont, I was blithely unaware of such stirrings. Or perhaps not. For some reason, I began to sense the longing to be on the road again, to feel that the time was coming to be on my way, to depart from that ancient city as power had done so often for those more important than me. The train departed not soon enough, and she stood on the platform offering a melancholy wave.

It seems as though power is not the only thing that slips away from Nanjing.

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The Spaces of Japan

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A compact land with compact houses full of compact people: such is the pervasive image of Japan. Are not the simple beds of traditional Japanese homes folded away during the day to create some extra space? Do not the hotels have stacked capsules into which one slides for the night? Are not the houses themselves more like residences for dolls rather than people?

I arrived in Japan by ship, voyaging across the East China Sea from Shanghai. Two days it took, with a ship full of Chinese travellers in tour groups – for Chinese are not permitted solo tourist entry visas for Japan. As is the way of ships, ours – the Suzhou Hou – eventually kissed the shore and was embraced warily by the dock in Osaka.

In the southern reaches of the island of Honshu, it was indeed compact. Millions upon millions live in these parts, a tsunami of people finding their space on a small land. I began to make my way north, travelling by train. The ageing Shinkansens zipped from one metropolis to another. Kyoto, Nagoya, Kawasaki, Tokyo, Saitami – really a vast megalopolis finding ever new ways to fit human beings into ever more compressed space. The images I had formed from countless representations seemed to be confirmed.

Even the standard hotels were minimal affairs. With names like ‘Smile Hotel’, ‘Route Hotel’ and so forth, they all seemed made from the same mould. A rectangular block contained identical pods: a tight bathroom, a bed, a thin plank on the wall for some odds and ends, and enough floor space to edge along in between. At least I could step off the train and step into a hotel, for the Japanese still assume that many do indeed travel by rail. Some of those travellers – like me – inevitably need a room for the night.

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But I was not so interested in this Japan. So northward I pushed, onto the island of Hokkaido. By now the trains were simpler affairs, although their names claimed much more: Super Hakucho, Super Tokachi, Super Soya, Super Kamui, or Super-whatever. The engines might have had a flash appearance, but the carriages were minimalist. On one such train I plunged into the deep Seikan tunnel under the Tsugaru Strait, wondering about the continental fault line that produces all those earthquakes in these parts. The 50 kilometres passed eventually and, without a sudden inrush of sea water, we arrived above the surface in one piece.

Soon enough I came to see why the train on which I had just travelled was known as a ‘Super’ train. At the port town of Tomakomai, I boarded a ‘local’ train. What glorious machines these are: single-carriage diesel rail motors, which attain a breathtaking top speed of 40 kilometres per hour in between the stops. Actually, their main task is to stop, at every remote village and minuscule platform.

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Now I began to see parts of Japan that rarely register in the international image of the place. The rail motors rattled, banged and lurched in the way they had done for decades. I opted for the long, slow journeys to the corners of Hokkaido, to Wakkanai, Nemuro and Samani on the edge of the northern seas. The trains in these run a few times day, so one needs patience in order to find these far-flung and rarely visited places.

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In these parts the platforms were rusty and crumbling. Often, I had to wait for hours for the next connection. Or I would jump on a train, any train and see where it would take me. Each was of the single-carriage rattler variety, although occasionally – on a ‘busy’ line – two would be joined together. On the way, we stopped at one tiny platform after another. They took the word ‘platform’ literally, for usually there was just a flat piece of cement, without any ornamentation. Or, rather, they did have a single sign indicating the name of the place in question. Occasionally, a passenger would board, while another alighted. The number of people on board remained the same – no more than five.

The hamlets through which we passed gave clearer signs of the stagnation of the Japanese economy over the last couple of decades. Here was none of the flash of the big cities, with their impossible cleanliness, order and neon. Instead, weeds grew, houses showed peeling paint and sagging rooves, and few people were on the streets. I loved it, for this was the Japan I preferred to see.

I soon became used to the fact that my destination would be a few wind-blown houses huddled close to the railway platform. In such places, I engaged in watch-pointing-map-referring-and-signing discussion with the driver. Food? He shrugged, with a wan smile. Hotel? He shrugged again, obviously never having taken the time to explore the hamlet that beckoned to me. I smiled in return.

The challenge was upon me, and I scoured the town in question for some accommodation, any accommodation. Eventually, a modest hotel appeared, although none of Japan’s famed ‘love hotels’ were to be found in these reaches. And I could usually find a shop that reeked of fish. But it would also stock some fruit, the ubiquitous sushi and strange packets of crisp seaweed. A feast fit for a king or queen.

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Needless to say, I was the only foreigner in these parts, and no one spoke a language I knew. It was also early November, so the chill of an early winter seeped into my bones, ably assisted by the fierce wind. So after a tour of the place in question, looking out over the sea and dreaming of yet another ship, I retreated to the relative shelter of the hotel room, where an ancient heater, with its paint a faint memory, battled against the cold.

I had not imagined such places existed in Japan: few people, open fields, towering mountains, and sparse villages in which the houses felt more relaxed about the space around them. Far indeed from the compact megalopolises of the south.

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Ideals in the Mountains: Hiking with Mao and his Friends

In September of 1917, the young Mao Zedong went for a few days hiking in the mountains of Hunan with two friends, Peng Zehou and Zhang Kundi (who writes of the hike). They met at the Fishing Bay Market Place in Changsha and initially hiked southward along the Changjiang (Yangze) River. After some 26 li, or roughly 13 kilometres, they stopped for a massive lunch – five bowls of rice and five of pickled vegetables. Since the day was hot, they swam in the deep, clear waters of the river to cool down. Later that afternoon, they reached a mountain called Zhaoshan (near Xiangtan, Mao’s home town).

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Now they climbed upwards, following a narrow path until they reached Zhaoshan Temple, which had three or four monks. Initially, the monks would not let them sleep in the temple, so they contemplated sleeping in the open. Later, the monks relented, so they ate dinner and went down again to the river for a swim. Zhang Kundi writes:

Following our swim we sat on the beach and talked. A cool breeze dispelled the heat and the rippling waves of the water accompanied our talk like music coming from an unknown source … Under the bright starlight, the trees were a deep green and seemed full of vitality.

Upon returning to the temple in the dark, the monks showed them a massive bed and gave them one small cotton quilt under which to sleep. But the three young friends found a small pavilion, where they sat and talked and laughed long into the night.

‘The Westerners’, Mao said, ‘have a highly advanced material civilisation, but it is limited to clothing, food, and housing, and it provides only for the development of fleshly desires. If human life is just having enough of these three things, clothes, food, and housing, then human life has no value. We must figure out the easiest way to solve the economic problem. Only then can we realise our ideal of cosmopolitanism. If man’s physical and mental powers are concentrated on one task, no task will be difficult to accomplish’.

Peng Zehou said: ‘I have a long-cherished desire to become a monk. When I am a monk, I will invite you all to come and study on a famous mountain’.

‘I too have such a desire’, said Mao.

‘And so do I’, said Zhang Kundi. ‘But your desire is much stronger than mine’.

Kundi writes that he was very moved at the time, and the words of a poem came to him:

Wind blowing in the trees, music of the heavens

Desires and rewards cannot be perceived, and shed their forms

The following afternoon, they went swimming again, and then climbed another mountain, where their friend Cai Hesen lived. The discussion among the young people turned to revolution. They advocated – idealistically – a family revolution and revolution of students and teaches – without force of arms. All that was needed was a replacing of the old with the new. Chinese people, they agreed were slavish in character and narrow-minded. They acted like masters at home and like slaves to the rest of the world.

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On the last day of their hike, they rose very early and climbed the nearby Mount Yuelu. While descending, a cold mountain wind came up and the air was clean and crisp. Bathed by the air and the wind, their minds were lucid and the worries of the ordinary world seemed far away. But by lunch time, that world returned and the hike and its talk and dreams seemed far away.

(Based on a story by Zhang Kundi, September 1917)

‘Next Time Buy a F***in’ Car': To Canberra by Bicycle

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‘Next time we’ll bring a tent’, I said.

‘Next time we’ll check ahead for accommodation’, she said.

‘Next time buy a fuckin’ car’, said the old bikie.

Not long before, we had pedalled wearily into the metropolis of Trunkey Creek, somewhere in the mountains between Bathurst and Crookwell. At the midpoint of a week’s ride from Mt. Victoria to Canberra, we had already done some serious mountain climbing and had even more to go. But now our main concerns were food and shelter, for we had neither for the evening. Would we have to sleep on a park bench, or perhaps on the side of the road, cold and hungry?

Back Roads: Between Pleasure and Pain

We had seized a week from lives that seem to remain busy, despite our best efforts. It was enough time to ride through some remote parts, from the edge of the Blue Mountains to the intriguing Australian capital. Through Lithgow, Bathurst, Abercrombie Caves, Crookwell, Gunning and Murrumbateman we would pass, although we had not planned to follow this route. Initially, we set out to ride along main roads, bending our way westwards to Cowra and then south through Boorowa to Canberra. But the short ‘positioning ride’ – 25 kilometres from Mt Victoria to Lithgow – changed our minds. Here the Great Western Highway begins to drop, on a steep and twisting road, out of the Blue Mountains. Massive semi-trailers grind downhill in low gear, sweeping wide on the hair-pin bends. Cars stack up behind, impatient to pass. And the road shoulder is rubbish-strewn, bumpy and barely a ribbon, where it exists at all.

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So we agreed to follow the back roads, prepared to take what they had to offer – a mixture of pleasure and pain. Painful was the climbing, and our route was not short of the climbs. Some were steady and seemingly never-ending. Some were vertiginous, like climbing a wall on two wheels. The first 20 kilometres out of Lithgow – on our second day – had plenty of these, although they were nothing by comparison with what was to come a couple of days later. That day’s ride, from Abercrombie Caves to Crookwell, was the toughest I have ridden for quite some time. It had no less than eight gut-busting climbs over 80 kilometres, alternating between rough bitumen and gravel. Here the steepness was such that I often had to stand on the pedals, in granny gear, to keep the bicycle moving at all. The flow of honey on rolls, kiwi fruit and muesli bars – really glorified sugar mixes – were the only things that kept us going.

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Yet even pain like this has its own pleasure, not so much beyond the pain barrier but in the pain itself. For this reason, I perversely like to stay on the bicycle rather than walk the toughest parts – even if my riding speed is no greater than hauling a loaded bicycle up a goat track on foot.

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Very different are those glorious stretches of road which appear by happenstance, a dream road that keeps you heading out again and again. One such road – between Tarana and Bathurst – appeared already on the second day. A river road it was, following the railway line. The morning of that day may have been tough, leading us to dread the afternoon, but the advice of a local at the Tarana pub sent us this way. Soon enough our legs lost their leaden feeling, the swooping magpies seemed to offer friendly greetings, a couple of echidnas toddled out to see the curious sight of two cyclists in their peaceful part of the world, and the road seemed as though it had been made for us. The 40 or so kilometres passed in no time at all.

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A few days later, we happened upon another: the ride from Crookwell to Gunning. It began ominously enough, with a slow climb first thing in the morning to 1200 metres. But from here the rest of the day was a long downhill, with a few small rises in the gradual descent. All the grinding climbs of the previous day fell away. An early spring sun shone, the air was clear and the views took in the valley below. If one can have a rest on a bicycle, then this was it. Even our leather seats felt like comfortable chairs upon which we lazily stretched.

Local ‘Histories’

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After a day in the saddle, I sleep long and deep, my body repairing and my mind loose. But finding a town or even a village, let alone a bed for the night is not always a given. A bicycle’s front wheel can take you to unexpected places, for it seems to have a mind of its own. Our first stop was Lithgow, which we love – a working town in a fold of the mountains with a feel like Newcastle. But the pub was rough and ready and the sandy-haired publican foul-mouthed and grumpy. In Bathurst, with its grand streets and imposing Presbyterian Church, we raced from pub to motel to pub, only to score – by seconds – the last room in Jim Duggan’s. Could we take our bicycles into the room? Of course. And what a room it was, with a separate bathroom, toilet, living area and massive bedroom – a small apartment really. In Gunning, we happened upon a grand room in the Telegraph Hotel with a glorious balcony. It was $50 for the night.

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Yet, I was most intrigued by the ‘flyers’ in the motel in Crookwell (yes, we opted for a motel after that day of eight tough climbs). The ‘flyers’ in question were simply sheets of paper, providing ‘histories’ of the towns in the area. And immensely informative they were. Historic events included the birth of the first white child, the establishment of saddlery, boot maker and a mail order business, the forthrightness of a certain Dr Ettie Lyons, the planting of pine trees along the main street, the removal of veranda posts from footpaths in 1950, and, most recently, the arrival of alpacas. Much space was given to a murder in Gunning: Lucretia Dunkley, with the assistance of their servant, murdered her husband, Henry, at their farm. They were executed for their efforts. Even more intriguing were the implicit narratives. The account of crops grown revealed a systemic destruction of native flora: wheat was grown and potatoes used to break up the soil; sheep then roamed over the land to ‘stool’ the wheat, and along with cattle, they ate down the native grasses. And as rabbits became a nuisance, a rabbit freezing works was established. Equally implicit was the presentation of emergence of the towns on a tabula rasa. Some European ‘discovered’ the area, settlers arrived and the town was declared. Miraculously, no Indigenous people were within cooee – with one exception: the account of Gunning at least recognises the Pajong ‘Fish River’ people in the area. As for Taralga, a nearby town, the account bends over backwards to avoid the obvious conclusion that the name is Indigenous. Instead, it suggests the unlikely possibility that the name derives from ‘Trial Gang’, since at Gunning many bushrangers were put on trial and sentenced.  Uncannily, these potted and quirky accounts reminded me of my youth in such towns, where small local events loom large in the world.

People: From Bad Advice to Ex-Bikies

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The rhythm of the day’s ride, with the painful pleasure of grinding climbs and unexpected stretches of dream roads may be one part of a ride such as this. Out-of-the-way places and the challenge of finding a bed for the night may be another. But I never cease to be surprised by the sheer variety of the strange species known as homo sapiens. Relatively remote country areas seem to enhance their uniqueness.

The twinkling woman in Binda – some distance out of Crookwell – was one. She ran the only shop in the village, where we pulled up with jelly-like legs from the 60 kilometres of precipitous climbs and drops we had just completed.

I staggered into the shop, bought some water and energy, and asked, ‘What is the road like to Crookwell?’

‘Oh, it’s quite flat from here,’ she said.

‘Any climbs?’ I asked. ‘We’re buggered, since we’ve been in the mountains’.

‘I little bit of a rise after the bridge,’ she said. ‘But after that you have long downhill run into Crookwell’.

‘That’s music to my legs’, I said, smiling.

‘You’ll enjoy the view as you ride into Crookwell’.

We had twenty kilometres to go, but from the sound of it, the ride would be a pleasurable pedal through the countryside. How wrong she was. Crookwell sits at 1000 metres above sea-level, and Binda does not. So the road turned out to be two long, steady climbs – with a slight drop at the bridge she mentioned – until we reached the heights of Crookwell. To be sure, we did have a view of town as we rode in, but only for the last kilometre.

The moral: never ask a car driver regarding the nature of the road. For such a person, a steep road means a winding road. A straight road, by contrast, seems to be flat. Never mind the extra push on the accelerator.

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At least we did meet one other group of cyclists who, we thought, should have known better. Two young boys and their father were on a short, three-day tour in the area. A triple they rode, with the father up front and the boys on the two seats behind. With such an expensive machine – a Bike Friday at little less than $10,000 – and the sunny days of early spring, one would have expected them to be relishing the time on the road. But it did not seem so. We encountered them half a dozen times, on the road and in the towns at either end. It was more than enough to realise that the boys were grumpy and the father bored. The boys barely spoke, preferring to play with the iPods mounted on their handlebars. The father regaled us with tales of round-Australia rides before the boys were born. Clearly, he felt their arrival had brought to an end his vigorous youth and curtailed his freedom now. Their ride seemed more punishment than pleasure.

Not so the chunky cyclist in Bathurst. She had the distinct gift of holding the most astonishing variety of local knowledge in her head – and passing it onto every traveller she encountered. No wonder she worked in the tourist information office. Somewhere in her late forties, she was stout to puffy, having benefitted from a life of solid country food. But when she saw our bicycles her eyes lit up. She too was an avid cyclist, knowing the best roads in the area, having done many long tours, and waxing forth – with immense anticipation – about her up-coming tour of Vietnam. ‘She would be the last person I would have expected to be a cyclist’, said my companion.

Yet, the highlight would have to be Trunkey Creek, where we encountered the local and his colourful assertion of the value of automobiles. Here the sheer idiosyncrasies of the Australian countryside struck us on all sides.

Trunkey Creek boasts a solitary pub and collection of semi-retired bikies and old locals. We had arrived hungry and without a bed for the night.

‘Do you have a room for the night?’ I asked the middle-aged woman pulling beers.

She looked grim. ‘No, they’re being worked on’.

‘Any chance down the road?’ I said.

‘No, the pub at Tuena shut ages ago’. She said. ‘But you can ask the man out the front in the blue shirt. If there’s anything, he’ll know’.

On the veranda, the man with the blue shirt was resting a beer on his impressive gut. He also sported a closed eye, while the other one twitched uncontrollably. But he was generous in the way of country people: if needed, we could use his shed out the back, which had a bed.

His mates started spluttering over their drinks.

‘Don’t mind him if he leaps about the back yard in his batman suit’, said one.

‘It’s not the batman suit I’d be worrying about’, said another. ‘It’s his tighty whities he likes to get around in’.

But one of them, the local police officer who was also having a drink, suggested I call the National Parks and Wildlife Service. They had a few cabins at Abercrombie Caves, about 10 kilometres down the road. One might be available. I borrowed the phone at the bar and tried calling for an hour. At last, a careful, if a little pedantic, man answered the phone.

‘We’re about to close the office’, he said.

‘Do you have a cabin free?’ I asked.

After an immense pause and the sound of ruffling paper, he said: ‘Yes, one is available. How long?’

‘Just tonight’, I said.

‘Yes, it’s available tonight’, he said.

He agreed to leave the key on the office door, since he was going home (which turned out to be in the same building).

Back on the veranda I told our new friend with the shed – and thanked him for the kind offer.

‘I guess you’ll miss the tighty whities’, said one of his drinking mates.

We had shelter, but still no food. Once again I asked the woman behind the bar. The menu had nothing but chocolate bars and chunky beef pies. I opted for the pies, even though I had not eaten one for half a life in light of their less than thrilling reputation.

‘How many do you want? She said.

‘How many have you got?’ I said.

She went to freezer to check. ‘Seven’.

‘We’ll take the lot of them’. I said.

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She threw them into a bag, still frozen. The light was fading, so we mounted our bikes and were off. Farewells rang in our ears, not least the one asserting the sexual practices of cars.

At the caves, we found the cabin at the bottom of a winding, narrow drop. Inside, and out of the chilly night, I filled the small oven with a pile of pies. A pungent smell of chunky beef and greasy pastry filled the cabin. She ate the pastry, unable to stomach the innards. So they were mine. They seemed to hit the spot, although by morning our stomachs were not so sure.

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Japan: A Freudian Paradise

The tiny police car comes to an abrupt halt as it is about to turn into a side street. Two officers inside the car smile and signal that I should cross the side street first. Still some metres from the side-street, I stop and wave them on, but they insist, with even larger smiles. Meanwhile, traffic on the main road banks up behind the police car. Not a horn is sounded, not a shout is heard. Everyone waits patiently, while I cross the side-street. What incredible politeness.

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That encounter reinforces what I had already experienced countless times: the sense of profound orderliness, politeness, hospitality and quiet of Japan. I had been in Japan for more than a week, arriving by ship in Osaka and travelling north. Being keen to skip past the packed metropolises of the southern islands, I take to the trains. The Shinkansens (literally ‘new network’) are so-so, not as good as the vaster Chinese network of high speed trains. I prefer the slower trains, although they still have fancy names. Super-Hakucho or Super-Hokuto or Super-whatever, but the ‘Super’ really means a slightly faster affair that actually stops at most stations and takes on local passengers. I guess they are ‘super’ in relation to the ‘local’ trains. These are single-carriage diesel rail motors, occasionally hitting 40 kilometres per hour in between the stops. And stop they do, at every tiny platform and remote village of the northern island of Hokkaido. I glory in their rattles and bangs and lurches, in the feel that they had not changed all that much for the last century or so. They take me to parts of Japan – Wakkanai, Nemuro, Samani – I had not imagined existed: open countryside with sparse villages huddling together in the face of the constant cold winds of these northern latitudes.

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Yet, even in these villages the politeness and orderliness is pervasive. Compact houses sit neatly beside one another, with not a weed or a scrap of rubbish around them. On the roads, local people drive well below the speed limit, stopping at lights almost before they have turned red. Pedestrians too stop at lights and wait for them to change, even if not a car is to be seen. In lines, people wait patiently. At building sites a special sentry with an orange baton smilingly assists any passers-by as to where they should walk. On trains, the conductor and even the food trolley woman bow politely as they enter the carriage, muttering a smiling word of greeting as they do so. In hotels, shops, on the street, in homes, people bow, nod, smile and are utterly helpful. Even more, excessive noise is a no-no. You can speak on a mobile phone in a train only in vestibule of each carriage. Hotel regulations make a big thing about quietness. Every word is spoken softly.

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At times the polite helpfulness can be misdirected. In Tokyo I have a tight connection to the next train, heading north to Aomori. In the midst of an unfamiliar railway station, I see an older man in uniform. He watches the crush of passengers, ensuring order (although he has little to do since Japanese people are innately orderly). I step close to him and show him my seat reservation. ‘Hayabusa’, he says. ‘Quick! It leaves soon. Platform 18’. He rushes forward, whistle in hand and beckoning me to follow. Up the stairs we run and onto the platform. He directs me onto the train and, as usual, bows and smiles. I find my seat and settle in, only to find upon departure that I am headed in exactly the opposite direction – southward to Osaka, from whence I have just come. Fortunately, the next stop is five minutes away, so I disembark and return to Tokyo. Now I take some time, carefully locate the train I want and arrive in plenty of time on the platform. This time I do not ask for help.

Underside

In retrospect, this little slip says far more than I had anticipated, for it was the first sign of the underside of Japanese niceness and order. After my rail journeying in northern parts, I settle for a few days in the port town of Tomakomai on the island of Hokkaido. In Tomakomai I encounter not only the polite policemen and yet more obsessive order, but also a whole world seething just below the surface.

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In a corner shop, I notice a section with leaflets festooned with scantily clad women and large phone numbers. The lobby of the hotel sports a rack with similar looking leaflets. Intrigued, I take one to see what it means. Soon I decipher ‘Deriheru’, short for ‘Deribarii herusu’, which translates as ‘delivery health’. Apparently, the idea is that a woman will visit a hotel room or a home, or anywhere really, to provide ‘health services’. Intrigued, I begin to research further. I read of the ‘soaplands’ which may be found in any city in Japan. Such establishments provide one – usually a male – with an extraordinary washing experience. Both outer and inner parts are washed carefully and thoroughly by a woman. She then covers herself in oil or a lubricant and slides all over the body she has just washed. Apparently the service is provided naked.

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After such a wash, one may – if that is one’s inclination – rest at one of the ‘leisure’ hotels that festoon the city landscapes of Japan. The tell-tale sign of such a place is that they offer two types of rates: a ‘rest’ for a couple of hours and a ‘stay’ for overnight. Regular travellers may stay only after 10.00 pm, although they need to be out by 9.00 am. In fact, a journey through Japan can be made staying at these garish establishments with their discrete entrances, especially since there are about 30,000 of them in Japan. In an effort to provide a somewhat different experience, the rooms may have themes, such as pirate ships, churches, trains, classrooms, hospital wards, under-sea or even a water-slide. Inside the room, you may find a VW Beetle, a merry-go-round, chains descending from the ceiling, or a small garden with a bridge. And check-in is entirely anonymous.

Is this world of ‘health service’, ‘soapland’ and ‘leisure’ or ‘love’ hotels entirely concealed? No. Is it simply an accepted part of everyday life, as the ubiquitous American-style fast food outlets or the pod hotels? No. It hovers in between. Officially, prostitution is illegal in Japan, and this impossibly polite and ordered society simply cannot allow it as part of the surface fabric of life. Hence the euphemisms, the efforts to make it appear as though it is something else that actually contributes to the order and neatness of life. The catch is that such a life would not be possible without the intimate closeness of its underside.

An Intimate Moment

The Japanese seem to accept this fact. Let me give another, unexpected example: the ubiquitous toilet seat, in which repression and release function side-by-side. These elaborate seats come with a curious panel of buttons.

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Initially, I ignore such devices, but then I become intrigued. How do they work? I try pressing the buttons, but to no avail.

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However, after sitting upon such a toilet a few times, I notice that a green light goes on after some water noises. I then press the ‘bidet’ button. At this moment, a phallic like tube emerges from the back of the toilet.

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And before I know it, a stream of water shoots right into my nether regions. Actually, it strikes the bull’s eye.

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After the initial surprise (mixed with a little pleasure), I decide to try the shower button. What will it do?

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This jet of water seems designed for cleaning the ceiling, since it jets almost straight up with significant force.

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Freud would have been absolutely thrilled. Return of the repressed – with a vengeance. But as I dry off, I also realise that Japanese cleanliness goes a long way, since it seems to me that anyone who uses such a device cannot help but having one’s whole internal system washed clean.

A Wary Embrace: From China to Japan by Ship

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

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Voyage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Simplicity

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

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

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

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

Encounters

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

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

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

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

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

‘What does that involve?’ I asked.

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

‘So where have you climbed?’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Where have you been?’ I asked.

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

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

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

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A Difficult Relationship

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

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

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

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

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

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Last Ride on the Sunlander

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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