Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Japan and Taiwan 2006


Japan was great. Cleaner than China, the people are less intense, more restrained, more reserved, just as the stereotype says. How can I write briefly about this land before I crawl to my bed?

An air of gracious innocence hangs in the air, despite the encroaching population and technology. A noble dignity pervades. One knows one is dealing with a culture that knows its mind and will not take instruction from another, even after having been crushed in the dust and resurrected by America. It gives back to the homogenizing globalising current as good as it gets, such that one feels there will always be a Japan.

Such dinky street siding vending machines! I thank you for so conveniently slaking my thirst, with your cream melon sodas and slightly too diluted banana milkshakes.

The country bears an austere dignity, yet knows how to party, the people are work horses whose happiness is toys.

And magical, beautiful women, sprung from fairy tales, smile enchantingly, and know no fear.
India and Nepal 2005

I didnt check my phone for three and a half weeks. It is good to hibernate. We all perhaps need holidays from ourselves sometimes, even from those dear to us. Some people go into silent retreat for 3 years, 3 months and 3 days, seeing nobody and just meditating. I didnt do that but wanted and found a taste of that kind of experience. Good for the soul and good for the spirit and what better place to check out of the routine of life than the subcontinent. To be recommended, despite all cliches one might hear about the commercialisation of the spiritual search.

Part one: Delhi

Having spent six hours in Moscow airport terminal, and waiting 45 minutes for a coffee ordered from a very gloomy Russian waitress, I finally took my flight to Delhi, arriving in the early hours. As hoped, the manager of the hotel i'd booked into was there to collect me as promised. My most vivid memory of the drive to Pahar Ganj, the main locale of budget hotels, was the dying, softening scream of the dog we ran over, and the complete lack of reaction from the driver.

At 20 dollars a night my room was very expensive for India, and only had air cooling, an electrified, glorified incredibly loud fan, nothing more. My initial impressions of India were of the population density, the lack of personal space, the filth, the cows, the rickshaws, the smells- usually pleasant or only vaguely irksome- the relaxed and easy going people- far calmer than the Chinese- and the heat.

Most people who travel in the north have to go through sprawling, labyrinthine, very hectic Delhi. Delhi is famous for its belly, or rather for trashing other peoples; but I was fine, until I had something dodgy, I don’t know what, in Kathmandu two and a half weeks later. The Red fort was majestic, the Bahai temple serenely sublime, and oddly reminiscent of Sydney opera house moreover. The swastikas, splattered liberally in the most sacred of places, are mildly disconcerting, even when you know they massively predate the Nazi era. What I had read however- that the Nazi symbol circled in the reverse direction to that of the ancient religious symbol of the ancient Aryans- didn’t seem right, since I clearly saw them going in both directions. The biggest Mosque in India, Jama Masjid, is free to get into, unless you have a camera. No perceptibly safe places to leave them outside will therefore force you to pay, whether or not you want to take photos.

It is not everyday one is approached by 19 year old English ladies. Chances are higher when women are not allowed to climb minarets unattended. Nicky had been solo travelling for three months and she taught me a thing or two about the correct prices for rickshaws and taxis. Other lessons I had learnt by now were to drink Lassi's...curd based very delicious milkshakes containing wholesome bug destroying bacteria, and to buy bottles of mineral water with their seals clearly in place -to be sure they hadn’t been filled up at the tap.

Unfortunately, no enormous Gandhi statues at Raj Ghat, the memorial to the Indian Mahatma, which was a shame, but the Sikh temple was marvellous, though expect, as I was, to be gently reprimanded if you don't sit correctly and face the right direction. My temporary orange turban was thrilling and the lakes at these temples are divine. I never found time for the Golden temple in Amrita but it’s highly recommended I hear.

On August 15th the skies were filled with kites, and thousands congregated to listen to the Sikh Prime minister make his speech at the Red fort marking Independence Day. I didn’t go myself, but instead watched England head for their draw in the third Ashes test at the Imperial hotel, my one real taste of western luxury for 3 and a half weeks. If you thought Indians were ashamed or angered by their subjection under the British, no doubt many are - but not the ones who run this hotel, where busts of George V and Queen Mary commemorate the coronation of George as Emperor of India in 1911.

The British may complain about their own rail services but at least buying a ticket is theory. In theory in India it’s pretty chaotic and in practice, well, you have to know what you're doing. You have to read a big notice board to find the train number and time, then write it down on a slip of paper with all your details, passport etc, and then queue up for about 50 minutes. They like foreigners to pay in dollars or euros. If you can’t, be sure you've got 'encashment', proof that your rupees materialised officially and weren’t conjured up out of the Ganges in the dead of night.

When travelling from Paha Ganja to old Delhi train station ensure you have enough time, unless you'd like to leap from a 3 wheeled auto rickshaw, stuck in the middle of gridlocked traffic, and weave your way past cars and trucks and salesmen and other passionately Indian Indians to only just catch your train. Impressive train however, air conditioned and beds and comfortable and equipped with tea and cold drinks if needed. It helped that I paid twelve pounds for the twelve hour journey. I could have paid two pounds and travelled in considerably less comfort and considerably more colour.

Part two: Trilokpur , The Tilopa institute

I very nearly abandoned my efforts to stay at the small remote Tibetan monastery in Trilkpur en route to Dharamsala, set amidst lush fields and small islolated local communities. I'm very glad I didnt. Eventually, after repeatingly being taken to 2 different nunneries, it was great to arrive and settle into the quiet environment and meet Lekshe, the senior monk running this monastic school for boys aged 7-20 from Sikkim in north east India. The boys wake up at 5, chant pujas (prayers and mantras) solidly for 2 hours. Then they eat breakfast together silently (bread, jam and salty tea- oddly pleasant actually). Next they study the Tibetan language for 2 hours, then after lunch (silent, always vegetarian of course but very satisfying) they study maths or English, have some time off and then chant again for a further 2 hours before going to bed. On the day I arrived, however, they had a holiday and were playing a game like pool; only it’s played on a table and you flick the counters with your fingers. The boy monks are extremely good at it. On that same day, during a walk to the nearby village, it was nice to be invited in for tea by a 19 year old orange sari wearing young lady called Shelley. She was keen to know how much money I earnt and to show me her English essays. That they were copied from another book she showed me was clearly not intended to disvalue them in any way! She showed me loads of photos of herself and her family and friends and invited me to her arranged wedding next March to an engineer from another town. Not entirely overjoyed by the prospect would be how I'd put it, but one could sense you couldn't judge her by our own cultural standards and ideas. There was peace and equanimity in her eyes too.

On the second day a German teacher, Walter, arrived. He's to stay here for six months. I hope he gets used to the flies which are the only real irritant. He'll teach for only two hours a day and have the rest of the time for reading and meditation. We visited the nearby Tilopa's cave. Tilopa was an Indian Siddhi who further developed Buddhism in Tibet in the 11th century and is very important to the particular lineage of Tibetan Buddhism associated with this monastery. He sat here alone for a very long time, learning the valuable secrets of not feeling lonely, and experiencing great bliss moreover, when you are very much alone. The cave is also a shrine to Shiva, the Hindu God of destruction, but this shared use of religious sites turned out to be fairly common in India( even more so in Nepal). Presumably this is for two reasons...the Buddhists can't object because the Hindus have more power in India and Nepal, and the Hindus don’t want to, because to them the Buddha, though he didnt know it, was actually a Hindu. As the ninth and most recent incarnation of Vishnu, the Buddha (less so his teachings) is highly revered, though not as much, of course, as the more famous 8th and 7th incarnations, Krishna and Rama respectively. Whether or not the Hindus would revere the Buddha if the Buddhists hadn’t built a new and innovative religion out of him, however, is an interesting question. Do they only do so to re-absorb him back into the mother faith and so thereby defend it? It was nice in any case to see such a lack of religious intolerance between these ancient and heterodox faiths.

It was sad to leave the monastery. I really liked the monks and talking to Walter. If I hadn’t been on such a tight timetable and had had more time to play with, I would have wanted to stay for at least a week, not as it was for only three days. I take a photo of Lekshe in his robes and promise to send it to him.

Part Three : Dharamsala and Mc Cleod Ganj

Dharamsala is 90 minutes by bus from Trilokpur and a very different place. Far higher the temperature was much lower and you no longer had to worry about air conditioning. Indeed in winter, with central heating rare, it’s the cold you have to worry about. While in terms of the temperature it was a nice time of year for me to visit- far cooler than the oppressive heat of southern India- the big problem was the cloud coverage which robs you of many of the wonderful views round here. As in Delhi and Trilokpur, the rain is an issue. It rains pretty much every day, fiercely for at least two hours. It’s usually in the afternoon, however, so you can fairly reliably plan your day around that. The fierceness of the rain was a novelty and actually humorous...just because it’s so intense....I got totally drenched even under an umbrella, which is pretty crazy.

Mc Cleod Ganj is the seat of the Tibetan Government-in-exile and a magnet not only for newly arrived refugees, having escaped the Chinese tyranny over the Himalayans, but for all kinds of westerners attracted to Tibetan Buddhism or sympathetic to the plight of the Tibetans, as well as for innumerable passing backpackers stopping here on their circuit of India. There are also many Israelis...especially in nearby Bhagsu and Dharamkot. Indeed there are actual Israeli communities where the Hebrew script is seen as much as Hindi and English. I wasn't quite sure why there are so many Israelis here (for example in contrast to China, where I met only one last year). The best answer I got and the conclusion I came to was that the peaceful, beautiful Buddhist environment was a very welcome place to chill out and recover from the two (for women)or three (for men) years compulsory military service all young Israelis must endure. Of course it’s also much nearer to Israel than it is to Europe or North America. I was also told the weed round here is magnificent. Apparently, this has its appeal, though of course not only to Israelis.

The commercialism of the traders was reminiscent of Delhi but Tibetan salesmen are far less vigorous and imposing, so walking the streets is correspondingly far less annoying. I stayed in two guest houses, one had great views down the valley towards lower Dharamsla, while the other was apart of a Ngyingma monastery. Buddhist, but a different lineage this time. There are four lineages of Tibetan Buddhism. The Gelugpa is the youngest and most famous, being associated with the Dalai Lama, possibly the only truly famous Buddhist in the world (Richard Gere?). The lineages differ less on philosophical matters than on questions of practice, intellectual emphasis and according to the various Tibetan regions. The monastery I stayed in in Trilokpur was Kagyu, under the spiritual authority of the Karmapa, the third most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai and Panchen Lamas. Why do I write Karmapa in inverted commas? Because the lineage is split and divided into two camps claiming two different Tibetan young men as the Karmapa. The controversy is now thirteen years old and shows little sign of ending, even though animosities between the camps seem to have calmed down a bit. Both Karmapas have their own monasteries, websites, organisations, groups of monks and attendants and both groups unambiguously assert (well, they could hardly not) that their Karmapa is the 17th Karmapa. Type in 17th Karmapa into Google and see for yourself. I had been lucky enough, before I left Bratislava for India, to meet the English speaking Thaye Dorje, who travels extensively in Western Europe and North America and was recently featured on Radio Four's Sunday Programme. I was keen to check out the competition in nearby Sidpur. Urgyen Trinley Dorje escaped from Tibet in 2000 and now lives close to the Dalai lama in nearby Sidpur. Generally considered by most Buddhists in the Daharamsala region to be the Karmapa he has, oddly enough, been recognised by both the Chinese Government and The Dalai Lama, institutions not generally known for agreements. An intriguing but in many ways very sad controversy.

In the small Nyingma monastery I paid about one pound twenty per night, but it was very basic, with cold showers, squat toilets, and one of the two rooms I stayed in was very damp. Living with the friendly, sociable monks, all adult this time, was great. The monastery had a cafe and I drank innumerable teas. Tibetans are genuinely lovely people and live up to the mythology surrounding them (non-violent, gentle, open hearted, spiritual, if not magical), at least the ones I met. What has happened to their country since 1950 is tragic and terrible, though it is an irony not lost on the Dalai Lama and others that if it weren’t for the Chinese invasion, which sought to wipe out their religion and culture, that same religion and culture, with all it has to give to the world, would not nearly be so well known today as it is outside the 'Land of snows'. Still, that's no excuse of course. The real trouble is that even if the Chinese rulers think they should get out of Tibet, it's difficult for them to do so. 'Losing face' in Asian cultures is pretty much the worst thing that can happen to you. Will the Chinese Government, having asserted for 50 years that Tibet is an integral part of China, now turn round suddenly and say No, No, you're right, we were wrong all along, weren’t we silly. That would be nice but is it likely? Moreover, even if it’s only a question of autonomy and not independence, giving more rights to Tibetans will raise similar demands in other regions of China and in Taiwan and Hong Kong. So the Tibetan question is not an isolated matter for them. What they should do is different from what they are prepared to do if they seek to survive as a regime.

Obvious as it may sound though the best hope for Tibet is surely a collapse of the regime in Beijing. Then things could significantly change, though not necessarily for the better...the replacement non-communist regime might be fascistic and worse. Naturally, matters would be helped today if the western powers didn’t care more for trade with China than they do about human rights but, well, what can be said about that? For now, the Dalai Lamas principled non-violent approach clearly gives the Tibetans the moral high ground for all the world, and the Chinese, to see. This gives them dignity, self-respect and is the true heart of their ability to preserve their unique culture, based as it is on the compassionate regard for all life. The problem is that facts on the ground in Tibet are changing. Han Chinese now outnumber native Tibetans in their own land. When Tibet is finally freed what then will become of all the Chinese there. Hopefully ethnic war would be avoided and the Tibetans spiritual authority might once again, as in the past, be a beneficial and healing force throughout post-communist China.

The food in India was very good, though I must admit I wasn't eating a wide variety of different Indian foods and McCleod Ganj itself is full of international cuisine. I mainly ate egg and vegetable fried rice, and sometimes fruit at all but salads if I felt the restaurant could be trusted to wash the food in clean water. I ate little meat and had six beers in 25 days...a far higher beer to day ratio than other travellers I met but strikingly lower than my Bratislavan average. I consequently lost about 4kg even though I remember eating a lot. A typical full and filling meal would cost about one pound including drinks.

I was very happy just to remain in the Mc Cleod Ganj area. Each day for 5 consecutive mornings I walked up the hill near the monastery to a guided 45 minute meditation session with an English Gelugpa monk from Liverpool called the Venerable Martin. Focusing on counting breath is harder than it might sound since the minds default setting is not to stay still be to wander and be visited by the uninvited. Becoming experientially aware of this is thrilling in a quietly disturbing sort of way. He said to count on the outbreath (which is counter intuitive) up to ten and then down back to one again. When the mind wanders and/or is overtaken by trains of thought the point is to be aware of this without annoyance and just return, without judging yourself, back to the instructions and begin counting again.. The purpose is to increase concentration and be in closer contact, I presume, with your unadorned mental nature. I always felt wonderful and fully grounded in my thoughts and feelings as a consequence. I also went a couple of times to hear Buddhist philosophy being taught at the Tibetan library and was shown around the Tibetan parliament by a friendly guide. After a week I began to feel apart of the community and would run into the same people frequently, with whom smiles and waves would be exchanged. Indeed, if there’s no one you know, smiling and waving at strangers (and being smiled and waved at by strangers) is welcome and doesn’t seem intrusive or strange.

Not only was Mc Cleod Ganj my favourite place in India, it must be one of my favourite places in the world. I felt a spiritual presence there, a peace, a calmness and sense of positive energy that seemed to hang in the air and emerge from everything. Such a description might need to be experienced to be believed and of course it might just be my projection. Whatever it was, I was very happy there indeed. Certainly it was the highlight of my trip. As at the Tilopa institute, I didnt want to leave, but felt I had better, since it was such a short holiday. Besides a week earlier I had bought my plane ticket to Kathmandu so I had no choice. It was a pity too that I couldn’t find time to go to Ladakh, where the Dalai Lama was speaking at that time, but time and space, as it presently is, alas one cannot do everything.

Part Four: The Kathmandu Valley

I'm not sure, after Dharamsala, that I can do Nepal justice. On an ideal trip I would have gone to Kathmandu after Delhi and reserved the best part of my trip for the end. As it was I experienced a slight sense of anti-climax. No longer susceptible to the pleasant sensations of a first introduction to Tibetan culture, also sensed the loss of the enchanted homogeneity of a dominant Tibetan culture. Unlike in India, where Buddhism is rare and yet where found, such as in Dharamsala, concentrated and clearly distinguishable from the Hindu milieu, in Nepal the two religions have lived closely and harmoniously together for centuries and I was left with less of a clear sense of the distinctiveness of either.

That said Kathmandu was lovely. Following my Tibetan nose at the airport I checked into the Tibetan Guest House and was glad to be reacquainted with the sight of prayer flags as I surveyed the valley over breakfast and got my bearings. Durbar square was intense, both with temples, to Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna, Saraswati and others, and with over eager salesman offering Nepalese artefacts, though more often themselves, as tourguides. I was finally worn down enough to buy a metal bangle with the Om Mani Peme Hung mantra written in Tibetan on it, which I've actually turned out to be glad about. I was also glad to have had my arm twisted into an enlightening tour. One Temple, to Kumari, contains a real 8 year old girl, the selected reincarnation of the Hindu Goddess. She'll come out from her upstairs window and stare majestically at you for 5 seconds if you're patient but you can't take photos. She can enjoy her divinity, alas, only until puberty. Then she is ejected and replaced by another younger incarnation. Freak Street is not nearly as freaky or hippy or wild as it was in the 60's. The new centre of gravity is Thamal, which is as westernised and commercialised as you could wish for-or not wish for.

As for the political situation, I never felt in danger from the Maoist insurgents though the Nepalese army's presence was very evident in the surrounding hills of the valley. The main impact was surely on the noticeably fewer number of western tourists found here as compared to India, something which drew complaints from traders bemoaning their sales. Perhaps that hesitancy to visit, though, is ironic. I learnt that in many ways the Maoists welcome tourists, for they money they bring in to help the rural workers. Currently the King, who dissolved parliament in February, grows increasingly isolated, and is even falling from grace with his main backers in their efforts to contain China's influence, The USA and India. India's concern is understandable. If you were India would you want China breathing down its neck at you from the entire Himalayan range?

The Third monastery I stayed in during my holiday was Kopan, set high enough above the valley, east of the centre of Kathmandu, to provide stunning views all the way to Swayanbhunath Stupa and beyond. A Stupa is a white pyramidal structure, often containing relics of important Buddhas and Boddhisattvas, depicting in its structure the stages of ascent to enlightenment, and a focus for pilgrimage, devotion, offerings, prostrations and circumambulations (in a strictly clockwise direction). Though there were 2 stupas in McCleod Ganj the two main ones in Kathmandu were far more memorable. Swanyanbhunath is famous for its monkeys, which line the steep stairway up to it, whilst the Boudhnath Stupa is the biggest Stupa in Nepal and is said to contain bones of the historical Buddha.

I saw my first ever dead body in Kathmandu, but it wasn't anybody I knew. Rather it was at the Pashtipatinah Hindu temple complex, where bodies are publicly cremated for all to see. Apparently being disposed of in this way is a sign of high status. I didnt get that close so I didnt actually see the body in any recognisable form at all.

It would take you at least two weeks of heavy sightseeing to see all the religious and cultural buildings just in the Kathmandu valley alone, and feeling that quality not quantity mattered I didn't get too stressed out. I'd hoped to go to the mountain lake town of Pokhara but lacked the time, once again. As an alternative, and still missing a proper exposure to what I'd misguidedly believed would be a land of white high Himalayan mountains everywhere (the valley alas is surrounded only by green foothills), I settled on a day taxi ride to Nargakot. Having negotiated a pleasing deal with a very smiley taxi driver called Hari Krishna (no joke-his actual name, he showed me his ID) i looked forward to some serious views of some serious mountain. Alas, I should have anticipated the clouds, and the time of year. At one of the most famous viewing spots in Nepal I could see for no further than 100 metres except back towards the valley I'd come from. Nevertheless it was great to see some Nepalese village culture and mix a bit with the local people. The following day, the last of my holiday, I went to nearby Pharping. Seeing gorgeous, very authentic Newari architecture in this village by another impressive Stupa was a good finale to my trip. A 13 year old school boy attached himself to me and showed me around, which was very nice of him, something not mitigated by his very polite, reasonable and expected request for well deserved remuneration.

And so it all came to an end. My love of the places I saw lives on and struggles to keep alight in me the spiritual freshness they imparted. Never before have I had such a sense of the spiritual vacuity of the west. Yet it is neither fair nor constructive to trade-in an outdated western colonial triumphalism for an Eastern spiritual condescension. The west has been spiritual in the past and, let us hope, will be again...sooner rather than later. Meanwhile it seems the lights of the inner dimensions of the human soul are preserved in Asia, and though first introduced to the west over a century ago, it is evident that the rank abominations of reductive materialistic science on the one hand, and existentially inauthentic mysterious religiosity on the other, have not allowed themselves, yet, to be healed by its balm. If they can be then indeed there can be hope. And not just for the West but for the East also. For we have as much to give as we have to receive.

And with that rather pompous finale I leave you with some photos.

If you are planning to go to India, and you are interested in the spiritual dimension of the place, I recommend 'From here to Nirvana' by Anne Cushman and Jerry Jones, a book about the various ashrams, Buddhist centres and spiritual places of interest that might appeal. I came across it too late for it to mould the course of my trip but would have liked to have had it before I left Europe.

The trip over 25 days cost a total of about 800 pounds (including all flights, accommodation and transportation) so not that expensive considering that tours for 10 days can cost a lot more...and there u have your sense of adventure compromised.. And don’t worry about being lonely if u want to go solo like me. Not only are the people very friendly but, as long as you don’t isolate yourself in the expensive hotels, you'll meet lots of other backpackers, many of them also on their own, and similarly unlonely.

As for the nameless anxiety one might have about third world travel, I myself before my trips tend to worry about the challenges of life in exotic realms, forgetting what I'd learnt the last time and that I remember again after 2 or three days on the road ...namely that there is nothing to worry about and that, as long as you have your eyes open and don’t mind asking for help and advice, travelling in the third world is straightforward and undaunting. Of course, things might and do go wrong but chances are when they do the local people will be more helpful to than might strangers in the west. Just smile and keep an open mind and above all relax....they are not all out to get you, even if some are (into their shops!)

Oman 2004

Weird and wonderful things to note about Oman:

A) On coming drivers stop your car in the middle of the road and ask you for a light for their cigarettes (well it happened to us!)
B) Goats are known to stand on the bonnets of 4 wheel drive vans (see photo)
C) It is illegal not to keep your car clean- by order of the Sultan. It is crazy not to have a car, because in the cities public transport is, well, not there.
D) If you want to order a pizza be sure to know how to describe where you live, i.e
'Oh you know we're between Abdul's restaurant and the green mosque, just opposite the electrician's'. Street addresses are non-existent outside of Muscat, the capital
E) At Sur University College, at which my friend teaches English, all students are elementary, even the ones in the 'advanced' classes. Motivation to learn, it seems, is evidently not intense when education is free and nobody either speaks or needs the language outside the classroom
F) There are mountains and valleys and palm trees, so it’s not just desert and camels (though it is that too)
G) Oman is home to frankincense, so it’s the place to buy presents for messiahs.
H) Oman was runner up in the 15th Arabian Gulf cup on Xmas eve. Like all classy nations they lost on penalties.
I) It’s easy to hitchhike (though I didn’t) because Omanis feel obliged by Islam to extend hospitality. Wave your arm up and down slowly and gracefully. If you're lucky (as I was) you may, without asking for a lift, be picked up by someone wanting to practice their English.
J) If you fancy visiting an extremely isolated mountain next to an extremely sheer and precipitous canyon, be prepared to meet a host of camera shy yet very persistent carpet sellers.
K) Omanis are very friendly and hospitable, like all Arabic people I find. We had a puncture on a coastal road at night without a torch and a chap stopped and helped us, even though we hadn't asked for assistance. At a guess, in neither London nor Bratislava can you smile or wave at strangers or be smiled or waved at by strangers, without questions of sanity being raised.
L) Giant turtles come ashore at night to lay ping pong ball sized eggs and bury them in the sand for two months. Provided they are not dug up and eaten by foxes, they must then scurry unassisted through the sand to the nearby sea.
China 2004

Well, about the people, they are small and apart from that, well, they like to spit in the street (though its illegal in Hong Kong), don't queue, have a minimal sense of personal space and privacy, are very friendly, intense, sociable, extrovert, materialistic, assertive and also very curious about seeing westerners. This last point, however, depends on where you are in China. The more remote you are the more curious because they don’t see that many tourists. I didn’t really manage to have that many conversations with Chinese people. Those I did speak to were mainly female students of English wanting practice or else art students trying to sell their paintings. In Yangsguo, though, I spoke to more Chinese people because it’s such a tourist Mecca. The food was great and I finally managed to learn how to use Chopsticks properly. I didn’t want to come back. I wanted to continue down into Vietnam, Laos and Burma.

In Beijing I stayed in a hostel, having a nice compartment of a larger room to myself and one other person. It had proper toilets too, which were things I was often anxious to find throughout the trip. After Beijing in Xian, another hostel. Only in Chengdu did I start having a room to myself because it was so cheap (5 pounds). A hostel again in Lijiang, a room up the mountains at the Gorge, through which the Yangxi flows and then a really nice air-conditioned room in Yangshuo. Just a shoebox room in Hong Kong, though, and a shower that you have to take literally standing over the toilet because the room is so small.

It would have been nicer maybe to spend more time in the countryside, among genuine rural Chinese and away from the modern cities. I'm glad I didn’t go to Shanghai. What would have been the point, it being so westernised? One of the highlights for sure was taking a cycling trip with a great Swedish guy and a Chinese tour guide along the Yulong river (tributary of the Li river), which included Bamboo rafting, swimming, and having lunch with his family. However poor the Chinese are they all seem to have TV's and of course they were all glued to the Olympics, in which China did so well. Actually I wasn't really aware of that much poverty. Even though the welfare elements of the Communist system are being eroded I would guess that China looks after its poor better than for example India. They all SEEM to love Chairman Mao when you ask them about him and it was an eerie religious experience going to see his fake looking, waxy body in his mausoleum in Beijing, watching children placing flowers in front of him.

Slovakia 2001-2006 and counting

What is it about Slovakia?

If I am to be honest when I ask myself why I came to Slovakia my mind goes blank. Of course I know why I left the UK but that is another tale told by an idiot signifying nothing, etc. But why Slovakia?

As a newly qualified teacher of English, of all the places in the world I could have chosen, why on earth did I choose Slovakia? Such is a question I’ve often been asked by Slovak students struggling to understand why someone chose to leave the 4th largest economy in the world for the sake of one of the weakest in Europe. To put it bluntly, it was because I was offered a choice by the language school where I qualified to either come here or go to China. And China, despite my adventurous nature, seemed a little too far a field for a first posting. So I came here.

Retrospectively, seeking more justification, I told myself it was because I’d always been interested in the effect of communism on human society and wanted to experience first hand its effects on a nation struggling to wake up from its nightmare. But always I knew this was not the reason, for no such thoughts had occurred to me. And despite my appreciation of the beer, and my love of the gorgeous women, they weren’t the reasons either. Indeed, due to my own, or is it Britain’s, ignorance of mitteleuropa, before I came here I was entirely unaware of these much touted emblems of Slovak glory.

And yet what interests me now, and what troubles me, are those self-deprecating questions of students, mainly young talented students, who simply failed to understand why a native born Briton should choose to leave a country that so many Slovaks are eager to escape to. While the queues of the hardy and determined waiting patiently in line for their visas outside The British Embassy have vanished, what has not is the desire, among too many Slovaks I believe, to uproot and seek a new life westwards, where it is believed the streets are paved with gold and all things are possible, and happiness and fulfilment rain liberally on all.

Surely I am not the first expat to experience the frustration of coming face to face with Slovak lack of self-confidence, about the achievements of their country and their general global status. It is expressed through a domestic and international political cynicism bordering on total disengagement and an almost dogmatic blindness to the possible ills and dangers of unbridled western influence, be it cultural or economic. Yes, it may prove in the short term interests of this country to spend a few years being the obedient servant of Washington. Yes, inward investment, spurred by low taxation and cheap labour, are doing the Slovaks a favour by raising their profile in the world. But why judge your own value by the interest shown in you by others? Nations, like individuals, should feel good about themselves for their own reasons and not because others are attracted to the opportunities you offer them.

To me, the reasons for this national lack of patriotic self-belief are fourfold, and embedded in history. Firstly there is the 900 year legacy of political invisibility inside the Hungarian and later Austro-Hungarian Kingdoms. Secondly, the influence of a Roman Catholicism emphasising collectivist values over individualist entrepreneurial ones, and content to uphold the Habsburg-Hungarian supremacy. Thirdly, the curiously delayed and late stage of Slovak industrialisation and urbanisation compared to that of neighbouring states. And finally, of course, the 40 year oppression under a Soviet controlled, Prague centred communism which, however, failed to generate a level of self-bolstering dissent and defiance commensurate to that found in the Czech lands.

Not much of course can be done about the past. What has been suffered cannot be undone. But what can be done is to move on and stop locating in oneself the cause of history’s disservice. I am not advocating that blame should be directed elsewhere. Scapegoats are not required to cleanse oneself of guilt. Blaming the Church, the Hungarians, the Russians, the Germans, the Czechs would be to merely posture at ghosts of the past for no purpose other than to cover over ones own unreconciled feelings of self-blame. Even if it was these elements’ fault in the past, so what? The past, as it is said, is history and was a grubby time for everyone. Importantly, these things are not oppressing Slovakia now, and yet sometimes it feels as if they are still, because in imagination Slovaks allow it to be so, by allowing the memory of the past to inappropriately live on in these profoundly altered and dynamically evolving times.

Unlike when I think of why I first came here, when I think of what Slovaks could and should take pride in my mind does not go blank. Although I have to admit that my mind does not fill either with that type of imagery normally associated with national prowess- thank God. I mean military imagery. That Slovakia, unlike Hungary, has not had an empire, that Slovakia, unlike the Czech lands, cannot boast a Holy Roman Emperor, that Slovakia, unlike Poland, has not at one time stretched from the Baltic to the Black seas are all reasons I would suspect that, in the national subconscious, if not conscious, mind may add fuel to the fire of Slovak self-depreciation. But why should it? Especially in a world which one hopes means what it says when it says that it has put the glory of war and conquest behind and beneath it. If anything, the relative cleanliness of the hands of Slovakia from the bloodbath of history should be something to draw a deep sense of self-respect from, if not something to take positive pride in..

When I think of the greatness of Slovakia my mind settles on the feeling that I live in a deeply peaceful, kindly, safe, civilized and gentle nation, one with a rich and various folk culture, a deep love of family and friends, an unhurried and uncluttered style of life, where I can walk drunk through one of the largest housing estates in Europe, Petrazalka, and feel entirely safe, where children instinctively give up their seats for the elderly on public transport and where, unlike in Britain, they do not think its cool to undermine and torment their teachers. I have heard it said that Slovaks are lazy and drink too much. Maybe it is because I am lazy and do drink too much, and so am not a good judge, but little in my experience bears this out. What Slovaks are is quite simple-they are too passive, not forthright, not engaged, not confident enough. Exactly the opposite from the English, who suffer, though decreasingly, from a superiority complex, Slovaks suffer from a disabling inferiority complex which, too much of the time, they seem only indifferently interested in combating. Put simply, as a nation they do not love themselves enough, and not nearly as much as they deserve to.

It is not of course that Slovaks do not take pride in their country. But my hope, whether I leave as I may in the near future, or whether I live here for the rest of my life, is that they learn, and quickly, to take pride in themselves for more than their awesome natural landscape, their prowess on the ice rink, the glamour and comeliness of their ladies and the quality of their beer. May they please take pride in themselves for being Slovaks. And may their best and their brightest please stay (and return) and build up their country and develop their potential and grow shamelessly to look the rest of the world squarely in the eye, with trace of neither irony, jealousy nor bitterness.
Travel Prior to 2001