China with a nine-year-old


Crossing the floodwater

16 April 2012

Kit has proved that nine-year-olds can make top travelling companions. He and I are back in China, having left Tibet with heavy hearts. We arrived in our Guilin hostel at midnight. Fresh from a land of Buddhist chants and heady yak-butter candles, it was a rude awakening to walk in on party-central. Reception was doubling as a bar and we had to work our way through a handful of high-octane backpackers, drunk as skunks and belligerent. So-far-so-normal for backpacker-land in the 21st century – except as Kit pointed out they were “old”.

Despite, our exhaustion, both of us sharpened up when a hippy-cum-bank manager nuzzled up and asked drunkenly for our room number. The room, when we found it, turned out to be a concrete cube with a fluorescent light-strip. Ever-resourceful, Kit shoved a chair against the door-handle and balanced one of our Tibetan walking sticks on it “as an alarm”. We were shattered – even the brawling we could hear downstairs couldn’t keep us from sleep. This place is a spiritual wet blanket after Tibet.


In the sparkling light of day, the hostel didn’t seem so bad – maybe because Kit and I were the only people who were up for breakfast.

We were aiming to reach Yangshuo on the Li River, and decided to travel there by boat. The hostel owner wrote down some directions for us but, needless to say, the journey wasn’t as glittering as the bright idea. To get to the jetty, we had to lug our backpacks into town and then spend a couple of hours in a dusty bus. It soon became so crowded that Kit sat on my knee so we could offer another passenger his seat. This proved too generous of me as Kit may only be nine but he’s 5ft 5 – and weighs a ton.

The boat turned out to be a flimsy looking plastic raft, manned by a brusque old-timer, but we didn’t care. Clutching our backpacks, we drifted along the stupendously beautiful Li River for the next two hours, winding through the magical sharp-peaked karst limestone mountains.

This joy was somewhat short-lived, however. Thanks to my lack of the lingo, it turned out that the boatman wasn’t taking us to Yangshuo at all. Instead we were dropped back close to where we started and had to catch another two jam-packed buses before eventually arriving at the swirling chaos of Yangshuo bus station.

Our journey was still not over as we had to get to Moon Village, where I’d heard there was a small eco-lodge.

But how to get there?

As always when travelling independently, your saviour finds you. While Kit wriggled through the melee to retrieve our backpacks from the bus, a tiny man jumped in front of me shaking his keys and repeating the word “taxi”.


I showed him the address of the eco-lodge written in Chinese, grabbed my backpack, grabbed Kit and tried to keep up as the man darted through the crowds. We both stopped expectantly at a relatively unbattered car, but the man dodged round it, beckoning us on.

Kit’s face broke out into an enormous grin. Parked on the other side, was a small open-air flat-bed trailer attached to a scooter. And that was where we perched with our luggage for the next 40 minutes. It was great. Wind in our hair, flies in our teeth and dust in our mouths. As we hit the highway, it was about as safe as cycling along the M25. Nevertheless, we felt invincible. Even the lodge-owner seemed happy as we were dropped off, grimy and grey with dust, at her shiny front door.

Long hot showers, clean clothes a few sniffs of the heady jasmine in the garden and then Kit and I tackled his scrap book.


We slept late, but we were still exhausted when we got up. Breakfast was on the roof looking over at Moon Hill, which gets its name from a vast hole that has worn through it… like a triangular polo mint.

It had rained and stormed in the night but it was warm, so we hired bicycles and meandered along stony tracks through the lush green paddy fields.

I will keep saying this, but I can’t believe how much China has changed since my last visit in 1989. I was here for the several months’ build-up to Tiananmen Square and back then everyone wore grey or blue Mao suits and rode around on bicycles. It was like being on the set of a black and white silent movie. Now, nearly everyone wears Western clothes and the serene paddy fields are bisected by frantically busy roads carrying huge lorries.

The other notable difference is that the Chinese people now go on holiday. It feels as if 1.2 billion people have turned into tourists. Kit and I swerved the crowds by sticking to the stunning scenery and leaving the masses to head for the touristy caves and tacky shops in town.

Back in our village we found ourselves lured into what I thought was a restaurant, but might have been a family home because there was only one table in a large empty room. The friendly lady of the house served us delicious fried eggs, tomatoes and rice, which took me back to the China of 1989 again, except she charged us 1 yuan each for a sterilised bowl and chopsticks wrapped in plastic bags. This conspicuous hygiene conflicted with the fact I’d just watched her wash some vegetables in the puddle outside.


I almost packed our bags for home after a chilling evening. Took Kit to see the cormorant fishing, which meant travelling back into town to catch a boat. The boat was as sturdy as a tin can and the boatman had a dangerous temper. More horrifically, we saw the results of a fatal scooter crash on the drive home. The authorities were there, but nobody was trying to free the body, and there was no attempt to give the dead man any privacy. Ten seconds too late, I clapped my hands over Kit’s eyes.


Massive electric storm overnight. This morning we watched the swollen, brown Yulong River pulse past the guest house and decided to delay our planned cycle ride. Went into Yangshuo and then paid 3 Yuan each for a bus to Fuli, a small town famous for its painted fans.

The driver shooed us off the bus in a non-descript muddy high street of Fuli New Town – along with five Chinese university students. Neither their guide book nor ours gave proper directions on how to reach the quaint old Fuli district, but they insisted that we stick with them. I was puzzled that they wouldn’t ask any locals – presumably, a face-saving thing. Anyway, we all floundered in and out of alleyways together. In the end, Kit’s suggested route proved the right one.

They were lovely company. It turned out they were architecture students and without their kindness we would not have found the deserted back streets where ancient talismans protected doorways, nor the hidden courtyards with uncovered sunken wells. And we also wouldn’t have understood that the old lady making exquisite paper fans in a doorway was telling us that she had survived the Cultural Revolution, bringing the secret of her skill with her. After a few hours of wandering, Kit and I parted ways with the guys and caught a bus back to Yangshuo.

Personally, I wish I’d given Yangshuo a miss this time around. When I was last here some 23 years ago I remember it as a quiet, charming village where all you could buy were padded Mao jackets to keep out the chill at night – or more disturbingly for a Westerner, haggle for day-old chicks and the odd owl for supper. Now the whole town simply panders to the worst of tourist bling – tacky T-shirts, plastic mugs, cheap souvenirs.

Needless to say, Kit loves it.


DSC_0346There were a few ups and downs today. We rented our bikes early and set off for Dragon’s Bridge, several miles further down the Yulong River. After 20 minutes we came to a river crossing where an old couple demanded an eye-watering 20 yuan to take us and our bikes across on a narrow, sinking raft. It was tricky fitting both us and our bikes on, but fortunately Kit likes sorting that type of thing out.

It was even trickier getting off without falling in, but eventually we pedalled away through the glistening paddy fields. The sun was warm, the karst mountains were magnificent and the few ancient villages we cycled through were unspoilt and pretty.

The map, however, was all over the place. After a slight detour we eventually arrived at the small stone Dragon’s Bridge. Here, we watched a few English guys jump off into spine-crushingly shallow water.

Just as I was boring Kit with why that was so dangerous, a local woman tapped me on the shoulder, pointed to our mouths and beckoned for us to follow her.

We were hungry, so we followed her trustingly through a warren of lanes and ended up at the idyllic Bamboo restaurant downriver. Most of the tables were perched on floating rafts lashed to the bank, so we tottered on board and ordered yet more fried eggs, tomatoes and rice.

Unfortunately, all my chilled sense of well-being was undone on the journey home. Disdaining the beaten path, we decided to cross Dragon Bridge and follow the path on the other side. At first, it was beautiful bowling down jasmine-scented tracks and orange groves, but we saw not another soul. In less than an hour it was clear we were lost – and alone.

We pressed on and eventually spotted a distant highway bridge soaring over the paddy fields. Kit had the inspired idea of using my telephoto camera lens to photograph the signpost, then to enhance it to see if we were at least going in the right direction. Great idea in principle, but none of the destinations made sense.

By now I was starting to feel seriously worried. It would be dark in two hours and the prospect of Kit and I having to spend the night in the mountains seemed nightmarishly likely. As stormy looking clouds gathered in the distance I began to feel panic. An uneasy silence fell between Kit and I.

“Do you want me to look at the map, Mum?” he asked.

For a nine-year-old, his map-reading attempts weren’t bad – but neither were they much better than mine. Back on our bikes, we suddenly came out of the trees into a row of sleepy farmhouses. No-one in sight, but they must have been watching us because on our third cycle-past a young woman with a friendly open face came out of her house.

She didn’t speak English, but I showed her the Chinese name for Jima, a small town near our guesthouse. She nodded and then, bewilderingly, pointed through her house and then up in the air.

“She means up that mountain behind the house,” said Kit.

I was incredulous. “What? Up mountain? Other side of mountain?” I enunciated loudly, pointing upwards and no doubt sounding like a stereotypical “Brit-speaking-to-foreigner”.

She smiled, then gesticulated for us to follow her through her house with our bikes. For a nano-second I feared we would be kidnapped or robbed, but this woman’s kindness shone through. As we emerged out into a yard, she pointed down a tiny overgrown track and then made more ominous upward signs. It was our best hope.

Back on our bikes, we found ourselves in the most stunning scenery yet. The rich-red tracks took us through bushes of purple flowers and deep, glossy green leaves. There was a gentle incline over a pass in the soaring mountains and then in the distance the tiny town of Jima gleamed.

Hurrah! We freewheeled down the tracks, light of heart and then Kit screeched to a halt. Wham! We were completely cut off by a flooded tributary. The current in the centre was strong from the rains and I had no idea how deep it might be.

Just as I was starting to agree with Kit that we might have to ditch the bikes and swim, we heard the buzz of an engine. Two men on a battered scooter appeared through the trees and whooping and laughing splashed round the bend, waved at us and made the crossing safely. Kit and I hopped on our bikes and followed in their wake.

Five minutes after hitting dry land, we found the river crossing and were waylaid by the same raft-owners from the morning.

“Forty yuan now,” said the woman, ignorant of the fact we’d become battle-hardened in the few hours since we’d last seen her. Kit snorted.

“We paid 20 on the way out,” I said stonily.

We won. Back on the other side, we sped back to the guest house. Later, we sat on the veranda in the gloaming as rain fell – me with an ice-cold Tsingdao beer and Kit with a banana lassi, both of us tucking into a pile of hot vegetable spring rolls.


There are times when travelling with a child forces you to have the sort of exhilarating experiences you might otherwise have avoided.

Today was Sunday and Sunday is white water rafting day in these parts. Kit was already outside watching streams of people on wooden rafts plunging down the rapids on the swollen river. I was wary but, as he said: “It’s once in a lifetime, Mum.” So we did it.

The next day, I rented a tandem. Brilliant fun when we got the hang of it. Cycled along the Li River, which is much mightier than the Yulong and ate omelets in the Seventh Heaven Cafe. Later, we found a beautiful artist’s studio in bamboo woods on a cliff overlooking the Li River – the Drum Café – I’d recommend it. We were the only guests there except for a Chinese family, who waved us off on our tandem when we left.

We’re in a rougher backpacker haunt tonight, so I played pool and cards with Kit before hunkering down. I can’t sleep, though, as one guy has been yelling into his computer on Skype for several hours now. The backpacker world has certainly advanced. But not in a good way.

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Ethiopia … at last

Following on from my last blog, Ethiopia without a map One thing I learned pretty quickly about Ethiopia is that I’d underestimated it. Instead of the parched, desolate country I’d envisaged from heartbreaking TV footage of the 1980s famine, I arrived in the north to torrential rain, ear-splitting thunder-and-lightning storms, rich red and chocolate-brown mud, vibrant green landscapes and fields carpeted in beautifully fragile yellow daisies – the Meskel Abeba.

DSC_0032And, while I knew the Ethiopians had a lot to recommend them, I hadn’t expected them to be so kind and proud – or that I would miss their good humour when I left.

The really great news, however, was the discovery that I was now seven years younger because on 11 September they’d just celebrated the arrival of 2006. In fact, everything was topsy-turvy – the Ethiopian year has 13 months, of which 12 have 30 days and one has five, and as for their baffling time system – frankly, I gave up wrestling with it. I think it starts at dawn and runs for 12 hours until dusk, so when you get up in the morning it’s about 1o’clock … but don’t quote me on that.

This blog is a jumble of anecdotes and experiences…

The trek

With news of the Kenyan shopping mall massacre still fresh and Ethiopia’s proximity to sabre-rattling borders such as Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan, I was a tad concerned that we might disturb a cave full of Al-Shabab terrorists on our trek. I was reassured by the fact that Bereket – our chilled and knowledgeable guide, fixer and friend – looked at me as if I were utterly mad when I broached it.

Nevertheless, I discovered I wasn’t the only one who was apprehensive about this adventure. It seems all six of us had last-minute nerves, not helped by Lucie’s discovery that Australian citizens are advised to “reconsider” their need to travel. At Bahir Dar we poured over contour-lines on sketchy maps and tried to convince ourselves that it was possible to cross the Simien Mountains and pick up uncharted trails to the Tekeze Dam. None of the paths or villages were marked, but we were told we’d find local scouts en route who’d know the way.

Bereket seemed laid back about it all, so that was good enough for me. He works as a freelance guide and we’d found him via a contact in a safari company in Kenya… who had put is in touch with Red Jackal Tours in Addis… who had persuaded him to wander off the map with us. “Us” being Bertie, Douggie, Marina, Stathis, Lucie and me – a melting pot of architects, artists, scientists, Greeks, Germans and Brits – and we’re friends to boot.

DSC_0219You might well ask why we were doing it. No-one can quite remember. I think the plan came about initially because we wanted to avoid spending too much time in jeeps or driving close to the hazardous border zones. So, instead, of doing a predictable circuit in the Simien National Park, the idea was to walk from base camp at Chenek to Hambiqo, creep over Ras Dashen (Ethiopia’s highest mountain), leave the national park and trek to tiny settlements such as Mebruq, Telba Medir and then cross into Tigray, making the final push from the Avera River to the Tekeze Dam where we’d got security clearance for the 4x4s to pick us up and whisk us to hot showers in Gheralta. But nothing ever goes quite to plan…does it?

The trek begins – Arrived late in Chenek deep in the Simien Mountains, where we’ve hooked up with our mule train and local guide to start our trek tomorrow. It’s driving rain again and to get here the drivers of our two 4x4s performed the sort of hair-raising manoevers along treacherous mudslide precipices that you pay mega-bucks for at Mercedes World in Brooklands.

The bad news is that the tents, mattresses and sleeping bags are now soaked. The good news is that the park’s scouts have sweetly bunked up so that we can squeeze into their hut. Some of us are suffering the effects of the injera and local honey wine, and we’re not going to see running water for another six days, but morale is… fine. We huddle around a smoky fire and eat delicious vegetable soup and pasta washed down with ginger tea. Then, cocooned in gloves, scarves and thermals, I spend the first of many freezing nights counting the hours until dawn.

Day one – Chenek to Hambiqo (8 hours) – We’re high as kites. We’ve climbed to 3,600 metres, discovering giant lobelias, fields of red-hot pokers, lavender, oregano, aloe vera, mint, as well as soaring lammergeyers, whole cities of placid gelada baboons, a couple of rare walia ibex on a distant crag and the most breathtaking mountain scenery with whipped cream clouds. Child-shepherds wrapped in ragged blankets or sheepskins come out of nowhere, playing flutes, shaking hands and sometimes asking for empty water bottles to recycle. At the moment we’ve plenty to give them as we’ve each got to carry two litres a day.

As for the call of nature, Bertie’s thoughts of “going like a bear in the woods” were scuppered by the fact there were often no bushes, never mind woods.

We’re quite a band – there’s the six of us plus Bereket; then there’s our trusty national park guide; a craggy featured chap with a scarf wrapped round his head clutching an ancient-looking AK47 gun; a lively cook and his lad; and a baggage train of about six mules with their plastic-sandal-wearing muleteers. We feel slightly overdressed in our walking boots.

Day two Hambiqo to Matbar village (11 hours). The Bradt guidebook says there are wolves in these parts, which to me explains the blood-chilling howling all night. The guide and Mr AK47 dismissed them as wild dogs… either way, something was making an evil snorting sound on the other side of our tiny, flimsy tent.

Frankly, it was a relief to get up at 3.45am. Apparently, we had to start early to avoid the “strong sun” – although that never materialised. Clutching feeble torches and wearing as many clothes as possible, we began the freezing march up Ras Dashen, which at 4,533 metres is Ethiopia’s highest mountain. It was dark, cold, the terrain was tough and rocky and as the altitude increased my head ached and it became harder to breathe. My responses slowed, too – even simple things like zipping up my jacket were a problem.

While the über-fit Douggie strode ahead and bafflingly managed to sneak 40 winks in a cave, the rest of us toiled like snails up to the clouds, struggled with our personal demons and wondered aloud why the hell we were walking up a bleak, grey mountain in the middle of Ethiopia. It seems, altitude can make you emotional.

At about 11am, as I clutched feebly to a rock, while Stathis and Lucie nibbled some life-saving Kendal Mint Cake, our string of well-laden mules trotted past, with the muleteers wrapped in thin blankets running gamely alongside.

Half-an-hour later, we bumped into them again sheltering cheerfully under a cliff just out of the biting wind. It was lunchtime. Miraculously, the cook produced a pot of warmish pasta and vegetables, cooked at last night’s camp and we all cheered up a bit.

DSC_0281By now, we’d all bonded with the national park guide and grown fond of Mr AK47, who’d been using all manner of basic psychology to nudge us ever-upward. But, alarmingly, just as they’d morphed into twin Tenzing Norgays, they announced we were at the national park border, gave us the traditional Ethiopian shoulder-biff goodbye and swiftly disappeared back to Chenek.

The cook said he knew the trail for the next two days… so our lives were now in his hands. He also mentioned that he’d been “a military” during the war. As he set off at a running trot, we knew this trek was not going to get any easier.

After 11 gruelling, muscle-burning hours, we picked our way down a slope of magnificent giant lobelias and collapsed into our camp perched above one of the most dramatic, lush valleys I’ve ever seen. The agony of the day wiped away by the sheer beauty of Ethiopia and the fact we were now well off the beaten path.

BC cracked open his stash of Armagnac, Stathis broke into the nuclear-strength Ethiopian Araq and we partied until at least 8.30pm before collapsing onto our clammy mattresses.

We had to face reality, though. There’s no way we could keep walking 11 hours a day on this sort of terrain, so we’ll need at least one more day of trekking to get to the dam. This seems daunting.

The rest of the trek… We’ve all fallen totally in love with Ethiopia and its people. One of blessings of travelling rough rather than holidaying is that you get a chance to scrape the surface of a country and learn about yourself, too. Ethiopia is hardly set up for mainstream tourism, but we’re even more off-piste than most who venture here. Many children in the villages we’ve walked through haven’t seen white people before, but they aren’t afraid. They rub my pale skin. Everyone shakes hands. Priests walk by draped in white blankets, wearing tub-shaped hats and carrying crosses. We say salaam a hundred times a day. These incredible mountains and precipices are alive with farmers. On first glance you see nothing, and then as your eyes strain you see the thatched rooves of round wooden huts sitting at-one in the landscape.

Lots of things have gone well. We’ve unearthed a roll of Gaffa Tape to patch the holes in our tiny tents. This is good news because not only does it keep the rain out, but also the insects. One of our new scouts is a bit deaf and, as far as we can understand him, it’s because an insect crawled into his ear one night and burrowed rather deeply. I’m now using my earplugs.

None of us gets the same sleeping bag twice, but on a positive note this means we all get a chance to use the one without a zip – and I guess to share our fleas.

DSC_0278And there really is no running water anywhere so we haven’t washed at all, apart from wading across icy rivers in bare feet. Nevertheless, I’m getting used to the smell of us and wild herbs, earth and sweat. The only aroma that’s slightly difficult to deal with is the rancid butter that lots of women rub into their hair.

One of the villages we passed through came out in force, wanting us to give them medicine. One woman had weeping leprosy or possibly just impetigo on her chin. Lucie put eye drops into a child’s weeping eye and we gave the odd headache tablet away, but we’re conscious that it would be dangerous to leave them with supplies that they don’t know how to use.

Another guy had ringworm. Marina had some antifungal cream, but it had trotted past on one of our mules long ago and we wouldn’t see it again until evening. They guy was unperturbed. It took us another six hours to get to camp but he was already waiting for us – apparently he’d taken a short cut down a cliff face. He’d also delivered the bag full of eggs, unbroken, that we’d bought from a farmer. Then he turned round and went back to his village in the dark.

Talking of worms, on one of our many rambling talks, a guide told me the reason why Ethiopians eat raw lamb. Apparently, you get a certain type of worm that then eats all the other parasites, such as tape worm. Before it starts to feel at home you can take a local powder and whoosh – the new worm goes. Can’t find anything on the Internet about this, so not sure I’d recommend it.

Oh, and did you know that Ethiopia has 54 species of Acacia.  They are everywhere, like giant brooding umbrellas, some with the most beautiful yellow-scented fur-ball flowers.

The last days of the trek The catchphrase for Marina and Stathis has become “In Greece we also have this…” They say it in relation to Ethiopian landscape, religion, art and even architecture. It’s mystifying. Clearly, I need to see more of mainland Greece, as Ethiopia so-far bears no relation to the sun-baked islands I’ve been to.

Still, I’ll grant them that the Ethiopian landscape takes you around the world. Today, as we walked out of the Amhara region into Tigray, it was like leaving the green terraces of Thailand and entering a parched red-rock Arizona.

Tigray, Tigray, Tigray. It’s a loaded word conjuring up images of the recent civil war. Strange to think this deserted land echoed to rebel gunfire. Today, it’s just the six of us, plus Bereket, standing in a massive canyon looking up at the mountains where in hidden caves the rebels plotted their new government and the overthrow of the Derg. It gives you goosebumps.

More pressingly, we’ve run out of bottled water. The last few hours of our roasting hot walk is down an empty riverbed, strewn with sharp rocks and bolders. We huddle together under a cliff face to find shade and then stumble on again, thirsty and silent. Bereket and Lucie break open a melon they find, but it’s hard and dry.

That evening we pull out Lucie’s pump and take turns purifying the river water. In fact, we also jump into the river with our soap – a bit further down from where the cattle and mules cross – and have our first wash in a week. There’s a vague discussion about the possibility of worms and things, but we’re past caring. The water is warm and delicious down here and we dry off just before the sun sets.

The next day, to stave off more thirst, we arrange for one of the mules to meet us with a jerrycan of river water midmorning so we can do more pumping and replenish our bottles. It’s our last push to the Tekeze dam – a long, hot, white-dust walk that takes us up one false summit after another…

The climb to Abuna Yemata church near Gheralta Marina and I are stunned. We’ve just climbed up a sheer cliff face to the rock-hewn church of Abuna Yemata, also described by Bereket as the church of “no rope, no hope”. I’m really not sure what we didn’t register about that when we were asked to take off our shoes to start the ascent.

DSC_0160Let me back-track. Abuna Yemata is a sixth-century church carved into a cave way up a mountain. To get there, the foolhardy have to scale a vertical rock face with only rough hand and footholds to cling on to. I gather the Ethiopians rely on their strong orthodox Christian faith to keep them safe. I had to rely on my ignorance of how bad it would get and a soft-spoken local man called Tensay, who gently coaxed me to put a hand here or a foot there.

It was exhilarating and shocking; I am prone to vertigo even when inside a high building.

Having scaled to the sanctuary of a small cave, Marina and I discovered we and the guides were the only ones rash enough to try it. Our four pals were sensibly waiting for us at the bottom… We also discovered we weren’t there yet – we were only in the baptism chapel. To get to the church, we had to leap over a few chasms while grabbing onto some alarmingly brittle bits of root and negotiate a narrow sloping sandstone ledge that on one side fell away into a 200-metre void below. I expect the view was staggering, but I didn’t dare look. By the time we got to the church door I was high on adrenalin – and very amenable to God.

We crowded in – Marina, Bereket, our driver Mokie, Tensay, the very young-looking priest and our local mountain-goat-guides. I know I for one was glad to still be alive.

The church was tiny, simple and awe-inspiring. Carved by hand out of the rock, the interior was decorated with saints, horses and patterns painted in vegetable dye, charcoal and blood. The only furnishings were olive-wood cleft sticks for the priests to lean on and a slightly bigger one used as a lecturn. Piled below it were goatskin boxes holding illustrated copies of the scriptures, handwritten in the ancient religious language of Ge’ez.

I didn’t want to leave – mainly because I was putting off the descent. I even said a prayer to make sure we got back down safely and I’m glad I did. It was much more terrifying than climbing up. At some point I cried. Despite the calming influence of Tensay – and Marina who was somewhere above me – I felt sure I was about to plunge to my death. Somehow, he guided my hands and steadied me while managing to cling on to a tiny handhold himself.

Of course, once you’re down, you want to do the whole thing again…

The children We were on the long drive from Mekelle to Lalibela and had stopped to stretch our legs. As always a raggle-taggle group of children emerged out of nowhere, smiling. I gave them some of my pencils, but they didn’t seem as pleased as usual.

“What are they saying?” I asked our driver.

“They say they need clotheses,” said Mokie.

The three little boys had scrappy t-shirts and no trousers, and somehow that got me more than the other sad sights I’d seen. I had no kiddie clothes, but Mokie helped me get my bag out onto the back seat and I rummaged for some big T-shirts.

“Er, Ros. Time to go I think,” said Douggie.

“Ok, give me a minute,” I said, doling out my three or four t-shirts.

“No, we need to go now,” he said more urgently.

Woah! I looked over my shoulder and saw an entire village-full of children swarming down the road towards us. All wanting clothes.

We simply didn’t have enough. There was nothing for it but to go. A sad moment. You can’t help everyone.


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Ethiopia without a map

So, I’m packing for Ethiopia. This time next week, I’ll be trekking with five friends somewhere in the Simien Mountains. I think this particular trip is going to push me way out of my comfort zone – not least because, as far as we can see, no other Westerners have taken this route.

Mad as it sounds, we found the path through a random search on Google Earth. But, I’m happy to report that my clever companions have researched it carefully, despite the fact the only map we can find is a dated Russian version. We’ll start at Chenek, but unlike most itineraries we’ll veer off via Mebruq to Telba Midir and then down to the Avera River where we’ll cross the Tekezze Dam.

It’ll be tough terrain, but we’re taking a guide, several mules carrying tents and a guard with a Kalashnikov – whom I’m hoping is more job-creation than necessity.

And, yes, as I look at the mounds of anti-dysentery tablets, fungal creams and blister treatments waiting to be stowed in my backpack I’m wondering if there’s some way I can wriggle out of the whole crazy thing. But, while it’s daunting it’s also exhilarating.

In this over-connected world, I love the idea that I might get a small sense of what it was like once to be a pioneer. It’s a huge adventure in wild and stunning scenery and will, hopefully, give us a rich experience of the natural environment and remote village life.

Nevertheless, I’m having sleepless nights. This trek is far more Bear-Grylls-meets-Sherpa-Tenzing than I had anticipated. But somehow it has gained a momentum that is impossible to stop…

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Travel blog – Vietnam with an eight-year-old

DSC_0015April 2010 – Just Kit and I – Vietnam

It’s week one of backpacking alone with Kit. I spent a fair whack of my 20s backpacking – travelling free-style, inviting adventure. But to be honest, I’m beginning to think the decision in my 40s to take an eight-year-old on the road in Vietnam was, in hindsight, rash. Mainly because you have to rely on the kindness of strangers – and that’s scary when you are alone with a child in an unfamiliar culture.

That said, it’s working out… so far.

We’ve made it down to the Mekong Delta by bus from Ho Chi Minh City. The night ferry across the Hau Giang river yesterday gave Kit and I a rush of adrenaline. Apparently, the new bridge collapsed while they were building it a few years ago, but I’d recommend the ferry even when they rebuild it. Waiting on the shore, we stood back as hundreds of moped riders revved up in the holding area ready to embark. As soon as they got the go-ahead, they sped up the ramp like angry bees. The noise was deafening as we pedestrians made our way on board and up the metal steps onto a sort of gantry, which seemed to be the only place to stand. Across the vast expanse of water the lights twinkled along the bulky port of Can Tho.

At the other side we were taken partly by taxi and then by foot down narrow lanes to a brightly lit guest house. Inside, it looked as if it was still being built – or perhaps dismantled, hard to say. Kit was not impressed with the cardboard thin door, lime green shiny walls and decrepit bathroom. And he was hungry.

An Australian couple in the hall told us the best place to eat was in a market restaurant on the waterfront, so Kit and I set out into the dark, empty lanes, twisting this way and that towards the lights until we popped out into the main drag. Again it was eerily deserted, but we eventually found the buzzy open-air market restaurant overlooking the harbour. We ordered a vegetarian dish with rice and lemon grass and looked out at the boats. I treated myself to a gin and tonic. It’s all been plain sailing up to now.

Getting home later was a bit trickier, however – and nothing to do with the G&T.

As any fool knows, the one thing to bear in mind in an unfamiliar town is getting home in the dark. Sadly, I had still not re-grown my backpacking whiskers and realized too late that I only had myself to rely on in this matter. We wandered along the deserted main road trying to remember which of the many alleyways we had come out of. Kit was sure it was one; I pulled rank and chose another. I was wrong. As the alley became darker and smellier it seemed we were well and truly lost.

I’d stupidly not brought a torch and by now the dark silhouettes and sudden flare of cigarette tips in the doorways were making me extremely nervous, but Kit was enjoying the adventure so I tried to sound upbeat. Rummaging in my bag I found a spray of insect repellent – well, you never know. It might have worked as well as Mace.

Meanwhile, Kit seemed undaunted and was adamant he knew the way, so acknowledging my hopeless sense of direction so far I gave in and followed him down ever-smaller alleyways. Just as I was starting to feel seriously worried, there it was. Our shabby, dilapidated, gorgeous, wonderful guesthouse.

The next morning we saw the Australian couple. There was an atmosphere hanging between them and they look grey with exhaustion. Turns out they got even more lost than us trying to get back to the guest house last night and didn’t fall onto their rock-hard mattress until nearly 2am…

The Mekong

DSC_0130Kit and I are still meandering through the Mekong Delta, making our way to the outpost port of Rach Ghia. It’s been magical – gliding through the quiet backwaters on small canoe-shaped boats, walking along tiny waterside paths through the orchards, hiring bikes and cycling through lush countryside and watching my son try to communicate with the local children. It’s bliss to spend a few hours out of the heat after lunch lying in hammocks in a café. The only thing I find a tad un-relaxing is the fact that all the cafes in these parts have pet snakes.

I admit it’s been tough carrying our backpacks in this heat. Kit’s got a tiny one, but sometimes he’s too exhausted to carry it. I can’t carry both. I was trying to get on a bus the other day and the weight of my backpack pulled me backwards sprawling onto the busy road. (Amusing for some; painful for me.) Kit’s been luckier. The other day some young English blokes offered to carry his backpack through the fruit market to the jetty.

While there’s usually someone friendly around, the chill realisation that my son could be left stranded if anything happened to me hit hard in the small port of Rach Ghia. For two days we were the only Westerners in a swelteringly hot town where English was barely understood and – worse still – there was nothing to do. Boredom is the biggest horror for an eight-year-old. I could have happily whiled away the time reading in the shade, but Kit was craving action, which in a one-horse town in torrid heat requires creative thinking.

Still, we had a laugh. One of the restaurants we found looked more like a pet shop – or aquarium. Basically, you chose your baby shark/eel/octopus/catfish or whatever and they gutted it there and then. Somewhat squeamish, we chose chicken and it arrived in four bits, with everything from the beak to the claw. The unsmiling waitress watched us flail about with chopsticks and then came over with a pair of scissors to chop it up. Horrible.

Mickey Rourke

Other Western backpackers treat you differently when you’re travelling with a child. Perhaps with more distance, which is fair enough. That said, we spent a fairly intense day with an American guy on our way to Rach Gia.

He was wedged in the same cramped mini-bus (AKA rusty clapped-out vehicle) as us for several sweaty hours so inevitably we got talking. Turned out he was a retired lawyer who’d morphed into a hippy in his retirement. He looked like Mickey Rourke’s double and was fun. He’d apparently refused to join up for the Vietnam war and had been disowned by his folks. All interesting stuff, but I kind of wished he’d kept his voice down a bit when discussing the war.

Dusk was drawing in when we were eventually dumped somewhere in Rach Gia by the bus driver. Realising it was getting late, I’d already rung ahead to book a room in one of the few guesthouses. “Mickey”, who had nowhere to stay, decided to tag along, or as he gallantly put it: “escort you guys there – you know, look after you”. So, while he sat on a stump smoking a roll-up and looking like a surf-dude, Kit and I ran up and down the street for 20 minutes trying to find a taxi. Kit won.

Bit of a weird scene at the guesthouse. Left Mickey smoking outside and Kit and I checked into our room. Few minutes later there was a key in the lock, the door opened and there was “Mickey”. He apologized and left. Five minutes after that, a furious guesthouse owner was banging on our door: “Why you no let your man in? Why you not let him stay with you? Bad woman.”

Kit and I stood in the doorway more confused than nervous. Fortunately, “Mickey” appeared behind him looking horrified and the misunderstanding was sorted… Clearly no room for marital disharmony in Rach Gia, though.

Pho Quoc island

DSC_0067Life on the road is fun for an eight-year-old, but I quickly realised that it wasn’t just him who needed to rest in between bum-numbing 10-hour bus journeys – so did I.

We’ve loved the Mekong, but it was also getting important to find Kit a beach so we’ve headed to the relatively unspoilt island of Pho Quoc and splurged a bit more than I’d budgeted for at the cosy barefoot-chic Mango Bay. White sand, clear seas, snorkelling and two French-speaking children to play with, plus the added excitement of using lamps to find our hut every night, being woken up by cows poking their heads through our shuttered windows in the morning, having an outdoor bathroom and sitting on the beach watching storms out at sea. Then time to move on again.

The food in Vietnam is great for kids. Rice, noodles, spring rolls … we’ve been eating vegetarian dishes – which is a rule I’ve followed when travelling since getting very ill in India – and neither of us got sick once. Kit quickly got a taste for Jasmine tea, though we seemed to be doing something culturally distasteful in ordering it. While we were often offered a cup free on arrival in a restaurant, if we tried to order it – and pay for it – we were practically ejected from the cafe.

Ho Chi Minh – the kidnap

Taking an eight-year-old backpacking on my own in Vietnam was a leap of faith, but while it has proved relatively painless, you have to consider that things can go wrong. In a worst-case scenario, you can be miles away from civilization when disaster strikes.

That said, our worst-case scenario could have happened anywhere in the world. On our last night in Ho Chi Minh I got into a dispute with a taxi driver over the fare. Once again, my appalling sense of direction had got us horribly lost. (If you’ve tried reading a Vietnamese map with tiny script and no specs you’ll sympathise.) So, as it was late, I did the one thing every guidebook tells you not to do – I hailed a cab.

Within a mere two minutes, the previously chirpy driver had stopped at our destination and was demanding mega-bucks. Clearly, I was being fleeced, so I said he must be mistaken and thrust an over-generous but more realistic fare at him. My big mistake was not having got Kit and I out of the taxi before disputing it. My other mistake was mentioning the word “police”.

Before I knew what was happening he was angrily speeding off with Kit and I rolling around in the back. When I eventually managed to sit up, we seemed to have raced into a pretty grim neighbourhood. Panic set in.  Even if he hadn’t been going so fast to who-knows-where, the doors and windows were locked and we were trapped.

Kit still seemed remarkably unperturbed and I wanted to keep it that way.

However, desperate for someone to know what had happened to us in our “final hours”, I did a mad thing – rang my husband back in the UK and tried to create the impression to our driver that he was a well-connected diplomat in Ho Chi Minh who could spring us out of this mess by rolling in the big players. It was a failure – the driver was ranting so it made no impression on him and my husband simply went through a frustrating process of being baffled and then seriously alarmed.

“I’m S.C.A.R.E.D,” I said, using spellings so that my son might not twig that the situation was serious.

“You’re SCARRED?!!” yelled my husband, either not very good at spelling or too freaked out to concentrate.

“No, I’m F**@@ SCARED,” I hissed in irritation down the phone.

Kit was now alert to the enormity of the situation. While I banged on the windows, he saved the day by suddenly screaming louder and more terrifyingly than any bit-part actor in a horror movie. In a trice the taxi driver had pulled over, unlocked the doors and even apologised to Kit (not me).

I guess both the taxi driver and I had handled the situation badly and I’d like to think he had no interest in harming us. All in all, any troubles on our travels were negated by the joy of being on the road, meeting interesting people and most of all from sharing some pretty special experiences.

This sort of trip isn’t for children who thrive on waterparks and ice-creams, but a questing child will have the time of their life.

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Travel blog – Tibet with a nine-year-old

dsc_0119.jpg4 April 2012

At Beijing Xi station… waiting for the Beijing-Lhasa train…We gave ourselves too much time to get through the airport-style security and now have hours to kill. A quick-witted woman at a rickety old desk offered us a “private lounge”. Seemed like a good idea as the station is mobbed, so handed over 30Y. Turned out to be a not-so-good idea. Essentially, it was a filthy booth. On the bright side, it gave us time to reorganize our backpacks for the 100th time and to drink a glass of sweet strong coffee.  We’re now in the departure hall… waiting, waiting, waiting … with about a million other people and what looks like their household contents. It’s incredible to think we’re heading to Tibet. The last time I tried was 1989, but the Democracy Movement was growing so the border was closed and when Tiananmen Square happened on 4 June I left China.

5 April 2012

Eventually boarded the Lhasa train late last night. Reminded me of that scene in the “Hunger Games” where the doomed contestants run for their lives to the cornucopia.

Bertie, Kit and I are in hard sleeper, which means sharing a fairly intimate space with three strangers for the next two nights.  Two of our bunks are at the bottom, which is good as it gives us more headroom. They give you bedding nowadays and the conductor is amenable. It wasn’t like that in 1989. In fact, it was almost romantic back then – in true Communist spirit there were officious carriage guards who barked orders at everyone. I remember on one four-day journey that my carriage was blessed with “Most Tidy” status.

Woke up at 2am when two blokes got on board and needed to get to their top bunks. Everyone (except me) snores. Everyone (also except me) was up at 7.30am cleaning their teeth and queuing for the WC… By the time I got there an hour later, the “facilities” were pretty grim. Don’t remember them being quite so grim when I was in my 20s.

Despite having the usual attention span of a nine-year-old, Kit is far from bored, buzzing up and down to his bunk, playing cards and getting boiling water from a (designated) tap next to the loos for our tea and noodles. We’ve been eating the noodles out of tin mugs with chopsticks.  Conversation with our cabin mates is a tad limited as we only seem to be able to say “thank you” in each other’s languages, but we’re sharing biscuits and snacks – and refusing something that smells stronger than whisky. The scenery is arid and we’re starting to climb into the mountains.

7 April 2012

They warn you about altitude sickness, but I didn’t think it would happen to me. Yesterday on the train was dire. When we hit 5,000 metres above sea level I thought I was about to die.  My head felt as if it was being skewered with pokers, eyes pierced with needles, nausea made me throw up and exhaustion meant I couldn’t move. Missed all the amazing scenery …clouds, lakes, snow-capped mountains, rolling plains, yaks … Fortunately, Kit took the photos, so I can re-live it later.

Kit was fine. Just as well, because it was every man for himself as far as I was concerned. Apparently, he spent most of the night sitting in the corridor reading and high-fiving with the locals. He reckons you can avoid altitude sickness by not lying down…wish he’d shared that gem of wisdom with me…

This is one of the most gruelling journeys I’ve been on – and I’ve had my fair share. We’re all fairly dehydrated after two nights of sickness and on my only trip to the WC today I found a glamorous female attendant in a dapper uniform and full makeup prodding away with what looked like giant chopsticks to clear the “blockages”. Apparently, another altitude sickness sufferer fainted in the same loo…she actually hit the oh-so sticky ground…words cannot convey how glad I am that didn’t happen to me.

After nearly three days of almost constant pain, salvation came in the shape of us arriving in Lhasa four hours earlier than I’d expected.

8 April 2012

Nearly kissed the ground when we disembarked at Lhasa. Soooo relieved to be off the train and slightly nearer sea level – we are down to 3,600 metres and although they are less severe my altitude sickness symptoms persist.

It was a confusing arrival. We had to walk through a vast rather beautiful station, totally empty except for a uniformed woman standing in the middle wearing a red sash. The entire trainload of passengers had to filter through a few narrow doors where black-clad guards took away our passports. Milled around, hoping we would get them back – which eventually we did.

To get here, the Chinese authorities insist you buy Tibetan Travel Permits, which are quite convoluted to get. One of the conditions is that you have to have a guide, so we chose a Tibetan company based in Xinjiang at The guides for the five or six foreign tourists were all waiting on the street. Ours is a quietly spoken Tibetan from the Everest region.

9 April 2012

First impressions of Lhasa are that it’s an occupied city. The Tibetan quarter is surrounded by checkpoints and there are fully armed squads of Chinese soldiers patrolling Barkhor Square and standing back-to-back in combat style on every street corner. It’s a shock. It’s too heavy handed.

If you could see Barkhor Square you’d agree. The place is gently swirling with impoverished pilgrims in Tibetan robes, twirling their prayer wheels and chanting. They’re doing the

dsc_0124.jpgkora around the sacred Jokhang Temple, a beautiful place hazy with incense and lit inside by yak butter candles. Why the Chinese need to employ such bullying tactics to intimidate a people whose most violent resistance to being culturally and physically overrun is self-immolation is beyond me. I feel angry.

“Aren’t you angry?” I ask our Tibetan guide.

He looks tense. “What good would that do?” is his sobering Buddhist reply.

Altitude sickness continues. Sleeping badly. Bones ache. Wake up every two hours. Head like a pulped tomato and eyes barely open. About to pop a few more slow-release Ibuprofen and some Chinese herbal medicine from a corner shop – Radix Rhodiolae. Looks brown and thick. Tastes horrible. Seems to be working a bit.

Kit, meanwhile, is tired but happy. Taking it all in. Drinking copious amounts of banana lassi and enjoying the strangeness of it all. Being a Western child he’s getting lots of attention. I was worried about him getting separated or lost as the side streets around Barkhor Square are a warren, but it’s me that has the terrible sense of direction rather than him – as he reminded me from our time in Vietnam. So, I’m sticking with him.

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