Struggling now to upload anything to this blog since Weebly is tied up with Google and Facebook which I can only access through a proxy server as long as we're in China. So email is also difficult. I (and friends in China) are posting loads of pictures on WeChat so if you want to download WeChat and look for juliajubilada or Ian Maclean I can add you to my "Julia and Ian in China" group. Meanwhile, I'll keep writing and collecting photographs ready to post when I find a way that doesn't eat up hours and hours of frustrating fiddling or I'll do it when we reach Australia in mid-September. Meanwhile, I just want to report that we love Beijing, the people we've met, the place we've been staying and the things we've seen. Off to Zhengzhou tomorrow.
A good thing about travelling when you’re old is that time slows down. The daily routines of home, the chores to be done, the familiar rooms and streets and people all blend into a fast flowing stream as the weeks, months and years roll by. We’ve been away for a little over a week now, and in that time we’ve had to learn how to negotiate different modes of transport, to recognise the kiosk where you can buy tram tickets,(so much easier now in Russia, where there’s a woman on the bus going round and collecting money like they used to in London); to say “Good morning” and “Thank you” in German and Finnish, to decipher a new alphabet in Russian, and to account for ourselves to everyone we meet. Who are we? Why are we here? Where do we come from and where are we going? And to Ian, "how old are you? 86? I hope I can still do this when I'm as old as you". All this has stretched our first week into a month or so already. Ian woke up in pain (and afraid he was dying) after our first night in St Petersburg and wanted to give up and fly home. I read him this passage from Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind (see Home Page for Psychedelic Traveller reference)
So perhaps spiritual experience is simply what happens in the space that
opens up in the mind when “all mean egotism vanishes.” Wonders (and
terrors) we’re ordinarily defended against flow into our awareness; the far
ends of the sensory spectrum, which are normally invisible to us, our senses
can suddenly admit. While the ego sleeps, the mind plays, proposing
unexpected patterns of thought and new rays of relation. The gulf between
self and world, that no-man’s-land which in ordinary hours the ego so
vigilantly patrols, closes down, allowing us to feel less separate and more
connected, “part and particle” of some larger entity. Whether we call that
entity Nature, the Mind at Large, or God hardly matters. But it seems to be
in the crucible of that merging that death loses some of its sting.
Whether it was these words, or the short sleep, or my assurance that while we had this lovely room to rest in*, he could sleep for three days, that shifted his mood, it felt as though the crisis was over and the trip would go on. We sat down to breakfast with a French arms dealer (“I sell submarines”) and his girlfriend who worked in PR.
*I want to add a photograph but need to resolve technical problems for this
Sitting in an old leather armchair in the cool basement of the Arkadia International Bookshop, I read in a poem (Memoriam, by Anne Michaels) “The dead leave us starving with our mouths full of love”, and I hear Ian tell another Ian (the bookshop owner) a poignant tale from his orphaned childhood. The book he’s chosen is the story of a London street in the 1930s – the time his mother died. In memoriam! There are some lovely paintings (by Ian, the owner) in one of the basement rooms, and a mandala made with LED lights, hypodermic syringes and the plastic waste that comes with them. The artist was sitting nearby with his lap-top. He’s a diabetic and the work was about plastic waste. I’ll have something to say about that in China!
After the bookshop we went into the National Museum, looked at a photographic exhibition of rural life but decided we didn’t want to pay a hefty admission to go into the main part of the museum where the current exhibition seemed to be about Barbie dolls!
In a children’s playground beside the botanical gardens, two young Chinese women were both busy with their phones while their children a boy and a girl aged around 3-5, charged around with delightful exuberance – up and down the slide, leaping on and off the see-saw, bouncing on spring-mounted animals. When one of the women eventually looked up from her phone, I managed to ask her if she was Chinese and tell her a bit about our travel plans, but we soon lapsed into English. She and her friend are on a whistle-stop tour of “the North Countries” (Scandinavia), and are in Helsinki for just one night. She’d taken a photo on her phone of a statue – some guy on a horse – and seemed surprised that we couldn’t tell her who he was. It was only after we moved on that I realised they’d assumed we were Finnish, since English is the common language among travellers from everywhere.
In North Germany I had a great seaside holiday, and in Helsinki, an even better one. When I go to the beach with Ian, we find a place where Ian can sit in the shade and sleep and read, while I play in the sea. We took a ferry from Helsinki to a small island where we spent the day on the nudist beach. Waiting at the ferry port, a man, younger than both of us, I suspect, but old and disappointed in his demeanour, responded to our travel tales with concern about our (or his?) health. He’s waiting for an operation on his knee, “You must be healthy for such a trip”, he pronounced. I thought of all the drugs we’re taking to keep Ian’s heart beating and my joints moving and to dull our aches and pains.
In Germany, we stayed on a yacht. In Finland we stayed in a flat above a sex shop. The flat was small, and our room was too hot when the morning sun came up. Our host was a Turkish football referee who is studying to become a paramedic, and his 5 year old daughter was also staying there some of the time. He’d put a curtain up between the living room where they slept and ate and watched TV and the tiny kitchen where I tried not to wake them as I struggled to make breakfast (making coffee with filter papers in a colander) and sandwiches for our picnics on the beach.
,,, records in order to forget”. (John Berger) When we set out on this trip, we agreed that we aren’t interested in ticking off the “must see” tourist sites or in seeking out the most spectacular photo opportunities. We like meeting people and getting a feel for the way they live their lives in different circumstances. It was a joy to spend an evening with my cousin Andrew, to meet his wife, Tina, and join them on a short evening walk along the Rhine. It was good to meet Inge and Sigi at the marina near Lubeck and to chat briefly to the musicians on the ferry to Helsinki. But I haven’t posted in this blog since then, partly for technical reasons (limited access to the internet), but mainly because I was feeling that the brief acquaintances we make with the people we encounter on this trip don’t provide us with suitable blog content unless we can find someone to photograph us all smiling together, preferably in an exotic or enviable setting. Then I came across these words about the “burden of memory” from a man who I first encountered in the 1960s, I think, through his BBC TV Series, “ways of seeing” (and latterly through a wonderful collection of essays published shortly before he died last year – Google him to find it, buy it and read it). So I will write a bit about people and experiences want to remember, with or without their photographs.
The day to day account of our travels was posted on a "Psychedelic travellers" WhatsApp group and a "Julia and Ian in China" WeChat group. So postings after October are summaries and reflections. To follow the story in chronological order, work your way back through the archives from March. Why "Psychedelic Travellers"? Because we read Michael Pollan's 2018 book How to change your mind:the new science of psychedelics, and liked the way Pollan likens an acid trip to travelling in an unfamiliar country.