Tag Archives: Cold

Luck of the Irish

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I’ll tell you something you might not know about the Australian Outback – it’s peopled by young Irish! The subtle charm of saltbush and red earth does not account for the numbers in which they arrive: behind every counter, every laminate benchtop in every kitchen, pub, petrol station, cafe and caravan park between Darwin and Mt Isa there’s a Galway or Pipe lilt-a-lurking.

Whatever the Outback lacks in emerald green it makes up for in gold: the solid gold of a hard-earned wage – the kind it’s hard to come by in Ireland. Italians and French are drawn here too, for work, but not in the same numbers as the Irish – nowhere near.

At the Mataranka Caravan Park, at the end of a long day of hitchhiking, I inquire at reception about the cost of renting a tent pitch for the night: $36! It’s terrible news but pleasing nonetheless to hear it delivered in a running-stitch of tender Leinster tones! Battling to reconcile myself with parting with $36 for a patch of earth, I inquire whether management might have a spare tent they can throw into the bargain. To which she kindly responds, ‘No’.

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That night, lying under the stars, part-way-under a shared sleeping bag, with the sound of mob politics in the background, I ponder what it might be like, as a youth from an Irish village, to find yourself, suddenly,  in the Australian Outback. I feel baffled by what might draw someone this far across the earth to take up residence in a landscape only marginally less alien than the moon, to a culture as quixotic, contradictory and idiosyncratic as a pink bus called ‘Priscilla’. Surely it’s not just the money?

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On the second night of our hitch-hike across the Outback we’re saved by the kindness of the Irish. Tess, Mike and Lee are on a road trip that will take them from Sydney to Cairns. They’ve drawn up at the Barkly Homestead in their dusty blue station wagon and are happy enough to have their tents up, cans of beer in their hands and a good part of the driving behind them.

It’s cold. As they hug their coats closer about their shoulders their attention is drawn to the two weirdos (us!) who have wandered in off the road, under cover of darkness, and are spreading a layer of cardboard on the ground in order to shield themselves from the rising damp that would otherwise cost them a night of sleep.

‘We ha a tarpaulin if ya waaant it’, one of them offers, shouting over from the comfort of his canvas camping chair. He looks appalled to be witnessing our performance of voluntary impoverishment.

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‘back door’ to Yunnan in photographs

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Suopo village stupa

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autumn blaze, Suopo

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Qiāng watchtowers of Suopo

Suopo village dwelling

Suopo village dwelling

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Vodka & mutton

vereniki!

Our friendship with Andrey began over coffee and zinger burgers. He was in the same boat as us, waiting for a visa for China. He’d seen our antics in the queue at the Chinese embassy – blue lips, dancing-to-keep-warm and our utter bewilderment at being spoken to in Russian – and took pity on us.

Within three days of meeting Andrey and his wife Anna, we were sleeping on their lounge room floor, waking up to pancakes and rice pudding, playing games of chess with their sons, accompanying the family on shopping excursions to the bazaar, fishing in the river and swapping banter in broken Russian and English late into the night. Anna was keen to brush up on her ‘modal verbs’, and thankfully Sam was able to oblige – 5 years of teaching English in China pays off!

There were no limits to the lengths Anna and Andrey would go to help us: we needed to find new accommodation – no worries; visit to train station to collect tickets – too easy; finding a ride across the border from Almaty to China in five days time – piece of cake. “All you need to say,” Andrey intoned slowly and clearly, unable to hide his amusement at our English reservedness, “is ‘Andrey, please help me’.”

Together, Andrey and Anna devised a rigorous regime of cooking and eating, encompassing all their most beloved national dishes, to keep our minds and bellies distracted from the tedium of waiting for visas. Seven days later, we all agree that we’ve had a wonderful time, and that we need to go on a diet! Continue reading

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Tale of two cities

View of Astana from steps of Khan Shatyry

Acquiring a Chinese visa has become a tale of two cities: Tbilisi (Georgia) and Astana (Kazakhstan).

Hapless bunglers that we are, we had hoped, indeed expected, that the wide world of borders would stay open to us even after we left Europe. As it turns out,  Georgia is the last ‘easy’ country for holders of a British or Australia passport to enter. Since crossing the land border between Turkey and Georgia at Sarpi, border-hopping has become increasingly difficult, time-consuming and costly.

A word of advice to the brave-hearted: it is possible to travel by land from Georgia toRussia, Russia to Kazakhstan and Kazakhstan into western China. The route that we took (we’re not as far as China yet) is as follows: Tbilisi to Kazbegi (mashutka), Kazbegi to Vladikavkaz (private vehicle), Vladikavkaz to Mineralnie Wodi (train), Mineralnie Wodi to Volgograd (train), Volgograd to Aksaraiskaia (train), Aksaraiskia to Atyrau (train) and Atyrau to Astana (train). HOWEVER, if you haven’t already acquired visas for these countries in your home country, then count on it taking some time and a reasonable amount of expense.

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Venice: between heaven and hell

If the devil is Venetian, wears storm-trooper boots, black sunglasses and operates via Couch Surfing, then Roberto (alias) is his name.

Roberto was our ‘fall back’ option for accommodation in Venice.
“Call me,” he said in response to our Couch Surf request, “in case of emergency, if you get stuck, or if you really can’t find a room.”

Within a day and a half (and a lot of rain) of arriving in Italy the conditions that Roberto had described had indeed come to fruition: we were stuck, it was an emergency, and we couldn’t find a room (that we could afford).

“Who should call him, me or you?” I asked Richie.
“You do it. You’re the one who wrote to him.”

Despite having a rather fearsome profile on Couch Surfing (think Sid Vicious crossed with Che Guevara) Roberto was gracious about letting us stay. He met us at Venice’s St Lucia stazione and took us back via a circuitous route to a squatted university building where a ‘happening’ was underway. He introduced us to his friends and gave us a running commentary on the history of the building; its apotheosis as a squat, and the reasons why Venice’s grand buildings were being systematically sold off as luxury hotels.
“There’s more tourists here than residents. We’re outnumbered 3 million to 60,000,” he told us flatly.

After the ‘happening’ at the university we were frogmarched to a bar on the other side of town where an anarchic bunch of rabble were loitering alongside the canal, drinking beer and listening to heavy metal music: more leather than the Fez tanneries and more dogs on leads than Miami beach.

It was not long before Jason wandered over and started talking to us… again. He’s joined us for drinks at the university, impressing us with his distinctive appearance (he wore what can only be described as a leather cape) and intriguing persona: part Ezra Pound, part Mick Dundee. His mother was Australian but he was born in Venice.

“Nice Irish accent,” Richie scoffed once Jason had excused himself to search out a cigarette.
“It’s no Irish, it’s Australian. Watch the pen. He’s got my pen. I bet you he’s going to pocket it. You can’t trust writers!”

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