Far, a Long, Long Way to Go ... and Return Darwin, 4 November 2010

And the winner is ... Jeanette! The caption competition in our last epistle was a photo of Geoff on a keyboard crossing in Warsaw. Jeannette says, ‘I note (pardon the pun) that Geoff is standing on “F” so my entry for the caption competition is “Far, a long, long way to go” ’.

Henry was a close second: ‘ “Playing in the traffic” or “Playing on the road”. Whenever a nephew is annoying I suggest they go and play in the traffic!’

Talking of pedestrian crossings, those of Baotou in Inner Mongolia serve more of a decorative than a practical purpose. For example, the one between our hotel and the supermarket led straight into a large hedge on the opposite kerb. And cars never ever stopped but rather veered around those bold enough to venture across.

Yes, our epic train journey has been successfully completed—London to Hong Kong, with the added spice of a side trip to Inner Mongolia. At the height of the Chinese national holiday season, we travelled in 'hard seats' (second class) from Beijing to Baotou with Geoff curled up in a ball nursing a tummy bug. There was plenty to distract us from thoughts of toilets. The aisles were full with people standing for most of the fifteen-hour journey and their comings and goings rivalled the scenery for entertainment. The couple opposite us snacked constantly on tasty morsels (not easy to watch with a grumbling empty stomach) and a keen student later came to practise his English with us.

How Chinese babies cope with frequent toilet visits

On arrival, our friend, Ian, scraped us into a taxi and took us to our hotel in downtown Baotou (pronounced 'bow-toe'), a city of about two million. Inner Mongolia might sound exotic, but we soon felt even more so. Apart from three English teachers who are Ian’s colleagues, we saw only one other foreigner in our eighteen-day stay. In the city’s parks and gardens, and in our visits to local grasslands and wetlands, we got used to posing for photographs for children exhibiting the sort of excitement Chris feels when she spots a new bird. So it was with a heightened sense of our celebrity status that we went as Ian’s ‘show-and-tell’ visitors in his class on crosscultural communication. The students quizzed us on everything from kangaroos to Australian retirement ages and we them on student life in Baotou.

This magnificent beetle was the subject of a story of crosscultural miscommunication for Ian’s class. The day before we were crouching to admire it in a local park, saying we might never see a beetle like it again. A local woman joined us to see what we were doing. When we pointed to the beetle, she promptly ‘helped’ us by stamping on it!

Baotou is a bit like Canberra, would you believe? Distant mountains, cool dry air, morning mist, wide streets, friendly people, bicycles. But you need to add to this mix a mining industry. Inner Mongolia has an inordinate percentage of the world's rare earth deposits, as well as plenty of iron and coal. Smoking stacks often turn the mist into smog.

Venture outside Baotou and you travel through a dry landscape that merges into grassland, farms worked by donkeys and desert. With Ian and fellow teachers, Diane and Daniel, we visited the Genghis Khan Mausoleum, which is not a mausoleum at all but rather a stunning tableau of a Mongolian army on the move, and a museum featuring a long snaking mural depicting the warrior's life. We then ate at a nearby restaurant which was hosting—yes it’s true— the Miss World contestants in the next room. Diane and I wondered how they were coping with the squat toilets ...

Will we ever see her again? Diane goes for a stroll in the desert

Daily life in Inner Mongolia was full of new experiences. We’d carried postcards from Beijing to post, but the local post office was unable to provide us with stamps for Australia. We were directed to another place across town. It didn't have stamps either but id did frank the cards. If you are a lucky recipient, we'd like to hear from you! Foodwise ... lamb, rabbit, stuffed breads and pancakes, dumplings, frozen yoghurt and a particularly sticky caramelised sweet, all served at the same time ... all went down well. Supermarkets have an amazing assortment of dried fruits and nuts, which we combined with rolled oats to make our own home-made muesli.

We had great fun helping Ian set up the kitchen in his new apartment while we were there, but failed to find any table knives. We celebrated by cooking comfort food (shepherd's pie and apple crumble) in a new toaster oven.

We needed mince for the shepherd’s pie. This is how the butcher at a local Baotou supermarket cut it so finely

Once the holiday season passed and the rush on train tickets was over, we turned our eyes towards Hong Kong. It is not an easy matter to buy train tickets in China but, with the help of our patient and generous local friends, we managed. This trip had to be done by train, by hook or by crook! With tickets for two sectors on 'soft sleepers' and one on a bullet train, we were on our way.

We broke our journey for two days in Nanjing. We were going to stay longer there until the penny dropped that our Chinese visas were running out. Despite our shortened stay, Theresa and Ruhong from the Amity Foundation (which organises the English teachers) made sure we saw some local sights. Ruhong took us to her home town, Suzhou, the Venice of China, where we floated through canals and lingered in its Lingering Garden.

Lingering in the garden in Suzhou

Travel-weariness developed into bronchitis, in Geoff’s case, by the time we rolled through the familiar Hong Kong stations stations to the Hung Hom terminus a couple of days later. Eventually, Chris was successful in dragging him off to the doctor at the Baptist Hospital outpatient clinic. All within thirty-five minutes, he was checked by a nurse, saw a doctor, had an x-ray, returned to the doctor, was given six (!) medicines and paid the bill.

There is a certain bronchial symmetry here. It was in Shetland, Geoff’s ancestral home at the north-western extremity of our journey, that a doctor last dealt with this malady. Then in Hong Kong, our second home full of romantic memories, the cough returned. So we were glad to take it easy in a lovely brand-new village house in the hills of Tai Po, courtesy of our good friends Wai Ching and Tim. They recently bought a new home and haven’t lived in it themselves. We had the privilege of being its first occupants.

We thought we’d died and gone to heaven when Wai Ching took us to Tai Wai to visit the former premises of the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA), where Chris once lived and worked. Last time we saw the old campus, at CCA's farewell service, its roof was leaking into buckets and its rooms and departing occupants looked quite sad. It is now gleaming gold in the sun having being transformed into a Buddhist repository for the ashes of the dead. As the ‘customer service officer’ took us on a guided tour around its grand staircases and Buddhist shrines, we were agog. As the property was originally a Buddhist convent before being bought by the churches, we found another symmetry here, religious this time. However we understand that graveyards and crematoriums are controversial matters in Hong Kong these days. The region is running out of space and in Tai Wai local villagers are protesting about the proximity of the dead to the living.

We did it! Arriving in Hong Kong by train

Before leaving Hong Kong, we celebrated another rite of passage—our eleventh wedding anniversary—at Sha Tin, the venue for our first ‘date’. It was the same but different. That’s the story of Hong Kong. It was striking to see one of the few walled villages left. Fifty years ago it looked out on paddy fields. Now it is overshadowed by high rise apartments and overpasses.

Finally, we boarded a plane, our first since the one from Aberdeen to Shetland back in June. Just a hop, step and a jump to Darwin now via transit stops in Kuala Lumpur and Ho Chi Minh City—a strange route, we know, but there were good reasons when we arranged them many moons ago. It was not to be as simple as we thought. The computer said ‘no’ in Kuala Lumpur on the basis that we didn’t have visas to Vietnam, despite the fact that we’d been told by the Vietnamese Embassy that we didn't need them. Some quick foot work and we flew to Singapore instead in the hope of getting a connection from there. But Chris's suitcase didn't quite get the message and stayed in Kuala Lumpur. One sleepless night later in our favourite Changi hotel the suitcase caught up with us, soaked through with rainwater. We arrived one day late in Darwin, deciding that trains are far nicer than planes.

With eyelids propped up with match sticks, we settled in to a lovely haven in the wetlands of northern Australia. Chris stayed awake long enough to present the report of the search committee to the executive committee of the World Student Christian Federation. This was done with a background chorus of frogs and geckos via Skype to Beirut. An appropriately bizarre end to a bizarre journey.

We thought this flock of crimson finches at Fogg Dam was exciting enough. But before the day was out, we'd see the mistletoebird, dozens of rainbow bee-eaters, numerous comb-crested jacanas and a bush stone-curlew, just to mention a few. It was a fitting birdwatching finale

This haven is appropriately called Eden at Fogg Dam and its birdlife, lush tropical gardens and peaceful location is certainly balm to our souls. Fogg Dam claims to have the highest known biomass of predators and prey of any ecosystem on earth. Given the bush noises, we can believe it. In the space of twenty-four hours, we identified more than fifty species of birds (thirty of them new) within two kilometres of our bed.

Travel tip #7: Check with airlines as well as embassies about visa requirements. Don’t assume that 'transit' in your language means ‘transit’ in theirs!

So that's it, really. By Friday night, we’ll be home in Canberra again, for the time being ... Thanks for journeying with us.

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