To travel through foreign lands, and particularly when you’re by yourself, is to live with your senses heightened to a pitch. That’s why you’re there after all, to see, to hear, to smell, to experience all that is around you in all its immediacy. You take in the colour, the variety, the difference, absorbing it all as part of the rich experience you aim to achieve.
By necessity your senses are sharpened simply to get by. Foreign languages challenge you, as do strange customs. Aware that you’re a visitor – and stranger – in these parts you look to navigate yourself through the tricky straits. For me there is pleasure and satisfaction in that. In itself it is part of the experience – not just the seeing and doing, but the being. Many times I feel almost like a computer taking everything in, my head swivelling to take in the different sights, to listen to the different sounds and to smell the different places. Snap, snap, snap goes my mind, freezing the moment for further contemplation. All together these moments build into a rich mosaic of experience and reflection.
For me every bit of the external journey is reflected internally. I’m not a dumb machine that simply records, I assess, analyse, measure and weigh. I compare against what I know, I conjecture and ponder and sometimes over a beer will discuss with a fellow traveler or a curious local. While much of that will be categorised and filed in time within the travel experience, some becomes more personal.
The travel experience is different for everyone simply because everyone is different. Two people may look at the one artefact and odds on they’ll have different reactions because they have different histories. Traveling gives explicit cause to explore those differences, to feel and then investigate the things that resonate within us. The experience sometimes is like setting off a chain of dominoes not knowing how they will fall.
I set off on this trip seeking to set off a few dominoes of my own. For want of a better term I jetted out of the country with a ridiculous amount of baggage burdening me. I hoped, and planned, to sort out much of that, to find clarity, seek understanding, to resolve action. For my general health I wanted to live instinctively again, by my wits, and to indulge my senses. This I did.
I return with little resolved of what I intended. I found my mind was not there; I could not shift or shape my thinking into the necessary places – the ‘resonance’ was elsewhere. What happened instead was inadvertent. My experiences shaped my thinking, my feeling. Small things became greater in my head, like a stone cast into a pond of still water. I saw, I reacted, I considered, and came slowly to a different understanding.
I have described previously some of the moments which became forces in my mind, slowly and subtly corralling my mind into a different way of seeing. While I was active I was fortunate that my mind engaged in the action; long afterwards my mind still followed the sinuous trail laid out before it.
The fourth of these stages is by far the most innocuous. It is typical perhaps of this process that after the buffeting of the different forces they are resolved quietly in the stillness of my own mind.
That night in Beijing – just last Tuesday – I left Quan and her daughter and returned to my hotel. It was about 10, and I was not ready for sleep. Instead I turned on the TV and tuned into the hotel’s Apple TV menu and selected a movie to watch. Except for occasional glimpses of HBO TV in China had been crap – strange comedy shows, po faced newsreaders, the occasional western movie dubbed into Mandarin.
The movie I selected was The Grey, a movie I knew I would like. I love movies like that – The Edge is another favourite. I was surprised though at how good this movie was, less the triumphant Hollywood story of man versus wild, and more man versus himself.
There was much that was familiar in the story. For a start it recalled to me the days I used to go hunting. I never hunted in polar conditions, nor was a I ever stalked by wolves, yet there was something in the raw portrayal of men in the elements which recalled memories. I missed it. I don’t miss killing things, I miss being out in nature like that and feeling its heartbeat all around me, strong and pure and vitally real. We get too far away from that living in the city, everything packaged and provided for. There was a moment in the beginning of the film where the Liam Neeson character watches respectfully as a wolf he has shot slowly dies. I knew that feeling. It has size.
More than that I felt something in the movie resonated with me personally. I have this baggage, for days things have been happening, now in the quiet of my room I watch the action on screen as my mind ticks over and I recognise things there that belong to me too.
I spoke of archetypes the other day. We are thins thing and that, and seek to live up to some inner standard, portray to the world a certain face. The fact is that each of us is made up of different things, we all have different faces. The social side of my character had in the last few days connected with different Chinese girls, a couple of Emirates hosties on a break between flights, a svelte and sensual Siberian studying Mandarin, plus the usual bevy of bartenders. That was easy enough, but there’s a flip-side.
The Liam Neeson character was quietly haunted. Though he was strong and capable he was not the typical Hollywood hero, his frailties were on display. We all have frailties, just that some of us hide them better than others. I watched and thought about myself, the self really most present these days even if most private: the stoical, melancholy, resourceful self who refuses from macho bravado to be cowed. That was the self watching this movie, the self most often behind the eyes seeing the world about, the self sometimes so weary from the struggle that I wonder how much fight I have left. Somehow to watch this movie was reassuring.
The next day was my last in China, though my flight was not due to depart until 2am next morning. I visited the Temple of Heaven to do something in the morning, but felt traveled out. I mooched around, wandered here and there, my bags packed and sitting in the corner of the hotel reception.
Mid-afternoon I ended up back at the hotel. I chatted to the Siberian. I had an iced coffee. I checked my email. I wondered what to do.
In the corner of the room was a bookcase stuffed with paperbacks in different languages. I plucked a slim book out, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, of which I’d seen the movie version and been greatly moved. Over the next 90 minutes I sat on a couch and read it from first page to last. As with the movie I was moved, less by the pity of his situation – which is terrible – than by his attitude, his perspective, his elegant and humane intelligence.
I must remember this I told myself. I was tired and about to fly home to a very uncertain future. I knew that hard times were ahead, and likely some pretty ugly. I had steeled myself to it, had typically told myself that they were things that just had to be dealt with. It was a rigid perspective though, a standard to be measured against. Now I looked up. Well and good I thought, but look to other things.
I found myself then looking past all the challenging moments ahead to who I am and who I want to be: what life do I want? What is important? There came to me these things buried away fresh and new to me. That’s who I am; that’s what I want. The episodes of the previous days had helped loosen these if only by agitation, by giving glimpses of what I might want, of what I knew I didn’t.
Early on in the trip I’d climbed the Great Wall. There were sections so steep to be spooky – near to a 60 degree incline. The girl I was with was scared by the prospect, and struggled to complete it. I had felt little fear, but was surprised always to look back at what I had climbed and discover how precipitous it was. I had managed it simply though, by small steps, by maintaining a steady momentum, and by looking directly at the ground. It seemed an apt metaphor for what I had before me, and a sensible strategy.
One day I’ll look back and know how tough it was. For now I have to manage the climb. Beyond it though is other vistas, and long life, and opportunities that I can only imagine. There’s nothing to stop me, unlike poor Bauby, and that’s what I have to remember.