Archive | July, 2011

The 6th Leg. Landslides, Beer and The Bacon Stone.

26 Jul

There is a significant sub-plot to my adventures that until now I have failed to address. This is The Beer Story. To my mind, the beer that is brewed and the way it is drunk reveal a lot about a country, so here is a brief synopsis.

As mentioned in a previous post, my last pint of real ale was enjoyed at Paddington Station, on the first day of my travels. I was right to savour this moment – the rest of the world is a distinctly lagery place, it turns out. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Lager can be a very fine drink, when it’s not completely awful.

Russia has a wide selection of lagers. Many of them are rubbish, but a couple of brands I found quite satisfying. The slickest looking and smoothest tasting is “ЖИГУЛИ”, pronounced “jigooli”, whilst a tolerable and more readily available alternative is “БАЛТИКА”, pronounced “balteeka”, which is numbered from 1 to 7, 7 being the most alcoholic. Drinking in parks is a great Russian past-time. Every night in every city there are huge gatherings of amiable drunkards in almost every open space, with impromptu live music and plentiful tomfoolery. The government have recently tried to clamp down on this outdoor boozing, and the result has been a new market in “beer bags”, brightly coloured paper tubes adorned with advertising slogans, that you can put your bottle into and thus not be, technically, drinking “in public”. Unfortunately for the government this loophole has, if anything, made al-fresco quaffing even more popular.

Beer Bags. If you can’t see it, it’s not there.

Beer is harder to come by in the Mongolian desert. Here the booze option tends to be limited to fermented camel’s milk or vodka, what with there being no fridges. Or shops.

China represents a slightly sad chapter in the Beer Chronicles, from my perspective at least. The general public’s general intolerance to alcohol means that it is impossible to find anything above 4% ABV, with the average being about 2.5%. “Light” and “Refreshing” (i.e. tasteless) are the most common adjectives adorning their glass bottles, and even familiar European brands are watered-down. It would be imprudent perhaps to brashly label a entire nation of 1.6 billion people – and an emerging world power- as a bunch of shandy drinkers, but the evidence is overwhelming. Of course as an upshot of this relative sobriety they get large helpings of longevity, health and emotional well-being, but personally I still hanker for the beer-bellies, heart-attacks and nonsense that seem to prevail in the rest of the world.

Thailand, beer-wise, couldn’t be more different, and it seems very appropriate that in such a devoutly royalist nation I should find what is, surely, the true King of Beers. If the Trades Description Act really had any real clout, they would force Budweiser to give up their claim to the beer throne. A more accurate description of their insipid product would be “The Coalition Government of Beers” or, “The Beer for People Who Don’t Really Like Beer”. Chang is the True Divine Ruler and Universal Emperor of Lagers, and should be worshipped accordingly. It is terribly tasty, unnervingly strong and worryingly addictive. All h-ale.


It should be noted here that I’ve never actually seen a Thai person drinking Chang. It’s production, I suspect, is driven entirely by the tourist trade which, being completely central to the economy, is one of the most dominant forces in Thai society, together with Buddhism and the Royal Family. So, like I said, you can learn a lot about a place from its beer. That, for now, concludes my beer sermon. Thank you.

* * * * *

My last week in China was a real adventure. After a couple of days in Chengdu (and upon the insistence of my proactive Dutch travelling partners) we took an 11 hour coach journey into the mountains, to a national park called “Juizhaigo”. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere quite so beautiful. Mile upon mile of turquoise pools and lakes – with eerily preserved ancient tree skeletons lying just beneath the surface – meander their way through misty, forested mountains. It is just ridiculous.

Nearby is another mind-blowing nature spot, a park called Huang Long (Yellow Dragon), where, over millions of years, calcite deposits from the river have formed into freakish natural pools. My powers of description are failing me, so I’ll just show you a photo:

Now is the wet season in this part of the world, and since 2009’s devastating earthquake, this mountainous region of China is very susceptible to landslides. Three hours from Chengdu, on our return from Juizhago, our journey was brought to an abrupt halt. A few miles ahead of us a landslide had blocked the road, taking out a bus and killing twenty people in its wake. We were forced to spend the night in a poky, damp hotel, 5 people wedged into a sweaty twin room, and the rumours going around suggested that we might be stuck there for days. My Dutch companions even called their embassy in Beijing, whose useful advice was to relax and “try to enjoy the experience”.

Thankfully in the morning the news came that a road had been cleared, but that our journey would now have to incorporate a 12 hour detour along what turned out to be the World’s Most Treacherous Road. To our left towered thousands of tons of unstable rock and mud, to our right was a dizzying shear drop to a wildly churning river. We drank wine and tried to talk about pleasant things, but the elephant in the room -i.e. our imminent obliteration – was hard to ignore.

At long last however, we rolled into Chengdu, where I had just enough time to grab my suitcase and bid farewell to my friends, before leaving for the airport. My Chinese adventure was over. Bangkok awaited.

* * * * *

The tone and focus of my activities in Thailand have been in stark contrast to those of the rest of my trip. Partly this is because I have parted company with my Dutch Planners, partly because in my mind I have cordoned off this last period as a Proper Holiday, before I start my new job and band, but mostly because Thailand is so utterly geared towards providing easy-going pleasure for its tourists (see Chang beer above), that it’s almost impossible to resist the lull of pure self-indulgence. I have absolutely loved it, I’m afraid.

So it’s been a nights out, Pad Thai, scuba diving, island hopping sort of a time for me, and to avoid descending into intolerable smugness, I won’t bore you with too many gory details. My good friend, former Rumbles drummer and all-round tall person Matthew Wheeler has joined me for the last couple of weeks, and from the outset it has been his expressed and earnest wish that we “rip Thailand a new one” – in as respectful and culturally sensitive a way as possible, of course.

This mission statement meant that when the full moon came around the other night, we found ourselves contractually obliged to attend one of Koh Pan Gnang Island’s infamous “Full Moon Parties”. Having taken the very exciting journey from our secluded bay on the other side of the island, through the mountainous jungle, in the back of a pick-up truck, we arrived at Hat Rin, the party location, feeling a little out of our comfort zone. To be more precise, we felt old.

Sitting outside a small bar, each nursing a tepid beer, we watched as an endless, noisy river of brightly painted young things rolled past us towards the beach. On the small TV behind us they were showing 80’s films, and we seriously discussed the possibility of just sitting here all night. Matt even produced from his pocket a small stone that he’d found, that looked EXACTLY like a piece of bacon – we were basically all set for a lovely evening right where we were.

The Bacon Stone

 But no, we hadn’t come all this way to watch D.A.R.Y.L. and admire naturally occurring objects that look like breakfast items. We’d come to make twats of ourselves on a beach, along with ten thousand other sun-burnt idiots.

In Thailand, booze often comes in buckets, so to enter into the spirit of things, I went and fetched us a bucket each. It’s probably best not to watch what they put into these things – there’s certainly a large quantity of Thai whiskey, as well as a good dose of the particularly loopy brand of Red Bull that is only legal in this part of the world. In any case, within the space of half an hour or so, we’d turned from shy, quiet, sensible types, into this:

So yeah…I think I’d recommend going to a Full Moon Party – but I can’t be quite certain. 

In the airport before our flight back to Bangkok, we decided to have a pint of Guinness in what must be one of the most incongruous Irish pubs in the world, set as it was amongst swaying palm trees and tropical gift shops in the 32 degree heat. In there we met the living embodiment of a particular urban myth – the one where someone gets a tatoo in a foreign language, only to discover that translated it actually means something quite different to what they had intended. This guy, as a symbol of commitment to his long-term girlfriend, had decided to have her name tattooed in bold  Thai lettering upon his right flank, leading up to his armpit.  He’d had it done the night before and was very keen to show us. The Thai bar staff, upon reading it however, had to break the news to him that unfortuantely, instead of “Ellie”, he’d had “Eric” indelibly inscribed on himself. It was a beautiful end to a hilarious fortnight.

There’s more to tell, but to be honest it’s been a struggle to get even this together in 3 weeks. Next week, as consolation for my blogging tardiness, I shall be handing you song number 3 – I hope you can contain yourselves until then.

It just remains for me to welcome our newest arrival, Audrey Potts, into the world. I had a good long skype chat with her the other day, and she seems like a good sort – politically she takes after her Dad, but she’s definitely got her Mum’s dress sense. So here’s to the growing Potts-Gorbutt Empire – I wish I could be there to affectionately squeeze each and every one of your cheeks.


Right, I’m going bowling,



Lots of love,


Hen x


The 5th Leg – Numbness, insomnia, vertigo and pandas.

5 Jul

Last week’s post, it has to be said, was a bit bereft of visual excitement. All I could muster after spending a week in Beijing, one of the world’s great cities, home to 16 million people and a thousand sights for sore eyes, where novelty and adventure lurk around every corner and a dull moment hasn’t been seen in literally weeks – all I managed to offer you from this exotic, tantalising cauldron of possibilities, was a picture of a brass bottom. I’m sorry, and to make up for it, I’m going to start this week’s instalment with some photos.

So here, for your entertainment, are some Funny Signs I’ve Seen In China. Well, some are funny and some are just perplexing. Oh, and I’ve just realised that if you look carefully you can probably work out exactly what I was doing when I took the last one…

I should probably mention now that my journey isn’t panning out exactly as I first intended. In my first post I talked about getting to Beijing and then hopping on a ferry to South Korea. We’ll, I’ve actually got quite a bit more time to kill before I start my new life and my new band, so there’ll be a few more weeks of travel stuff to get through I’m afraid, before we get into the real meat of the story. Just so you know.

 *                *                *                *                *

We left Beijing on a Sunday and took a 6 hour train to Datong. Datong is famous only because it happens to be quite near some caves. It has absolutely nothing else going for it, and after seeing the caves, which were full of old Buddhas and admittedly very impressive, we were so keen to leave that we settled for two beds and one seat between the three of us, on the 16 hour overnight train to Xi’an. This was, with hindsight, a mistake.

I heroically offered to take the first stint in the seat (the ticket was specifically for a hard seat and the description was accurate),with the plan that we’d revolve positions as the night wore on. It was soon evident that this wasn’t going to happen. The train was completely packed, with many people standing, and I was soon so wedged in that I couldn’t even reach into my bag for a beer to ease my discomfort. So I sat, bum benumbed, left arm dead under the weight of a Chinese man’s head, staring at the ceiling fans for 16 sketchy hours.

 The ceiling fans

Checking my Ipod for remaining Desert Island Disks podcasts, I groaned. I’d been putting off Lawrence Dallaglio for over a month, and now he was all I had left. It turns out I didn’t know the first thing about him though – it was really good! I think I was even moved to tears on a couple of occasions, but then I was feeling a little fragile. After this, to keep myself awake I spent the next few hours revisiting classic lively albums – Guns n Roses’ Appetite For Destruction, Rage Against The Machine’s eponymous first, Talking Heads’ ’77. Then I did some maths – I worked out that if you lined up everyone in China, and tried to count them all, at a rate of 2 people per second, it would take you about 25 years. At around 4am I discovered a cache of natural history podcasts that I must have inadvertently signed up for at some point. With my free hand I took a small empty plastic bottle, laid it on the tiny table in front of me, and rested my forehead upon it, ignoring the neck pains, whilst soothing BBC voices talked to me about nature. I must have drifted off, because when I looked up again there were paddy fields and daylight outside, and I seemed to have subliminally absorbed a huge amount of information about the mating habits of beetles. At last we rolled into Xi’an.

Xi’an is as different to Datong as, I don’t know, a pristine coral reef is to a badly run trout farm. It’s leafy, well-ordered, full of pretty things like temples and flowers, and the people there are mostly smiling. The original city wall is still intact, and you can cycle a 14k circuit, on top of it, which is very cool.

Since Irkutsk in Russia I’ve been lucky enough to have been travelling with three Dutch girls who are very organised. It’s been a bit like being on tour: every morning I wake up and ask what we’re doing today, and they give me a detailed schedule, including where we’ll be getting lunch and where we’ll be spending the night. Exactly what they get out of the arrangement is unclear, but it’s suited me very nicely indeed for the last month or so. On day 1 in Xi’an we cycled the walls, as mentioned above. Day 2 was a trip to see the Terracotta Army (for some reason I’d always imagined that they were about 3 foot tall, so I was suitably impressed when they turned out to be life-sized). On day 3 I was woken up very early and told we were off to climb a mountain. We were going to climb all day, stay on top in a hostel and then get up at 4am the next day to see a stunning sunrise. “Righto!” said I, and off we went.

This mountain was a beast: a beautiful, high, sheer-sided beast, with no less than 6500 stone steps snaking their way up its precipitous flank. For the past few years, I’ve harboured a suspicion that I might have developed vertigo in my old age, but I’d not had a proper opportunity to test this theory until now. Good grief, I was terrified. On one stretch known as The Dragon’s Back, the stone staircase straddles a narrow ridge with a drop of a thousand feet on each side. Iron chain bannisters are strung up,  as a loose concession to health and safety,but still I found myself almost paralysed with fear. To maintain any forward motion I had to focus intently upon the boots of the person ascending in front of me, whilst maniacally muttering nervous mantras to myself, such as “Phew, this this a laugh, isn’t it Clarky?”, over and over again until at last I reached some relatively solid ground. I mean, you never know for sure what your future-self might do, do you? Who’s to say that in a minute’s time a short-circuit in my brain might not cause me jump up from my seat and fling myself sideways? Surely it is sensible, therefore, to spend as little of your life as possible next to the edges of high things, like mountains?

But I made in to the top. Almost. This photo represents how close I got. To the left is an insane, sheer drop and no amount of persuasion would bring me any closer to it.

I did feel good about having made it up though. The scenery was incredible – when I could stop hyperventilating for long enough to appreciate it – and although the spectacular sunrise turned out to be more of a vague glow behind a thick bank of cloud, it was definitely worth the effort.

Our next stop was Chengdu, a 17 hour train journey (with a bed this time) into the very middle of China. Chengdu is particularly famous for its panda breeding centre. Pandas are HILARIOUS. They literally can’t be arsed to do anything apart from chew bamboo and lounge about. Apparently most species of animal are on Earth for about 5 million years. SOMEHOW, pandas are still going after 8 million years, despite showing not the slightest interest in propagating. They are on heat for about an hour a year, and are incredibly snooty about mating with anyone they consider to be below their station. The upshot of this is that most panda pregnancies come about through artificial insemination and often, when the cub is born, it’s so tiny that the mother doesn’t even notice it, or if she does, seems to find it vaguely annoying. So usually the babies have to be entirely reared by humans as well. Pandas are actually omnivores, technically, but are far too idle to hunt, preferring to munch bamboo all day, which gives them barely enough energy to crawl back to their beds for a good long kip. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going all Chris Packham on you. Pandas are very cute and entertaining, which has been more than enough to get them by so far. I wish them nothing but continued success,  the lazy, fluffy freeloaders.

Right, this week, as promised, is Music Week. For my first foray into the world of lyrics, I chose the well-worn topic of old people in old people’s homes. Here’s the result. It’s called Julie.

In band news, my search for members has only really turned up one possibility this past couple of weeks, and that’s this guy. If he was in my band, I’d call him The B.F.G. because he looks like a giant who’s stolen the pipe organ from a cathedral and is now playing it with his mouth. Unfortunately he was far too engrossed in Giant Chinese Chess to consider my proposals.

Next time I talk to you I’ll probably be in Thailand. Having carbon tip-toed my way across the globe for the last two months, I’m now going to don my carbon jackboots and take a freakin’ aeroplane for once. I’m hoping to be joined in Bangkok by the force of nature that is Matthew Wheeler. I imagine he’ll probably be arriving by private jet, dressed like the Man from Del Monte, with a cucumber down his trousers – I’ll let you know.

Lots of love,

Hen x