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

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