Wednesday, 25 December 2013

CONTINUED JOLLITIES

21st - 24th Dec 2013
Our host. Bwana Banana. He is rather camera shy.


As you are no doubt aware the 21st December is Sahagun Day. This is the day that all ex-15th/19th Hussars ( and 1 Regt RHA, for some reason ) celebrate the magnificent charge of the 15th Light Dragoons ( later Hussars ) which routed and put to flight two regiments of French near the Spanish town of Sahagun in 1808. 

We ( or at least I ) celebrated at another debauched feast that evening. I'm not quite sure that the others grasped the significance of this occasion.
This being the wet season there is normally a violent thunderstorm at some point in the afternoon and evening. During one of these a tree fell over the main electricity supply and we were plunged into darkness ( with battery power for emergency ) and on another the metal roof of the house was struck by lightening with a fearful bang. Lights out again and even the emergency farm generator was blown up. C'est la vie out here, but at least the internet works, intermittently.

Another slight disaster occurred when self and Gazza took the Range Rover into town to do some shopping. Talk about the blind leading the blind! At some point in the town centre the hydraulic steering packed up and much hassle to get it to a safe place. It looked as if half our vehicle fleet would be inop until after Christmas at least ( the nearest Landrover garage being in Lusaka, about 250 miles away and closed for the holiday anyway ). Fortunately Bwana B knew an engineer (ex-aircraft engineer ), Robin, who managed to fix it with the help of a hydraulic pipe mending expert.

Right: Teresa, the very jolly, and helpful, hydraulic pipe mender who, given the offending pipe, had it fixed in 15 minutes. A better service than you would get a most local workshops in UK I think. They have much experience in mending hydraulics due to all the mining operations in the area. It took a lot of dissembling and reassembling the engine, but all well that ends well. They need to be a resourceful bunch here.
Went on a walk around the farm to see a bit of local life. Still no sign of any wildlife, unless you count a few tiny frogs and birds and many insects. The 'dam' ( reservoir ) at the southern end is full of sewage; not the place for a refreshing dip, but still the locals fish it for no doubt highly polluted small fish. They use charity donated mosquito nets for fishing. Is that enterprising? Problem is they are then too wet, smell of fish and covered in sewage to use as mosquito nets.




Right: A local 'hut' near the dam. All mod-cons I expect but probably without TV or internet.

It doesn't get cold here in the evenings but Gazza insists that he feels chilly so occasionally huddles around a gas fire ( left ). He lost his white stick the other day because he had put it up against a white fridge and a white wall. We had a great 'hunt the stick' competition.
Right: Another magnificent pre-Christmas Sunday Lunch with a couple of local ex-pat families invited. The two wives very gallantly offered to do the cooking and a great roast beef, turkey etc. etc. feast ensued. Lots of crackers and paper hats. My diet has, unfortunately, gone for a ball of chalk.  
Left: Due to three Cresta riders being present we demonstrated and then got all the men present to participate in a Cresta 'Firework', something normally performed after races in the Sunny Bar at the Kulm Hotel in St Moritz. A bit of nonsense and Zambia is about as far from a winter sports venue as you can imagine.
Bwana B had gone to Johannesburg for a couple of days ( to buy bananas...don't ask ). On his return we all went off to collect another inmate for the farm; a Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy which has been christened Rommel ( right ). This, unlike Mrs Potter and Mrs Perkins, the two terriers, is to be an 'outside' dog and it is hoped he will grow up to be a fearsome looking guard-dog.
Left: The house staff ( this is Martin the gardener ) brew their lunch on the lawn. This inevitably consists of mealy-meal with a sauce of some kind. I tried some. It was not too bad actually. The mealy-meal mash has the consistency and taste of rather bland and lumpy mashed potato/rice.
Another trip downtown to do yet more shopping, a constant task, and to visit the railway station. There is one train a week from Ndola, sometimes, which travels from top north through Ndola and Lusaka to Livingstone near Victoria Falls. It stops at about 50 little stations in between and takes over two days, unless it has a breakdown. It is cheap and I am told one travels in extreme discomfort. I'm not sure, even though I normally enjoy travelling by train, that I will risk this journey, although probably at no more risk of bed bugs than I experienced on the Ghan train in Oz to Darwin. The railway station was deserted except for a female security guard and a 'supervisor'. We were told we were not allowed inside until I said I was a senior British Rail manager on holiday and keen to see how railways such as this are so well run. We were then allowed onto the platform to see...a railway line, but NO PHOTOGRAPHS! and outside to clamber over a derelict locomotive ( above ) which looked as if it last ran about 80 years ago and was possibly designed personally by George Stephenson.

Right: Passing a local street-side market. One particularly 'traditionally built' and colourfully dressed lady selling dried fish became extremely agitated when I threatened to take her photograph. Can't think why. The others didn't seem to mind. I am always fascinated to see some of these ladies carrying enormous loads on their heads, perfectly balanced and seemingly oblivious to them, as per the old girl on the left of the pic.





Left: A dull but typical street in Ndola. Difficult to capture any particular scene which characterises the place. As said before, the architecture is functional and rudimentary. Driving around the town is relatively trouble free with no sign of aggressive driving even if some is a touch unpredictable. Drivers even stop considerately to let you reverse out into a busy main road. Driving on the main roads is a touch more hazardous, especially after dark ( trucks often have few lights ) and is discouraged. Lots of speed cameras are operated on main roads by the cops, with great enthusiasm. A good source of revenue, either governmental or personal, which they have probably learnt from the civilised west.

Just off the road towards Battledore Farm is this watering hole, the Second Chance Pub ( right ). We stopped for a beer and were cordially entertained by a group of locals. They turned out to be policemen, detectives they told us, and were most pleasant and chatty. One called himself Obama. We even bought them a drink. Most convivial amid some loud and jolly music.






Unfortunately, the senior guy amongst them ( the one in the pink shirt ) rather blotted his copybook when we were leaving by following us back to our car and rather forcefully suggested that we might contribute something ( money ) to 'make for him a Happy Christmas". We told him very politely to procreate and travel.

Christmas Day tomorrow when we hope to have a non-traditional celebration where all decorations, presents, and even the mention of 'Happy Christmas' are banned. The food and drink will undoubtedly be delicious and plentiful amid much happy banter and 'bah humbug'.



Monday, 23 December 2013

BACK ON THE FARM

17th - 20th Dec 2013

Officers  and staff at Battledore Farm Officers' Mess. Back row: Ray, Boss 1, Self, GD. Centre: Israel,  Evanesse, Mary, Martin ( house staff ). Front: Tom, Mrs Perkins, Mrs Potter, Sam.

There seems to be a continual change-over of guests and residents at Battledore ( Temperance ) Farm. On our arrival, as well as our distinguished host and the Gap Year students, Tom and Sam, there was  our host's sister Judy. She was here, other than for a fun family visit, to help with the accounts. Judy is married to an American rocket scientist. Yes, they really do exist! Judy also proved to be an amazingly good cook. She had to go home on day 5 ( when I was in Jo'burg ). Sam has now left to go back to the family estate and then on to Oz to witness the forthcoming disaster in the 4th Ashes Test. We have been joined by Ray from Cape Town, an old friend and fellow Cresta riding buddy of our host.

My shoulder is pain free but I was told to keep it in this very upmarket sling ( left ) for a few days which has rather restricted my motor-biking and ability to do the washing up.                                                                     
The place is covered in large and very ancient anthills. All have been levelled on the actual plantation except this one on which Ray is standing ( right ). It is a useful vantage point from which to survey the farm and the tops of the banana trees below which it is impossible to see the workers sleeping; something which they tend to do in the absence of a 'boss' in visual contact. This anthill has been the cause of some casualties. It looks fairly innocuous but the sides are steep and slippery. One unfortunate visitor  lost control going down  and whacked his head against a bunch of bananas. The bananas won and visitor went to the clinic for repairs.
Ray came down very cautiously and just arriving at the bottom we congratulated him on a successful descent. He took one more pace and went arse over tit to general amusement.

The area here, the Copper Belt, is totally devoid of wild animals; not even a rabbit. If I was expecting to view herds of wildebeest sweeping across the plains, elephants browsing amongst the trees, lions basking in the sun or even a poxy warthog, I was going to be seriously disappointed. Apparently all wildlife was eaten years ago.
There is however an abundance of flys, mosquitos and other nasty voracious  insects which provides the manufacturers of Doom spray and mosquito nets a good income.
Excellent game reserves exist elsewhere in this vast underpopulated country.



Right: The local village. Somewhat basic. The women till their little patches of maize, the children look after any domestic animals ( I have seen a few goats ) and the men........well they tend to sit and think, or sometimes just sit.

The local population in the Copper Belt speak Bemba which, of course, by now I am fluent in. I can say "good morning" and "goodbye". Actually nearly everyone speaks English. Our host knows a few more robust native words to 'encourage' his workforce. Talking of which, they are mostly very basically educated, very smiley and friendly, but have a rather limited work ethic and have an innate ability to operate to destruction any form of machinery. As an example, a tractor with an overheating problem will, despite warning lights and emitting a painful noise,  be driven on until the engine seizes. This can be rather frustrating and expensive. They are also immune to 'incentives'. The concept of working harder and learning to carry out tasks more efficiently to produce bigger crops, get bonuses and save money is alien. Indeed, after pay day, the tendency is for most of them not to reappear for work until they have spent their pay. Sometimes I wonder how a profitable sized crop is harvested, but somehow it is. I was not surprised to see that our host has a blood pressure machine and takes 'dried frog pills' or somesuch to control his stress levels. I, most certainly, could not manage this job which seems to involve a perpetual series of crises, unpredictablities and disasters. They say Africa is not for wimps, and I would now strongly agree with that. There are, however, many ex-pat Zimbabweans ( some of whom had lost their farms there ), Aussies, South Africans and a few Brits working, or more likely running, the copper mines, construction companies and farming enterprises. They are a tough and hard-working breed.


Left: An array of anthills on a barren field. They are due to be levelled when the dry season arrives and will provide a very fertile topsoil.













We took Sam to Ndola airport. The airport buildings are a collection of past their sell-by date Nissan huts, and a few sheds made out of what look like old packing cases. Right: The departures/arrivals hall. Note the rather large ( traditionally built ) police lady sitting cradling her AK 47. Even Heathrow looks glamorous in comparison.






Left: Sam and Ray sitting in the VIP lounge at the airport with  farewell beers ( at $4 a pop! ). The local current is the Kwatcha. About 9 Kwatcha to the £. In fact most things are very expensive in Zambia, especially food and wine, because they are imported. The farm domestic shopping bills are humungous, possibly grossly inflated by the amount of wine drunk.




Architecture in the town of Ndola is basic and functional and certainly wouldn't win any prizes for aesthetic appearance. Every building is roofed in corrugated iron. All the private houses have corrugated iron roofs so are noisy places to live in during the violent daily thunderstorms. I am told that, during the country's existence as Northern Rhodesia, there were many attractive villas and houses. Some still exist but are screened from view by tall spike, wire or glass topped walls. It is quite a bustling town with a fairly shambolic atmosphere and the locals appear very friendly and helpful.


There is a golf course, a 'Boat Club' ( but no boats ) and  an impressive football stadium ( right ) built by the Chinese. I am told that the Zambian national football team is one of the best in Africa.

A well appointed shopping Mall, the Jacaranda, near the airport, contains a decent variety of modern shops and includes a well stocked 'Pick and Pay' supermarket. Shops in town are a bit more basic.
I was impressed by a marvellously chaotic looking hardware shop, Reekay's, run by Indians, which supplies a seemingly unlimited selection of building materials, tools and any gizmo you can think of. You want a 3" tapered spurling ratchet with a brass bevelled nurdling fork attachment, and they will find it.

The Ndola City Council goes to great lengths to advertise it's determination to improve the town and work honestly and conscientiously to better the lives of it's citizens. This hoarding, showing the mayor in all his finery, is an example ( if you can read it )


There has been much 'socialising' at the farm which has somewhat curtailed my blog production. I will be here for Christmas before moving on to do a bit of sight-seeing further south.



Tuesday, 17 December 2013

BANANA HAZARDS

10th - 16th Dec 2013


Broken collarbone


Oh dear! Monday morning, still recovering from the previous day's 'lunch', I went on another tour of the farm on a motorbike. Great fun but fell off. Hardly moving when toppled over after nicking an upright on one of the banana pulley supports, or perhaps slipped on a banana skin. Fell on my shoulder which made a rather sickening crunching noise as I landed. The subsequent trip  to a surprisingly clean and smart clinic in Ndola to be x-rayed resulted in being told that my collarbone was broken and required surgery.
Amazing; it's the first bone I've ever broken after surviving unscathed riding horses ( racing and hunting ), Cresta, skiing, free-fall parachuting, rugby, military training, backgammon, poker and several other dodgy pursuits. How irritating. The motorbike was undamaged.

Left: The pulley support archway which I failed to negotiate. Still took a photo with a shaky hand.

By good fortune my host knew of an excellent doctor in Johannesburg ( South Africaa ). Also GD and I have a mutual friend who, coincidently, lives near the clinic from which said doc operates. Resisting the temptation to try the hospital in Lusaka I made plans to to fly to Jo'burg and hoped that my insurance would cover this little set-back.
I rang up the insurance company and, being honest, mentioned the motorbike. Big mistake. This resulted in a lengthy interrogation of 'What was I doing on a bike? Was I wearing a helmet? Did I have a licence? Was the bike insured? Was the farm insured? etc. etc'. As soon as I rang off I was told by all listening that I was a bloody idiot and should have said that I had fallen off a chair putting up Xmas decorations ( we aren't having any ), or similar. Too late. Now rather panic stricken that they would find any excuse not to pay up, plans were made to go to SA ( currently in the throws of burying the late Nelson Mandela ). Then we were told that the doc ( Dr Mark Ferguson ), whom I later discovered is the renowned leading osteopathic shoulder surgeon in South Africa, had completed his 'operations list' for this year and would try to find someone else.  Oh Blimey. Then got a call back from his secretary to be told that he was going to make time for me and to get down to Jo'burg for an examination on Thursday and an op on Friday. So quick and helpful.

Down to Jo'burg and rescued by our mutual friend, Jeannie ( her house and maid right ), I proceeded to have a marvellous few days. Reported to the very smart Rosebank Sports Clinic and was given 5 star service by the cheerful and efficient secretary, Juanita, who helped no end in sorting out the recalcitrant insurance wallahs. A quick inspection by Dr Mark ( charming gent ) and all was set for an op the following day. He is obviously a bit of an expert, The Expert in fact.





Outside hospital treatment I was superbly entertained by Jeannie. I post this pic ( left ), which she will probably hate and hopefully forgive, of her lying in state on the 'stoep' of her very comfortable residence in a very posh part of Sandton. I also discovered a marvellous Zulu taxi driver who, when Jeannie couldn't do it, took me from place to place. He deserves recognition; namely Edward, of Quickcab, Tel. 0786745963. If any of you get to Sandton and need a taxi at a really good price with excellent service, I thoroughly recommend him.







Reported to the Rosebank Hospital, opposite the clinic, for the op at 0630hrs on Friday. Amazing treatment ensued. Swiftly led to a small ward ( one other occupant ) by smartly dressed nurses. None of the "Hello Matthew and how are we today" crap, it was all most polite "Good morning Mr Sample", changed into the surgical gown, and visited by the anaethestist, a dashing young rugby enthusiast, Richard, who was full of good humour and bonhomie. A visit by Dr Mark to make sure all was OK with a cheery chat and last, but not least, a nurse to show me the menu for a rather delicious looking menu for lunch apr├ęs operation. On being wheeled into the operating theatre there was further banter including discussing holiday plans with the assistant tool holder who was due to go off to Vietnam for Christmas. I don't remember anything else until waking up back in the ward entirely pain free and feeling rather hungry. A further visit by Richard and Doc Mark who told me I could go home whenever I wished. It was still only 9.00am but I was keen to stay for the promised lunch and passed the time chatting with the other chap in the ward who had had his knees replaced; a keen rock climber as it turned out. At some point I was taken for a confirmatory x-ray and had a visit by a very pretty Africaans lady 'physio' who gave me some advice on doing exercises to loosen my joints. A metal plate had been screwed onto my shoulder. Lunch was as delicious as expected. I think I wandered off at 1.30pm to say goodbye and thanks to Juanita, the helpful clinic secretary, do some shopping and have a glass of wine or two. The whole experience was most convivial and totally pain free; not even feeling sore or rough at any point after the op. To be honest I rather enjoyed myself! Many thanks to all involved.
Warning: Don't mention motorbikes ( or any other machines ) when claiming insurance.

My flight back to Ndola was not until Sunday and so another couple of jolly days was spent being entertained by the redoubtable Jeannie. Never any pain in my shoulder and no need for the painkillers which the hospital had given me as a precaution, so much wining and dining, watching England getting thrashed by the Aussies and a bit of shopping even though most of Jo'burg was shut down due to the Mandela funeral. Jeannie does not have wi-fi hence the delay in posting this.


Left: The repair job. The metal plate fortunately didn't set off any airport detector alarms.

Back via a rather chaotic and crowded 'O.R.Tambo' ( ex-Jan Smuts ) Jo'burg airport to Ndola and the Battledore bananas. Recuperation, and not much should be needed, will be enhanced by copious supplies of wine and whisky. Battledore farm is not noted as a 'temperance' hall.






Found Gazza ( right ) and co. much as I left them. Further travel to follow hopefully, although getting around the vast empty Zambian countryside is not easy ( unless you fly ) especially as the rainy season is starting in earnest.

OK, that's the end of my little travel hiatus and all's well that ends well.

PS. Gazza has, apparently, often been mistaken for the actor Peter O'Toole, something which he has played on, unless it involved being scammed for money. Sad to report that P. O'Toole died a couple of days ago. A  great loss for GD.


Sunday, 15 December 2013

COOL BANANAS

8th-9th Dec 2013


Bananas


Battledore Farm, the home of Cool Bananas, comprises 1500 acres of relatively flat forested countryside of which 200 acres have been cleared for the banana plantation. As well as our host ( Boss 1 ) there are two most civilised and amusing young Brits working on the farm as assistants.  

Left: The 'assistants', Tom and Sam are working here as part of a Gap Year after Newcastle University. Tom goes to Sandhurst in May and Sam, before Xmas, to the family estate in Herefordshire ( which amongst other things produces very fine wine: ( look up: broadfieldcourt.co.uk ).

They took me, by motorbike ( self-drive and more about that later ) on a tour of the plantation. I was given a most comprehensive explanation on the technicalities of growing bananas. I now consider myself a world expert on the subject and will proceed to bore you with my recently acquired knowledge. 
The first thing one realises is that banana production is vastly labour intensive. The trees require constant work such as 'propping'  to stop the heavy bunches breaking the trunk, 'weeding'  to prevent strong weed growth taking the nutrients, 'suckering' to remove all but one selected sucker growth, which develop en-mass around the base , into the next tree...only one bunch from each tree... and the old one is cut down and the next, the first ratoon, produces the next crop etc. etc, pruning the 'bells' at the end of the forming bunches, irrigation, fertilisation, constant spraying of insecticide to prevent aphids spreading the lethal banana disease 'Banana Bunchy Top Virus', harvesting ( an all year-round task ), storing and ripening, packing, transport, engineering, equipment maintenance, marketing plus all the associated administrative, accounting, personnel and logistic tasks. 

Right: A tree being 'propped' by a string attached at the correct angle to an overhead tensioned wire to keep the trunk upright ( not so successfully here ). The strings need constant adjustment or the branch will snap and the bananas die. This is a task which requires a degree of geometric understanding and does not come naturally to the local workforce.



Left: The 'bell' ( the dark bit ) at the base of a forming bunch. This absorbs all the nutrients and has to be removed when about 10 rows of banana 'hands' have formed sufficiently so that they will grow to optimum  size and prevent small and unproductive baby bananas growing underneath.
















A workforce of about 400 locals plus 4 Bosses, 17 supervisors and a farm manager operate the plantation. Another workforce is busy planting a eucalyptus forest elsewhere on the farm which will not mature for a further 10 years but, if successful, will be highly profitable. Other crops such as maize are also due to be started. Much more clearing of the land is due to take place. Giant 30 ft high ancient ant hills are prolific and need to be levelled. Hard work.

Right: The ebullient farm manager, Titus Millions, from Zimbabwe.

One of the problems with local labour here appears to be rather an African one. The workers tend to work until their pay-day then they take time off to spend their money. They come back to work when skint. The concept of working to save money is alien. It is therefore a bit of a lottery as to how many will turn up on any day. 400 is the minimum required ( and many more would be ideal ) but sometimes only about 200 turn up! Somewhat frustrating I imagine.
This combines with an inability to 'incentivise' the workforce by offering bonuses for added productivity or explaining that if they learn how to operate more skilfully and efficiently more bananas will be harvested and all will be better off. Technical skill in operating machinery is also problematic, and lacking, and requires constant supervision. Unless spotted by a 'Boss', machinery will be driven to destruction before a fault is identified or reported. Vastly expensive and even more frustrating.

The plantation consists of about 140,000 trees divided up into 10 blocks ( named, amusingly, after Wellington's commanders ). Each block is subdivided into 4 sections of about 105 X 32 trees. I reckoned it would keep two people busy full time just to maintain efficiently one line of 105 trees ( there are over 1280 such lines in total ). My maths might be at fault, but I can't see how they do it with the workforce available.











Right: Looking over a section of the plantation towards the 'dam' ( lake ) which provides water for pumped irrigation. Fertilizer is added into the supply here. Another expensive requirement. This pic taken from the top of the one remaining ant-hill observation post.
The whole plantation is surrounded by a protective razor-wire fence and anti-aphid screen.



Left: The harvested bunches are transported from throughout the plantation to the processing and storage sheds by a complex pulley system, like a horizontal ski-tow.

By the way, I am informed that a banana is a 'berry' not a 'fruit'. Something to do with the way its seeds grow.

OK, that's the end of my tedious technical brief done for my own benefit if not for your amusement.


I think that takes us to Sunday Lunch, for eleven, which started at 12.30pm and finished at 9.00pm. A fairly gargantuan feast of roast beef etc. in true colonial style. Several local ex-pat neighbours in attendance and much wine taken. Many ex-Zimbabwian farmers, Australians and South Africans earn a living in Zambia. 

When this photo was snapped Gazza had shuffled off for a 'mid-prandial' kip. He reappeared later and probably regretted it because he consequently suffered from a 'Severe Daintry Hangover' ( SDH ) which further incapacitated him for the whole of the next day.

It is refreshing to note that, at this stage, there has been no sign in town or on farm of any Christmas decorations, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Bloody Jingle bells or any other sign of Festive  Razzmatazz. Long may it continue.

There has been a slight hiatus to this blog caused by a little mishap which will be described in boring detail next...........

Sunday, 8 December 2013

BATTLEDORE FARM. ZAMBIA.

6th-8th Dec

Battledore Farmhouse. Ndola

Arrived safely at Battledore farm, 10 miles from Ndola on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo ( DRC ). Greeted by our host, plus entourage, and immediately consumed three botts of Bolly, so things have got off to a pretty good start.

Initially met up with GD and travelled to LHR, T4, with plenty of time to spare. For some inexplicable reason the London Underground wasn't, for once, delayed. Our ploy was to install Gazza in a wheelchair, get him to wear a pair of very dark glasses ( he's not as blind as all that; just severe tunnel vision ) and play on the fact that today ( 6th ) is my birthday. This, we felt confident, would get us rapidly through the tedious security and passport control palaver. It might even secure an 'upgrade' ( some hope ). Nothing ventured nothing gained. It did indeed get us quickly through the ghastly security and pp control at the front of the queue. So far so good.


Stocked up with duty free we spent some time and a vast amount of money at the Champagne and Seafood Bar before not being given an upgrade on the Kenya Airways flight AR101 ( Boeing 777 ) to Nairobi. The only event of interest was when I, having offered to push GD's wheelchair down the ramp/airbridge to the aircraft, was confronted by a course of some length ( first down the ramp ), with a severe slope and many sharp corners, rather lost control. The brake jammed on one side and the chair ran away with me. We were lucky not to come out at Shuttlecock, but we arrived fast at the door ( peasant class ) in one piece with bottles and limbs intact.

Left: Wheelchair-bound GD at the Seafood Bar.

A fairly tedious 7 1/2 hour flight, delayed over an hour due to some idiot passenger failing to board, with rather grumpy and inattentive cabin crew ( it took much persistent effort to keep our wine glasses replenished ) and distinctly unimpressive in-flight food. On arrival at Nairobi at 0730hrs and loading GD onto the wheelchair ( unasked for but enforced; once you start it seems you can't stop ) amongst the confusion we dropped a bag containing duty-free whiskey. One litre bottle ( out of four ) of the Famous Grouse broken and spilled. Now reeking of whisky any further hope of preferential treatment was probably dashed.


Decent two hour flight from Nairobi to Ndola in a swish new Kenya Airways Embraer 190 including a decent breakfast with delightful Kenyan cabin crew ( so different from the previous long-haul cabin-dragons ).

Swiftly through passport control ( after paying $80 for a double entry visa ) we were met by aforementioned host, dressed in impeccable Colonial Style ( because he is an impeccable Colonial Gentleman ) and his dogs, we drove to his banana plantation at Battledore Farm, about 15 miles from the town.

As initially mentioned, great hospitality on arrival at a magnificent rambling farmhouse ( with the universal African corrugated iron roof ) plus various dogs and other guests/workers/relatives we were wined, dined and sent to bed from 24 hours without much sleep.

Left: GD and out host.

Only regret, so far, is that we lost 25% of our whisky  donation on the deck at Nairobi.

Due to incredibly generous hospitality any further 'blogs' are likely to be severely delayed. A tour of the banana plantation followed by a serious Sunday Lunch is imminent.  Will report further on recovery............              

Monday, 2 December 2013

ZAMBIA

The Next Jaunt - 6th Dec 2013 to 10th Jan 2014 

The next place on my agenda is Zambia ( ex-Northern Rhodesia ) and the region known as 'ZimZamBo' ( Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana ). We have been invited to stay with a friend who runs a banana plantation in the Copper Belt ( or maybe it's a copper plantation in the Banana Belt ), up in the north of the country near the town of Ndola, and expect to do a bit of travelling from there.


I mention 'we' because this time I will have a travelling companion in the shape of the redoubtable Garry Daintry, so christened because he was conceived on a bank of the river Garry, Perthshire, during one of his parents' more productive fishing trips. Garry D, or GD or more irreverently known as Gazza has an interesting history. Commissioned into the Irish Guards ( The Micks ) he served gallantly in the Aden conflict in the 1960s, and then qualified as an army helicopter pilot. He flew with the 'Blue Eagles' helicopter display team ( involving some very hairy 'occurrences' during the infancy of this spectacular display team ) and became a Qualified Helicopter Instructor ( QFI ), also serving in Hong Kong. After leaving the army as a Captain he flew civilian helicopters in such places as Indonesia and, during the Tamil Tigers civil war, in Sri Lanka. He was an indefatigable and successful marathon runner which he combined with a tireless hedonistic lifestyle involving much partying and was always in popular demand with the 'laydees'. Something of a Deb's Delight I suspect and, dare one say it, a 'Boulevadier Superieur'. 
He rode the Cresta with great panache for many years and was latterly an assistant secretary of the St Moritz Tobagganing Club where he gained the soubriquet 'The Gallant Captain', a venue where his laid-back charm, social graces and enthusiasm were highly appreciated.
Twice married ( and twice most amicably divorced ) he now lives in rather splendid gentility in Kensington. Unfortunately due, as he will freely admit, to burning the candle at both ends as well as in the middle in his somewhat dissolute youth, he has endured a heart bypass operation ( the Daintry Bypass ) and suffered a few minor strokes which have seriously impaired his sight. He is now the proud wielder of a white stick and a quack's chitty to prove its not a bluff.
Regardless, he is still mobile and most entertaining company. He shares with me an ambition to avoid the YouKay during the so-called 'Festive Season', hence our eager acceptance of the invitation to stay on a banana plantation in Zambia until the war is over.
An amusing book could be written about Gazza's extraordinary life, and probably will be ( much to the embarrassment of his many friends no doubt ).
Anyway he, armed with his white stick, and I shall sally forth on this African adventure, flying from Heathrow on 6th December.  
This trip should provide some good 'copy' for an ongoing blog; so stay tuned.........

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

VIDS FROM NORTH KOREA

A Selection of Little Clips


I think have managed to work out how to transfer vid clips from my camera to this blog. Not without a little help, I may add. If I had known it was possible I would have taken more from way back, and they might have proved more amusing than the still photos. You live and learn. So, below, not necessarily in the correct order, will eventually appear some glimpses of the 'action' in various displays ( if taken with a rather shaky hand on occasions ). They feature a Ladies Choir in Pyongyang, several from the highly impressive Arirang Mass Games in the Mayday Stadium in Pyongyang, the children, aged below 6yrs, performing at the Steelworkers' Kindergarten in Chongjin and a few from the 65th Anniversary celebrations ( of the DPRK ) in the town square at Wonsan. I regret not taking a vid of the fantastic and alarming trapeze act at the circus or the amazing 'human cannonballs' at the Mass Games. You should go and see them for yourselves.
Regarding the Arirang Mass Games; look at the backdrop behind the performers. As previously mentioned this is not a computer generated mass of pixels, it is 20,000 students switching coloured boards in perfect unison, and the performance goes on for nearly two hours. It is almost beyond belief in complexity and impeccable timing, and stamina. I will include the 'test card' display when the students were all mucking about before they got 'serious'.

Due to the slow download speed of my machine at 'base location' each clip seems to take ages to produce, so I will be adding to this over the period of a few days. Stand-by...............



Several more to come!!!!




Aren't they good?



The next is the last one. Unfortunately it is on it's side. Can't get it upright. Just to give you a glimpse of the rather OTT performance by the orator.



That's all folks. Off on another trip soon.

Friday, 22 November 2013

IMPRESSIONS OF NORTH KOREA

My Amateur Impressions.

It is often the case that people, especially journalists and others in the media, visit North Korea with an 'agenda'. They go determined to get dramatic photos and publish reports which back up preconceptions that North Korea is run by bellicose madmen and the population is miserable, oppressed and starving. The same might be said of some North Korean 'escapees' living in Seoul who are only too happy to collude with journalists and provide dramatic 'copy' for TV, books and newspapers. After all, the more dramatic and horrific the reports the better they sell, and 'reconstructed/staged' photos and film clips are not unknown. Some, if not all, of what we see and read in the West may have some truth in it, but, and it is a big but, I have yet to see any reportage which has been gained by independent travellers, or reporters, with unfettered access to the country and the ability to speak feely to the locals, because it's just not possible. I mean I too could, if my intentions so demanded, go to any country and city in the world and come back with photos and reports of squalor, crime, police brutality, oppression, poverty, death, destruction and general foulness. Even ( especially ) in parts of London, let alone the favelas in Rio, the shanty towns surrounding Mexico City or the vast slums of Bombay to name but a few. Or the opposite. However anyone, if they so desire and are feeling particularly brave, is free to visit these places. Not so in North Korea.

The lack of freedom of access is the overriding problem in North Korea. It certainly does not endear them to the outside world and fuels suspicion, something that they seem oblivious to. They maintain rigid control of where visitors can go and to whom they can speak ( if indeed any of them could speak sufficient Korean ). One's impression of North Korea is gained not just by what you see, it's by what you don't see. That and the fact that it is difficult to take at face value anything that you are told; in other words you are often spun a blatant load of bullshit.
So, it was with that in mind, that I joined the tourist group on a fairly comprehensive journey around the country to see what I could. I had a totally open mind and the sole reason for this trip was, for me, sheer curiosity. I did not have an agenda.

It was made clear to us before we arrived that we had to obey gracefully the restrictions placed on us by our guides who, incidentally, were charming and highly efficient. This was not to protect us from any repercussions, it was to protect them. If a tourist strays 'off-piste' or takes photos of prohibited sites ( normally involving the military ) they, the tourists, would not get into trouble, but the guides would. Also, we were aware that our guides had to tow the Party line. It was fine to discuss and question but would have been counter-productive to argue. Our guides had much knowledge of the West ( they get to read a lot of western newspapers and magazines shown to them by the likes of us ) and it's ways; they were intelligent and had much experience of dealing with Western tourists. In practice our guides were remarkably flexible about what we could do, so long as we asked permission. Apart from anything else North Korea is keen to attract tourists and is gradually opening up more sites. To get on the wrong side of them would simply mean that places would again be put out of bounds and the relevant tour company would lose carefully acquired access.

As shown and described in my previous ramblings, North Korea has it's own 'take' on the world and is beholden to the philosophies of 'Juche' ( literally 'Master of Oneself' i.e. control of the country, self reliance and two fingers to the rest ) and 'Songun' ( 'army first'; i.e. the protection of the country is paramount ). They are also patently brainwashed from cradle to grave into not just admiring but worshipping Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader, and the rest of the Kims as a consequence. Their history is somewhat 'adapted' to suit this purpose. This is reflected in their (mis)understanding of the 'liberation' of the country from the cruel Japanese colonialists in 1945 and the war-like Imperialist US aggressors in the 1950 Korean war. Incidently, when asked why they spend so much money and effort trying to produce nuclear weapons when other tasks seem more pressing, the answer is simple and commonly accepted; "if the US aggressors have them pointed at us then we must have a viable means of retaliation" ( Songun again ). Its their idea of Mutually Assured Destruction ( MAD ) I suppose; the dogma of the old Cold War. In effect I seriously doubt if they will ever launch an attack on another nation. They would risk having all their prestigious 'show-off' architecture bombed flat and lose much credibility in the likely lack of effective support from outside. Their army might be massive and robotically impressive on display, but I suspect it's technical capability is somewhat lacking due, in large part, to the fact that they ain't got much fuel and industry to replenish military hardware. In other words there will always be much 'sabre-rattling' to appease and impress the local population and project war-like capability to the South, but I believe it's 'all mouth and no trousers'. After all, unlike some nations, they haven't actually invaded anywhere in the last 60 years and they don't harbour any lunatic terrorists ( woe betide any Al-Qaeda operative who tries it on in DPRK! ) . OK, I'm no military expert, but that is my view.

There can be no doubt that the system of government in the country is dictatorial and the powers that be are obsessive control freaks. The fact that the hierarchy of the Korean Workers Party and the Armed Forces, fronted by whichever Kim happens to be around, maintains an iron grip on society and viciously suppresses any form of dissent, is pretty apparent. It is also apparent that this hierarchy lives in a luxurious style, hidden from the masses, and enjoys much privilege ( unlike our politicians and civil servants? ), unless they screw up when the consequences to their standing and welfare are profound ( unlike our politicians and civil servants ). They are, nevertheless, feared and respected. Having said that, they are improving the way of life, bit by bit, for the population. If Joe Soap thinks that things are getting better, however slowly, he will be relatively content. The experienced French 'professor' in our group has seen big improvements in the agricultural system and infrastructure over the past 10 years. The impression given by outside commentators is that the North Korean rulers  are 'mad'. They are patently not. For good or evil they have held this country together and resisted all kinds of opposition, sanctions and survived several natural disasters during the past 65 years. It may all collapse but I wouldn't bank on it happening any time soon, and I don't believe South Korea would be too happy to sort out the wreckage.

So, this is a relatively small nation ( pop. 22 million ), dividing a peninsular, which is paranoid, full of jingoistic national pride and maintains an insane worship of Kim Il Sung. Propaganda and 'selective history education' is rife, but one cannot help be impressed by their sheer bloody mindedness in pursuing their own programme, lifestyle and, despite intense international criticism, US sanctions and other embargoes,  giving two fingers to the rest of the world.

My observations, in no particular order:

The country is so clean. This is mainly due to the fact that they haven't got much to make it dirty with. City streets, and main roads, are constantly swept, by hand. Not much fuel so little industrial pollution ( apart from the alarming wood-burning fuelled lorries ) and there is a lack of consumer goods. Eco-warriors, Green-activists and Climate Change zealots should hold the place up as a shining example to us all.

It is the ultimate Socialist state. Everything is Government controlled with few markets or shops and little free-enterprise, but I suspect there is a flourishing black market somewhere. No neon signs, adverts or noticeable shop fronts. The benevolent Government supplies your every need ( vouchers for necessities obtained from Government outlets ). All live in the same state of impoverishment apart from the select cadre of 'apparachiks',  of course, who are afforded the finest of luxuries in true communist tradition.

Despite rumours and western propaganda, and the fact that we were escorted, I believe that the population is now relatively well fed and self-sufficient as far as agricultural produce is concerned. I did not see any hungry looking people or signs of severe deprivation. I can't believe there is anywhere on the same scale of crowded squalor that exists in parts of the sub-continent, South America or Walthamstow. The people we saw all looked perfectly healthy, fit and smiley. Village housing may have been basic, but relatively clean, neat and tidy.

Traffic congestion is definitely not a problem, bicycles are the main form of personal conveyance and the wide city streets are remarkably free of bustling crowds. I remember inventing a 'bustle rating' for cities in India from 1 to 10, where most registered 8 to 10 ( packed to nightmare chaos ). North Korean ratings would be 0 to -1.

The monopoly of the makers of statues and monuments to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. I saw no statues of anyone else. Heaven forbid. I believe that the makers of these shiny bronze statues are employed internationally by the sort of countries that want grandiose monuments to their dictators. It is one of the main North Korean exports.

Many industrial sites with nothing being produced. Lots of talk of things being produced.

Hardly any wildlife observed other than magpies, two pigeons in Wonsan and many egrets near Nampo. No horses anywhere. I suspect it will be some time before they have a runner in the Derby.

The only country in the world where they don't have a following of the Royal Family, Premier League Football or Mr Bean ( or Tom and Jerry for that matter ).

They don't celebrate Christmas. A very sound reason to go there over the Yuletide period.

Their ability to stage mass displays must be the best in the world. Even little displays ( as in the kindergartens, schools and circuses ) are impressive. Probably achieved by rather Pavlovian techniques, but impressive nevertheless.

I believed it when I was told that their hospitals and health services are both free and good ( in the major cities ). Song Sim waxed lyrical about this, and she had experience of the system. OK, if you get seriously ill out in the bundu you will probably just die. I don't expect they whinge about it quite so much as we do.

No terrorist problem or racial conflict or illegal immigrants or welfare scroungers or football hooligans or race riots or any riots for that matter. No chewing-gum on the streets and no drunken night club revellers, or any night clubs, or revellers. We were told that the country is relatively ( serious ) crime-free. I can sort of believe that.

Lack of electricity and hot water, but they did their best to switch it on and stoke it up for us tourists.  By the colour of the water that came out of many hot/tepid water taps it was apparent that they hadn't been used much. It was rapidly switched off when we left most establishments. Lifts in hotels outside Pyongyang only worked on arrival and departure.

The only 'locals' we had any contact with were hotel and restaurant staff who were, on the whole, charming and pulled out all the stops to make us feel welcome ( except for that flash hotel at Mt. Kumgang ). I believe they were genuinely pleased to see us, probably because of the 'hard' currency we provided.  Maybe they were being 'monitored'. Maybe they should monitor some of our surly staff in UK.

So many impressive and vast buildings in Pyongyang, mostly of the monumental Stalinist architectural style. It was apparent that many were ongoing building sites and many others might just have been facades ( nobody ever seemed to go in and out of them ). Reminded me a bit of a Hollywood film set in places. We never set foot inside any of the grand theatres and museums, other than the new and indeed impressive Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum ( featured earlier ). I think several of the few shops displaying 'fancy' goods were doing just that; displaying but not selling. Much 'image' without substance.

The deification and worship of Kim Il Sung. It serves a vital political need. How genuine? Your guess is as good as mine.

That will do for now and I hope this blurb comes across as I intend, however inexpert, as 'unelaborated and unbiased' and not too boring. I may think of a few more things to add. I hope to find a way of showing some of the video clips I took, but this might prove beyond my computer expertise.

In the meanwhile "Anyung-Ee" ( goodbye ).




Friday, 15 November 2013

THE FINALE

14th-17th Sept 2013

Overlooking the Forbidden City from Jingshan Park
So back to the charming YoYo hotel in 'trendy' Sanlitun district to recover. Still sore and lame I took a taxi from the station. The 'official' Beijing taxis, the two tone coloured jobs, are the only taxis that I have ever used which are good value. The 35 min ride cost 50 Yuan (about £5). The drivers, who nowadays often speak a little English, even give you a printed receipt. There are cowboy taxis at the stations and persistent hustlers who try to persuade you to use them. Some good advice, Don't! (unless you are feeling very generous).

A lazy day spent hobbling around and a welcome visit to Paddy's Bar for sausage and mash. Spent some time sitting around in what is an excellent 'travellers' bookshop cum pub/restaurant/library; The Bookworm in Sanlitun (look it up....@bookwormbeijing). 

Next day I met up with a friend who works in Beijing and was taken for lunch at the prestigious Quanjude restaurant north of the Forbidden City. This place specialises in Peking Duck and there is a serious ritual when serving it (right). The place is always full, bookings essential, and has many photos of international dignitaries on the walls, including a few Presidents and Prime Ministers, who have been entertained there. Not a good place if you are on a diet. We went on a walk to Jingshan Park afterwards to do some token 'calorie reducing' exercise.

The following day, Sunday, I was invited to watch a cricket match. Aforementioned friend, Richard (who's father kept wicket for Northumberland), was playing for the Peking Ducks X1, a team of ex-pat Brits. They were up against a team of Aussies predominantly from the Australian Trade Mission.

The pitch is in the grounds of the Beijing Dulwich College out towards the airport and what a pleasant venue it is. There were several bars and a large barbecue tent set up on the boundary. Quite a few spectators too, enjoying picnics in the sun.

It was a Twenty20 match and batsmen had to retire on scoring 30 runs. The Peking Ducks were first to bat. Richard (photo left), who plays a lot of cricket in England, scored his 30 in rapid order. After that there was a bit of a collapse and they were all out for about 90 runs.

Come 'half-time' and lunchtime refreshments I was informed that the Ducks only had 10 players and 11 is definitely an advantage when fielding. Would I like to play? Well, being utterly incompetent and still somewhat unsound but nevertheless enthusiastic, I duly volunteered. It's not every day that one gets to play cricket in China.
Donning a Ducks' shirt and my cloth cap I took to the field, but insisted on being given a 'cowards' fielding position, somewhere I could do least damage. I was duly stationed at fine-leg on the boundary. I can't say that I contributed much and fortunately the Ducks had an excellent wicket keeper. 


After a slow and measured start and against some fiery bowling (Richard being rather adept at flinging the pill down with considerable velocity) the Aussies got into their stride and won with a few overs and wickets in hand. I think I touched the ball twice but, fortunately, don't think that I greatly contributed to our defeat.













Left. The prize giving. I suppose this gave the Aussies a degree of satisfaction following their rout in the Ashes series.

Next day it was back to the airport, and I  remain seriously impressed by all the new, shiny, and cheap, transport systems which take you there.  I believe Boris Johnson, our flamboyant attention seeking London mayor, during a recent visit to China, made much mention of technical innovation in this country, especially in regard to railways (the high speed bullet trains in particular) which put our antiquated British systems to shame. He is correct and we in the UK are beginning to lag far behind. OK, the Chinese have more space and distance to cover and don't worry too much about such niceties as 'consultation', so if Mr Mee Noh Go objects to his house being frattened, their response is simply "Yu go. Yu lucky. Here 50 quid. Bulldozer come tomollow".   The airport itself is excellent (as far as airports go) with very clear signage and decent restaurants. The only hiccup I faced was when I went to buy some duty free drink. The prices were very reasonable (£14 for a litre of Grouse whisky), however I was advised that as I was going to transit through Helsinki the Finnish (or maybe EU) regulations forbade the import of duty free alcohol and would most likely confiscate it! (possibly using the old max 100ml liquid restriction scam). The same stuff costs, 'duty free' in Helsinki airport, £35. What a rip-off.

So, back to Blighty after what was a most entertaining and educational journey. For what it is worth I will post my entirely idiosyncratic impressions of North Korea at some point. 



Wednesday, 13 November 2013

TRAIN TO BEIJING

12th-13th Sept 2013

Our team in Pyongyang



Lots of farewells to fellow tourists in the hotel foyer and six of us went off on our final short bus trip to Pyongyang central station ( left ) for the 24 hour rail journey to Beijing. Slight hiccup here as the 'through' train was fully booked and we were to take the later 10.30am departure to Dandong on the river Yalu, the north-west border with China. We would then transfer to the sleeper onwards to Beijing.

Imperialist US Aggressors are forbidden to use the train; they obviously can't be trusted and have to go by air. Freight probably.



Song Sim and Mr Lee ( right ) stayed with us until the train moved off. We all waved at each other furiously. They were incredibly attentive, and I don't suppose it was just that they feared someone might jump ship at the last moment.
They had indeed looked after us remarkably well and it had involved, for them, a lot of conscientious hard work and long hours. However we might have railed at being too closely shepherded from place to place, this very packed tour had run like clockwork. If anything had gone wrong, or somebody inadvertently ( or deliberately ) strayed into the wrong place I have no doubt that they, not us, would have got into trouble. Maybe they did a lot of paddling under the water, but we had to respect our guides' polite and efficient efforts. They don't get much time off either. Song Sim, who has a 2 year old daughter, has one day off after we have gone and then starts another tour. She hardly manages to get home and relies on her extended family to cope.




Six of us were in one compartment for the initial stage to Dandong ( China ). A comfortable and smooth four hour ride through pleasant looking farmland to the north-west border town of Sinuiju.

We had been warned that the customs formalities at the border on the way out would be stringent, and the procedure on the Korean side could take over four hours to complete. It has been known for the officials to search through all bags and even check through photos on cameras and delete those they, for whatever reason, took a dislike to. As a result, most of us had removed and hidden camera memory cards and taken lots of boring photos of the fields on the way to the border on spares. As it turned out, with much smiling and grovelling on our behalf, they were remarkably laid-back and polite. They only opened a couple of small bags and had a cursory look. The only thing they asked was did we have any mobile phones. Everyone emphatically shook their heads, and that was fine. We must have looked very innocent.

Across the Yalu river ( right ) and into Dandong, China. Perhaps as a deliberate attempt to show off, the entrance to the city was high rise and garishly neon lit. I don't remember seeing any neon lights in N.Korean cities and certainly no adverts that were so much in abundance here. It was quite a striking contrast. Our passports were again taken away and we got off the train to await the connection. It is ( for me ) always a worry that the passport might never return and we end up on a train to Yingtong Tiddleyepo, or some such backwater, passportless.


No such misfortune and we boarded the sleeper to Beijing. Because of the change of train we had been downgraded into six berth cabins ( rather 3rd Class ) but there were many empty cabins in our carriage so we thought we would be able to spread out a bit and have plenty of space. I was not the only one who confessed to ( allegedly ) snoring like a frenzied pig at feeding time. We opened some wine and all was hunky-dory... until the next stop. Crowds of Chinese came on board with large bags, boxes, prams and much else, probably including many kitchen sinks. Our tickets indicated that we were in several different compartments and no chance of staying together. It was mayhem. I found my bunk on the top level ( 3 up ) in a packed compartment with a family ( I think ) of parents, daughter and grandparents and enough luggage to suggest they were moving house. Our 'gang' decided to gather together and take refuge in the restaurant car, but that was fully occupied by the 'superior' class passengers. We did eventually get a table and had a remarkably decent meal, of fish and other unidentifiable fare plus the rest of the wine that we had brought and plenty of beer purchased at the bar. We met up with another group of tourists ( 1st Class ) and then perhaps overdid the tasting of that revolting chemical effluent that the Chinese optimistically describe as 'gin'. Anything, in fact, to delay going back to the sleeper compartments. In retrospect this might have been a bit of a mistake.

After being kicked out of the restaurant car when it closed it was a long weave and stumble back to our bunks. As said, mine was three up. The compartment, filled with gentle snoring, was in darkness and the climb up was not easy. The Chinese family were soundly asleep and blissfully unaware of the storm about to hit them. Suffice to say that due to a surprising lack of coordination and poor visibility I caused considerable turmoil; a veritable bull in a China shop. I think at one point I fell into the bunk occupied by granny and stepped onto the faces of most of the others. After much thrashing about and several failed attempts to reach the summit amid cries of surprise and pain and no doubt Mandarin curses from below I reached my perch with only minor injury ( to myself anyway; can't speak for the others ). Peace was eventually restored until, a couple of hours later, I had to go for a pee. The descent was no less hazardous and dramatic. I think granny got another surprise visit and I seriously misjudged the final step to the floor. I fell about three feet onto some sharp edged case and painfully jarred my shins, not without yells of agony and a few good old British oaths. On return to the compartment I noticed that the light was on. They were waiting for me. I expected to be lynched or at least made to suffer some Chinese torture. Instead of which grandpa and son who, to avoid further carnage, had got out of bed and quite gently pushed and lifted me up, only gently cracking my head on the ceiling in the process, to my roost with nothing but smiles. 
Come morning and reveille, even though conditions were more favourable, I was dreading the climb down and the reception I might meet. I suspect that my snoring alone would have been grounds for a Chinese kangaroo court. I had no need for concern. All of them made sure I reached ground level safely and even granny gave me a smile and a wink.

With a sore head, pain in my ribs and limping badly I managed to locate most of our team again and we headed for the restaurant car to revive on gallons of coffee. Washing could wait. The others seemed to have had a comparatively peaceful night. The train, although not incredibly fast, gave a very smooth ride, probably because their railway tracks go in straight lines and despite the unexpected crowd in the sleeping compartment was generally much roomier and more comfortable than most of the UK cattle tucks. Even the loos and washrooms were clean and tidy. There were seats along the passageway next to the windows where I sat amongst my new-found Chinese best friends who were incredibly hospitable despite no common language and remarkably sanguine following the pandemonium in the night. They even offered to share some noodles which despite my distinct lack of appetite I felt obliged to accept.

We pulled into Beijing Main Station at about 10.00am, shook hands and went our separate ways.