Day One – The Adventure Begins
So here I am, 5.00pm, Sunday May 1st, sat in the Departure Lounge at Heathrow Airport, Terminal 1, with my rucksack, loose-fitting clothing, brand new dazzling white trainers, and four continents to cross as I circumnavigate this earth in 13 days.
Debbie, Hannah and James hugged me goodbye over an hour ago, having all driven down the M1. I had some words of great insight, wisdom and meaning planned to dispense as they left, but none of them could escape. My throat felt like the blocked toilet I had left behind for them to remember me by. Debbie reminded me not to lose my passport (which otherwise I had intended doing, of course) and to have a wonderful time. Which I will do, I think, so long as I can stop stressing over losing my passport, laptop, tickets or sanity. The last of these could easily be pick-pocketed by the ravages of time zones airport lounges. Or (horror, horror, as it is on this first flight) middle seats, whereby I have to climb over and be climbed over without the perks of a view out of the window or a bit of leg stretching in the aisle (avoiding those mad hostesses with their steel-edged drinks trolleys). A ray of hope – the nice lady of a certain age who checked me in suggested I may be able to change if any better seats became free. So, I will pick up my bag and ‘Sunday Times’ (conveniently in 27 sections for middle-seat convenience) and go and have a look. brb.
As I went looking for my flight details, my flight was called. Walked 10 minutes to Gate 50 and fired off a final text report to Hannah (who is the chief communications officer [telephony]). Anyway, when I asked at the desk, they had changed me to a window AND a ‘bulkhead’ seat. Not sure what that is. My kids call me a ‘blockhead’ – was she trying to be funny? Anyway, we were bused off to our 747 and I found my special seat – a bulkhead being one at the front with loads of leg room. Sat next to an elderly couple (from Manchester, of course). She has talked to me now without breathing for 30 minutes. Nice lady, but not to be over-encouraged or I won’t get any peace. She has finally stopped talking as I write. Her husband, Stan, is 80 and was in the Commandoes in the war. He wears black polished shoes on the plane and it looks like he uses the same polish on his hair. I know all about her angina and tablets, and his microsurgery on his knees. You can get to know strangers too intimately (she has just mentioned her hysterectomy . . Help!)
Two beakers of wine later and, I must say, probably the best airline meal I‘ve ever, ever had (hmmm, although E.M.A. to Glasgow circa 1997 was excellent too). and Lillian (as I find out her name is – she proudly showed me her name necklace) is suddenly excellent value. So I find myself asking for the details of how she and Stan met 53 years ago. She was a barmaid of 17 and he was “very smart!” Reminds me of when Debbie met me. Must have been my shiny black polished shoes. So here we sit with our mini TV screens and 14 channels of Asian/American anodyne cinema-scope. And a map – which is my favourite channel (BA/MA Cantab degree in Geography) . We fly at 33,000 feet, 600 mph, 8.41 hrs to destination, just over the Baltics and St Petersburg. Stan likes Martin Clunes, so he is glued on channel 14. Next stop (or rather fly-past) is Moscow. 9.00pm UK time. –56°K outside. Brrrrrr. Think I’ll stay in tonight.
Day Two – Descending thoughts
12.45am local UK time. I think I dozed since about 9.30pm. Cabin dark, but bright sunshine outside. Dozed through Frazier and some formula US hospital programme. Lillian and Stan are sleeping and breathing in harmony (50 years of marriage must do this for you). Flying north of the Himalayas. 5 hours to arrival. 37,500 ft. 7.50am in Hong Kong. Some turbulence. Feel fine and wondering if I can stay awake and kick hard in to HK time for the next 12 plus hours. Too dark to do very much.
9.50am Hong Kong time (2.50am BST) writing this by the light of the personal TV screen (my silvery moon). Watched very positive and entertaining film with (the aforementioned) Martin Clunes and Brian Murphy about 5 guys who go to France. Highlight is where Brian Murphy has (a rude word) painted on his bald forehead in suntan lotion as he sunbathes, with the inevitable comical result. Laughed and enjoyed the optimism and honesty. Just been to the loo and then looked out of the window. Realised I had weed over a desert – irrigation I guess. Think it was the Gobi (what geography degree ?). A mere 1,300 miles to go to destination. Feel wide awake. Lillian woke up and couldn’t find her blanket so I gave her mine! (Who says I’m selfish? I’m not sharing my sweets though) Plane in darkness but very light out of the window. There is nothing to this long distance flying. No signs of deep vein thrombosis and very good service. Keep thinking I’m mad doing this, but relaxed after all the stress of booking, arranging and packing. And I can’t lose anything on a plane, can I?
It’s been interesting when I’ve told people what I am doing, to get their reaction. Many have been excited for me and envious. Only one or two have looked quizzically at me and asked “Why?” Jack for one. Deb explained “Well he never had a gap year.” I think I was partly inspired by Peter and his back-pack trip to Australia. And, of course, to prove to myself that the world really is round. Christopher Columbus went west. I’m going east and east and more east! But the credit, I guess, goes to Mum and Dad taking us to Germany and Ireland in the days when the Isle of Wight was abroad and Blackpool had enough sand and sunshine, thank you very much. So the wanderlust overcame the constant travel sickness of me aged 10 or whatever. Then my recent trips to Toronto and Vegas – the two good things from my last job (R.I.P.), the family trips to France (corner shop), Italy (edge of town) and USA (truly abroad). Chuck in chatting to people in USA/Aus/NZ on the internet, and here I am! An international travel apprentice, aged 45 and 1/2. I’d hoped to take in Cairo on this trip to follow in my dad’s footsteps, but the diversion would have delayed and added to the cost (£1,200 plus hotels plus ice-creams). Still I seem to have successfully planted the idea of a holiday in Cyprus in July with Deb, H and P. James will come quietly. And then Cairo and the Pyramids are just across the water.
12.35pm HK time. Descending through white clouds to reveal blue rippled ocean. Armed with ear plugs and fruity sweet to negotiate earache. Very sunny, 80°F down below we are told. Good flight. Ate breakfast an hour ago and read through Stan Braybrook’s extemporary guide to HK and the more official “Lonely Planet” guide bought in Loughborough. Acquired the knack of listening to Lillian’s story of her nephew in Australia (second playing) without listening, but without her noticing I wasn’t listening. Small boats in the sea off China. Wow, China! I have never been so far east or south and away from (at least to a degree) western culture. The experience of sight and sound and smell/aroma starts soon. Feeling fine and have convinced myself it is not 5.00am. Besides, 5.00am wouldn’t be early!
Stan fought in HK as a commando in WW2. As he raised his arms steadily to open the hold to retrieve two blankets, I imagined him 60 years younger holding firmly on to his parachute as he descended down over this identical blue sea. Said goodbye to Lillian and Stan on the plane. Felt I knew them very well, but that they didn’t know me at all.