Monthly Archives: November 2016

The torture chamber of a Chinese massage parlour..

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I always believed that massages were a luxury reserved for the rich: the rich in time with nothing better to do, or the rich with more money than sense.  Or maybe a special treat being spoilt in a lavish spa.  How things have changed…   Being immersed in the cultures of India and the Far East where massages are a way of life, only the stubborn and foolhardy would not succumb to a bit of ‘pampering’ to release the tensions of the daily grind.

Glossing over my first ‘body scrub’ massage in India after lying on the beach, my initial reluctance to delve into the world of massage soon vanished when I started having regular visits to a 5* hotel in Kovalam.   A generous discount for being a teacher at the hotel owner’s school meant access to extravagant treatments, as well as sumptuous massages…  I wallowed in a milky bathtub perfumed with sweet smelling rose petals.  I was swaddled in a chocolate body wrap to reveal ‘glowing new skin’ underneath.  A brilliant white face mask was applied in the hope of shedding a few years and rejuvenating…   I allowed myself to be smothered in green slimy stuff which probably was intended to cleanse and heal.  Hot stone therapy left me nicely relaxed and warmed up.  And I tried out massages with enthralling names, such as the  Swedish Sojourn, which  sent me soothingly to the Nirwana of blissful semi-consciousness…

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Being curious and eager to try the different massages,  I allowed myself a taste of the Thai Monastery massage… Out with the gentle stuff and in with the proper kneading, and kneeling and kneeing…  I was pulled and pushed into various unnaturally looking angles and almost certainly literally walked all over.  Not sure of the purpose of all this manoeuvring, but isn’t it supposed to be beneficial for the body?  Extend its youthful appearance and restore lost flexibility in joints?? A Thai massage is not for the faint hearted and just a one-off was sufficient to sate my hunger for experiencing the full extent of the world of massage, I thought..

Of course, being in Thailand in the summer, I had a little flurry.  How could I not at least try a massage dispensed by the experts?  But Phuket definitely panders to the whims of Westerners and my masseuse obediently paid heed to my calls of mercy and indeed managed an experience that almost had me floating away with the fairies.  Just once in a while did her fingers probe deeper into the muscle tissue but any signs of my discomfort were meekly taken to heart and a softer technique was applied.

Just as Thai massages have a certain reputation, the Chinese ones are equally famed.  In a country were traditional  medicine often still carries more weight than Western approaches, massages are seen as part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle and a cure for all kinds of ills. How a massage would be helpful when a three year old suffers from a common cold, is lost on me, but Maggie from the little language school duly took her young son for a Chinese massage because he had a runny nose…  Last weekend,  after several months in China and having to reduce my hiking exploits due to knee problems (more about this in future blogs…), my body longed for a massage, a gentle one.. where I could just lie down and relax… I had been recommended foot massages before, but I was looking for the full works.. something along the lines of the Indian experience: a  5* massage restyled to fit Western tastes and expectations.  I put out some feelers with Chinese friends, surely they would be able to point me into the right direction…

Indeed, Maggie came to the rescue.  What kind of a massage was I looking for, she enquired.   Whole body, please, and definitely relaxing…   A friend of a friend whose son has lessons at her little language school happened to offer the kind of services I wanted, she claimed.  The date and time set, I turned up at the meeting point and was shown the ‘massage parlour’.  ‘It is a good place,’ Maggie assured me, ‘because they specialise in massage for pregnant women and women who have recently given birth’…???  I could hardly suppress a quizzical look, because I certainly did not fit into either category…   But then again, surely those women deserved a little gentle stimulation…

‘What type of massage did I have in mind,’ the masseuse enquired.  ‘Relaxing, soft, ‘drifting away on fluffy clouds’ kind of massage,’ I repeated for the umpteenth time, leaving the translation of my request to Maggie, as I started up the stairs.  ‘Remember that a Chinese massage is supposed to be medicinal,’ Maggie’s voice boomed behind me…

How can I describe the agony of the next two hours?  ‘Why did you not walk out?’ L (colleague from New Zealand) asked incredulously.  ‘Better learn the Chinese for ‘it hurts!’ K (colleague from South Korea) suggested afterwards…  Deep tissue massage may well have some benefits for those with plenty of muscle and tissue, but the lack of cushioning around my skeletal frame did not provide a lot of protection from the onslaught.  And if kneading and prodding and pushing was not sufficient, the masseuse also added friction heat to the witch’s brew of medicine…  Duly covered in oil, she used her elbows and forearms to work up plenty of heat in my muscles…  I curled my toes, twitched my arms, pulled up my legs  whilst emitting muffled sounds of displeasure and torment.  The masseuse took notice. ‘Hurt?’ she enquired.  My nods only seemed to add to her pleasure and she continued her torrent of massage strokes relentlessly..

And as all ‘good’ things come to an end, so did the massage.  It was only when I stood up that the masseuse noticed my back… and showed me the angry red patches in the mirror…  Friction burns and bruises???  How the hell was this medicinal???

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Maggie sent me a message as I left the parlour.  Did I enjoy my massage?  How did I feel?  Being the polite person that I can be, I lied..  ‘It was wonderful, Maggie.  I feel 10 years younger…’  I eventually, after a few days, told her the truth, and explained, ‘I have had massages before, Thai ones even, but I have never ended up with bruises..’  If I had thought that there would have been at least a modicum of sympathy, I was sorely disappointed.  ‘Of course, I knew about the bruising,’ she said, ‘they phoned me after you left…  But that’s OK, it’s a good thing…  When will you be going back???’

Really?????  ‘Not in a million years, Maggie… If this is the only kind of massage China has to offer, I think I will be giving it a wide berth from now on…’  I am not into masochism…

The dangers of courting danger…

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They say that your life flashes before your eyes when you find yourself in a scrape that could easily have a sticky end…   I can assure you this is not the case.  Instead the air explodes in  a firework of colourful expletives, closely followed by desperate appeals to a merciful God:  ‘Please, let me not break any bones!!’

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‘Tiger Leaping Gorge’, Yunnan Province, China

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With a little imagination you can see the tiger’s eye and nose, crouching, ready to pounce

We were on the last of our hikes, the one we had not been warned about.  ‘Tiger Leaping Gorge’ – a scenic canyon on a primary tributary of the Yangtze River –  indeed featured on our itinerary, but we were assured that after our initial two days of strenuous trekking, we could retire our walking boots and gear.  As it was towards the end of our week’s adventure in the most beautiful province of Yunnan, with its snow capped mountains and spectacular mirror lake, I had put on my last clean t-shirt.  Crisp and white, unworn and fresh from Wal-mart, on its first outing, not a stain or blemish in sight…  Too late to fish out my proper walking trousers or a more suitable t-shirt, I settled for the essentials: changing my footwear and leaving behind my hiking poles.  Better not to carry anything in your hands, as it would be a hindrance on the way up, the guide argued.  Anyway, what could go wrong during a one-hour descent into the gorge and a two hours ascent on a well-worn path?

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‘The First Bend of the Yangtze River’, near Lijiang.

Earlier in the week, in the Meli National Park, we had tackled punishing steep climbs, when the high altitude sucked out all our energy and everyone struggled to catch their breath on the sharp inclines.  Our efforts and hard work were rewarded by awe-inspiring scenery and the sheer excitement of a mission successfully completed.  Nothing could surpass the glow of the awakening sun settling on the snow-capped mountains… Unless maybe glimpsing the arch of the rainbow thrown across the mountain range by a scattering of early morning raindrops.

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Nestled between the high peaks of the  Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (5,600 m) and Haba Snow Mountain  (5,400m),  the Yangtze courses through the ‘Tiger Leaping’ gorge in a series of treacherous rapids, deemed too perilous to navigate, and flanked by almost vertical, sheer  2000 m cliffs.   It is by far the most dangerous stretch of the river, and only two teams of rafters and sailors are known to have survived the attempt to pass it. Exhilarating to be so close to this, we thought, as we edged nearer the turbulent waters.  We eyed the wobbly bridge spanning the gap across the river to a large body of black rock outcrops jutting out from the gush.  A perfect spot for a group photograph.

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Just a few hundred metres along, another suspension bridge hovered over the thundering river,  a temptation hard to resist.  A small group of us ventured into its direction, in pursuit of yet another envy-inspiring picture to post on WeChat or Facebook and to revel in the dare of watching the water crashing underneath.  I stopped briefly to take a few shots, but clearly lingered too long whilst all the others in the group disappeared around the bend and into the distance.  Not a soul in sight.  I stuffed my phone in my pocket and tried to catch up with them…

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To this day, I cannot fathom what happened.  I have traversed many rickety bridges and walked gingerly on narrow ledges, always checking carefully I have a sure footing.  Maybe I was in too much of a rush and threw caution to the wind, blasé about having tramped over too many shaky and ramshackle constructions.  Maybe I just thought there was a wider crossing over the crevice in the rocks.  Perhaps I slipped on the curved surface of the tree trunk spanning the gap.  Or maybe part of the wood gave way…  When I surveyed the area later on, there was certainly evidence a chunk of wood had recently broken off.  In the end it did not matter, because whatever the reason, I found myself tumbling down the rock face, down towards the rush of the Yangtze River eagerly waiting at the bottom.

To begin with, I dropped down feet first, then on my back, my fall softened by sturdy bushes and plants and cushioned by a backpack bulging with my fleece and waterproofs.  I watched the mocking leaden sky peeking through the foliage.  No time to panic, my only concern: no one had seen me fall… the path in front of me and behind had been empty.  OMG, I kept on thinking!! ‘Oh no, oh my God,’ as I kept on slipping further down.  How did this happen to me? ‘How the hell am I going to get out of here…  oh, shit…’  The welcome respite from some branches that held my weight was short-lived as they quickly and suddenly gave way..  And I continued downwards, where greenery was scarcer and bare rocks protruded menacingly.  I hit my head on a rock, more aware of the sound than any pain..  How far was I still from the river?  How high was the path above the river?  How many more rocks would I crash into??  What would happen if I broke my legs or an arm?? Please let me not break anything!!

After an eternity of seconds, I came to a rest on a ledge extending from the vertiginous rocks, still conscious and able to check my vital signs: my phone was still in my pocket and working! But I watched, shaking,  as my water bottle escaped from my backpack and rattled further down, sneering with every bounce.   No time to wonder about the dull pain in my left ankle and having yet again hurt my left knee; no point in worrying about the bump on my head.  I needed to get out of there, quickly and on my own… Not once did I cast a backward glance to see how close I got to the river or how wide the little ledge was.  I scanned the wall looming in front of me, peering through the shrubbery to see how high I needed to climb…

At lunchtime, the Spanish pilot in our group of travellers related a story about a man who spent two days crawling out of a ravine after he crashed his car and broke both his legs.  We talked about the extraordinary willpower it must have taken and how he would have dealt with unimaginable agony.  Where does the strength come from?   Of course, with both my arms and legs sufficiently intact,  I was not in any such predicament, but the adrenaline rush that accompanies a stressful situation blots out the pain and turns jellified joints and muscles into incredibly strong steel rods.   I did not try to use my phone or even check whether there was any reception.  I felt the might of Hercules speeding through my veins and used all my resolve to haul myself up, hoping the plants that protected me from the worst on the way down,  were anchored deeply and would support me out of the crevice and back onto those wonky pieces of wood.  I probably only tumbled down 5 or six metres,  not enough to call the air rescue team…

Finally reaching the ‘safety’ of the path, I felt the sticky mess on the back of my head.  Hands covered in blood, red and green stains on my new t-shirt, I must have looked a sight.  Luckily, the cut was only superficial as my walking hat had shielded me from more deeper wounds… and I only saw the rainbow of bruises on my body when I got back home two days later.  It could have been so much worse.. but I never made it to the second bridge over the Yangtze River, feeling definitely a little too shaky after the experience.

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And as if I had not had enough adventure for one day… instead of meandering along the winding slope to the top of the gorge, we made our way up via an assembly  of ladders fixed against the  sheer  90˚ rock face.  Definitely the quicker way up, but safer????  We ‘only’ had  a few hundred rungs to go, so  I grit my teeth and got on with it…

In the future, I shall look at wobbly, decaying bridges and dicey river crossings with the respect they deserve and just maybe not be so flippant about them…  Courting danger can be dangerous indeed and good endings are not guaranteed!!

Happy Anniversary, says Wordpress…

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Netheravon, August 2013

The message took me by surprise.  My second anniversary on WordPress.  Two years of writing blog posts, almost weekly…  I know I have slacked a little lately.  Too busy having experiences, not enough time to keep a record of it all.

I have no idea how many words it amounts to or how many pages it would fill in a book; how much of it is interesting and how often visitors actually read the text or just scan through the photographs.  But it gives me some idea of how I spent those 24 months, where I went and whom I met; the places I grew to love or hate; the people who stole a small piece of my heart..

How many stamps did I collect in my passport? So far I have visited 11 countries. Not all for the first time, but I stayed for longer periods, immersing myself in different cultures, customs and traditions.  Definitely often challenging, but nevertheless the experiences of a life time and I feel I have not even scratched the surface..  Much more to explore on this ever expanding journey, no end yet in sight!

And trawling through the wealth of accumulated photographs I struggle to condense my exploits to just a few highlights.  There have been too many really…  Maybe my adventures had already started in August 2013 when I took the plunge with a skydive, ‘chaperoned’ by my son; or when we as a family hiked Mount Snowdon in Wales (March 2014)…

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Snowden (Wales), March 2014

But my travels really started, way back in May 2014, with a short trip to Florence, accompanied by one of my dearest friends… It is strange how when life turns upside down you get to know your real friends: the ones who support you when things are tough, those whose ears do not grow tired of hearing the same old lament; the ones who do not point out the flaws in your plan but are ready to help you pick up the pieces.  However until I left for India in October 2014, England was my home, the place I returned to after travelling.

So if I look back over the last two years to catalogue my ‘travel around the world’ adventures, I have to start with that journey to Florence.  No better way to put a smile on my face than a close encounter with David, although we only met in a coffee shop being too stingy to fork out for a visit to the real one.

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Florence (Italy), May 2014

In September 2014 my daughter dropped me off at Heathrow  airport,  the starting point of my African adventure and beyond.  ‘Don’t do anything silly or stupid.  Make sure you stay safe.  And keep in touch!!!’, the sage advice of my daughter.  I was the one setting out on the gap year!!! Talking about role reversal…

In Cape Town (South Africa) I scaled the Lion’s Head and tackled Table Mountain.  I watched the sun rise over Dune 45 in Namibia and spied some of the Big Five on the plains of Etosha.  My flight over the Okavanga Delta in Botswana was easily eclipsed by fulfilling a lifetime’s ambition of Grade 5 white water rafting on the mighty Zambezi River, with the roar of the magnificent Victoria Waterfalls in my ears.  I stood eye to eye with fierce black rhinos in Zimbabwe.

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Table Mountain (Cape Town, south Africa), September 2014

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The Lion’s Head (Cape Town, South Africa), September 2014

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Sossusvlei (Namibia), September 2014

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Sossusvlei, Dune 45 (Nambia), September 2014

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Ethosia (Namibia), September 2014

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Exploring the Okavanga Delta by Mokoro (Botswana), September 2014

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Bird’s Eye view of the Okavanga Delta (Botswana), September 2014

 

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Flying over the mighty Victoria Waterfalls (Zimbabwe), September 2014

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Awesome white water rafting on the Zambesi River (Zimbabwe), September 2014

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Facing the rhinos in Zimbabwe, September 2014

In October 2014, Southern India beckoned… I learnt to navigate the Indian traffic chaos, and became adept at opening a coconut without proper tools.  I spent months swaddled in churidars, only to expose my legs near the more tolerant beach towns of Kovalam and Varkala. I kayaked the backwaters of Alleppey and bathed elephants in Periyar.   I have fond memories of exploring the hidden treasures of  Munnar, Kumarakom and Ponmudy with Dr Anne…  I watched the sun rise in Kanyakumari, at the southernmost point of the Indian subcontinent and felt my stomach lurch at the sight of men hanging from flesh hooks to appease the gods and earn more desirable opportunities in the future.  No more idyllic end to my Indian adventure than spending four days luxuriating on the uninhabited islands of Lakshadweep, definitely one of the best kept secrets of Indian tourism.

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Periyar, Kerala (India), December 2014

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Kerala (India) , February 2015

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Kanyakumari, July 2015

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Ponmudi (Kerala, India), October 2015

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Travels with Dr. Anne, (Munnar) , October 2015

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The unspoiled islands of Lakshadweep (India), November 2015

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Exploring the underwater world around Lakshadweep (India), November 2015

My travels in India were briefly interrupted by a little sojourn to the UK and Amsterdam (March 2015).  No adult gap year would be complete without tasting the elsewhere forbidden pleasures of space cakes and smoking a joint.  And yes, sampling cheeses, lots of exotic, colourful cheeses…

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Amsterdam, March 2015

Entitled to a two week break in August and September 2015 I made it to Kathmandu, Nepal, where I  witnessed the devastation wreaked by the April earthquake. I made acquaintance with Sadhus in the sacred Pashupatinath  Temple where Hindus come to cremate relatives who have passed away.   In Pokhara and Poon Hill I had my first (so far…) encounter with the impressive Himalayas and in Chitwan I had the privilege of glimpsing the elusive tiger in the wild…

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Pokhara, Nepal.  September 2015

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Sunrise at Poon Hill, Nepal.  September 2015

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Sunset over the river in Chitwan, September 2015

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The elusive tiger, September 2015

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Making friends in Kathmandu, September 2015

In February 2016, I landed in Hangzhou, a stone’s throw away from Shanghai. The end of the winter, still bitter, when only the colour of clothes and bicycles brightened the grey, dull atmosphere.  In March I joined a group of Chinese students taking selfies in the yellow expanse of rapeseed flowers.  April found me blowing giant bubbles in a massive park.  The rains of May turned Huangshan’s Yellow Mountain into a sea of mist and mystique.  In June I looked down on Shanghai from its Pearl Tower.  In July I cruised the Li River, admiring the mysterious hills and mountains lining its banks.  In September I conquered the Great Wall and in October I explored the wonders of Yunan and Shangri-La…

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Rapeseed flowers in Wuyuan, March 2016

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Giant bubble fun in Hangzhou, April 2016

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Mountains in the mist, Huangzhan, May 2016

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First visit to Shanghai, June 2016

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Mysterious mountains in Yuangsho, July 2016

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The Great Wall of China, September 2016

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Sunrise over Mount Meli, Yunnan, October 2016

In August 2016, I escaped the oppressive heat of the Shanghai summer to briefly visit the UK and have a break in Thailand touching the very beaches made famous by James Bond and Leonardo Di Caprio..

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Bangkok, Thailand.  August 2016

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James Bond Island, Phuket, Thailand.  August 2016

Not a bad list of achievements for two years of travelling ‘Round The World’…  I wonder what will be in store for the next two years..  Where to next???