In this comical travel memoir, Mark sets out to traverse from Sydney to London without flying. His extraordinary overland journey from Australia to the UK takes him through three continents and eighteen countries, via famed cities like Singapore, Bangkok, Istanbul, Prague, and Berlin; and obscure locales like Coober Pedy, Maha Salakham, Aktau, Sheki, and Guca. Follow him as he catches a cargo ship across the Indian Ocean, runs a gauntlet of Chinese tanks and terrorists, has beers with a naked ex-Soviet Officer in Kazakhstan, attends a Serbian trumpet festival, and eats magic mushrooms for breakfast in the Netherlands. As he trots across the globe, he tells it like it is, with off-kilter opinions and left-field humour. You’ll laugh as you learn about the world and what it takes to travel it.
Below Is A Sample Chapter & PHOTOS ARE ON FACEBOOK
Last night I arrived in Luang Prabang, a misty city of temples in northern Laos, after a day-long bus ride through a precipitous, jungled landscape, on a barrier-less, potholed road – the country’s main highway – that meandered through clusters of wooden houses and wicker shacks. Pigs, goats, and chickens roamed roadside – even a few elephants, too.
Today, I’m up at 5.30 am to watch the alms-giving ceremony that takes place every morning in Luang Prabang. Monks from each of the city’s temples – and there are a lot of temples – stream the streets in single file lines. At one point, a hundred-plus walk past in one line. Such a sight gives unholy thoughts to anyone who played the original Grand Theft Auto, where mowing down lines of monks would boost your score. Locals sit or crouch at the side of the road, their heads lower than the monks’ as a sign of respect. They give each monk who passes some food, like a portion of rice or some vegetables, which they place into the basket each monk carries. Monks aren’t allowed to use money, and so rely on this ceremony to get their grub. Locals give it to get some Karma points. The more a person racks up in their lifetime, the better the life they’ll have when they’re reborn. Accumulate too few points, and life as a dung beetle awaits.
Despite it being so early, the streets are busy because, as well as monks and locals, tourists have risen to witness the spectacle. Signs state it’s a sacred ritual, not a gimmick for tourists, and not to get close to the monks or use flash photography. Ignoring this request, some stand within a metre of the monks, and blind them with flashes. I hope they enjoy looking at those photos when they get home. They’ve paid a high price for them: being face first in dung for eternity. I take a photo too but while sitting on the kerb on the other side of the street. Anyway, Buddha already hates me, so it doesn’t matter if I take a photo of a monk, or steal a tuk-tuk and mow down a hundred of them.
Later, I cross the murky, brown Mekong on a rickety bamboo bridge and follow paths past small shacks. Near one, a teenager is high up a coconut tree using a stick to poke at the bounty on offer, for free to anyone brave enough. Below him, two friends position themselves, hoping the delivery falls into their hands, not onto their heads.
I walk along a path, through some trees, and come out in a clearing beside a house on the riverfront. An old man approaches from a boat on the bank. “You speak French?” he asks me.
“No, only English.”
“I speak French good. English just bit.”
“Is that your boat?”
“Yes. Also that one. And that one, too.”
“And this is your house?”
“This house number four.”
“Where are the other three?”
“One over there. Two in the town.”
“You buy me beer?”
A man with three boats and four houses can buy his own beer. If anything, he should buy me one.
After lunch, I go to Kuang Si Waterfalls, part of a nearby national park. The main waterfall is a three-tier, sixty-metre cascade of water, falling over rocks coated in algae and moss. I’ve not seen many waterfalls, but this is the best of them. I attempt the steep hike to the top, but soon give up. Climbing a muddy, twisting path in flip-flops is a fool’s errand. A fool I might be, but an errand-running one I’m not. Flip-flops, great as they are, aren’t suitable for some activities, and this is one, along with skiing and scuba diving.
Instead, I spend hours lazing in the jungle-shaded, multi-levelled, turquoise pools at the foot of the waterfall. Unseen objects move below the surface. To relax you need to persuade yourself that the odd-feeling thing brushing your thigh is a leaf or fish, not a leech or snake. I chat with people from around the world, including a Japanese finance worker, a South Korean restaurant owner, and a Vietnamese software programmer. We discuss topics ranging from the best age to get married (forty), to should Japan be allowed an army again (no), to whether or not bicycles in the Netherlands have brakes (not sure).
Back in Luang Prabang, I visit Wat Xieng Thong, an ornately decorated, gold-gilded temple. In the courtyard is an outdoor shrine under a gazebo. Candles burn among bouquets of flowers. People kneel to pray and present offerings. Music plays from speakers, and sounds, to my musically untrained ears, like xylophones, bongos, and flutes. It’s not unlike the £3 Summer Sunset On The Beach CDs you find in supermarkets, which a cheapskate relative buys you for Christmas.
The monks of the temple are young, averaging twenty-to-twenty-five years old. Some, though, are mere boys. Becoming a monk means they get a good education and also Karma points for their whole family. They live for free in a scenic setting under sunny skies and don’t have to worry about work or money. It sounds better than a life of doing a job you hate to pay for things you don’t need.
Afterwards, I climb the steps to Phou Si Stupa, a temple on a hill in the centre of the city. On the way up is a woman stood behind a table of small cages, two birds in each one. People buy the birds from her so they can get Karma points for setting them free. I wonder how many Karma points I’d get for putting her in a cage. At the top of the hill, I see the sun setting over the dense jungle which surrounds Luang Prabang for as far as the eye can see. Looking around, I wonder what the Americans were trying to bomb here in the Vietnam War, during which they made Laos the world’s most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history. The plus-sized burger-munchers dropped 270 million “bombies” (bombs, cluster bombs, and the bombs within cluster bombs) on Laos, a quarter of which failed to detonate. These are called UXO (unexploded ordnance). Clearance work has yet to be completed, meaning much of Laos is like a minefield. More than twenty thousand have been killed or injured by UXOs since the end of the war in 1973. Of those, thirteen thousand lost a limb.
On the way back to my room, I stop off to buy a £35 bus ticket to take me to Kunming in China, a twenty-four-hour bus ride away. The prospect of that tortuous journey is worsened when at my room I read an article on the BBC News website about a terrorist attack earlier today at the train station in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang.
“Deadly Terrorist Attack At Xinjiang Railway Station: A bomb and knife attack at a railway station in China’s western Xinjiang region has killed three and injured seventy-nine others. The attackers used knives to stab people at the station exit and detonated explosives at the same time.”
There’s a link within the article to another one about a terrorist attack last month at Kunming train station, where I’m heading tomorrow. But there’s no point worrying about getting stabbed or blown up until I’m in the country, which isn’t a certainty. Because I was bored of waiting in embassy queues, and because it’s not my preferred route, I didn’t apply for the Mongolian visa the Chinese embassy told me to get. It’s a valid reason for turning me away at the Laos-China border. Hopefully, they won’t give a toss, or I can bribe them, but it’ll be a nervous twelve-hour ride to the border to find out.