‘Just the place to bury a crock of gold,’ said Sebastian. ‘I should like to bury something precious in every place where I’ve been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember.’
Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
About five hours into my flight back from Hong Kong to London a few weeks ago, I opened the window blind a little, to look down on the Gobi Dessert. Orange-brown sands stretching out endless and empty for miles and miles. Last year Andy and I did the same journey, but rather than hopping on a plane we went the long way, slowly meandering our way over land. It seems amazing to me that the journey that took us nearly 4 months to complete, could be taken in just 12 short hours.
It’s been nearly six months since we returned from our trip. After 109 days, 16 countries, 2 planes, 43 buses, 19 trains, 15 taxis, 14 tuk tuks, 6 boats and 2 motorbikes, we reached the end of our journey. We travelled from Singapore to London, via South East Asia, China, Mongolia, Russia and Europe. All the way overland, taking in some incredible, breath taking places along the way. We’ve come such a long way, seen so much, seen the world change and alter across the continents. Moving constantly, time zone to time zone, language to language. Sat here in the routine, security and stability of England, its hard to process it all. Hard to imagine just a few short months ago we were always moving, always seeing somewhere new. Falling in love again and again.
These are the places for my crocks of gold, the places where we were truly happy, the places we struggled to leave. The places where conversations began, ‘when we come back’, where we talked of staying, where we dreamt of settling down. The places that linger in my memory and in my heart. Sandy memories of flip flop tan lines and cool beers by the beach. Memories of mountains and endless skies, of climbing upwards with fast beating hearts and aching legs. Memories of the snow, of cold, icy numb fingers, and frost covered trees.
George town, Penang was, perhaps, the first place to truly capture us on this journey. This is the first place I started looking around and spotting schools we could work at, thinking what it would be like to stay. A beautiful place of brightly tiled floors, faded colonial beauty, street art and street food. A town oozing with character, every turn, every lane, every alleyway revealing some new detail. A town that draws you around corners, pulling you further and further in, taunting you, defying you to leave.
Next on my list is Kep. Oh Kep. A little Cambodian jewel right at the southern tip of the country. We stayed in little round stone house in a tucked away garden, considered how we could make it home. Days spent hiking through the hills of the national park, nibbling on pink shelled crabs caught fresh out the sea. Evenings sat watching the sun dip into the sea, casting red glows across the water. Eating fresh seafood with our hands, licking salt from our fingers. Sitting on wooden balconies, hung out over the sea, sipping cold beers long into the night.
Laos, my favourite country of the trip if I had to pick, gets pots of gold buried all the way from North to South. I’ll mention just two. The first is Tha Lang village. A tiny village, hardly inhabited by locals let alone tourists. We’d spent the day riding here though beautiful krast scenery, clattering along on the back of a moped, wind billowing our shirts behind us, pink and red helmets on our heads. The rode turned off into the mountains and began to climb, twisting and climbing its way upwards. At the top of the mountain the road levelled out again, and it is here, all alone on the road, having seen noone for miles, that we had this magical moment. We turned a corner and there it was. A breath takingingly beautiful, crystal clear lake, reflecting trees in its waters. Naked tree trunks twisted hauntingly upwards. We didn’t know why it was there, or how it came to be, but for just a moment it felt like it was there just for us, waiting to be found.
My other magical Laos moment comes from Luang Prabang. I’d been warned I’d fall in love with this place long before we arrived. A relaxed, sleepy town tucked into a bend in the Mekong. A town of temples, saffron robed monks, markets and crafts. Of wandering at night under lantern hung streets, nibbling coconut pancakes from banana leaf bowls. Of waterfalls, and colour and light.
Lazy, sleepy days by the river. Rising at sunrise to watch quietly as the snaking trail of shaven headed monks collected alms. Later, with the sun high in the sky, novice monks dash heads bowed between temples, books under their arms.
We were there for the festival of lights. The whole town decorated with orange blooms and flaming paper boats, lit up with the glow of candle lights and sky lanterns. A usually charming town became heart achingly beautiful. We meant to stay just two days, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave.
Tiger Leaping Gorge was without doubt my favourite place in China. China and me had a complicated relationship. I had a wonderful, incredible, amazing time there, but its also the most frustrating place I have ever experienced. My very English heart disliked the crowds, the pushing, the loud voices, and the spitting. We met some lovely people, people who helped us on our travels, people with fascinating stories to tell, people who shared their beautiful country with us, but I struggled in a culture that whole heartedly embraces all these things that grate so painfully on me.
Tiger Leaping Gorge is the complete antithesis to this. A spectacular moment of calm and clarity. A place on a scale so immense the eye can’t take it in. A soaring, climbing wall of rock. The roar of the river tumbling through the gorge always in our ears. We hiked upwards through the gorge, climbing along its length, seeing more tea ponies than people. We spent the night in a guesthouse at the top of the gorge, waking up to sit on a chilly wooden roof top and watch the sun rise behind the rock face, turning its craggy surfaces aglow with purple dawn light.
From China we caught a train out through Mongolia and into Russia. Giddily excited to be finally arriving at the true heart of the journey; the Trans-Siberian Railway. Our first stop was Irkutsk, and the shores of the mighty Lake Baikal, so big that standing on its beaches feels like looking out to sea. This part of Siberia surprised and delighted us. Dripping character in even wonky, tumble down wooden building. I photographed window after brightly painted window.
The lake side village of Listvyanka was all but deserted for the winter. The edges of the lake just starting to freeze, just a few short months before entire expanse of lake would be frozen over entirely. We explored its icy back roads in tentative skidding footsteps. Around us blue skies, clear air and frost covered trees sparkly in the sun. A world away from the cities of Russia. Hectic, imposing Moscow, romantic, cultured St Petersburg, and of course Yekaterinburg, where on a cold snowy day Andy asked me to be his wife.
From here our journey speed up, taking on a breathless, clamouring pace. Europe, the final leg of the journey, passed in a blur. A mad dash of endless long haul bus rides racing the clock to make it home for Christmas. We hopped through the Baltics, and charged through Poland without seeing anything but the roadside verge passing by the bus window, and stopped for breath in Berlin. Berlin, the only big city to make my list. A city with neighbourhoods, good food, and friendly locals. A city of Currywurst, of Christmas markets, of memory. A resilient city, one that respects and remembers its troubled past, but refuses to be beholden to it. A city where we felt we could move straight in, find a home, carve out our district. A place where we could spend hours and hours exploring and still find more to discover.
And now to home, the end of the journey.
Hong Kong to England.
One home to another.