VDNKh: Stalin’s Theme Park

DSC_0319

The All-Union Agricultural Exhibition was intended to showcase the success of the collective farms.

There was an immediate problem in that the collective farms were a disaster: output collapsed, there was a terrible famine and millions died. But they were Stalin’s idea and Stalin – Orwell’s model for Comrade Napoleon – was always right and his policies never failed, they were just sabotaged by “kulaks,” “Trotsky-fascists,” “imperialist lackeys” or whatever label he decided to pin on the scapegoats.

DSC_0341

Construction of the All-Union Exhibition went ahead, originally on 330 acres of wasteland in the northern suburbs of Moscow. It opened in August 1939, a few months after the New York World’s Fair with which it was sometimes compared.

There were pavilions to represent each of the Soviet Republics, territories and regions, all built to impress on a scale to match the General Secretary’s ego. Statues, stained-glass, mosaics and bas-reliefs spoke of plentiful harvests, well-fattened animals and happy peasants, interleaved with the corporate logos of Soviet communism, the hammers and sickles, the stars and the CCCP’s. Inside were exhibits of agricultural techniques and machinery.

DSC_0306

While the New York World’s Fair was quickly dismantled and slowly forgotten, the All-Union Exhibition expanded in scope and area to become the Exhibition of National Economic Achievements, abbreviated in Russian to VDNKh. It gained more pavilions, magnificent fountains and a stop of its own on the Metro.

Cosmonauts Alley leads up from the station. It is more allée than alley: a broad, straight avenue cut through parkland, lined with trees.

IMG_4437

There are statues along its margins of iconic figures from the Soviet space programme: the likes of Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Terashkova (first man and first woman in space), Alexey Leonov (first spacewalk), and less happily Vladimir Komarov (first man to die on a space mission).

At intervals up the centre line, there are granite plinths cut into the shape of the Soviet star, planed to an angle and topped with bronze plates, also star-shaped, detailing events from the earlier years of the Space Race (before NASA caught up and went into the lead). They are interspersed with vibrant flower beds.

DSC_0354

An oversize statue of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky – the original rocket scientist – stands at the end of the avenue and, beyond it, the grandly-named Monument to the Conquerors of Space, a 400-foot-high swoosh of titanium representing a rocket aloft with its exhaust plume beneath it.

The park and exhibition centre at the other side of the monument now sprawl over 2.3 sq km, roughly equivalent to Monaco and the Vatican City combined.

DSC_0289

In the Yeltsin years, VDNKh was parcelled up and leased out to private companies, which gutted the pavilions, threw away the exhibits and turned the empty spaces into warehouses and retail outlets.

The historic pavilions, soon half-hidden behind illegal extensions and advertising hoardings, fell into disrepair. Hundreds of jerry-built temporary structures were thrown up between them. The complex seemed unlikely to survive. There were proposals to demolish the lot to make room for a shopping centre.

DSC_0337

When I went in the summer of 2015, I expected to find the decaying remains of what had once been described as “the Soviet Versailles”. But, unknown to me, the authorities had recently demolished a few hundred illegal buildings and extensions, torn down the ugly hoardings, cleared out 10,000 tons of garbage, remade the roads and paths, added benches and bins, replanted the flowerbeds and restored the eighty-year-old pavilions.

It was surreal to walk among buildings evocative of the international expos that captured so many imaginations between the Thirties and the Sixties and which are still studded with Soviet iconography. They have been cleaned up and repainted, but the stonework, the stained-glass, the mosaics are original, so there is none of the sense that there often is after major restorations that you are effectively looking at a modern replica.

IMG_4435

The parkland around them is pleasant to walk in and full of surprises with gushing fountains and monumental gardens, a boating lake, a photo exhibition in a rose garden, a tiny Orthodox church, a Vostok rocket and Buran spacecraft, a theatre, an aquarium, an SU-27 fighter jet and YAK-42 airliner.

The BBC journalist, Martin Sixsmith, called it “Russia’s answer to Disney World, but without the rides,” but the comparison is unfair, both to VDNKh and to Disney World.

© Richard Senior 2016

The Curious Classics of Colonia

DSC_0054

An ancient Beetle, firing on two or three cylinders and with more holes than exhaust, snapped, crackled and popped down Calle De San Pedro.

The diabolical sound echoed between the walls, shattered the peace, outraged the feral dogs which spend their days padding round town and dozing in the shade. For each one that set off barking, another three responded. Those closest ran, barking, after the Beetle, trying and failing to bite its tyres; reinforcements bounded from nearby streets, barging aside old ladies who shouted in protest.

DSC_0047

I saw the Beetle again later in the day, parked with its windows left open and doors unlocked, the bodywork slumped on its shot rear suspension. The engine cover was held on with twisted wire; kitchen foil had been crumpled into the hole where the speedo wasn’t; the front wings had been painted in household emulsion, with a brush.

There are classic cars everywhere in Colonia del Sacramento in the southwestern corner of Uruguay. Many – like the Beetle – are everyday runabouts. Others sit at the side of the road in the middle of town, apparently abandoned; some have been made into features.

DSC_1256

There is a rare, century-old Model T pick-up outside a restobar. They rest their menu boards against it and store firewood in the back. Restored, it might fetch US$40,000 on the international market, but then where would the restobar lean its boards?

The popular café, El Drugstore, on Plaza de Armas, has a collection of old cars. There is a Model A Ford built sometime around 1930, which they have cut the side out of and turned into an intimate table for two. Behind it, painted in the same matt black, is a Citroen Traction Avant from the Forties, which they use as a planter: fronds erupt from the windows and boot. Round the corner is an Austin 10 from the late 1930’s, in fair condition and not – as yet – converted into anything whimsical.

DSC_1270 E

Another Model A – a station wagon – has seemingly been forgotten under sycamore trees on the edge of the old town; its white paint is blackened and sticky with sap. All the doors were open when I passed it early one morning, presumably so the dogs could jump in to sleep. They were closed again an hour later, although the streets were still silent and the windows all around still shuttered.

On a quiet corner, shaded by trees, down near the yacht club, there is a Morris Oxford from the 1950s under a thick layer of dust. Much of its paint has flaked off, but the body has not rusted in that temperate climate, as it would have done half a century ago in the soggy country in which it was built.

DSC_1152

A Ford Pop of similar vintage is displayed as a conceptual artwork down a side street off the main drag of Avenida General Flores. There are tags sprayed on one door and the boot and six-foot papier-mache fish in the front seats.

There were still Vauxhall Chevettes on the road in Britain when I was a kid.  Shove-its, we called them. They were laughable old bangers even then. I had not seen one for years, but saw at least half a dozen in Colonia, along with other European cars from the Sixties and Seventies which I never even knew existed: a Peugeot 404, a Fiat 600 (a bit like the iconic Cinquecento, but with all the charm engineered out), and a very rusty Fiat 124, which I mistook for the virtually identical Lada.

DSC_0029

There were Ford and Chevrolet pick-up trucks built before Eisenhower was sworn-in as President, yet still looking surprisingly fresh. There were better Beetles than the one which had upset the dogs in the morning.

I have seen it suggested on several sites that Colonia’s classic cars are a legacy of economic collapse in the Sixties: that a people once rich enough on wool and beef to import new cars from Europe and the United States suddenly found themselves having to make the old ones last much longer. I am not at all convinced, though. That could, perhaps, explain the Morris Oxfords and Ford Pops, but not the Model A’s and Austin 10’s, nor, for that matter, the Chevettes.

DSC_1195

Besides, other Latin American countries saw their economies trashed in the second half of the twentieth century; several, like Uruguay, ended up ruled by noxious dictatorships. But with the obvious exception of embargoed Cuba, none has the abundance of classic cars you see in Colonia del Sacramento.

© Richard Senior 2016   

Journeys in the Sun

DSC_0836

It was the last day of April, well into New Zealand’s autumn, but the sun was warm and the sky was a searing blue.

The single-track road cut through the Marlborough wine region, past the big, internationally-known Brancott Estate. The vines had turned yellow and stretched to the horizon on either side of the road. Beyond them were mountains in front of mountains in front of still more mountains. The distant peaks were a hazy blue, the closer peaks grey, the closest green.

I spent the night in Nelson, a pleasant enough town with a few Edwardian and Art Deco buildings and umpteen galleries and craft shops. I was glad, though, that it was only one night.

A man and woman in front of me in the supermarket queue squabbled over precedence. He was technically first but was standing between two check-outs, which she argued was “neutral territory” and that by standing there he had forfeited his place. They worried the point tirelessly like a nasty little dog with a bone and I wondered how empty your life had to get before it came to that.

Autumn_in_the_Awatere_Valley

A big, silly ginger Tom loitered around my hostel and strolled in whenever he got the chance. He was a stocky, solid thing, a regular tough guy: a Clint Eastwood of cats. There were scars on his nose, dried blood on his lip and his ears were serrated; he clearly liked nothing better than to belt the crap out of other cats. But with humans, he was just a ginger blancmange.

He butted my leg and wrapped himself round me and rolled on his back with his feet in the air, purring and dribbling with a stupid grin on his face. If all the cats he had leathered could have seen him then.

It took all morning and most of the afternoon to get to Christchurch, but it was a lovely journey, again. The InterCity bus motored back through the Marlborough vineyards and on through Havelock, which the driver told us over the microphone was the world capital for green-lipped mussels and lost himself in reveries about green-lipped mussel pies.

He kept up the commentary and pointed out the old school of William Pickering, whom he called a ‘rocket scientist’. Pickering would have demurred. Physics, electrical engineering and telemetry. Come on, it’s not rocket science.

DSC_0262

I gazed out the window at golden trees and crimson trees, wrapped around hills, reflected in streams; at great shards of stone thrust skyward. There were gentle hills one minute, great mountains the next. There were cows and deer and hundreds and hundreds of sheep.

We drove out to the coast and traced the outline of the island down, passed seals basking on the rocks and penguins staggering ashore.

On and on through the mountains, along roads so twisty I thought of the original Italian Job and Matt Monro singing, “Questi giorni quando viene, il bel sole, la-la la-la la-la …”

The bus interchange in the middle of Christchurch was wrecked in the earthquake of 2011 and the bus stops now in the inner suburbs. I jumped out, got my backpack and set off walking into town to the hostel. Then, halfway there, I remembered the other bag I had left under the seat and turned round and went back for that.

© Richard Senior 2016

Vineyard image: By Phillip Capper from Wellington, New Zealand [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Kaiseki Cuisine on a Miserable Night

IMG_2623

The rain hammered down and smudged the neon which fizzed from 20-foot boards on the buildings either side of the road. Black-suited salarymen scurried along with their umbrellas tilted like lances. Girls clattered down the pavement in inappropriate heels. Eerie green lights emerged from the gloom as taxis shushed down the street, contemptuously splashing the people who had chosen to walk.

My 7-11 umbrella had collapsed on one side and I needed to get out of the rain. I ducked through the door of the first restaurant I came to, which happened to be a kaiseki place. It could just as easily have been McDonalds.

IMG_2624

Kaiseki cuisine, at a glance, is the Japanese equivalent of a dégustation at a Western fine-dining restaurant: a set menu of small dishes to showcase the skill of the chef. But it is deeper than that. There is a philosophy underlying it, a spiritual dimension, more layers of symbolism than a gaijan* like me could hope to understand.

At its heart is the idea of creating a meal the customer can enjoy with all five senses. The emphasis is on balance: of tastes, of textures, of colours, of techniques. Uncooked dishes are juxtaposed with cooked; grilled with boiled, fried with steamed. The presentation is artful, yet simple, with none of the smears, foams, emulsions and jellies which are the stock-in-trade of Michelin-starred chefs in the West.

IMG_2626

My appetiser – more appetising than it might sound – was thinly sliced pickled sea cucumber, served in a scallop-shaped dish lined with a pair of shisho leaves. A lot of thought goes into the choice of tableware.

The main courses, then, began with sashimi: the simplest of dishes but arranged with understated perfection, three pink slices of tuna, a small square of brilliant white flounder, a silvery tranche of horse mackerel overlain with a jumbo shrimp, peeled but with the head and tail left on, all glistening under the lights and garnished with a small mound of wasabi and the green leaf and yellow flower of Kerria Japonica, mimicking the design of the plate.

IMG_2627

A sequence of cooked dishes followed that – the ying to the yang of the raw fish – in the established order: boiled, then grilled, then fried.

First, jumbo shrimp and white fish fillet gently braised with tofu, spinach, aubergine and enoki mushrooms and kept warm at the table on a fondue burner which looked like an artwork in itself.

IMG_2628

Then a section of pike with the skin nicely crisped on the grill, served on a pine leaf carefully aligned with the pattern on the plate.

After that, a tempura of courgette, squash, okra and another of the jumbo shrimp for which Kanazawa is famous – Kaiseki chefs obsess about using local, seasonal produce. A vibrant plate contrasted with the neutral colour of the tempura.

IMG_2629

Snow crab claws came with a fat slice of steamed courgette in a kidney-shaped bowl with a smaller round bowl of vinegar-based dressing.

Then there was a bamboo box with green tea soba noodles, coiled as neatly as the ropes on the royal yacht. (I messed up the presentation before I snapped the picture below.)

IMG_2630

Finally, then, to round out the meal, there was a light dessert of two strawberries with a dipping sauce.

It all seemed to work much better than tasting menus ever do at home. There, either each plate is gone in two mouthfuls, just as your palate has registered the flavour combination, or dinner becomes an endurance test after the third course and, at the end of it all, you struggle home feeling as if you might explode. Here, it all seemed to be weighted just right. I neither felt cheated nor stuffed.

IMG_2631

What is more, by the time I had finished and paid, it had stopped raining and I could abandon my crippled umbrella and walk back to the hotel without getting wet.

© Richard Senior 2016

*Literally “outside person” – someone who isn’t Japanese

A Railay Nice Place

DSC_0058 (2)

I jumped out of the longtail boat at the West Beach, where the luxury travellers stay, and walked through the jungle to other side of the island.

I had hoped to get accommodation here, in Railay, a small peninsula cut off from mainland Krabi by limestone cliffs; but there was nothing left at the cheaper end, so I had to settle for a bungalow in Nopparat Thara at the other side of Ao Nang. It was only a short boat ride away.

It was a peaceful walk through the jungle with the sound of the birds and red and black butterflies, as big as my hand, flashing by, and the occasional cave to nose around. Cicadas of some sort way up in the trees made an unworldly metallic sound, pa-poing, pa-poing, pa-poing.

It was trippy as hell, and that suited Railay East, where the trail emerged. There is still a hint, there, of the semi-mythical hippie retreat which grizzled old travellers reminisce about when they complain of how Thailand has been ruined in the last 20, or 30, or 40, or however many years have passed since the first time they went.

I felt overdressed, there, in a Beer Chang singlet and fake Havianas. The other travellers wore nothing but faded fisherman’s trousers and tattoos. Several had dreads and most had luxuriant beards – even the girls – and this was at least a year before everyone had a beard.

Hip hop and reggae wafted from the bars; ganja smoke wafted from everywhere. There is usually a subtle but strict segregation between travellers and Thais, unless they are working in the tourist trade or dating farangs; but in Railay East they all sat and smoked together.

It might have been a backpacker paradise, had the beach not been a disaster of mud, mangroves and pipes.

photo (1)

walked through the jungle again to Phra Nang in the southwestern corner, where there is a lovely squiggle of beach framed by limestone karsts of bronze and grey overhung with trees.

It has supposedly been ranked among the top ten beaches in the world, but that is a bit meaningless because no one has been to them all. “The Ten Best…” is usually just the ten the writer knows about.  It was nice enough, though, to persuade me to stop, sit down on the sand and take it all in.

There were climbers on the karsts out in the bay, without ropes. It was a long way to fall if they slipped off a hold, but the sea below was deep enough to catch them. There were more climbers upside down on overhangs above the beach with instructors shouting encouragement from the ground. The more I watched them, the more I wanted a go.

But there was not much left of the afternoon by then. The sun slipped down and the light began to fade and I made my way back to the West Beach.  There was a long queue for the longtail boats, but a guy tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out into the surf to a boatman – presumably his mate – whom he said was going to Ao Nang and would give me a lift.

I jumped the queue and waded out until the water was up past my waist and grabbed the rail of the boat with both hands and vaulted in.

I planned to go back to Railay the next day but it was New Year’s Eve, and on New Year’s Day I didn’t feel like doing very much at all, and the day after that I left for Bangkok. I eventually went climbing in Laos, three countries later, and – much more recently – took it up seriously. I am at the climbing gym twice a week, now, when I am not travelling, and all because of that afternoon in Railay.

© Richard Senior 2016

Staying in San Telmo

DSC_0262 edit

It was a fine nineteenth century building in the same state of repair as most in San Telmo. The paint was flaking from the shutters, the stonework had fallen from the balustrades; the stucco was criss-crossed with graffiti.

The sign outside called it a hotel, the WiFi code called it a hostel. More than anything, though, it recalled the cheaper guesthouses of Bangkok.

The room was hot and airless. The fan did not so much cool the air as swish it about, and made a noise like the treadmill at the gym. The walls were dirty, the floorboards were splintering, the French doors had swelled too much to shut. There was the inevitable dead cockroach in the corner, as ubiquitous in hotels at this level as Molton Brown toiletries at the top end. It was there when I arrived, it was there when I left five days later, and it is probably still there now.

There was a sort of a patio linking the room to the bathroom, but it had a high wall blocking the view to anything but rusting tin sheets, broken windows and ferns growing up the inside wall. If I stood on a chair, though, I could look over at the place where they slung the broken furniture.

DSC_0896 edit

San Telmo is a characterful neighbourhood, the oldest in Buenos Aires. It was a poor barrio, centred upon a Jesuit mission, until 1767 when the Spanish drove the Jesuits out. It briefly went upmarket in the mid-nineteenth century, but a yellow fever epidemic put a stop to that. The rich left and their empty homes were carved into tenements and filled with immigrants fresh off the boats from Europe. Artists later moved in among them and lent the barrio the bohemian air it retains.

There was neither the money nor the mindset to tear down the old buildings and replace them with new, to extend or to bring into line with each ephemeral fashion, so everything stayed much as it was, photogenically decaying.

In the mornings, the smell of strong coffee and freshly-baked empanadas hangs in the air all over the barrio; in the evenings, the smoke converges from the many parrillas* as thick slabs of prime beef sizzle on grills. The convenience stores stay open late and do business through bars on the doors. The jobless sit listlessly in doorways; some sell odds and ends laid out on blankets.

There are rusting tram tracks up Calle Estados Unidos, although trams have not run on them for half a century. Dozens of Quilmes bottle tops have been trodden between the cobblestones outside the bars.

DSC_0889 edit

I assumed that the cars parked up the street had been abandoned years before, until one of them grumbled past my hotel. It was as if all the cars from all the scrapyards of Buenos Aires had come spontaneously to life to roam the city’s streets. One was missing a bonnet, another a windscreen, and a few seemed to have been in the sort of accidents which make the front page of the newspaper, yet remained in everyday use.

Mercado San Telmo is outwardly unchanged since the last years of the nineteenth century when the barrio’s European immigrants went there to buy cheeses and hams from back home. It takes up the whole of the block between Estados Unidos and Carlos Calvo, opening out in the middle to an attractive wrought-iron and glass atrium.

There are hole-in-the-wall stalls selling beer and choripanes, baguettes toasted on the grill and stuffed with chorizo and slathered with chimichurri sauce**; but they seem, sadly, to be getting edged out by shiny coffee stands which could be anywhere from Washington to Wellington, from Cape Town to Cape Cod.

There are still butchers and greengrocers, as there have been for going on 120 years, but much of the market is now given over to antiques: to tinplate toy cars, brass letterboxes, old tango posters, military uniforms, radios, typewriters, and telephones. The antique shops continue down the lower end of Carlos Calvo and round the corner along Calle Defensa, interspersed with wine merchants, bodegas and design shops, all the way to Plaza Dorrega where the world-famous antiques fair, Feria de San Telmo, bustles every Sunday morning.

DSC_0519

A block to the south, there are two good galleries side-by-side, Museo de Arte Moderno and Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, then the gentrified end of San Telmo fades into the dangerous edges of La Boca.

© Richard Senior 2016

*Literally ‘grills’. In this context, restaurants specialising in grilled meat, especially the celebrated Argentinian beef.

**Made with finely chopped shallots, dried chillies, garlic, dried oregano, olive oil and red wine vinegar

Brisbane: Bank Holidays, Barbecues and Biplanes

DSC_0242

Brisbane was deserted. The bus pulled into an empty terminal. There was no one on the information desk, no one at the ticket counter, no one in the cafés and bars.

All through the city, the lights were off, the shutters were down, the plazas were empty of people. Even the bottle shops, the pubs, the adult shops and the “gentlemen’s club” were closed; the “topless hairdressers” must have had the day off.

My hostel had its usual Friday night barbecue on the roof, but it was soft drinks only because it is illegal to buy beer on Good Friday in Queensland, except in a restaurant with food.

It is a much bigger deal than it is in the UK, where office workers get a day off and the banks and public buildings are closed but the shops stay open, the town centres bustle, the roads are gridlocked and there would likely be a popular uprising if they tried to make it illegal to buy beer.

DSC_0245

Brisbane will never be as cool as Melbourne, nor as glamorous as Sydney; but it is worth a couple of days. There are heritage buildings like the Italianesque City Hall and Treasury Building slotted between modern blocks, and botanic gardens, and public art, sited seemingly at random: a stainless steel alien standing at crossroads as if he were waiting for the lights to change before he set about colonising the earth; and a herd of kangaroo made from machine parts on and around a bench.

I divided a couple of hours between the Queensland Art Gallery and the Gallery of Modern Art, then sat outside with a Wagyu burger and espresso, watching a big monitor lizard muscle towards a man eating his lunch on a bench beside the river.

He tried to shoo it off with his foot but it ignored him, and he moved his legs to the other side of the bench and got ready to run. The lizard stayed where it was and kept looking at him and he realised, then, that it wanted a bit of his sandwich, so they shared it and both left happy enough.

DSC_0226

The Queensland Museum has some dinosaur bones, a lot of stuffed birds, a big fat dead snake and dead cockroaches the size of matchboxes. But I only really went in to see Bert Hinkler’s Avian.

I knew about Hinkler already: an Australian who settled in England and became a test pilot with AV Roe & Co after the First World War. He was the first to fly solo from England to Australia, in 1928 in an Avro Avian, a little, single-engine, open-cockpit biplane made out of wood and fabric.

The biplane hangs from the roof, now, at the Queensland Museum and looks even smaller and flimsier than it does in photographs. I have flown short distances, as a passenger or with an instructor, in the similar but more advanced de Havilland Tiger Moth and it is a raw experience after even the most basic of modern aircraft. You are buffeted by the wind; it stings your face. Though you are wrapped in a fur-lined flying jacket and scarf, the cold still finds a way in – and it will be a great deal worse at the sort of altitude you would fly when crossing continents. There is the constant roar of the engine and the whistling of the wind in the wires and it would – I am sure – send me crazy after the first two hundred miles.

StateLibQld_1_123500_Bert_Hinkler's_Avro_Avian_aeroplane_paraded_in_Queen_Street,_Brisbane,_1928

It is hard to conceive of flying the older, more basic Avian across the Channel to France, let alone the 11,000 miles from Croydon to Darwin across Europe and Asia and the lonely expanse of the Timor Sea, at a cruising speed of less than 80 knots, averaging the equivalent of London to Prague every day for fifteen consecutive days.

But once Hinkler had done it, a procession of adventurers followed him, CWA Scott, Jim Mollison, Charles Kingsford-Smith, Jean Batten, Amy Johnson; they shaved days off his time, until, by the late 1930’s, several had reached Australia in around five days.

I knew all this, yet still imagined it a great ordeal when I sat, two months later, in the economy cabin of a QANTAS jet on a 14-hour flight from Sydney to LA.

© Richard Senior 2016

Historic image: By Contributor(s): Queensland Newspapers Pty Ltd [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Flying Visit to the Grand Canyon

DSC_0218

It was only 275 miles to the Grand Canyon.

Back home, that would be the sort of journey you plan for months and talk about for years, but travelling, back to back, through Australia, New Zealand and the US had changed my ideas about distance irrevocably.

I was going to go by bus. I had done similar bus journeys often enough over the past few months: Port Macquarie to Byron Bay (249 miles), Airlie Beach to Cairns (385), Nelson to Christchurch (257), Franz Josef to Queenstown (219), and most recently LA to Vegas (270). But then the agent told me that the bus came at five in the morning, and that meant getting up at four, and four is a time to come in, not go out.

There was another way, though. If I gave up on the idea of a helicopter flight to the floor of the canyon and went to the South Rim instead of the West, I could go on an executive plane for the same sort of money, and get up at a sensible time.

DSC_0184

I would never get to fly in an executive aircraft in the ordinary course of things, so it was worth doing just for that. It was essentially a miniature airliner but with the trim level of a Mercedes, and the whole experience hinted at what regular flying might be if airlines gave two shits about passenger comfort and the cabin crew were not on such power trips.

At ground level, only the intense dry heat reminds you that Las Vegas was built in the middle of the desert, but from the air you see that there is little for a hundred miles all around it but mountains and dust.

We flew east over the Hoover Dam, proud symbol of a lost Keynesian world, across the Arizona state line and on over the West Rim and the glass-bottomed Skywalk and followed the canyon round to the airport at the South Rim, where the captain pulled off a perfect landing, shaving off height as we floated down the runway, easing the nose up, and finally settling it gently on the wheels.

So did I do okay then?” he asked brightly, but did not get the applause he deserved because most passengers expect every landing to be like that and complain if it is not, even in a 20-knot crosswind.

DSC_0179

Of course the Grand Canyon is massive; we all know that. The sort of people who fill their heads with facts and reel them off at half a chance will tell you that it is 277 miles long, a mile deep, four miles wide at its narrowest point, and eighteen at the widest.

But figures like that never mean very much until you see the thing for yourself. The vastness of it astonished me. I gazed across at the opposite rim, as you might look towards the outer suburbs from the tallest building downtown, and deep down at the floor where the Colorado River, which carved this great gash into the earth, looked a pathetic trickle.

My eyes recalibrated for the scale, and when I looked round, the people on a nearby ledge seemed for a moment the size of toy soldiers until I refocused again.

The colours in the rock constantly change as the sun makes its way across the sky, from red to orange, from violet to pink; from cream to beige to gold, from grey to blue to green. I could have stayed and looked all afternoon at the contours and folds, the stripes and shadows, the ever-changing palette.

DSC_0175

There were warning signs everywhere exhorting people not to try hiking to the floor of the canyon and back in a day but a cheerful group of guys appeared at the rim having done just that and I would almost certainly have had a go myself if I had been there long enough. It looked eminently doable to me.

As it was, though, I only had an hour left to walk the first bit of the trail, down and round, down and round and then turn back, get back on the bus and back on the plane to Vegas.

© Richard Senior 2016

Climbing Sydney Harbour Bridge

DSC_0751

For generations, Sydneysiders tumbled out of the pub, looked up at the Harbour Bridge and felt compelled to climb it, in the way that others are compelled to make a hat of a traffic cone. They used to be able to scale the gate, negotiate the spikes at the top, then go up the steps to the arch.

The legendary climber, Bryden Allen, did it the hard way. He squeezed into one of hangers from which the deck is suspended, climbed 200 feet up the inside (“rather like caving…great fun”), roping onto struts, until he got to the lower chord of the arch, where – in his estimation – the “real climbing” began. He had to stretch backwards to reach the lower lip, grip on rivet heads, let his feet fly out into space and force himself up onto the ledge with his arms, and once there, repeat the move on the upper lip six feet above him. “From there the climb [was] easy,” he reckoned.

A decade later, the French high-wire artist, Philip Petit, climbed the bridge one night, strung wires between the pylons and walked across them in the early morning in full view of the rush-hour traffic. The police were good-humoured about it, even when Petit continued performing by relieving one of his watch and tie; but they arrested him anyway and the court fined him $200.

By 2011, when the former soldier, Michael Fox, climbed the bridge to protest the custody laws, the fine had gone up to $3,000 and there was talk of three months in jail, but the judge might have seen the irony of a custodial sentence and left it at a fine.

DSC_0036

The bridge is now watched by CCTV and patrolled by security guards and, in this jittery age, it is too easy to imagine a drunken prank being misread as a terrorist incident and some poor student being shot down from the arch by snipers.

But anyone with $228 (£140, US$170) to spare can now climb the bridge quite legally. Prince Harry’s done it, Oprah’s done it, and Usain Bolt, Katy Perry and Matt Damon. So have I.

The breathalyser seemed an unnecessary precaution at half-past ten in the morning, but the whole thing is organised like a commando assault.

Once the Climb Leader was satisfied that nobody was drunk, she handed us each a pair of overalls in BridgeClimb’s corporate colours and sternly warned us not to take anything out onto the bridge: not a camera, not a phone, not even a handkerchief. It seemed, again, a bit over the top, but then I suppose a dropped handkerchief could do plenty of harm if it draped itself over a motorcyclist’s visor.

DSC_0002

We were allowed sunglasses, provided they were secured with a cord round the neck like your Grandma’s reading glasses; and there was an optional clip-on BridgeClimb cap for anyone who wanted to look more of a dick than they already did in the overalls.

Then, once we had gone through a metal detector to check that we had done as we were told, there was a training session to make sure we were familiar with steps and ladders – just in case we had reached adult life without using them. We were kitted out with harnesses and one-way radios and, as often in Australia, more or less forced to apply sun cream.

We went out in single file behind the Climb Leader, clipped into the lifeline and followed her up a series of service ladders, as the cars and the bikes and the trucks thundered past, through manholes, under stanchions, watching elbows and heads, until we came out on the top of the arch. Helicopters constantly buzzed the bridge, as if this really were the military exercise it felt like.

It was thrilling, in its way, but it is not really an adrenalin activity. There is no sense of danger. A clumsy person could probably twist an angle or even break a leg, but a clumsy person could break a leg walking to the shops. It is hard to see how someone could fall off the bridge by accident.

BRIDGE CLIMB

It is worth remembering that none of the 1,400 men who worked on the bridge between 1924 and 1932 used any protection at all, and only two of them fell off. They only had rivet heads as footholds, too: now there are steps welded into the arch. It is, in truth, more of a walk than a climb.

Nonetheless, it is quite something to see the business end of the bridge close up. You get a much better sense of its scale than you ever can from ground level. The Climb Leader told us that it was 440 feet above the harbour at its highest point, although to be annoyingly pedantic it is actually 440 feet above mean sea level. She also said that it was the longest single-arch bridge in the world, and apart from five others, it is.

The view silenced everyone: right across the harbour, over the Opera House, the Botanic Gardens, the Rocks, Circular Quay and the financial district beyond it, out east over Bondi Beach, north over Luna Park and Manly, and west towards the Blue Mountains. It is worth your $228.

We crossed over to the western side of the arch and walked back towards the south pylon, down the ladders and inside. I had lost all sense of time while I was out on the bridge. It felt like half an hour, perhaps an hour, had gone by but in fact it was three and a half.

© Richard Senior 2016

Alms and the Monks: Luang Prabang

DSC_0463

The gong sounds at 5am and the monks rise and gather in the prayer hall and chant. As the sun comes up, they leave the temple and walk, barefoot, with alms bowls hanging from shoulder straps towards Sisavangvong Road.

Each of the city’s thirty-three temples disgorges its monks and novices and they converge on the main street and join the long line –a few hundred strong – of bright orange robes, shaved heads and alms bowls.

DSC_0367

The locals, and often Western travellers, kneel along the side of the road to await the procession, shoes slipped off respectfully. As each monk passes, he slides the lid from his alms bowl, wordlessly and without expression. A woman, making sure to keep her head below the monk’s as tradition demands, tosses in a ball of sticky rice and he slides the lid back on. The city is silent except for the padding of bare feet on the pavement and the scraping of the lids on the bowls.

Luang Prabang, with its fairytale name, is embraced by the mountains of northern Laos, and scored across by the broad Mekong River and the sinuous Nam Khan. It is the fourth largest city in Laos but that translates to the scale of a small town in Europe with half a dozen major streets and a population below 50,000.

DSC_0496

It is compact enough to see in a day, but absorbing enough to be worth staying for several. It is calmer even than Vientiane, but not so soporific. The main roads are lined with colonial buildings with porticos, balconies and shutters; the side streets with traditional wooden houses. Bougainvillea bushes explode over walls, palm trees stoop towards roofs.

The monks glide in and out of view. The smell of incense wafts from the temples. The gongs sound, the monks chant. There is a gentle thudding of drums, a clash of cymbals, a howling of lutes and plinky-plunk of xylophones.

DSC_0470

The swooping roofs of the temples are stacked three-deep and topped by horn-like finials formed into the shape of nagas*; the facades are gilded and intricately carved, and there are glass mosaics telling epic stories of birth and death, work and play, town and jungle, hunters and fishermen, elephants and tigers.

Luang Prabang is an established stop on the Banana Pancake Trail, and increasingly on the mainstream tourist trail, as well. But the Western interlopers have not taken over in the way that they have in Vang Vieng.

DSC_0580

There are agents all along on the main street, offering mahout training, bike tours and transport across the border to Thailand. But just a few steps away, there are buffalo sausages drying on racks, chickens scratching in the trash and street markets which make no concessions to tourists with raw fish laid out, right next to vegetables, on sheets on the road, smaller fish twitching in bowls of water and blood running down the street from the meat stall where every bit of the pig but the squeak is piled up for sale.

It is noticeable, though, that quite a few businesses are run by falang** as if they arrived, years ago, with a backpack and the idea of staying two or three nights but could never quite bring themselves to leave. It is that sort of place.

© Richard Senior 2016

*River serpent

**Loosely “Westerner(s)”. Cf. Thai farang and Khmer barang.