Getting there is half the journey

Excerpts from the Yak Vedas by Peter Bishop

One: Sydney

The first sign that something might be wrong, the bar code did not work at Blu Emu.

You are booked in to P3 Sir, it is closer to the airport. You must leave this car park, proceed to P3, near Terminal T2 Sir. You may obtain a ticket to drive into this car park because there is a vehicle behind you Sir. The temporary ticket will allow you to exit.

No Sir, it is not possible to change your booking, you must proceed to P3.The Transit bus will stop outside T2 Sir.

So I left, found P3, got my bags and walked to T2. A long queue of American soldiers waited for the T bus. The first one filled and left.

The T bus runs every twenty minutes Sir, depending on the traffic. The train from over there Sir runs every seven minutes, it costs sixteen dollars Sir.

Or there are taxis Sir.

After twenty minutes I get on the T bus with the soldiers. We wait another ten minutes for more soldiers. We leave. The traffic is slow, after half an hour we arrive at T1. Booking in is quick, there is plenty of time. I proceed to gate sixty, sit down for some sushi, reach for my phone.

My phone is not in my pockets. Not in my bag. In my exit from P3 I left my phone in the car. Can I buy a phone?

Three hundred and forty dollars Sir, but we do not sell Sim Cards.

I find a desk that sells Sim cards.

I can sell you one for Thailand that lasts two weeks but you can top it up over there.

Passengers for Bangkok will please proceed to gate sixty for boarding.

I go back and buy the phone. I want to ring home to say I’ve left my phone behind but no-one will let me use their phone, not even their office phone. A woman at the desk where I am buying my phone dials Dinie (my wife) —

yes, well, my phone is in my car. I know. Yes, I will.

Last call for passengers to Bangkok, boarding now at gate sixty.

I buy a Sim card, he puts it in, but I can’t remember my email password. Maybe it will come to me. I board the plane, take my window seat and unpack, get out the earphones, which are sealed in a plastic bag.

I try to tear it — the bag is tough. At last it tears and I pull the earphones out. I catch a glimpse of plastic wrapped earphone covers in black foam as they fall between my seat and the hull of the aircraft. I reach down, but cannot touch anything. I wiggle my fingers, push my hand until it jams — I pull it out — no blood.

I undo my seatbelt, wriggle down into the small space, look under the seat — there are my earphone covers. I get them back, swivel into my seat, put the earphones on my head, plug them in — they work for five seconds and then they start to buzz.

The flight to Bangkok is nine hours.

Two: Bangkok

And from the roof top restaurant in the soft light of evening Bangkok spreads its jewelled and beating heart below me — Bangkok, surely one of the world’s most alive and entrancing cities.

The air is warm, fecund, a million people doing a million small things, sweeping the street with stick brooms, sitting in cars in a congealed clot of traffic, cooking cobs of corn and skewers of meat in streetside trolleys, offering two suits made to measure in eight hours for two hundred and ninety nine dollars —

The pool at Siam Siam is a gathering spot for Chinese girls in frilled and fringed bikinis, managing to look delightfully sexy and virginal at the same time, and as the afternoon wears on gays of all ages, tattooed, young, old, trim, paunchy appear as if by prior arrangement.

Breakfast, and they sit in shorts and T shirts and thongs, drinking doubtful coffee, bristled haircuts, no longer young, not a word exchanged — all the consequences of love gone wrong — love that could never go right — bleached coxcombs, tattoos, lust become boredom, disgust.

Underneath the freeway there is a swamp beside the sewerage works, bamboo poles sunk in the unthinkable — thatched walls, rusty acres of iron roofs, holes for windows, all the garbage from the streets collected here beside the bamboo poles — people live here touching on all sides — here is the other face of Bangkok — from here anything looks better, nothing is forbidden.

Three: Bangkok Airport Gate D.1A to Kathmandu.

And already the delicacy of Asia is darkened, coarsened, beauty abandoned, more male travellers, no fine boned delicate women, heavy faces, drab clothes, unpromising futures.

A glass-walled smoking room Maximum Eight people no chairs, some donning face masks as they emerge trailing wraiths of burnt tobacco and depleted air.

One sucks on Zero coke in a body beyond repair. They stream in and out, a hand rolled stringy cigarette already in the lips of a shapeless asexual woman.

Zero puffs his cheeks, looks at the smoking room, finishes his bottle, throws it in the bin, coughs, plays with his phone. Others emerge trailing wisps of guilt, undefinably diminished.

Zero pulls a cigarette packet from beneath his belly, heads back into the glass walled room in company with a hostess in her smart orange uniform. A little cleaner goes in with a bucket and face mask — those coming out look no happier than before.

Zero is back, pants sliding down the bulge of his belly, so is the hostess, as if she has had an unsatisfactory affair. Zero has a wife and a young son, the wife saddish, the son fattish; things may not have turned out the way she once imagined.

Keep this door closed, Maximum eight persons allowed in smoking room.

But who is counting?

Zero is pulling at his face, looking beneath his fingernails. He puts something between his teeth, sprawls straddle legged across his chair beside a Louis Vuitton paper bag. He and his son waddle off to the toilet.

She looks around — almost beautiful, almost as if there might still be hope — and then he returns.

There is no sign on the door saying smoking kills, but those inside already know. Zero persuades his wife to go in with him; she looks resigned rather than anticipatory — she comes out disillusioned, as if it were the doorway to another place entirely; a tall girl walks the length of the concourse, sits down as if she isn’t going through the door at all. And then she goes through the door.

A man goes in, face mask pulled down, a cigarette already between his lips. The roll your own woman comes back casually, as if she can keep away from the door that must be kept closed. The door from which no one emerges looking happy. The door with a sign saying Push, and keep this door closed.

Facemask comes out in his white jacket looking at his i-phone, roll your own straggles out, sits in an untidy heap, ferrets in a plastic bag, shakes an inhaler from its cardboard box, sucks on it, coughs, throws the box away.

Boudanath Stupa, Kathmandu.

Four: Kathmandu is not Bangkok.

Kathmandu has the bustle of greed, but on a smaller, less organised, more personal scale. Cows and calves sleep undisturbed in the middle of the main street, which is not all that remote from cowpasture. There is no actual grass growing in the middle of the street, but there is not much tar either, just dust.

Traffic has its own organic non-rules, most of the corrugated iron is rust coloured, the shops are small and open to the street, dust gathering on their wares, dust and flies gathering on the raw meat and raw silvered fish in the glass free windows of the meat and fish shops.

But the rooftop pool at Shambala Hotel is a delight, and for all the dust the streets are remarkably free of plastic bags.

Corner store, Bhaktapur, Nepal.

Five: The road to Dulikhiel does not obey the rules of roads, and neither does the traffic. The road skirts the outspread fingers of the mountains, a collection of potholes connected by fragments of tar, silvered rods of reinforcing steel writhing naked at the bottom of the potholes, snagging the wheels of passing vehicles.

A crow lands clumsily on the clumsily strung electric wires looped crazily on a pole as if children had been playing with cables.

And you can’t help thinking if that’s how they treat electricity, what hope is there for the other stuff? But snapdragons and daisies, marigolds and chrysanthemums line the borders of the deck where I sit, in ochre pots and elevated beds, almost as colourful as the warble of horns from the slow moving trucks navigating the slow moving roads.

A bird has been practicing two notes on and off for the last hour without any noticeable improvement, and a white dog I do not know has decided to keep me company while we both recall the raw meat hanging in the shop beside the heavy silver fish, tails sliding towards the street, black flies like raisins on their silver scales, the lips or their eviscerated bellies and on the glistening pieces of meat.

They fly off to land on other glistening surfaces, and then back to the glistening meat and silver fish. Below them on the street a duck tied with a string around its neck waits to be taken to dinner.

The electricity — as you might expect — comes and goes according to its own rules — something like the rules of the traffic on the so called roads. Another bird is trying to tell me something I did not grasp before, but I am none the wiser, and the trucks continue their melodious if cacophonic conversation. The white dog and I cannot make up our minds what to do about it all, so the dog lies down to sleep on it for a while.

Kali trident, Dhulikhel, Nepal

Six: Nepal

I see Nepal from the safety of my prepaid return ticket. I am a refugee from a more ordered world where accidental beauty has been properly washed and dressed and sent to school and taught some manners.

Until it winds up looking like Canberra.

And that is probably why I am in Nepal and heading for Tibet, on the off-chance that accidents of beauty and otherwise can still happen there.

Not to me of course; I have a visa and a pre-paid return ticket, but maybe I can view these accidents as a voyeur might, and call myself a tourist, and go home to a warm bed and a warm bank account and not have to spend my days carrying baskets of sand on my back if I am a woman, shovelling the sand if I am a man, watching if I am a man in a suit — these people building an extension to this resort for tourists to come and marvel at how much better things are done back home in Canberra.

The thing is I have recently spent a few days in Canberra and it is as exciting as an upmarket retirement home, without a single random subversive alleyway of doubtful doorways.

So I am going to stay here in this far high land and smell the flowers and other more fecund aromas and listen to those two note birds and those cacophonous trucks and marvel at the mountains and the paddy fields and get lost in the alleyways and for a few uncounted days count myself lucky.

Newari woman, Dhulikhel, Nepal.

Seven: Everest Flight.

The departure time has slipped and the window of opportunity for breakfast is closing. So are the clouds over the Himalayas we are told, except for Everest and one other, but we are going.

We have been up since before the sun, we waited an hour at the airport — in Nepal you can expect schedules to be shot to shit — but still we sit on the tarmac.

And I idly wonder what sort of cut our guide Bikram gets from Buddha Airlines. Maybe we could launch our own Jesus Airlines, our slogan could be Go With God.

Maybe we could enrich the city culture of Canberra by releasing a few hundred monkeys in Civic Centre.

And then we take off and fly up through the clouds until finally we are over the Himalayas — and nothing can prepare you for their majesty.

They unfold in bright sunlight, great peaks and chasms of ice and snow on a scale that trivialises our daily concerns.

As if god has been playing with us up until this, but now she is showing us what she can do when she puts her heart into it. I guess thousands have said this before, but it doesn’t make it any less true — it is grandeur on a scale to dwarf comparison,

grandeur of a truly humbling kind,

grandeur to make you weep.

The mountains were shrouded in cloud before we came, and shrouded again when we returned on our flight to Tibet, but for one fine precious moment the clouds opened for us and bared the teeth at the seam of the world, where she chews herself to pieces in the name of the great god Richter, who in turn reduces the temples of the lesser gods to rubble.

This ragged seam is where two histories collide to create the next uncertain future of the world, and its birth is a thing of beauty as ancient as the hills of heaven, as white as the purest undefiled virgin, and entirely free of the butcher’s barrel of coagulated crimson that engulfs the birth of Kali.

Himalayan Ranges, en route to Tibet.

© Peter Bishop 2017

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Peter Bishop is a short story writer, poet and retired wagyu farmer. Peter is a frequent flyer with Writer’s Journey. When he is not travelling and writing with us in various locations, he spends his time between Scone, NSW and Palm Beach, Sydney.

Next Writer’s Journey trips heading out:

Backstage Bali, Oct 14–21,2017, seven days, mountains and ricefields retreat.

Moroccan Caravan, Mar 4–17, 2018. A camel riding/writing adventure into the Sahara. Add on a five day residency at the end.

Haiku Writing in Japan, Mar 27- April 3, 2018. Walk the Nakasendo Way in cherry blossom time.