Intrepid travellers’ tales

Explorer, Robin Hanbury Tenison recalls being a hair’s breath away from de-capitation in North East India…

We were close to the Burma border, in February 1995, in a region of North East India, which used to be part of Assam and is now called Arunachalam Pradesh. It has always been cut off from the rest of India.

Having driven along a rough track through the Paktai mountains we came upon a large communal house where we were told the Wancho king lived with his three wives, seven sons and three daughters. We were greeted as long lost friends. ‘It is like a dream that you are here’, said one of the beautiful princesses in perfect English. These people until quite recently been headhunters and we could see along one wall a row of skulls.  

A very old man in a loincloth arrived, grasped my wife, Louella, by the hand and held on. His name was Lemkai Wangpan and he proudly showed us the eight tattooed stick figures on his back. These indicated that he had taken eight heads. He stroked Louella’s long blond hair admiringly and expressed amazement that one so young and pretty should have white hair already.  

We asked if we were really the first Europeans they had seen. ‘Oh no’ they said. ‘We had ten Englishmen here in 1945. Their ‘plane crashed up there in the hills and we rescued those who parachuted down and survived. It is still there if you would like to see it. But we haven’t seen anyone white since then.’
Travel author, Stanley Stewart engages the hand of a lady in order to buy a railway ticket in China…..

The purchase of train tickets in China can be an arcane process, often dependent on what the Chinese would call guanxi or connections. Tickets between big cities, the beginning and end of a train route, can be difficult but manageable. But joining a train at an intermediate point, particularly if it is a smallish country town, can prove almost impossible. In Wuwei I had attended the train station for days, standing in interminable queues only to met by the same sour-faced young woman muttering meiyou, the eternal Chinese negative. The trains westward arrived and departed from Wuwei full; no one was foolish enough to break their journey in this obscure town.

I tried various wheezes to get a ticket including bribery. I even attempted be arrested, hoping I would be run out of town, on a train. I took photographs of things like military establishments and the army officers lounging in the lobby of my hotel. Far from arresting me, they clapped me on the back and posed for a group portrait.

Eventually I went to the train station and when I got to the ticket window asked the young woman clerk to marry me. I had been swotting up in my phrase book, moving on from the formalities of ‘At the Railway Station’ to the intimacies of ‘Making Friends’. She was so startled that she could not even find the word meiyou. A crowd gathered, pressing forward from the queue behind me, intrigued. I told her I was unable to buy a ticket so I had decided to settle in Wuwei. She was the only person I knew so I wanted her to be my wife. Flustered she called for the station master. I told him I could not buy a ticket so I needed a wife. He was appalled at the idea of losing a valuable employee, particularly one so adept at fending off ticket requests. He retreated to the back room, and after hushed consultation returned a moment later with an onward ticket to Jiaquan. Marriage proposals have a way of concentrating minds.  

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Explorer Colonel John Blashford-Snell practices his Pidgin in Papua New Guinea

When I was in Papua New Guinea with Operation Raleigh, which is a charity I support, we had a lot of young Papua New Guineans working with us. These people speak this fantastic language called Pidgin which is mixture of English, German and Mutu which means that if you speak slowly, they can understand at least one in three of your words.

Armed with my Pidgin handbook, I went out to see some of the youngsters and stopped to chat to this marvellous looking chap in a loin cloth and with an afro haircut who was putting up a fence.

‘Good apinoon,’ I said, which means good afternoon. He said ‘apinoon’ back. I started trying to describe Prince Charles, who is the operation’s patron, to him. Prince Charles in pigeon is ‘Number one Piccaninny long (as in belong) Missie Queenie’. After a while, I got round to talking about him.
‘Where is your home? I asked slowly this time in full English. He smiled and said Madang, a big town on the coast. ‘I come from England,’ I replied equally slowly. He smiled. ‘Do you know England?’
He nodded. Surprised, I asked him how. He put his fist on his chest said and said: ‘I played English at Lords’.

It transpired he was on a junior cricket side that had come to England.
BBC former North American correspondent Justin Webb recalls being on the campaign and being surprised by the humility of mid-west America.

During the early part of the election campaign, when Hilary Clinton and Obama were fighting it out at the Ioawa caucuses, we were based at Des Moines, Iowa’s capital, right in the heart of the Mid-West. One day we went out of Des Moines into a little town which had a café which we thought we would stop at. We were in a crew car, and while the crew got out to go to the café I parked the car illegally as were in a bit of a rush. Just as I was finishing parking, a huge Harley Davidson motorbike drew up and a character dropped off and ambled over to me looking like all the American police cops you can imagine and as if he was about to engage in mortal combat.

‘Hello sir, is this is your vehicle?’ he asked. I said ‘yes’ with dread. ‘Do I surmise you are about to go into that there café,’ he queried. I nodded and to my surprise he declared: ‘Just you go ahead and do that I will watch the car.’

And he did, so I left the car unlocked while he stood by and did a few handmotions to help people pass as were in the middle of the road a bit. After 10 minutes, we came back out having downed our coffees. We all shook hands. ‘Have a wonderful day y’all,’ said.

The Mid-West is in many respects such a risible part of the US and it is so easy to laugh at its people, talk about how fat many of them are and how they believe a lot of strange things about creationism, but there is also a real human decency and civility, as evidenced by this policeman.

(Have a Nice Day, Justin’s book about America is published by Short Books and is available on Amazon.)
Nigel Massey, MD of the travel PR company The Massey Partnership, recollects bumping into an ex Luftwaffe pilot in Namibia.

In 2008, I visited Swakopmund, in Namibia, which is a very Germanic town with nostalgia for World War II [Namibia was briefly a German colony]. I came across a colourful ex-Luftwaffe pilot who was running an antique shop. Assuming I was German, he wondered whether I might be interested in buying a framed sepia picture of his ME109 complete with 13 RAF rondells, each representing a Spitfire or Hurricane that he had shot down between 1940 and 1942. He was hugely embarrassed when I pointed out that actually I was English and replied: ‘I have to assure you that most of your pilots baled out safely.’
Journalist Peter Hardy recounts being on tour with the singer James Blunt with whom he has spent over two years working on a book

If anyone was going to write a book with James it would be me as he’s a family friend and I have a former rock background. My favourite city in the earth is San Francisco where I ended up as a hippy in 1966 having a short but passionate love affair with Janis Joplin. She got me a job working the lights in the Fillmore Auditorium which was the centre of the West Coast pyschedelic movement. Thanks to the book I found myself going back some 40 years later and standing with the lighting guy and working those same lights which was a wonderful experience. But one of my most memorable moments during the time I spent following James on tour was in South America where we were travelling with Elton John. In Rio we were overwhelmed with the sheer size of the audience and the extent to which Latin Americans appreciate their music. The whole combination of the two artists and an audience of 60,000 going insane all at once was extraordinary. Normally, James goes down into the audience, but here there were moments where everyone feared for his safety  

(Different Countries, Same State: On The Road With James Blunt, by Peter Hardy is to be published by Headline in October 2010.)
Explorer Toby Fenwick-Wilson has had some curious wardrobe encounters as a private label guide for Abercrombie & Kent.

It was early dawn, and I was looking for the tukel (thatched hut) of a dinka chief on the fringe of the vast Toic grasslands of Southern Sudan to seek permission and directions to visit a Dinka shrine that was out in the middle of these extended Nile flood plains. Having at last found his tukel, I called for him. Out popped his head with a long copper and wood pipe hanging out the side of his mouth, and then as he unfolded himself to his full crane like height – somewhere in the high six foots- I saw he was donned splendidly in a British Airways stewardesses outfit that reached to a little above his stork like knees. A true badge of office.
Not many things surprise George Morgan-Grenville, the urbane chief marketing officer for A&K, but an episode in Burma took him aback.

I was walking up the multitude of steps to the top of Mount Popa in Burma. About half way up I began to hear the sound of some amazing Rhythm & Blues being played on an acoustic guitar. Mount Popa is a monastery so this was not a sound I was expecting to encounter. On climbing up further, I came across a very elderly monk who spoke fluent English and whom had been taught to play by a very strict British teacher in 1947, just prior to independence.
James Lohan, founder of Mr & Mrs Smith, succumbs to very un-British glitziness in Las Vegas…

When I was embarking on a road-trip with my wife around California, I had my heart set on a convertible. Unfortunately, the hire-car outfit I ended up at had other ideas. The only car in the fleet that wasn’t a staid turn-off on wheels, was a lairy open-top Pontiac Firebird in a dazzling metallic gold. A proper, all-out, bling-drenched pimp-mobile. ‘Oh so me’, I said. ‘Oh so not’, said my wife. Never have I felt so self-conscious as when I was driving this ridiculous car around Yellowstone National Park. I looked like P Diddy on safari. We kept our nature trip short.

It wasn’t until we hit Route 1 and swung into Las Vegas that the car came into its own. Suddenly, everything made sense. Vegas is a showy, absurd, glitzy city, and to drive in it properly, you need a showy, absurd, glitzy car. My blindingly-painted, machismo machine suited it perfectly. I’m sure I heard a murmur of admiration as I pulled into my hotel and tossed the keys to the valet. I’d gone from being completely out-of-place to being an all-singing, all-dancing metaphor for Sin City. I’ve never felt cooler. I’d love to drive that Firebird again, but Chiswick will need to develop a few more casinos before I can imagine cruising it around my home turf.

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