The last trip of the year has just ended; the rucksack’s been duly unpacked and its contents unceremoniously thrown into the washing-up pile, hoping for some merciful hands to put them into the washing machine without the whites turning pink and the blues turning green. Time to put the kettle on and to think back at 2017.
How original, I hear you yawning. Bespectacled statisticians will point out that, between Christmas and the first weekend in January, 98.8% of WordPress blogs will inevitably feature a summary post for the year that has just gone by, with the same inevitability of newspaper cartoonists drawing the usual vignette where an old, bullet-ridden old year shakes hands with a plump infant wearing the new year’s number around his hairless chest.
I’ll try and do something different, though. I won’t bore you with how many countries I visited, miles driven or flown, visits clocked or visas collected because, let’s face it, no one gives at toss: rather, I’ll select a few photos that meant a lot for me from this year and I’ll try and explain how they came up, why I like them and what they mean to me.
Last year’s winter brought a discovery: our new London flat featured, once the trees had shed their summer coating of chlorophyll, a direct view towards the plump rotundity of the Eye and, just behind it like an old majordomo, the Shard. Which meant a prime position for the New Year’s fireworks in all their 10-minute-grandiosity. Since concepts like exposure, frame opening and ISOs are, to me, as alien as Sumerian cuneiform script I had to beg for help from a friend, who politely Whatsapped me the required a settings. A brief read of the instruction booklet ensued – a first in seven years of owning this camera – and I was set. The camera whirred and snapped away, perched atop the scaffolding where rosemary, heather and other plants routinely die on our balcony, whilst we drank wine and watched it all unfold. Will I do it again this year? Probably not. Mainly because I still haven’t learned anything about camera set-ups and I’m way too ashamed to ask for help from my friend again, but also because the tree has grown a bit further and now a pesky branch is sticking right in front of us. It’s already six stories high, but sky’s the limit I guess!
A red signal on the Main Line.
A friend commented that this one was one of my best photos yet, and I agree, even though I think the merit ought to be given to fate, or sheer luck, rather than to alleged photographic abilities from yours truly. We were riding on a Sri Lankan train between Nanu Oya and Colombo Fort and we were, by then, a few hours late. We’d bagged two tickets in First Class, the only car available, and that particular train First meant an air-conditioned carriage furnished with exceptionally grubby windows, so much so that nothing could be seen of the world outside but for an oily, blurred smudge. I’d developed a habit to go standing in the vestibule, leaning out of the open doorway, to see the views and take photos. I saw the man with the umbrella walking past and I scurried to the vestibule, fumbling with the camera, to take a picture of him. But remember what I said about my photographic abilities? I selected an autofocus modality and my camera dutifully focussed on something much closer, the gentleman sticking out of the second class car. I remember him realising what I did and, being Sri Lankan – i.e. nice to a fault – he apologised, disappeared from view and let me take another try. Fact was, the photo with him was a lot better than the one without.
The sleeping pachyderm.
Our safari of Udawalawe National Park was drawing to a close and, but for a knee that was reaching new records of sunburnedness, I was loving every minute of it. We’d been bouncing around on a Mahindra jeep with two rather snobbish French girls and the world’s kindest driver, having had our fill of Buddhist crocodiles, watchful eagles, swimming buffalos and mischievous macaques when we came by this beautiful wild Asian elephant. A storm was brewing, cracking lightning and ripping enormous thunders that made our plucky little Mahindra tremble in the aftershock, yet there she was, blissfully asleep, rocking from leg to leg, dreaming of elephants only know what. We turned the engine off and spoke in hushed tones, even though, above us, the sky had put up an artillery barrage second only to Passchendaele’s.
Magnificent desolation: riding the Pamir Highway to Murghab.
I’ll be honest. My attendance to the “Frontier School of Character” has been, by far, the best travel experience of 2017. The views, the people, the experiences yielded the sort of high that I’d never experienced before, lasted for weeks after I’d returned to normality and, even better, was absolutely legal. And nowhere was more satisfying, enticing and enthralling than the plain that corresponded to the famous Pamir Gap, a few moments before Murghab, Tajikistan. It was late afternoon when I took that photo, and we’d been driving since 8 AM that morning, more than 8 hours to do some 400 kilometres. Our driver and friend, Kudaibergen, stopped to fill up his Land Cruiser’s wheels with some extra air, whatever he could find at 4,000 metres of altitude, and I got out to take in the sheer beauty of this place. Here you can see the canyon dug by the Murghab river cutting the plain in two, and the road leading back to Kyrgyzstan. To your right, outside this photo, the valley continues before branching out: to the left for Chinese Turkestan, to the right for Pakistan. It might be lonesome, bleak and cold, but to me it felt like paradise. I walked past the car and shot a video with my crappy phone, then it was time to ride into town. We might’ve rolled in whilst listening to the opening riff of The Clash’s I Fought the Law, or we mightn’t. But that’s how my memory remembers it.
Ticking a big one off the bucket list.
To you this mightn’t look like much. Some strange, humped figures crouching before a stretch of sea. But those are Bactrian camels, that’s the Aral Sea and this is Western Kazakhstan, precisely outside the village of Aqespe. Seeing the Aral Sea was something I longed to do since I was a meter and a tomato tall but never quite thought I could pull it off. This trip was to be the one that caused me to think the longest, and deepest, both during and afterwards, and both about my role in it and the overall role of us as a specie on this planet. The Aral Sea basin has been the stage for the most gargantuan eco-disaster in history, dwarfing Chernobyl, Fukushima and Exxon Valdez, and it was entirely man-made. Just behind us in this photo, the village of Aqespe was being swallowed by the salty dunes whipped up from the dried-up seabed. Yet, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. As Serik, my guide, showed, North Aral Sea was flourishing, returning to its pre-1960 levels, and that filled me with joy. Plus, I couldn’t deny feeling a great deal of pride for having pulled this one off. It took four flights, two overnight trains, no hotel reservations made on Booking.com – mainly because none were bookable in any of the places I’d been to – and I’d been almost completely alone in a country whose language I didn’t understand and its writing couldn’t read. Sir Ranulph Fiennes might be rolling his eyes at this, but it was as close to “adventurism” as I’d ever gotten.
A glimpse of the future.
A Shanghai transit came as a surprise when it appeared that the direct London – Singapore flight was fully booked. I didn’t really expect to go into town, but then – in the heat of the moment – I decided to go for the “Visa on arrival” queue instead of the “International transfer” one. I had some four hours to kill, something that I used to do some years ago (arrive somewhere, spend a handful of hours, then fly off again); remembering those days when I didn’t think anything of doing two overnight in a row wedged in a tiny middle seat was enough to fill me with excitement for the entire dash downtown. These three fellas are Shanghai’s highest skyscrapers. Even the tiniest one is a full 80 meters taller than the Shard in London. I remember having them as plug-ins on Sim City 4 a good five years ago, and here they are in the flesh. Well, steel and glass.
And finally, home.
This is the view I admired for 25 years straight. We call them pre-Alps, mainly because the serious stuff is still behind it and because, honestly, we can. This is the precise spot where I used to stop on my dog-walking tours, my dog standing on her back legs to sniff at the big labrador living in the garden below this balcony in the old part of town. I used to have an old programme to do panoramas, some 10 years ago, and I used it extensively with my crappy old camera, but I hadn’t done one in years, until today. Feel free to click on the photo to see it in larger size; they might be only the appetisers, but don’t you think that these pre-Alps do look the part?
That’s it, really. 2017 is now ready to be archived. Next year will bring more travels and, unfortunately, the end of my current passport. It’s still got another year to go but it’s now full and needs a replacement. It’s a bit of a bummer because it was the only photo ID where I looked anything but a mug and I was pretty proud of it. But it’s perhaps the reason why, every time I use it, border guards look at it like Leonardo di Caprio in that Inception scene that inspired countless memes. You know what I’m talking about, it’s this one.