A Thousand Glorious Times

by Ant Stone on July 4, 2008

in China,India,Indonesia,Mongolia,Nepal,Russia,Singapore,Sri Lanka,Tibet,Trans-Mongolian Railway

I’d seen him from a short distance, twelve months previously, he travelled alone aboard a plane to Moscow. He wore a dark tracksuit top zipped over a light t-shirt, and loose pale green shorts covered the knees he cradled by his chest. His hair sprayed out in loose brown curls beneath a khaki cap, highlighted by scribbles of grey. His pale thin lips lined a shallow smile, and his early morning eyes seemed glazed with relief. As his homeland slipped beneath a thin veil of cloud, he lifted his cap and ran his fingers through his hair, his lips parted just once to release his farewell thoughts: Let the journey begin, my friend. Today, he lay upright on the rippled white sheets of a double bed, in a simple, homely room on the island of Bali.

His hair was shorter, still a familiar fiesta of curls and slashed with new grey. His face was slimmer, his pale skin had darkened and his spirit was now windowed by black-framed glasses. His khaki cap lay upturned nearby, a tide of sweat had set a shade in the rim and it was filled with worn foreign coins. His loyal backpack leaned tiredly, resting its bruises and scars against a bamboo table. He lay shirtless, wearing chequered grey shorts between a half empty packet of Marlborough and a swollen blue notebook. Ambient music moulded around his quiet thoughts, and I watched in silence as his eyes circled the motionless ceiling fan. He lay in the path of a mirror, reflecting the figure of a proud and mortal curio. Though he sometimes heard me, I sensed he never saw me.

He recalled how he’d left Moscow, slipping east through Siberia to the rhythmic beat of a Mongolia bound train. It was five days before he set foot in Ulaanbaatar. While he absorbed the strength of the mighty Mongol race, he followed the whispers through the kitsch of their annual games. He described the grace of wrestlers, the poetry of archers and the fear that pecked at the calmness of preteen jockeys. Asia mesmerised him instantaneously. He looked musingly at the ceiling fan, he found its will to spin tremendous. After a short time living with local nomads in their ger and exploding dust clouds with the hooves of horses, he journeyed onward to Beijing. The Mongolians, he declared have a degree in simplicity, their eyes hang like painted canvases in a dusty exhibit of Untold Beauty. His arrival in Beijing was infamous, he writhed in agony for three days. At moments he became so dehydrated he had to use his fingers to pry his swollen tongue from the inner of his cheek. China was kind after this initiation, and even in the cruellest moments he learned patience, compassion and conviction.

He recalled a southwest mountain village where he’d sat and eaten beside a loyal friend, whose name, when he spoke it, started the percussion in his eyes. Following a humble feast they shared cigarettes and baiju with a decade or more excitable locals, who later produced a segment of bee larvae. After a pregnant pause, he swallowed the first of the pale grubs, beginning a long evening of song and dance, laughter and merriment. It says a lot about the Chinese, they’re xenophobes who roll out their welcome mats with a courtesy offered to queens. He shuffled on the bed, and then I listened as he rolled his memory onto the Tibetan plateau. He visited Lhasa, spending two weeks watching the evolution of monks, and the perseverance of pilgrims. He thought highly of the Tibetans. Lhasa radiates beneath a sky so alive, so pure, so blue. It mainlines your veins, and suddenly you’re as wise as the ocean, as blameless as boys, and as boundless as her eyes. He left the Forbidden City in a failing van. He drifted in and around whitewashed monasteries and indigo lakes, vast pale dunes and rich red forts, sought all the while by scores of grubby faced youths. As the traveller’s tale ascended to the base camp of Mount Everest, I picked up the thrill in his tone. He told of being caught out in tumbling temperatures beneath a canopy of curious stars. After a slow 10km hike he recoiled and spent several hours shivering uncontrollably beneath a stack of blankets, his eyes still retained that frozen glaze.

The resilient city of Kathmandu became the stage to a fond farewell, to the girl whose name he chased around the orchards of his mind. He cast his eyes on his cigarettes before confessing it had taken many moons before he realised the feeling seeping from the Kathmandu shadows, was loneliness. The Kingdom of Nepal played stage to my coronation. The day I lost my queen preceded the month I found my Kingdom. It was there, in Nepal, that he first encountered Hinduism. He found sense in aspects of its tradition, Buddha had nudged him on an educational level, but Hinduism and all the myth and colour of its ways and words earned a place in his heart in ways he’d never permitted. He doesn’t believe in mortal gods, or the dictatorship he sees in other religions. The real Hindu takes strength from everything, and gives weakness to nothing. He looped around Nepal, taking to the rivers, roads and jungles before riding on the roofs of buses through the southern terai, stopping by the birthplace of the Indian Prince, Buddha before lowering himself over the border and into the heart of Hindustan, to India.

He smiled, as if trying to expel the gross history of this journey. His first night in India, he told me how drunk he’d gotten, attempting to forget the inward journey that choked him with anger, and drenched him in desperation and blood. I learned later that that aching anger would bind itself with love. He travelled the cities of the north with his parents. Together they took in the holy Hindu city of Varanasi; the glorious Mogul white cliffs of the Taj; the Golden Temple, home of the Sikhs; and the Buddha’s classroom of Sarnath. Between these, they fought with forts and took trains to temples before the three speared their way over rails to the southern, largely Christian city of Pondicherry. North India is crass and callous. You’re soul is robbed, your spirit burned and your destiny is devilishly realigned. Christmas was spent sowing seeds of kisses on that girl, she’d drifted on his whispers to bloom beneath the shadows of festivity and friends. He stopped his story for a moment to sip a sassy smile, though its cause would remain a private pleasure.

He then told me of the month of Janus, who opened a door to new beginnings on the isle of Sri Lanka. The surf and sands of southern Ceylon bore him the fruit of countless new friends, each was true, each loyal and distinct. One day, he fell upon the tragedy of two Sri Lankan brothers, whose family business, a turtle farm was destroyed “the day the sea is coming”, along with almost their entire family. I didn’t have to hear Nimal and Ruwan’s tragedy, I could see it in their eyes and feel it in my heart, and without words I knew she felt the same, we had to help. I listened to his thoughts on Sri Lanka, the gaps he left I figured were small parts of his self that he left in the sands to recover another day. The tea plantations, national parks and holy pilgrimages he spoke so sweetly of, sat beside his firsthand accounts of an island in turmoil, at war.

His return to India was more instinct than desire. He tore himself away from an island he loved and threw himself at the mercy of her southern states. He found shanti the day he rented an Enfield Bullet motorcycle, and found comfort from the loving arms wrapped around his waist. He described the thirty day journey in magnificent stages, from the temple strewn lands of Tamils, up and over the Western Ghats before descending their coats of grit and grim into the green glory of Kerala. All along their way they sipped hot sweet chai and snacked on wadis with a hundred, no a thousand locals. They pinched rice and sweet, spicy curries with their fingers from banana leaves and when their clocks chimed for their ‘hour of need’ it took just a shy passerby, or a hidden onlooker to attract a gaggle of intrigue and set them on their way once more. To thread a passage through India in this way, sweetened bitterness with bliss and spliced cruel with kind. Our path was scribed with poetries of passion, and slow ballads of awe and brilliance. The conclusion however, also brought a sequel to the Toodle-oo of Kathmandu, to his pillion, his equal and his muse. This time born of logic, laced with tears but remembered in gratitude.

He paused, then silently walked barefoot to his porch, as he sat down he drew his knees to his bare chest and lit a cigarette. The plumes of smoke moved thinly through the still, warm air of our Bali night. He stared up into the dim porch light, watching in wonder his self-made spectacle of careless wisps. He extinguished the cigarette slowly, drew a deep breath and continued his memoires, carrying his thoughts over the moss-covered rocks that surrounded a small hidden lawn. He recalled the three weeks of long days that followed her departure when he’d ventured into the state of Andhra Pradesh, going nowhere fast while thinking things over slowly. I knew it was time to leave India, when I was denied entry to a night train. My bribes fell on hollow ears, my begging fell on careless eyes and my will was spirited away on a feather, to a passive plateau. I’d lost the will to fight; I knew right there, right then that my time – for now – was up.

He took to Singapore, a city he knew was a contrast to India, the homeland of humble heroes and fantastic villains. He drank and shopped and laughed and sighed, he ate and walked and talked. Singapore – for the visitor at least – is as neutral as Asia gets with the West. She’s loyal, where others are scheming, and she’s tender where others are tough. He stopped to watch an ant, struggle under a prized crumb of toast, and then from nowhere there were two, then three, and then four to help carry their loot awkwardly away. Touché. He continued, explaining how he flew to Sumatra, an island of Indonesia and one he discovered to be inlaid with treasures. He mounted volcanoes, dipped his weary body in lakes and his finale was attended by the fire-red, pendulous orang-utans. He took an onward flight to Jakarta, capital of the neighbouring island, Java, and en route he lost his prized possessions; his passport, and wallet of critical cards. Corruption in Indonesia was not beautiful, nor welcome. It’s a crime of the coward. If this nation weren’t so soft and sweet in other ways, I’d instil you with its sour side and stench. He spoke of other islands ringed with golden beaches, and cultures descended through lineages of lore.

It was here on Bali that I heard these nibs of his enchanting year in Asia. I listened for over an hour, in awe. I thought I knew the definition of my emotions, I thought I’d felt them all. Though the depths of those in Asia almost reduced my prior sentiments, to mere essence. Even in the shaves of silence I heard the enigmatic echo of his epic. I see his friendships in the constellations of his ebony eyes; I feel his compassion in the warmth of his palms; I feel his excitement in the nape of his neck; I see his astonishment in the furrows of his brow; I sense his caution in the flare of his nostrils; and I’ve heard his story, a thousand glorious times. A thousand glorious times.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Nomadic Matt July 4, 2008 at 9:46 pm

wow that took ages to read…maybe two partner next time? most readers have internet add…like me….

thats cool how you ran into him again all that time later….was it planned or random??

Ant July 5, 2008 at 4:49 am

Yeah but I figured if it took me a year to do, it’s only fair that it take you a year to read!

You could say ‘the other’ person was always there Matt, you never really travel alone, you always have your thoughts looking in on you.

Jeff July 5, 2008 at 11:38 am

So philosophical Mr Stone and a great insight into that dark, disturbed void called your mind! Beautifully written mate, a stunning look at the last year of your life. You sound like you’ve had the year you’ve always dreamed of…embrace it mate and good luck for the coming pursuits wherever they may take you.

Miss you my brother, take it easy x

Becki July 15, 2008 at 2:39 pm

I thought that was the most beautiful prose I’d ever read, until I read Jeff’s tender musings – so touching….

Dani July 17, 2008 at 4:09 pm

Holy, the way you write just encapsulates me. I am addicted to reading your beautiful ramblings Mr Ant’, keep them coming.

I can’t wait to read your next installment!


[F]oxymoron July 17, 2008 at 7:03 pm

I enjoy your writing style! Lengthy, true. But well worth the read.

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