The following is a very real account of (well, parts of) my recent trip to Nepal, Hong Kong, Japan, and the Netherlands. Much of the prose comes from little notes that I took on my iPhone. Some of it comes from the memories I have in my head. Others come simply from feelings the photos and videos I shot have since evoked. There’s swearing within and quite a bit of chaos, but I assure you the stories are true.
Readers should also note that I’ve always found it hard to explain the mix of feelings that ones undergoes on a voyage of solo travel, but maybe the following words are doing something simply by existing here on this page.
I hope you’re encouraged to get out there and into the world. Your life is one big story after all, and it’s up to you to build the plot. Enjoy.
Late For A Flight — September 12th, 2023, Doha:
Awaken, young man.
And I did. It was 2.09am. The aircraft was about to touch down, and I — calm and content — hadn’t so much as even glanced at my watch. Unbeknownst to me, the flight was very late.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” droned a voice on the intercom, “welcome to Doha, where the local time is a little before twenty past two in the morning.”
The Captain, continuing to ramble about the thirty-eight celsius outside air temperature, did little to deter the mild panic which had already begun setting in as I looked at my wrist.
2.17am… 2.17… Weren’t we supposed to land at 1.15am? And oh fuck! I’ve got a connecting flight haven’t I? At 2.50am! Oh fuck, oh shit, oh fuck! I need to get off this plane. I need to run! My next flight!
And so it was that these were to be my continuous thoughts at Hamad International Airport. But we hadn’t even parked yet. The lumbering jumbo jet was crawling. I mean, really crawling.
Five or ten minutes passed, and I — flustered and bamboozled — was allowed to disembark the giant A380 which had carried me across Europe and Arabia. I wanted to run, but I couldn’t yet. My Britishness forbade me. I bid good bye and thanks to the cabin crew and began the airport shuffle.
Shit, shit, shit, shit!
On the jetway then, and I scurried past all manner of people. On my back, a pack crammed to the brim with Pret-a-Manger, three novels, a change of clothes, and — crucially — toiletries. But alas, there would be little time for eating, reading, or even cleaning at that Qatari airport.
“Connecting flight to Kathmandu! Connecting flight to Kathmandu!” I called in the general direction of a man in a maroon suit. He looked at me from the helpdesk with indifference as I emerged, dashing over from the gate.
“Look, my first flight was late,” I said breathlessly, “and I really need to make the connecting one.”
“Okay sir, okay — not to worry,” he said, emphasising the okay so it was like an ohwwakay sort of sound. We smiled at each other (me, slightly psychotically, I imagine), and he began fastidiously typing letters — with some aggression, I’d add — into his desktop.
Bugger, bugger, bugger, hurry up. Hurry up! Twenty minutes to make my flight… Twenty minutes!
Now, generally speaking I always keep a cool head. But by this point, it was half past two in the morning and I was in an airport I’d never been to before (it’s incomprehensibly massive, by the way). My mind was on one thing: making it to Nepal that morning.
“Okay sir,” said the clerk, looking up cautiously and seeing my bloodshot eyes. “Gate 19. You’d better run.”
Shit, shit, shit!
“Thank you!” I called, already turning and moving — rather fast, but not yet running — toward a row of expensive looking shops. Past them I went, picking up the pace, my backpack bobbing as I finally broke into a hasty run.
I am so bloody late, oh my god!
I made it to the first departure zone, welcomed by the sight of numbered gates, and travelators lined with rows of palm trees. The air was thick and humid, and I felt my white shirt dampening in all the worst places. Worst of all however? The first gate was number 243. To my left read a sign that said: “Gate 16–19. 35 minutes walk.”
Oh for fucks…
I proceeded to not only run, but to careen down every travelator with some pace. I can only call it a small fortune that I was wearing Salomon trail running shoes. A mad Englishman is what I suppose I looked like, but I feel the considerable stress can be forgiven when one realises that Qatar Airways only operate a flight to Kathmandu from Doha twice per week.
I ran past smoking rooms, praying rooms, rooms full of women and children. Everyone was Arabic, Asian, African — from somewhere — and I felt that tremendous rush of knowing that I was a traveller in some foreign place. It was joyous stress. A moment of odd satisfaction as I sped through the terminal.
2.39am now. Am I going to make it?
Down an escalator I went. Many around me suffered the misfortune of a bumbling and alarmed male colliding with their shoulders. I navigated the final steps and turned a corner, seeing teen gate numbers about four-hundred metres in the distance.
Kathmandu. Gate 19. Kathmandu. Kathmandu.
I arrived at gate 19 at 2.44am. I had made it, you’ll be pleased to know. Strands of hair had fallen onto my forehead and my shirt was transparent. I felt the waistband of my underwear and knew from the discomfort that all my sweat had collected there. Brilliant. Although, I did chuckle because I’d probably just ran a few four minute kilometres to make the flight. I joined the final entrants of the gate queue, showed my boarding pass, and strolled onto the Boeing 777 as if I hadn’t just sweated out a pint of — well — sweat, taking my seat next to two very charming northerners. We all proceeded to shut our eyes instantly. I was worried about my underwear.
Blimey. Now, exhale.
Welcome To Nepal — September 12th-13th, 2023, Kathmandu:
I touched down in Nepal at around ten o’clock in the morning.
My fellow passengers and I flew in over the colourful and dirtied streets of Kathmandu. The Himalayas were hidden behind the aircraft. Their glory would have to wait. All I saw was cruel smog, but a new country. A place I had long dreamed of. Everything seemed yellow.
I remember now how I didn’t sleep a damned wink on that second flight. What I did do though, was pretend, or at least try to sleep. But, I gave up.
Eventually, I spent ten minutes in the loo brushing my teeth, wetting my hair, and washing my face (something everyone would do well to try on a long-haul flight). I ate a Pret sandwich at 7am and tried to begin the process of timezone adjustment. I read in fits of enthusiasm. I watched the cabin crew mill about in the quiet darkness.
Later, I disembarked. My waistband was somehow still wet, which was sort of tragic and funny at the same time since I’m not usually a sweaty person. Next came the border. I realised quickly that passport control in Kathmandu is a complete disaster. Or, maybe it was I who was a disaster (results — I warn — may vary). I paid for my visa ($50USD) and eventually gained entry, always as polite to the border police as my Mother and Father raised me to be, but also feeling quite fed up and simultaneously over-excited about the entire day thus far.
I hopped into a pre-arranged taxi (built, it appeared, only for people about half my height) and began the chaotic jaunt into Thamel, right at the heart of Kathmandu. All around me were potted roads, half built hovels, concrete buildings riddled with earthquake damage, and many more motorbikes and vehicles than I’d expected. The place reminded me of Indian or Thai cities.
Still, I was feeling overjoyed to finally be in Nepal. I’d heard so many stories of the place. London and everything else was behind me. Life was ahead. Or, whatever adventure and a pack on the back signifies. In any case, I knew that soon, I’d be heading into a world teeming with mountains.
Little however, did I know of what really lay ahead.
Trust Your Gut, Sam — September 14th-19th, 2023, Sagarmatha:
Keep the following in mind: I do not always believe in the Gods, nor trust that fate forever has a path set in pleasant stone. What I do believe, is that our instincts are often second to none. Ever get the feeling that something is a bit off? Ever think there’s something not quite right about a person, or a situation? That pit in your stomach has been honed by eons of time and evolution. Learn to trust it. The Gods won’t save us from bad people. Fate doesn’t always allow bad situations to pass us by.
The day before landing in Lukla (effectively the starting point for most hikes in the Everest region), I met the guide who was to accompany me on my adventure. It’s strange when I look back, because I felt straight away that something wasn’t quite right about the fellow. But I shan’t name him. He shall simply be called the guide.
We met in a restaurant on the whim of another Nepalese man that I knew (who was sadly unable to take me on the hike as he was contracted elsewhere). I wolfed down a plate of dal bhat while the guide incessantly called the waiters over for tea after tea after tea, never thanking them nor paying particular attention to my early line of polite questioning. My first observation was that he was clearly obsessed with the Gurkhas. His cousin was one he said, and he himself had hoped to go to Singapore and join them there (he didn’t make military selection though). He spoke just about enough English for us to communicate, chewed tobacco, claimed to love the British Empire (uh, ok?), and boasted about his fifteen year career guiding in both Nepal and India. My initial impression surmised that he was curt and no nonsense, didn’t hold much love for Nepal’s neighbours, but most of all that he probably wouldn’t understand a man like me who prides himself on being gentle and considered. Perhaps I sound harsh and arrogant here? Read on. My anger broils when I think about the man.
In that moment in the restaurant, I brushed aside his abrasiveness as a harsh judgement on my side — it was cultural differences too, I wagered. And I was in a bind anyway. I wanted to escape Kathmandu as soon as possible, and his price seemed fair. Fuck it, I thought, and shook his hand to the sum of $1600USD for 19 days in the Himalayas.
The planned hike had us following the well trodden route toward Everest Base Camp up to Namche Bazaar (3500m). From there, we would peel off, heading north-west out of the Khumbu valley and away from Mt Everest. This path would lead high into the Himalayas, culminating with a summit at Gokyo-Ri (5350m+). After this, we’d need to cross the gigantic Gokyo glacier before a tough climb up the Cho La pass (5300m+) and down the ice field on the other side. This would bring us back in sight of Everest and into the Khumbu valley once more. It required three to five more days of walking to hit Everest Base Camp (5400m+) than the usual out and back route most tourists take, but it guaranteed more beauty and variety. Finally, before the long trudge back to Lukla (2950m), the plan was to hit a final mountain summit at close to 5700m on top of Kala Patthar.
I was happy with the plan, although I had reservations about the altitude and pacing.
“Let’s just be relaxed, and go as slowly as feels necessary please,” I said to the guide as we flew into Lukla. “When I did Kilimanjaro, I got pretty sick on the way up… I did make it to the summit, but still…”
“Sure, sure,” he nodded, although I wasn’t sure he was paying attention.
We landed at Lukla to blue skies and warm weather. I caught my first glimpse of the Himalayas. It was marvellous. The guide meanwhile, assembling his hiking poles, sprang another financial weight on me.
“We’ll need a porter, and you’ll need to pay him. He needs to carry our emergency supplies,” he said. “But don’t worry, I will find a very honest man.”
And off he went, jabbering in Nepalese to many of the young men who were hanging around at the airport and hollering loudly in hope of being recruited. I, it appeared, had no say in the matter. After no more than five minutes, the guide came back, quite literally holding a man by his arm and patting him fiercely on the back as if he was soldier. Initially, this man — smiling and nodding at me profusely like I was some sort of special being — called me “sir” over and over, expressing his thanks at being hired. We began to hike while I tried to introduce myself and learn his name, but the guide kept interrupting us.
“Ah, he’s a very honest man Sam. You don’t need to worry. He is not an educated man. He will carry the gear and be our porter though, don’t worry.”
But I insisted on knowing more about the smiling chap.
“His name is Siri,” said the guide. “Siri bhai. This is Sam.”
We shook hands, and I looked into the eyes of a man who I would soon befriend. I just didn’t know it then.
Siri was clearly full of life. He possessed this constant jovial manner, always laughing. He handed me things with two hands and took things I’d offer (usually oreos or KitKats) with two hands as well. I can say with ease that I liked him immediately. I just had the impression that I probably wouldn’t see much of him, since Nepalese porters have a tendency to rush ahead up the trail to finish a day as fast as possible. They are after all, acclimated and incredibly strong. This is exactly what Siri did for the first few days of our hike, giving himself more time to rest for the tougher days to come.
A few more days passed. We were walking around three to six hours per day, usually arriving into the next village between 11am and 1pm. From there, I’d wander the village a little, put my feet up, eat a lot, and dive into a book. Sometimes, Siri took me foraging, or on a short and steep acclimation hike (for instance, one day we went from 4100m up to 4300m in twenty minutes). It was all rather routine and straightforward. I was enjoying the solitude and had barely met anyone. The natural wonders of the Himalayas were all around me, and I was taking the time to soak in all the splendour.
It was on the fifth day however, that my solitude was to be shattered.
I’d spent the day watching the guide like a hawk. The evening before you see, he’d behaved rather strangely. Slurring his words, asking me about money, repeating over and over how great a country Britain is. In hindsight, it’s clear he was drinking, but the thought never crossed my mind at the time. It did make me a little wary of him though. I thought he was a little unhinged, and that he might start charging me more money than agreed. Since I already had my reservations, I keenly observed his behaviour.
Our little posse arrived into Machhermo (4470m) at lunchtime. Siri walked with us — a welcome addition — but the guide seemed to be treating him with disdain at times, which I didn’t appreciate or understand. In the teahouse, there were other backpackers. Most were Indian, or Brits with Indian family. There were a few Sherpas too. I was particularly grateful to shoot the breeze with one of the Brits. He was a Londoner, visiting Nepal after spending time with family in Kashmir. My guide loped past us while we chatted, heading into the teahouse kitchen.
A couple of hours passed. I felt I’d become fast friends with the other Brit. While sitting, I’d also befriended a local stray dog too. He was sat between us at my feet while we chatted, munching on cookies that I broke up for him (more on the dog later). Out the window, the sky was dimming and the world pink. The tops of nearby mountains were snowcapped while the clouds came down to grip their peaks. Meanwhile, Siri sat in the corner, watching the Brit and I chat, a cup of tea in his hands and a look of worry on his face. I kept looking over at him, ushering at him to join, but he only pointed at the kitchen. I was a smidge confused. Something told me that something was wrong.
Minutes after, the guide appeared from the kitchen. My memory is quite vivid here.
He walked over to me and the other Brit. In his left hand, a mug. The liquid within was sloshing over the sides as he began to speak and gesticulate. At this point, the air in the teahouse common room became immediately hostile. I felt it, and so I watched him.
He addressed the other Brit.
“So you’re Indian, huh?”
“Well, I’m actually British. But my parents are from India.”
“Hmm… Oh yeah? Indians… Very bad people.”
“But I’m British,” replied my new friend, uncomfortably.
“Indians. Very bad people,” slurred the guide again, prodding the Brit with a thick finger to the forehead.
He sipped from his mug. I hoped it was all a bad joke.
“I don’t like Indians,” he said, “I don’t like you.”
The Brit was visibly upset, shuffling backward. He looked at me. I was aghast, embarrassed.
“Is there a problem, because I don’t have a problem..?” he said.
“What is going on?” I said to the guide angrily. “Leave us. What the hell are you saying?”
“Why do you talk to this bad man? Look at his skin. He’s Indian. Very bad man! And why do you sit with that dog? He’s dirty.” And the guide bent down and swiped at the dog at my feet, striking him hard so that he whimpered and hid behind me.
“What the fuck are you doing?” I asked, utterly furious. “There’s no need for any of this. Leave us alone!”
But the guide only waved his hand as if it was jest. I got up and put one hand on his back, pushing him toward the kitchen and telling him to go. To my surprise, he obeyed. He kept sipping from the mug as he swept under the cloth entrance before sitting by the stove. Siri got up straight away.
“Sir, he’s crazy. He’s been drinking since we arrived. He was drinking the last two or three nights as well.”
Of course, I thought. Sam, you fucking idiot.
“I am so, so sorry about this,” I said to the other Brit. “It’s unacceptable.” He was clearly shaken and didn’t say much.
During all of this, the teahouse staff were standing around stone faced and unhappy. In the kitchen, I could tell the guide was causing a commotion. Between the cloth curtains, I could see him raiding the liqor cupboards and speaking harshly to the staff. Siri was shaking his head and tutting while nodding at the guide. Then he was talking to him firmly, trying to calm him. Another Sherpa came to me and told me he’d be leaving the teahouse with his group. He said they felt unsafe. The dog hung around at my feet nervously. Siri came back out, still shaking his head.
“Siri, you say he’s been drinking every night?”
“Yes sir... It’s not good sir.”
At this point, the guide came back into the common room. He was holding a curved knife, unfolded from its wooden handle.
“Fucking Indians!” he shouted — this, the first time I’d heard him swear. “Very bad people. Smell bad. Rude. I know many Indians. You can’t trust them. Very bad people.”
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I’ve been fortunate not to witness much racism in my lifetime, but this was it upfront with no affront.
He strolled up to the Brit, still holding his knife.
“In the night, I’ll use this on you! You better watch out. Fucking Indians.”
I saw that the other Brit was paralysed with fear, and I completely lost control. I called the guide by his name with harshness in my voice.
“Leave him alone, now. What the hell is wrong with you? Get out now or we’re going to have a very serious problem.”
The guide turned to me. I wondered if he would use the knife, and I was frightened by how quickly the situation had devolved. But, I have fought before. Drunks are typically berserk and incoherent, and what I did have in my hand was my phone, which if struck with enough venom to the right place would definitely do some damage. Siri, also feeling the tension, came and stood next to me. Him and the guide began speaking to each other angrily in Nepalese. I started swearing and letting the spittle from my mouth fly in anger. I wasn’t myself, and I can honestly say that I’d stopped thinking about the consequences of a fight, and more about hurting the guide as much as possible. My compatriot took his opportunity to leave and I noticed him and his Sherpa departing with all their bags minutes later. It was pitch dark by this point. The teahouse was empty aside from the disgruntled staff and our now very dysfunctional threesome.
The guide tried to talk to me, grabbing me while I pushed him away. I felt sure we would fight. He started abusing me in Nepalese, Siri translating the worst parts for me, after the fact. I needed to leave. I grabbed a torch and stormed out of the teahouse. The dog followed me.
We trudged through the darkness while I descended the valley that separates both sides of Machhermo. I was walking fast, and my hands were shaking. The dog waltzed up in front of me as we crossed a river and began to lead me up the other side of the valley. My hope was that maybe there were people who’d be willing to support me on the other side of the village. I’d decided I had to get rid of the guide as soon as possible. If that meant strong arming him with a bunch of Sherpas, then so be it. After fifteen minutes or so of walking, I entered another teahouse, its lights glimmering in the night.
“I need help,” I said, “Is there anyone who can help me? Are there any Sherpas here?”
In the corner, a handful of tourists looked up from their card game. All conversation stopped. I knew that some of the hostile air must’ve clung to me. It’s one of life’s truest phenomenon that energy transcends moments. Energy hangs onto you, good or bad. People therefore feel your energy even when they don’t understand why.
“Is everything okay?” asked a man with a German accent.
“Please, I need to talk to a Sherpa,” is all I could reply. I suddenly felt very emotional. Then, a burly looking Nepalese man came out from the kitchen. I recongised him from a few days previously where we’d passed him and his client on a trail. He’d spoken with both Siri and the guide. He sat down with a man I assumed was his assistant, and ushered for me to join them. When I did, he put a big hand on my shoulder.
“What’s wrong? What’s happened? Take a moment my friend, take a moment. And explain.”
“It’s my guide… He’s… He’s gone completely crazy. He’s drunk, he’s offensive, he’s racist, he’s been threatening me and threatening others. I don’t know what to do.”
“Is he at your teahouse now?”
“Yeah, I left him there.”
“And is anyone else there?”
“No, he scared everyone off. He was behaving erratically. It’s just my porter and the teahouse owners left.”
“Hmm. This is very bad. Very unfortunate. Sometimes some guides… Ah, they drink, and they become bad men. I’m just sorry this has happened to you.” The Sherpa spoke with a great sense of regret and pathos, as if apologising on behalf of Nepal. I could see out of the corner of my eye that the rest of the teahouse was listening urgently, watching.
“I’m going to be honest with you. It’s a bad situation. I saw you and your guide a few days ago and did not like your guide. He is not a good man. Some of us have spoken about him in the last days, and there are others who know of him and say that he’s bad news, but how were you to know? Here’s what you need to do. He cannot continue with you, correct?”
“Yes, I want rid of him,” I said.
“Okay. Your porter — Siri — he is a very good man. You can trust him. Did you know he’s been walking this region for twenty years?”
“Yeah, I did, and yes, he’s been great. I really like him. I’m thinking I should ask him to be my guide.”
“Exactly. Speak with Siri, and tell him to speak with me tomorrow morning. We’ll look after you tomorrow if there’s any trouble, and either way, we’ll cross paths a lot in the coming days. It’ll all be fine. You’ll need to deal with your guide. Either tonight, or in the morning. And I’d suggest you do it in the morning. Lock yourself in your room tonight. Make sure you get money from him. Do whatever it takes, and stand firm.”
I thanked him, and took a moment to calm myself more. I found the little dog waiting for me outside. I bent down and scratched behind his ears, feeling the soft fur and wondering when this night would end. The stars were out as I walked back across the valley, but I felt my shoulders grow tense as I drew up to my teahouse. I took a breath before crossing the threshold.
The guide met me. He was swaying.
“Problem?” he asked.
I grabbed him straight away. There was no indication he was armed anymore, and I caught him by surprise.
“We’re gonna’ talk in the morning.” My teeth were gritted. I started to move him toward the corridor which housed the bedrooms. He didn’t struggle much, but he was yapping in Nepalese. Siri jumped up and threw open a few doors, helping me force him into his room.
“Sleep. Now.” I said. We shut the door, locking it from the outside. Siri looked at me quite seriously, and we walked back into the common room. I slumped into a chair and put my head in my hands. The wee dog came and sat at my feet once more. I wished there was signal or internet or something. I just wanted to call my parents.
A New Day — September 20th, 2023, Sagarmatha:
The next morning, Siri knocked on my door. I was already awake, but I was grateful to be greeted by a friendly face. After all the commotion the previous night, I asked him to take over as my guide. I assured him that I would look after him salary-wise, and that the guide would not be following us up the mountain. He was thrilled, accepting without hesitation. And, to be honest, I felt it in my bones that this was the decision that would save the trip.
On the subject of the guide; well, I took great pleasure in making him depart. Worryingly (and amusingly in hindsight), Siri and I didn’t find him in his bedroom which we had locked. It was empty, and for about thirty seconds I was sure he must’ve made off in the night because he knew he’d fucked up. But the teahouse owner marched down the hall, kicking open other doors until one revealed a pathetic and naked man, face down on an unmade bed with half a sleeping bag covering him. His possessions were strewn all over the room. He groaned while I leaned on the door frame and looked at him with disdain.
Siri was laughing when I walked past. The guide followed minutes later. When he entered the kitchen, I felt powerful. I was justified in what I was about to say. There are no excuses for racism and threat. When he sat down, I let loose.
“What I witnessed last night was completely unacceptable. You were out of control. Quite frankly, your behaviour was disgusting. In thirty years, I’ve never seen someone handle themselves so poorly. And I don’t care if you say it’s because you were drunk. We can’t continue. You can’t continue. I don’t care what you do or what you say. You are not following me up this fucking mountain. Do you understand? You’re going right back down it, all the way to Lukla and back to Kathmandu. You’re going to give me seven days worth of cash right now, and you can keep the rest and fuck off. Siri has agreed to carry on and be my guide. But you are absolutely not to attempt to follow us. If you do, you and I are going to have a serious issue. And I will push you off this damn mountain if you do. Is that clear?”
The guide was rubbing his forehead while I spoke. He seemed stressed and defeated. And when he started to speak I cut him off.
“Honestly, I don’t care,” I said. I picked up his bag and put it on the table in front of him. “Start counting out my money, and good bye.” I offered my hand and he shook it. There must always be some honour even when your enemy is in front of you.
After this, I never spoke to the guide again. Fifteen minutes of faff later he was off. I watched him march away until he disappeared beyond the brow of a hill.
I remember turning around and looking up the valley, determined to move on from the previous twenty-four hours. The best parts of the hike were still to come. The birds were out and the sky was blue. There wasn’t a breath of wind. On the hoizon, Cho Oyu (8188m) shot up, covered by snow and flushed by green pastures that rushed toward it. Gokyo was in the same direction. That’s where Siri and I were headed. We began to hike, and sure enough, the dog who had kept me company throughout the previous day’s drama ran up to join us.
“Oh I think he likes you very much sir!”
“Come on then pooch,” I said happily, and off we went, higher and higher and higher. Siri beamed. I could tell he was taking everything in his stride.
Into The High Himalayas— September 20th-21st, 2023, Sagarmatha:
The Himalayas — the high Himalayas — are some of the most beautiful natural wonders I’ve ever seen. But Nepalese people say that a ‘mountain’ isn’t a mountain unless it’s over 5000m. And while it sounds preposterous, once I was amongst them I realised why it was true. As Siri and I ascended toward Gokyo, towers of rock flanked us on either side. Snowy peaks lingered in the distance. We were at 4750m, but at our feet still was gravel, green grass, and flowers. The jagged peaks above us grew high into the sky, many above six, seven, even eight thousand metres. They are the giants of the world. I was gripped with wonder and joy.
About halfway to Gokyo, I saw three dogs in the distance. My own furry friend was walking just ahead of Siri when they began to charge towards us. Our dog bolted immediately, howling and whimpering as he sprinted off back in the direction from where we came. He only made it fifty metres or so before the three other snarling dogs caught him. They were on him right away, and before Siri could stop me I was sprinting over, waving my hiking sticks and making an awful racket.
“Oi! Oi! Stop! Leave him!”
When I got nearer, the three strays stopped their attack and cautiously backed away. I made a series of fake lunges at them and eventually ran them off. My little friend didn’t linger though, seizing his moment and running off as fast as he could.
“Don’t worry sir. This happens a lot. Now come on, some of these dogs are quite dangerous. Let’s keep moving,” said Siri. I felt sure it was the last I’d see of the little dog.
Later, Siri and I reached Gokyo. I settled down to rest after a lunch of Tibetan bread and eggs. I remember texting my parents and friends to explain the horrible situation I’d been faced with over the course of the last day. It felt cathartic to get a digital hug. I napped a few hours and began to once again dwell on the wonder of this place and what was to come. I wrote the following in my phone:
The entire sky here is like some kind of heaven. The mountains seem to float. The sky comes down to meet them, and their snowcapped tops poke out, flying in the cold air. Like islands in the sky. Seldom is it that I understand frivolous pursuits. But, being here now, and seeing all this beauty… I’m starting to understand why the men and women who climb here are willing to risk it all. Walking in the footsteps of those who came before me and seeing this place. It’s all a dream.
Gokyo Ri & Gokyo Glacier— September 21st, 2023, Sagarmatha:
Knock, knock, knock.
“Wha… What? Who?”
“Sir? Sir, it’s Siri.”
I glanced at my watch. It was 4.15am. Groggily, I pulled on my trousers and went to the door.
“Good morning Siri,” I yawned.
He handed me a flask of tea. “It’s a clear morning sir. Let’s summit Gokyo Ri!”
When I was ready, we went outside. Gokyo Ri was framed by the little light that the stars provided. It was indeed a clear morning, and we had a steep 600m climb ahead of us. I looked at the mountain and saw around thirty head torches making their way slowly up its eastern face.
Time to catch them.
Off we went, hitting the foot of the mountain before 4.45am. I had a bit of a headache, and I was worried that I did need the toilet, but I resigned myself to shoving these thoughts to the back of my mind and worrying if only the worst was to occur. Step by step, I passed everyone on the mountain bar one woman who was already at the summit by the time I made it. It was 6.06am. Siri was a fast guide.
Joining us at the summit — to my glee and surprise — was the little golden dog.
“You walked all the way up here on your own little fella?” I asked him dumbly. “Aw what a good boy you are!” and scratched his ears.
The view from the top of Gokyo Ri was staggering. Facing east, one could see out toward Mt Everest, Thamserku, Kangtega, and Makalu. Clouds hung below them, and the sun rose gloriously behind them. Flecks of snow fell, gliding down toward the earth. I had to be consoled by a few people who saw me crying happy tears. On the way down back down, the dog was greeted by another tourist who seemed to recognise him.
“Bruno!” he said in a Spanish accent.
“Hey man,” I laughed, “You know this dog too?”
“Yeah, my brother and I hung out with him a few days ago. I thought we’d never see him again!”
“Ha — no way! He’s been following me a few days now. Nice boy! And is that his name? Bruno? Cos’ it’s kinda funny — I was thinking he seems like a Bruno.”
“Yeah, well I mean we just started calling him that and it’s stuck.”
Bruno’s tail was wiggling like mad. He was a happy pup.
Bruno eh. Bruno is who you shall be.
We continued to descend together, and I learnt that the Spaniard was named Carlos. Carlos was with his brother, Javi, and they were en route to climb Lobuche East and Island Peak (both 6400m+). I didn’t get to meet Javi right away, but I would go on to cross paths with them later on the trek. I was just glad to have a name for my adopted dog. Bruno was growing on me the more he walked beside me. Siri called him “the real guide.”
We were back in Gokyo by eight o’clock, and I must say, an excellent breakfast was had by all. Bruno even got some eggs and rice. By ten o’clock, Siri had me back on my feet and we began the long march to Gokyo glacier.
Gokyo glacier — or, Ngozumpa Glacier as it is properly known — is the longest glacier in the Himalayas. As we approached, I saw its lunar-like surface of grey and white rock, its icy fissures, and gargantuan width, and wondered how the hell we would cross it.
“Ok,” said Siri. “So this is a very dangerous part of the hike. Stay close and follow me. Remember that although it doesn’t look like it, the glacier is moving.”
We gingerly descended the western moraine, gravel and stones tumbling with every footstep we took downward. Bruno forged on ahead to do his own thing, and I put whatever trust I had in Siri and his knowledge.
After a half hour or so, we came to the rather abrupt end of a rocky path. It fell away into a chasm, grey water at the bottom, and ice all around. There was about 50m to the other side of the vast chasm
“Oh,” said Siri.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Old path gone sir.”
I took a beat while Siri paced back and forth. He wasn’t deterred. He laughed and told me he knew where to go, but that I mustn’t go near the edge. I was a tad concerned. When I looked north, Cho Oyu was standing tall with other large mountains on its shoulders. There was no going that way. Looking south, the glacier stretched for as far as the eye could see. To the west were the walls of ice and rock we’d already traversed. I hoped we weren’t going back. East was the direction we sought, and what I suddenly realised is that we were in a labyrinth. The path had ended unexpectedly. Siri was following his well honed trail nose. I supposed all I could do was laugh too, and that is what I did.
Nepalese people are metal.
After a further hour in the maze like glacier, I found myself on my hands and knees, scrambling up the eastern moraine. We had climbed across rocks the size of houses, jumped gaps that would break our legs if we misjudged them, and watched towers of ice collapse into glacial lakes. Siri grabbed my pack to help hoist me up the final metres, and then we both collapsed, looking across the vast moonscape that we’d zigzagged our way over. I was smiling. I loved it (crossing that glacier is one of the single best physical things I’ve ever done). Bruno was sat nearby, looking very unphased. I’m still completely dumbfounded by the fact he made his way across alone.
After guzzling the rest of my water and taking a few photographs, Siri and Bruno led on. We saw a small group up ahead, and as we got nearer I noticed that their leader was the broad Sherpa who had comforted me a few nights before. With them was an Indian man who was grateful to hear that I’d ensured the guide’s departure. The Sherpa shook my hand and told me not to worry anymore. Later, we reached an area where the mountains parted a little — like someone had taken a sword and cut them through. I knew that this was the start of Cho La pass.
Cho La is a remote pass about twenty kilometres west of Everest, and the push to the summit is regarded as the hardest of the three passes trek. It had also snowed in the morning (I knew this from being atop Gokyo Ri that very morning), and Siri hypothesised that it would still be snowing “up high” the following morning. We wouldn’t tackle it that afternoon due to the altitude in any case, and instead found a tiny village in the grasslands at the foot of the trail. Rest at 5000m elevation is paramount after all.
Bedding down for the night, all tired and done from another huge day, I’ll happily confess now that I was shitting myself for the day to come.
Cho La pass and Everest Base Camp — September 22nd-24th, 2023, Sagarmatha:
More steps Sam. More steps. Breathe. Ok, don’t look up. More steps. Effort. Go.
I strode atop the summit of Cho La pass (5300m+) under considerable snowfall. I’m not sure I can aptly describe to you the feelings that I had, but what I can tell you is that I was imagining Fleet Foxes’ Ragged Wood lighting up my ears as I did it:
Woaaahhhhhh owwwww oooo woaahhhhh!
Come down from ther mountain, you have been gone too loooongggg.
Spring is upon us, follow my only sooonggg.
I guess it was misery and then it wasn’t. It was joy and then despair. The Himalayas were taking everything. The Himalayas were giving everything. It was just after eight o’clock in the morning. Siri clasped my hands in his at the summit, slapping me on the back and telling me that Everest Base Camp would be a sure-fire piece of cake now. His elation was infectious. It was a moment that sums up the mixed emotions of the high mountains.
What preceded the crossing was the story that created this elation. We had toiled for nearly three hours of almost continuous climbing.
Bruno — I noticed — did not depart with us at 5am. I couldn’t find him. But Siri, jovial as ever, said he would follow our scent and find us in time for a packed lunch after the summit.
“Alright,” I said joshingly, “Let’s go.”
Crossing Cho La pass first requires a hiker to take an hour or so of pretty arduous uphill hoofing. The route is lined by moss covered rocks and fog veiled mountain sides. At the top of the valley, one reaches another U-shaped valley; this, the one that bridges one mountain range to the next. Looking south from here, I could see Ama Dablam (6812m), resplendant and lonesome, like Smaug’s mountain from The Hobbit. The valley which moved toward it seemed to fall away from a small river, and I wondered if there was a waterfall there.
Siri and I crossed this river with consummate ease, coming to the sharp foot of the valley’s other side. About 400m up from there was the summit of Cho La. The difficult thing was the gigantic granite slab that stood between us and the top. It was icy cold, and to make things trickier, it had started to snow. I zipped up my fleece and Siri led me toward the line which traced a diagonal route up the granite.
God help me.
I grabbed the chain which was hammered into the rock and started edging my way, sideways, up the face of it. On my feet — as they were for the whole trek — was a pair of Salomon XT-4s, built more for flat trekking or trail running (or the streets of your local edgy neighbourhood), than a high mountain pass erring in the favour of boots and crampons.
If I slip and I die, it’s the shoes’ fault.
Cautiously, I moved skyward. Mercifully, there were steps in random sections of the ledge that ran up the rock face. I took my time here, grateful to the Sherpa people who must’ve once upon a time cut them into the rock. Siri was only a few metres ahead.
“Come on sir!”
About halfway up the granite, we were able to sort of move through it. It was an area like a graveyard for rocks. Stones were pitched into the earth, here and there. I felt sure they had fallen from the cliffs above us. There were small ponds filled with turquoise water and patches of ice too. We moved through it and continued ascending. The summit was in sight.
About 100m from the top, we were climbing in about a foot of snow. The effort was tough, and I would not begrudge any individual who achieves this and says they would never wilfully do it again. An Australian woman coming the other way had the look of grim determination on her face to illustrate this when she passed us. She warned us to be careful descending the other side. Through my headache, sore legs, and pounding heart, I was able only to offer her the same advice for this side.
Ten minutes later, Siri and I made it, and after experiencing the moment I described earlier, we shared some Oreos and made for our descent across the Cho La ice field.
I was beginning to think that glaciers were the main attraction of this trek, but I would soon learn that they were not. It truly is Mount Everest who was and always shall be the star.
The days following Cho La passed by in a happy haze. I found myself hiking with the infinitely likeable Carlos and Javi (I wished they lived in London). Bruno caught us up (in time for lunch just as Siri predicted), and he seemed like a very happy pooch. Furthermore, this new area of the Khumbu was particularly beautiful. I think the excitement of nearing Mt Everest was also adding to the allure we all felt. It was even nicer — I’d add — to have the luxury of spending a full day marching down hill from Cho La for 18km. It was a welcome change from the arduous climbing and altitude induced headaches of the past week. My body was getting stronger and my head was stronger still.
At Lobuche, Bruno — having fully entrusted himself to me, it seemed — expressed obvious desire to follow me absolutely everywhere (yes, even the ghastly local toilets). That night, he curled into a ball in the corner next to my bed and slept peacefully. I meanwhile, knew that the morning would bring a very long day to Everest Base Camp, so I settled into my bed and (perhaps amusingly to some of you) put on Pride & Prejudice. I had never seen this film before and fully intended to watch only some of it because sleep is very important. However, I ended up watching all of it, and not only because it was staggeringly good, but because it is impossible for a young male to watch this film and not fall in love with the British perfection featured within (Kiera Knightley and Rosamund Pike).
In the morning, tired and love struck, I began the walk to Everest Base Camp. I tried to summarise Pride & Prejudice to Siri but unfortunately for him he did not understand.
“I have wife,” he said, laughing.
A few hours later, we made it to Gorak Shep. It was all feeling very real then, and I could barely grapple with the reality that only two weeks prior, I had been sprinting my way across an airport in the Arabian gulf. Now I was in a high alpine zone with four of world’s highest mountains within striking distance. It was utterly surreal. Presently however, I could barely see five feet in front of me. A blizzard was about and it was driving.
Bruno seemed to take pride in leading us through the snowstorm and into the closest teahouse. We warmed ourselves by the fire for a bit, and while the sweet dog curled up beside it, Siri and I departed once more to get to Base Camp.
Reaching Everest Base Camp was just absurdly cool. By luck or something else, Siri and I were the first people to make it there that day. I believe the weather played a role. It was appalling, but it was epic. And I was feeling super strong, as if the 5400m altitude wasn’t a factor. Siri — used to the thin air — was humming to himself while he held up his big umbrella (itself dusted with snow). Making our way over large stones and toward the camp, the massive rock that signals its position gradually came into view. I walked up to it and hugged it. Beyond it was Everest, Nuptse, and Lhotse, but through the fog, one could see little but a reflection of the fact that nothing truly matters and we can all do anything.
I sat around the big rock for a while. Siri and I embraced. I felt that we had crushed every single objective on the trip. We had the place to ourselves for a little over twenty minutes before we trekked back to Gorak Shep. I went to bed that night in the freezing cold, very happy, and very sure that this was a place I would likely see once more before I depart this world.
To my surprise, there was a series of knocks on my door at 3.15am the next morning.
Why this was happening was a point of serious contention in my mind.
What the f…
It was Siri, with Bruno at his feet.
“Sir, sir! It’s a clear morning! It’s a clear morning!”
This was significant you see, because the weather the day before made us believe that a summit push to Kala Patthar would be completely pointless (because we’d get no view of Everest). Siri had hoped we were wrong, so had set his alarm to check if the stars were out any way. So it goes that they were, and so it went that we set off at 3.30am, me with very little spacial awareness or consciousness about me, for I was sure that this was all a dream and that sleep still had me.
Kala Patthar was a steep climb, but I didn’t care. And the march to its 5644m peak was a spectacular one. The views were among the best that I have ever seen in my entire life. As the sun rose, the stars faded and the Himalayas grew into view. Everest stuck out clearly — the highest place on our good green earth — and to its south, Nuptse rose gracefully like a child that wanted to grow into its Father. Far away, Ama Dablam sat alone and wonderful. Kangtega and Thamserku lingered further still. The entire panorama was a heavenly pantheon.
We got nearer and nearer to the summit, and I found myself caught by Carlos and Javi. I was happy to see them.
“Hola amigos,” I cried, as they chased me up the mountain.
“Hey Sam! Bruno!” they called.
The burly Sherpa was also on his way up, further back down. I would see him at the summit I was sure.
At the top of Kala Patthar was a tiny summit ridden with ice and sharp rocks. It was frigid up there but the air was still. The world was a fine colour of blue. Behind us was Pumori (7161m) and in front of us was the spectacular panorama which I’ve just described.
I snagged a photo with my summit buddy Bruno, and sat around to take it all in, thanking Siri for getting me up and making sure I didn’t sleep through the greatest sunrise of my life. Soon, many of us converged into a larger group, smiling and chatting whilst we made our way back down the mountain. I watched one man propose to his girlfriend. A handful of tourists stopped to applaud. I thought that it was a lovely thing to do but that I would prefer a beach or a woodland grove. I was also reminded of how simple life is in the remote places of our world. Strip everything back and you’re left with the only things you need. Your thoughts, nature, beauty, exercise, resources, and imagination.
Good bye Nepal — September 24th-30th, 2023, Sagarmatha:
It took Siri and I two and a half days to get from Everest Base Camp (5400m) back to Lukla (2950m). Not to make a mountain out of a molehill, but this was a rather crazy thing to do. We were hiking down with some virulence, hellbent on finishing as quickly as possible so that I could make a flight to Hong Kong and Japan. Most hikers do this part of the trek in four days. Instead, our days were long. Whenever we stopped for a water break, I’d ask Siri if we were in his chosen town for the night and he would shake his head laughing.
My legs ached.
We left Bruno at a village close to 5000m. I hoped he was in the care of Carlos and Javi or someone else with goodness in their bones. Thinking about him now, I really do miss that sweet dog. In another life in some other universe, perhaps I took him home. Perhaps in that universe, I’m a different man. Who knows?
After two and a bit days, Siri dropped me at the airport in Lukla. We had completed a nineteen day hike in a little over thirteen, thanks in part to his speed and guidance, and my fortunate ability to cope with the altitude better than I’d expected. It was the afternoon of September 26th when my little prop aircraft took off for Kathmandu.
To Siri, I gave my email, a tip of $600USD, and a can of beer. I remembered the salary he was being paid and the way the guide had been treating him, and made the split second decision to give him all of my emergency fund, plus a little more, rather than the planned and semi-expected (culturally, I’m told) $250USD. I cannot emphasise enough what a lovely man and superb guide Siri was. I couldn’t have done any of it without him. I hope my account of him is favourable.
I landed in Kathmandu to a rabble of taxi drivers and tourists. I walked into the sunset and hopped into a taxi, wondering when I would next see the Himalayas and how it was that I had just had the experience I had just had. I felt a little like Jack Kerouac must’ve felt when he was on the road, lounging in the odd splendour of it all. I hated that fucking book but have to admit that the guy has a point.
A few days of lounging around in Kathmandu later, and I was back in another aeroplane. This one was a little larger and more luxurious than the ones I had grown used to.
I was feeling very happy about my trek and what I had seen, but I’ll admit here that I also felt very bitter about Nepal. The reason this writing has dwelt so much on the incident with the guide is because of that. What happened was really rather awful and will regretfully remain the enduring memory from this adventure (I daren’t not write every racist and putrid thing he said here). I can only say it’s fortunate that I was a young man at the time, and not a frail individual, nor a woman who the guide might’ve sought to frighten even more. I have heard very few grim tales from the Himalayas, but I know that there was room for myself to feature in a new one should things have gone just a little more awry. Despite all this, I will remember the mountains. I will remember Bruno. I will remember Siri. I will remember my happy tears up there on the high peaks, a place I know in my heart to be a heaven on Earth. Nothing can be perfect though, and I departed Nepal knowing this statement remains true.
Hong Kong baby! — September 30th, 2023, Hong Kong S.A.R:
I landed smoothly into Hong Kong having caught no shut-eye on the flight. I had a day’s layover there, and was determined to make the very most of it. My excitement at the thought of being back in Asia’s greatest city (just my opinion) had stolen sleep from me, but I didn’t care.
I hopped on the MTR and found myself in Central by 7.30am. It was a gorgeous day without a cloud in the sky, and the place was still relatively quiet given that it was a Saturday morning. I rushed over to the peak tram and paid my way up to Victoria’s peak. And my word, every time I see that view, I can’t help but smile from ear to ear. If you’ve never been to Hong Kong, it’s worth scheduling a flight to somewhere else in Asia (with a 4–10 hour layover) just so you can take the time to visit the peak above the city and see that incredible view (it’ll also make your flight cheaper, I’d bargain).
I sat at the summit and remembered all the people who’ve looked after me and shown me Hong Kong over the years — my old friend Pippa, her family, my stepsister Chloe, her husband Archie, and all the local people I’ve met while passing through since I first visited in 2013. It was a feeling of inordinate happiness. I was gripped by gratitude.
It was Hong Kong, you see, that kicked off my infatuation with travel and adventure. Rather than holidaying and relaxing in places like France or Greece, I try to seek out interesting places for experiences, or to go and almost pretend to be a local. Is it not in embracing the culture of a place, that we learn to enjoy it best? Give me uncertainty, excitement, a mountainside, or a random beach, over all-inclusive, a city break in Europe, or god forbid a cruise.
I soon left Victoria’s Peak and headed west to Pacific Place, making sure to purchase new running shoes so that I could start finding my feet again in Tokyo (more on the importance of this later). I went to a small restaurant I like, popped over to Kowloon, sank a few iced coffees, and eventually found my way back to the airport.
I slept on the floor of the terminal for twenty minutes before boarding my flight. It was so hot in Hong Kong that my shirt was totally saturated. I had flashbacks to Doha and didn’t dare touch the waistband of my boxers.
I am an idiot.
Konnichiwa — September 30th-October 6th, 2023, Tokyo:
The first time I visited Japan was in December, 2016. I must confess how I vowed I would never come back were it not for visiting with a girlfriend or a wife. I simply found it to be one of the most romantic places I’ve ever been. And not for the stereotypical reasons like it feeling literally romantic, but more because of what its cities and places offer. There is cuisine in Japan to satisfy even the most abject food philistine. There are museums in abundance. The standard of hotels is high. There are just so many beautiful places. And, it’s culturally unique, but not in a way that shuts out tourists. I feel it has a charm that would be better enjoyed with one you love. Still, there I was, fairly recently single, landing into Tokyo Narita. It was late and I was mighty tired. But, as it is when arriving in any cool country, I was thrilled to even be in the queue for passport control. I soon forgot my vow.
After taking the airport express train, I disembarked at Shinjuku just after midnight. With it being a Saturday night, the place was jam-packed with young people. The lights were neon and bright. The music was loud. The cab drivers were wearing gloves.
Oh, god yes!
It was Tokyo alright.
I walked the fifteen minutes to my hostel, the area becoming gradually more pedestrian and quiet. Eventually, I climbed into bed and wondered what the week ahead could possibly hold.
Awaking early the next morning, I went for a run. It was a theme that would continue for six out of the eight mornings I spent in Tokyo. This first day constituted 15km around Maranouchi and the Imperial Palace, and I must admit I arrived back at the hostel a complete mess. I was spent. But I did feel that I needed to shock my body after the many hours of low intensity in Nepal. By this point in the trip, I also knew I’d soon be visiting Amsterdam, and my close friends who live there. I also knew they were doing the Amsterdam half marathon, and I fancied my chances at getting a last minute entry (because, why not). Tokyo would be the training for this potential event.
Days in the city passed slowly but pleasantly. I enjoyed fine weather, good shopping, and even better food.
A particular highlight was my evening dining at Sushi Harumi in Ginza. This is a place I will always call one of my favourite restaurants in the world. I recommend it to everyone, and owe my knowledge of the place to my stepsister. On this occasion, what made the meal so memorable was that the Chef, upon my arrival, immediately recognised me as a patron from “six or seven years ago” — his words not mine (it was seven years ago). I was staggered by his memory, and when I asked how he remembered, he said:
“I just remember your face sir. You were very nice that night, and I remember you have family who had visited before you? They are also tall, like you? You are a very good man, although I must say you look older now.” He laughed.
“Haha, yes, that’s right! And well, time catches up with us all,” I said.
He bowed to me, offered me a beer, and proceeded to present me with eighteen courses of the most supreme sushi. Unforgettable.
A few more days passed of which I spent much in Harajuku, buying clothes from Beams+ and looking at vintage Grand Seiko watches that I wouldn’t dare purchase (‘tis nice to dream however). I kept things simple and felt again that wonderful solitude that the Himalayas had sometimes afforded. I was on my own and quite content with it actually. I hadn’t sought out friends or spoken to many. I was alright with that. In the parks, I sat and I read. I went to old shinto shrines. I rode the metro and watched the people of Tokyo do their thing. I ate cheap ramen and drank local beer (Japanese beer is — I think — among the best in the world). I took a trip to Mt Fuji. I slept long. I ran far. I felt much like I do in London sometimes when things are going well and the air has the warmth of spring and summer in it. I realised the vow I made in 2016 was worthless. You can still enjoy a place in perfect isolation.
Australian Charm — October 6th-7th, 2023, Tokyo:
It is often the people that make a trip memorable. Their essence, and how one might oddly click with them. Becoming friends or something else I suppose — like a hasty relationship formed on the road and understood only by the two who feature. I can never quite pin down what it is about travel, but it seems to me that some of the best people are met when you least expect it, far away in some foreign place.
Boshing about in Tokyo was indeed a wonderful experience, but it doesn’t merit a long story of its own. I’ve saved that for this wee chapter.
It was Friday evening when I arrived back in the hostel from a day at Mt Fuji. Tokyo was as resplendent and calm as ever. I felt sure an early night was on the cards.
Before crossing the threshold of the hostel, I noticed two young women sitting outside on chairs near the front porch. It was a warm evening, so it made sense that they were sitting there. I clocked them looking in my direction and momentarily thought about stopping straight away since I guessed we were all close in age. I had something to handle indoors first though, so made my way inside to chat to some of the staff about laundry and of recommendations for the weekend.
About ten minutes later, I’d almost forgotten about the two women outside, but just as I was about to walk up to my room, I noticed the dark haired of the two looking at me through the glass doors. I figured I had to go back outside and say hello.
Now, while I’m not a particularly shy person, I’m not exactly brazen either, but these two had a nice aura about them. I felt as if all three of us wanted to chat, or maybe it was me tricking myself into confidence.
“Hi. Mind if I join you?” I said.
“Hi!” they said, with charming enthusiasm. I straight away knew they were Australian, or maybe Kiwi, but I daren’t have asked right away.
“Sure, come sit, come sit, join us!”
So I sat, and there was much smiling and I felt happy to be there, accepted with some company.
“You know, I’ve gotta say,” said the dark haired one, “your shoes are really bloody cool.”
“Haha — oh yeah?” I said. “Thanks.”
“Yeah. I saw them earlier and thought, he has cool shoes,” she replied.
There was a sort of charming humour in her voice. She nodded and smirked while she spoke. I could tell she was being sincere while also recognising that this was a funny way to start a conversation off on a nice note. And please, don’t get me wrong, I was enjoying it. It’s just that how many meetings begin with friendly discussions over footwear? She and her companion were dressed nicely, but should I compliment them on their shoes? I didn’t know (although they were both wearing very trendy trainers too). But anyway, in case you can’t already tell, I was — annoyingly for me — immediately attracted to the dark haired woman.
The other woman was blonde, and seemed to share her companion’s sense of humour. I guessed that they were best friends or even sisters.
“I’m Janna,” said the blonde woman.
“And I’m Kara,” said the dark haired woman.
“Hey, great to meet you both. I’m Sam,” and I offered my hand, which they both took in turn.
It transpired that they were indeed Australian, hailing from Melbourne, very close old friends, and had just arrived in Tokyo a day or so before our meeting. I was enjoying their company, and an hour or so passed by in a flash.
Kara was particularly insistent that I get stuck in on the small collection of alcohol they had at the table. Janna backed her up, tapping the cans with her fingers.
“Cumon’. You gotta’ have a drink Sam.”
So I took one of the drinks — a weird lemon spirit thing in a can — and joined in. Frankly, I’d have taken poisoned mushrooms or drank a glass of mud if it was required to continue the evening with them. They were hilarious.
“I have to confess that in the whole week I’ve been in Tokyo, I’ve only gone to bed after 10pm once…” I hesistated to say.
“What!?” replied Kara, laughing — “right, you’re coming out with us Sammy. No choice. You’re locked in.”
“Do I have to?”
“You better. You’ve taken our drinks,” she said.
“True. Alright, I’m locked in.”
Both Kara and Janna cheered as if it was some monumental occasion to celebrate.
While we continued to take sips of our drinks, we exchanged anecdotes and talked about life. It was very easy conversation, balanced with the pair of them. I was starting to build a picture of them too, as one does. Kara didn’t know it at the time (or maybe she did), but I was paying particular attention to her life story, and finding little parallels to my own. I felt sure that we would become very good friends if we knew each other more, but I also knew the maximum I would probably ever know her was a few days. It annoyed me even more to know this fact when I’d known so quickly that I found her so attractive. She was beautiful and funny. I was in Tokyo. Life was doing its weird and wonderful thing.
Since I had knowledge of the area, the girls elected that I should direct us into the heart of Shinjuku. We headed for the Golden Gai, a small area known for its quaint little bars and night life.
This’ll be fun.
I walked mostly alongside Janna. I had the distinct feeling she knew I fancied her friend. Indeed, she encouraged the sparring I directed toward Kara. This was mostly centred around Kara’s emphatic walk, which was a cross between a catwalk model’s strut and a bounding march. Kara herself said she knew she was a fast walker.
“Come on guys, keep up!” she said.
“Oh yeah, we’re coming, we’re coming.”
She only seemed to revel in her own wonderful individualism. Janna and I served her a mock salute.
I spent much of the walk astute in reiterating to myself that I didn’t want to impose on their holiday even if I was grateful of the invite on that particular evening. I decided I would express a secret kind of attitude to Kara, only if I felt she too was expressing it to me.
When we reached the Golden Gai, I let both of them lead us through the alleyways and into one of the tiny bars. Inside, we had a hoot, and several drinks later, fired up and now very comfortable as a three-way of friends, we made our way to a karaoke bar.
The girls boasted about their singing skills playfully. I fought back, telling them how well I could sing Superstition by Stevie Wonder (readers should note that if I ever sing this song for them, I’m either drunk or attracted to someone in the party).
Inside, we found our booth, and had ourselves a little soiree. I was having the best night of my trip. The girls were fine company, and we seemed to have affected a method where drinks came as if on a conveyor belt. At one point, a pizza even showed up. The girls sang duets, Kara and I laid on a tribute to Sweet Child O’ Mine, and then she gave a memorable rendition of Duffy’s Mercy. I watched her sing it, and for a brief moment caught eyes with her, wondering if there was an element of hidden attitude for me somewhere in her mind. What I did get was a radiant smile.
We were in the karaoke room until past 10.30pm. When we emerged — happy and electric — we almost forgot to pay the bill (this may have been a drunk mistake or deliberate). Kara and Janna threw notes into the cash machine and forbade me from paying even a yen however. We all tried our best to issue thanks in Japanese.
Outside, we linked up with a handful of other backpackers. And then as if swept by in a drunken haze, there we all were in some tiny bar, crammed around a few tables and chewing ears. I met a bunch of people from all over. French, English, American, Canadian, Australian. We were a diverse bunch, and I once again felt simultaneously happy and stricken by how different this was to being in Nepal. I did find myself held up in conversations (nice ones, mind) when I wanted to speak to Kara. And writing this now feels funny because infatuation is such an in the moment thing. I didn’t particularly express it at the time, but a part of me probably wished it was just her and I in that bar, even if we were sat next to one another at the time.
Later, queuing to go into some dingy club, I could tell we were all flagging. I was drunk but in control. The girls were going to head back to the hostel, they said. It took my brain about five minutes to comprehend this before I left the queue myself and chased them down through the streets of Shinjuku. Kara was walking on her own, while Janna was strolling behind her with another woman.
“Hello,” I said breathlessly.
“Didn’t fancy it then?”
“Nah. I was enjoying your company too much. And I’m tired.”
She giggled, and we walked side-by-side in the direction of the hostel.
I don’t remember every word of our conversation well enough to regale it here. But I do remember we talked about ex-lovers, the complexities of it all, and what we wanted out of life. I wondered if she felt a minor magnetism between us too, for every few metres we’d bump hips or brush arms, or she’d lean on me a bit and then I’d lean back on her. I kept imitating her marching walk. She mimicked my British accent. She was a good sport about all of it.
“What fun you are!” I told her, before bidding her good night.
The next day, despite my insistence that I didn’t want to intrude on their time together, Kara insisted “yes 100%” that I would be coming for drinks and dinner with her and Janna. It was my last night in Tokyo.
We began the evening in a jazz bar in Shibuya which can only be described as something straight out of a Haruki Murakami novel. The bar was wrapped by shelves filled with thousands of old records. The tables were low and wooden. The barman, wearing a rather dashing chambray apron, was elderly but handsome. He spoke excellent english. He took great care making our drinks. The music was perfect.
After, we dived into a restaurant which was serving Japanese food in a tapas style.
“This place is gonna’ be great,” I said. “There’s not a single westerner in here.” And as far as barometers go for good restaurants in Asia, I’ve often found this to be a decent trope. I was glad it remained true at this place, and the girls were impressed.
We ordered chaotically and randomly. Janna thankfully spoke an impressive amount of basic Japanese and was able to communicate we probably needed someone to help us with the menu. When a waitress came over who spoke English, the girls worked their charm and had her on our side to help us amend our chaotic order.
Wine soon arrived too, and the three of us kanpai’d to our chance meeting. I was still fairly certain Janna knew I fancied Kara, but also that Kara probably knew it too and either didn’t mind or also had a curiosity about me. In any case, I’d told myself it didn’t matter. I was grateful to have made two fast friends. I’d always remember these few days, I thought. And also, I knew how lives drift apart for no obvious reason. We’re all busy people, and we can’t spend our time trying to prolong chance meetings in far away places. I’m always at peace with that. You’ve got to enjoy the present. One has to when travelling alone.
Presently, we ate and we drank. This all culminated in Janna hilariously spilling her wine all over the table, herself, and little bits on Kara and I. None of us minded, and it was her reaction that seized us all with fits of laughter. After a few failed minutes where we all tried to blot the stains on her dress, she excused herself to the bathroom. This left Kara and I alone.
Kara was laughing. I felt a flutter in my stomach.
“Should we wait for her?” I said, looking at the food.
“Nah,” Kara replied, “she won’t mind. And it’ll get cold — haha.”
“Yeah ok. You should try this.” I pointed to some of the sashimi. “But we have to cheers when we pick it up.”
With very little chopstick deft, we clanged our pieces of tuna together and ate at the same time.
“Fuck! That’s so good,” she said.
I had her to myself for ten or so precious minutes. Ten minutes to look at her one on one and question in my mind why it was that I felt so pulled toward her.
Why? Why? Why?
I’ve often found that it’s only when two people like each other that a person experiences this kind of emotion. Kara — for her part — later told me she had never been so glad that Janna had spilled wine on herself than in that moment. It had been the shortest of unintentional dates and we were both enjoying it.
Later on, back at the hostel, we all said our good byes. I had to be awake at 4am but hatched a small plan first. In my room I wrote a wee note. I texted Kara that I had something for her, hoping desperately that she’d pick up the text. She did.
“I’m coming,” she wrote.
There, in the tiny corridor by the elevator, I expressed my gratitude at meeting her. I think she knew what I was really saying without me saying it.
She took my note with a killer smile (it was folded as many times as it is humanly possible to fold) and planted me with the shortest and sweetest kiss. She turned and entered the elevator, waving and smiling. I wished I wasn’t leaving the next day.
Can I leave this tale with a lesson?
There are so many wonderful people that we will meet in life. We don’t get to decide where and when this happens. Nothing is fated, you see. People pass into your life for seconds sometimes and make an impact. Others stay forever. A rare few have a radiance that tells you to remember them, even if you’ll never see them again. Living with that fact is not a burden nor an issue. It’s just life, friend. There will be other stories. All people can be captured. Lightening is always striking the earth somewhere, but that doesn’t make it any less special.
That will do.
Stressing in Shanghai — October 8th, 2023, Pudong:
“Connecting flight to Amsterdam, this way. Please hurry.”
Shit, shit, shit, shit. This is like Doha all over again!
“Yeah, that’s me — thank you!”
“Uh — Sir, you’ll need to prove you aren’t covid positive to transfer.”
Running. Running. More running. I ran and I ran.
I can’t believe this is happening again! I’m never doing another layover under three hours.
I let my eyes dart to and fro in the immigration zone, seeking out whatever I needed to do so that I wouldn’t become stuck in China. I recruited a friendly looking airport worker to guide me through the steps I needed to take, and managed to sort my health screening and prove that I only wanted to transfer through China rather than escape the airport. As you might be able to tell, it was all a little stressful.
The queue at security was an ordeal too. It was long as China’s great wall, and when I finally reached the front, I only had ten minutes to get to the gate. I suppose — dear reader — that if you know anything about me by now, it’s that you can bet I was going for it when I reached the departure area.
My only saving grace was that I had an entire row to myself at the back of the aircraft, which I boarded with a heart rate of 190bpm.
“Welcome aboard Mr Hodges.”
I smiled, saying, “Xie xie.”
I love travelling.
Amsterdam Half Marathon — October 15th, 2023, Nord-Holland:
I landed in the Netherlands just after dinner time on October 8th. Door-to-door, I’d been travelling for a shade over nineteen hours.
I was staying with friends at their place in Amsterdam. It was a wonderful moment, seeing my old university housemate Ed and his fiancé Dani. It was almost as wonderful to meet their pup too. He was named Arlo, and seemed to find my presence more exciting than any single other living thing or creature has ever found me in my lifetime.
I crashed that night, sleeping so deeply that I scarcely remembered I was in Europe when I got up the next day. I remember feeling happy to be back so close to home. There was a hunger in my heart to get back to reality and hopefully to a job soon.
I spent the first few days swanning about in Amsterdam. I borrowed Ed’s bike and made sure to check out neighbourhoods like De Pijp and Amsterdam Nord, imagining what it might be like to dwell in such a place. It’s hard to be bored in city like Amsterdam.
As luck would have it, another dear of friend of mine was living in the Netherlands too, so I left Ed and Dani’s for a bit and headed to den Haag. Meeting me there was Pat, who I’ve known since I was eleven years old. I’d never been to the Hague before. It’s definitely worth a visit.
Pat is probably the funniest person I know. He’s a friend I have no trouble reconnecting with after long bouts of not seeing one another, which is why I know he’s special. He showed me around town, we cooked together, we ate out, and we even stumbled into a protest by accident when walking near the peace palace. I went to see The Girl With The Pearl Earring and The Goldfinch (10/10 artworks by the way) and felt a little bit like Connell in Normal People when he visits Europe for the summer and sees famous art in Vienna for the first time.
I even took a day trip to Utrecht and caught up with an ex-colleague, Miki. I felt like I was using my time extremely well. Utrecht, for its part, might be one of the prettiest small cities in the world.
Most of all though, I was running. I’d ran about 125km in thirteen days from Japan to Holland, taken a few easy days off, and started to test if my legs were working or not following all the training. I felt the good sensations that other athletes will understand and decided to get an entry into the Amsterdam half marathon.
“I’ve got you Sam,” said Ed’s fiancé, Dani. “Your entry belongs to someone called Olivia, but if you skip the ID check you should be good to run.”
“Haha — I’ll make it work.”
I am now Dutch woman called Olivia.
Race day went exceedingly well. In fact, it went far better than it had any business going. I guess one might even say it serves as a solid allegory for my trip in general. I hadn’t really planned any of it. I just let the wind take me, and for the most part, it all went rather well.
When the gun went, I (or was it Olivia?) set off at 4.12/km pace. The crowds were immense, and the shoes I’d picked up in Hong Kong were feeling incredibly responsive. After 4km, I looked at my watch and listened to my breathing. I said to myself:
Yeah, I feel pretty damn good.
So what did I do? I absolutely sent it. For the next 15km, I averaged a pace of 3.56/km. I felt like I was fucking levitating. It was the best feeling. And I was overtaking everyone.
This is how to pace a race.
When I looked behind me, I had two or three lads with their teeth gritted trying to follow my pace. That only spurred me on. I had no idea where this had come from really. I mean, I knew I was fit, but I hadn’t expected this level of form. I trusted my legs to hold out.
The final 2.2km were a bit of a grovel, and I had to start thinking that a serving of humble pie was imminent. Nevertheless, I crossed the line with a personal best time of 1:24.44. My legs no longer worked but I didn’t care. I was ecstatic. At the finish line, I spoke to plenty of other runners. Many were what one would consider actually really, really fast (i.e. 3.15/km for 21km pace). I was reminded that we can think we’re good at something but there’s always someone better. It doesn’t mean you can’t be proud of what you’ve achieved though.
Ed and Dani also competed, having wonderful races of their own. And, in the evening, we ate burgers and told stories of our respective days out. I prepared for the short journey home which I would soon be making.
A day or so later, I landed into London City Airport. The 6 week fever dream was over.
Here, Now And How — November, 2023, London:
I hear you thinking:
What‘s the point to all this writing?
Good question. And the answer is rather straight forward.
One of my favoruite writers is a man named Jim Harrison. He was known for his punchy, simple prose. His work is masculine, but quietly beautiful. Just read Legends of The Fall, a close-to-perfect short story set in Montana during WW1 (it’s eighty-seven pages so you have no excuse) and you’ll see what I mean.
Anyhow, Harrison once said that “death steals everything except our stories.” That really stuck with me.
I guess this whole piece is really me recording a small episode of my life, so that it’s never forgotten. Many will never read it though. Indeed, I’ll happily wager that less than 20% of people who read this conclusion will have read the whole piece. Many more won’t even get past the opening paragraphs. But, I’m okay with that. I write these things for me.
It’s like the whole trip really. I did all of it for me. I had no objectives other than to live, to absorb cultures, and to experience new things. I was selfish with my choices and take no qualms with that because I was answering to no one. We cannot live our lives always answering to the whims of others. The standards that society sets out for us are malleable. You can take a career break if you want. You are you. Not someone else. You can do pretty much anything with the right attitude. It’s always only ever a question of how.
Go to sleep, young man.
And I will.
I wonder when it is that I’ll next set foot into the world? I’m sure that one day, I will write about it when I do.
Samuel Hodges, London, November 2023