Tag Archives: Jo James


On my first trip to China I kept hearing rumours about Laos, which at that time – mid-1999 – was still very much off the beaten track.

“The roads are all dirt tracks, and you’ll spend weeks getting rust-red dust out of your hair,” one fellow backpacker told me, knowingly. I had only recently discovered that such a country existed, so these survivors’ stories of epic bus journeys and remote villages combined with my near-absolute ignorance in a way that left me longing to hop over the border and explore.lao-countryside

Distracted by university and work, it wasn’t until 2007 that I finally managed to arrange a trip to Laos. Escaping the greyness of a Beijing winter, my husband and I flew to Kunming, caught a bus to Jinghong and took a minibus to the border at Mohan.

We negotiated our exit from China, and took a van across the few hundred metres of “no man’s land” that separates the two border posts. The Lao checkpoint fitted my idea of how it ought to look perfectly; a series of ramshackle huts where sullen officials stamped our passports with an improbable number of rubber stamps.

don-det-basile-morinOnce finished with the formalities, we clambered into a songthaew (an overgrown tuk-tuk where passengers sit facing each other on two benches inside), and drove off into the afternoon sunshine towards Luang Namtha, giddy with the excitement of being somewhere fresh and new.

We spent the next five weeks travelling the length of Laos by bus and songthaew. After the border checkpoint had confirmed my expectations, the rest of the country came as a surprise; more beautiful than I had pictured, less developed than I anticipated, and more fun to explore than I had imagined.

lao-food-alexander-steffler

Photo: Alexander Steffler

In Luang Namtha we discovered Lao food. In a thatched hut in the rice fields, our hiking guide produced a delicious lunch of herb-filled larb salad and sticky rice all wrapped in banana leaves, a meal that we still talk about to this day. We slurped steaming bowls of rice noodles in a street stall, tried chilli-spiked river fish grilled over an open fire in the night market and breakfasted on baguettes stuffed with cheese and sausage, locally-grown coffee and plates of juicy tropical fruit. Like hobbits, we took to having multiple meals – first and second breakfasts (on one occasion finding space for a third), first and second lunches, dinner and perhaps an evening snack or two.

Photo: McKay Savage

Photo: McKay Savage

After travelling through the country’s beautiful, rural north, where villagers’ income seemed to derive from drying grasses to make brooms, we arrived in Luang Prabang one evening to find its colonial villas converted to chic hotels and well-heeled tourists mingling with scruffy backpackers like ourselves in the night market. By day, it was clear to see what had drawn people to this elegant town, its neat grid of streets lined alternately with ornate monasteries and faded Indochinese villas. All this lies nestled amongst forest-clad hills on a tongue of land formed by the confluence of two rivers, the town as blessed by geography as it has been by history.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Father south, the workaday town of Vang Vieng – which grew up around a Vietnam War-era US air strip – had just established itself as a backpackers’ favourite, thanks to its beautiful surroundings and a handful of bars showing Friends on loop. We floated down the Nam Song River in the shadow of jagged limestone karst hills and slept to a chorus of croaking frogs that lived in our hotel’s lily pond.

By the time we reached Vientiane, the monochrome of Beijing’s winter streets was a distant memory. It came as a shock to drive past the country’s only “factory” – a small water bottling plant on the outskirts of the capital – our first brush with anything even remotely industrial since we had left China.

The Laotian capital seemed impossibly small and quiet for a capital city. We cycled along the wide boulevards, dined at the city’s night market and drank Beer Lao as we looked out across the dark waters of the Mekong towards Thailand.

Photo: Arian Zwegers

Photo: Arian Zwegers

By the time we crossed the border into Thailand a fortnight later – now with survivors’ stories of our own, mostly relating to bus travel – South-East Asia’s only land-locked country had found a place at the top of our list of places to re-visit.

Little did I know that a few years later I would be regularly driving across northern Laos with groups of guests for On the Road. Over the course of many journeys, we’ve seen the Lao infrastructure gradually improve – the shabby border checkpoint has been upgraded and the rickety car ferry that we used to cross the Mekong in Huay Xai has been replaced with a new bridge. Laos is gradually becoming more developed, but, by and large, this is happening in a gentle way – there are no traffic-choked highways or big box shopping malls. The country retains its quiet charm, the Lao people still welcome curious travellers and the food still tastes as good as ever…

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On the Road offers several journeys that go through Laos:

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Monks in Luang Prabang

The tak bat, morning alms of Buddhist monks’ morning collection of food in Luang Prabang

Early each morning, monks file out from the wats that line Luang Prabang’s loose grid of streets. Clasping their alms bowls, they walk, solemn and barefoot, along streets fringed with shaggy toddy palms, and past candy-coloured colonial villas and gilded temples.

Temperatures climb throughout the day, and most people retreat to the shade to sip cooling drinks and doze before venturing out again at dusk, when a vibrant night market sets up on Sisavangvong Road. Here, stallholders sell souvenirs and shake out bright silk scarves under bluish fluorescent lights as the sun sinks behind far bank of the Mekong.

As you leave Luang Prabang and set out on the road to the Chinese border, the drive punctuated by roadside villages thronging with children, any change seems faint. Three hundred kilometres away, Luang Namtha is clearly cut from the same languid, tropical cloth. Even just across the Chinese border in Xishuangbanna, people believe the same form of Buddhism, practice the same rituals, share the same traditional dress and enjoy very similar spicy-sour flavours in their food.

Mekong River

The tropical end of the Mekong

From Xishuangbanna, where the route of our journey Lands of Silk and Snow briefly reunites with the Mekong, the road climbs up out of the steamy basin where elephants and peacocks once strutted through the jungle, and onto the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau. As you ascend, the air temperature drops and dries, and the vegetation changes; rubber trees and banana plantations fall away to be replaced by temperate forest and – as we approach Kunming, “the City of Eternal Spring” – fields of flowers.

North of Kunming, the pace of change picks up as you continue to climb up, past Dali and Lijiang to Shangri-La, the threshold of Tibet. From here to Lhasa our route takes us from the dramatic valleys that mark the Tibetan Plateau’s eastern fringe, crossing the Mekong again – and the Yangtze and the Salween – climbing over snow-dusted passes and swooping down through thickly forested valleys before spilling out into the broad Kyi-Chu valley on the final approach to Lhasa.

Sumtseling Monastery, Shangri-La

Sumtseling Monastery, Shangri-La

It is only by travelling overland that you can see how one land merges into the next; how the continuity of the tropics suddenly disappears as one ascends the 1500 metres between Jinghong and Kunming; how the long parallel valleys that run through northwestern Yunnan have given rise to dozens of ethnic groups and amazing biodiversity; and how Tibetan culture has overcome quite awesome geographical challenges in order to spread from Yunnan to the edge of Central Asia.

Learning your Scriptures, in Shangri-La

Learning your Scriptures, in Shangri-La


And yet while there’s change, there are also elements that bind the entire route together. From Laos to Lhasa the main religion is Buddhism – albeit of different schools. Everywhere between Dali and Luang Prabang was once part of a single kingdom in the eighth century. And the waters of the Mekong gather our journey together at several points, like a purse-string, as we travel from South-East Asia, where its waters flow, brown and stately, up to the heights of Tibet where the young river tumbles wildly out of the hills.

Pity the poor traveller who flies over all this! In our busy times of direct flights and high-speed trains, it truly is a luxury to experience a long-distance overland journey, and to see a portion of the earth’s surface up close and personal, and to meet people along your route, at every turn learning that for all that separates us, there is as much that binds us together.

Jo

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In November 2010, Peter and I spent a few weeks in Qinghai and Tibet researching new itineraries – routes that became Roads on the Roof of the World and the Qinghai version of Tibetan Highlands.

Lovely day for a picnic

Lovely day for a picnic

We had enjoyed an adventurous start to the trip, including an attempt (quickly abandoned) at winter camping in Tuotuohe, and what must have been one of the longer picnics in Qinghai’s history as we waited for an over-ambitious lamb stew to cook 5,000 metres above sea level. But, as we arrived in Lhasa, fatigued but at least thoroughly acclimatised, the trip’s highlight – Mount Everest – still lay ahead.

After a few days in Lhasa, we set out for the mountains. As we drove west of Shigatse, human settlements thinned out dramatically and the landscape grew steadily more otherworldly. Bands of ochre sediment jutted out at strange angles, hinting at the violence of the collision that forced the Tibetan Plateau three miles into the sky – and pushed the mountain peaks higher still. Eventually, we came to Baiba.

Baiba is a rugged little town that sits beside the highway to Nepal. Nobody would choose to stay here, except for the fact that it is conveniently close to the turn-off for Mount Everest’s North Base Camp. We stopped here one evening, four days out from Lhasa. After looking at hotels and restaurants and an hour spent sitting wrapped in blankets, talking and playing cards by candlelight, we called it a night.

The following morning our alarms rang well before dawn. Bundled up like onions in thick layers of clothing, we loaded the cars and set off. The beginning of the journey was stop-start as we passed through checkpoints and turned onto the gravel road (now paved) to Base Camp. As we climbed through a long series of switchbacks, suspense grew. We were climbing up to Pang-La, the first pass from which Everest is visible – would the peak be clear?

Dawn breaks...

Beautiful, but where are the big mountains?

I was sitting in the first car in our two-car convoy. As we crested the pass, I used the walkie-talkie to report, incisively, that, “Oooh,it’s beautiful!” Dawn had painted the smaller peaks with a rosy glow, and there was a gorgeous arc of white-capped mountains before us. But the larger peaks were shrouded in thick cloud, as we used a signboard to work out where Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and Cho Oyu ought to be.

Good thing there's a sign post...

Good thing there’s a sign post…

It is a long drive from Pang-La to Everest, and it seems even longer when you can’t see the mountain in question. We drove on in hope that the weather would clear, but the mountains stayed locked in behind the cloud as the morning wore on. Early that afternoon we arrived at a deserted Base Camp and scrambled up a huge and crumbly lump of moraine that is used as a viewpoint when there’s something to view. A wall of mist swirled before us, as we tried to imagine how huge the mountain would be at such close quarters.

Eventually, even Peter – usually the most optimistic person in such situations – conceded that we might as well turn back. So we turned around and began to drive back to Baiba, disappointed and empty-handed, for we had hoped to come away with some photos of Everest for our new journey dossiers. Seeing Everest was one of my top travel ambitions, and it seemed such a pity to have been to Base Camp without getting so much as a glimpse of the north face.

Finally! A glimpse!

Finally! A glimpse!

Late that afternoon, as we were climbing back up to Pang-La, my car’s walkie-talkie crackled into life. “I think the clouds are clearing,” came the message. And they were. One by one the mighty 8,000 metre peaks emerged, looming twice as high and more massive than we’d imagined. My disappointment evaporated and – just as suspense had mounted that morning – excitement began to mount as we zig-zagged back up to the pass.

A Pang-La sunrise at its best

A Pang-La sunrise at its best

Since that first trip I’ve had brilliant luck with the weather in these mountains. And while it’s an incredible experience each and every time – I always end up gazing at the highest peaks for minutes on end – nothing compares to the thrill of that first sighting. The clouds never completely cleared and we only had a short while before the weather closed in again, but it was enough to create an indelible memory of just how magnificent our world is. And that is the point of travel, is it not? Well, that and being able to say you’ve eaten lamb casserole at 5,000 metres above sea level…

Jo_white (1)

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Recently, I watched a documentary about Gwen Moffat, a redoubtable British climber who kept climbing into her 70s. The filmmaker asked Ms Moffat, now aged 91, if she missed the mountains. She answered, simply, “No, I don’t – they’re part of me you see, I had my time and now the hills are part of me.”

This idea – that some experiences become a part of us – is something that resonates with me, particularly this year. After years of fairly adventurous travel for work and pleasure, 2015 and (so far) 2016 have seen me on “home leave” after having a baby.

Nomads, Tibet

Going the same way, Tibet

During that time, I’ve found my thoughts returning repeatedly to past travels, to places I’ve visited and people I’ve met. After writing last year about how anticipation heightens an experience’s pleasure, I’ve realised afresh that remembering a journey enables one to experience the joy of it all over again.

Of course, a memory can be sculpted into a superior version of the lived experience. I can omit the leech bites from an impromptu jungle trek in Malaysia, I can forget the physical pain of the bumpy journey to and from Indawgyi Lake in northern Myanmar, and I can delete my sweaty panic from a bike ride along New Zealand’s beautiful Queen Charlotte Sound to catch a ferry.

Mr Wu, Tibet

Mr Wu on a memorable journey, Tibet

But instead, the memories that I recall most fondly aren’t the ones that I’ve manicured to remove the ragged edges from – they’re memories that involved some measure of personal challenge, difficulty or plain ridiculousness. That’s because they make better stories (whether I’m telling those stories to myself or to others), but also because those experiences shape my idea of what I’m capable of – even if it is a level of previously unthinkable idiocy…

As Ms Moffat says of the peaks she’s climbed, the memories of roads taken and journeys made have become part of me, and enable me to “travel” even when I’m sitting at home on a rainy afternoon. That’s what I call a souvenir…

Jo

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Go your own wayWhen I was working on The Rough Guide to Burma, I spent a week staying in a hotel in Hpa-An, Kayin State’s laidback capital, while I explored the surrounding region. One of my fellow guests was a slight, red-haired German man who wore wire-rimmed spectacles and a striped Kayin longyi, and spent afternoons drinking tea and reading on the hotel’s shady balcony. Intrigued as to why he didn’t seem to be going anywhere – other backpackers moved on after two or three nights – I eventually struck up conversation with him to find out why.

The man was actually on his third week in Hpa-An – this being the first major town he’d reached after crossing the border from Thailand. He’d arrived from with a two-week visa that he had used before returning to Bangkok for a second visa, which he was halfway through at the time of our conversation. “I just like to travel this way; I take a month off each year, and when I reach somewhere nice I’ll stop for a couple of weeks and spend my days exploring slowly and relaxing.”

 

Now, I write a blog that’s nominally about slow travel – a style of travel that I find very appealing and very unachievable, as I always end up in a mad dash to somewhere or other – so I began to enthuse about his slow travel philosophy and how everyone should travel like this (let’s put my own inability to do so aside for the moment). He politely let me go on for a bit before interrupting: “The main thing, I think, is that each of us gets satisfaction from our travels. Going so slowly would not suit everyone, it’s just important to know what you want to get out of your trip…”

Go your own wayAnd, of course, he’s right. But it strikes me that, with websites and magazines churning out lists of “must-sees”, “hot destinations” and “places to see before you die”, it is easy to get distracted and forget how you originally wanted to spend your travel time. Perhaps the best balance to strive for is between keeping an open mind and trying new things, and doing so in a way you find meaningful and fun.

That might mean taking the time to hunt down a special flavour of gelato in Florence rather than visiting another church; or sipping a cup of sweet tea in a Yangon teahouse rather than dutifully tramping around another yet pagoda; or blinking in bright sunshine from the roof of the Jokhang in Lhasa, rather than queuing to enter the crowded chapels below. Whatever it is that you enjoy, take time to seek it out and soak in the experience, rather than following crowds or fashion – go your own way.

Jo_white-1

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Push StartMost of my travel this year has been restricted to the armchair variety – reading about others’ journeys and reliving my own. My mind returns again and again to certain trips; a cycling tour of New Zealand and a very bumpy journey across Myanmar on public transport last year, and a meandering trip to Kashgar the year before. Eventually, I realised that my fondest memories were of the journeys where I felt that I made a connection with the place and the people I travelled amongst, journeys where I’d lingered rather than rushed.

With everyday life often feeling like a hectic, headlong dash between home, work and social engagements, many of us wish to do nothing more on vacation than lie on a beach with a book. Others may prefer the other end of the spectrum and strive to fit as much as possible into a few precious days off, tearing across a continent on a breathless five-countries-in-four-days tour. Either option seems a reasonable reaction to the “time poverty” that we increasingly experience; however, another more meaningful way of seeing the world has recently gained popularity – Slow Travel.

LakeSlow Travel is an offshoot of the Slow Food movement, founded in Italy in the 1980s in protest against the opening of a McDonald’s outlet in Rome. The Slow Food philosophy, which celebrates regional cuisine and traditional farming methods, has since burgeoned into a movement that emphasises the connection between people, places and life in general.

Slow Travel is less to do with your mode of transport (or your relative speed), but instead concerns your mindset on each journey. It means taking back roads, travelling overland rather than by air where possible, and focuses on forging a connection between traveller and destination. Instead of tackling a place armed with a list of “must-sees”, the slow traveller slips into the pace of the local culture and soaks in their new environment. It’s about not letting the anticipation of arrival undermine the pleasure of the journey.

Farm HandWhile Slow Travel is a new term, there’s nothing modish about the practice itself. Some of you will have instinctively travelled slowly before – stopping to observe local customs, interact with the people you meet en route and try local foods, preferring the quality of your experience over sheer quantity.

Through our experience of creating memorable driving journeys, we have become firm believers in the merits of Slow Travel. While crafting each of our itineraries we’re always on the lookout for what makes each of our drives and destinations special – whether it’s a spectacular view to soak up, a fantastic but out-of-the-way hotel, or even something as simple as a chance to dip your feet in a cool, clear stream on a hot day. We also enjoy searching for opportunities to bring our guests together with local people, whether that means joining a yodelling choir in the Swiss Alps or watching craftsmen at work in Lhasa’s old town. A journey is made as memorable by the people we share it with as it is by our destination, after all!

Market Day5 enjoyable ways to practice Slow Travel (even if you start at home):

  1. Linger over a drink in a locally-owned café, bar or teashop
  2. Take a back-road or try a new way to get from A to B – turn down a street you’ve never used before
  3. Hunt out regional dishes and specialties, and visit a local market.
  4. Savour the unexpected – missed connections can create new opportunities
  5. Take a breath, check your stride and remind yourself to enjoy the pleasure of the journey.

Jo_white (1)

 

 

 

To read more about the Slow Movement visit http://www.slowmovement.com/

 

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My mind wanders terribly. While I might look as though I’m sitting at my desk or riding the subway, in my head I’m watching crowds celebrate Saga Dawa in Gyantse or cycling across New Zealand’s Southern Alps – remembering long-ago trips and planning future travels.

Spectators enthralled by...

Spectators enthralled by…

While I’ve always thought of these daydreams as being one small step away from procrastination, recent psychological research shows that by reliving fond memories and anticipating future experiences I’ve actually been enjoying one of the few ways in which money can buy happiness.

The relationship between money and happiness has long been a source of debate. Reams of psychological studies have been produced on the topic since the 1970s, when a group of Californian academics discovered the Easterlin paradox – that money does make people happier, but only up to a point. Once our basic needs have been taken care of, it seems that it’s up to how we spend any surplus that makes the biggest difference to our happiness.

Research has found that the best way to do this is to invest your money in experiences – whether that means concert tickets or cooking classes, the holiday of a lifetime or a daytrip – rather than material possessions.

Logically, buying something would seem to make more sense – a hi-tech watch or a beautiful book will be around long after an experience has ended, after all. However, this logic glosses over several facets of human nature, which combine to turn that thinking on its head.

... Saga Dawa festival

… the Saga Dawa festival

For one thing, we easily take things for granted. It’s not long before we get used to a shiny new toy and it becomes part of the background. Our levels of happiness soon return to where they were before, a process psychologists call hedonic adaptation.

While material goods deteriorate with time – getting scuffed and scratched – the memory of a pleasant experience improves with age. Even a bad experience can become a good story with enough retelling and time, and in this way fleeting experiences can become an ingrained part of our identity in a way that a possession rarely does.

Apparently even the way we anticipate experiences and purchases is different. Psychologists found more positive interactions amongst people queuing for concert tickets than among those queuing to buy smartphones, for example. Waiting to buy a new gadget tends to fill us with impatience, rather than anticipation, as I’m sure many of us have found!

Instead of giving in to the desire for impulse purchases and instant gratification, we can wring more enjoyment out of spending our hard-earned money by planning purchases far in advance. As the saying goes, “anticipation is the greater part of pleasure” – especially when it comes to experiences.

Shared experiences also bond us to others in a way that a mutual preference for a certain brand does not. While owning a 4K TV might give you something to talk about with another 4K TV-owner, it won’t make for an instant connection in the same way that, say, having climbed a mountain together would.

So, the lessons seem to be: buy experiences, not things; plan far in advance to maximise the pleasure of anticipation; enjoy recalling past pleasures – and keep daydreaming.

Jo

 

 

 

To read more about this topic, visit:

The Atlantic: By experiences, not things

Fastco: The Science of why you should spend your money on experiences not things

 

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