It is one of those days…one of those days when nature is in a warm and lazy frame of mind. The sky is a pool of deep blue and I cannot imagine a thing wrong with the world. We are quite alone on a pristine beach. The tide is out; our favourite mussel rock lies exposed. As we stroll over to collect lunch, small waves gently push the white sand into ever changing Zen graphics – mother nature doodling in the sand. A pair of Oystercatchers land and adds their imprint on nature’s transient creations.
The only way to live a life is simply to start living. Your goals and dreams may seem huge and unattainable, but if you do not take that first step, they will never be achieved. My Year of Beds was a succession of tiny steps that took me once around the world, but they also took me deep into myself, and in the end, this journey was a rite of passage, a stripping away of the known, familiar and taken for granted. I did not set out to find anything, but unexpectedly was confronted with my self, my ignorance, and my hidden prejudices, intolerances and petty narcissism. It has been a long road to get here, to a place where the tensions of modern life have drained away to reveal a capacity of thought that is drowned in the daily rush of deadlines and the torture of constant noise.
Today in the European Union the concept of a border is all but lost, but here this man-made boundary is all powerful. Crossing it turns the money in my wallet into worthless paper. The language of the Serbs is reduced to strange sounds, and the driving style changes – snap – just like that.
Through the gap in the curtain I see the grey dawn, time to get my khakis on. Today I take my first ever bush walk; through a game reserve that prides itself on hosting the African ‘Big Five’.
Jan introduces himself; it will just be the two of us on the walk this morning. Fantastic! A short drive later we arrive at the Bakubung Lodge walking concession, deep in the Pilanesberg Game Reserve. Before we set out into the veldt(grassland) Jan gives me walking instructions. “If we should encounter a lion, rhino, elephant…” My brain slowly wakes up and starts paying attention. It latches onto one instruction in particular. “Whatever you do; DO NOT RUN!” Right! No running! I am happy to comply with that, I don’t like running, running is a hot sweaty business. Walking is far more dignified.
Leaving my sightseeing too late, the Topkapi Palace and Harem are closed for the day, but Haghia Sophia waits. Commissioned by Emperor Justinian in 532, she remained the most important church in Christendom for nearly 1 000 years and thereafter, with the arrival of the Turks, was declared a mosque. Since 1934, she has been a museum, where Christian and Moslem symbols live in happy harmony.
But unless I want to set up camp in the dark, I had better make an effort to find the Charyn Canyon. Then the canyon finds me; as the road winds through black rock cuttings that crowd out the light, they dramatically fall away as the mountain turns to canyon. The heat rises out of the dark rock canyon like a translucent curtain, behind which the landscape trembles and shifts. Far below, a cream soda river winds its way through pink and yellow sand.
I set out to find the real Qufu, which doesn’t take long. Just outside the ancient city wall, the beautifully paved roads, well-tended gardens, and up-market restaurants are replaced by squalid streets, crisscrossed with electrical cables that form an untidy grid across the sky, where an orange midday sun hovers in the pink smog. A man on a bicycle picks his way through the potholes and the mud. To let off steam, he lets fly a kick, and yells at a small dog that is rummaging through a pile of garbage growing against the non-tourist side of the city wall. Scooters transporting whole families wobble by.