Saturday, 14 February 2015

The invisible wall

So many places have an invisible wall. You can't see it, it's not mapped in any book, no one can tell you where it is, but it's there. It's definitely there. And knowing about it can make your life as a traveller so much more interesting.

In Bangkok, I stay on Khao San Road. It's the tourist epicentre; full of tall skinny Germans with dreadlocks, Argentinian road warriors wearing elephant-print harem pants, drunken Mancs on a night out. And also full of budget hotels, which are, generally, pretty clean and pretty reasonable to deal with, which is why I stay there. But it's touristy, and tasteful it ain't.

But it's surrounded by an invisible wall. If you walk a few blocks in any direction you will find it; or rather, you will pass through this permeable membrane, and find yourself in another Bangkok entirely.

Wat Chana Songkram is a minute's walk from Khao San Road. Here, at seven in the morning, old men come to sit in the aisles of the temple and read their newspapers. Thai women cook in the open-air kitchen, preparing the monks' breakfasts, each plate identically turned out with a curled fish, a dollop of rice, vegetables, and clingfilm over the top.

Heading north to the market streets I found, instead of pancakes and cornflakes, banana fritters being served up in newspaper cones for breakfast. In the narrow lanes behind the tourist streets there are kitchens, just a shelf with a chopping board and a gas ring working from gas bottles tucked away underneath, where the chefs have to dodge little boys on bikes and smart suited ladies going to the office as well as their own waiters, always on the run.

Head further north, past the boat station and over the next khlong, and you're in a quiet neighbourhood of old houses, and schools, and one of the white-fronted houses hides a music school where students learn the Thai dulcimer and the rippling sound of hammers hitting brass strings shimmers through the neighbourhood.

A chubby middle aged woman brings her aged mother to the temple; mother is still wearing slippers. A Buddhist priest on his alms round shoves his bowl at me, and bursts out laughing when I'm not sure what to do.


Rothenburg ob der Tauber is one of those places that was always goig to be ruined by tourism. It's a small town, not much to it, easily swamped. It's on the 'Romantic Road', which means charabangs and tour groups and no one staying longer than two hours. It has an altarpiece by Tilman Riemenschneider (in fact, it has two), an artist who combined great skill and delicacy in woodcarving with a strikingly dramatic late Gothic sensibility; it has a double bridge over the river, the original town walls with their gates, unspoiled old houses.The main street is a scrum; tour groups marching behind their leaders from coach to church, from church to coach, selfie-taking en route, schnell, schnell, don't miss the tour, don't miss the bus.

Yet strangely, as soon as I got off the main road, I was on my own. A crisp, bright day, the snow lying virgin in the back gardens of the town; I got up on to the walls, and suddenly there was that soft silence you get when the snow absorbs all sound, except for the bok-bok-bok of a couple of chickens in a back yard and a dog that barked at me four or five times and then gave up. There were apple trees in back yards, branches black against the snow. There were views of red roofs and dark spires and half timber and stone, all the textures of the town. It takes a good hour or more to walk round, and in that time I saw three or four people.

It was a shock when I walked down a narrow, lonely alley, and came out at the end of it into the crowded press of bodies on the main street, and the noise, the yelling, the talking, the mobile phones, the trampling feet. 

Two worlds, meeting at a junction.

There are invisible walls in many museums and cathedrals, too. True, there are 'keep out' notices and chapels that are roped off, but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about individual rooms in the British Museum which people don't bother with, because they're up too many stairs and don't have any of the big highlights in and don't have anything to do with ancient Egypt (because, let's face it, mummies are what people go for). The side chapels in Notre Dame cathedral with interesting tomb slabs and sculptures, but which are almost always deserted.

It's less and less easy these days to find 'unspoiled' or uncrowded places. But if you're alert to the existence of that invisible wall, you can sometimes find them in the most unpromising places.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Sparse culture vs rich culture

One of the things I most love about Ladakh is its sparse culture, the slenderness of its means.

Take the village economy. There are three trees, only three: the willow, the poplar, the apricot. The poplar for building. The willow for the roof, for hurdles, for sticks. The apricot for fruit.

There is one crop. Barley.

There are two toilets. Ladakhi toilets come in pairs; one for use this year, one for last year. At the end of its year fermenting, the compost is turned out in the fields, and the last year toilet becomes next year's.

This is sparse culture. It's not just the difficulty of the climate that makes it so; it's the predominance of a single religion, a single devotion (mahayana Buddhism has many deities but in all Ladakhi temples you see the same few - Green Tara, White Tara, Padmasambhava, Maitreya), a single way of life. (Though Leh is something of an exception: I met a number of local Sikhs, and stayed with a Muslim family, and in summer, anyway, the town is as much Kashmiri as it is Ladakhi.)

Music has only five instruments: the drum, cymbal, bell, the shawm and trumpet. Most music is sung: the ploughing song, the chant. A contrast to the richness of Varanasi, where bansuri, sitar, tabla, shehnai, violin and shruti box vary and ornament the two hundred different ragas, and the streets are full of diverse musics.

Iceland also has a sparse culture at its heart. Rich in stories - the Icelanders are great storytellers - but sparing in its food, for instance, sparing in the seasonality of its life, sparing in the lack of ancient history - though it has the oldest continually used Parliament site in the world, Iceland has hardly any buildings more than two hundred years old. Even its rifts, its mountains and its islands are recent, and not just in geological terms: Thingvellir subsided in the eighteenth century, so what you see now is not what the Vikings saw when they held their first parliament there, and the island of Surtsey is a mere half-century old.

The wonderful thing about Iceland, though, is that a sparse culture allows originality and eccentricity to develop easily. A ridiculously high number of Icelanders write and publish books. Bjork and Sigur Ros are just the tip of a huge Icelandic music iceberg. There are no traditions to hold you back.

Rich cultures, on the other hand, surround you with an amniotic soup of tradition, of culture, of music, of difference. This was the type of culture Shakespeare lived in - a mixup of Bible learning, classical myth and history, chivalrous romance, medieval devotion, modern science. While it's possible to maintain that the creator of Shylock probably never met a Jew - they had been barred from England for centuries - there was a Moroccan ambassador at the English court, and Elizabethan adventurers had reached Persia (Shirley), Surat (Coryat) and even Norwich (Will Kempe).

I was thinking of that today reading an article in the Guardian about Ethiopian music. With "80 ethnic groups and 40 native instruments" this is a rich culture - add to that modern tech and western musical beats, and you have something very massive and very rich.