Belgrade’s Station Disappears

Belgrade’s Station Disappears

Bewilderment is the word which best describes my feelings when I got to Belgrade's main station and found it to be abandoned. A flimsy wire fence was the only sign that this once-busy station, the hub of rail travel in the Balkans, has been closed down. Was I in the...

read more
Croatia Looks Perfect, but…

Croatia Looks Perfect, but…

Croatia has one of the most spectacular coastlines in Europe, with mountains plunging into the sea, countless islands, and Dubrovnik: the ancient port city that features in the epic TV series Game of Thrones.  If you're mega rich, or connected to Croatia's government,...

read more
Why I Moved to Bosnia

Why I Moved to Bosnia

Daniel Craig was a good actor before he got turned into a bad-tempered robot for the Bond films. A great film he starred in, before the Bond franchise gobbled him up, was Layer Cake. It's one of those clever-witty-vicious crime films that the English are quite good...

read more
My Time in East Berlin

My Time in East Berlin

East Berlin was controlled by the Russians until 1989. It no longer exists. I spent some time there many years ago, on my way to Asia. This is how I described it in my first travel book, 9 Months in Tibet. Berlin back then was entirely surrounded by a high security...

read more
If I was Napoleon

If I was Napoleon

If I was planning to invade Russia with a massive land army (Napoleon went in with 635,000 men and emerged with about 20,000) I would set off in the middle of winter. "But zat is madness your Highness," they would say. "Even the simplest peasant in from Bordeaux knows...

read more
Philip Pullman’s storytelling system

Philip Pullman’s storytelling system

Writing about a book of essays is hard because each essay is a complex entity unto itself; each one has a brilliant idea that I'd like to write about – but then I read the next one and I forget what I was so interested in a few pages back. Suffice to say that this...

read more
Travel as a Way of Life

Travel as a Way of Life

I first posted this article in 2016, but it's so useful for anyone who wants to go travelling that I'm re-posting it again now. In the interim, Darmon Richter has published a book that is well worth getting: Chernobyl: A Stalker's Guide By Darmon Richter People go...

read more
My view on Scottish independence

My view on Scottish independence

Scottish independence is on the cards again and I've just published my view on the issue  in The National. You may be wondering why this divisive issue has emerged so soon after the last referendum and this can be explained in one word: BREXIT; a major change to the...

read more
Travelling in the Time of the Coronavirus

Travelling in the Time of the Coronavirus

My heart goes out to everyone who's stuck at home feeling bored and worried. I'm the only person on the train from Brighton to London. Usually you can't find a seat at this time of the morning (10:42 departure). The only people at the station were railway workers and...

read more
My Coronavirus Diary

My Coronavirus Diary

At first I was like Trump – in denial – but when it became clear, except to the most diehard conspiracy theorists, that this wasn't just another seasonal flu I realised that self-isolation and lockdown were essential. "Easy," I thought, "I've been here before. I've...

read more

Hitching is eco-friendly and fascinating

My Romanian sister in law was rather horrified to hear that I wanted to take her 12-year old daughter hitching. But she’s open-minded enough to realise that the chances of robbery, rape or abduction -- or any of the horrors that the media feed us -- are negligible in...

read more

I use Time Travel to Cut my Emissions

When I was in Romania last month I discovered time travel. I know this sounds ridiculous -- isn’t time travel a futuristic, high-tech impossibility used by the likes of Doctor Who and the crazy professor in Back to the Future? Well yes, time travel is a popular device...

read more

Near Miss in Romania

I was cycling down the hill so fast I thought I might fly, like those kids in ET – Steven Spielberg’s classic film – when the alien enables the kids to fly their bikes through the night sky. It’s incredible what speed you can reach when going downhill on a good bike,...

read more

Do Romanians understand tourism?

Since I first came to Romania in 1986, it's been clear to me that Romanians don’t understand the full potential of the tourism business. Over the 17 years I lived in Romania I’ve had countless conversations with people who own pensions, hotels and restaurants; village...

read more

Open Letter to Boris Johnson

Dear Boris, Did you know that you’re facing what may be the biggest political opportunity of our generation – to turn the world green. A majority of the Great British public realise that global warming is a problem and you could appeal to a large slice of the...

read more
Villages Made Me

Villages Made Me

1963. Leeds I was born in a house with wooden floors and an open-plan kitchen. It was located in a rural area by Leeds called Little London. I have flickering memories of a white coat with bloodstains, people standing around and a little sink. 1968. Scottish Highlands...

read more
When Joseph Beuys met Jimmy Boyle

When Joseph Beuys met Jimmy Boyle

If a great artist met a convicted murderer I wouldn’t expect much to come of it. In most cases, I assume, nothing more than an ordinary conversation would happen for the simple reason that the prisoner wouldn’t be open to the artist. The prisoner might view the artist...

read more

Skull

He leaned into me, blue eyes wide, face twitching. ‘My elbow’s fucked mate. I can barely open it further than this.’ An arm extended, palm facing up. ‘It’s from plasterin’ mate. Plasterin’ and wankin’. His skin was blotchy and sagging. Bags were grey and oily under...

read more

My last three years in 7 bullet points…

My friend Dave Barnicle runs a bar in Liverpool. But he’s not your typical bar manager who hires and fires and shouts and chucks people out. In fact, Dave’s bar doesn’t even serve alcohol as it’s one of very few “dry bars” where addicts in recovery can hang out...

read more

Big Jack teaching Fats Waller in Lhasa

I felt so lucky to have been asked to look after Roger and Isabella’s flat and I was determined to take this responsibility seriously. The flat had two rooms, a huge bedroom-cum-living room, with a wide array of windows, and a kitchen. Tibetans tend to decorate with...

read more

My Chinese friend

This is chapter 33 of my Tibet memoir in which I make friends with a Chinese guy who's English was not only self-taught but it was a lot better than many native speakers. One of Sir Woo’s visitors stood out from the others. Not only was he taller than the rest but he...

read more

Living with Tibetans

This is chapter 33 from my Tibetan memoir, in which I manage to avoid the law (and the backpackers) and stay with local Tibetans... Although the Import Export people didn’t give me a job everything started happening at once. Life seems to work this way; once inside...

read more

Trekking from Gyantse to Samye

When I’m walking alone over a long distance, with no need to adjust my pace for other people, my subconscious takes over; it works out how far I have to go and then sets my body at the optimum speed – usually pretty fast. I felt myself powering over that mountain as...

read more

A double life in Lhasa

This is chapter 30 from my Tibet memoir in which I make the transition from a debauched life in Lhasa and head into the mountains...  What followed was a nightmare. I could hardly control my feelings of panic and confusion; how was I supposed to make a lesson out of...

read more

New Yorkers in Tibet

This is Chapter 29 from my memoir about hustling for work in Tibet in which I describe my American friends, some of whom you might not approve of... The next morning I hung around the Cheese Factory and kept a sharp eye on proceedings. I put a reservation in with the...

read more

Trying to make a phone call in Tibet

At the Kirey Hotel, the most expensive place to stay in the old town, I met a charming Tibetan who had been educated at an English-style private school in the Indian city of Chandigargh. Hundreds of thousands of Tibetans had fled their homeland since the 1950s and...

read more

You can’t get a job here! Podcast

  This is chapter 26 from my memoir 9 Months in Tibet. If you click on the thing above you can hear me reading it -- it takes less that four minutes -- or you can read the text below (or you can go back to what you were doing before). As always, I'd really...

read more

A three dog attack — PODCAST

  This is my second podcast. I got some encouraging feedback to my first podcast and decided to do another one from my Tibet memoir. I'd be so grateful if you would leave a comment under here. Feedback from readers of this blog feels so valuable and encouraging....

read more

Bird Island

This is Chapter 24 from my Tibet memoir in which I walk into the wilderness, stay a night with nomads and find a surprising level of comfort in a cave... The road into the mountains got steeper and the truck got slower. As we approached the high pass we were crawling...

read more

The travellers’ co-op in Lhasa

This is Chapter 23 from my Tibet memoir which describes the most unusual Tourist Information Centre I'd ever come across... Before the end of my first week Lhasa had me hooked and I knew I should stay, settle down for a while and find something to do. The finding of...

read more

The casual exuberance that is Lhasa

The new place we went to was a grimy truck stop with Tibetan pilgrims from all over the country, people who looked weather-beaten and dangerous in their long woollen coats. Some of them had swords. The manager was a barrel-chested bandit with a laugh that could have...

read more

A critical look at backpackers

As I looked out of the window of my dormitory I thought this must be the smallest capital city in the world. The only traffic was an occasional tractor, or a truck, moving at walking pace, and lots of bicycles. There was so little traffic that pedestrians didn’t...

read more

The trucker’s mate had a sword

The next morning I set off early and within an hour reached the massive turquoise lake I had seen from the hilltop the previous day. Some time later an old truck rattled past and ground to a halt ahead. It had big rounded wings at the front, in the pre-war style, and...

read more

The turquoise lake

The next day I walked out of Gyantse in the direction of Lhasa. After a few hours I came across a scruffy old bus that was full of Tibetans and parked by the roadside. I stuck my head in the door, pointed eastwards and said Lhasa. They nodded and so I climbed aboard....

read more

Cities in the wilderness

It was another day of walking and there were very few vehicles; about one truck every hour, none of which even slowed down. Storm clouds approached, the temperature dropped and I was walking up a long, seemingly endless hill. Rain had started to pour down and the wind...

read more

My first podcast – what do you think?

Click on the player above to hear chapter 17 from 9 Months in Tibet, read my me. I've been posting short chapters from my Tibet book onto this blog, and recently a friend suggested I post a podcast version instead. "But I hate the sound of my own voice," I replied,...

read more

I wanted to weep and scream with joy

The plateau stretched out across vast distances, with each horizon serrated by mountains. It was an uninhabited desert, alive with colours and strange sounds made by the wind, much more inspiring than the rather static photographs one sees in the National Geographic...

read more

Hitching into Tibet

The road from Khasa was surfaced with gravel and clung to the gorge precariously. Soon it became clear why there was no traffic: as I walked along I could hear boulders crashing down from the forested gorge above, bouncing over the road and plunging into the abyss...

read more

Trendy travellers don’t walk

Kathmandu seemed seedier than ever as I waited for my Chinese visa. I had to keep busy, I couldn’t sit around all day or I would get depressed. It was August and the weather was hot, too hot, and by mid-afternoon I would feel slimy with sweat, as if I had been...

read more

Hustling for a Tibetan visa in Kathmandu

Kathmandu was the first Asian city I had seen that wasn’t built of concrete. This small city seemed genuinely ancient and the centre was full of Hindu temples, each one a hive of activity. Some were covered with elaborate stone statues of Hindu Gods penetrating their...

read more