I have just cycled to the Scottish city of Aberdeen. It’s sunny and I didn’t know it was such an attractive city.
Tomorrow at 2pm I will give a talk about my new memoir, 9 Months in Tibet, at a cool bookshop called Books and Beans. I will talk about how Aberdeen was instrumental in the process that led to my living and working in Tibet for almost a year. I will also mention the fact that I’ve just had the most amazing “haircut experience” ever, in a spa-like salon run by a couple of cool dudes who know about cycling, mountaineering and turning scruffs like me into presentable gents.
Also, I will discuss the bike tour I’ve been doing round Scotland for the last month — promoting this book. The photo I’m showing above is from Ullapool, on the west coast and the following keywords describe both the photo and my trip: touring bike, campsite, sea, mountain, sky.
Last month I launched my Tibet memoir at the Belladrum Rock Festival, near Inverness, and ever since I have been riding around the Highlands and Islands, selling copies and visiting old friends. From Inverness I rode through Ross-Shire, Caithness, Orkney, Nairn and now Aberdeenshire. I’ve sold almost 200 copies of my book, given lots of talks and have been getting positive feedback. It’s all very encouraging.
How did Aberdeen Help me Stay in Tibet?
Maybe you are expecting me to say that I studied Tibetan culture in Aberdeen or applied for a job in Tibet when I was a student here? But I have only visited Aberdeen once before and was gone a few hours later. The truth is both bizarre and random and the the best way to tell this story is to simply share this extract from the book itself (it’s an extract I often read out at events as it describes the typical independent travellers that I used to meet, as well as Hong Kong Chinese and Tibetan travellers). Here we go:
They [the travellers/backpackers] were carefully planning their time in Tibet: studying lists of monasteries that had to be visited; time and cost estimates; bus timetables; organising food, wash bags, water filters and purification tablets, first-aid kits and appropriate reading material. This approach to travelling looked stressful and I felt that in their zealous attempt to understand Tibet they were somehow missing the point. All this planning removed the spontaneity and joy of discovery that I thrived on.
– I am from Zurich, said an attractive girl with a big smile. My name is Christina. Would you like to come with us to visit the Potala?
Christina was travelling alone but she had attached herself to a group of Australian backpackers. I could sense that she was looking for a male travelling companion but I wasn’t ready to join their comfortable clique. I was drawn towards a group of Hong Kong Chinese who didn’t seem to want any contact with us westerners. They looked horrified when I first spoke to them but I persisted. Their English wasn’t good but one of them asked me:
– Where you from?
– I am from Scotland.
– Ah, Scotland, he replied, not really knowing what to say next.
– I am from the city of Aberdeen, I said, knowing that Aberdeen is the name of the port in Hong Kong.
– Ah! Aberdeen! You from Hong Kong? They laughed. My little white lie seemed to have broken the ice and from that moment on they tolerated my presence.
I think the Hong Kong group were intimidated by the close proximity of so many westerners, but within a few days they had built up their confidence – as well as the amount of noise they were making. Their concept of conversation is totally different from ours. They all talked at once and if someone wanted to stress a particular point they started shouting, and inevitably someone else would shout back, and then they would laugh and the whole place would be in uproar. They could keep this up for hours and I found it entertaining. The westerners didn’t know how to deal with the noise they were making – in fact they hated it – I could feel the tension between the groups.
I noticed the Hong Kong travellers had organised themselves into groups and when I asked what was going on they told me they were looking for a cheaper place to stay. I was keen to get out of the friendly embrace of the western travellers and I asked if I could come along. To my surprise, they agreed. They divided into small groups and systematically searched the town for cheaper accommodation. Within a few hours they had re-assembled and were engaged in a noisy discussion, I presume about which option to choose. We all packed our rucksacks, paid up and left. I had no idea where we were going but I was delighted to be joining this group of nine.
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 awakened the dead; he didn’t want us there and he entered into a long and noisy argument with my Hong Kong friends in Mandarin. They overwhelmed him with arguments and paperwork showing they were Chinese citizens and therefore eligible to remain. He reluctantly agreed and the group started trooping up the steep, wooden, outside staircase.
Suddenly the manager roared out in anger – he had seen me – and evidently this was too much for him; he screamed a volley of abuse in my direction. I knew he wasn’t allowed to receive foreigners in this place, we were all supposed to stay in specially designated hotels. But my friends were on a roll and the manager’s hysteria seemed to amuse them. They trooped back down to the yard, surrounded him, and insisted that I too was from Hong Kong, from Aberdeen, and therefore I had a right to stay too. The argument raged and the manager could see that he was heavily outnumbered, and they weren’t giving up, so he stomped off in disgust, cursing. We were in.
We went up a steep ladder-type staircase, along a slimy corridor and into a room at the top of the house, a room that took my breath away: each of the four walls had a window and we had a panoramic view over the old town. We could see the golden roofs and incredible colours of the Potala Palace. It was also the dirtiest room I had ever seen in my life. The floor was so sticky that my shoes stuck to it and the beds looked flea-ridden, sagging and flimsy. It stank of feet, stale sweat, unwashed bodies and rancid cheese. The manager’s face was no longer red with fury, he now had a wry grin as he knew his new Hong Kong guests would be appalled. This was his revenge. There were twenty small beds in the room, each one more horrible than the next, but before long my friends had taken over and the place was full of their noisy chattering.
Our truck stop was called Pemba and the atmosphere was raucous. Although people were yelling at each other, their look showed that they weren’t shouting in anger; they were teasing, taunting and mocking. Someone told me these people were pilgrims, had travelled far to see Lhasa’s Jokhang temple, but all I ever saw them do was shout, drink, gamble and joke. Every night a gang of big Tibetan women would come round the dormitory with buckets to collect the rent. Everyone paid two yuan, twenty British pence, but some of the Tibetan men tried to refuse payment so that they could provoke a wrestling match with the women. The women wouldn’t hesitate to throw themselves onto a disobedient male, pin him down and, while he roared with laughter, search his pockets.
The Pemba truck stop was located in the city centre, on a street that didn’t seem to have any traffic apart from people wandering by. Underneath the hostelry was a teahouse that faced onto the street. It was just a room with four tables, thin benches and full of noisy Tibetans who looked so different from each other that I guessed they were from all over the country. The noodle chef had a big grin on his face and was covered in flour. He would walk around the teahouse as if he were in his own kitchen, ignoring the invisible barrier that most chefs observe between the kitchen and the restaurant. He would tease and wrestle with the sweet tea waitress at every opportunity and engage in shouting matches with the clientele. When he saw me he came over at once, sat down on the bench next to me and with a beaming smile proceeded to search me: he wanted to feel my clothes, to see what I had in my pocket, to try on my sunglasses, to show the others my diary. He was rude and outrageous but he made me feel welcome and that evening I wrote in my diary that he had introduced me to the casual exuberance that is Lhasa.
Many people ask me how long I will keep riding round Scotland? They also ask where I have been. This is a good place to answer these questions.
I started this trip by taking my bike on a train from Liverpool to Inverness and then, after the nearby Belladrum Rock Festival I cycled north and went through the following locations: Dingwall, Cromarty, Bonar Bridge, Altnaharra, Kinbrace, Thurso, Orkney and Wick. Then I went back to Liverpool for a weekend, got rid of my rented house, put my stuff into storeage and came back to the Highlands and resumed the trip from Kinbrace.
The second leg of the trip took me through Altnaharra, Durness, Ullapool, Beauly, Fort Augustus, Nairn, Forres, the Lecht, Ballatar and now Aberdeen. My next destination is Fort William, on the other side of the country and then I will head back to my parents place in the Borders Region of Scotland. And then on to the Frankfurt Book Fair.
I’m rarely online but I do have an old Nokia “Brick” phone and would love to hear from you (yes — you!) especially if you would like to order a book or invite me to give a talk. The best way to get hold of me is to send a text to 0747 138 1973 (or just call me! I do get to emails about once a week and my address is firstname.lastname@example.org. The only social network I really bother with is Twitter and my so-called “Twitter Handle” is @wolfemurray
All the best
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What a noisy, dirty extract – full of colour and life – love the fact that you can roll with it and enjoy the racket and the filth and the invasive banter.
btw – Aberdeen’s full of Romanians – did you meet any?