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Turnham Green to Zurich

Venice to Rome via Stockholm
Kampala, the Tender Talents Magnet school
Australia to Hong Kong
Taipei to China
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USA, Canada and back home

26 July to 8 Sept

Taipei to China

SingaporeLast time I wrote I was stuck in Singapore following a slight débacle with Indian immigration.  My fault entirely - I hadn’t realised I needed a visa to go there.

With five days to go before my return flight to London, I needed to fill the gap in a hurry.  Frantic emails went out as we looked at various alternatives in Malaysia and Singapore.  About two hours later it was settled.  One of my hosts in Singapore, Shuh Fang Koo – possibly the world’s best organiser – arranged for me to go to Taipei where I was met by the amazing Yew Kia Koh and inimitable Paul Chiang who kept me on the go for three days, dawn to dusk.  It was fairly exhausting – the days whizzed by – but I was extremely well looked after.

Next stop: three weeks in England for the Burton Bradstock Festival – and to remind my family who I am, though Jane tells me that I was so immersed in the festival and forward planning the next leg of the tour that it was not that different from when I was away.  Apart from the washing. 

There was an incredible amount of catching up to do, and some frantic last minute organising for the next leg in the Far East.  With so much still to be done we needed help, which appeared in the form of Jo Biddolph. We came across her less than 24 hours before I took off again – usual thing, a friend of a friend had met her through a friend – and though she was originally asked to recommend someone else to take on the work, and with so little time to do so, she took a deep breath and plunged in.  I left for Hong Kong.

Chance, luck and assumptions

So much of the tour has been about chance and luck.  A friend, with contacts all over the place, put me in touch with a PR pal of his in HK, Robby Nimmo.  After checking into my hostel (a room slightly larger than the bed with no window to the outside) in the Mong Kok area, I headed off to meet Robby who had for some reason expected me to be 70. Oh well. I’d expected HER to be a rugby-playing bloke.

Robby did a great job sorting out the media.  She managed to get a piece in the South China Morning Post, published just before I arrived, and a radio interview with Phil Whelan on the morning talk show which set the ball rolling.  Through Phil I was introduced to Brenda and Laurence Scofield, who plucked me from my digs and invited to stay at their house overlooking Hong Kong on The Peak.  Amazing view.

I spent much of the first day being chased around Hong Kong by security guards – water off a duck’s back for me by now plus I’d been warned that Hong Kong was busker-unfriendly and I was prepared for rejection.  On the second day I found the perfect spot: a pedestrian subway with no guards to hassle me.  A couple of TV stations ran pieces and the public was far more generous than I’d been led to expect.

Best of all, thanks to the media coverage, an invitation arrived from Societé General Private Banking to play at a private event for their clients.  Later the same day, Iris Wong from the Miramar Group got in touch to offer to promote a fundraiser around the same date.  Both were for days a couple of weeks ahead, when I was due to have left the Far East.  But, with some swift rearranging – Lima and Santiago were dropped from the itinerary and Seoul was added – I was able to accept these two invitations.

Officialdom

Next, a train ride to Shanghai, my first visit to China.  At the station I realised I didn’t have so much as a map of Shanghai, let alone a guide.  One of the problems of visiting so many places in such a short space of time is that it would bankrupt me to buy all the guide books I’d need – even if I’d had space for them in my luggage (and the strength to carry them all).

I’d been lent an apartment in Shanghai and my absent host even arranged for a driver to pick me up at the train station.  Shanghai turned out to be much less difficult than I’d expected.   My major worry – about China – was that I would fall foul of the police and, on the first afternoon, it seemed highly likely.  I’d met a journalist who wanted to take a photo of me in action.  We set up the banner in the street and, before I’d even got the fiddle out of its case, five security men surrounded me.  In the end they allowed me to pose for the picture but no more. 

The next day I had a second attempt at busking, though with the case firmly closed to contributions.  I had the camera rolling thinking that, if I was going to be arrested, it would be good idea at least to get it on tape.

ShanghaiWell, I was disappointed.  The security guards ambled past, occasionally stopping to check up on me, but not really that concerned.  After about 40 minutes, one came up and asked me to put my banner away.  I suppose it should have been obvious that they would be suspicious of a sign they weren’t able to read but it hadn’t occurred to me that this would be a problem.

Next I headed to the People’s Park, a beautiful wooded area in the centre of the city. This is where parents who are looking to marry off their children meet on Sundays. They set up stall with a CV describing their progeny and his/her achievements.  Not sure my kids will buy into that arrangement!

By now, desperate for some form of official disapproval, and with a ‘camera crew’ (some mates, actually) in tow, I decided to play right outside the art gallery in the park. Again, I was left alone by the guards. They just looked on benignly, with no hint of harrassment. That’s the thing about the police. They’re never there when you need them!

Real life

Beijing wasn’t at all what I’d expected.  It is huge and the amount of building going on is extraordinary, but the residential areas feel surprisingly like villages.  The traffic is something else too.  The main rule of the road, apparently, is that whoever is going fastest has right of way.  Most motorists are relatively new to driving and the numbers are growing.  As one of my friends there put it, “Beijing has 7,000 new killers on the roads every month” – an exaggeration, perhaps, as I saw some spectacular techniques for changing lanes but not a single accident in my two days there.  Wouldn’t like to try driving there myself, though.

The next morning I faced that eternal traveller’s conundrum.  Laundry or The Forbidden City?  I managed to get a couple of loads in the washer and then had an hour and a half to dash round the palace, kicking myself that I’d only allowed two days for Beijing.  That afternoon I was invited to play in a recording session with some local musicians which felt very much like any session in London.

Great Wall Of ChinaThroughout my time in China, Marcus Shadbolt and co from Vermilion Partners looked after me royally. In Beijing, I had the use of an apartment, again with an absent host but, importantly, an internet connection, and, in both cities, they treated me to some of the best meals I’ve had in years.  They were up there with the all time great eating experiences of my life – and gave me a chance to put on some of the weight I’d lost in the rather leaner European leg.

The last morning in Beijing was a visit to the Harrow International School followed by an absolutely mad dash to the Great Wall where I dragged my obliging taxi driver up the wall to act as cameraman. We had all of 15 minutes there – long enough to meet a woman from UNESCO with projects in Tanzania, an amateur oboist working for the World Bank in Washington and a photographer from Buenos Aires; funny where you meet people who might help us in the future – before having to rush down and head to the airport for check-in.  As usual, I was pushing the limits and, had I missed that flight, I would have lost the rest of my round the world ticket. It was fairly tense but I arrived just as they were closing the counter.
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