Twenty countries and 38,500 kilometres later, I’m as eager to hit the road as on that day four years ago when I began my journey here from London – only now it’s Shanghai that I long to see disappear behind me. And it’s certainly not for want of excitement or variety in this ambitious, off-the-wall city.
Since we settled into our apartment in one of Shanghai’s innumerable high rises two years ago, I’ve been Teacher / Dancing Monkey to a few hundred of Shanghai’s graduates and seen what happens when an English school’s Irish owners skip the country and leave a state owned enterprise to deal with unpaid foreign staff. I’ve gone from trying to pronounce Mandarin’s four tones with the aid of different head movements to at last being able to have a decent conversation, and I’ve interviewed a few of the country’s best-known contemporary artists while doing research for my book on Chinese contemporary art. Then there’s the daily grapple with a populace who – despite living in the most forward-thinking city in China – still puzzle me during the most ordinary of interactions, and with whom (whether I’m using Mandarin or English) I still haven’t found a common language. Nobody could want for excitement in Shanghai, yet on most days an escape is foremost in my mind. Mine is the desire for a long, winding road beneath backpack-burdened feet, and the hypnotising momentum of travelling along your own limitless route.
Five years ago, as Iain and I prepared for what people often assure us was the journey of a lifetime (who knew we’d plan another?), my 23 year old self wrote: “I only hope that making a habit of writing about my experiences will help me to record the thoughts that may otherwise dissolve in my head.” That my memories of the people, the places and the experiences I had travelling across Europe and Asia could be easily forgotten seems ridiculous now. In fact, in so far as lost memories are a cure for nostalgia, it might help to remember less.
Some of my memories are blurred, mainly because they overlap – like layers. First there are the arbitrary details: those cheese baguettes on the lawn, the 50p overnight train ticket, the chocolate lassis on Vagator Beach. My memories of places often merge into each another: I can remember sitting inside a restaurant, and can even recall what I ate, and I can see the road outside, but would definitely get lost on the way back to the hotel. But the people, how quickly their faces come into focus: so many of them, all so different, all with their own story and enough time to share it. The mad man in Damascus who plucked a guitar and roared a smoky laugh, the sexy Spaniard in Santiago, the chai wallah in Dwarka and the lady in Jamnagar who insisted we stay for lunch at the ‘wedding’ which was, we discovered, a funeral.
But one layer seems to float above the others: the sensation of progressively moving – past fields, along mountain paths, across borders and through countries. You remember colours and textures, but through a haze – you’re in motion. This long stream of abstract memory begins as a collection of European cities: grand architecture, crisp air and green, then moves steadily towards the ochres and browns of the Middle East, where our path through Asia began to feel as close to the ancient world as it was. Then India: a whirlwind of sensations that stung until, with time, my senses adjusted. Soon I was dancing along a length of orange cloth which flapped wildly in a strong, silent wind, below a sky glistening with heat. How could these memories – these impressions, sensations – dissolve?
It’s the lure of that freedom – an escape to whatever you wish to find – that nags at me again; and the impulse to just go gets stronger as my months here become years.
Claire van den Heever
Shanghai, May 2010