Travel

First Christmas in the Country and (not) the City

First Christmas in the Country and (not) the City

You know it’s that time of the year when Christmas comes a’hollerin’ with its fervent high-street sales and velvet caroling vocals. While the adamantly pious few may still maintain that ‘tis the season to commemorate Christ’s birth, most of us 21st century denizens would beg to differ, as we shop till we drop and justify our annual profligacy by deluding ourselves that it is an ‘annual one-off’ in a season to be jolly (despite such joy – not to mention, bank credit – often being stretched to hedonistic proportions). Celebrating festivity in a manner which completely belies the ascetic undertones of Jesus’ nativity, we gorge on bargain buffets and laden ourselves with equally bloated bags, all the while losing sight of what Christmas is really about – and let’s not kid ourselves by denying that we have long relegated this question to the periphery of our materially-entrenched minds. After investing all our energy in gift-wrapping and gourmet planning, bringing up this quasi-philosophical burning question may seem like something that only a party pooper would do, but once the festive fervour fizzles away, what can remain is nothing more than the awareness of what all that effort was worth.

To shame, I have spent 18 years of late December in precisely such a fashion, for which my faithful allegiance to that concrete jungle called Hong Kong must be to blame.  Harking from an Amazon of skyscrapers and malls galore, I have been trained by my natural habitat to associate the capital C in ‘Christmas’ with the lucrative C in ‘consumerism’, and in hindsight, Christmas has always been my favourite holiday mainly because it is the only one that legitimises indulgent consumption. But anyway, upon entering into my 19th year of life and penultimate year at university, I stumbled upon a Eurekaesque moment, and the knowledge that it was either now or never for me to spend a Christmas at once removed from home and unplagued by worries of an impending final exam triggered my decision to stay. At that moment, I literally did not care if it meant stuffing my own stocking in solitude while re-reading Troilus’ sissy rant on Christmas Eve and microwaving Tesco value mince pies in a grim college dorm room with absolutely zero company in Oxford. It was final: British Airways will not be getting their gift of my plane ticket this year and that was that.

As chance would have it though, when I confided this plan of mine to my friend at the start of Michaelmas, she was appalled that I should commit such a festive folly as spending this jolly season alone, and next thing I knew I had secured myself an honoured place in her beautiful Tisbury cottage come December. Oh imagine my excitement at the prospect of experiencing countryside life for the first time ever, and during Christmas as well! Yet as I began to gauge the differences between her role as a sister amongst 10 siblings and mine as an only daughter in a nuclear household; rural Tisbury and metropolitan Hong Kong, the contrast was so overwhelming that at one point I questioned whether or not it would be a good idea to go after all. Prior to my departure, an onslaught of anxious concerns besieged my socially awkward self: What if her family finds me weird? Is it appropriate for an outsider to impose her presence upon such a family-oriented event? Nonetheless, the curious cat in me eventually ushered away these thoughts, and hoping to find out what celebrating Christmas the traditional Brit way is like with a family almost three times bigger than my own, I set off Wiltshire-bound with my Secret Santa presents, an analog camera and an adventurous spirit. Bearing in mind how absolutely urban my existence has been up until coming to Oxford (and for the last time: no, Oxford is not… a city), what follows should sound less threadbare than it would without my caveat, but little did I know that I was about to receive both an experience and an education of a lifetime. And while I did indeed take away my share of presents, photos and a hell of an adventure from this visit, Santa’s real gift to me turned out to be the chance of replacing self-indulgence with self-discovery.

Upon stepping foot into the cottage, I was immediately struck by how novel everything seemed to me. It was ‘novel’ not in a sense of “This is a Huxleyan alter-world”, but in terms of the ambiance of warmth that distinguishes a cozy brick-built cottage from a cold concrete apartment. Logs of wood inflamed lit up the old-fashioned hearth, and before I could give my host an arrival embrace her siblings trumped me in the hugging stakes by introducing themselves while peeling home-grown parsnips at an impressive speed. Having already carried out a stalk-fest on every possible family member with that socialising godsend called Facebook, I nonetheless restrained my allusive urge to bring in casual references of (insert sibling’s name)’s life as conveniently presented on his/her timeline when we sat down at the table. My attempts at demonstrating my (limited) domestic utility were to no avail, both due to the family’s incredible hospitality and my blundering ineptitude in what is to me virtually uncharted territory back home (i.e. the kitchen). I soon acquainted myself with the entire household, after which the youngest invited me to partake in her decorating endeavours, and as we draped sparkly tinsels and hung up glassy baubles, I began to immerse myself into my new surroundings and savour the experience of preparing for Christmas with this big warm family. Be it recreating Delia Smith’s light Christmas pudding with my friend and watching everyone fight over it for seconds, going into the neighbouring woods to collect holly and ivy for authentic staircase decorations (none of that synthetic rubbish), folding paper napkins into water lilies or even simply listening to the youngest gush on about how exciting the idea of cracking a “rather large Christmas Chocolate Bomb” is to her, I felt festivity exuding at every turn of my Christmas Day ‘excursion’. As if the buzz of collaborative festive preparation was not enough of a thrill for cocooned urban me, I also had the opportunity of exploring the nearby grounds, among which the bucolic splendour of the Old Wardour Castle and its idyllic parkland proved a highlight of my journey. At one point, the sylvan delight was so overwhelming that I broke out in tuneless song with Wordsworthian zeal, convinced that I was a latter-day Maria von Trapp while completely disregarding the ill-suppressed sniggers of my otherwise tolerant companions. But here it was, my Christmas present in full glory: it was neither about possession nor materiality, but the visceral sense of being; simply existing, living in a moment that infuses you with joy inexplicable.

Yet the thought of purely enjoying myself without over-analysing the situation wouldn’t possibly do justice to my identity as an Englisher (i.e. a person whose degree is basically about inconsequential overthinking and pushing yourself to the brink of an existential crisis before resorting to vodka as the ultimate remedy), so after enjoying that whirlwind of fuzzy delight, I retreated back into my psychological cavern and started mulling over my experience. What was it that made my 19th Christmas so special compared to the others? Sure, I was doing more chopping than shopping and was surrounded more often by birches than bricks. But superficial differences as such are no material for a life-changing epiphany, and while I concede that there may be a tinge of hyperbole in that statement, I can honestly say that spending my first non-metropolitan Christmas has made me realise just how materialistic the nature of my festive joy has always been. At home, I would take the day’s schedule of shopping with parents, helping my mom out, entertaining my relatives and unwrapping presents as a mandatory agenda that I’d materialise mechanically and mindlessly, without giving so much as a minute’s thought to the actual point of doing it all. By this point, some of you may find my reflective escapade a bit too sentimental and inflated to be credible, but if you do find it incredulous, chances are that you’ve never actually spent a Christmas different from your standard run-of-the-mill celebrations. Then again, had it not been for a combination of circumstances and my less-than-filial whim of a decision to not go home for the holidays, I would probably be reading this with the same sort of wary scepticism I’m pre-empting right here. As per usual, irony abounds in life, and trite as this may sound, spending the last days of 2013 with my friend’s family has only made me appreciate my own family that much more – my family which I have always taken for granted, especially as a single child who never had to vie for any attention or appreciation before the love would just come showering down in ‘annoying’ abundance.

But I’ll stop here, lest my contemplative tract starts reeking of effusive didacticism. After all, I may just have gone a tad bit overboard with the holiday vino, and we’ve all spewed personal manifestos, weird confessions and sentimental crap after downing that extra bottle of wine. Bloody alcohol and hormones – if only Father Santa would deal with them, now that would be the ultimate present. For everyone, in country and city alike.

 

PHOTO/Jennifer Chan

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I’ve got Seoul but I’m not a soldier (Part Two)

I’ve got Seoul but I’m not a soldier (Part Two)

I expected at some point while in S. Korea to experience some kind of hostile attitude towards the North, but to my surprise this was replaced by xenophobia expressed towards the Japanese. It transpired that the attitude was a product of hundreds of years of invasion and reprehensible behaviour on the part of the Japanese military.

No trip to South Korea would be complete, however, without an expedition to the Demilitarised Zone (or Dee Em Zee). The whole area was a harrowing reminder that the world is on a knife edge, with twitching fingers ready to press the big red button. Highlights included:

1. An observation tower where one could see an eerie stand-off between the two Koreas’ flags thrust into the air.

2. A train station built with the express purpose of facilitating mass exodus from Pyongyang

3. A North Korean infiltration tunnel that the South turned into a tourist attraction

4. A North Korean goods market in Unification Village where one could purchase a bottle of “DPRK Antler Liquor”.

 

The whole place was a bizarre mix of inspiring optimism that one day the two Koreas will reunite, and the crippling realism of 4 kilometres of tank traps and mines preventing that unification. The view into the North was impeded partially by a soft, grey, haze but we could just make out the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Lying empty and bereft of its workforce, it was exemplary of the recent breakdown in co-operation between the two nations.

One issue that came up in abundance while in Korea was body image. It seems like Koreans are  under huge pressure to attain a very specific body image – put bluntly, as “white” as possible. It seemed crazy that a group of perfectly normal young women would normalise cosmetic surgery to the point where lunchtime nose-jobs were commonplace. This was oddly coupled by a select few tutors being mobbed by groups of local teenagers for Snapchat selfies of ‘handsome guy’ or ‘beautiful girl’.

Sex was a bit of a weird one too. A student, Andrew (21 yrs old), told me that Koreans get little or biased sex-ed which was exceedingly obvious. There were also many students denying that homosexuality was real which made several of the LGB tutors a little uncomfortable. One Japanese music video that included what was referred to as a “gay twist” prompted floods of giggling from the students as if homosexuality was some sort of Western joke.

That said, when given the opportunity to discuss issues such as equal marriage, abortion or pre-marital sex, the students were refreshingly forthright with a progressive liberality that was in complete opposition to the established social order in Korea. One student made the profound statement “we all begin from the same, so how can we say we are different?”

From the hilarious reaction to a filthy poem I gave the students, “This no for children. This poem very muddy!” to the mass exodus from a film that included a wee bit of sideboob, it seems there is a wholesale public assertion of social reservation which just isn’t reflected by individual attitudes. It seems like the general feeling is one of a preservation of juvenility, which is oddly juxtaposed with modern sexualisation, no more exemplified by the K-pop video ‘Bubble Pop’ – Ah ooh hoo!

An undergraduate in Ireland

An undergraduate in Ireland

Perhaps I’m not the best person to write travel guides. My holiday preferences make some of the more genteel of my friends look at me as if I’ve suggested we go on a night out to a Nickelback concert. Put it this way, one of my favourite moments this year has been hiking up a mountain in rural Galway, sometime between Christmas and New Year. A thunderstorm the previous day had smashed the power out and trees lay in the road like downed skittles, a hailstorm was in full swing- in essence, the perfect physical antidote to the sheltered, stratified and ruthlessly organised urban life we lead in Oxford. Though ironically academia led me there- after an essay I resolved to further investigate the independence period and the Troubles, a corpus of research slowly building toward that beastly undergraduate thesis.

My holidays tend to be on a budget by necessity. One can fly into Dublin relatively easily, but the ferry burns far less of a hole in your wallet and leaves more disposable income for cultural experiences- or whiskey and Guinness. Face it, that’s what you’re there for. If you’re coming from London expect seven-odd hours between Euston and getting off at Dublin Port. If you’re looking to go beyond Dublin, you’ll probably have to be getting up around 4.30-5am. I’m an arts student- you can definitely manage it. Hostels are definitely the best way forward- they’re far cheaper and there’s generally a pleasantly convivial atmosphere. Single or double rooms are usually always available. Citi Hostel, virtually adjacent to the bus station, is among your best bets in Dublin at as low as ten euros.

 

dublin

Dublin waterfront by night

If you’re a city kind of person, you’ll want to stay in Dublin for a bit. The National Museum of Ireland near Heuston Station plays host to an impressive away of social and military history. The theatre behind Connolly Bookshop in Essex Street will usually have something good on, and if you’re missing Oxford take a look around Trinity College. There are hordes of irritating tourists, neoclassical architecture and a quad where you can actually walk on the grass. Temple Bar is good for pubs and clubs if you don’t mind quite expensive pints- O’Gogarty’s pub does live traditional music and a delicious Dublin coddle soup, whilst a nearby bar has a good comedy night on Tuesday. Dublin Castle, the old seat of British power, is worth a visit, and a simple stroll down the River Liffey is well worth it for the views and atmosphere.

 killarney

Ross Castle, Killarney National Park

For those who want some gentle but inspiring country walks, the Killarney National Park is perfect. It’s a couple of hours on the train from Dublin (student fares will never be more than about thirty euros for a return, and the trains are blessed with free wi-fi.) The An Oige hostel just outside town is affordable and set in lovely grounds, but you will need to get up on time for the morning bus! From Killarney town you can get an old-fashioned pony-and-trap to Ross Castle, an oddly-crenellated fort overlooking Loch Lein, the clear and picturesque lake that forms the park’s centrepiece, surrounded by forested hills. You can take a barge around the lake, or a little boat to a tiny island where a ruined medieval monastery sits, or do a day tour inclusive of the pony, boats, a coach tour and some walking. The boatman spent forty minutes attempting to convince me of the truth of leprechauns. Another option is cycling- bike hire is easy, and one can follow the road to the edge of the park and then lose oneself in a beautiful route that follows the lakes around. A gentle climb will take you up the impressive Torc waterfall, and on the way across you’ll glimpse through the trees a panorama of the lake below. Mountains are also in the area, but I haven’t personally tried them.

 

tulley

From Tully Mountain, Connemara, prior to getting stuck

If a tougher climb and even further away from civilisation is for you and my opening paragraph took your fancy, then get yourself through Galway City and out to the Bards’ Den hostel in Letterfrack, Connemara. There are twelve main mountains and a few smaller ones, all of which provide breathtaking views over the estuaries, islands and virtually-untouched countryside of the National Park. The view can change in an instant from dazzling green fields to burnt orange grass to a view out to the Atlantic. It is, I think, the most spectacular wilderness view one can get without going far further afield than our corner of Europe. (I did have an escapade with Mountain Rescue, but it was entirely due to my own incompetence and they are incredibly friendly, anyway.) Alternatively, Croagh Patrick in County Mayo (nearest town Westport, a little expensive but pretty and plenty of restaurants) provides a middlingly difficult climb and similarly striking landscapes, a view over 360 islands in the bay. On ‘Reek Sunday’ 15,000 Catholics climb it as a pilgrimage, many in bare feet, and a 1905-built chapel sits atop it.

Finally, if visiting the North, I would highly recommend Derry City. Whilst ‘Troubles tourism’ can be horribly insensitive, it pays dividends to remember the darker parts of our history. The murals surrounding the Bogside area, one of the key areas of the conflict are both amazing artworks and poignant. A little museum tells the story of the community’s resilience through it all. As with everywhere else in Ireland, I was greeted with a great deal more friendliness than my native London, where eye contact with a stranger is the eighth deadly sin. Derry is also 2013’s City of Culture, and a shortish train ride from the Giant’s Causeway (don’t be sucked in by the overpriced information centre) and the geographically-fascinating Antrim coast.

Ireland is a brilliant destination- affordable, welcoming and home to a rich pantheon of history, culture, good food and booze and compelling landscapes. There’s something for everyone, but for St. Patrick’s sake carefully plan public transport journeys in advance. You don’t want to spend your trip to the Emerald Isle in a bus shelter.

 

 

I’ve got Seoul, but I’m not a soldier (Part One)

I’ve got Seoul, but I’m not a soldier (Part One)

In the equine wake of K-pop’s worldwide success, 39 plucky Oxbridge students set off to exchange idiosyncrasies with 200 Korean college students. Their mission was to, in Ox-Bridge pairs, lay the foundations for a life changing test in English for their students by giving them a month of motivational lessons in English culture, conversation and grammar.

South Korea is spectacularly distinct from the UK, with an ancient and persistent culture that’s survived colonialisation, protectorate rule and the most protracted civil war in living memory. What hit us at first, though, was the unrelenting tide of cutesie craziness that seems to have permeated through every aspect of Korea. In most retail outlets, you could for a small amount of Won (Korean currency) purchase some socks. “What of it?” I hear you say. Not only were these racks of socks adorned with cripplingly twee depictions of animals but the vast majority of them sported ears. Yes, socks with ears. MIND BLOWN.

What also surprised me was how positively 90′s K-pop is. With a plethora of favourites each with their own dance (as provocative as the Pussycat Dolls’ entire discography); it’s brilliantly camp and oddly ‘adult’ given Korea’s apparent obsession with portraying celebrities as childishly as possible. A wonderful example being one of the shrewd directors of the programme (a Korean PPE-ist from LMH) cracking out some spectacularly filthy dance moves at the end of the “Friday Night Show”. These shows were usually completed by an outrageous impromptu dance party, where a terrifying amount of peer pressure incited a great many awkward-tutor-dance-battles.

One unfortunate Friday show concluded with a “relationship proposal” from one student to another with the outcome a solid and very public rejection despite unbelievable peer pressure from the audience (chants of KISS-KISS were abundant).

This fabulously mental experience was emulated on a weekly basis in the “noraebangs” (singing room/Karaoke) where, again for the price of a pair of cute-socks, you could sing to your hearts content to a mixture of K-pop hits and Hey Jude. Also, there were lasers. And no air conditioning. And sweat.

One afternoon, we ditched the noraebangs for a more unique experience. Characterising Jinju’s progression relative to the rest of the country, a 70′s era fairground ride called the Disco Pang-Pang (similarly onomatopoeic to the Welsh popty-ping the Korean pang-pang is a tambourine), waited for us in a basement establishment that upon entering filled you with an excitable dread.

A large Carousel type thing with seats on the inside edge spun it’s victims around while occasionally and violently ejecting them into the air. A creepy man in DJ box controlled the torturous contraption and occasionally threw a spotlight onto one of the female participants and made less than savoury remarks. He was a little sadistic, throwing around his prey like a fox with daddy issues. The strobe lights didn’t help and neither did the fact that anyone over 5 foot tall risked decapitation by the ceiling. At the end of the experience I wasn’t entirely sure I had a spine left – but was assured in time I would return for more!

For those who’ve been to Kurrah, this should give you a ‘pang’ of nostalgia…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ef2K_YsD1Rc

Danger Tourism in the DMZ

Danger Tourism in the DMZ

[caption id="attachment_44170" align="alignright" width="225"]north korea Peace messages on the barbed wire fence at Imjingak Park, on the edge of the DMZ[/caption]

It may be a stone’s throw from the most volatile regime in the world, but the Korean Demilitarized Zone is as tourist-friendly as any Lonely Planet must-see.

Following the Second World War and the subsequent bloody conflict between communist North and capitalist South, Korea has been divided. The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) marks the border between the two countries and has been the scene of many military incidents; shots were fired in the DMZ as recently as 2010.

I recently spent a month teaching in South Korea and visited the DMZ one cloudy Sunday morning. We were picked up from our hostel in a coach manned by our friendly Korean guide, Maria. So far, so package holiday.

However, as we headed north out of Seoul the traffic gradually thinned until we were the only vehicle in sight. The roads were bordered by barbed wire as far as the eye could see, interrupted only by look-out huts occupied by guards cradling machine guns.

Our first stop was the spookily-named ‘North Korean Infiltration Tunnel’. We donned our hardhats and descended three hundred metres into a tunnel which runs from the North, under the DMZ and out into the South. We had to bend double in some places as we sploshed along the dark, damp passages. The tunnels were built to accommodate thirty thousand troops per hour and with Seoul only thirty five miles away, Northern invasion seemed frighteningly feasible.

However, any serious contemplation on the nature of modern warfare was quickly dispersed by a heavy dose of tourist-reality. The light literally at the end of the tunnel was the gift shop selling every kind of DMZ tat imaginable – baseball caps, chocolate, golf balls, even a framed piece of the barbed wire fence.

Our guided tour yo-yoed between cheery coach trip and dangerous diplomatic mission – back on the coach, Maria informed us that a tourist had been shot in 2008 for taking photographs in our next destination. With this in mind, we packed away our cameras and trooped obediently into Dora Observatory, where we had the amazing opportunity of seeing into North Korea itself. It was very cloudy, so we didn’t spy the giant statue of Kim Il Sung, the ghost village built to make the North seem prosperous… or indeed much of North Korea at all. But, with the aid of a telescope we were able to see the North Korean flag fluttering at the top of a giant flagpole in the distance.

[caption id="attachment_44171" align="alignleft" width="300"]demilitarised zone Souvenirs from the DMZ.[/caption]

After posing for photos with unexpectedly friendly guards, we were off again.

“Everything is ready, we just need to do reunification first”, Maria announced as we arrived at Dorosan Station. Ten years on from its opening, the station sits empty, waiting for the day that North and South re-unite and burst into a glorious partnership of rail travel.

Walking into the station’s vast glass entrance hall, we saw lines of empty chairs in the waiting area, silent X-Ray machines and signs directing us to non-existent trains to Pyongyang. This must surely be the weirdest place I have ever been – even though it was so spacious, it also felt surreal and suffocating.

Far from being the Southern propaganda trail I’d expected, the political message did not feature very strongly in my trip to the DMZ. In fact, history seemed to get lost somewhere between the thirty-eighth parallel T shirts and North Korean deer-antler vodka. Rather than reflecting on the price of political differences, I came away from the most heavily armed border in the world feeling as if I’d been to a very strange and slightly macabre theme park.

Twerk Experience

Twerk Experience

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="247"] Twerk it baby, twerk it.[/caption]

Internships, work experience, voluntourism or bona fide slave labour for The Man. It’s pretty likely you’ve done one or more of these in your summers away from Oxford, or even that wonderful purgatory of your pre-Oxford wanderings.

But how do you go about actually getting to do this stuff?

Finish that Bloody CV

Surprisingly enough, every employer wants some evidence that you aren’t a complete layabout. Even if you’re craving that job nuzzling the nutsack of the 3rd in line to chief photocopier at Goldman Sachs, you are still going to have to show them you’ve had some experience with a stapler. Ask yourself if you will get the response “cool story bro” and make sure you relegate all that school stuff to the bottom of the page in a short list. No one cares that you were the top cookie salesperson in Tunbridge Wells Brownies. For the adventurous, try potato inserting random words in the middle fishnets of sentences.

Get stuff done, malingerer

While it’s tempting to spend your days in Ox’ in beguiled assassination, organisations do look out for (substantial) positions of responsibility so they know they won’t be employing a socially challenged troglodyte. If you plan on going into politics, The Oxford Union is a classic choice, but how about the International Relations Society or Oxford Students for Liberty for the less hacktastic? Other options are in the JCR, sports teams or drama productions. If you are less concerned with global domination – RAG is a snazzy option and you can come up with ever more ingenious methods of fundraising like a cuddly Marx wearing a dRAGon costume.

Read those emails!

While the Careers Service will try to force spam upon you like a war era black marketeer sometimes gems can be found – like an all expenses paid internship with Telecomms giant Huawei in Beijing and Shenzhen (parties at embassies included).

Is it even worth it?

YES. The vast majority of employers want people with experience in the market/industry/cesspit of choice, so if the only thing you can claim to have done is watch egregious quantities of football – bad craic – you’re not getting a job. A varied set of experience is obviously a good thing as well, why not do one year of company internship and then another travelling a third world country helping the natives and finding yourself?

How do you pay for it?

Most of these can be exceptionally expensive, some taking around £2000 to fund – the good news is that there is a metric fucktonne of funding. Usually this comes in the form of corporate sponsorship, college grants or specific funding for humanitarian or environmental internships. Very often teaching or internship projects abroad are paid for as ‘cultural exchanges’.

So all in all, it’s a good idea. Plan well in advance, read those emails and you should be an inch closer to that dream job (or life as a perpetual hipster/hobo).

Face-to-face with danger in Greenland

Face-to-face with danger in Greenland

This summer three friends and I are planning to sail to Greenland to climb some of the enormous cliffs that rise out of the sea along the island’s west coast. We’re all students who met through the Oxford University Mountaineering Club, and all have some years’ experience rock-climbing around the world. But nothing quite this big. For me at least, and I think for the others, this expedition is something on a new scale.

The plan is simple in essence. We will hitch a lift to Greenland from Canada on a yacht called the ‘Cosmic Dancer’. We will sail north along the west coast of Greenland to Upernavik, an area known for its massive rock walls. We will attempt some lines that other climbers have attempted in the past, and then go prospecting for new climbs along the coast, for about a month in total. It is a very remote part of the world. There will be pack ice. There may be bears (though I’m hoping not). There will almost certainly be storms, loose rock, dehydration, pain and other forms of unpleasantness.7921221984_e76cb9cc0e_c

In short, it may all sound pretty crazy. It sounded pretty crazy to me when I first heard about it, in the pub one night, from the expedition leader Tom Codrington. Why – besides the effects of the beer – did I say yes when he asked me to join? Let me try to explain…

Two summers ago I climbed an 800m face in the Swiss Alps with a friend. We climbed fast all day in the blazing sun, with hardly time to stop for a drink or a cereal bar. When we got near the top of the face I looked down. Beneath my feet was almost a kilometer of rock, a single slab of red granite dropping away onto a mass of buckled and tortured ice, the Cengalo Glacier losing its battle with global warming. There is something special about big faces like that. Standing on a tiny foothold, a nubbin of rock above that much air, you seem to be suspended between three dimensions: the sky around you, the ground away down below, and the rock, the wonderful sheet of rock itself to which you cling.

Rock comes in many kinds. There is slippery limestone, worn to a polished sheen by the boots of generations of climbers. There is rough gritstone in the Peak district, with its wonderful grippiness and crystals that bite into your fingers and chew up your hands in the cracks. There is slate in the North Wales quarries, precise and delicate climbing with tiny edges for fingers and toes. There is wet rock and rock covered in moss and vegetation and bird shit – which is unpleasant to say the least. I’m no geologist but I know what I like, and solid sun-warmed granite is pretty high on the list.

And that’s what these Greenland cliffs are made of – well, it may not be solid or especially warm but it’s granite, six hundred, eight hundred metres of granite rising straight out of the sea. I have always loved sea cliffs, though I’ve also been terrified by them. It adds a certain amount of atmosphere, as well as fear, to be climbing close to the sea – comparable but different from the feeling you get in the big mountains.

Those are my reasons: the joy of the situation, of being up there on the wall; the pleasure of movement, precise or brutally energetic, over the rock. There’s also the sense of pushing out and finding a limit. I don’t mean the limits of human possibility, there are thousands of climbers better than me, but a personal limit, to know the extent of what you can actually yourself achieve. It can be dangerous, sure – but that’s partly the point. Suddenly there is a lot at stake for you in what happens in the next ten minutes of your ife. Poised there, in that instant of uncertainty when you don’t know which way things will go – it could all go wrong, granted, but it could also go right, so very right, righter than ever before – you’re briefly, momentarily, in an unknown world.

And on a real expedition like this, climbing a newly discovered route in the middle of a genuine wilderness, all these factors are multiplied, as it were. There are more chances for things to go wrong, more potential suffering – but also that much more potential for satisfaction, for things to go righter than ever before. We may find and climb some impressive routes, but more than that, it will be an extraordinary kind of experience. I suppose that’s why I’m sailing to Greenland, going on this big and daunting expedition into what is genuinely, for me, the unknown.

Follow Peter and the team at www.facebook.com/westgreenlandexpedition.

PHOTO/ilovegreenland

Exploring Myanmar’s activism

Exploring Myanmar’s activism

During our informal introductions at the Yangon School of Political Science, a 26-year-old student began by saying: “I guess I’m lucky, reintegrating into the community after my prison sentence ended was easier because many of my family members had been in jail too”. She had been imprisoned for eight years solely because her father was a political activist who participated in opposition demonstrations. Unlike us – we were the visiting Oxonians – the other students had little reaction to this woman’s revelation of imprisonment for no crime other than being related to a political activist. What quickly emerged over further conversations was that over half of them had been incarcerated for time periods ranging from six months to over ten years. For local students interested in opposition politics, time in prison was not out of the ordinary.

These students yearn for democracy and progress, and are willing to risk the brutal conditions of Myanmar’s prisons for the sake of fulfilling their political ideologies. Instantly, we found ourselves asking the same question David Cameron had asked a student debating society he met in Yangon last year – how are so many young people so fearlessly passionate about politics? Burmapic

When we arrived in Myanmar, we expected to be surrounded by sectarian violence, minimal infrastructure, and fierce government censorship. Just a few days before our departure, religious violence erupted in Meiktila and sparked a three-day riot through Muslim areas of the country that some sources described as ethnic cleansing. We were warned that if we wanted phone signal, a sim card would cost $260, a discount to be grateful for given the price had been $1000 in 2010. The local exchange rate varied hugely depending on how crisp dollar bills are and internet penetration was around 7 per cent – it was looking like the outside world wouldn’t be hearing much from us over the two weeks.

Instead, what we found was an accessible and diverse nation that boasts over 135 different ethnic groups going through a tumultuous transition period. The volatility of this transition to democracy was startling. At the start of our visit, there were celebrations in Yangon as privately owned daily newspapers hit newsstands for the first time in 50 years. However, only a week later in the same city, ethnic tensions were escalating as 13 children died in a fire started at a Muslim school.

The dividing lines within Myanmar are not solely limited to religion or income – travelling throughout the country, the differences between rural areas and cities showed that the pace at which Myanmar is changing remains vastly inconsistent. Whilst cities are home to countless NGOs, five stars hotels and bars, many rural areas still lack access to clean water and electricity. Although foreign investment floods into the larger urban areas, the majority of the population living in the countryside never benefit from the developments that such investments fund. As one community leader told us: “we hear a lot of thunder, but we don’t see much rain.”

After meeting with a wide range of civil society organisations, we learned that most individuals’ politicisation came from experiencing the inescapable inequality of Myanmar. The lack of autonomy the country suffered during its years as a police state meant that activism was, and still is, the key way for people  to try and challenge the status quo and achieve progress towards a different and better future.

Despite the different cultures, languages, and customs of the many ethnic groups we met with, their aims were similar. These decentralised groups all long to promote universal education, fight corruption, and teach social responsibility. They all agree that they are no longer content with rote learning – they want the generations following theirs to think critically and question everything around them.

The authoritarian regime that gripped Myanmar had allowed corruption to infiltrate all aspects of life and instil mistrust within the culture that is prevalent to this day. This lack of trust means that many organisations remain suspicious of each other and are unwilling to share information. Today, hundreds of small groups all working towards a common cause are failing to cooperate and, consequently, making it unnecessarily more difficult for themselves to pursue their goals.

Everywhere we went, we would ask whether we could help, and, if we could, what we could do. Specifically, as students, could we contribute and try to re-establish links between young people in Oxford and Myanmar? The answers we got made it apparent how much the infrastructure of the student unions and debating societies that we sometimes take for granted could benefit the local youth. Myanmarpic - Andre Lettau

Helping the disjointed student groups engage in dialogue to form a centralised and functioning student union could enable them to share ideas and information much more effectively. Sending volunteers to teach anything from English to maths could provide invaluable resources for understaffed schools. Spreading our knowledge of debating could teach students how to more critically construct arguments. Even sending over a few unused textbooks would double the assests of some institutions.

It was humbling to see how committed young people in Myanmar are to their local communities. We were constantly reminded that, as students, we are in the unique position of having the capacity to work in unison that is difficult to replicate. Some of the most influential uprisings all over the world have been organised by students fighting to have their voices heard. It’s vital we never forget the impact that student movements such as Myanmar’s 8888 uprising are capable of having.

The democratic processes that Myanmar longs for have to be rebuilt carefully, every day, and the rights of citizenship that we enjoy also entail responsibilities. There is a lot we can learn from the people of Myanmar, especially from those that risk years in prison to attain the freedoms that we  have the privilage of taking for granted. In light of the opportunities we have been given, the impact we could, and should, have if we commit ourselves to helping the wider community is enormous.

 PHOTO/Maria Rioumine &  Andre Lettau

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