Ninety-three Days Later

Photoshoot on the Seine: Looking far too pleased with himself

Photoshoot on the Seine: Looking far too pleased with himself

A Danone rhubarb yoghurt – simply the perfect way to begin today, my last day on the Rhubarb Rhoute. A dull headache, courtesy of generous lashings of average Montepulciano the night before (I know, tracking down non-French wine in Paris, how is this possible?) did nothing to damper my spirits as I skipped to St Germain des Pres metro station, having hoisted my Karrimor pack on my back for one last time.

I smiled at the Chinese family who scuttled onto the train seconds before the rickety carriage doors of the metro slammed shut – an immense tribe of pushchairs, shopping bags and pudding bowl haircuts. I felt a pang of nostalgia for Beijing, my adopted home city I had left three months before, and shuffled over on the pull-down chairs to make room for one of the merry band of young boys.

His mother motioned for one of her number to sit beside me in the seat I had just vacated, prompting much hilarity and squirms of embarrassment from the gaggle of boys. “Don’t be afraid, xiao pengyou“, I said with an effected old man wisdom, my unruly beard clearly lending much authority, “have a seat here, next to me”. Wide-eyed in shock at the bearded Chinese-speaking man with a big dirty bag, he clambered up onto the seat and sat motionless, staring at the floor. I sure know how to charm ’em.

After the perfunctory exchange with the mother (Waaah! you speak Chinese!) we sat grinning at each other, counting down the stops to Gare du Nord. (Her son continued to stare at the floor, petrified). I imagined the welcome party that may or may not be waiting for me at St. Pancras – a seething mass of friends, well-wishers and radical rhubarb scholars, grasping banners, balloons and a selection of traditional British puddings ready to whisk me off to banquets and press conferences, eliciting soundbites about my journey and gauging my reaction on having returned to the leaden London skies.

Such daydreaming was abruptly halted as the young toddler in the pushchair in front of me unleashed three rounds of projectile vomit, covering herself, the carriage floor, my backpack and open flip-flops in half-digested xihongshi chaojidan (a rather tasty – and recognisable – egg and tomato dish).

Three months. Tens of thousands of kilometres. I had made it all the way from Beijing to somewhere beneath the boulevards of central Paris without major mishap, only to be bathed in girl-vomit minutes before my final journey.

Pardon” the mother bleated, having switched to suspect French as if her linguistic dexterity might in some way make amends forher daughter’s bounced breakfast that I was attempting to mop up from between my toes.

Upon reaching the Eurostar I still exuded a headturningly-strong acidic stench – but I didn’t care. I had found this on sale in the departure lounge and was revelling in the profundity of the moment as I munched the succulent pieces of vegetable.

Two hours and plenty of open-mouthed, head-lolling snooze later, I had arrived.

This season's look: Backpacker Chic

This season's look: Backpacker Chic

And there we have it. After a mere ninety-three days,  I flounced through arrivals, mullet flowing, to be greeted by the baying crowd, just as I had imagined, before we both retired to The Cittie of Yorke in Holborn for a pub lunch and celebratory pint of shandy.

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The Rhubarb Emporium

A late afternoon glass of prosecco by the Rialto – surely the perfect way to celebrate reaching the final destination for our favourite vegetable?

It’s warm, humid and entirely saturated with tourists, but I’ve had an inane grin on my face ever since arriving on the train from San Benedetto yesterday afternoon.

It’s funny how people regard you suspiciously if you’re alone and smiling.

Does he know something I don’t know? Is he smirking at ME?

Truth is, you can’t help but smile involuntarily when in Venice. Add in one gorgeous day, and it’s no wonder you’re grinning. Of course, if you’ve travelled nearly 20,000 kilometres to get here, an insane grin is all but compulsory.

Just opposite where I’m sitting on the Grand Canal is the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the key trading centre leased by the Venetians to foreign merchants around 800 years ago – around the time Marco Polo did us all a favour and brought the rheum to Europe.

So, if you were a pouch of dried rhubarb (you lost your leaves long, long ago – sorry, but it did take months to cross them deserts) this is where your Turkish owner would be flogging you whilst extolling your virtues as a purgative extraordinaire. Here amongst the spices, porcelain, pelts, silks and other bizarre pharmacopia, you would be sold for ridiculous sums to those well-heeled gents looking to keep the four ‘Essential Humours’ in balance.

You’ve come a long way. You’ve braved the barbarians on the Central Asian steppes, survived the interminable camel rides, scaled the formidable Tian Shan and avoided questionable Georgian mineral water.

For you, O Pouch of Rhubarb, this is as far as you come.

You’ll continue your travels in due course, but New England will have to wait a good few centuries before other species of the rhubarb clan wander across the Atlantic to grace their puddings.

Who would ever have thought that the roots of a bizarre-looking vegetable would ever have made it from the desolate, poverty-stricken hillsides just the wrong side of the Great Wall of China to arguably the most beautiful city in the world at the mouth of the Adriatic?

I’m mildly suprised I made it myself.

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Spreading the Rabarbaro Love

All has been slightly quieter on the Rhubarb Front over the last few days – despite the relative ‘civilisation’ of the EU, it appears membership of this presitigious club requires obscene charges for the use of internet. 8 Euros an hour? Do you have ANY idea how much that is in real money that is since the Stirling spluttered and lumbered lazily on in its death throes?

The only aperitif you should be drinking this summer

The only aperitif you should be drinking this summer

The general readership (those who weren’t there, of course) will be rivited to learn that the event for Improved Rhubarb Education of the Wider Population of Le Marche was declared to be a monstrous success. Not only did the cries of BRAVO! (plus whatever they say for encore! in Italian) continue long after I had successfully traced the ‘barb from its Gansu homeland to the Rialto, but the crowd – entranced – demanded news of future books, films and Facebook groups. There are already rumours amongst the middle-aged female population that this bearded explorer will be lured back next summer, largely on the promise of yet more Rabarbaro Zucca – about the only exposure poor Italians have to rhubarb, it appears.

It has been a curious blend of reverse culture shock and exhausted relief to have reached the mountain villages of Le Marche, lapping up the impossibly generous hospitality of my hosts, esteemed writers, chefs and expert conversationalists Adam and Hong Ying, friends from Beijing.

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In the Hot Box with Stavros

“Are you smoking?” inquired my cabin-mate urgently, as we waited to pull out from salmon-pink Istanbul Gar, the city’s wonderful 19th century railway station on the banks of the Bosphorus.
“I don’t think so”, I replied, unsure as to what he was referring to.
“Don’t worry – I’ll open the window”.

I had never met a Stavros before – I didn’t even think such names existed outside of humorously tacky beach bars where fully-slicked waiters prey on 17 year-old British girls – but was delighted to discover that I was to be sharing a miniscule compartment with one on the night train to Thessaloniki.

“They laugh at me in England because of this name”, he confided. Stavros had just completed a masters’ degree in medical genetics in London, and had been visiting his Turkish girlfriend in Istanbul. “But the English are funny people. Where are you from?”.

Stavros produced an immense pouch of tobacco and spent the next four hours rolling cigarette after cigarette and drinking warm Amstel beer. “This is Turkish tobacco”, he explained, bright-eyed. “So cheap, and so good!”.

We spent a few hours planning my summer holidays for the next six or seven years – I needed to get to know the north of Greece, he insisted, as it was the most beautiful place on Earth – and I managed to extract a quick-fire lesson in Greek, ready for my arrival the next morning. After the fifth rolled cigarette, even the armies of mosquitoes decided they couldn’t take it any longer and buzzed off in search of juicier pastures down the corridor.

The rock of the train lulled us into sleep, from which we were dragged repeatedly once we reached the border.

“PASSPORT CONTROL!”, the guards bellowed from just outside the door, quickly followed by “BAGGAGE CONTROL!” – a precursory fumble inside my backpack. And exactly the same upon arrival in Greece.

“The Turkish still need a visa, you know”, Stavros mumbled, with a smirk. “Since we are in the EU, we can go anywhere”.

We were interrupted by a blue-shirted guide with a shock of black hair as he returned my passport. “Mr Lemon?”, he asked . “Welcome to Greece”.

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Dressing for Dinner in Istanbul

Istanbul: Evening dress, Cuban cigars and hot chickens

Istanbul: Evening dress, Cuban cigars and hot chickens

I seem to remember being extraordinarily proud of myself when, at a tender age of seven, I not only knew where Constantinople was, but I was also able to spell it.

Such elation, however, was short-lived when searching Collin’s World Gazetteer for the battleground of much of my early history lessons – in its place there appeared to be a square blob of a city that wasn’t even the capital of this large, rectangular country somewhere to the south of Europe.

Whatever its current invention, there is no doubt that Istanbul is one of the truly great cities of the world, and a worthy stopover on the now-legendary Rhoute. Dripping in history, saturated with fabulous architecture, boasting some awe-inspiring views across the Bosphorus and home to the best cuisine on my journey so far (this side of the Tian Shan, that is – there are still very, very few contenders for the tremendous gongbao jiding in China), the city appears to have everything.

It is also the only city I have come across over the past few months that I feel can really lay claim to being both Asian and European at the same time, as dandied as that sounds. Almost as soon as I left China, claims were being made that [insert Central Asian country] was the ‘bridge between Europe and Asia’, or the ‘real Eurasia’, a ‘meeting point between the two continents’ etc. Just half a day’s drive from the Chinese border, Almaty certain felt very European – as did Tashkent, Bishkek, or much of the Caucasus.

Mosque-tastic. Cityscape from Topkapi Palace.

Mosque-tastic. Cityscape from Topkapi Palace.

However, instead of being an island of European civilisation on the steppes, or in the middle of the desert, Istanbul seems ferociously proud of its mongrel heritage, and feels both Asian and European in equal measure. I certainly didn’t get that impression from anywhere I’ve travelled through since the beginning of May.

The ol’ wallet has certainly been taking a sound beating, in the way only Europe knows how to dish out. Twenty lira a pop for most of the main sights (and there was me whinging about five dollars at The Registan in Samarkand!) certainly adds up, and seeking refuge in a shot of strong Turkish coffee will set you back another five. Get any more adventurous and you’ll be scurrying to the ATMs before the real spending starts in the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar or in the hundreds of boutiques hidden among the city streets flogging carpets, jewellery, Turkish Delight, tea of all flavours, nargile pipes and all manner of tourist tat.

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En Route to Europe

Turkish bus companies seem to be slippery about how long it takes to make your way to Istanbul from elsewhere on the Anatolian peninsula. Even with the main drag from the capital, Ankara, they were hardly exacting:

“Between five and seven hours”, was the cryptic reply I was given, both by the bus companies themselves, and the ferocious armies of touts they all employ to snag lost-looking souls with backpacks and throw them on the next bus which needs filling.

“Well, which? Five or seven?”, I asked. I was approaching Europe, dammit, the least I could expect was a whiff of customer service. A helpless shrug of the shoulders was all I was getting from Mehmet at Ulusoy though, who helpfully reminded which platform I’d be leaving from in Ankara’s immense central bus hub.

Sadly, what Mehmet forgot to disclose was that the bus would be leaving half an hour ahead of schedule – along with all my bags, it transpired. Minor panic. Mehmed? Shrug. Taxi? Where to? Shrug.

After a spot of torso-lunging out of the taxi window, waving my arms around frantically to attract the driver’s attention through the impenetrable tinted – and doubtless bullet-proof – windows, he finally relented and I was allowed to board in a dusty lay-by.

“We made an announcement!” protested the driver. “Your bag was here so we knew you were too!”.

Drama over, I was united with my backpack containing treasures from the East, chief among which were the tremendous Tutku biscuits I stocked up on in Samsun. A whirl of vanilla/chocolate biscuit on the outside, they hide a venerable chocolate explosion on the inside, thus making them perfect for any occasion, particularly breakfast.

I munched the Tutku hungrily and settled back for the journey of no fixed duration. It was soon clear just why that was. Istanbul: 10km, read the signs after only a few hours on the road.

An hour or so later, we were still trundling through the outskirts of this immense city, home to 15 million, and slowly descending into the gridlock for which Istanbul is famous. Five to seven hours, indeed – it had been nearly six by the time we stopped for a break in some non-descript neighbourhood. You know you’re in for a long afternoon when you take a break in a part of the same city as your destination.

Moments later, however, we sped over an immense bridge, looking down on the blue waters lined with yacht clubs, restored fortresses and mosques. Here it was – the Bosphorus – the thin sliver of water that separates European Turkey from Asian Anatolia. Here we are. After nearly three months, I’ve made it back to Europe.

Rhubarb Rhoute – LIVE

For those avid readers – or fans of rhubarb in general – who happen to be in Le Marche, Italy next week, you have a mighty treat in store.

From the local rag:

I Segretti della Via del Rabarbaro

Ewan Lamont é un uomo d’affari Inglese che lavora a Pechino, in Cina. Per molti anni si é interessato nella ‘Via del Rabarbaro‘. Come la antica ‘Via della Seta’, la Via del Rabarbaro attraversò l’ Asia Centrale e portò in 16 Seculo all’Europa, inclusa l’Italia, la pianta medicinale e misteriosa conosciuta oggi come il Rabarbaro.

Questi ultime mesi, Ewan ha percorso questa strada, incominciando in Cina e proseguendo via il Kazakhstan, il Kirghiztan, l’Uzbekistan, il Turkomenistan, l’Azerbaijan ed altre nazioni esotiche viaggando in autobus, treno, nave e cammello.

Le Marche saranno l’ultima tappa prima di concludere il viaggio a Venezia – l’Emporio del Rabarbaro.

Il 30 Luglio Ewan Lamont parlera del suo viaggio illustrato da diapositive della sua aventura. “

For those of you philistines who don’t read Italian, I’ve been asked to talk about my trip to a town in Le Marche, Italy (!). Rather poignantly, it will be the evening before I waltz into Venice, the de facto conclusion of the Rhubarb Rhoute.

Modesty prevents me from translating the rather grand introduction above, but suffice to say I’d better think up something interesting to say in the next few days, else I’ll have a hall full of disappointed Italians on my hands. And nobody wants a disappointed Italian.

When: 6pm, 30th July
Where: The Bronze Beaters’ Hall, off the Municipal Piazzo

(Cynics might suggest that I only agreed to it once I heard the name of the venue)

The paucity of appropriate material aside, of course, one pertinent issue that might complicate my timely arrival involves Turkish, Greek and Italian public transport. It’s fair to suggest that none of the three are synonymous with reliability – or indeed, good driving – so over the next few days I’ll need to cook up a plan to get halfway up Italy by the 30th.

Consider this a suspended-cliff-hanger conclusion to this post….

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Otogar to Otogar

It’s a big, ol’ country, Turkey. In contrast to much of the mashrutka-hopping I engaged in for the last couple of months, I seem to be spending considerable periods of my day on the road – 5 hours to Trabzon, 8 hours to Samsun, 7 hours to Ankara tomorrow – which leaves little scope for general hilarity on the road.

I can’t even complain about the state of the roads, my offensive mashrutka-mates or questionable cuisine. I’m in Turkey and the livin’ is easy, my friends. Find the otogar, jump on a clean, new, streamlined vessel replete with air-con, coffee machines and wireless internet, zoom down the motorways until you reach your destination. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Fine – so one bus had a few issues somewhere between Trabzon and Sinop, necessitating a pause of an hour or so, during which we were fed, watered, and encouraged to have a stroll along the beach. Slightly more convenient than this series of multiple breakdowns in Kazakhstan.

The realities of the Turkish road network mean that I’ve now peeled myself away from the Black Sea coast which I have been following since crossing the border from Georgia. It’s a wonderful drive – dropping in and out of small seaside resorts where old men sit under pines in the parks drinking tea looking out to the sea. If you lived in one of these places you’d be drip-fed ice cream and no doubt feel that life was one non-stop holiday. Fantastic.

With the “utilitarian” city of Samsun behind me, I head on towards the Turkish capital, and finally across the Bosphorus to Istanbul.

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