Heathrow to Singapore, 2008

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As usual, I had plenty of time to get across London and hang around Heathrow, not my favourite of airports; but I’m an inveterate people-watcher (mainly women), so the hours flew by. The plane took off early, at nine-eleven, to be precise – not an auspicious pair of numbers for a flight!

That didn’t worry me: I was on the first leg to Australia, supping my first British Airways beer. Cheers! Food and drink occupied me for a while, so the outside didn’t register much. We had been in darkness all the way and only the seat-back map gave any clues to the lights passing below. They thinned the further east we flew, Romania seeming like the last outpost of civilisation. After the plane crossed the Black Sea, the city names began to get more exotic.

I love those maps and wouldn’t watch anything else, not even the latest blockbuster. My tinnitus doesn’t let me hear dialogue over the roar of the plane anyway. By now I was sneaking glimpses under the window shutter, down for the benefit of sleeping passengers. A rare snatch of wine-induced doze overtook me, during which we may have passed the Crimea and crossed Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Land gave way to the Caspian Sea as darkness gave way to the rising sun. Then land again at Turkmenistan – dusty mountains and little else – which merged into Afghanistan. Why fight over such arid landscapes? Surely none could want, or be able, to live there? I could trace the possible courses of rivers but all seemed devoid of the slightest moisture or any hint of growth along their banks. 35,000 feet up may not have been ideal for such detail.

Afghanistan and Australia have a history. In the nineteenth century Afghan camels and riders opened up the new country’s desolate outback. The Ghan, a train running between Adelaide and Darwin, commemorates the connection.

Kabul passed, hidden, under our port wing and the bleak, unfor­giving terrain continued into Pakistan. Finally, Lahore, with the obvious concentric, spoked arrangement of Model Town, showed signs of life. The mountains slid away to the north, gained snow-capped peaks as the Hindu Kush became the Himalayas, which flanked us over the plains of northern India. One of the summits must have been Annapurna, another Everest but I knew not which.

Burma came and went without a trace of the fires that had dotted it on my flight back home five years before. Had they finally razed the entire jungle or had economic activity ceased with the suppression of the Saffron Revolution?

Thailand slipped by and we found ourselves over its Gulf and heading into cloud. The captain announced monsoonal rain in Singapore. We juddered down through one layer to come at the airport in a spiral from east to south to west to landing, bang on time at quarter to six, in a zero-visibility downpour. It had at least to be warm rain and certainly beat what I had escaped.

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