l a n g s h i

[ 20:19 friday 23 november 2018 – langshi village, guanxi province, china ]

the night air is mild, humid, a faint perfume of moist soil. i stand at the base of a flight of stone steps, at the top of which is the house where alejandro and I are staying. in front of me stretches the wide expanse of the li river, sensed more than seen in the darkness. the water tickles and laps around the step on which i stand.

tonight’s full moon hovers below the horizon. its glow in the eastern sky revealing the mountains on the far side of the river like gigantic ghosts, rising from the water in sheer cliffs a thousand feet high. for  fifty miles in every direction the landscape is dotted with narrow, pointed peaks, rising into the air like huge anthills. these are the so-called “karsts” for which this region of guanxi is famed.

behind me the village of langshi and its two hundred inhabitants are already sleeping. the village supports itself catching fish from the river and growing crops on the abundant flood plain. the strip of fertile land between the river and the mountains is divided into neat parcels of oranges, pomelo, banana, greens, sweet potato and ground nuts.

the house in which we’re staying was built in the qing dynasty, most likely the early eighteen hundreds, for one of the village’s wealthier families. the exterior walls are made from dressed stone, whereas most of the older houses are constructed from layers of rounded river stones bonded with mud. the roof of rounded grey tiles rests on timber beams, held up by four massive pine trunks.

at the centre of the house is a double height reception room that opens onto private rooms at two levels. at one end of the hall is an ornately carved wooden gallery. at the other end carved wooden screens fold open to reveal a sunken courtyard. the house forms part of a cluster of six houses in similar style linked by shared courtyards and alleyways. i have no evidence, but i would guess the complex grew out from this central house over time as the family expanded. the mesh of semi-public reception spaces, courtyards and private rooms would have supported a complex social hierarchy.

this is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever stayed in. we have the entire place to ourselves. indeed alejandro and i are the only tourists in the village. other than our house there is nowhere for an outsider to stay. neither is there a restaurant, a cafe or a shop.

this my first visit to china. it is an overwhelming privilege to be granted this possibility to experience an agricultural community whilst it remains almost perfectly pristine and untouched by tourism. but the experience is also heartbreaking, as we are witnessing something that i fear will soon be gone. the government is vigorously developing tourism along this stretch of the river. the current generation of farmers is likely to be the last in a chain that stretches back five thousand years.

today is alejandro’s birthday. we got up before dawn, walked through the village and waited with the schoolchildren for the ferry to take us across the river. from there we arranged places on one of the outboard-powered rafts, traditionally made from bamboo boughs lashed together, but nowadays made from moulded plastic in the shape of bamboo.

as the sun rose we set off on the fifteen mile journey down the river to the market town of xingping. we spent several hours exploring the mediaeval streets and the sprawling hyper-active market, which seems to permeate the entirety of the new town. after that we hiked back through the farmland and forest bordering the river back to langshi, where we arrived shortly after dark.

yesterday we went for a shorter hike up the mountain behind the village, following the path used by goatherds. the steep slope is covered by tall trees, interspersed with outcrops of granite. with the sunlight filtering through the feathery branches of the trees it was like being in a fairyland.

when we reached the top we stopped and sat down to admire the view. as we sat there i asked alejandro if he would marry me, and presented the silver ring i’d brought from london.  he said yes!

: c :

e q u i l i b r a r

[ 18:49 saturday 4 august 2018 – near broxbourne, hertfordshire ]

seated on the grass at the edge of a lake. droplets of water fall from my hair and run in silver trails down my body. my breathing is quickened from the exertion of swimming. even at this hour the sun is fierce, settling towards the horizon in a cloudless sky. above me willow leaves shake and rustle gently in a half-hearted breeze. the edge of the lake sparkles with a thousand azure damselflies, clasping the reeds that poke and sway above the water, each one pointing its body identically towards the sun in mysterious alignment.

this year i’m working as intensely as at any point in my life. one project has been particularly demanding. to keep myself in balance i’ve been trying to intersperse work with other activities. sometimes if there’s a gap between meetings i’ll throw the kayak in the water and paddle up the canal and back before starting again. or after a long stint at the screen i’ll bike up to hackney marshes to a curving section of the river lea, then swim against the current as hard as i can with the water weeds rippling at my belly. the lake where i’m sitting now has become a favourite escape at weekends. within an hour of closing my front door i can be here, far from the city, plunging into the dark water with not a soul in sight.

alongside these local escapes the year has also been punctuated with travels further afield; some for projects, others purely for pleasure. the spring brought trips to montenegro, helsinki, chamonix, cornwall and the basque country. summer took me to california, paris, warsaw, corsica and (again) cornwall. the next few months will see me in berlin, sailing with dad in cornwall, granada, california (again), gdansk and my very first visit to china. more and more of these journeys are in the company of alejandro, who’s been brightening my life for a year and a half now.

the strategy has worked wonders. most days i feel energised and ready to face the challenges ahead. on the occasional days when i feel weighed down, all it takes is a smile or laugh from alejandro to lift my spirits again.

time for one last swim, then i’ll head home and resume battle.

: c :

m o n t e n e g r o

[ 23:54 saturday 20 january 2018 – hotel splendid, zavala, montenegro ]

since thursday night i’ve been staying in this luxury hotel on montenegro’s jaggedly beautiful coast. the british council invited me to give a speech about the trampery for an audience of government officials and entrepreneurs from the balkan countries. i enjoy missions like this which offer a short, intense experience of a new place and interesting conversations with people working there. the speech was yesterday and went well. i decided to take an extra day to explore before returning to london.

it’s extremely rare that i stay in a place like this. usually when i travel i get a flat, or a room in someone’s apartment, or i stay with friends. there is something about the anonymity of large hotels that i find dispiriting. but being here in this cosseting environment for the last couple of days has been strangely pleasurable. at meal times i just wander into the restaurant and pick whatever i want from a buffet. in the spa i can spend hours swimming lengths in the pool then let my mind drift in the succession of saunas and steam rooms. everything is effortless. i feel as if i am floating, weightless. if i stayed longer it would start to drive me crazy but for this brief burst it’s delicious.

right now i’m in my room, all polished marble and carved wood, reclining on the gigantic bed with the laptop resting on my thighs. most of the room’s lights are off, just a dim golden glow from lamps discretely hidden in the carved wall panelling. at the end of the room sliding glass doors open onto a balcony. the doors are slightly open, admitting the shush of waves from the beach and a hint of the crisp night air.

this afternoon i walked along the coast to the old town of budva, one of the oldest settlements on the adriatic coast. it was successively a military outpost for greeks, romans, venetians, austrians and italians before becoming a popular tourist resort as part of yugoslavia and now the independent montenegro. the weather has been moody and grey with clouds swirling over the mountains, a heavy swell from the sea and sporadic showers. the conditions served to heighten the already-melancholic air of an tourist resort out of season, so i enjoyed exploring all the more for the drizzle.

the old town of budva shares the essential characteristics of many other ancient coastal settlements around the mediterranean. a ring of defensive walls (venetian in this case), a labyrinth of narrow marble-paved alleyways, a church and citadel at the centre, all ordinary businesses replaced by cafes and trinket shops. today thanks to the weather the place was deserted so i had the magical sense the whole old town was there just for my pleasure.

this afternoon while exploring i was taking photographs with my trusty rolleiflex and found myself undergoing a rather sad rite of passage. for twenty years, since 1998, i have loyally been using the same film stock: fujichrome provia 400. i love the richness of its pigment, the tight grain structure of its emulsion and its incredible tolerance for low light. the final point is particularly important since i dislike flash. until 2013 i used the film in 35mm format with canon SLRs. then i bought the rollei and switched to 120mm format, but continued using the same film.

since 2000 the rise of digital photography has relentlessly eaten away at the economics of film manufacture. gradually each manufacturer has reduced its range (or in some cases disappeared entirely). in summer 2013, just as i switched to medium format, fujichrome announced it was ceasing production of provia 400. for the last four years i have been buying up remaining stocks of the 400 from further and further afield. evenetually japan was the only place where rolls could still be found. then several months ago the final sources dried up and i began to run down my last remaining boxes.

this afternoon, sheltering from the rain beneath a tree, all alone in the little square behind budva’s orthodox church, i loaded my final roll of provia 400 into the rollei. i realise i shouldn’t be so sentimental about these things, but it felt like greeting a dear friend for the last time. i couldn’t have wished for a more melancholy and beautiful scene to mark the end of this little thread in my life. now i suppose i shall have to choose a new film.

: c :