Thursday, September 25, 2008

Modern Jargon: How to use it to disguise your moaning and whining

Trying to get ahead but finding yourself time-poor? Then perhaps you are spending too much time with modern jargon!

Every new generation of kids and teenagers comes up with words and phrases that are new and confuse older generations, however it is now the adults that are coming up with new stuff. The trouble is that this new jargon often doesn’t make sense, even though it infiltrates modern language. I have two examples that I want to rant about, because they are really nothing more than excuses for begin miserable and trying to paint oneself as a martyr.


What does time-poor mean? Has there ever been a more annoying phrase? How has anybody got any less time in the day than anyone else? Don’t we all have the same number of minutes and hours in each day?

Yes, as you may have gathered, this is a phrase that really strikes me as inane. If there is not enough time in the day it probably means that you are trying to do too much. Most of us have a lot of choice about how much we try to fit in. So, if you are finding that there are not enough hours in the day, perhaps you need to slow down a little bit and take some time to smell the roses.

At the end of the day it’s your choice how much you take on, irrespective of whether you feel you have to or not. Learn to say no, or at least put aside time for yourself (and don’t compromise on this one!). There will always be jobs that appear to be, or at least we perceive to be, urgent and it is so easy to get caught up in the rush to achieve for achievements sake rather than for any worthwhile outcome.

Perhaps we need to slow down and accept that there are things we have to let go of. Everything is not urgent, no matter what we may think. Opportunities come and go, but the chances are that more opportunities will come along. We don’t have to fight every battle that comes our way either, the confidence to let an issue go frees up time we can use for our own enjoyment. We can be selective. Put simply, if you find you are struggling to fit everything into your day, don’t try to do so much!

And above all, don’t use the phrase time-poor, it sounds like the workaholics justification for not allowing time for themselves to enjoy life.

Getting Ahead

Getting ahead of what? Exactly how will anyone know when they are ‘ahead’? Who will they be ahead of, and how? I hear this phrase so often and I still wonder what, or who, the users of this phrase are competing with.

The question arises – if you are ahead of someone, on your self-generated scale, surely there are probably people you are ‘behind’. And if you are ‘behind’ people, can you possibly say that you are ‘ahead’? It makes my head hurt.

By all means set goals which you want to achieve, but to use the term getting ahead is tantamount to saying that you are somehow not up to scratch and struggling to keep up. It is a way of reinforcing that you are somehow inferior to others and cannot be good for self-esteem. Is that any sort of way to live a life? I expect a lot people trying to get ahead also use the term time-poor.

Negative Growth

Sorry, this is just drivel. What is negative growth? Growth is an expansion of a substance of a network or some other ‘thing’. It cannot be negative. The phrase is contradictory. What people who use this word mean to say is something like, shrinkage, or contraction, and they usually mean this in relation to a business or the economy.

So when treasury or a business executive say this annoying phrase, they are doing everything they can not to mention other words, but this is pointless. Everyone knows what they mean if they utter this phrase – we’re going backwards.

This is symptomatic of our fear of a bad result, our fear of failure, of admitting that we might not have succeeded. It’s pathetic really. And it’s also very bad English, irritatingly bad English. So economists, executives and bureaucrats, please stop using this phrase.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Travel: Walking therapy on the Bibbulman Track

It doesn’t take long to drive from Walpole to Albany, on the south coast of Western Australia, in fact not much more than a couple of hours. Along the way there are many green fields with, depending on the season, open water lying on the clay-rich soils and reflecting the skies above, or herds of cattle strolling trough the grass. There are also many opportunities to drive through majestic karri forests, many invitations to turn off the main road and visit an inlet or a beach, and plenty of opportunities to enjoy the many other tourist attractions.

There are wineries that offer cellar-door tasting, and producers of fresh fruits and vegetables. There are also numerous art galleries and restaurants. In addition to this, there are offers of recreational opportunities including walking among the treetops of the karri forest, riding horses, swimming, fishing, and four-wheel driving. All along the way are chalets and farm-stays that provide pleasant accommodation. Invitations to adventures or pleasures are signposted on the side of the road.

Yet, on the horizon to the south lie the coastal hills. They seem so far away, but they lie only a few kilometres distant. Karri forests offering shade and mystery lie to the north of the road. Narrow access roads leave the highway on an irregular basis. They lead to small car parks and walk trails hidden behind the dense foliage or in distant dunes.

This method of visiting the south coast is like watching a slideshow. One minute you are in a forest, the next you are in a winery, the next you are at the coast. Then there is a fleeting image of an orchard or some farmland, or perhaps a picturesque town. None of these images stay with you for very long, it is all so superficial. The experience you get is two-dimensional – a pretty picture, some nice colours, a few tastes and smells, but no real warmth. All too soon you find yourself back home with some fast fading memories and a vague feeling that there was more to see and do, or that an important experience was missed.

However, walking through the landscape is a very different experience from driving through it. When a person walks a track, they become part of the landscape and have the chance to experience it as it changes. When safely cocooned inside a car, coach or train, or racing through on a motorbike, an individual is isolated from that which they see.

While many shy away from the weather, preferring the cocoon, it is the feel of the rain as it hits your skin, the sound of the rain hitting a jacket or dropping on to the leaves of surrounding trees, which indicate you are within the landscape. It is the feel and sound of the wind tugging at clothes or rustling the through the vegetation that tells you that you are in a dynamic environment. And it is the smell of freshly dampened vegetation or the approaching rain, which lets you know you are in a three-dimensional place, and not simply looking as you would at a postcard.

Walking takes time, and this can be a problem to those who have convinced themselves that time is in short supply. Time is a precious commodity, too much of which that should not be wasted on the mundane or unenjoyable, but should instead be used for the fulfilment of life and the chance to immerse oneself in enjoyable experiences. The phrase ‘Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time’ comes to mind. Taking time to walk puts the emphasis on enjoying the journey rather than achieving the goal. This slows us down and encourages some reflection and thought outside the screaming urban centres, where we are bombarded thousands of messages each day from a multitude of sources, asking us to make decisions, telling us we have to achieve quickly or we might miss out, or that we are falling behind in an attempt to achieve the ‘perfect’ life.

So, if you drive between Walpole and Albany you will, all too soon, arrive back into the maelstrom of everyday life. Two hours and it’s gone; you’re in Albany looking for a hotel. But if you take a walk on the Bibbulman Track that runs between these two towns, you will experience the forests, the coastal dunes, the beaches and the inlets (in fact the track runs from Perth to Albany, a distance of eight hundred kilometres or more, and this just the last leg). You will find secluded huts where you can simply put your feet up and enjoy the views, remote benches overlooking majestic coastal cliffs, and dense forests that hide a multitude of wildlife rarely seen by most people.

The track asks that the journey not be rushed. It insists that you do not brush off the views, the smells, and changes in the weather and light. You can’t close windows, turn on the lights, or turn on the air-conditioning. It demands that those who walk its length cast off the shackles of urban life and surrender to the whims of Mother Nature. It presents a chance to cleanse the mind and body of stress; to return to that peaceful place we all need to go to reclaim our sanity and our humanity.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Sport: Does Olympic Gold cost too much? - Not really

There is more to life than money! This is a phrase that is heard a great deal, and is often cynically attributed only to those who already have money. But whether it comes from the mouth of the wealthy or not, it is true. This brings me to the debate about funding for Olympic athletes.

There are a lot of positive impacts of having a strong sporting team representing the country, that are not easily measurable in economic terms. The same can be said for funding other activities such as the arts and public festivals. However, I will use the Olympics as an example as it is current.

The figures that have been touted about the cost of each gold medal won at the Olympics that range (from memory) up to $50 million, sound large, but there is very little detail about what is being counted in this figure. It’s a bit like saying the cost of the navy rescuing a yachtsmen is ‘X’ number of dollars without clarifying that this money includes wages that would have been paid anyway, fuel that was going to be used anyway, the goodwill of the nation whose yachtsman was plucked out of the ocean etc. The other option is to cost such an activity in terms of additional money that had to be spent over and above what would be spent in normal circumstances. It’s all about how people choose to calculate the figures.

So, when trying to apportion dollars to our Olympic performance we need to separate what is spent over and above our spending on grass roots sporting activity, coaches and athletes who turn out for domestic events that would happen in some form or another. Making sensational claims about the cost of medals often appears to come from those who don’t, or refuse to, see the wider benefits of investment in sport in physical and mental health benefits. This is a proper use for public money.

What is often left out of such calculations, because of the difficulty of putting dollar values on them, are benefits including the joy many people get out of seeing their athletes perform on an international stage, or the pride felt when an athlete wins in their chosen field. These can last for days and keep give people something to be happy about that might distract them from the monotony of everyday life (although this can be accompanied by the irritation of overly nationalistic television coverage). The better people feel, the more likely they will be

In addition to this the Olympics provide something that young athletes can aspire to and is a way of bringing people together as a nation. In the current climate where there is mortgage stress, worries about climate change, problems with social groups, and numerous other pressing concerns, the value of this should not be underestimated.

The intangible benefits of investment into sport, and the arts for that matter, should not be ignored. Also, given that the returns are difficult to quantify and are of benefit to the wider community, it appears that public money is appropriate for this purpose.

Out athletes, providing they are successful, can do very well out of this too, but if they brighten people’s days, then I do not think that we should begrudge them their success. That would be very small-minded indeed. And we should also acknowledge that many of our sporting stars also contribute a great deal through their work in supporting charitable organisations. This would not have the same impact of they were not successful.

So, I think we should be comfortable that public money is spent on training these athletes, although I would not necessarily be keen on increasing the current expenditure (we do very well for a nation of 20 million people). The insecurities that are coming out because Australia got less medals than the English, reflect poorly on this country.

In conclusion, the funding of sports and arts needs to be maintained, and it has to be acknowledged that these activities provide a great deal of benefit to our society. It does nobody any favours to carp at the current expenditure on the Olympic team, we should instead be happy that the we got the great results we did and that the athletes provided us with many moments that that will be remembered for years to come.

Travel: From Olgii to Ulaan Bataar

We had just spent three weeks travelling around Mongolia, enjoying the scenery and interaction with the locals. True to form I had just had the obligatory traveller’s bout of ‘Montezumah’s Revenge’, or whatever the local term for a stomach upset was. Now this part of the trip was over and I was looking forward to a trip with my wife to the north of Mongolia, to visit the nomadic Tsaartan people. We were in the regional town of Olgii, having spent a night there after clambering over some mountains to the west, and were looking forward to getting back to Ulaan Bataar and spending a day looking around the city.

Getting to the airport for our flight back to Ulaan Bataar was no major operation, now that my stomach had settled down! We were up and breakfasted by 6:30am and at the airport by 7:00am. We milled around aimlessly until they opened the small terminal for checking in baggage. It was a long, drawn out process that appeared at the same time chaotic and ordered. It’s hard to explain! Anyhow, we eventually got our luggage in, but no sooner had this occurred than we started hearing rumours that the flight had been delayed. This, of course, turned out to be a rumour and not true at all. Our flight had not been delayed, it had been cancelled! There was some story about how the Turkish ambassador was flying through the airspace, and that all other flights had been cancelled for security reasons. How important could an ambassador be? Surely not so important to close national airspace and ground all other flights in a region! However, apparently this was the case.

We were told that they would try to get a new flight for 7pm that evening, so we all had a reason for hope. It did mean that we were going to miss our free afternoon in the capital, but we would have the next day do some sightseeing before our flight to Moron. By now problem number two had become apparent. Our checked in luggage had been locked away in the airport and was not reachable, so we were left with whatever we had with us in our hand luggage.

With nothing else to do we spent an enjoyable few hours in the town of Olgii where we visited the Khazak Museum and wandered around the city centre looking at the local rugs, two of which we bought. However, there was only so much that we could see and do in such a small town and so, other than the odd passing conversation with local who spoke English, we were soon thinking about lunch.

Our guide had excelled again successfully negotiated the use of the Gers (traditional Mongolian tents) with the owner of the Ger camp, that we had stayed in the previous night, and so we headed back there for lunch and an afternoon rest. As the camp was on the Khovd River, which happened to be flowing rather quickly, we had our meal sat in the grass watching the local birdlife prey on the poor old fish in the river. After this there was precious little else to do other than complete our diary entries and laze about in the sun. This was certainly not an unpleasant experience, but by mid-afternoon we still had not heard about our flight and a vague suspicion was creeping into our minds that there was no flight coming for us that night.

We spent much of our time watching two yaks that had somehow managed to get through the torrent of water that was the river, on to an island mid-stream. They seemed to be content to stay there and we took some solace from this, after if they were content to be stranded and in isolation, perhaps we could relax too. It soon came to pass that the yaks were considered an omen for our own predicament and that until the yaks moved from their island, we too were going to be stranded in Olgii.

On a brighter note, I did manage to skip a stone twelve times on the river, a fact that was doubted by other members of the party, as I had no witnesses to confirm my momentous achievement. However the lack of other entertainment options meant that I took the opportunity to invite a whole group down to witness my attempt to repeat the feat and promptly skipped a stone fourteen times. The point was proven and another half hour was occupied with further attempts at glory. It was certainly a highlight of the afternoon.

There was some brief excitement when a plane came in to land in the late afternoon, however after speeding off dramatically in dust cloud, our guide returned with the news that this had been a regular flight in from Kazakhstan and would not be taking us out of here. By six o’clock that evening we were still sitting in our Ger camp and had learned that our flight was indeed not going to arrive that evening and would be leaving the next day. This caused some consternation among those people who were scheduled to fly out of Mongolia the following day; however, they were all re-booked successfully on alternative flights. Thankfully there were no more guests due that night so we had use of the gers once again. At about this time we learned that some of the local goats had got into one of the gers and had started eating the bedding. It was all happening!

Despite the assurances that we would indeed be on the flight the next day there were still some doubters and doomsayers predicting that we would be stuck in Olgii for some time, but to me the omens seemed promising. Our two yaks, for so long stranded on their island, had now successfully reached the comparative safety of the riverbank and were wandering away towards the town. To me this led to no doubt that we were indeed flying out the next day and I could sleep easily during the coming night. ‘Don’t be an idiot,’ I was told!

So I was left to lie on my bed and reminisce about the day that was now coming to an end. I remembered how I spent hours watching the ants and other insects climbing up and down the frames of the beds and gers and deliberating on the plight of the yaks that had been stranded. It had not quite reached the heights of a couple of days previously, where I had spent the best part of an afternoon watching the raindrops hitting my tent flap and forming little rivulets as they succumbed to the forces of gravity, but it was close to it! And then there was a summons to the main ger where had our meals.

Our guide, Dashka, had again moved heaven and earth to organise some entertainment above and beyond the call of duty. We arrived in the ger to find the premier traditional dancer and throat singer for the Kazakh region, and his son, ready to perform for us. So in the soft light of candles we were treated to some throat singing and some traditional dancing, including a performance of the ‘eagle dance’. How Dashka had managed to organise this at such short notice I have no idea, but it was a magical performance. I certainly went to bed happy and content that night.

The next morning we were successful in finding a plane to fly us to Ulaan Bataar. It flew in sometime around mid-day and that meant we might even make our flight to Moron that evening, which was to leave at six-thirty. However, we were told that this would be tight and that we ‘should’ make it time!! We weren’t exactly brimming with confidence, but then again, Dashka had done a good job so far.

The aircraft that we flew in was an old Antonov 24 and to start us off on our journey it felt like it bounced three times before it managed to get airborne. Some further inspection revealed that there was a family sitting on top of bags at the rear of the plane in a luggage compartment. There was no wasting space on this flight! Being an old twin-prop plane it wasn’t going to be able to get us to the capital without a refuelling stop after two hours. The landscape we flew over was dry and barren desert with the odd lake dotted here and there and I wondered at what town we would be landing to refuel. Were there any towns out here? That question was soon to be answered as we began descending.

We landed at a non-descript airstrip and all got out to stretch our legs while the plane was attended to. In the distance we could see what looked like a substantial town but there was no indication of where we were. The sign on the airport building was in Cyrillic form, or some other form that I could not understand.
‘Where are we?’ I asked Dashka.
‘Moron,’ he replied.
‘Moron?’ I repeated. ‘Isn’t this where we need to fly to tonight? Can we stay here and wait for our luggage?’ Our luggage that we had left in Ulaan Bataar was to be reunited with us today.
Unfortunately, Dashka told me, no-one was allowed to disembark from the flight at this point as it was only a fuel stop and not a scheduled stop but we were all entitled to our ‘in-flight’ meal. This was served in the airport building and consisted of a rather nice combination of mutton and assorted cooked vegetables.

Then once more we were in the air heading towards our destination, hoping to arrive in time for our flight to Moron. It was going to be a close run thing too. We landed in Ulaan Bataar at 5:45pm. This was followed by a nervous wait for our luggage at the carousel, before we were rushed through to meet our new tour leader and check in for our flight back to where we had just left. Thankfully we made it, and were soon in the air and on our way to start the next leg of our trip.

Travel: Horse riding for beginners - Mongolian style

In a fit of eccentricity my wife and I decided to go on a vacation to Mongolia. After all, it is the place that produced Ghengis Khan, Kublai Khan and Tamerlaine, as well as having been the centre of one of the largest empires that the world has seen. After the initial three weeks of festivals, mountains, lakes and open plains, we left our group and went off to see the remote and nomadic Tsaartan people, who live in the extreme north of the country with their herds of reindeer. This required a significant horse trek, and I had done next to no horse riding. I looked forward with some excitement to the 60 kilometres of travel that awaited us. Needless to say the Tsaartan, being nomadic, were not where they had been expected, and the ride extended to over 120 kilometres!

Day one consisted of an introductory riding lesson. I had been told that no previous experience was necessary, however I must admit to feeling some trepidation.

‘Have you ever ridden a horse before?’ the trek leader asked me through the interpreter.
‘Uh…no not really. Well once, when I was about nine years old I did, but only for about 15 minutes.’ I replied.

‘Never mind. It’s easy. Just get on the horse and we’ll go from there.’ I proceeded to get myself up into the saddle and found a set of leather reins being put in my hand. They were more like shoelaces in my opinion.

‘OK Peter, tug left and right to steer, and tug back to stop.’ I nodded and made some tugging gestures to show that I had understood.

‘To get going say “Cho” and give the horse a good jab in the ribs with your heels. If you want to go faster just dig the ribs some more and say “Cho” in a louder voice.’

I waited for some more instruction, but I waited in vain.

Not having any other option, off I went, or rather, off I tried to go. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts at getting my trusty steed to move, one of the local horsemen came to give me a hand. It was then that I learned to trot as we caught up with the rest of the group. To encourage me further, one of the guides was thrown from her horse. However, we don’t talk about that because you just don’t fall off horses in Mongolia, and anyhow she was ok. So no worries!

We rode for six hours until we reached our campsite. On the way I learned how to cross rivers, holding on for dear life. At the end of the day it was compulsory to open a bottle of vodka and share its contents. So that’s what I did.

Day two started with sore knees and some excitement. This was the day that we were going to see the Tsaartan people. After breakfast I got back on the horse, which was now looking at me in a scornful way. I could swear it was smirking, and I knew that it was thinking, ‘Right sonny Jim, you thought you had a tough time yesterday, but just you wait. Hahahahahaha!’ Perhaps this paranoia was just part of the learning experience.

We rode a short way before we entered the forest. It was dense and muddy, and downright boggy in areas. The path wound its way up and down very steep and slippery slopes between the trees. Some trees had spaces of approximately one metre between them through which the path went. My horse, bless him, thought it was entertaining to try scraping me off at these points. I had to either mastering basic steering, or be good at putting my knees back into place. It was usually the latter. It was an evil horse!

Once out of the forest we proceeded up precipitous rocky slopes. I tried to ignore the long drop to my left. I prayed my horse’s instinct for self-preservation was greater than its desire to send me tumbling into the raging mountain river some hundreds of metres below.

Of course, there was no let up after this. Just as we were nearing the Tsaartan camp, we could see it in the distance, we encountered severe boggy ground. My horse found itself up to its backside in the mud on many occasions. It was impossible to tell which bits of ground had a covering of six inches of mud, and which hid pools a metre or more in depth. At this point my horse decided to ignore my yelling and screaming, preferring to stand still and wonder which way to go next. My local guide came to my rescue and found me an equally boggy and hazardous route. This further ‘cemented’ my relationship with my horse, however I was grateful to be led by an experienced horseman during this, and some of the more challenging parts of this journey.
Despite this, we did make it to the Tsaartan camp. However, time was of the essence, so after a short break for lunch and some photo opportunities with cute reindeer, some entertaining repartee with the local people, and a chat with the local shaman, it was time to leave. Of course I now had an idea of what to expect on the return journey.

At the end of the day I resisted the urge to utter sentences like, ‘Ahhhh my knees’ or, ‘I have chafing’ or, ‘I can’t walk anymore’. No, instead I walked confidently to my tent showing no signs of protesting joints. To prove my fitness I went through two or three rounds of traditional Mongolian wrestling with my guide. I think that being dumped on my back a few times may even have loosened my aching muscles and realigned my spine.

As day three dawned I tried to ignore my aching limbs and back, now unsure whether the wrestling had been wise, and stoically mounted my horse once more. I wondered whether my look of supreme confidence fooled anybody. Our guide was obviously fooled as he took me for a canter as we neared the end of the journey. He tried to teach me to grip with my thighs and half stand in the saddle like the locals did. I tried, but not having spent a lifetime in the saddle it lasted for only a few minutes before my protesting muscles won the argument. We eventually slowed down and came to our waiting vehicle. It was a day-and-half drive back to Moron airport, but I was, by now, looking forward to getting off my horse and relaxing in a seat. Without me on its back my horse quickly distanced itself from me to avoid the shame being associated with a mere novice. In fact novice was probably too advanced a definition for the horse’s liking.

So the ride finally had come to an end. Despite the aches and pains and moments of terror, it was a great journey! Where else could I have gained such varied experience of riding in such a short period of time? The goal of reaching the reindeers had been attained, but it was the journey that stuck in my mind. With no previous experience, my wife and I had ridden over 100km. Each evening we had sat around a fire waiting for the night’s chill as the sun slowly fell behind the mountains, which engulfed us in their shadows and. We shared vodka and food with our guides and gazed up at the endless clear night sky. We rode in glorious sunshine over land seen by very few people, and we had plenty of laughs along the way. I even learned some Mongolian wrestling moves, so next time I won’t be such a pushover. The memory of the aches and pains quickly fades when I remember those three days. In fact, what aches, pains and physiotherapy bills?

Travel: Changing Planes at Beijing Airport

On our way to Mongolia we had to change planes at Beijing, as well as changing airlines. Now this may seem, at first glance, a fairly simple procedure. That is certainly what we thought as we left our Singapore Airlines flight secure in the knowledge that our luggage had already been booked right through to Ulaan Bataar. All we had to do was find the transfer desk. The transfer at Beijing was to take under two hours and I considered that this was a good thing considering that I have experienced the boredom of a five or six hour period of transit on numerous occasions. Just remember that, less than two hours was a good thing. After all, the last thing we wanted to do was spend hours hanging around a departure lounge.

After disembarking from our flight and finding the transfer desk, we encountered our first problem. We were politely told that this desk was only for those people transferring onto Air China flights and that we had to go further down the hall. We were given very vague directions and ended up at a point where we were clearly heading towards the exit from what we thought was the ‘arrivals’ area. Realising that we could not possibly be exiting the airport without a visa, we asked a meandering member of staff where we should go, and were summarily directed back towards the international transfers counter. We presented out tickets once again, and again there was much shaking of heads and consternation before we were once more told that we needed to go ‘down to the end of the hall’. Once more we were pointed in the direction of the exit from the ‘arrivals’ area. Our explanation that we had no visa was brushed aside as this apparently did not matter!

So off we went on our way down to the desks marked ‘Arrivals’. On our way we passed a counter where we noticed that we could, if we wished, purchase a visa for China. Was this perhaps a good idea? We gave it serious thought before deciding that it was probably unnecessary. We were, however, still nervous as we approached the counters that marked the way out towards immigration. We showed our passports and air-tickets to a man who showed no real interest in them, barely even glancing at them, before waving us through. That was easy! What now? I can say that at this point I felt a wave of relief. Perhaps this wouldn’t be too bad!

We found ourselves standing in another hall that had counters where people were queuing, but they all appeared to be for Chinese nationals. We walked all the way up to the end and back again before we saw a counter that had ‘d/p’ above it. We took a punt that this meant departures and went up to the bored-looking policewoman sitting there. She politely told us that we needed to fill in an Arriving Passengers form before we could come through. We retreated and filled out the little blue form (one that we had declined when the cabin crew had handed them around on our last flight as we were not stopping in China), hurriedly checking our flight and passport numbers. Our passports were then scrutinised and our blue forms taken as we went past her. All this time the clock kept inching towards our departure time.

Confusion then returned as we went the only way possible, which led us down to the baggage claim area. Once down there we searched in vain for a transfer desk. There was none. Two circuits of the area re-affirmed this. There could be no option other than to go through customs and into China. But surely this was not an option without a visa?

The lack of visa turned out not to be a problem (they appeared to have a liberal approach to visas and other bureaucratic paperwork – was this really China?), but before we could go through we had to fill out another form to declare that we had nothing to declare. We waited in a queue for what seemed like an eternity, constantly glancing at our watches as the time ticked by. Once we had handed in our forms and shown our passports yet again, we went through into China. Then we had to work out where to go to check in to our Mongolian International Airlines flight.

The main hall of the airport was full of people meandering or hurrying in various directions, and it was not immediately obvious where we had to go to find the check-in area. By now it was almost an hour since we had disembarked from our inbound flight and we were keen to check in as soon as we could for our next flight. Perhaps two hours had not been enough? I was beginning to think that we might be in danger of missing our flight. I could hear the clock ticking away in my mind and I must confess to feeling the merest hint of mild panic. I tried to ignore it.

After much confusion we found out that the departure lounge and check-in area was on the floor above us. So we made our way up the escalators to another big hall where we once again had to fill out a form, this time to declare that we were not taking anything out of the country. On top of this there was another form for departing passengers, but by now my passport and flight numbers were indelibly imprinted on my brain so there was no need for opening the passport yet again. Yet more queuing had to be done at this point, each minute seeming like an eternity. This was the time when someone in front of us decided that they didn’t understand, or simply didn’t like, what they were being told by an official, leaving me looking on in an agonised state of half-panic mixed with a desire not to look angry and upset myself, while the argument ensued; all the time watching as my departure time moved ever nearer. After a few minutes, which seemed like hours, an official, who looked like a military officer, decided that we were looking stressed enough and called us over to check our forms. They were in order, and we were waved through. Another hurdle had been overcome!

We wiped the sweat from our brows and carried on, soon finding ourselves at the check-in area. Thankfully it did not take too long to find the appropriate desk for our flight. To our initial relief there was still a substantial line of people waiting to check in, but it soon became apparent that the line was barely moving. Unfortunately the clock was still moving and I once more began to wonder whether we would get to our flight or whether we would end up watching it soaring gracefully into the sky. Thankfully this also occurred to staff members, who made sorties from their positions to tag the baggage before it got to the desk, significantly increasing the speed of the process. This worked and we were soon checked in, although there was some consternation that we didn’t have baggage with us. However we managed to convince them it was checked through from Perth and would be already on the plane. At least we hoped it would!

It was getting tight with time, about fifteen minutes until departure, so we hurried through the departure lounge, only to be met with the passport control area. Of course there was a passport control area, there’s one at every airport, but in our haste we saw it as just one more obstacle put in our way in an attempt to stop us catching our flight. There wasn’t another flight until the next day, and we didn’t fancy trying to catch up with our guide who might be half-way into the Gobi Desert by then! There was yet another form to be filled in and a nervous wait in a queue, waiting to be ‘checked’, as we watched the minutes tick by for yet another agonising period of time. Common sense told us that we were among lots of people waiting for the flight and that it wouldn’t leave without us…but you never know, do you!

We needn’t have worried, as once we found the appropriate gate with about three minutes to spare, we were left to wait for another 25 minutes before boarding. Of course we had to the same in reverse when we came back through Beijing on our way home, but being ‘experienced’ in the process we managed to get through in about half an hour, even getting a smile from the same policewoman who was once again sat at the ‘d/p’ desk. We were able to look at nervous transit passengers with an air of superior knowledge and comfort, and patiently explain the process to those panicky and worried faces that hung on our every word like it was gold. Five forms and a few queues later we were on our flight to Singapore, with, I must add, our luggage, which apparently had no dramas at all on its round trip from Perth to Mongolia and back.