From Beijing to Barra

Where did January go? It’s Friday night and my train is pulling out of Inverness station. It’s the start of my first full weekend off in several weeks. I clocked some serious overtime in my day job last month, hence why it’s taken until February to wish you all a belated Happy New Year. Every winter I cast my mind back over the past year and look ahead to the months stretching out before me like a blank canvas. 2016 had many highlights, one of which was spending a week in Beijing. I’m not quite so tardy if I wish you a Happy Chinese New Year. Welcome to the Year of the Rooster!

I love solitude. I crave peace and quiet in the outdoors. Over the years, my pursuit of landscape photography has led me to witness and experience many beautiful and fulfilling moments, all of which will live in my mind forever. Standing on the shore of Loch Coruisk in the heart of the Skye Cuillin, listening to the call of a cuckoo high in the mountains above. A wild snowy owl in Glen Mor, on the remote northwest side of the St Kilda archipelago, miles out into the Atlantic Ocean. A herd of red deer at dawn on the frozen roadside at Lochan na h-Achlaise on Rannoch Moor, the gateway to Glen Coe. Catching a glimpse of the rare Brocken Spectre phenomenon on a misty morning on the Black Isle only a mile from home.

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The Great Wall of China at Mutianyu near Beijing

Now you know what makes me tick, try to picture me on board a long-haul flight from Paris to Beijing last May for seven days in China’s capital city (quite literally a flying visit), to spend time with my brother, who left Scotland in 2006, and his Chinese partner. I was accompanied by my parents and my partner, Mark, who was travelling abroad for the first time at the age of 42! Culturally speaking, it could hardly have felt more remote from my typical Scottish Highland/Island adventure. The hustle and bustle of 21 million people. The threat of serious air pollution. The fear of crossing the road with eight lanes’ worth of cars and motorbikes approaching from the ‘wrong’ direction  with minimal regard for pedestrian crossings. Speeding taxi drivers with no functioning seat belts in the back seat. The risk of chowing down on something decidedly non-vegetarian. The ever-present danger of a personality clash within the Thorburn clan.

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Our last night in Beijing at a Chairman Mao themed restaurant

Yes, I was approximately 5,000 miles out of my Scotland-shaped comfort zone, but – do you know what? – I loved it. I slept for longer on the plane than I do on an average week night at home and so I didn’t suffer from jetlag. I felt fresh; excited to be back in China; keen to capture some amazing sights on my travel-friendly bridge camera; and motivated to make the most of every moment. My train’s somewhere between Aviemore and Kingussie now on a dark winter’s night in the Highlands, and tears have just sprung to my eyes as I conjure up my memories of China. I’d love to return.

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My brother and my partner dwarfed by the enormity of the Bird’s Nest Stadium

Setting foot on the Great Wall of China is a moment I’ll never forget. It was a clear, warm day and the ramparts were quieter than Inverness High Street. The views were stunning and there was even some wildlife – a snake and a lizard. The Bird’s Nest Stadium brought back memories of the 2008 Olympic Games and I walked in the footsteps of history in Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. An acrobatics show made anything I’ve seen on the likes of Britain’s Got Talent look tame. I felt emotional listening to beautiful, uplifting oriental singing in a Beijing park. It was satisfying to master a few Chinese symbols and navigate the subway. I walked through the most spectacular thunderstorm I’ve ever witnessed.

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The Great Wall of China

My head was in a spin for weeks once Mark and I returned to our quiet hamlet on the Black Isle. We ate with chopsticks at our kitchen table and sought out a Chinese takeaway in Dingwall. As you might expect, it just wasn’t the same. Summer came and went and the next adventure – a week’s self-catering on the Isle of Barra – soon arrived. Needless to say, it was something of a contrast to Beijing. We explored five islands: Barra and the neighbouring island of Vatersay, connected by a causeway; the deserted island of Mingulay, abandoned in 1912; South Uist with its white beaches and purple heather; and, a new favourite, Eriskay, where we got engaged on the beach, a stone’s throw from where the S.S. Politician ran aground in 1941 with a cargo of whisky, as celebrated by the book and film ‘Whisky Galore!’.

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The Oban-Castlebay ferry and Kisimul Castle, Barra

We observed the ferry sail past our cottage in Castlebay twice daily and watched the twin propeller aeroplane land at Tràigh Mhòr, the only airport in the world where scheduled flights use a beach as the runway. We cycled everywhere, having opted to leave the car on the mainland. We paddled in sea kayaks and sunshine to a remote beach on Vatersay, and looked out over the Western Isles chain from the summit of Heaval, the highest point on Barra. We over-compensated for the lack of carbohydrates and saturated fat in Beijing and consumed copious amounts of cake at various Hebridean cafés. I was in my element!

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Cycling on Vatersay

As the years roll by, I will always remember 2016 as being the year I travelled from Beijing to Barra and my brother and I both got engaged. 2017 has a lot to live up to but, with my wedding on Harris on the horizon, I’m quietly confident that it will be even better than the last one. The Scottish and Chinese Thorburn contingents will come together again in April, when my brother and his fiancée visit. On a mini break in Ullapool on the west coast, the six of us will no doubt share memories of Beijing whilst watching the comings and goings of the Lewis ferry, calling me back to the islands. The best of both worlds.

The train’s approaching Perth now and it’s time to shut down my laptop. I feel like I’ve travelled much further than the 100 or so miles between Inverness and Perth on this journey! Thanks for dropping by and I hope you’ll follow my adventures as they unfold in 2017.

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