Welcome to my latest blog post, in which I recount my recent adventures in Beijing, China’s capital city, and the peaceful Isle of Barra on Scotland’s west coast.
Where did January go? Itâ€™s Friday night and my train is pulling out of Inverness station. This is the start of my first full weekend off in several weeks. I clocked some serious overtime in my day job last month, hence why itâ€™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. Iâ€™m not quite so tardy if I wish you a Happy Chinese New Year. Welcome to the Year of the Rooster!
Solitude in Scotland
I love solitude. I crave peace and quietÂ 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.
The hustle and bustle of China
Now you know what makes me tick, try to picture me on board a long-haul flight from Paris to Beijing last May for sevenÂ days in Chinaâ€™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!Â
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 seriousÂ air pollution. The fear of crossing the road with eight lanesâ€™ worth of cars and motorbikes approaching from the â€˜wrongâ€™ directionÂ 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.
Yes, I was approximately 5,000 miles out of my Scotland-shaped comfort zone, but â€“ do you know what? â€“ 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.
Feeling fresh and excited to be back in China, I was keen to capture some amazing sights on my travel-friendly bridge camera, and motivated to make the most of every moment. My trainâ€™s somewhere between Aviemore and Kingussie now on a dark winter’sÂ night in the Highlands, and tears have just sprung to my eyes as I conjure up my memories of China. Iâ€™d love to return.
Setting foot on the Great Wall of China is a moment Iâ€™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 â€“ a snake and a lizard. The Birdâ€™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 Iâ€™ve seen on the likes of Britainâ€™s Got Talent look tame. I felt emotional listening to beautiful, uplifting oriental singing in a Beijing park. It was satisfying to masterÂ a few Chinese symbols and navigate the subway. Also, I walked through the most spectacular thunderstorm Iâ€™ve ever witnessed.
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. Of course, it just wasnâ€™t the same.
Five Scottish islands
Summer came and went and the next adventure â€“ a weekâ€™s self-catering on the Isle of Barra â€“ soon arrived. Needless to say, it was something of a contrast to Beijing! We explored five islands: the Isle of 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. From here, it was only 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!’.
Walking, cycling, and kayaking
Twice daily the ferry sailed past our cottage in Castlebay, and we also enjoyed watching a twin propeller aeroplane land at TrÃ igh MhÃ²r, 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. On a sunny morning, we paddled in sea kayaks to a remote beach on Vatersay, and looked out over the Western Isles chain from the summit of Heaval, the highest point on the Isle of Barra. We over-compensated for the lack of carbohydrates and saturated fat in Beijing and consumed copious amounts of cake at various Hebridean cafÃ©s. I was in my element!
As the years roll by, I will always remember 2016 as being the year I travelled from Beijing to the Isle of 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, Iâ€™m quietly confident that it will be even better than the last one.
The best of both worlds
The Scottish and Chinese Thorburn contingents will come together again in April, when my brother and his fiancÃ©e 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 trainâ€™s approaching Perth now and itâ€™s time to shut down my laptop. I feel like Iâ€™ve travelled much further than the 100 or so miles between Inverness and Perth on this journey! Thanks for dropping by and I hope youâ€™ll follow my adventures as they unfold in 2017.
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