The scene: Singapore Airlines B777 , Economy class ,Singapore – Frankfurt – Friday 28th September 2012
The long-haul daylight – 13:55 out of Singapore, bound for Copenhagen via Frankfurt. 12 glorious hours in a window seat watching the world go by. Admittedly 40K is not quite 1K but it will do – SQ has 3-3-3 on the 777 and there’s a reasonable amount of room.
North over Malaysia, reading ‘The Glass Palace,’ having finished ‘The Sheltering Desert’ on the previous flight from Labuan, via Kota Kinabalu and KL to Singapore. A glimpse of the drilling rig ‘Transocean Richardson,’ anchored off Port Dickson, to where we had towed it 2 years ago from Angola. It hasn’t moved since. Further north, another gap in the cloud reveals a handful of the Andaman islands – a view lost on most of my fellow passengers; mine is one of the few window blinds still open.
A good Thai curry is served for lunch and afterwards, crossing the Bay of Bengal, I switch from reading about Burma to watching about India; given the location, ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ is an obvious choice. I keep the blind open to see the bar-straight Indian coast. Central India is green, plenty of rice paddies, sporadic towns, and with the smooth curves of railway lines crossing the more jagged paths of roads. We are well south of the Himalayas today and as the film ends we are over the drier north west. It’s irrigated valleys with towns on rough hills. Over the desert to the Pakistan border and the irrigated valley of the Indus, listening to Vivaldi and Beethoven as we make a turn north to overfly Afghanistan instead of Iran, while all along a steady stream of drinks, ice cream, fruit, sandwiches and rolls is brought past by Singapore girls.
The crumpled mountains of the North-West Frontier – rifted and folded. Straight lines of stratified rock tumble over valleys, getting more and more wrinkled as we cross into Afghanistan. Deep valleys, with barren, rocky steep mountains. It makes me want to get out and walk it – wild and inaccessible; quite how anyone thinks it is governable is beyond me. Occasionally a broad, water-carved valley breaks the narrow, straight rifted ones. Small villages surrounded by strange-looking holes – what are they? Wells? Who knows…the ruggedness does not stop until we cross into Turkmenistan near a desert confluence of two rivers. More desert and the cotton-irrigation schemes that date back to Soviet times and that have emptied the Aral Sea. A huge, dry area criss-crossed by canals; it looks as though partly at least it is still in operation. Approaching Ashkabad, the sky turns to wispy cloud and I go back to the book until we get close to the Caspian, with hazy views down to the last of the desert and mountains, crossing the coast near the Turkmen / Kazak border heading straight for Baku. Baku looks quite nice if you don’t mind a view of oil platforms from the beach, though I missed spotting the crumbling remains of the Soviet-era offshore city further out to sea.
We keep south of the Caucasus ridge and the Russian border; the green mountains here are essentially a continuation of the dusty ones east of the sea, and it doesn’t take too much imagination to link them onto the Carpathians further west, and the Alps. Past Tblisi and the sun was still up on the higher peaks – which one was Mount Elbrus? Each one looked higher and more Elbrus-like than the last, though I think it was one of those closer to the Black Sea end of the ridge. Every now and then vast alluvial fans spread out from steep valleys cutting into the ridge, with a proliferation of farming around the edges. High above them winding roads lead up the mountains, and high dams keep black lakes in check. We cross the eastern edge of the Black Sea at 5pm Copenhagen time; appropriately time for another round of tea and cakes, with the north coast visible on the horizon, arcing back towards us as we just clip the southern tip of the Crimea. The charge of the Light Brigade and all that; Sevastopol is just visible through the haze, which has re-appeared.
The sun is going down, but as we’re heading west it’s a slow sunset. The little bits that stick up along the wing are bright white, catching the sun, then turn grey near the coast. Romania, and a bit further away Moldova and the peculiar republic of Trans-Dnestra: the lights are coming on down below. Glimpses of the Danube in the fading light, Bucharest, the Carpathian Arc. Now it’s dark over Europe and cities show up as hubs of light in a spider’s web of roads; Budapest, Vienna. Bits of the route I backpacked in 2000. A final round of drinks and a bite to eat before descending over Germany to Frankfurt.
It’s 9pm. The short connection to Copenhagen will have me home by midnight. In the morning the little one will jump onto my bed with a little squeal and a laugh, ready for the weekend. Being still several hours away on an overnight redeye just isn't an option!