Cultural Crossroads: Jamie Tinklepaugh - ‘I have been inspired by stories as long as I can remember’About Jamie Tinklepaugh

In 2015, Jamie Tinklepaugh embarked on a journey from London to Hong Kong by train, accompanied by his father, Peter. In 2018 Jamie’s book about his experiences on that voyage, Wheeling East, was published, documenting with text, photos and Peter’s artwork his many fascinating encounters along the way, describing both his own impressions, and the impressions and reactions of others towards him. Jamie has a severe disability and is a wheelchair user.

Wheeling East on Amazon:

1. The term ‘journey of a lifetime’ is generally overused, but there’s no better way to describe the expedition you write about in your book Wheeling East. Planning and preparation took years, but what was the initial spark for the idea?

Every trip is similar to the journey that a writer takes with their story. Writers often talk of using thought maps. That parallel between maps and ideas which lead to stories is not accidental. Sometimes I find my ideas lead to a dead end, a frustrating sense that the words, the ideas, the thought processes are left hanging in the air. Sometimes I leave the thoughts on the page; sometimes I come back to them and try to take them a little further; sometimes they carry me off to unexpected directions; sometimes I have to carry them, they weigh me down. If they become too heavy, I know I cannot force the reader to lift them.

I have been inspired by stories as long as I can remember. Idries Shah’s stories have played a central role in my life since I was a very little child, long before I knew Shah’s name. ‘Mushkil Gusha’, a story which appears in Shah’s collection World Tales, was first told to me by my father when I was three. We still enjoy telling it, though now he prefers to listen to me. We have told the story all over the world: with a donkey forming an audience in Jma el Fna square in Marrakech; looking out of the window at wind whipping at palm trees on a beach in Tunisia, the inky black night punctuated by stars; glinting in a Western Cape night sky; shouting the story above the roar of the traffic near the pyramid of Rome.

I have been lucky enough to travel throughout the world, South Africa, the United States, much of Europe, even telling myself a story whilst a Force 9 storm tried to toss me out of my bunk. I was helping crew STS Lord Nelson (one of only two tall ships in the world that are wheelchair accessible) around the Outer Hebrides. The places that I have told the stories have inspired my own writing. On the tall ship, despite it being August, I was constantly cold, seasick on occasion, the sea crashing over the sides, my wheelchair clamped to the deck so I wasn’t pitched overboard; but the tough times were balanced by weather momentarily calm enough to allow me to be winched into a rowing boat from which I was scooped up in a JCB and deposited on the beach at St Kilda, a remote island with a very Scottish history of abandonment and nostalgia.

I had come across Tahir Shah’s travel books in the mid 1990s, namely Beyond the Devil’s Teeth, in which he explores ‘Gondwanaland’. What struck me about his work was not just marvelling about the distances he covered, but the characters that he met: Hardeep and Prideep, of Mumbai; Oswaldo, the well dressed and proud Patagonian (it was the first time I had heard of Patagonia; it made me want to visit Argentina – one of the few ambitions left to realise). The people were always as important as the country, and I loved the notion of a country rooted in ancient geology that spans our continents.

I had gone interrailing just before I went to university and that memory of a train as my home as we journeyed around Europe sustained me at a low personal time and has stayed with me over twenty years. The idea of the world’s longest train ride and the extraordinary thought that no sea separates us from the far east, gradually took possession of me.

2. Your father, Peter, was with you the whole time. How similar or different were the impressions you both had of the places you visited and the people you met?

Peter is an artist, he draws constantly and his impressions are predominantly visual. My cerebral palsy affects my visual interpretation of the world, but strangely I have very vivid visual memories going back to early childhood. Nevertheless my main impressions are of the character of the people I meet, and I have always enjoyed words. My hand control is poor so I can’t draw and my handwriting is slow and tends to wander around the page (I have spatial problems), so since I was young I have been writing with keyboards.

On a practical level, Peter was able to get off the Trans Siberian to (attempt to) buy food. Also he did a lot of physical work as I cannot push myself in my wheelchair: up and down stairs, trying to find the way to cross roads that reduced you in size and importance to that of an ant. He saw these challenges and was not fazed by them. We were never more than a few feet apart (except when he was foraging for food, I have to say mostly unsuccessfully). Despite these differences our impressions have been usually very similar.

3. Travelling on a wheelchair on the Trans-Siberian Express brings to mind thoughts of ‘wheels within wheels’. Did the journey change you in any way?

I realised both how big and small the world is. China always seemed the symbol of remoteness, but we were able to get there just sitting, watching the landscape unroll at a pace that allowed us to absorb it. Planes, however fast they go, somehow seem to be taking forever as you are so disconnected from the land. Whereas this well-paced steed of a train allowed me to feel I had actually covered the distance, so now remote China is somehow always connected to me.

4. Do you have any practical advice for others thinking of embarking on a similar adventure?

Peter and I have travelled together for over three decades since the time we went to Portugal on an impulse, driving through the forests of cork oak in a small white mini. We have found the most memorable experiences are not those we have planned, certainly not the ‘must see’ highlights of the guide books, but following the zig-zag method that we learnt from Tahir’s books: not moving in a straight line, finding equal value and education in the unusual or unexplored, hence the importance for us of ‘the courage to climb’ as a concept, going outside of our comfort zone . For a disabled traveller looking for accommodation that he can actually enter adds a whole new level of uncertainty, but one we have not so far regretted. Though we don’t regret that we booked in advance at all the places we stayed in China.

Most of the time we had no wi-fi access and our mobile phone couldn’t make calls. I think that was a great advantage. Using a smart phone to find your way round an unknown city is such an attractive idea, but cuts you off from people. Our attempts at route-finding and getting help were often farcical, but always memorable, perhaps more so than any place we were trying to reach.

5. Every day of your journey seems to have been memorable in some way. Is there one overriding memory or feeling that you’ve brought back with you?

The overriding memories are those of people; that differences of language, culture, nation, which can seem like impassable walls can disappear in an instant in a shared smile, a gesture, help given before requested. I think of a group of men in a park in Suzhou playing music that had a haunting almost ethereal quality about it, and their welcome to us; the women stall-holder traders who noticed Peter having trouble with my wheelchair came rushing to help. Small incidents often replay and I smile and I breathe a silent thanks.