And Alexander Wept – Asia, Middle East
And Alexander wept because there were no more worlds to conquer.
My beer is slowly weeping condensation and the crepuscular light that filters in from the half-open wooden shutters turns my glass into a gilded piece of art. It’s such a vision of golden loveliness that I am almost apprehensive to take a long, thirsty draft. But I do and it tastes like ambrosia. Outside, a flash of lightening and a peel of thunder cleaves the afternoon whilst another inch of my beer vanishes.
Across from me, my wife of a few days, takes a long sip of her Gin Sling, rolls her eyes in mock ecstasy and leans back on her chair. The storm continues to rage; more and more tourists are being driven inside The Long Bar to take sanctuary. To a person they all order a Singapore Sling and take turns to have their photograph taken with the slightly scowling waitress who could be so pretty if she only smiled. The crunch of monkey nut shells underfoot syncopates with the rain drops pelting down on the veranda; I lament that I was born a few generations too late.
Sitting in Long Bar, I can picture myself about to embark on a great adventure. My porters have loaded my trunks, the last letter has gone on the packet boat to England, and my pith helmet is sitting on the table next to me. The ultimate ends of the Empire await; I am leaving to seek fame and fortune and to add my name to the vast areas of the map which still bare the annotation, "Here be Dragons…"
My reverie is shattered by the arrival of a noisy party of Japanese tourists who strobe the gloomy afternoon with flash bulbs and shout drink orders. The romance of the day drains away; I realise there are no more classic bars to discover, no more legendary watering holes for me to get despicably drunk, The Empire but a distant dream. I lean back, enjoying the feeling of creaking wicker. I watch the fans flopping lazily in the turbid air. There will be no more tigers in the billiard room, no more famous artists stealing the silver wear, or journalists propping up the bar as they coin a marketing slogan which will transcend generations and become part of the vernacular. The last great caravanserai of the east is now no more than a great place to get a cold beer and wait out a storm.
It is not just the Long Bar that pines for the halcyon days of its youth: everywhere where travellers used to congregate, where epic voyages of discovery and colonialism began and where tales were told until the cocks crowed, have been lost in the haze of mass tourism and cheap flights.
The Bun Shop in Istanbul now boasts a notice board that offers belly-dancing lessons when it used to be bent almost double under the weight of countless cards that promised a world beyond the tourist brochure: "Heading along the silk route: leaving in three days. Have jeep and two extra spaces".
"Anyone know a decent rest house in Kabul?"
And the cryptic notes of countless smugglers, drug runners, opportunists and dreamers who left from here in search of fame, fortune, Xanadu and always the East.
Last time I was there a few months ago, I couldn’t even get a decent coffee. The only patrons were young enough to be my own children. They knew nothing about the fabled route to India and how Afghanistan used to inspire with its hospitable people and transcendent beauty. It seemed like a lifetime ago that I sat here, drinking coffee with someone I had just met and agreeing to smuggle several crates into Syria for them.
Even across the desert, in Syria itself, the Baron Hotel is but a shadow of its former self. The telex room that served Laurence of Arabia so well, is covered with dust and no longer is the first stopping point for every self-respecting spy or traveller in need of an update from their paymasters half a world away. Of course, the pictures of Lawrence and Agatha Christie still adorn the walls and the old bar tender. For the price of a smoke or two, they will pour you a watery beer in an old pint pot and regale you with tales of presidents and statesmen and "men of great valour and some degree of cunning".The plumbing still creeks dramatically, the leather sofas are still tattered and worn and the ceiling is still nicotine yellow, but now few people remember how much history was written in this place; how the world that we know, via cable TV and videophone reports was created in this bar, over a few watery beer, served in old pint pots.
Back in Singapore, I order another beer and silently toast the people who sat here and some other of my favourite watering holes, before me on the edge of greatness. Like them, I am beginning a new life today, albeit that of a married man; it seems appropriate to share this moment with empire builders, statesman and generations of romantics in whose footsteps I often tread. I can’t help but feel that they would approve of my silent toast. I down my beer, pay the bill and my new wife and I head out into the storm. Whilst we try to whistle down a cab, she gives my hand a squeeze, and whispers, "What was the name of that bar in Mandalay where Kipling used to drink?"
And then a taxi arrives. We are off again, creating the stories our children will tell their children so that these bars, that shaped our world, never truly die.