The great treasure hunt

Chairman Mao and other Cultural Revolution ceramic figures on a stall at Dongtai Road Antiques Market, Shanghai.
Chairman Mao and other Cultural Revolution ceramic figures on a stall at Dongtai Road Antiques Market, Shanghai. Photo: Alamy

They are kitsch, they're cute and few can resist them, but the best keepsakes transform from silly souvenirs into prized possessions.

St Basil's music box

Found at Red Square, Moscow
Writer
Flip Byrnes

After nine nieces and nephews, No.10, Xavier, became my godson and the immediate apple of my eye. Travelling the Trans-Mongolian railway, I found the ultimate christening gift in Moscow: a St Basil's Cathedral revolving music box, complete with cross. Just like with my godson, it was love at first sight.

Mongolian hat.
Mongolian hat. Photo: Lee Atkinson

I'd almost missed it. Lost among Red Square backstreets on a communist-grey October day, fortune led me to a lively riverside market, with tendrils of steam curling off the frigid water, vendors huddled beneath wool blankets.

Hidden among a battalion of babushka dolls, it called me softly with the mechanical tinkling of Mikhail Matusovsky's Moscow Nights, its melancholic notes plucking at my heartstrings like a harpsichord.

A treasure my godson could keep forever. Except I left it under my dormitory bunk.

Mao memorabilia.
Mao memorabilia. Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones

Many international calls were made. The box was found but shipped to Britain (Australia was too far). An accomplice shipped it from there.

Operation Music Box completed.

Xavier loved it to bits, but the fragile cross disappeared.

Snow dome.
Snow dome. Photo: Tamara Dean

Returning to climb in Russia in 2012, little Xavier asked: "You're going there to get me another cross?'' Of course! I changed my flight to include Moscow, found another music box against the odds, and returning home removed the cross and installed it on St Basil's, giving the second music box to his little brother (who'd been eyeing St Baz for some time).

His first question: "Where's the cross?'' So I guess I'm going back to Russia. For a five centimetre tin cross.

These crosses are probably worth a dollar and have cost a few hundred, but the joy from finding another will be worth every cent. They represent journeys, family, love. You can't put a price on those.

 

MaoZedong clock

Found at Stall in Shanghai
Writer
Robert Upe

On Shanghai's crowded Fuyou Road bordering the Yuyuan Gardens and tourist bazaar, chairman Mao Zedong is waving to me. His arm is going back and forth furiously and I am lured into the clutches of the dictator who unleashed the Cultural Revolution on China.

As soon as I'm with him, the alarm bells start ringing.

Mao, of course, died in 1976.

The Mao I have fallen for is a portrait on a red alarm clock and his waving arm is one of the hands of the chintzy timepiece.

The souvenir seller proudly sets off the piercing alarm to show off the clock's key feature and thrusts it into my hand. It's so cheap that I can't remember the price, but it was less than 30 yuan (about $5) after haggling. A Chinese friend says this was way too much, even in 2010 when I bought the clock.

Since then I haven't been able to resist cheap-as-chips Mao souvenirs and I have a growing collection.

There are also watches with moving Mao arms, T-shirts, mugs, badges, fridge magnets, ashtrays and tin signs – all adorned with Mao.

Years ago, there were concerns in China that his image was being tarnished on the mementoes and quality controls were introduced – to save face! However, I've never noticed a lift in quality and the clocks usually conk out within days.

While buying Mao things here, don't miss the city's famous xiao long bao (soup dumplings) from the Nanxiang Dumpling House. The queues are long but you can time the wait on your new Mao clock ... if it goes long enough.

 

Silk fisherman pants

Found at Koh Tao island, Thailand
Writer
Craig Tansley

I've never been much of a shopper abroad, nor do I buckle to fashion trends, but it took only one day on a small island in Thailand to realise what I had been missing my whole life: three quarter- length calico-coloured Chinese silk pants.

I blame the backpackers; they looked so damned cool in their flowing fisherman's pants, with their beaded anklets and their sun bronzed European skin. I felt so suburban –and old – by comparison.

My surf-brand walk shorts felt as if they'd journeyed with me straight out of the 1990s.

But fisherman's pants looked cumbersome, and I struggled tying the knot. A close substitute would have to suffice: a 100 baht ($3.20) pair of Chinese silk pants that fell just above the ankle. They had no pockets for my wallet, so I had to carry a bag everywhere. But it mattered little; I loved my backpacker pants, even teaming them with a leather-studded anklet.

I felt 19 again: young, wild, free; a gorgeous young thing on the road to enlightenment.

My trip ended and I was home again, but the real me remained trapped somewhere in those pants.

Deciding to keep the dream alive, I wore them to my local pub the first weekend I got back. "Any reason you decided to wear your pyjamas today?' my mate asked quietly.

Blokes at the bar looked at me funny, even the barman gave me the onceover.

I went home and changed.

For a fortnight I had felt like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach, but your perceptions change when you're abroad; nothing seems contrived.

Trying to keep the fantasy alive back home always ends in sniggers. These days, I stick to walk shorts cut somewhere around the knee.

 

Chinese porcelain ladies

Found at Luang Prabang, Laos
Writer
Ben Groundwater

I never used to buy souvenirs. I either didn't want to carry them or didn't want to pay for them, and so I went without – until I realised I'd been wandering the world for years and didn't have anything to show for it.

So I decided that, rather than go for the little touristy knick-knacks that clutter most travellers' shelves, I would look out for one-off items that would remind me of a place without necessarily spelling it out in the "I heart NY'' way.

These ladies do just that. They came from Luang Prabang in Laos, although I assume they came from somewhere else originally. The antiques dealer told me China, which I'm willing to believe. He also told me they were used in an opium den, which I would like to believe because it sounds cool, but it probably isn't true. All I know is that they have amply proportioned backsides and I love them.

I paid, I assume, too much for them. One hundred dollars can get you a long way in Laos.

I then spent the next three weeks trying to ease their passage around a very lumpy, bumpy country. Hoping they hadn't already shattered, I was too scared to peel away the hectares of bubble wrap they were encased in to check.

How old are my antique ladies? I have no idea.

Where did they come from? Not a clue. What was their use? Maybe one day I'll find someone to tell me.

All I know is that every time I look at their smiling faces and protruding posteriors, I think of my time in Luang Prabang. And isn't that what a good souvenir should do?

 

My daughter's name

Found in Hawaii
Writer
Amy Cooper

I'm rarely stuck for words, but one that just wouldn't come was a name for my daughter. By the time I was six months pregnant, my partner and I had scoured the dictionary, raided our respective family histories, ethnic backgrounds and favourite films, all to no avail. Even cocktail menus yielded nothing.

My last trip before the birth was to Hawaii. I love those islands and was keen for our unborn child to absorb some aloha spirit.

In Waikiki, we decided to check out Shangri-La, a mansion at Diamond Head built by the late tobacco heiress Doris Duke.

The 1930s oceanfront pile is a Spanish-Moorish-Persian-Indian extravaganza packed with Islamic treasures. As we wandered through the exotic idyll, I wished I could have met Duke. She had been adventurous, party-loving and unconventional. She had also been close to Hawaiian surfing icon Duke Kahanamoku.

Rumour-mongers suspected more than just a friendship.

The guide mentioned Doris had had a daughter. She had called her Arden.

"Arden,'' I repeated.

My partner and I exchanged glances. I patted the bump.

That was it. Our baby's name had rolled in on the Waikiki surf. We brought it home and kept it.

Over the years I've acquired a miscellany of hula dolls, tiki god mugs, hibiscus shirts and slack-key guitar music from Hawaii, hoping to bring back a little aloha with each souvenir. I am certain that with Arden, I finally did.

 

Vintage print

Found at NYC Central Park market at 59th Street
Writer
Kristie Kellahan

I escaped to New York City about six years ago after a decade-long relationship ended abruptly.

I recklessly splurged my savings so I could stay 10 nights in a modern Mid town hotel overlooking the reassuring green of Central Park. It was beyond my budget and I was beyond caring.

Every day I just walked and walked, all the way up to Harlem and down to Wall Street, from the Hudson River to the Lower East Side.

I sipped a cuppa at the Plaza and felt alone at 1am atop the Empire State Building.

I sang Sunday gospel in Brooklyn and followed the footsteps of every Sex and the City tragic to Magnolia Bakery.

I found myself drawn back many times to Central Park, that marvel of civic foresightedness: a world of bike paths, Lycra-clad in-line skaters, carousels, buskers and a reservoir named after the former first lady who loved to sit there and feed the ducks. The hawkers who set up shop by the 59th Street Columbus Circle entrance to the park spruik everything from Times Square snow domes to yellow cab key rings and subway map shower curtains.

I saw this metal print bearing the words "I Can Only Please One Person a Day: Today I Choose Me'' and had to have it. I think it cost 10 bucks.

There's something about the streets and the people of New York that has always sent out a life affirming cry of "YES!'' to the poor, the tired and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. It's a city of survival and renewal and of balls-out courage. That holiday was more than an escape; it was a turning point. I now live In New York City six months of every year. The sign comes with me.

 

Mongolian hat

Found in Gobi Desert
Writer
Lee Atkinson

In 1997, travelling across Russia and Mongolia by train, I accepted an invitation from the family of five that had been sharing my four-berth compartment to stay with them in their ger (like a yurt) in the Mongolian steppes on the edge of the Gobi Desert.

I spent the next week or so roaming the steppes on horseback as we moved camp every second day, packing up granny, the ger and a full-size fridge (there was no electricity; it was used to store blankets and was a prized possession) and loading it onto a rickety old truck as we went in search of better pasture for the grazing animals.

We all slept in the round tent under a pile of scratchy homespun rugs, andwe shared meals, taking turns to slurp stringy stew–I was never really sure what sort of meat it was – out of a communal bowl that we passed around. There were no vegetables and water was scarce: fermented mare's milk was the drink of choice for the grown-ups.

The entire family, like everyone I met in Mongolia back then, wore traditional dress: long velvet robes with a wide sash and brocade trim, big leather boots and pointy conical hats, and I couldn't resist bringing a hat home. It still smells faintly of curdled yak milk, and I've only worn it once, to a fancy-dress party.

For me, it's less of a souvenir and more of a symbol of the first time I really experienced away of life completely alien to my own.

Why not share your own stories of weird and wonderful souvenirs picked up around the world? post a comment below.

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