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The Well-Informed Traveller (chapter 26, Octavia)

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It is almost two days journey up by mule, longer if you walk (but why would you?). The mules are a lazy, stubborn bunch, who go at their own pace, regardless of the muleteer, who shouts theatrically and to no effect. There is no point in tipping him, you will not get there any faster.

There is a small inn half way up. The food is not good and the rooms are dirty, but if you do not want to sleep under a tree (and admittedly that would be cleaner), there is no other choice. The house wine, which is the only wine, is probably safer than the water, but it tastes like sweetened vinegar. Try to tell yourself that it’s a local speciality.

When you reach the top the view is very nearly worth two days of discomfort. The entrance itself is poorly constructed and full of touts and salesman making a nuisance of themselves, but if you ignore them (though not so comprehensively they have a chance to pick your pockets), and stand at the edge you can look over a gaping chasm, the ground dropping away almost straight to the river valley impossibly far below. It is as though some giant has seized the land and broken it in half, dropping the pieces side by side but not quite touching. The opposite peak seems only an arms length away on clear days, and yet an incomprehensible distance to be bridged by the work of man. Particularly such men as went on to build that entrance. Do not continue to gaze at the view as you walk around, because the paving is extremely uneven, and you will certainly trip if you do not look carefully where you are going.

The number of people who may enter at once is strictly controlled, so you will have to wait your turn. Your muleteer should provide you with a numbered ticket. Do not stray so far you cannot hear the guard calling out those numbers permitted to enter, because if you miss your turn you will have to pay for a new ticket, and wait several more hours.

Your first entry to Octavia will feel strange, rather like the first time you were aboard a ship. In much the same way, after a day or two you will cease to notice the way the ropes shift beneath your feet, and you will balance effortless despite the constant swinging. Only when you return to terra firma will you be realise how unnatural the movement was.

Many visitors prefer to take a room off one of the main ‘ropes’, as the streets are, for obvious reasons, called. This has the benefit of simplicity, and if you have not yet got your ‘sea legs’, as it were, you will find lodging rooms and restaurants all close together, and on one level. But they are all overpriced, and cater to the undiscerning. A better plan is to descend one or two levels, and take lodging there.

The connections between the first few levels are rope ladders or pulley-operated lifts, and these should not pose any difficulty for you. Below that, in what would in any other city be a maze of narrow alleyways, there is instead a tangled skein of ‘strings’, which are really also ropes, but often solely single ropes, not rope ladders, and you have to go up and down hand over hand. Consider buying a good pair of gloves at an early opportunity (although not near the main gates, or the first few ropes. The same money will buy you at least two pairs of better gloves anywhere else in the city.)

The catwalks on the upper ‘ropes’ are broad and easy to traverse, so long as you don’t suffer from vertigo (and if you do, consider holidaying in some other city). On the lower levels, they become both narrower and more rickety, less securely attached and with missing boards. Do not ask yourself how the boards come to be missing, or what would happen if you were standing on one when it parted company with its supports and fell into the valley below.

Since all food must be imported into the city, dense and nutritious foodstuffs are preferred, especially meat. Water being precious, since it must also be imported, or gathered in rainwater butts the weight of which is a severe strain on the infrastructure, stews and braises are not favoured, and dishes are typically spit-roasted or grilled. This is done with great skill, and I have rarely eaten dishes of that type better prepared, although the vegetables are generally poor. Sauces are thick and intense in flavour, so that a scant teaspoonful will flavour an entire plate. Likewise wines and beers are not favoured and the choice is between plain rainwater and a viciously alcoholic concoction, drunk wisely in small cups. (These cups are typical of the area, particularly those with a grey and blue design, or a solid wash of green fading to white.)

The wisdom of cooking with naked flames in a city hung over a precipice and entirely constructed of wood and hemp I leave to the reader’s judgement.

It is also to possible to get about by swinging from rope to rope. Children do this as a sport from an early age, so all adults native to Octavia are very proficient. It is unlikely you will be similarly skilled. If you must try it, do so on an upper level, where if you fall, there will be a great many buildings and ropes between you and the chasm, and those well constructed. You will not be popular if you fall on someone’s roof, but you will at least survive. If you try it on a lower level, where it is a much more common means of locomotion, the catwalks there being so narrow and poorly made, you are that much nearer a straight drop, and anything between you and the clouds is liable to tear away if you land on it.

Try, if you can, to visit the famous rope-makers’ quarter - the speed of work and the soundness of the rope is remarkable, quite unequaled elsewhere. Notably, the majority of the rope is exported, particularly the higher grades, the inhabitants taking a worryingly fatalistic attitude to civic maintenance. You will find however that most people are skilled at knotting, and almost any passerby can effect a quick repair on a broken or frayed rope. Decorative knot-work is also popular, and you will see fine silk rope in brilliant colours, knotted in large and complex shapes, for sale outside any temple - it is considered an acceptable offering where in other places flowers or food or candles might suffice. It also makes for an unusual memento, and having provided yourself with some interesting, if useless, knots, some pretty and delicate cups, and a pair or two of hard wearing gloves, you will really have found the best of what Octavia has to offer, particularly if you have also sampled a few grilled meat dishes, and there is little reason to prolong your stay. Indeed, the very number of opportunities you will have to watch repairs being effectuated may furnish a reason to leave.