Junbesi.

One kilometre up. Another one down. Toughest climb and hardest descent of my life. Sweat, tears and muscles burning like volcanic lava. At stages the fumes of my depleted energy switched my head into autopilot. I walked aimlessly and without thought. Vacant. Empty. Even desperation and hunger departed my mind. My soul carried me. Hope hadn’t slipped away completely. Bruised worn feet made it through the darkest evening to night. A bed and a meal waited for the day’s end. A great sleep followed. Two different years, two tough challenging experiences. Twice. Twice, the walk carried on.

Yesterday was such a day. A tiring cycle ride to play football. A testing first half-hour. A stretched thirty minutes followed. A near empty final third. And then. And then the ride back. A thirty minutes cycle ride doubled in time. Ten grueling ten kilometres. Sweat. Pain. Tears. Two cups of yogurt and a litre of water. Knackered. Back against the wall. The cycle bad become the rupture machine. A test of stamina and mind over matter. The Junbesi of Dongguan in high humidity and subtropical heat. I crawled into bed following a shower. The kind of shower that involved slumping and letting the warmer than usual water just hit from above. Careless shower. Even sleeping in bed I fed mosquitoes and didn’t care. Exhausted.

Tough moments are there to be overcome.

Stage XII: Serendipity x Terra

Nihao! 你好!Hello!

Lee Child mentioned in his novels, that his character Jack Reacher never goes back to a place he’s visited. It’s a state of mind. I’m not Jack Reacher. I’m too short and not as strong. I went back to Dali’s Ancient town in a car with Qiézi (茄子) and the trio of girls that set out with our driver in the first place. It had only been for two nights away, but such was the refreshment of the trek, it felt longer (in a good way).

I checked into the Jade Emu Hostel once again, who were so busy that they put me into a neighbouring hotel. A room is a room. Then it was time for a coffee at Movie Time Coffee Shop, surrounded by a chilled setting. Qiézi joined me for a cuppa and we talked a little. Two dogs, one tiny and one medium in stature had a fuss, before climbing all over us for hugs and attention. It was a pleasurable end to a good day.

The following morning I met QiéZi with Xiao Jie, one of the girls from the trekking, and we wondered to a set of temples (including Gantong temple and a nunnery) and trails on 苍山 Cāngshān, starting somewhere near Dali University (by Xuefu Lu). The gentle upwardly walks led to BuLuoSi temple and a view of numerous waterfalls. We didn’t return to Dali’s old Town (古城, Gǔchéng) but instead bypassed it to meet QiéZi’s good friends Lin and Spirlo. The once top 13 city (in terms of size – in the year 1000AD) is a sprawl of farms and villages along the Cāngshān range. Lin and Spirlo live at the far end of along road, and down an alley, in a lovely little farmhouse surrounded by gardens rich in vegetables.

We’d gone from orchids, rhododendrons, camellias and birdsong to a relaxed house filled with warmth and harmonies. The six cats with their talented masters of Lin (from Fujian) and her Greek husband Spirlo were great company. Plenty of conversation was had from talking about the didgeridoo to football to camping and trekking.

The final full day involved a filling breakfast of omelette and salmon at Serendipity cafe and diner. It did exactly what it said on the label filling my belly to the brim. Not a bad iced coffee indeed! Then, a wander to drink fruit juice, natter and following that a gander at the market on Sānyuèjiē (三月街) and all the marvelous oddities for sale. A fire festival is due in Dali around about now. After which a spot of planned spontaneity was called for, planned and put into action. A relaxing mix of sensations followed. I’ll write about that another time.

The day culminated with the eating of tiramisu at the Terra cafe. It was by far the best tiramisu I have ever experienced. Qiezi, Xiao Jie and I were eventually joined by Echo. As is very Echo, she broughta new friend along. Farola talked star signs and birth times (08:37, if you aren’t wondering). They ordered more tiramisu but by then I was stuffed like a well-fed teddy bear at a teddy bear factory. I’ve tried many and few have satisfied. It took me a while to realise that Terramisu wasn’t a spelling mistake but a variation on the cafe name in the food type! And, then Qiezi and Xiao Jie bid everyone goodbye. It could have ended there and then, but the magic carried on.

I was invited by both Qiezi and Xiao Jie to Lin and Spirlo’s farmhouse. Qiezi had taken the responsibility to feed their six cats. I pondered the difficulty of getting from there to Dali Railway Station. Echo asked me, “What’s stopping you?” She was completely right. Nothing was stopping me. I hugged Echo goodbye and I’m not ashamed to say a few tears formed in my eyes. Emotions can be high at times of homesickness and when you really appreciate great friends.

Leaving Dali behind, I feel like I will return. There’s much more to explore and within the whole province of Yunnan, there’s too much nature to ignore. I’ll probably be back. The final night lay on the ground staring at stars with Qiezi and Xiao Jie was special. Qiezi made a few very wonderful photos. Sharing the sights of five shooting stars in one night was a unique experience.

Home is where the heart is. Your heart doesn’t have to just be in one place, at one time, or with one person. Hearts are open. Making a connection irrespective of time and space is a wonderful experience. There needs to be more love and peace in the world. In the words of Qiezi, “Everyone is free spirited and an adventurer. Independent individuals but connected together.” It’s been a delightful and unique time in Yunnan. My heart feels warm and my head clearer than ever. Something will travel with me from these days that started in Dali and I leave behind a piece of my heart.

“We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day.” – Vera Lynn song We’ll Meet Again written by Ross Parker (Mancunian) & Hughie Charles (also born in Manchester)

Zaijian! 再见!Goodbye!

Stage XI: Abuji Cuo

你好!Nihao! Hello!

Anticipation surrounded the morning. We after off for a selection of steamed, boiled and grilled breakfast mainstays of Chinese breakfasts (across this huge nation). With that, those without raincoats purchased those disposable rain jackets designed to be worn for an hour or so. The kind that would make Mr Macintosh roll in his grave with tears. Not to mention environmentalists. Sorry Greta!

Abuji Cuo (阿布吉措) sounds Japanese. It certainly seems unlike Mandarin Chinese. It’s surrounded by the Ajiagang Mountains and stands high over meadows and scattered pasture houses. It’s well off the beaten track and fairly clean of trail litter. The name comes from one of the many local Yunnan languages and people but I couldn’t find a true translation or meaning. It is apparently very holy. The China National Highway 214 and Xiangli Expressway (toll road) are to the west. Here a dirt track leads under two bridges (the new Shangri-la railway line).

The car journey led us to a gate. It had a weight on one end and two barriers across the path ahead. Here began the wander. The base camp was labelled just that. The pathway was an old track, now used by loggers as well as the original farming people of these steep damp foothills.

Rounding a bend, the footpath exited the road, passing between free-range pigs and towards a slim yet fast-rushing stream. Our group of six with a local man tagging along crossed the stream over felled logs now doubling as a bridge. Here the path gently led to an open plain standing below the face of the mountains. The phone signal had soon disappeared – something good for the quiet ahead, but unusual on mainland China.

After passing through the deep lush green meadow, the path banked left over several bubbling streams complete with stepping stones and bridging points. Here the path zig-zagged up and across gaining altitude fast. It’s steep sections were marred by slippy sticky clay interspersed by sharp shards of rock. The sides of the path displayed vivid biodiversity with wild gooseberries, something like rhubarb and wild strawberry plants amongst the plethora of greenery.

A local Yunnan man Qī Lín(七林), a girl from Anhui, a student from Guangzhou, a girl from Heyuan, a girl from Hubei, and another girl (from somewhere in China) walked up in light to heavy rain. The thick cloud thinned and grew in almost pulsating slow motion. At times the valley behind seemed hidden. At others it became a tapestry of various green hues.

The imposing mountain to our right shoulder (mostly) could have been Skull Island from the King Kong movies. It’s ferocious face looked brittle and completely impervious to those intrepid climbers who like such nooks and crannies. The artistry of nature had created such a detailed spectacle. The top range of peaks could have been a crown, or a bed of thorns. It truly sets the imagination running as wild as the fight ravines within.

The stream accompanied the walk up, and at times became the pathway giving clear flow to passersby in need of a quenching swig of freshness. After one small lake the path hugs a slope covered in knife-sharp vicious broken rocks. Blue flowers emerge where the rocks allow soil to gather. The rug of land is unforgiving and not a place to stand in awe of the view ahead.

What lies ahead is possibly the greatest lake view I have ever seen. The cauldron of clear green and blue water appears impossibly deep. Local legend has it that there is no bottom to the icy water. It’s entirely believable. The edges look crystal clear but beyond that, well diving would be the only way to know what lies beneath. The surrounding slopes are mixed in terms of harsh angles but most are barren. Life is not easy. We were stood around 4300m and the highest point is about 500m above here.

The caldera-shape of the valley spreads wide and long. From numerous vantage points it’s hard to tell what started this paradise on high. The geological features and lay of the land are mesmerising. It grips your heart whilst choking your throat of air. You can suddenly become breathtakingly awestruck. You look. It stares back blankly. Rumour has it, if you speak to loud then rain will come. Here at the top, for the most part, rain eluded our group. The feeling of healing as you look around you at the majestic landscape is overwhelming. I couldn’t help but feel my heartstrings being tugged and a tear in my eye. There are few places left that are this pristine.

Shangri-la (香格里拉县/Xiānggélǐlāxiàn) is a county and a city that draws it’s English and Chinese names from James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. It influenced China to rename the Yunnan city of Zhōngdiàn (中甸) in 2001 to Shangri-la. The Shangri-la of Hilton’s writing could have been Kashmir, Tibet or anywhere else along the Kunlun Mountains of the author’s description. But, if James Hilton had have travelled to Yunnan and Abuji Cuo to see the steep cliffs, loose and rocky earth scattered with flora and colour, he may have set his chapters here.

Abuji Cuo is about 4 to 5 hours (around 17-20km) up and only accessible from May to October. The gate (near a temple) is manned and access denied at other times to allow ecological balance. Non-slip shoes are essential, although I spied a few people in sport shoes. One unlucky soul was sporting a sprained wrist, leg injury and looked sheepish. Her local guide was guiding her down ever so slowly. The muddy pathways demand good grips. The steep falls are lethal in appearance. And there are yaks. Yaks can surprise from above, and they did on our walk once or twice. Death by yaks would be rather a bad day at the office. The road starts between to Bixiang and XiaoZhongDianZhen.

The hamlets of Nigeria, where we drank milk, and the Niguqe (尼古个) hamlet are sparsely populated so expect to see few people. The nearby hamlet of Gangzhemu (岗者木) is close to a scenic spot called Bitahai (碧塔海景区) but that could easily be a different world. However, it would make a tasty multi-day hike with camping. Scope to return? Head to Bengla (崩拉)?

The walk back down was every bit as unforgettable as the ascent. Ancient woodlands caked in drapes of moss and lichens, the sound of a chorus of different birds and the smell of flowers give your senses a tasty day. After reaching the pasture at the cliff face, a local woman gave us hot potatoes, and well wishes. After that we walked to the road and were greeted by a drift (or drove) of pigs. The curious tail-wagging group led us to discover some local fruits, to which nobody knows the name. QiéZi gave me one that looks like it is shaped like a bottom. Rather cheeky!

Soon after Qī Lín (七林) introduced us to an elderly farming couple. Here we had hot milk, sour homemade yogurt and delicious cheese. The wooden cabin was a good end to a day’s hike and we bid the farmers goodbye before jumping in a car back to Shangri-la. The unique and diverse holy Abuji pasture would occupy our minds for the evening and I’m sure that visiting there, we gained something more.

Grid reference: 27.666254378118495, 99.90886934422305 (Abuji Cuo) to Bixiang village (27.604282621386876, 99.78759058373961). 14km distance as a local chough would fly.

再见!Zai Jian! Goodbye!

Stage X: Shangri-la Too

Nihao! 你好!Hello!

I awoke on Wednesday just after 05:30. I’d had about 5 hours sleep. The rooster may have fell under the category of an unwanted alarm clock. Bizarrely, I couldn’t nod off again. Yesterday evening had been quite subdued. I’d hung out with Echo and QiéZi (茄子) in their funky friend Cici’s juice and snack bar. Over blueberry and banana toasties it was decided that QiéZi and I would visit the legendary Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡/Hǔtiào Xiá) on the Jinsha River (Jīnshājiāng/金沙江) in Lijiang Naxi autonomous county (Lìjiāng Nàxīzú Zìzhìxiàn/丽江纳西族自治县). The chance to see more of Yunnan (云南) wasn’t something to pass up. Besides which QiéZi is a wise traveling companion.

Checking my phone at 05:45, I see we’ve grown to a group of 6 people and we’re headed to a trek somewhere near Shangri-La county (香格里拉县/Xiānggélǐlāxiàn). I have until the 3rd of August to play with, so as the Reverend Gallaghers said:

“You gotta roll with it
You gotta take your time;
You gotta say what you say;
Don’t let anybody get in your way.” – Roll With It, Oasis

So, I gave in to not being able to sleep more, grabbed a coffee at the cosy Song Sisters Bookshop and Cafe before departing the fantastic hospitality of The Jade Emu. Song and Dave are most welcoming owners and have knitted a fantastic community for those wishing to pass through, or stay a little longer.

Nomadic QiéZi arrived with the driver and we set off, with her friend Cici to collect two more friends. The journey began with a chattering driver, who gave so much information along the way, and recommendations. We stopped for hot corn and potatoes – although I declined the corn. The driver also provided yogurt and a selection of fruit. QiéZi gave me a coffee early on too, so a welcome toilet break arrived at an ideal time. No sooner had we left than we arrived, give or take four to give hours of driving.

Our group of six entered a restaurant and ate delicious breads, with a sweet cottage cheese and a meaty potato dish. A jolly day with a few games of wéiqí (围棋, sometimes called Go). The game involves black and white stones and is a territorial game of strategy. There are variations on the original but for this occasion, it was first to five in a row. Simple. Fun. Entertainment.

The evening involved sitting on our arses talking and planning tomorrow. The heavy rain brought about my several freakish weather fronts will challenge the next two days and any potential wanderings. The group have their eyes on Abuji Lake (阿布吉错). This may prove overambitious, but not every journey has to complete. Some off the beaten tracks lack tracks at times. The hard to find details for the trail aren’t exactly clear or enlightening. If the walking starts at Jiulong Yangchang (九龙羊场) then all is good.

Right now the courtyard of Desti Youth Hostel, complete with two big cute dogs isn’t a bad place to chill and await the next day. With a giant screen showing an Indian movie and a variety of games in a covered area, it’s a great place to be.

Zai Jian! 再见!Goodbye!

Stage IX: Dali (and the mysterious Aubergine)

你好!Nihao! Hello!

Salvador Dali has nothing to do with the Yunnan city of Dàlǐ (大理). The draw to Dali has been the art district, cycling, the coffee and cafe culture and my friend Echo. Also, wherever I’ve been in China, everyone mentions the comfortable weather of Yunnan.

Echo or Eck published a poetry little picture book recently. She’s made her nomadic home in Dali. Here she’s honing her artistic talent, existing comfortably and living happily. I dropped by (via Guiyang and Kunming) from Chengdu, Sichuan province to say hello. I told Echo I’d arrive on Sunday but Saturday afternoon, walking by the Terra coffee shop seemed as good a time as any. Yunnan is great for growing coffee and Dali has no shortage of coffee shops.

A good old chinwag and catch up preceded a walk through the ginnels of Dali’s ancient old town to a door in a wall. The door was open and smooth tempting beats were gently rolling out. Ducking below the low entrance, an Old-styled yard with greenery and tables greeted us. Echo’s friend (or should I say complication?) Yali and his brother were serving up delicious pizzas. The pomegranate tree nodded towards the range of locally-produced liquors. Here Echo introduced me to Myrtle Bee, a girl named QiéZi (茄子 or eggplant/aubergine). There were several others but my recollection for names had by now been overwhelmed.

Meanwhile my mouth had been delighted by a cream cheese and tomato pizza, followed by a further shared pizza with zucchini and deliciousness on top. The pesto dip was a smart move. A side salad featured a baked cheese and rocket lettuce. It was a bit too salty for my pallet, but overall very tasty. The funky beats faded and a disappointing bar called King Cat followed. The music wasn’t my cup of tea, but it saved wading through deep puddles and high-bouncing rain. After a later than expected hour, I arrived back to the Jade Emu China Australia International Youth Hostel, only to find my swipe card to enter didn’t work. The matter resolved itself and I slipped off into dreamland.

I didn’t need a sign for Cāngshān (苍山). The imposing green and cloud-kissed range of peaks. The Didi taxi driver from Dali railway station to the hostel had given ample chance to view the waving weaving green peaks. So, with a late rise and a belly full of good food, I set out for a waterfall recommended by a friend. On passing a set of small waterfalls, I headed up a track made by goats or sheep or possibly very narrow humans. The steep track disappeared and I soon found myself jutting between soft earth, trees and huge fluffy plants. By which stage I’d reached a ridge, with a very confuddled water turbine worker, who then directed me up a hidden pathway towards the top ridge. It was a tough but pleasant trail.

The undergrowth swept away to reveal a near-hidden valley tucked between two mountain ridge lines. I wandered down, dipped my feet, watched the butterflies and listened to the idyllic birdsong. One can definitely relax when clouds cuddle the mountains above, and gentle breezes softly drift around your chest whilst your feet are in chilly flowing waters.

Once again Busa called for dinner. Their second opening night led me to catch up once again with Echo, her Yali and other friends. The waitress Hazel, from Changde, took an interest in the book I was reading. A few days later, the tatty and soggy paper back was left for her to read. Echo’s friend QiéZi invited herself to my next walk the following day. Cāngshān (苍山) once again would be the wandering space.

With little barefooted QiéZi (who is no taller than 155cm), we set out towards the Cloud Jade pathway of Cāngshān. Passing the chair lift to our left, then our right, then left again we ascended. Stopping for Pu’er tea, a coffee and a snack at a park Police point seemed reasonably normal. The local boss had her grandson playing with leaves as she served a refreshing brew to us both. We left behind the options of hospitality and wandered paths here, there and everywhere. My pigeon Chinese and a relaxed mood made the afternoon to evening a satisfying and contented ramble.

By about 8pm, after almost eight hours of moving forwards, we descended through dark shadows and paths more at home in the deepest darkest parts of JRR Tolkien novels. Emerging from utter darkness, with only the company of fireflies, seemed to take a while but the adventure was nevertheless a great day out!

The next day (which is today, now) I decided this town needs a little more of my presence. I decided for the remainder of the holiday that I’d be here or there, but not so far from Dali. Why not? A place that puts a smile on your face and opens you to the nature around it, isn’t all bad! Ian Fleming penned some of his books in his Jamaican home of Goldeneye. Perhaps a few days in Dali and I may have found my Goldeneye.

However, a few hours later, I changed my mind. Have shoes, will walk. I will keep looking for answers and smiles.

Zai Jian! 再见!Goodbye!

Spit. Spat. Spitting.

你好 / Nihao! / Hello!

Firstly, I’m a resident in China enjoying a privileged position as a teacher at an international school. I’m a guest in an ancient country rich in history and culture. However,that does not mean I can’t be disgusted by something or other. One such thing often makes me feel sick inside my guts: spitting. [Note: not the light rain]

Spit happens, would make an accurate car bumper sticker in China. Bizarrely for at least seven years (since I arrived) there have been signs forbidding public gobbing. Not that those who do it, see the graphic warning signs. The comic book style head, usually male (or a woman with a very short hair cut), has a tilted head with three or more large drops of watery phlegm projectile in its flight, trying to defy gravity.

With the outbreak of the now devastating, everlasting boredom and annoyance that is COVID-19, especially it possibly (and allegedly) having an origin in China, you’d expect the mask wearing public to obey and end public displays of mouth splatter protection. No. Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Aim. Fire! In fact many pull their masks down to fire their sludgy substances.

My first disaster came in Houjie, Dongguan in 2014. I was new to China. I walked past a multistorey building and SPLATT! Some dirty scrotebag had launched their throat contents from high, hitting my arm square on. At the time I didn’t have a tissue on me. A huge faux pas. So, I whipped off my shirt, revealing my palest of pale demeanour and rubbed the shirt sleeve on a wall, then some dirt in a small outdoor plant pot. After that on some tree bark, then on a wall. Then I out the shirt back on, cancelled a dinner with a friend and stormed back feeling like a tut wasn’t enough. Tut.

The women here, and not all, as well as many men have a good throat clearance. It crosses all provinces and all manner of careers. I’ve seen bank managers in Guangdong purge equally as much as a taxi driver in Gansu launch their own weapon of local destruction. In Manzhouli, Inner Mongolia I witnessed a local hotel owner turn an evening gob into ice. It being -30C, I was simultaneously amazed, disgusted and bloody cold. Microorganisms on ice.

Don’t get me wrong, spitting sometimes us necessary like when you swallow a spider to catch the fly that you’d previously swallowed. Or the following animal kingdom members that you swallow to catch the eight-legged freak. Or, when playing sports, that are highly aerobic and need a little clearance. We’ve all seen football players do it. Nobody is perfect. Or, do it in private. Away from others. Hide it. Don’t be so open and show everyone.

On one recent train journey, I witnessed a woman of middle age, whip her mask down, hawk a lookie after about a minute of snarling gasping rasping raking throat sounds. Everyone around her carried on as normal. I was sick in my throat. I had to keep my own sick down. She did this more than once. The railway carriage actually wreaked of her throat’s fragrance.

At Chapel Street Primary School I witnessed a few kids spit on other’s faces. It’s disgusting. I silently vowed if ever anyone did that to me, they would taste a knuckle sandwich. And at primary and secondary school, my fists were raised for such incidents. I’m not proud. Sticks and stones as we know, hurt. Name calling really hurts. Spitting is extremely rude. Contempt and anger should not lead to spitting. That’s something a wild animal may do in fear or aggression. Are you a llama, alpaca or cobra?

Spit is healthy. It’s a lubricant. It fights bacteria. It stops bad breath, sometimes. The bubbling fresh gross spit, that resembles the cuckoo spit, seen often across British grasslands in spring is vile. And across the globe laws are being changed to stop spitting as a weapon. Spitting has been deliberately used against key workers and caused death by contagion. Part of our two pints or so of gob a day should never ever find its way to anyone else’s vicinity.

Good or bad habits are often learned from peers, parents and television. This bad habit of shooting saliva from your mouth may have followed watching Jurassic Park and the Dilophosaurus. Spit being water, salt and antibodies is quite neutral, until the bacteria and viral materials that it’s designed to remove join in the liquid mess. The mass needs removing, for some but not others.

Inhaling hard to force ounces of nasal mucus is something that I find hard to stomach. Some argue smokers need to remove their excessive phlegm. Others say having a dry throat necessitates expectorated contents to soothe an absence. For me, it’s the sound, the lack of sanitary consideration for the dispelled vapour at the time of ejection. Then there’s the where factor. Where are they spitting? Will a child play on that part of the pavement?

The way I see it, is that if you spit in public, you’re spitting on the grounds that your people and family walk. In turn you’re spitting on friends and your civilisation. You have no respect for your flag or heritage. Is my view extreme? Only as extreme as spitting so rudely!

Rant over.

再见 / zai jian / Good bye!

Stage VIII: Chengdu & Don’t

你好! Nihao! Hello!

The first train from Chaka Lake station left on time. I’d spent an hour or so prior talking to a young your guide called Ethan. His tour group were busy exploring Chaka Lake. He kindly shown me the mine workers’ village and a nondescript shed that doubled up as a shop. Inside it was crammed with fresh vegetables, beers, spirits, dry foods and all the things life needs to survive. The dark shop had a big bottle of water and a bottle of lemon tea. That’s exactly what I wanted for the four hour train ride ahead.

As I went to pay, Ethan, born in Qinghai and a graduate of philosophy, beat me to it. He insisted. It’s hard to fight warmth and kindness from people at times. We sat on his your coach, complete with snoring driver, and talked about Buddhism, Confucius (孔夫子 Kǒngfūzǐ), Muslims (Hui), and harmonious people. He mentioned how one grandfather had fled persecution during the Cultural Revolution, on the advice of fellow villagers and how another had ridden his horse away from the late-World War II battlefield with Japan.

I changed at Xining for the second train. A sleeper carriage all the way to Chengdu (成都). I awoke, still with three hours to kill, flipped open Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries and half-read, half-day-dreamed. Alighting the train at Chengdu Railway Station, I emerged into a world of grey. Concrete and aged. My first impressions lacked enthusiastic joy. I headed down to the subway for a tube train to the Chengdu South Railway Station.

I departed the station’s subway via exit C, emerging into a barren building site. I turned right, trying to find a way to the other side of the surface railway. After about a kilometre of walking, I arrived at the Skytel hotel. I checked in without trouble, then headed out for an exploration of the city’s relics.

My initial impression of the city softened. Littered with monasteries, relics and life, the city of Chengdu became a green established city with limited construction (unlike many other cities) but sadly one that has far too many flyovers and cars. I visited a monument to Zhūgě Liàng (诸葛亮), the one time legendary military leader and prime minister of Shu Han (蜀汉) during the Three Kingdoms period. From there I tasted black ice cream from a black cone. No apparent explanation could be given. The Wuhouci (武侯祠) temple was okay but the modern Jinlin Ancient Street (锦里古街) around it was heavily commercial, in a way resembling so many other cities that have tourism at their hearts. The new version of an old style street is very much a photogenic tourist trap.

The biggest draw for tourists lies to the city’s northeast. The city of Chengdu is famous for the Chengdu Panda Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding Centre. It’s a kind of zoo limited to red pandas (the original panda) and a handful of aquatic birds… and Giant Pandas. The 58RMB ticket seemed a little harsh at first. Every enclosure had a sign saying that Giant Pandas can’t go outside in warm weather. For me it was no problem. For many other fare paying customers, they were angry on the border of irate.

On entering several internal enclosures, I managed to see a few scruffy Giant Pandas. Their housing having turned their white to grey and black to dirty. Usually Giant Pandas sit with their arse to the windows. Maybe to drowned out the think it on the glass by adults and kids alike. Tired looking security staff didn’t seem interested in keeping the noise down. Some opted for megaphone to make sure you didn’t stay still too long and enjoy the majestic mountain beasts.

Cameras and selfie sticks are all fair and good, but waving them around carelessly striking a Mancunian in the face will only result in an ouch and a tut. Said person then asked me to “小心” (xiǎoxin) which means be careful. It was entirely my fault to be stood still and swiped by a careless metal pole with an iPhone begging to be stamped on. But, instead I tutted. Tut!

I observed Sichuan Opera (四川歌剧院) on the way to meet a good friend Momo and also caught up with an organiser of the Dongguan World Cup for beers, a natter and midnight snacks. His former student friends were all policemen and lawyers. It was an interesting insight into Sichuanese language and culture. They were all so very friendly. Just like the Taoist people at Qingyanggong Temple (青羊宫) and Du Fu’s cottage (think Chinese Shakespeare). Most of the food I ate was not too spicy (微辣; wēilà) but often it was too oily and spicy. The midnight snack hotpot from a Chongqing boss (老板 lǎobǎn) was delicious, even though I’d ate earlier!

Sichuan pepper (花椒; huājiāo) isn’t too hot compared to Thai and Indian foods. It’s just a little more drying with a kind of mouth numbing effect. Although for one meal, passing a Scotts Fish & Chip shop I had to try it. For 110RMB, the large cod and chips with a drink didn’t disappoint at all! A huge Tibetan area by the Wuhouci temple also had my belly full far too much. Meeting Momo in Comfort Cafe (British-style) meant my two days in Chengdu featured a balanced diet of hot and bland. A good Ploughman’s is hard to find. Sorry, Comfort Cafe, I didn’t find it. The piccalilli wasn’t bad though.

Meeting a student who was travelling alone, I ended up exploring the Panda Museum at the Chengdu Panda Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding Centre with Jason. He explained how he was studying to be a soldier. I didn’t ask questions. Anyway, we tagged along together and ended up going to the immersive Jurassic World exhibition. The 168RMB allowed a wander through some animatronics and simulations. It wasn’t bad and took me back to the first Jurassic Park movie and book. A highly enjoyable contrast to other cultural parts of the days in Chengdu. Chengdu is truly a modern old city with a futuristic outlook.

Next stop: Dali (after a bloody noisy train journey… or three). It’d be nice if the obese woman and her young child that is full on slobbery would stop screaming down their phones. The phone calls are not really helped by the in-out, in-out nature of tunnels and mountains. Almost everyone around them is going on mad. I’ll just tut. Tut!

再见!Zai Jian! Goodbye!

Stage VII: Chaka

你好!Nihao! Hello!

I arrived at Chaka Station (茶卡站, Chákǎ Zhàn) 151km from the gargantuan Qinghai Lake, and 300km from Xining. The smooth railway journey was sandwiched between sweeping views and seemingly endless tunnels. The train ground to a halt on the single track. A chugging diesel engine had swapped with an electrical unit at some stage of the journey. I guess that hour where I had a nap.

The station was immediately at the gate of the scenic area. Chákǎ 茶卡盐湖 Salt Lake (Yánhú) has a salted bed. That’s the reason for such a high level of reflection. There are salt mines around these parts. It’s known as a photographer’s wet dream. For 60RMB (less in off season) and a further 50RMB to board a quaint sightseeing train, there’s much to be seen across the 105 square kilometres of lake. I walked the 3km to my hotel, checked in and then walked back.

Chákǎ is a Tibetan word meaning salt lake. It’s located around 3059m (10,036′) above sea level. That’s probably the reason the Gaoyuanhong Inn has disposable oxygen canisters for sale. That and some salt products. Salt seems to be a thing here, having been mined for three millennia. I read the salt below the water can be 5 to 15 metres in depth. And, every time it rains more salt is brought down the valleys. The once sea area keeps providing. Some claim it is infinite.

There are sightseeing platforms and decking everywhere: a tall 30m tower; a platform with the words ‘I love Caka’; two hearts in love as a platform; and the mirror of sky squares. It’s a real draw for tourism, apparently attracting over a million visitors a year. Sculptures are present and some honour the Wuxian tribes who once harvested the plains and salts of Chaka. Closer to the present there’s an abandoned salt factory and salt-mining transportation hub. There are yachts, helicopters and all manner of ways to see the lake’s splendour.

A smaller lake, Sky Number One Lake, is a little east of Chaka Lake. However, I’m not rushing to it. My experience of saltwater is that it stings broken blisters, makes you really dry and forms a crusty layer over your skin. I’ll take it easy and enjoy the sunrise then have a wander.

Zai jian! Goodbye! 再见

Stage VI: Xining & Kumbum

Nihao! Hello!

The train rolled into Xīníng (西宁) and I skipped immediately down the stairs, found a wee man’s room and had a piddle. As exciting as the journey was, I could not go to the toilet. The views and valleys were something else. The tunnels were also rather long, and I didn’t want to gamble on missing any scenery whilst urinating. Hence, the urgency at Xining’s plush railway station.

Xining is the provincial capital of Qinghai (青海). It is home to Mongols, Tibetans, Han Chinese, and Muslims (Hui). It has a mixture of vibrant cultures. Walking around Lotus Lake (Mayigou Reservoir), I witnessed Tibetan music, Muslims walking and relaxing and Han Chinese carrying umbrellas in the afternoon sun. The train journey into Qinghai crossed huge expanses of grasslands, tight valleys and mountains beyond mountains. There’s nature in and around the area. The WWF (not the wrestling lot) have an office here.

The language around here is different, it’s Mandarin but Qinghaihua dialect. Like the language the cultures and food are quite diverse too. Almost as diverse as the routes of water within this province. The three great rivers of China have their sources in Qinghai. The Mekong, Yellow (黃河) and Yangtze rivers all begin here. Xining’s Huángshuǐ hé (river/湟水河) is a tributary of the Yellow River.

I started Monday by moving hotels. My first choice hotel had no vacancies for two nights so I moved to the Xinsu 1357 Inn. I should have stayed here sooner. The wooden and brick lodge was cosy with lovely lighting and Tibetan decor throughout. Even the room key card came in a hand-carved wooden block. Immediately after checking-in, I set out for the Tǎ’ěr Sì (also known as Kumbum Monastery 塔爾寺). Near to Xining, the 14th Dalai Lama was born and he later spent time at Kumbum. As did Peter Fleming, journalist brother of James Bond creator Ian Fleming.

The monastery was dazzling and wrapped in the blanket of history. There were some buildings rebuilt after a fire in 1912 but mostly the temples and shrines dated to the 17th century. The number of monks is residence is close to 300, a tenth of its peak population. The odd cat and umpteen pigeons scattered between the natural bird population seen on the green fringes of the site.

Whilst wandering a passageway, a pretty young girl stopped me. I’d seen her distinctive glow in a courtyard just moments before. Her curious eyes and manner stopped me and asked me a few questions. My favourite question was, “It’s all in Chinese, how can you understand?” I replied that I’d visited many Buddhist places in Nepal and then we talked about travels. Stacey, as she introduced herself, was a recent Masters graduate and worked with the internet. Smart kid. She’d been to France to study and had a bubbly personality. I bid her goodbye and she scuttled off back towards her native Beijing.

The cultural day featured The Great Lama’s Residence, Yak Butter Scripture Temple (a huge butter sculpture in a refrigerator of a modern temple), then the Huangzhong Huanghe Cultural Museum. From there I wandered to Huangzhong County Museum, and a Tibetan Museum by the Mayigou lake/reservoir. I’d already walked the pleasant area around the reservoir the day before. Today I aimed for the food festival site at it’s far end.

I joined a Tibetan family’s stall and ate a kind if bread with lamb inside. This came with a spicy coleslaw-like salad and some rolled dough noodles (擀面皮 gǎnmiànpí). It was all delicious and a fantastic way to feel full on a walk back. That and an ice cream.

Frustrating things happen. That’s life. Some conversations lack progression or clarity. That’s the way of life. The important thing is to be polite and patient.

“When did you enter China?”
“March 2020.”
*pause*

“When did you enter China?”
“March 2020.”
*thinking*

“When did you enter China?”
“March 2020.”
*puzzlement*

“When did you enter China?”
“March 2020.”
*does not compute*

“Show me your vaccine certificate.”
I complied.

“Did you leave China since coming to China?”
“No.”

“Please wait a moment.”
Minutes pass.

“When did you enter China?”
I repeatedly point at my passport entry date stamp.

Questions about where I was yesterday, the day before, last week follow.
“So, you have no job?”
“I’m a teacher. I am on holidays.”

Guess the next question.
I ignore the train conductor. Until the next visit. This time she has an array of questions…

I was asked why I was on holidays; how I have worked in China since the pandemic; why I have no wife; why I didn’t go back to the UK; why I didn’t stay at home; which school I worked at; do the school allow travel; do the school know where I am; why am I travelling alone. I had an audience around me. One person insisted on translating for me. A kind stranger. One passerby stood an recorded it on his phone. I imagine I’ll be on TikTok/Douyin soon enough. After all of that I was none the wiser as to what I’d done wrong. Perhaps I’d stolen some hotel soap. I didn’t want to leave the bar of soap to be wasted. Perhaps, I didn’t give my first pet’s name?

Tuesday’s 8am train from Xining railway station arrives at Chaka Lake by 12:10. The hard sleeper service cost 275RMB return, but it meant sprawling out with a book would be possible, and not a hard seat for the bottom. The Gaoyuanhong Inn would provide a night’s sleep before returning at 17:10 on Wednesday for a 21:30 arrival in Xining. That should fit in a trip to the Dongguan Mosque (东关清真大寺; Dōngguān Qīngzhēndàsì) before departing Xining…

Chaka Lake and Chaka Khan are two very different things. The latter is a Singer-song writer, born in 1953, famed for I’m Every Woman and Ain’t Nobody. Chaka Salt Lake is often known as the ‘Mirror of the sky.’

Zai jian! Goodbye!

Stage V: Wall’s End (Jiayuguan)

Nihao! 你好! Hello!

The pass at Jiāyùguān (嘉峪关) is the Ming Dynasty‘s western end of the Great Wall of China. From 1368-1644, the Ming Dynasty rid China of Mongols and had 16 Emperors. During which time, 168 years of facial lifts have led the Great Wall to it’s current state of appearance. That and some careful restoration work in the 1980s too. The pass lies on the Hexi Corridor (河西走廊 Héxī Zǒuláng) at the narrowest point, which is a plain between the Tibetan & Mongolian Plateaus.

For the afternoon, I visited the Overhanging Wall (悬壁长城), the First Pier of the Great Wall (长城第一墩; changcheng diyi dun) and Jiayuguan’s original fort area. The taxi driver I had selected had agreed 180RMB for the routes and waiting times. The 120RMB tong piao (ticket) allowed access to all three sites. Although at the pier site an electric car is on offer for 20RMB for those wishing to avoid the baking sunshine. The dry hot sunshine is only comfortable for so long!

The Ming Dynasty’s Great Wall’s western end was a slog down a valley to a closed bridge to look up as the river sloshed by heavily. The River Lai fed by the Qilian mountains gave life to many regions but here few plants braved the unforgiving desert earth. After a while I headed to the museum in the 56 metre high cliff face and the final beacon of the Great Wall. The signposts were published in English, Chinese and Japanese. The English mostly resembled gibberish. Although I ascertained that this part of the Great Wall was built around 1539CE across 18 years. With that I went to the Overhanging Wall, next to a huge desert with military operations under way. Best to avoid that. I looked down from the picturesque wall at a ski slope and wondered how such a hot place could ever get snow!

The final stop was the fortified city of Jiayuguan. The Silk Road’s trading and tax station of old. Rammed earth, yellow and sand-like dried mud mixed with rice pastes, stones and straw have been shaped to scar the landscape around this region. The wall, of course, was a defensive garrison and outpost of a nation growing in strength and stature. It could even be said that some sections would blend into the surrounding desert. For unlucky invaders, trenches would lay hidden on approach to the wall, often filled with hazardous death-and-pain-inducing problems. Gansu’s northwestern city of Jiayuguan is named after the pass. The loess and windswept substrate reflected the sunlight up and at you.

After exiting the ancient walls of Jiayuguan, I found the Great Wall Museum was long closed. It shuts at the odd time of 16:30. It being 19:30, I tottered back to my hotel and ate some local barbecue foods on the way. My aching feet appreciated the early night’s sleep.

Following a good sleep at the Railway Station Ibis Hotel and an okay breakfast, I was lucky enough to hire the same taxi driver for 150RMB. I had initially enquired about the July 1st Glacier and mountain park (七一冰川) but was advised the whole area is closed for safety and conservation reasons. So, a new plan was made. First we stopped at the underground tombs of 魏晋墓葬 (Weijin Muzang). Here you could only visit one of nine unearthed tombs. It being far below the surface. The museum is a little underwhelming as most of the tombs had long been plundered. The few artefacts and coffins on display are nevertheless impressive. On, by cart, to the tomb site, and you alight in a wide open space.

I’m in a wide open space. There’s a wooden shelter. Beside that a concrete block the size of a small garden shed. A mound of earth covered in pebbles and grit protrudes. A small metallic vent sits atop. It looks out of place. The aggressive sunshine beats down. I feel out of place. An electric police cart parks in the shed’s shade. It is out of place. The shed’s metal door opens on aching hinges. A policeman gestures for me to enter. He’s the site security man and ticket officer. He clips my ticket and points to a staircase. I slip down underground. A welcome respite from the heated day overground.

The 36C heat of outside fades in just a few steps. Subterranean coolness wraps around me. After a few dozen steps, I’m at a largely concrete anteroom. Here I see a wall and facade of great detail. A small arch allows access to the tombs beyond. I crouch and enter admiring the majestic brickwork entrance.

Inside the tomb’s tight entrance, the dazzling array of colours leap from the four wall. The brick dome overhead looms over my tall frame. I strangely feel no claustrophobia but do feel calm. The air is still and silent. It’s eerily unmoving. The details of the drawings and the colours envelop my eyes. It’s morbid fascination has grasped me. I visit the three tombs in a line ducking through short archways to enter each ancient gallery. No photography is allowed. The light flickers ever so slightly. I reach for my phone to use the torch function. It radiates a deep pocket within the tomb. The drawings stretch into a smaller tube lined with bricks and stones. It’s a magical piece of history. The region has ruins everywhere to see.

Next the taxi driver kindly visited Yěmáwān Cūn (野麻湾村). This village with a sand and rammed earth fortress nestles between corn and other farmland. Watermelons were being grown across the road. I shuffled around the wire protection fence admiring the sparrows and swifts that had made nests in the crumbling ruins. The front of the fortress faces the main road and the rear is less dramatic but well worth a wander. The flooded farm fields next to this barren piece of earth are suitably contrasting. The modern art of survival alongside the old dried and decayed survival walls. All in sight of the snow capped Qilian Mountains many kilometres away!

The Qilian Mountains (祁连山; Qílián Shān) peaks at Kangze’gyai around 5808m (19055′), not the name of the whole mountain range. Interestingly, the uncle of the notorious flying ace Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen (The Red Baron) had once named the almost 800km long mountain range. Uncle Baron Ferdinand went with the local name of Richthofen Range. He also created the name Seidenstraße which these days we know as the ‘Silk Road’.

My silk road following was almost over. The D2758 train at 11:09 from Jiayuguan South will whistled through Zhangye West  on Sunday passing through a place called Mingle before arriving at Qinghai’s provincial capital city Xining for 14:36. The seat I should have been on in carriage 11, had a sleeping individual across three seats on a packed carriage. His snoring was causing perturbation to other passengers. I should him. Nothing. Again. Nothing. I said excuse me in Chinese. Nowt. So, I moved to an empty seat and hoped for the best.

The Qilian Mountains straddled my right hand view. Their snow caps contrasted greatly with the foreground view if rolling desert hills and the northern reclaimed agriculture on a plain once covered in arid nothingness. That’s all for now. Time to enjoy this train journey.

再见Zai Jian/Goodbye

Stage IV: Rainbow Mountains

How do!

Here we go again…

A little later than expected the Z6207 train rolled into Zhāngyè (张掖) Railway Station. The Lanzhou to Xinjiang Railway (兰新铁路/Lánxīn Tiělù) Service was not expected to terminate there. It would carry on to somewhere along the 1904km (1183 miles) line, perhaps even Ürümqi itself. The train Oliver and I had arrived on was not the train we were supposed to arrive on. We were supposed to have arrived on the 12th by 12:51. Here we were, in Zhangye, on the 13th, at 16:40. Our replacement train had been six hours late leaving Yinchuan in Ningxia, so that had long missed the connection at Lanzhou West in Gansu. We’d looked at countless alternative routes, alternative plans, flights and in the end, just waited. No simple solution presented itself. Many dull hours in Yinchuan station led to us boarding a train and waking in Lanzhou, to then tackle 12306 Chinese Railway customer services, with a handful of crap Chinese and a bucketful of determination. With regret, we opted for a 5 hour train journey in standing room only. By room, there was little room, although for the last hour of the journey, we managed to sit down. The train was cooler than the outside 38°C.

After arriving the local security and medical team at the station made us supply dates of travel, PCR (COVID-19) test results, green codes, phone numbers, places we intended to stay and our pet dog’s mother’s maiden-name. It was just a small hiccup in an otherwise wonderful travel. COVID-19 had seen many people pull their masks up as we approached. A very thoughtful act! Their saliva and spray from breathing could no longer get in our pathway. Some even jumped out of our way. Being vaccinated and the current pandemic has made many question our arrival dates into China. My standard response is, “Wǒ cóng 2020 nián 3 yuè 26 rì kāishǐ zài zhōngguó, wǒ yǐjīng liǎng nián méiyǒu chūguò guóle.” I may get that on a T-shirt: 我从2020年3月26日开始在中国,我已经两年没有出过国了。I have been in China since March 26th, 2020. I have not left the country in two years. Maybe on the back of my new Manchester City shirt?

The first thing we did was say hello to Waits and then go for dinner, an early one, a local dish of chicken in thick noodles and plenty of sauce. Waits had recommended it. We devoured it. Little remained. Following that we enjoyed a walk around the Zhangye Wetland Reserves (a Ramsar site: Ramsar is in Iran and happens to be where the 1971 Convention on Wetlands was held). The Hēihé (Black River or Weak Water/弱水/黑河) banks give this fragile temperate desert environment a surreal edge. It is a set of oases – some small oasis, some huge. I spied a Baer’s pochard (Aythya baeri), some gulls and a stork flying over. The water, in the evening, had cool fresh feel, lowering the temperature of the air around. It gives life in a tough place to live. We talked a little before all retiring to our hotel, leaving Waits to drive the short road home.

On the recommendation of Waits, the Zhangye Pingshan Grand Canyon (平山湖大峡谷; Pingshanhu Daxiagu) became our destination for our first morning in Zhangye. We hired a taxi to the destination for 229RMB. With access, via tickets costing RMB, and paths spanning out to the 1040 square kilometres filled with red-layer Mesozoic Jurassic rocks and sands. Gullies, stacks, sandstone mountains and years of erosion capped with grasses, small shrubs and few signs of trees as the near-sterile mountain swept over an almost-infertile great distance to the barren desert below. Here, Oliver and I wandered and explored the desert area, where it was spitting and cloudy. The toasting desert temperature of 35°C dropped to a pleasantly mild 22°C. After our wanderings we headed to the car park, and the Didi app failed us. We tried in vain to get a taxi. No joy. Not until Oliver managed to ask a hotel to help us. A kind woman taxi driver offered to get us to our next port of call for 258RMB (including an 18RMB toll charge).

Looking back as the taxi car pulled onto the new highway, the towering mountain-scape beyond the canyons looked dark green. The aspens, spruces and cypresses soon disappeared and the bleak desert surrounded the highway for some time. Soon after passing through the tollroad, the car slid into a long tunnel appearing beyond a range of mountains closer to Zhangye’s city. The car slowed and the driver explained something, and that her friend would carry on the journey. Her friend drew alongside our car and we were delivered on the roadside like contraband. Her friend was a talker, and never shut up yapping, even after Oliver and I fell asleep. We awoke as the car skidded to a halt at another of Zhangye’s Danxia landforms. The driver took my Wechat for contacting later and pushed for us to use her taxi on the way back. I declined, because we didn’t want to be rushed. I said I’d order her taxi later and pay. She agreed but still persisted. I said to her, “Do not wait.”

The colourful mountains of 张掖七彩丹霞旅游景区 (Zhāngyè Guójiā Dìzhìgōngyuán/Zhangye Qicai Danxia Scenic Spot) rise and fall like towering sea waves. They are devoid of life. Few plants grow. This is the driest area of the desert. The strata of rocks displays multitudes of colour over an area of around 510 square kilometres (200 square miles). The public access to the park is limited to a handful of areas to prevent erosion. The organic sediments make for a rainbow effect with colours often hard to describe. I went with blue-yellow, but Oliver said it was green. We couldn’t agree. Iron, trace minerals, sands, salts, uplifted sediments and silicilastic rocks make for a vivid and overwhelming landscape. Hematite (a kind or iron oxide), Danxia formations, yellowing metallic sulfurous rock, green chlorite rich clays and purple slithers give the eyes a challenge to decipher the blend of colours. Cameras do not do the region justice. Watching sunset here was a treat, just like the superb market Waits recommended for dinner afterwards! Gansu knows how to do beef noodles!

The shuttle buses, walkways and guided routes of the Zhangye National Geopark are a must. Long may people witness the glory of nature’s Qilian foothills. At first Oliver and I were disgruntled at being corraled along a pre-designated route, but the volume of people (easily tens of thousands) merited the passing of numerous gift shops, cafes and hot air balloon ride areas. The millions of years that have seen dinosaurs and their terrain smashed to smithereens gives us the impressive ‘Rainbow Mountains’. Tourism is under regulation to allow for that to continue. The 74RMB ticket includes the shuttle bus journey. Walking solo is now banned. Walking out of the exit gate after our wander, and checking my phone, I spied I had 8 missed calls from the taxi driver who had got us there. Just as I looked up, Oliver said, “Here’s the driver!” And, she tried to push us to move faster. I purchased some delicious apricots and Oliver browsed the souvenirs casually. Eventually we boarded her car. She had gained another customer who was sat waiting. We went back to the city. She dropped off the man, and he paid 200RMB. At which stage, we were famished, and decided to find food there. We told the pleasant but pushy taxi driver. She then demanded 450RMB! We agreed at 100RMB. She had tried to rip us off.

At 东大街 (Dond DaJie) we found 甘州市场 (Ganzhou food market; Ganzhou is the old provincial name) and ate twisted dish noodles (without fish). Cuōyúmiàn 搓鱼面 looks like fish, beef noodles and a crispy crunchy 洋芋擦擦 (potato wipe?). It was so good, that we went there the next day for lunch and ate like pigs, drank lemon water like it was going out of fashion and chilled in the heat. The day had taken us around Zhangye’s city centre to see the old wooden pagoda (西来寺; 50RMB not well spent), Great Buddha Temple (大佛寺: to see a lay down 34.5m long Buddha; 40RMB well spent) and the Bell & Drum Tower (rebuilt 1668, which now doubles up as a traffic roundabout; 10RMB entry). The city of Zhangye has much to offer, but sadly time was limited. With Waits being busy, I decided, over a cold Dayao (大窑: an Inner Mongolian soft drink that tastes like bubblegum), to depart the day after Oliver.

Oliver departed, on Thursday, by Didi taxi car to the Lanxin Second Railway/Lánxīn tiělù dìèr shuāngxiàn (兰新铁路第二双线) Zhangye West Station (张掖西站) and I turned right from the food market area. His connecting flight in Shenzhen being a week or so away, and my need to carry on wandering led to the shaking of hands and goodwill words. Now solo, I wandered around the city’s many parks and then went for a late afternoon nap. Afterwards, I met Waits for dinner and nattered until late.

Departure for myself came the next morning (Friday), again from Zhāngyē Xī Zhàn. Here I caught the D4011 to Jiayuguan. As it was available, I grabbed a first class train ticket for 125RMB. I wouldn’t usually do that, but as Chester-born comedian Jeff Green used to say, “F**k it, I’m on holiday!” So, I sat comfortably and enjoyed the plains, mountains, and rolling parallel railway.

Ta’ra for now!

Waits (& see: City)

Dear all, interested or not, especially Blues,

I’ve known Waits since I joined Shenzhen Blues way back in 2014-ish. The oddity of it all, is that he and I hadn’t met in person until July 2021. Arriving in the old Zhangye Railway Station I spot Waits by the railway station entrance immediately. His sky blue t-shirt emblazoned with MCFC was exactly what I had expected to see. Us Blues stand out. What amazed me most is that Zhangye is 2865km from Shenzhen. There are no direct flights, and certainly no direct trains. The quickest flights via Lanzhou are 5 hours and 50 minutes.

Brother Waits.

Waits has been following Manchester City for years. We’re not talking about a glory-seeker at all. He latched onto the singers of the blues on the back of a certain Sun Jihai. He’s endured seasons of toil and mid-table football, before the good times came along. He even said he preferred watching City from 2001 to 2009. Most City fans have that romantic lust for those times. The expectation and the angry eye of the media these days can be all-so-consuming. He’s sat up at all hours of day to see the famous sky blue and white team play umpteen teams over land and sea… and Stretford. He’s one of our own.

Submitted December 2019 to SZBs.

Over the years I have acted as his football jersey mule, occasionally sourcing one or carrying his Classic Football Shirt orders from my Mam’s house to China. His collection, his famed home-office (man cave?) is full of City. Tencent and QQ media have interviewed him. He was interviewed for Shenzhen’s live fan gathering at the end of the last season. He’s featured on City’s Inside City shows and other places too. Sometimes, I wonder why Manchester City’s China office hasn’t offered him a position (of remote working). His passion for teaching English and his love of City is for all to see.

Waits reply to his best goal: “SWP nearly zero angle shot”

Waits has translated the poem This Is The Place by Tony Walsh, with permission. The Chinese edition featured in Dongguan’s defunct HubHao magazine and online. Shenzhen Blues also published it to Manchester City fans in China. For years Waits has translated Manchester City’s On This Day information, statistics, facts, stories and tales of City folklore. He’s encouraged young and new fans alike, giving advice, passion and fairness accordingly. He has championed the Champions before they won leagues, cups and trophies (this century). Recently, he translated an interview between Mark McCarthy (Manchester City Match Worn Shirts, MCMWS) and Pete ‘The Badge’ Berry.

这是我和@Waits 还有@二蛋💭 一起运营的公众号,会发一些曼城相关的好玩内容。欢迎订阅!
Miranda, @Waits and @二蛋 are running this public account. It will share some interesting content about City on it. Come and subscribe!Go on!

His favourite game remains City beating Tottenham Hotspurs having gone 3-0 down to come away 4-3 winners. Considering the games that have passed since, he’s sticking to that one game. He even chooses Kevin Keegan as top gaffer over the elite leaders that have managed the Citizens since. He told me once that he translated subtitles for There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble! Hey Manchester City China, “Go on, give it to Waits!”

Shenzhen Blues in Zhangye… and a mad Aussie called Oliver.

Waits has much more to him than football. Whilst he plays it with students and local Zhangye folk, he can often be found strumming his guitar. A few renditions of Blue Moon have been heard over the years. And, in recent years he has welcomed Amos to his family alongside Mrs Waits. The family can enjoy tales of how Waits was raised on a cavalry base by his mother and father. They can discover their Sichuanese heritage, without taking a panda! Whilst Waits asked more questions, than I asked him, when he spoke, he spoke in an articulated way about all manner of things. I learned about Zhangye’s three Buddha statues. One standing, one crouching (tired) and one resting.

Wandering chitchat Blues

One thing, I can say about Waits is that his English is fantastic. He asked me, “What do you think of my English accent?” I think I hurt him, with my joking response, “It sounds Chinese.” In actual fact, his English is very clear and follows a British tone similar to that found on Downton Abbey and other TV drama shows set in England. I probably have only met a dozen Chinese-born people who have such a great spoken English accent. Obviously, Waits is not speaking Mancunian-nasal tones but his heart is definitely in it! Innit.

A small snack of kidney, liver, stomach, intestines and breads. The local Zhangye food was delicious!

Ode to Hart


Time, flows in passing days,
Memories, flashes now and then,
And my tears, reluctantly falling,
Falling like I’m faking falsely by no means.

No more you on the pitch
No more your passion, your shouting and your encouragement
No more your commitment, no more your fighting, your joy and regret
Because I know, gone is gone
Like your waving to us
Your clapping, and your farewell words

“We are all grown man, we get over with it.”
Happy 30th, my HART. Happy everyday
It’s not something I won’t let go
It’s you.

They may forget, but I won’t
They may laugh, and I won’t
Neither will I forget nor will I laugh
I will keep it in my heart and keep you my SOUL AND HART

 Waits [April 19th, 2017]

Dinner and a local brew.

I hope that the next time I see Waits, we can enjoy a good old chinwag and I’ll get to know more about him. It was good to hear him talk with enthusiasm about how my Mum with Paul visited him on his trip to Manchester to see his first City game. I liked his response to how a City steward offered him tickets to Old Trafford swamp to see that lot play and he flat out refused, pointing to his badge. Pride in battle indeed. Until next time I meet Waits, I consider him a great friend and a wonderful person to know (with great English).

  1. 你为什么追随曼城?Why do you follow Manchester City?
  2. 你最深刻的曼城记忆是什么?What’s your favourite Manchester City memory?
  3. 你最钟情的曼城球衣是哪几件?What are your favourite Manchester City shirts?
  4. 说出你心目中的曼城最佳阵容。Name your all-time Manchester City XI (eleven).
  5. 这个赛季最终的结果将会如何?How will this season end?
  6. 你去过曼彻斯特吗?如果没有,你梦想去那里旅行吗?Have you been to Manchester? If not, do you dream to travel there?
  7. 在中国,你会推荐外国城迷们去哪里参观?他们应该尝尝哪些中国的食物呢?Where do you recommend City fans see in China? What food should they try?

如需提交您的问题或者答案,请发送电子邮件至 acton28@hotmail.co.uk,或者联系微信:acton28

To submit your questions and answers, please e-mail acton28@hotmail.co.uk or send a WeChat message to: acton28.

Stage III: Walls & Fences

Dear curious folk and readers,

I am writing from near the seat of the West Xia Kingdom (1038-1227). The city of Yinchuan is about 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) away from the tombs and mausoleum. The bone dry eastern face of the Helan mountain range towers over the mausoleum site. The site spans around 50 square kilometers (19.3 square miles) and approximately 9 imperial tombs, with a huge 253 lesser tombs. They’re still making discoveries to this day.

The tombs are incredible to witness. The museum at the entrance has six very modern galleries full of relics discovered across the site. The lighting, style and interactive nature of the artefacts is we’ll organised. There are plenty of opportunities to visit the a 3D cinema, gifts shops and grab plenty of water for the outdoor experience that follows. From the museum you can walk to a bus transfer. Here we opted to walk to the mausoleums and experience the desert ambiance.

The mausoleum site is spread out, striking and feature-rich. Steles, towers, sacrifice palaces, earth walls, and natural damage by winter floodwater alongside cracks in the earth covered the whole region. Using three-wheeled scooters after plenty of walking, we managed to see huge distances of the area. Sunblock was applied almost hourly, as grasshoppers flew by with clicking sounds and cute Gerbil-like rodents scampered around. With two litres of water, the day was comfortable, but more is advisable in 38 degrees heat! The sun is not your friend.

The day was a great investment in exploring the state’s deep history and culture. A taxi from Yinchuan cost 60RMB and a return Didi taxi car cost 85RMB with entrance fee being about a 100RMB. Just over two hours on the scooters cost 130RMB (but we certainly went off the beaten track).

The following day, Mr Oliver and I set out for the Great Wall. I’d suggested the Ming Great Wall stretch by a place called Sanguankou (三关口明长城). The three passes are about 2.5km apart. We didn’t go there. Mr Oliver found a section using Baidu maps and an overhead satellite photo near to the G307 highway (Ningxia to Inner Mongolia). So, after a Didi taxi car journey we hopped out in searing heat in the mountainous Alxa desert. Having left Yinchuan’s continental arid climate we were now at the mercy of the sun.

We scrambled up a mound of earth to see a watchtower, wandered down the road and looked at the adjacent wall sections. Here we respected every fence and sign. Then we went under the highway and followed a section of wall through fields and over hills. Horses, hares and hawks were frequent witnesses to our hiking. The enigmatic landscape surrounding the wall had so much to offer the eyes.

Fences came and went, so we walked close and far at times. We started trekking at about 10:30am and ended around 19:00hrs. Some sections had the backdrop of a Jeep safari driving range, whilst others had civilian roads with a handful of tourists driving by and saying hello. At some stage though we had to get back to Yinchuan. The map shown a road to the nearby Wuwa Highway and G110 highway. We avoided the military warning signs on a path seemingly headed into the mountains, passing some civilian contractors and wandered (now without any water left) along a bleak ever-expanding straight line slab of concrete. The road was intensely energy-consuming.

Towards the last 3km, just past the tanks, a car with two men gave us a lift to the highway. That journey was curtailed and after three hours of explaining our day’s walking route, photograph inspection and travel document verification we were driven to the village of Minning. The People’s Liberation Army were extremely hospitable. They seemed to understand that we’d strayed into their tank range unintentionally. They appreciated our desire to see the Ming Dynasty Great Wall.

The gate guardsmen gave us hot noodles, a cake and some fruit. And frequent, much needed water. The chief who came with at least three officers and the Public Security Bureau policemen kept apologising for taking our time. It was all rather surreal. We were able to cancel our onward train journey, and hotel for the next night. We also apologised politely and shown our sorrow at wandering into a restricted military zone.

The Public Security Bureau policemen waited with us whilst we tried to get a taxi or Didi car. As it was midnight, nothing was coming, so we spoke with a nearby hotel receptionist. He ordered a car for us. We got in, whilst being watched by the three policemen. They approached then checked the driver knew where we were going. Finally, they checked his credentials and found he was an illegal taxi driver. So, we stepped from the car, “for your safety” and the Police dealt with him. Annoyed by that inconvenience, we started to hike and try to get back. The Police gave up and headed back. Eventually we flagged down a van.

Nestled between chicken feet in buckets, flies on the roof and 400RMB lighter for it, we made it back to the hotel we’d checked out of that day. We retrieved our left luggage and checked-in. All is well that ends well. Our next journey is the 1842 train to Gansu’s Lanzhou city to meet a connection to Zhangye. What waits for us there?

Until next time, goodbye…

Stage II: Shanxi’s Great Wall

晚上好 Good evening (or whatever time it is),

The Great Wall (长城) is massive. It’s length exceeds the distance around the U.K.’s total coastline (I believe). Fact check that at your heart’s content. Heading from Xi’an involved a night train on a soft sleeper bed. The room had old yellowing lights, grim grey walls and no power sockets. It was cost-effective to travel and bunk, than to bunk at a hotel then travel. The selected option had no shower and barely a place to brush your teeth in comfort. The on board restaurant car involved a selection of noodles, room temperature water or baijiu (rice wine).

Having finished Lee Child and Andrew Child’s The Sentinel, sleep was an easy choice. My former colleague Mr Oliver occupied the attention of an enthusiasm kid trying to charge his phone at a busted power point outside our bunker of a room. The lack of ventilation wasn’t so bad because our closest window slid down from time to time. Waking up at 01:30hrs due to a slammer of a man thumping down his suitcase, thrashing his shoes off and generally bumping everything with loudness wasn’t so bad. Until his eruptive snoring. Still, I fell asleep well.

From Taiyuan station we wandered to a bus station, Jiannan Bus Station, bagged tickets and sat down to eat in a Chinese equivalent of a greasy-spoon cafe nearby. The Shanxi pickles were good alongside egg pancakes and eggs. After an uneventful journey with a dab of xenophobia, we arrived at the mining region of Yangquan (coincidentally where I’m writing this now). Immediately a Didi taxi was booked to Niangziguan and the village of ShuiShangRenJia. The water village has multiple bubbling springs feeding babbling brooks and streams. Some pass through and under buildings. Our homestay had such a variety of flowing water over the roof and in the restaurant area.

The above was written yesterday evening and since then there has been an overnight train journey on hard seats. Think little old ladies spitting into metal pans, snoring and general discomfort. On the positive side, some fellow passengers made space for my rucksack and moved from my first seat. Mr Oliver and I drank a few McDonald’s-based beers, pretending to be customers at the American Embassy branch of Taiyuan. It passed some of the three-hour transfer time.

We have wandered through Guguan Pass and Ningzi Pass in recent days. Seeing the old stonework and some newer sections has allowed us to explore a few off the beaten track avenues. Some knee-deep in thorns and prickly bushes, with wasps the size of fighter jets buzzing by our heads. Some horsefly species surely must take their name from that of them being the size of a horse. Scorpions and centipedes have whipped by and so far been avoided. Although mites and spider bites have likely been experienced.

The jagged snaking Great Wall sections at Guguan are far more dramatic than that of Ningzi Pass. The protrusion at the latter have been remade in recent years but sit atop a splendid village and river landscape. At our lodge of choosing, the owners have decorated the walls with photos and artworks of the locality. The waterfall these days is hidden around a river-side theme park and tacky attractions. However, the Great Wall lines an ancient village.

Guguan is an oddity. The wall towers over a fantastic entrance gate. The ground is lined with centuries of horse and cart worn stones. Around the entrance, a highway slides through (under a section of bridge connecting The Great Wall). The scars of industry, mining and the Revolution periods of China’s new era shroud and strangle the Great Wall before releasing it’s higher levels to a combination of wild scrubland and farmlands.

The short stay in Shanxi was a pleasant one with local people gifting us refreshing cucumbers, crunchy crisp pancakes and an abundance of pleasantries. The food was excellent and varied. The people were generally warm and welcoming. The whole visit was delightful, despite the heat! However, I won’t miss the relentless thorn bushes (or the snarling dogs)!

Good night (or whatever time it is)!

Stage I: Xi’an

Departing Shenzhen International Airport for Xi’an city in Shaanxi province proved a problem. The 1050am flight was cancelled. That was a pretty hefty stumbling block. But, in checking the trains, Mr Oliver and I booked a long haul train from Guangzhou South to Xi’an via Zhengzhou East (wherever that is). We hopped in a Didi car and jumped on a high speed train from Dongguan’s Humen Railway Station.

Almost 11 hours later we arrived at Xi’an and used another Didi taxi car to take us to the Lemon Hotel. The wrong one. Turned out there are more than one, with similar names. We almost ended up at yet another incorrect Lemon Hotel. Bitter luck followed us to the right hotel though. Our reserved rooms with given away because we were late. So, we had a family room and checked out the next day rather annoyed.

We left our bags at left luggage, and gravitated towards to Xian city walls. The walls are around 14km around, although I didn’t do the maths. After just under three hours the circuit was completed. There was annoyingly a lot of sunburn. Oops. Major oops. The wall is a seriously good place to feel the city and get close to the historic grounds. However, most is quite commercial and bare. Nevertheless, the city walls and castle features are vast and photogenic.

Breakfast and dinner has been delightful. Xi’an really lives up to its reputation when it comes to variety and delicious foods! It seems everyone wants you to try something new or local. The belly may grow these days…

With the wall completed, and attempt to see the museum was abandoned due to sold out tickets. Some further walking was had followed by a park with an entertaining roller skating rink. Tomorrow, terracotta and upright old fashioned Action Men figures await.

Bon Voyage.

The little man darting up the tree.

The kid with stings, bites and bruises.

The joy at finding spiders and beetles to see.

The sad face when his team loses.

The dancing girl we could all look up to.

Singing about butterflies and happy times.

Telling stories through and through to me and you.

Whistling words with witty rhymes.

Proud teachers and parents gazing onwards.

The strumming rumbling tuneful times.

Their journey goes on and onwards.

The walks, the runs, the climbs.

This isn’t a time of sadness or madness.

You’ve touched us all, including me.

This is a moment to feel collective gladness.

The books passed around silently.

Your departure may come with haste.

Jet off, carry on the journey of life and love.

To the future, you go, do not waste.

Look back, look up, down, left, right and above.

We were here. We were now. We were one group, at one place, in one time. We were lucky.

Get out there. Carry on to share. Bring that spark of sunshine, in another place, in another time. You’ll be lucky.

Hey!

They’ll be lucky.

(Unless Mr Lee makes coffee again: for the love of God and all the holy characters, stay away from the coffee machines)

Farewell and Bon Voyage Shawver tribe.

Where’s the next mountain?

To sit and wait.

Hasn’t it been a long time since the wind whistled lightly down the valley? Hasn’t it been so long since the book’s pages flipped over gently in the breeze? Hasn’t it been so long since the smell of a campfire spun on smoke from a place unseen to the eye? Isn’t it a pity that these places seem so far away? If only I had more memories to sit back and unwind with. Where’s the next mountain? Where’s the next wander? Where?

ERIC CARLE June 25th 1929 – May 23rd 2021

224 words shaped so many bedtime reading sessions. Bedrooms around the world were greeted with a heart-warming tale of growth, albeit through humour and a spot of seemingly obesity. The story has radiated like the light from the moon, from pages in over 60 languages to beaming eyes looking at the colourful intricate nature of the tale.

“That’s something I learned in art school. I studied graphic design in Germany, and my professor emphasized the responsibility that designers and illustrators have towards the people they create things for.” – Eric Carle

Eric Carle didn’t just write that one book of course. His designs, illustrations and words have appeared in numerous texts. Having dropped his first drawings in 1965, Aesop’s Fables for Modern Readers (Peter Pauper Press), the new-to-the-scene and relatively young illustrator was spotted by educator and author Bill Martin Jr. One red lobster in an advertisement led to a lifetime of colour and creation.

“We have eyes, and we’re looking at stuff all the time, all day long. And I just think that whatever our eyes touch should be beautiful, tasteful, appealing, and important.” – Eric Carle

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? was an award-winning book collaboration with the late author Bill Martin Jr. Thereafter cardboard editions, die-cut holes, inflatables, plastic pockets and multiple versions of artwork with words began to grow and filter from Eric Carle to the world. Countless children have lived and learned through rhyming picture books and used string in one of his many creations.

“One day I think it’s the greatest idea ever that I’m working on. The next day I think it’s the worst that I’ve ever worked on – and I swing between that a lot. Some days I’m very happy with what I’m doing, and the next day I am desperate – it’s not working out!” – Eric Carle

The story of the story-teller is ever more remarkable. This was a man, who his wife Barbara Morrison, strongly believed had held a form of post traumatic stress disorder. He’d dug trenches on the dreaded Siegfried Line of a World War II battlefield. He’d seen death at first hand, aged only around 15 years of age. But then, darkness turned to light over the years: “One Sunday morning the warm sun came up and – pop! – out of the egg came a tiny and very hungry caterpillar.” Okay, it wouldn’t have been that simple, but Eric Carle refused to bow down and give in. Years of toil brought his mind to a place where writing was permitted. An audience was earned. From Germany in World War II, he returned to his country of birth, the U.S.A. and found his way from Syracuse to the New York Times as a graphic artist.

“Let’s put it this way: if you are a novelist, I think you start out with a 20 word idea, and you work at it and you wind up with a 200,000 word novel. We, picture-book people, or at least I, start out with 200,000 words and I reduce it to 20.” – Eric Carle

Via stints back in Germany, for the U.S. Army (during the Korean War) he went on to be an art director at an advertising agency. His collage techniques, rich in hand-painted paper, featured layers and slices of vivid imagination set out as tiny pieces of artwork. Nature and wonder have set tones throughout his simple stories. These stories have been warm and inviting, and give hope to children, especially those new to schooling and education.

Papa, please get the moon for me is a tale of great importance in my opinion. It shows us that imagination is wonderful, even if it is breaking something seen as impossible. Whoever told me that Father Christmas, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny weren’t real, or anybody for that matter, that breaks the dreams of a child, deserves a good long look at themselves. Reality and imagination can sit side by side, otherwise Neil Armstrong, or Elon Musk or Celine Dion would not be around. Ability and knowledge need the company of spark and dream – and that’s where imagination grows.

“They are deceptively simple. I admit that. But for me, all my life I try to simplify things. As a child in school, things were very hard for me to understand often, and I developed a knack, I think. I developed a process to simplify things so I would understand them.” – Eric Carle

As I sit typing words and reading about Eric Carle’s history, I recall flicking through glossy covers of his books, and the joy as my face beamed when I discovered a translated copy in Hengli, Dongguan. That beautiful familiar white cover with a caterpillar and a red apple missing a mouthful, all slightly imbalanced, as if to say, and to appeal, that things aren’t always neat and tidy. One day when COVID-19 passes and the world is a little more tidy, I dream to fly to Amherst, Massachusetts to see the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. That would be as good as finding another Uroballus carlei on a trip to Hong Kong. The Caterpillar Jumping Spider’s Latin name is testament to the reach and pull of a world class picture book writer.

“My father used to take me for walks in the woods. He would peel back the bark of a tree and show me the creatures who lived there. I have very fond memories of these special times with my father and in a way I honor him with my books and my interest in animals and insects.” – Eric Carle

ERIC CARLE June 25th 1929 – May 23rd 2021

Rain! Rain! Rain!

How do,

“Rain, rain, rain, a wicked rain
Falling from the sky
Down, down, down, pouring down
Upon the night
Well there’s just one chance in a million
That someday we’ll make it out alive” – Wicked Rain, Los Lobos

Pluviophile means a lover of rain. I heard that people who identify as lovers of rain are generally down to earth and calm. I’ve even been told that daydreamers and those inclined to imagine are usually associated with that of rain. I’ve never fact checked these matters as I was too busy dreaming.

The beat of the rain droplets finding their way from way up high to land and join their countless companions. Some land on trees. Some impact puddles. Many land and immediately get swept away.

Many days without rain make my heart feel dry and untouched. Rain is my pacemaker. I’m from Manchester, a city with a heart of regular rainfall. I now in Dongguan, a city that gets a fair amount of showers throughout monsoon season. Every drop of life that falls from the sky brings

The energy of the downpour fills me. The damp smell opens my nostrils. It fills my lungs and soaks into my blood. I’m drawn to puddles and want to stamp in them, no matter the cost to my sodden shoes. That’s when I know that running is needed. Not in sun. Not in cold. Not on a dry hot evening blazing with colourful light. No. I choose rain.

Thank you kindly and ta’ra for now!

Best of British.

How do/你好,

It’s been over twenty months since I stepped on the soil of Great Britain. I’m not saying everything is roses and sweet gooseberries but I miss so much about the lands I was raised in. I want to feel the winds off the Irish Sea, the saturating rains of the Lake District, and see the fluffy clouds over the Pennines.

I long to see my family, friends, football and food. I want to visit my ancestral connections and toast my grandparents. I want to wander down lanes and places to reminisce about my dog Pup and all those days gone by. I don’t feel old but I do miss the ability to choose to visit my past and explore the future of my homelands.

I haven’t visited a proper charity shop or heard the term Bric-a-brac in so long now that even passing a construction site here in Dongguan excites me. Some discarded or unwanted piece of summat or t’other may grab my eye. Or land me in hospital with need for a tetanus jab.

I want to hug my sisters, brothers, uncles and aunts, Mum and Dad and all the other members of my scattered tribe. Nattering, sharing good foods, talking nonsense and stories, or catching up like it was yesterday. The new norm? No. We’ll carry on, just like we always did. Keep calm and drink Vimto.

Yes, I love my job and can keep busy but the longer this goes on, the bigger then pull grows. It’s tugging at emotions and connections that are strong and resolute. But even hours for the confident can be testing. Home sweet home? I’m looking for my home. I’m comfortable and content here. Opportunity is knocking on the door and chance is presenting a good hand in? life’s game of cards. Just there’s no Whitby scampy. No fish and chips, like back home.

They talk funny here but not like the funny there. I miss St Helens, Wigan, Glossop, Lancaster and all those diverse accents that are so close to home, yet so far. Winter Hill, I miss it too. The slopes, the towering vast plains and the bleak beauty under grey cool skies.

Road signs. Bus stops. Proper speed bumps. Those bubbles that appear in warm tarmac. Rhubarb crumble. Manchester tarts. Live music almost everyday, every where. Yes, I know, things have changed. No thanks to COVID-19 but the good times will return.

Manchester City versus Everton sees the return of fans. Sing like you’ve been stuck indoors for months. Champions of England. We know what we are. MCFC, ok.

Ta’ra. 再见

Differentiation: the draft.

Good evening from China to your morning, afternoon or evening, or night or day…

The topic task is differentiation. Twenty words (at a font size of 28, my favourite number) per slide is a target. I need 8-10 slides. The presentation will take twenty minutes or so, alongside my translator Junny or Nicole. I’m nervous about making this stand, but my duties at Tungwah Wenzel International School (TWIS) are varies and help me develop. Next week sees two days at a seminar in Shenzhen and from June I’m studying online again… until then here’s my draft copy of text to accompany the presentation.

Good parents want children to grow. You’re all eager to see your kids go from strength to strength. Your kids need to feel, to learn, grow and taste success. We can all share a journey together. That journey is getting the most out of your kids, both now and in the future. We can help develop a clear and positive pathway for beneficial and tailored learning.

As a modern and international school, with all the latest methods, we know that students come from various backgrounds and exposures to language. Our task is to provide different routes to gain further understanding. We can do this in the same classroom, through homework or via specialist areas within the school facilities.

Differentiation is a means to tailor learning instructions to meet the needs of individuals. The contents, the processes and the products can be differentiated. These can be coupled with changes to the learning environment. Flexible grouping and ongoing assessments make this approach an overall success.

It’s a framework and philosophy that allows provision of diverse teaching within or across multiple grades of teaching. It gives scope for students to progress at various speeds, with suitable framework to bring them up to and beyond the target speeds of their learning.

CONTENT – British music band Public Service Broadcasting have an album titled InformEducateEntertain. This is a mantra we can take to students to acquire content, enrich with processing, deconstruct, reconstruct and construct ideas. It must make sense. We develop teaching materials alongside assessment methods that match students and their individual abilities.

PROCESS – Plants need a variety of conditions to grow. Flowers only blossom at certain times. Culture, grasp of language, reading comprehension, gender, motivation, ability or inability, lack of interest or actual interest, awareness or preconceptions, style of learning, bias, the weather, the heat, the endless heat, etc can be barriers or they can be tools for teachers to latch onto and adapt their learning styles. Variety is the spice of life. Let’s act with it, and not against it!

PRODUCT – The classroom is our mission room. The launchpad of learning needs to be ready for lift-off. Students need to feel included. Different expectations may be needed for each class, with each student set realistic tasks that must be completed to a satisfactory effect.

LEARNING ENVIRONMENT – Classrooms need to be accommodating. They’re a proactive place to use varied learning methods. Optimal growth as a learner is essential. The days of ‘one size fits all’ are gone. The classroom environment can be turned to an advantage. Students may support each other in. paired-reading, comprehension or competitive tasks alike. Behaviour can be managed to give a safe and supportive surrounding.

Through pre-assessment, continued formative assessment and final summative assessment, the essential feedback dialogue between student, parent and teacher becomes a tool for improving the student’s overall study needs. We will focus on a student-centred instruction that is fair, challenging and champions an engaged student.

Differentiated instruction gives a lift up steps in the staircase of life that is education. It helps students move towards independent learning from various starting points. Growth is key. Skills and knowledge must be in tandem with widening a student’s range of interest, monitoring their progress and always drawing effective ways to learn. Students and their classes will better reflect a teacher’s understanding. You as parents will see that students gain solid roots, strong trunks and start to bloom in their development.

New benchmarks and targets can be set time and time again. Parents share their perspectives and teachers deepen the all-round feelings of a students. Interests can be aligned to tasks and changes over time can be discussed openly. A full and final picture can be seen of an end product that all wish to see: progress.

Thank you kindly for your time.

From the official TWIS WeChat communication (and my words):

成长中的树木成为参天大树之前,

往往需要不同的土壤才能生长。

对于不同的光照条件、空气质量和

土壤类型都有一定的要求,

同时也会受到周围环境的影响。

Many plants and trees

need different soil to grow.

They develop under differing conditions of

light, air quality and soil types.

They are specific to microclimates and subject

to influence from all around them.

学生亦如同许多成长中的树木,

需要用适合他们全面发展的多种方式来培养。

在差异化的课堂上,

教师认识到所有学生都是不同的,

需要不同的教学方法才能取得成功。

Students are the same.

They must be nurtured in varied ways

that suit their overall development.

When conducting differentiated learning,

teachers recognize that all students are

different and unique

and require different teaching approaches to

help students succeed.

如果您也对此教学方法感兴趣,

欢迎来5月22日的学校开放日,

倾听PYP四年级班主任的分享!

Come and join our G4 Homeroom Teacher

as he shares the importance of

differentiated learning

on May 22.

‘Wooden trumpet’

Nihao/How do/Hello/S’mae,

Congratulations to Aberystwyth Town (founder members of the League of Wales in 1992) on avoiding the bottom two for 29 straight seasons. Alongside Newtown FC, both have remained ever present. Good luck to the Robins of Newtown as they chase a place in Europe. Further congratulations to Andy Morrison’s Connah’s Quay Nomads on retaining the Cymru Premier (previously Welsh Premier League/League of Wales) title. The Nomads ensured the title did not cross the border to England-based The New Saints.

To decide on something, as an individual is easy. To decide as a group, lesser so. As the world and its dog takes on China over various sensitive issues, I sit in relative freedom of Dongguan, thinking of the week ahead. I’m lucky. I’m working. Others around the world are not. Those last few sentences were written almost two months ago. They still apply now. They may still apply to some regions as variations of COVID-19 ravage and unravel around the globe. Good luck to all in the battle against the pesky persistence of coronavirus.

“This is how a democracy works. We talk to each other.” – quote from the dialogue of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

On April 11th 2020, Saturday Night Live featured Alec Baldwin playing Donald Trump. He was drinking COVID juice based on Clorox bleach talking as Covfefe-19. It referred to Donald Trump’s former Twitter account and a message he posted on May 30th 2017 (‘Despite the constant negative press covfefe’). Now the world has staircase-fearing Joe Biden. Since Trump departed (on his own free will, with graciousness of course), President of the U.S.A. Biden has given a new hope to growing East and West closer together whilst keeping Russia and the European Union sweet. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are also cosy with U.S.A. after distancing itself from floundering Trump’s administration and its death throes.

I was born in a member state of the E.U. Now, I am a national of an independent U.K. in a world that seems to be simultaneously getting closer yet fragmenting. Our shared fate may be staring at the abyss making predicted violent struggling motions showing great pains but it doesn’t have to be this way. Instead of having a standing competition to see who can urinate higher than the other, Biden’s administration could have headed to Alaska to talk to China constructively. Instead, a confident Chinese delegation showed no weakness. Across the table from Team America World Police, angry signals could be seen from the world’s 3rd of 4th biggest country (surface area) – depending on your source. Anyway without Trump, the world, even during COVID-19 and arguments between countries seems a much more pleasant place. It’s made me long for the path of optimism. Pumped up on my first vaccination against the 2019 version of the plague, I think borders will re-open sooner or later, and Euro 2020 football will join the Tokyo Olympic Games of 2020 in 2021. With City claiming the EFL League Cup and the Premier League on their march to Istanbul Wembley Villa Park Porto in the UEFA Champions League final, why not have a cause of feeling positive? The Estádio do Dragão may be a stadium of dragons, but isn’t 2021 the year to banish beasts? And, I’ll be joining Shenzhen Blues at 3am one Saturday night-Sunday morning to hope that City banish their quest for Europe’s biggest title…

“Please take my hand. I give it to you as a gesture of friendship and love, and of faith freely given. I give you my hand and welcome you into my dream.” – Wonder Woman, comic episode 167

Banishing beasts takes determination. Much like realising a dream. My dream of playing a musical instrument successfully is now. Now, I’ve paid for some classes, and I have two tools here. Terre World Instruments sent me my wind instrument. The didgeridoo (also known as a mandapul) can be found in plastic, redwood, yellow wood, bamboo and other wooden forms. Mine is made of Eucalyptus (a yellow wood). It’s tuned to D, I believe but can be tuned in other notes. It’s 180cm long and came in packaging longer than my body. The dense sound characteristics are fantastic. It booms from lineseed oil-finished wood, both inside and out. Luka, my teacher, also helped me get a wooden Didgebox .

“…don’t raise your hand at all until you’ve first extended it.” – Wonder Woman, comic episode 25

The spiritual instrument has always intrigued me. Stephen Boakes from The Levellers calls it a ‘wooden trumpet’. The former Klanger and the Soupdragons band member has featured over the years for folk rockers The Levellers yet not one mention of the lad can be found on their Wikipedia page (a reliable place of purity and facts). This is a travesty. Nor can the word didgeridoo be found. Boakes is a punky player of the norther Australian Aboriginal people. It’s been around roughly 1500 years and carries haunting spiritual sounds. The touring electrician from Brighton has fitted his take on the yiḏaki* wind instrument into the ethos of the band since at least 1993’s Levellers album. The mako* sounds at home on song, This Garden.

Djalu Gurruwiwi, Ondrej Smeykal (Czech), Ganga Giri, David Hudson, Mark Atkins and Shibaten may not be household names. Indeed to most, they’re just a list that I prepared for my journey into the spirit of the didgeridoo sound. Possibly one of the world’s oldest wind instruments doesn’t have a reed, finger holes or other hand-eye coordination pieces. The voice box is the key. Practice will be needed. I’m far, far away from kookaburra sounds or other Australian wildlife but David Hudson and Luka are explaining things and giving me techniques to help along the way. And it can also be a drum. I’m learning control before speed. Dubravko Lapaine has ample amounts of speed in his training instructions and technique tips but highlights the need for slow learning. That, and I need to get some beeswax to make a smooth rim. That will seal in the air better.

Sharp raspberries are needed for this instrument that has probably been around 1000-1500 years or so. Softly blowing the musical piece (with about 45 names) is needed. Twangs and wobbly tongues too. Every time you b low out, your nose must suck in air, which is not easy! And relax, that’s the advice. Each day means more practice and more air being pushed into the lungs and not just in the cheeks! It is hard! All the while, I am practising to inspirational combinations such as the Australian Youth Orchestra with William Barton (Spirit Gallery Didgeridoos).

Maybe in the future I’ll buy one of Charlie McMahon‘s didjeribones. These sliding version is closer to a trombone. He invented this instrument which has a modern twist on an ancient tool of sound. Early Jamiroquai song When You Gonna Learn featured a didgeridoo.

“I’m asking: Oh, when you gonna learn? To stop it goin’ on?;
Now when you gonna learn? To stop it goin’ on?” – Jamiroquai song When You Gonna Learn

With that, goodbye, zai jian and ta’ra! I’m off to confirm that the 2005 British Medical Journal study about playing the didgeridoo has health benefits or not.

Hwyl fawr!

Stay in or go out?

COVID-19 risk. Be aware! Cover your mouths. Do not scare.

It’s tick season. Take care and reason.

Traffic is heavy and bad. Stay home and be happy or glad.

QR Code, vaccine history. Where to go is no mystery.

Foreigners not welcome here. Sit home with a cold beer.

Camping is strictly not allowed. The Policeman shouted rather loud.

Didn’t you hear me? You need a permit to travel, not free.

You’ll be followed around. Don’t make a sound.

The trains are all booked. My plans are royally…

The Little Picture Book: Lost & Found

Eck and Timu, otherwise known as Echo and the late Tim Mileson, can be found in a book just shy of sixty glossy pages. The compact pocketbook is presented through poetry and story alike. It is conventional and yet unconventional. Interpretation is a skill you can choose to use, or just float on the muse.

Sandwiched between Tim’s personal writing, Eck explores emotions such as loss, belonging and echoes nature throughout. Cute eye-catching illustrations using a variety of sketching styles follow an imaginative route to deliver a peaceful and loving tribute in the form of a poetic manuscript.

There are lines throughout that transport the reader, catch them, hold them and bring them downward. There are uplifting words, moments of hope and flashes of light. It’s a sweet little book deserving of a wider audience. The book comes in both Chinese and English editions. My grade four students at Tungwah Wenze International School greeted that with joy. Next up they’ll interview the author…

In China? Further afield? Order directly from Eck by scanning the above on WeChat.

The Little Picture Book: Lost and Found arrived.

They could be seeds of new growth;

or water to the roots of the tree.

They could be dusted on shelves;

or taken away by borrowing elves.

They could be friends in a pocket;

or maybe passed on from brother, to sister to brother or cousin or read by many a dozen.

They may become forgotten in time;

or triggered memories by one rhyme.

There are 14 of them, plus two and two more. Two for over there too. For Kitty. For Harry. For Jim and Kim. For Jimmy and Marline. For Alex, Sofia, Alice and Jerry. For Angela also. Not forgetting Amir and Owen. And last but not least Lucy.

One for me. One for the library.

Either way, I wish their echoes go on. And on. And on. And on and on. Ripples in a pool.

The Little Picture Book: Lost and Found arrived. Thank you Echo. Tomorrow I’ll sit in a tree by Songshan Lake or a cafe (if it rains) and soak up all the words, with illustrations. I can smell the spirit of Tim Mileson and the lively love of Echo. Mr Bee is happy.

PEACE AND LOVE 心

This is a true story.

Good whatever time it is,

“She used her body just like a bandage;
She used my body just like a wound” – Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are, Meat Loaf

I’m lay watching The Big Lebowski. I’ve finished three seasons of Fargo in the last few weeks. The original series based on the movie was fantastic. The second was equally addictive viewing. The third starring Ewan McGregor (from Perth) and David Thewlis (of Blackpool) was less enthralling but largely watchable. The black comedy crime drama is certainly well filmed, scripted and produced. Martin Freeman (from Aldershot) stars opposite Kirsten Dunst (Small Soldiers and Jumanji) reminds me that some child actors go on to better things. Allison Holman, Colin Hanks, Ted Danson and a host of others make for great casting. Billy Bob Thornton definitely gains points for portraying the word sinister.

This week has seen my first wild tortoise spotting. I moved the miniature mobile speed bump off the road to about twenty metres into forest grasses. I have the mosquito bites to show for it. That evening’s wander sighted many toads, frogs, moths and a few mantids.

I wasn’t going to watch the fourth series of Fargo until I spied Ben Whishaw (from Bedfordshire) is amongst the Star-studded cast. Killarney, County Kerry, Ireland is represented by singer Jessie Buckley. The original Joel and Ethan Cohen brothers have a long list of great movies as directors, producers and so on. What makes me a great fan is their script writing ability. They’ve written the script for Bridge of Spies for Steven Spielberg, and rumour has it that. a Scarface remake is under their pens. Joel, without Ethan, will be involved in The Tragedy of Macbeth. Denzel Washington as Macbeth is intriguing.

Anyway, when you can’t ride a bike, kick a ball and feel utterly energy – devoid, then movies are a good escape. That and the musical writings of the late Jim Steinman. No matter what, Jim Steinman’s music is all coming back to me now. Those who haven’t listened to his works, sang by others, should read ’em and weep. Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart and Meat Loaf‘s Bat Out of Hell are essential playlist features. Steinman was a highly influential lyricist, playwright and composer. He dabbled as a solo artist and expertly produced Sisters of Mercy and Take That amongst others.

“There are times I think I see him peeling out of the dark,
I think he’s right behind me now and he’s gaining ground” – Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are, Meat Loaf

Jim Steinman, 1/11/1947 – 19/4/2021

Enjoy your [insert time period]

Fight or flight?

Good evening, day, night, morning or afternoon.

Walking from Dongchong village to Nao’an or something like that, I passed a scene of struggle at the roadside. I didn’t call the police. I began to intervene but stopped myself as the majestic Under-sieged victim lifted itself up. It landed on a perch of twigs and then in some high grasses. Beating its wings with all its mighty energy

This may seem like a dead butterfly. It was battling to fly away against many ants. Eventually it made a tree but once I looked closer I could see the ants had mortally wounded it. It never seemed to give up trying to fly. Using every part of its fading energy. It twisted. It turned. It pulled itself away. Until the ants entered its body through their gaping infliction of a sound.

The magnificent coloration of its wings, a fluffy white underbody and shiny black to red legs made it look unearthly. The ants didn’t see beauty. They computed it as a meal and opportunity to support their queen and nest. Life is brutal.

Until the next battle.

Dongchong to XiChong (and back)

你好Hello

The voice came from the ground. It was a single loud clunk. Clunk! It sounded like localised thunder. It’s waves shot upwards towards my ears. A metre away in any direction it would be inaudible. Almost imperceptible that a large rock could move and create such a loud static sound. The eagle spotted a kilometre overhead may have spotted it. The black kite perched nearby definitely did.

Distracted by a pretty and handsome young couple saying, “Hello tall man”, I slipped on the loose near-horizontal dusted ground and hit my armpit on a pointy-up blunt branch. After all the near-vertical declines and sharp jagged spines of rocks, it made sense to slip on an easy area of walking. The now vanished chains of support weren’t there. Drops of suicidal angles had scattered behind me. Plain and simple became my hazard. Complacency in action. Or inaction in complacency. Anyway they looked a happy and cute couple. They witnessed a size-fifty shoe slide and a tall man wearing a Dal Bhat power 24 hour T-shirt ram a tree branch by armpit. The girl spoke, “Xiaoxin”. That means careful. So, I stumbled past them, 小心 indeed.

Today, marked a walk starting at 07:30 from Dongchong to XiChong and back, on the DongXiChong trail. I started with Dong (east 东) and ended west at Xi (西) but liked it so much I returned for a second helping of Dong. Like you do. This classic coastal pathway was at times stunning, at other times saddening. The mountains meeting the sea formed a terrific seascape. Clear blue seas and grey skies that eventually turned blue made trekking easier than being under baking sun rays all day.

The nearby Pingshan mountain and a view of Sanmen island did little harm to my vivid impressions of DaPeng peninsula. Cliffs and rock scrambling have long been my thing since experiencing it with Grylls Head outdoor adventure centre and Chapel Street Primary School in year 5. Rocks, holes, tiny islands, bridges, stacks, columns and landforms made by sea erosion towering over sea reefs and the omnipresent imposing tides of an angry sea can’t be a bad day out. It certainly perks your ears up for the cry of seabirds and the crash of countless waves. I wondered, as I wandered, how many stories can each shell tell?

Between the coastal villages of Dongchong and XiChong it is mostly undeveloped, save for the XiChong observatory and three small beach shacks. A few steps and chains have been fitted but nature mostly rules the route. There’s litter, at shameless quantities and annoying spray painted signs pointing out numbers for boats, lodges and so on. I’ve heard it compared and listed as one of the top ten routes in China. Perhaps that needs confirming. Also, that’s a worrying statement about the state of coastal routes. Yes, there are beautiful near golden sands at either village and some great pebble beaches between, but surely there’s more?!

The potential for ecotourism is high provided the litter mountain can be contained. If you can’t carry it back, why carry it there? Discarded wrappers, bags, drinks bottles, beach mats, hats, parasols, gazebos, barbecues and more were seen. Almost all was made in China, so no blame can be sent across the South China Sea. The blowing sea breezes and tides can only be responsible for so much. Humans as a disgrace for the rest. The National Geographic Magazine may need to review their write-ups. Although this walking route is not far from Shenzhen bustling centre, it feels remote and relaxing. Just about two hours from Futian via Yantian port!

16km of up, down, sideways, forwards and back ruined my Altra walking trainers. They’ll need replacing. They’re good for rough wear but not for smartness. This highly scenic route is dusty and tough at times. I enjoyed the 8km walk there and around XiChong so much that coming back made sense. Meeting nobody for three hours on my outbound journey was rewarded with meeting many friendly faces on the return journey, even if I was turned away Mary and Joseph-style by two coffee places in XiChong. On returning to Dongchong a kind shopkeeper pointed me to a shop selling Nespresso coffee. Not a bad end to a walk.

Finishing the day following a video call could only be done one way. Seafood. The local barbecue restaurant was perfect. There’s a few places to choose from. Most feature the animal kingdom, well the aquatic part, anyway. Reflecting on a day well spent, I thanked the trekking gods that I didn’t encounter whatever or whoever left behind all the crap that local village volunteers were bagging up.

再寄 goodbye