Rails to Suzhou

Good day/Namaste/S’mae/How do/Hello/Nihao,

I’ve never done the U.K.’s longest train journey. If you depart Aberdeen at 08:20 you can be stepping into the Cornish night at 21:43 that same day. The destination of Penzance is around 13.5 hours (1162km/722 miles) from Aberdeen station (built 1867), via about 33 stops. The CrossCountry train costs £102.50 in advance or £241.00 on the day. It isn’t a sleeper train. It sounds tortuous.

So, boarding the sleeper train from Humen (Dongguan) via Shenzhen North (深圳北站) to Shanghai was a little less daunting. I could spend most of the journey kipping. I departed at 19:43 and arrived by 06:50 in Shanghai Hongqiao (上海虹桥站). Aside from a man taking my photos and two girls playing on their bright phones in the shared bedroom cubicle, it was an unremarkable but comfortable journey. Wearing a mask for the duration was a necessary evil. The return journey (10:20 from Hangzhou East[(杭州东站) to Shenzhen at 20:39) was much tougher, having to be seated for so long with little chance to stretch. The connecting journeys at either end made for a short wander (less than an hour each time). Considering Shenzhen’s station opened in 2011, Shanghai’s station the year before, and Hangzhou was built in 1992, but refitted in 2013, and all the trains were modern, it was surprisingly easy to scan my passport and travel ticketless, all for about 700rmb each way (around £79.10). Modern rail network. Fair prices – even if they were inflated for the Golden Week holiday period (黄金周).

Why did I travel so far? Well, madness. I haven’t left Dongguan’s city prefecture boundaries since March 26th 2020. The post-COVID-19 restrictions and worries haven’t helped. The first holiday of the school year gave me 8 days to play with. So, armed with an invitation by Tina, my coffee shop friend, off I trotted. The ancient city of Sūzhōu [苏州] is twinned with and often compared to Venice. It is in the same province as Nanjing, a walled-city I visited last summer. I liked there. I was certain that with everyone’s love for Suzhou that I wouldn’t be disappointed. For years I have been hearing from Tom, Dick and Harry how good the city is for travelling around. The hotel selected was the swanky Pan Pacific Suzhou (苏州吴宫泛太平洋酒店). Located close to the Auspicious Light Pagoda (1004 B.C.) it included access to the Panmen gardens and original South Gate of the once-walled-city. Built in 1996, the hotel bizarrely has U.K. plug sockets and other western trimmings but is now undergoing a substantial refurbishment. The location is ideal and relaxing with a great Xinjiang restaurant over the road, and restaurants onsite. The swimming pool looked good, but I didn’t take my trunks.

Suzhou’s tourist areas are colourful and lively. They’re a blend of the old world and new. There’re heaps of plastic and mass-produced goods claiming to be handmade and local. The shops that sell them, and snacks, are numerous. It can feel like Groundhog Day going by the frontages but amongst the clutter there are some genuine brilliant pieces of gold dust. There are collectible shops offering keepsakes and relics, coffee shops that have art galleries and art galleries that have coffee shops. There are hidden away alleys with tiny teashops and real dabs of history throughout the city. There’s a Finnish restaurant, the usual array of western food (Sera Nera [十全街吴衙场40-1号, 近迎枫桥弄] is one Italian place I will recommend), Ann’s teahouse offers English-style food, and then there’s local bites from bugs to great fish to choose from. Suzhou seems green and spread out, it’s rather like Norfolk in that hills and mountains are rare (as goes most of that general region to Hangzhou and Shanghai). It isn’t a terrible place to be, but it isn’t amazing either. Perhaps I hanker for the sea and mountains more.

So after a few days, I am sat back in Dongguan. Echobelly’s Great Things has just played on BBC Radio 6 Music. The bass and treble were just perfect for a summer’s day. It’s not summer here. It’s 24°C. This is autumn. It’s cooler and much more comfortable than other days this year. Yesterday’s walk around Dalingshan (from Cháng’ān [长安] town’s Lotus Mountain) was nevertheless a little sweaty and warm. I’d ate an excellent breakfast (English, of course) at Ziggy’s American Diner before zipping past Chang’an Park, and heading for what’s know as Lotus Mountain. Here I spotted a lake by the Lotus Villa Hotel (莲花山庄酒店, 长安镇莲花山). Within seconds the familiar flash of a kingfisher whisked by, and disappeared into a tree. Various herons, bitterns and egrets scattered around the quiet lakeside. A smell of sewage ruined the impression.

From the lakeside I headed upwards along a road, gently winding its way to a temple under restoration. Beyond that steps and a clearly marked-path guided me to numerous summits, but not the main peak (capped by radio masts and fenced off). The huge advantage of walking to the peak is that you can carry on towards Dalingshan Forest Park (大岭山森林公园)/. That is a far quieter and greener route, however like the Lotus Mountain litter lined many pathways and piled up hugely at rubbish bins. For a country with so many plastic reusable water bottles, single use plastics really do ruin parks. The reward of a wander through Dalingshan gave me the sight of the worst camouflaged moth ever and a pretty green mantid. That and a good stretch after the long train journey back from Suzhou via Hangzhou, Shenzhen North station and Humen town.

I’ve lived in China for six and a bit years. Too many flash bars pop up, look shiny and then go. Ziggy’s Bar has come, evolved and carries on, withing Chang’an town. With the nearby diner, and a proper set aside bar, it is a refreshing collective. Mitch, the boss, and his team are welcoming. The bar has great decor with movies, music and western culture slipping between a touch of the east. Expect great ciders and beers (domestic and imported). There’s Boddingtons Bitter from Manchester (well, now Luton), cider from Beijing, great ales on tap and in bottles. Spirits needed? Plenty here. Worth a ride out of central Dongguan or other areas for a proper knees-up, pool game, board game or a chill out session. Live music is also available. I didn’t visit the bar before the walk. I stopped by the diner. Joining friends, I grabbed the English breakfast and supped good coffee. The breakfast had great bacon, hash browns, warm beans, proper black pudding and filled my belly nicely. I can also recommend the fish and chips or the burger range, having been a few times in recent weeks. I don’t too much like the colour red, but the mood of the diner, with a jukebox, appears like an advertisement for Coca Cola. There’s other décor that makes you feel you’re no longer in China. It’s an oddity to step from the footpath of Chang’an into a different world. The good thing was that my belly enjoyed the leap of faith.

The world’s first purpose-built railway station terminus was Liverpool Road in Manchester. It opened in 1830. It was the start of the first true railway too. Two tracks, timetables and proper stations accompanied the steam locomotives. Not surprisingly the first railway warehouse, Liverpool Road Railway Warehouse followed. It houses much of the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry now. Looking at that example, it’s amazing to see the speed at which China slaps railway lines across its national soil. That day when Manchester and Liverpool opened their railway, the MP for Liverpool William Huskisson slipped and was ran over by Robert Stephenson’s Rocket. The Liverpool and Manchester Railway (L&MR) was the first of its kind, and just 50 kilometres long (31 miles). Now, in China, the network of rail covers 121,000 km (75,186 miles) and it is growing every year. It plans to plan to expand the network to 274,000 km (170,000 miles) by the year 2050. I am just thankful that the 1,758 kilometres (1,091 miles) from Dongguan (Humen) to Suzhou involved music by Los Lobos and the latest Doves album, alongside John Bude’s The Lake District Murder novel (a classical detective yarn with plenty of detail and little happening).

Thank you kindly for your time.

Manchester Liners

How do! / 你好 (nĭ hăo) / Namaste / Welcome!

Manchester Liners ran ships to such exotic places at the Philadelphia (U.S.A.), Mediterranean, Montreal (Canada) and Boston, U.S.A. Other ships operated were the Manchester Progress, Manchester Enterprise, Manchester Port, and Manchester Merchant. There was war involvement for the Manchester Miller (1903) and Manchester Civilian (1913), helping to supply naval ships. Manchester Commerce (1899) was sank on the 26th October 1914 by mine. The first such ship to be sank by a mine in the Great War. The Manchester Trader was sunk by U-Boat on the 4th June 1917 in the Mediterranean. Manchester Engineer marked another loss on the 16th of August 1918. Manchester Division bucked the trend by ramming a German submarine and sinking it not far from the resting place of the Manchester Engineer. Typical Mancunian thing to go ramming an attacker with a ship.

Ship_Canal_Cartoon_PunchThis small but active shipping firm was gathering international recognition long after Manchester Spinner carried coal out of Sydney, Nova Scotia (Canada). In 1923 it carried aid to the Great Kanto Earthquake victims, from the U.S.A. The Manchester Regiment sailed in 1922. It could get to Quebec (Canada) in around seven days and nine hours. For all the pomp and ceremony, the years leading up to the Great Depression and the ones that followed forced Manchester Liners to scrap and sell many ships. As things improved, World War II erupted.

Manchester Liners’ ten ships would see varied action. Manchester City was at first a minelayer, then sent to the far east to act as a naval auxiliary ship. Many lives were lost and many ships sank. One of Manchester Liners’ ships rest-off the coast of Juno Beach Normandy having acted as a breakwater (Manchester Spinner); the Manchester Citizen, on passage to Lagos was sank by U-Boat. Manchester Merchant, sank was sank by U-boats in the Atlantic. Manchester Brigade, sank by the north of Ireland, having been torpedoed.

ship canal

Manchester Division would rescue beached passengers in Namibia. Peacetime resumed after the conclusion of World War II and Manchester Liners, much like the rest of the world counted the lost lives. Manchester Exporter, Manchester Shipper, Manchester Prospector, Manchester Vanguard, Manchester Venture, Manchester Faith and Manchester Fame are just some of the other great names. Look out for Manchester Commerce in the movie A Taste of Honey.

Some interesting stories surround Manchester Liners. Firstly, Captain F. Struss survived two ships that had been sank across The Great War and World War II. Then there is the huge ten-engine U.S. Air Force RB-36 Peacemaker that crashed off west-Ireland. Here the inbound Manchester Shipper, and the outbound Manchester Pioneer came to the rescue, in harsh weather, of the four surviving crew members. In another incident, a ditched Flying Tiger Line Lockheed Super Constellation landed in the Atlantic west of Shannon, Ireland. 48 passengers survived thanks to the works of temporary-rescue ship Manchester Faith and temporary-radio ship Manchester Progress. Heavy seas claimed 28 people that day. Another point to mention is that the chairman of Manchester Liners, a Robert B. Stoker, retired after 47 years with the company. That was in 1979. He left as his industry expanded to larger shipping company capacities, dockyard strikes, shipping, a decrease in profitability and a radically global market with corporations and investments networking far beyond regional and national gain.

Furness Withy were once part-owners of Manchester Liners but in 1970, they purchased the remainder of the company. In 1980, barely teenaged Orient Overseas Container Line snapped up Furness Withy. The company once owned by C. Y. Tung (董兆荣Dǒng Zhàoróng) was sold on again in 1990 to German multinational company Dr. Oetker (they make cakes, breakfast cereals and bakery stuff). All ships had been sold on by 1985.

There were firsts, the Manchester Challenge, was Britain’s first built and operated container ship. It would be joined by sister ships, Manchester Courage, Manchester Concorde and the Manchester Crusade. Not only that, like some of their early sister ships, this group of ships could break ice like the best of them – which was just as well, because Canadian water had plenty of ice. As the small shipping company expanded through Italy, Greece, Lebanon and Syria it acquired Manchester Dry Docks Ltd in the 1970s.

The line operated a flag with a red oval, over a white background and white lettering for ML. Their funnel was red and black. Some ships were painted red. I shouldn’t like anything to do with this red-loving shipping line, but Manchester Liners have a fascinating history, and all because in 1894, somebody opened a canal, 58km/36 miles long from the sea. Who is laughing now Punch magazine?

In memory of those who died in service for Manchester Liners.

Bypassing Liverpool since ’94

How do! / 你好 (nĭ hăo) / Namaste / Welcome!

This week Liverpool F.C. won the Premier League. Well done to them. There has been some boasting [19?] and gloating [mainly aimed at Man Utd and City]. James Milner, now a Champion at Liverpool F.C. had left Manchester City for pastures new and ended up in Anfield. He could have taken a train, car or even a ship to his new club.

Manchester by the Sea may sound like a crap funfair placed by a pond in Heaton Park, but it is actually a title of a movie by Kenneth Lonergan released in 2016. It won awards for acting and stuff like that. It has a soundtrack that doesn’t feature Oasis, The Charlatans or the Happy Mondays. Is it worth seeing? Not a clue. I’ll get round to it, but this movie set in the seaside town, first settled in 1629, of Manchester, Essex County, Massachusetts hasn’t got me yet. No hard feelings Casey Affleck.

Mark Vincent Collins, of The Charlatans, was born in Barton-on-Irwell, which is almost Manchester, but we call it the City of Salford. The Barton Swing Aqueduct allows a canal to pass over a canal. This Roman invention of the Aqueduct was modernised to become a moveable navigable aqueduct. It was a first at the time and many believe it is still the only of its kind. It opened in 1894, year of Manchester City’s naming, and remains working now Built to last by a Derbyshire firm from a plan by Sir Edward Leader Williams. A proper leader he was. So much so, few, if any have followed.

Birmingham may be the city of canals with more miles (56km/35 miles) of canals than Venice (42km/26 miles) but Manchester started the modern canal trend. The Bridgewater Canal runs from Runcorn to Leigh via Manchester. There was no river or stream. It was all dug in deep and long. Since 1761, steamboats, barges and small boats have utilised this modern canal. Used to ferry cotton goods and materials from the sea by Runcorn to Manchester and beyond, and vice versa, the canal was a great innovation. But, after over a hundred years if use it got mucky and couldn’t handle the traffic. Small ships could no longer navigate the near-impassable rivers Mersey and Irwell. The Irish Sea was an awfully long way away.

So, Manchester, faced with the problem of low rainfall, an expensive and limited railway cargo network and rivers ‘hopelessly choked with silt and filth’ (Owen, David, The Manchester Ship Canal, Manchester University Press) removed the barriers. Liverpool’s excessive goods fees had made it cheaper to head east to Hull for goods. That wasn’t good. On October the 7th, 1882 Punch magazine illustrated that Manchester’s idea to bring the sea inland was laughable, “MANCHESTER-SUR-MER. A SEA-DUCTIVE PROSPECT.” Proposals, legal matters and paperwork were underway, and within five years the ground for a new canal was broken.

ship canal

Opened a few days after completion, on the 1st of January 1894, by Queen Victoria, the Manchester Ship Canal was 58km/36 miles long. It is now the 10th longest ship canal in the world. At the time of opening it was second only to the Suez Canal (193km/120 miles) in terms of length for ship canals. Setbacks such as the lead contractor dying, harsh weather, floods (in a dry canal!), and serious money shortages, it was a miracle the canal had been completed. The Pioneer, a steamer, owned by the Cooperative Wholesale Society unloaded sugar that first day. Rouen, Normandy (France) and Manchester were connected and the Stereo MC’s weren’t around to record it.

There’s a great bleak and brown looking landscape by Benjamin Williams Leader (brother of lead engineer Edward Leader Williams) entitled ‘The Excavation of the Manchester Ship Canal: Eastham Cutting with Mount Manisty in the Distance’. Short names for paintings were evidently being rationed around the Long Depression era. The scarred Mount Manisty, Cheshire (a 30m/100’ tall hillock from earth extracted to form the ship canal) sits over the canal in present day and with its coating of trees, it looks to have been there forever. Manchester Liners used to pass this point and their ship the Manchester City, launched on the 27th October 1898.

The oldest proper canal is the Grand Canal of China (大運河 A.K.A. 京杭大運河; Jīng-Háng Dà Yùnhé or the Beijing–Hangzhou Grand Canal). It was started in the 5th century before what is known as the common era. Since then, this now UNESCO World Heritage Site, has ran over 1,794 km (1,115 miles). This Chinese mammoth of a canal is mostly improved rivers, watercourses and some extant diversions of rivers. Merchant Marco Polo, scholar Ibn Battuta, Italian priest Matteo Ricci and Scottish tea-hunter Robert Fortune went to the Grand Canal. The Grand Canal was intended for barges and not shipping.

By comparison, the Panama Canal, opened in 1914. It is 82km long and now is the 8th longest ship canal in the world. The Port of Manchester was once the U.K.’s third-busiest port. Just as the Panama Canals fortunes flagged then raised again, so did Manchester’s Ship Canal. Following slumps from the 1950s to 1960s, the Manchester Ship Canal almost faded away. Nowadays the city’s ship canal ends in Salford and is home to Media City (IV, BBC, Coronation Street, Blue Peter and CBBC), the Imperial War Museum and other leisure facilities, such as The Lowry Centre. You can still take a cruise to the sea – by way of leisure on regular excursion boats (take the Snowdrop from Irlam Locks). The Port of Manchester closed in 1982 and it wasn’t until regeneration kicked in around Salford Quays in the 1990s and then a greater rejuvenation in the decades that follows that the Manchester Ship Canal experienced a new wave of glory.

Far from the times when the Manchester Blitz saw bombs rain down on Trafford, the Manchester Ship Canal and the Port of Manchester, the sights now are much more of green banks and pleasing on the eyes. There’s prosperity around the wharfs, Detroit Swing Bridge, and the National Waterways Museum sits by the Ellesmere Port branch of the Shropshire Union Canal. There’s still a heart beat to the old ship canal yet.

Peel Holdings owns both the Manchester Ship Canal and the Port of Liverpool. Port Salford and the Atlantic Gateway may arrive by the year 2030. The locks, sluices and weirs of the old Manchester Ship Canal are far from closed yet. Ships will continue to sail under the high-level Acton Grange Railway Viaduct, as Network Rail work overhead on the West Coast Main Line, and the dramatic Queen Ethelfleda Viaduct Britannia Bridge (Runcorn Railway Bridge). The linear port has been accessible for over 125 years now and the once nick-named dirty ‘big ditch’dug by navvies is synonymous with the name of Manchester.

In memory of those who died creating the Manchester Ship Canal.

The Mancunian Way, Dongguan

How do! / 你好 (nĭ hăo) / Namaste / Welcome!

“I feel so extraordinary; Something’s got a hold on me; I get this feeling I’m in motion; A sudden sense of liberty.” – New Order’s song True Faith.

I’m patriotic towards the U.K. in a way. I sing praise and fly the flag for great people, wonderful history and fantastic places. I know that the story of the U.K.’s history has often been brutal, cruel and deserves little love. Even within the 21st century the U.K., as it moves away from a colonial and European past, and becomes less connected, yet more dependent on overseas trading and manufacture is and always will be a wonderful country. It’s my home. I was born in Manchester, England. I don’t call myself English. I’m British, when I choose to be. I’m Mancunian always. I have Celtic blood in me from my Irish and Welsh great grandparents. My roots are clear and free. But this tree doesn’t cling to the past and history. This tree wants to expand and be watered by different skies. For me tradition and culture are important but understanding and freedom to choose your own pathway are far more intrinsic to living. This tree is currently sat on its arse in Changping, Dongguan. Today’s and yesterday’s rugby and football have been washed out by Dragon Boat rains. I have some free time.


Today, I want to show a gallery and write a little about the culture of Dongguan and China. I’ve been here for the vast majority of the 2308 days now (11th February 2014). I believe many great days have passed and many more will follow. That’s why I am right here, right now. I arrived and didn’t feel too much way of culture shock. Around me a reasonably established cultured expat community threaded amongst the fabric of the local workforces and people of Guangdong.

“Because we need each other; We believe in one another; And I know we’re going to uncover; What’s sleepin’ in our soul” – Acquiesce by Oasis.

Since, I arrived I have seen Dongguan grow and grow. It is now classed as a Megacity. It seemingly will never stop growing. There are skyscrapers and apartment blocks skimming the sky in every single district of Dongguan. Whereas in 2014, I’d notice dozens of these mammoth constructions and many more sprouting buildings, now I am seeing hundreds and hundreds of established communities and hubs here, there and everywhere. I used to consider Nancheng and Dongcheng as the central axis of Dongguan. Now the townships of Chang’an (home of Oppo), Changping and the ever-growing former fields of Songshan Lake (home of Huawei), and the sprawls of Liaobu town could easily be seen as central areas. The arrival of the Huizhou to now West Dongguan Railway Station (soon to be Guangzhou East) or 莞惠城际轨道交通  /莞惠线 Guanhui intercity railway has added to rapid growth. As it joins the short-named Pearl River Delta Metropolitan Region Intercity Railway System (珠江三角洲地区城际轨道交通). That’s more than 65 railway stations in close proximity to Dongguan. Like all of the Pearl River Delta, this city is growing fast – and going places.

 

When not hopping on 200 km/h (124 mph) railway systems, I have ample opportunity to meet great people. Dongguan‘s community is largely migrant with people coming from all over China and the world beyond. International jet-setters with lives here, include Serbians, Kiwis, and even Scousers. They can be found in some of the office places, factories, bars and restaurants throughout the city. Playing football with Brazilians or Russians, or cycling with Dongbei people is possible or a spot of chess at Murray’s Irish Pub with Ukranian opposition. Anything goes here. Drinking homebrew at Liberty Brewing Company (曼哈顿餐吧) in Dongcheng after playing tag rugby with Tongans, South Africans, Germans and Malaysians makes me realise how lucky I am. This is a city that is tidying up and beautifying itself at an alarming rate.

Throughout the 6.5 years of life in and around Dongguan, I’ve slipped up and down ginnels, seeking out the new and old. There have been trips to pizza joints in obscure areas, Dragon Boat races watched, Cosplay events attended and English competitions observed. Dongguan, like Manchester, has a heartbeat that shows anything is possible and if it isn’t here, you make it. You can make something new, or your bring something to the party. You can sit and complain about people taking your photo or saying, “wàiguórén” (foreigner/外国人) or you can show the people around you, your worth.

This week I was asked by the Dongguan Foreign Bureau to teach them. Sadly, I cannot fit their demands into my day. I’ve bene lucky to narrate advertisements, wear watches for model shoots, test-drive new bicycles and play with new robotics before they reached their target audience or global factory floors. Daily life has been far from mundane here with oddities and pleasures as varied as can be. What’s around the next corner? Well, visas are quicker and easier to get, despite more rules and demands. It seems far quicker than when I first arrived. Sometimes, I doubt that I have done everything right, yet it seems clear and simple. Just a checklist. This week I received my medical report back. Now, I need just a few other items for the 2020/21 visa… That’s progress.

Bridges have been made and links that could prove lifelong. The west and east have collided in bizarre ways often forming a touch of the unique. There has been colour, rainbows and diversity amongst the traditional and the common. There have been flashes of light and inspiration. There have been days when solitude has been sought and there will be more, no doubt, but one thing I find, and have found throughout my time here, people are just that. Just simple down to earth, regular people going about their days, looking for peace and good opportunities to survive or better themselves. There are more cars and less bicycles, which shows that some people’s bank accounts and credit-ratings have improved. Quality of life needs balance, and with that the subway/underground system of Dongguan is projected to change from one line to seven lines.

Words can say how thankful I am for my time here. I am enjoying life in different ways to others, and being who I want to be, when I want to be. I’m selfish or I’m sharing. I’m open or I am closed. I read or I watch. I write or I dictate. There are times to slip unseen, and times to lead an audience. It is good for the mind to be bored or alone. I truly believe that’s where creativity lies. It sits there waiting to be tapped and delivered to paper, computers or other outputs. I can wander from craft beer breweries to model car clubs to fusion and western food restaurants with ease and all of the time remain connected to modern and old China.

There is plenty of ugly in Dongguan, just like the rest of the world. To quote the 18th century French phrase, “ne saurait faire d’omelette sans casser des œufs“:  You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. Humans must learn from the stains and damage we have caused to our planet globally, whether disease or pollution. We can’t give in. Our cultures, our pride and our people need to fight on and find solutions. Just as #BlackLivesMatter, all lives matter – whether human or worm or bug or panda. Life must find a way. Dongguan is radically changing its energy consumptions, factory practices and the way its environment is being respected. This is good for all. Maybe, I should really put my words into action and finish studying towards the HSK (汉语水平考试 Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì) course for the Chinese Proficiency Test.

 

Dongguan has gone from a place with a handful of limited cinemas, to those with the IMAX, vibrating seats, private screens and many of the latest releases from the west. KTV bars make way for baseball batting cages, ten-pin bowling, archery cafes and all the latest crazes. The great thing is that with Wechat (born 2011), Alipay etc, you can leave your wallet behind and pay swiftly with ease using these simple electronic methods. Gone are the days of using equations and haggling to get a taxi a short distance. Piles of services are available via your phone, including electrical bills, water bills and Didi (driver and carshare service) is one such saving grace.

During these COVID-19 pandemic times, your phone provides your health code, advice in travel, guidance on health services and help. Dongguan’s local services for healthcare, private insurance and banking are on your fingertips, rather than a a few hours out of work. Life can be as fast or as slow as you wish. In 2010, Dongguan was named a National Model City for Environmental Protection and greenways, green belts and other greenery followed. There are hundreds of parks now, over 1200… it is easier than ever to stay healthy.

There is culture around us, old temples, modern pagodas, relics of time and shells of history. Dongguan’s landmarks are a tad tough to visit now. The Cwa humid subtropical climate here is far above the reported average annual temperature of 22.7 °C (72.9 °F). The rainfall is typical of the land below the Tropic of Cancer now. It is raining cats, dogs and occasionally elephants. Wellingtons and umbrellas are common sights these days, rather than the Dongguan Yulan Theatre, GuanYinShan (Budda mountain), Hǎizhàn bówùguǎn (海战博物馆 Opium War Museum) or Jin’aozhou Pagoda. Even a trip to my local coffee shop, Her Coffee, is like a swim in a river. It is blooming wet lately. As a Mancunian, I feel at home.

I’m here for education – to both teach and to learn. This city has hundreds of educational institutions, even Cumbria’s St. Bees are opening a school here. I’ve heard there are around 550 primary schools, 480 kindergartens and several universities now. To bump into a teacher amongst the 21,000 plus teachers is not unusual. Although it seems every second teacher works for one of the many Eaton House schools here. I’ve heard Tungwah Wenzel International School (TWIS) in Songshan Lake is one school to really watch. Like its neighbouring Huawei school, it is massive with around 1,000,000 square metres of surface area. I’ve seen the modern sports gyms, performance space and technology labs. It uses the latest gadgets and networking. It really is 21st century over there at Songshan Lake. Although Huawei have a German-style train-tram zipping around, piping back to older days. Dongguan University of Technology(DGUT; 东莞理工学院) is one of universities in the area meaning that you can educate beyond your teenage years here. It really is a place to learn. Watch out Oxford and Cambridge! Maybe that’s why Trump is always bad-mouthing China’s growth?

From eating chicken anus, to two weeks of quarantine in XiHu Hotel, Dongguan has given me more time to turn the contents of my head to words. Now that I am ready to publish a novel, I need a publisher, but how to do this during a pandemic? I haven’t a clue, but I know one thing, the challenge will be tough and worth it. Nobody ever climbed a mountain to sit at the top and look down without seeing another mountain, right? At the end of the day, the sun sets only to rise again. Dongguan faced lockdown impeccably and other challenges, just as the world did and does. Chin up, keep going and let’s crack on.

Last night, I ate Korean barbecue with great people to celebrate a treble-birthday, followed by proof that I am terrible at ten-pin bowling and awoke today feeling optimistic. The world is often reported to be going through a pandemic-sized recession. As the world sailed a wave in 2008 and Dongguan grew from that recession, I will everyone to go on. Manufacture a bucket of optimism. Just like the strings of New Dawn Fades by Joy Division, there is darkness but remember these famous lines: It was me, waiting for me; Hoping for something more; Me, seeing me this time; Hoping for something else. In 2008, low-tech industry switched to the high-tech. Boomtime arrived. Chances are that one in five phones around the globe were made in Dongguan. Is your phone Vivo, Oppo, Honor or Huawei? It was probably made down the road from me. So, Dongguan is closer than you think.


Manchester isn’t any place I will visiting in person for some time, so it has to come to me via playbacks of Oasis gigs at Maine Road and the written word. Over the next few months, I plan to read the following Mancunian-connected books:

Hell is a City – Maurice Proctor; The Manchester ManIsabella Varley Banks; Passing Time – Michel Butor; Magnolia Street – Louis Golding; Fame is the Spur – Howard Spring; Lord Horror – David Britton; The Emigrants – WG Sebald; Cold Water – Gwendolyne Riley; The Mighty Walzer Howard Jacobson; Manchester Slingback – Nicolas Blincoe; Vurt – Jeff Noon; A Man’s Game: The Origins of Manchester City Football ClubAndrew Keenan; Mary Barton – Elizabeth Gaskell; Cranford – Elizabeth Gaskell; North and South – Elizabeth Gaskell.

“I was thinking about what you said; I was thinking about shame; The funny thing how you said; Cause it’s better not to stay” – The Last Broadcast – Doves

Goodness Gracious Me, Chapel Street!

How do! / 你好 (nĭ hăo) / Namaste / Welcome!

Mother: “Look, I’m a student. I’m balancing a traffic cone on my head.” /     Son: “That’s not a traffic cone; it’s a small aubergine.” / Mother: Aubergine, traffic cone. I’m too drunk to tell the difference! – Goodness Gracious Me, BBC TV comedy series.

I’d had to move because Mum and her partner had to relocate. I was uprooted from New Moston School and sent to a strange foreign land: Clayton. I hated life in Clayton Brook Primary School. Luckily, I would spend just one and a bit years at the school.

“It took John a little while to settle down in class 3. He is a bright boy and is now working very well. Although he is very untidy, he has a good understanding and has been very enthusiastic about some topics we have tackled. He wants to do well and his attitude to work is excellent. Number work is also good, but he does tend to be careless. A very good start at Clayton Brook.” – I. Proudfoot, year 2 teacher, Clayton Brook Primary School, 3rd July 1990.

Chapel Street Primary School made me stronger. It was never an easy time there, but it wasn’t the worst time of my life. To my younger self, bullying and getting into childhood scraps probably readied me emotionally for puberty and the tests of young adult life. It didn’t scar me. In fact, I look back and think of how much of a little terror I was. I made silly mistakes – more than any other kid (probably).

Before Chapel Street, I’d already been at New Moston Primary School and Clayton Brook Primary School. They’d taken our classes to Moston Baths and Ravensbury Primary School’s swimming pools respectively. At Levenshulme Baths, Chapel Street Primary School students had long been making the area into a madhouse. Levenshulme Baths used to be located opposite Levenshulme Library and both were next to the back gate of our school. The Bluebell Pub (at one stage ran by a parent of a classmate) was to the other extreme of the back of the school, and lay across the north-eastern flank of the school was Chapel Street Park. Here I can remember great times playing football with Ben McGreavy and Kevin Fairfax, or climbing (trees?) with Dan and Peter Ridyard, or digging for treasures with Alex Muir.

At Chapel Street, I recall the great dinnerladies being ever so friendly and the dinnertime assistants at lunchtime (yeah, there’s a whole problem of terminology regarding mealtimes going on there). In the morning we’d have a bottle of milk around 10am. To this day, I sup as much milk as the cows can produce. I draw the line at soy milk. It gives men breasts, I read somewhere. The school day had three breaks, all of which involved the playground, running around crazy (pretending I was a velociraptor after seeing Jurassic Park at the Davenport Theatre; or I was one of the Royal Air Force Red Arrows after attending Woodford Airshow). I had my imagination and Micro Machine cars or Lego figures were in or out of my pocket often.  I wasn’t the closest friend to anyone.

“How big is his danda?” – example of a catchphrase from Goodness Gracious Me, BBC TV comedy series

Mrs Clegg’s class during year 4 meant that I would lose many Micro Machines and Lego men. Her big plastic laundry bag must have held hundreds, if not thousands, or possibly millions of them. She was an incredibly strict teacher who like many in her profession drank copious amounts of coffee. I recall her reeking of coffee. At that time, I hated the smell of coffee, but in hindsight, she knew best, coffee is wonderful. Although now, I only drink 1-2 cups a day, if any. I’m in China and there are too many wonderful teas to sample. This week at St. Lorraine Anglo-Chinese Primary School, Miss Zeng gave me Peach Oolong tea and anther oolong tea that tastes like champagne. At primary school, as a kid, all I’d drink was corporation pop (water) and the odd Barr’s Dandelion and Burdock if I had 20p to hand.

I joined Chapel Street Primary School in year 3 with a short-haired teacher (who I cannot remember the name of) charged to calm me down. I’d entered part way through the school year and was a little unsettled. I soon became friends with the shortest member of the class, Peter Ridyard. He had a few brothers and sisters. His sibling clan of seven weren’t all dwarves. Far from it. I always remember his long-haired taller and older by a year or so sister Amanda with golden-red hair flowing like Rapunzel. I was scared of her instantly. She was a girl and a taller one at that. Then there was Steven, and he was older and much more streetwise. He was the guy with the cool kids and maybe some trouble. Apart from one incident over they years, Steven was fair to me, and never gave me problems. Actually, he stopped a few local knobheads kicking the crap out of me. Dan was Peter’s younger taller brother. Jodie, Adam and Sally made up the younger trio of the Ridyard clan. I used to sing to the theme of a Toys’R’Us advert tune, “Millions of Ridyards all under one roof…” but I did it with affection and jest. One thing about their mother, Margaret, she is a damn strong woman and has raised seven kids over a tight age-range. Dan and Peter would go onto be my best friends. I’d enjoy good friendships with Alex Muir and James Cliff too, but both would drift away in time.

My friends were needed because not long after moving to Levenshulme, my sister Astrid was hit by a car. She would endure many weeks in Booth Hall Children’s Hospital and then years of schooling at a specialist school to help her recuperate and catch up, before she could finally start at Chapel Street Primary School. I love my sister Astrid fiercely and seeing her curled up with traction devices and machines attached to her is a vision that haunts me. When she was finally back out running, I had my sister back. But, around this time, ‘Titch’ was mobile and in the education system. Her and Paul (the youngest of our tribe on my Mum’s side) grew closer. Astrid and Paul were inseparable as I started to outgrow them and their games. It remains a pleasant memory to recall.

5AJ with Mr Andrew Jones was where I switched from maths work lover to someone curious and interested by words. Mr Jones would set us challenges such as write as many words as possible beginning with ‘st’ but we must understand the meaning of every word. I read the dictionary. I started with ‘st’ and then I carried on through all the words starting with S. Then I went to the letter T. I decided I needed to read the prequels A through to R. After that, I decided U to Z needed a look. It wasn’t exciting and I understood very little, but I actually read a dictionary. I recall building Lego models at home and stopping to take in a page, with occasional writing of the word, running downstairs and asking my mum how I could say a particular word. She must have thought I was madness personified.

Around about 1997, I discovered Goodness Gracious Me on BBC Radio 4. Sanjeev Bhaskar, Kulvinder Ghir, Meera Syal and (my first crush on an Asian girl) Nina Wadia. I fell in love with Nina Wadia’s voice on radio and then when I did see the television version of the show, well she didn’t disappoint. Not that I could focus on her physique or voice. The show was far too funny for that. Here was a mould-breaking show, fast, witty and dynamic. It laughed itself, it mocked stereotypes, it ripped apart tradition. It flipped views of the British over to those of South Asia. It parodied and spoofed and after just 3 TV series, it left the world a better place. The best sketch has to be: Going for an English. In this sequence a group of Asian friends go for an English meal after a few lassis (non-alcoholic yogurt drink). They mispronounce and bumble the waiter’s name. They request the “blandest thing on the menu” and request a “stronger” steak and kidney pie. Who can possibly eat 24 plates of chips? The parody of British people, and you know there are some who still do this, getting drunk and going to end the night at an Indian restaurant. Surely, we’ve all met the macho guy who orders the hottest vindaloo. How many papadums can one actually eat?! Cheque, please. I need to go and watch Asian Top Gear again.

“The people here believe the tree to be sacred, so that even if one leaf falls onto the track, the whole line is immediately shut down.” – Goodness Gracious Me, BBC TV comedy series, sketch: Great Train Journeys of the World: Fenchurch Street to Southend

During the final year of primary school Miss Rowe (6RO) and her classroom assistant calmed me down. When the final last day came, I never collected signatures on old schoolbooks or signed my school jersey. I just walked out of the gate saying thank you and goodbye. It didn’t seem to be a big thing. The sterile looking Reddish Vale Secondary School awaited. I would move on a free transfer from Manchester’s educaton authority to that of Stockport. How bad could it be?

The new norm.

How do! / 你好 (nĭ hăo) / Namaste / Welcome!

The plague of the 21st century isn’t locusts or bubonic. Not at all. It is lies, rumourmongering and misinformation.

If I was to state that taking antihistamines for hay-fever will help your rheumatoid arthritis, I’d be right up there with Doctor P.O.T.U.S.A. Trump. I’m fairly certain, by his instinctive logic, a sticker plaster (band-aid) may heal a lost limb. Hydroxychloroquine is a mouthful to say, let alone take. Trump loves to say hydroxychloroquine. I think his instinct about the drug is overshadowed by his pride in the ability to say this long word. In my instinct, I think this psychopathic P.O.T.U.S.A. is enjoying every utterance of the drug’s name. “What have you to lose? Take it,” said the man claiming common sense wins him the right to issue medical advice. Trump tweeted about it, with 103,400 re-tweets and 386,900 likes, so at least nobody noticed him and won’t have to worry about the possible side effects list (four patients had liver damage and one patient severely worsened in Trump’s favoured French study – so from twenty, 25% had big problems).

The losses are probably higher than reportable. Doctors and nurses will have been approached about the miracle drug. Imagine all that lost time. Drug therapies are in their infancy because this new virus and the COVID-19 that it causes are only just being researched. As outbreaks go, it is a baby. Malaria and SARS CoV-2 are not that closely related. Twenty patients tested in France, in uncontrolled circumstances alongside another drug azithromycin, was inconclusive. Only a few patients shown a positive response. Like many other studies, things are in their infancy. But, remember, that as one drug becomes popular, its demand rises, and those who truly need it – battling malaria or for other uses may be short. And, what happens when the drug kills? Always use hydroxychloroquine responsibly.

There is a huge distrust of China globally.  The internet age revolution is finally being eclipsed by a very grey area of lies, untruths, and extreme bias. People like Jack Patrick Dorsey (Twitter CEO/co-founder) don’t ban far-rights and extremism of views. They believe in freedom of speech – at the supression of protecting everyone else from extreme views. Didn’t he and Twitter learn about World War 2? Because, should such a person do so, then populism, as needed by Trump (the P.O.T.U.S.A.) would have no secure place in our world. Fake temperature devices, faulty goods, corporate espionage, 5G battles, cybersecurity, and other such exposes are leaving China in a different light for many. Over here in China, I can see Chinese channels and media slamming the U.S., Taiwan (funded by the U.S.; and funding Hong Kong’s resistance?), Britain’s fragmented and gradually anti-Chinese stance. It’s a horrible place to be for an expat in China, knowing that one word wrong by one politician could ruin six years of working here.

Some guidance had been set by China on managing the virus, but has enough been done to understand how this drug and virus react together? The NHS now has several trusts giving trial to it. Everywhich way you look, there are many hoping to find the cure. We all look on and hope. Remember normality and a regular daily life? Wouldn’t it be nice to be there. I’m over here in China and yet I can’t see it. Not yet.

There is guidance knocking around W.H.O. on what to do, after relaxing lockdowns. The biggest point is that transmission should be controlled. China is definitely doing that! Even after quarantine, I have 14 days of temperature checks, swabs before I restart work (alongside all the staff and students), and a QR code showing a green tick to show that I am apparently clear of the dreaded buggy virus. Every supermarket and restaurant must check me, and all others on the way in. Any hint of too high a temperature and there is no admittance – and probably a report to the authorities.

Today, the Police and garden/village management took my details and gave me a form to fill in. On the other hand, today, I’d walked past a guy without a mask on, sneezing his cloud of nasal blobbery into the air. Oh, and a dozen others coughing out of masks. Even a twinge of my muscle or a slight hint of exhaustion and I worry. Anxiety is my bedfellow. Luckily China’s health system capacities are detecting, testing, isolating and treating as it suppresses this beastly vile virus. The essential places are being re-opened but by bit, yet cinemas stand empty, many shops and restaurants have gone for good and the country has severely controlled flights out of China: one airline, one country, once a week… so please don’t ask my summer plans and what I plan to do after this contract at this school. The only one thing I want to do, is see my loved ones, my family and my close friends – but I will not be coming home, endangering them now or later. It is time to stay home (or The Winchester), stay safe and save lives… and wait for this to all blow over. Or Chernobyl to burn and cause a global nuclear problem. Perhaps they’ll be a follow up series to HBO’s Chernobyl after all.

The virus outbreak has left many alone in their final hours but it has also gave many care in those moments too. It has left pets without homes and also gave many homes. Every exception, every aspect and every scenario seem to be at play now. Some are regional, some are national and some vary from culture to culture. Fear and humanity are battling. Art is out there in the shadows and beauty abounds, but the media and noise is loud. We mustn’t lose touch of who we are and what we are doing. What are you doing in the new norm? 

After quarantine.

How do! / 你好 (nĭ hăo) / Namaste / Welcome!

 

After quarantine isn’t quite what I expected. I expected life to be much more difficult, but it isn’t. On arriving back to the garden compounds of my home apartment, I had my temperature checked, had a form filled in for me, and after maybe ten tense minutes, I was driven to my apartment door. Here I took the squeaky-clean lift up to my floor, opened the door, scanned a QR code and registered myself. That’s for the garden management, the local authority and the Police to know where I am. There was a form given to me, with 14 days on it, for my temperature but as I’d completed government-ran hotel quarantine and had a lovely certificate to show for it, I was exempted.

“If your smiling you’d better smile, for us all; If your laughing you’d better laugh, for us all; Well you better from now on; Yeah you better from now on” – For Us All, Levellers

Every day in quarantine, I thrashed my exercise out to several songs, one was For Us All, by the Levellers, alongside their track England My Home and many more! When the darkness drifted in and I felt myself so alone, I turned to music. I read the songs in my mind like fine books. I embraced the beats, the tempos and felt raw emotions like never ever before, perhaps enhanced by my temporary hermitage existence. The solitary confinement can’t be compared to that of a prisoner in a box of solitude, but for me, it was a personal struggle. I can be a loner of my own choosing, but this eremitic period of time has certainly convinced me that I will never be a true solitudinarian. More upbeat numbers of my childhood such as Sub Sub’s, Ain’t No Love (Ain’t No Use), and copious amounts of Black Grape (It’s your big day in the north, love…).

Outside, after a gentle jog (I felt knackered after doing less than 2km) and a brief wander to say hello ( and collect a medal from a colleague), I went to Kings Bar in Changping to enjoy pizza and a trio of beers (two IPAs and a stout from Master Gao brewery). I felt shattered and tired all night. It was good to be out, but emotionally it was a strain. I could see my colleague Gerry, wasn’t too fresh from quarantine too. There’s only so much conversation that you can have when you’ve both been stuck in a room for one, over 14 days. Luckily Kingston and Andy added to our nattering. The complimentary stout helped welcome us back – and was much, much appreciated.

“But it’s there to find if you have the mind; And you don’t live in fear of it…” – Men-an-Tol, The Levellers

Today, I went to a supermarket and a coffee shop. Temperature checks and all that were normal. The frequency of said checks in the supermarket was abnormal: four times. Yesterday, an old man spat towards me on the way to school. He shouted something towards me calling me American or something about America. Gerry had a car refuse to pick us up, and they messaged him with the word ‘poisonous’. It is fear and worry, no doubt, but it’ll go away, we all hope. This is not a time for hate and fear. That being said counterfeit testing kits and fake masks, scams, lies, pure hate, alleged W.H.O. bias, and xenophobia are fuelling a global atmosphere of hate and distrust. Fight I with love and support. The minority, the knobheads and the uneducated lowlife responses don’t represent us all – and increasingly many governments and politicians do not either. There’ll be a brighter day soon.

There is hope out there, amongst the gloom. UCI show us how the professional cyclists keep going; charities left, right and centre help those in need; research is making progress in finding a vaccine or helping to alleviate symptoms; footballers are throwing their money at the NHS too; and countless other goodwill moments. China is sending aid to many countries – sometimes to mixed responses. The Vatican had benefited, Pakistan too, Israel has, Spain (did but they were faulty), France also, similarly Greece and Italy likewise. Pick a region or country and you’ll find China has been helping, whether through government, enterprise or charitable donations. Many argue the W.H.O., U.N., U.S.A. and China working as one are key. Some argue that there isn’t enough input from one or the others; but Europe is increasingly receiving support from China. The U.S.A. appears to be extensively alienating itself. Canada and Mexico, its geographically closest neighbours aren’t exactly being encouraged. 3M were ordered not to export to Canada despite 3M receiving the bade components and materials. And, Mexico is always the brunt of a Trump border problem. Corona beer production in Mexico is on hold for other reasons.

Oh and my letter to Dongguan was published on the local Here! Dongguan magazine online channel. Right time to go eat a salad… homemade with sweet potato leaves and peanuts. Why not?

Thanksgiving Day.

How do! / 你好 (nĭ hăo) / Namaste / Welcome!

“And I was taught to feel, perhaps too much, the self-sufficing power of solitude.” – William Wordsworth, The Prelude.

So, my trek in Nepal was over. I’d passed through up to 28 ethnic groups of people, notably Thakali, Gurung, Magar, Chhetri, Bhotia and some Tibetans. I’d seen Annapurna II, Manaslu, my favourite haunt of this trek, Pagunda Danda and other great mountains. I’d passed through areas housing maybe just 45,000 or so people in a short distance and across great swathes of area. The river Marshyangdi had been by my side from beginning to the end, and never more than a few kilometres away from my wanderings. I’d tread along a world-renowned trekking destination that needs great care, for peril lurks at every ridge. Remarkable waterfalls, dense forests, and other climatic wonders had lined the sub-tropical, temperate, sub-alpine and alpine bio-climatic zones. These imposing regions offered diversity in both mammal and bird species, and plants that I’ve never seen anywhere else before, and no doubt will never see somewhere else. The barks of musk deer, the swoosh of vultures, the tweets of life from tree to tree, and flashes of Himalayan Langur will stay in my memories.

I’ve met people connected with agriculture, animal husbandry, tourism, the military, conservation, Buddhist monks and other labouring forces. These stirring moments reminded me why I love to visit Nepal. There have been moments when I’ve looked in shame at crumbling mountain sides, ripped open by new roads, and power lines draping over great scenery. The price of a modern world has cut open a blend of people in need of the new age, with as many in fear of what will arrive. Can these ethnic groups survive the new ways in, and the new exposure to the outside world? Will everything change too fast for some to understand? Will education and investment bring new opportunity? Can the high pressure on natural resources be reduced? Will an unequal distribution of tourism wealth and benefits leave some people behind? Poverty is there, but can it seriously be eradicated? Will Chinese hydroelectric dam projects benefit anyone if they have mostly Chinese workforces? Will Indian investment be reduced as Nepal juggles the money of China over India?

With hunting, poaching, pollution, loss of habitat and humans getting ever closer to wildlife, can the Annapurna or Manaslu parks be improved to reduce these problems? Will climate change, flooding and increased tourism add greater strain to the region? I read that 18% of the world’s plant species can be found in the Annapurna Conservation Area. The project there highlights that 58% of Earth’s birds are present. A staggering 33% of Earth’s reptiles have refuge in the region. Amphibians (20%), butterflies (53%), and flowering plants (18%) represent significant proportions of Earth’s species too. There’s much more to Annapurna than snow leopards and possible yeti sightings…

To have walked through the largest protected park of Nepal was a privilege. I sat down to a cold coffee in Pokhara and stroked my sore head. I decided I would fly from Pokhara to Kathmandu. My friend Jodie was to visit Kathmandu a day or so later. I decided the long arduous coach journey was too much for me. Besides I like to fly and the price wasn’t too bad (732RMB) – and bookable via my Wechat money and Trip.com application. After a few wanders from the now ghostly quiet Pokhara, I was ready to fly.

Before doing so I took in the sights of Pokhara, a bat cave and the Gurkha Memorial Trust. Since joining the British Army in 1815, after showing valour in the battlefield against the British, the Gurkhas have enjoyed great connection with Britain and India. The museum itself was alike almost every museum and trust collection, with cabinets of medals, regalia and factsheets. Photos of hundreds of faces, stories and campaign information could be found throughout the large building. I was welcomed by two former Gurkha soldiers in full uniform and shown to the ticket desk, then set free to enjoy the words of regimental life, the sounds and read about Victoria Cross winners. A history sheet was handed to me and I spent a good couple of hours perusing the displays. I had passed the museum by chance, and prior to walking to Bat Cave in the direction of Mahendra Cave not even know there to be such a museum. I did not expect to be so detailed and well-constructed. The passion of many had created their space to inform, educate and celebrate. Here I learned the name Gurkha comes from the hill of Gorkha, and not from a specific race of people. Better to die than be a coward, is the Gurkha motto. Their history attains to that. Long may they have the welfare and care of those who respect them.

Now, Bat Cave is called that on every sign. I could see signs for the religious Mahendra Cave frequently. Those signs had Nepali Sanskrit and English on. The Bat Cave just had English. Bruce Wayne had no chance of hiding a Batmobile and Batwing in there. Green foothills surround the cave, but before you get there, a gate, with a kind of turnstile not out of place at a 1980’s football ground and a pay booth await. Here they try talking you into hiring a guide. I resisted that. I wanted tranquillity. He handed me a large lamp. I handed that back and shown him my simpler headtorch set. In I went. After a few steep steps, a dip and a ducked head I was in the main cavern. Alongside me were around 70-100,000 horseshoe bats. I dipped my torch and gazed on enjoying the cold humid chamber underground. The floor is slippery, the air is whiffy (it is a home to nature, after all), and my good footwear helped me a great deal. I reminded one small group to stay quiet, and they respected my wishes – and that of the bloody great big sign saying to be silent. There was a tiny passage for an exit, but I doubled back without trouble. I wanted to avoid a bump on the head.

After the 20km round-trip walk, I headed back to Obey Guest House. The family were really very nice. Sushil’s place had been recommended to Srirang and I by Livia on our first brief stop in Pokhara. Each time I’d stayed, I ended up the same room: up the stairs, first right turn, first room. The big clean room had a double bed, coffee table, hat stand, two small chairs, a bathroom with a steaming hot shower and a sink for a proper scrub down. There was a tiny balcony and the door would open to allow me to put my stinking walking boots outside. On the top floor, there are several levels to appreciate the panoramic views and a place to sit with a garden table. The family were really welcoming, warm and friendly. They check on you and make you feel at home. Sushil had washed some of my laundry before the trek, and it was waiting in a bag for me, alongside some trainers I’d left behind. The lodge is a tall pink building up a road from Lakeside. It’s easy to find. There’s Wi-Fi and the family pointed us to a simple and tasty breakfast place at the top of the road. Every morning I awoke to beautiful bird call, and at night I enjoyed peaceful ambience. I had several good sleeps there. Sushil pointed us to the nearby TIMS office, other amenities and gave great advice throughout. If you want to stay somewhere peaceful without hassle and worry, then obey me and look up Obey Guest House.

I do have to apologise to Obey Guest House because I stupidly left my smelly walking boots on the balcony when I left… I hope that they turned them into a plant pot! They probably couldn’t be repaired, and they certainly won’t be now! Sorry Sushil and family!

So, with the wheels lifting off the Pokhara runway, flight YT676, operated by Yeti Airlines departed, I assume. I’d been shuffled onto an earlier departure that eventually departed later. Not to worry. It was a good flight. The flight comfortably descended into the Kathmandu valley and once again I was in the cradle of rapid urbanisation. Here I enjoyed more days at Northfield Café and hotel, met a good man to embroider my travelling shirt, and enjoyed a haircut. With room in my bag, eight Lee Child novels filled my bag and that was that. I was ready to go. Goodbye Nepal. Thanks to Srirang and Livia for great company. Thank you to all of those people I met. See you again.

 


 

Almost 54 days later, I am writing this piece. I should have been in Hong Kong and heading over to Dongguan, China on the 15th of April. Here, I am in Dongguan, preparing to end my time in quarantine. If my PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) test comes back as negative tomorrow, I will be allowed to go to Dongguan’s Changping town, to fill in more forms and scan a QR code to show that I am virus-free. I’ve penned a letter to the management and local government officials here. Maria and Waits translated it for me. It’s as per below:

 

二零二零年四月八日
8th April 2020

 

给相关人士 To whom it may concern.

 

诚 挚 地 感 谢 

T H A N K   Y O U   K I N D L Y !

我从心底里感谢你。谢谢你对我的帮助。就像一名优秀的曼城足球运动员一样,我会敞开心扉。我在这里的日子很艰难,但你们更加辛苦。Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you kindly for helping me. Like a good Manchester City football player, I wear my heart on my sleeve. My time here has been tough, but you have been tougher.

当你路过西湖的时候,不管是东莞的这家酒店,还是那片著名的杭州的湖,还是惠州的那座城市,你都一定能够感受到你所做的这一切带给你的荣耀,是你肩负起了这份重任。When you pass West Lake, whether the hotel in Dongguan, the famous lakes of Hangzhou or the city of Huizhou, you’ll be able to think of the pride that you made a difference. You answered the call.

是你让所有人一起团聚;是你给予了爱人、朋友和亲人们一起纵享新时刻的机会;是你,在保护我们,你在照看我们,是你放弃了你们自己的时间,而把精力全部投入到了我们身上。You brought people back together. You gave loved ones, friend and family the chance to enjoy new moments together. You protected us. You looked after us. You gave up your time and gave us all your energy.

你为我打扫卫生,检查我的健康,为我尽心尽力。你让我的肚子饱饱的,并激发了我不知道我能做的锻炼。每当我口渴的时候,你就在那里。You have cleaned up after me, checked my health and waited on hand and foot for me. You have kept my belly full, and inspired exercises I didn’t know I was capable of. Every time I have been thirsty, you have been there.

我是东莞的客人。广东的客人。来中国的客人。你让我很受欢迎。我非常喜欢东莞。这是一座充满希望、想象力和雄心的城市。就像我的家乡曼彻斯特一样,这里也有工业路线,但这里的工业路线也越来越多。I’m a guest in Dongguan. A guest of Guangdong. A guest to China. You’ve made me welcome. I like Dongguan greatly. It is a city of hope, imagination and ambition. Like my hometown of Manchester, it has industrial routes but here too has grown to be so much more.

我们是如此的幸运,生活虽有不便但我们还是在这儿。那些倒下的人、那些逝去的人和那些殉职的人——正是因为他们,我们才能好好地活着。让我们一起为他们默哀片刻吧。We are the lucky ones. We are inconvenienced but we are here. Those who fell, those who died, those who died – it is because of them, we can live well. Let’s observe a moment of silence for them.

 

 

Mr John R. Acton

 


 

TO THE HEROES.

To the NHS staff in the U.K.; and to those health workers, care assistants, doctors, nurses, specialists and all going about in essential jobs right now. I salute you. Keep fighting on. Never give in. You are true heroes. The world needs you. I wish you well. Good luck! This is your hour to shine. Inspire the next generation and those who can and should support you. Look after your neighbours and we’ll find a brighter day. Peace and love!

 

Spiritually thunderstruck.

How do! / 你好 (nĭ hăo) / Namaste / Welcome!

A kind of swishing sound, only just perceivable to my ear, was what I heard. It happened in such a microscopic space of time that I had no time to react. My instinct said the sound was to be alarmed at. My brain had the signal. The computations were in process. It didn’t add up fast enough. As soon as my central nervous system was signalling peril, it struck. It skimmed more than struck, gliding over my head and landing with a thump two metres to my left shoulder. My head had slowed its momentum and the rock landed with a dull thud. The snow around it had remained intact. It sank into a hole maybe a leg’s length deep. As I peered into the hole, one eye was facing up the slope, making sure this rock’s bigger relatives weren’t coming down to flatten me. The slope was still enough. I gave a little more time to viewing the rock in the hole.

It was slate in colour, crumbly around the edges, rough and worn underneath but jagged and unforgiving on the top. The size, well, it was close to that of a red house-brick. I reached down to touch it. It weighed as much as two bags of sugar, if not a little more. I thought to myself, if that had landed on me more directly, I’d be as good as gone. Game over? I assessed my injury. It was a bump and no bigger than two (or three) that I had experienced earlier in the trek from headbutting low roof rafters and doorframes. It’s a habit I have tried to avoid since being a kid, but as my Mum will agree, I am clumsy. It’s in the genetics somewhere.

With that new bump obtained between Bhratang, the beginnings of the huge western face of Pagunda Danda, I just carried on to Upper Pisang. Not much I could do but knuckle down and see how it panned out. Initially that day, I was fine and later that day, I was still okay. The next day, as we departed the lodge and started our walk onwards, I started to feel an ache spanning from the bump back to rear-right of my head. After an hour of trekking that ache became near agony. It was either the rapid onset of altitude sickness, or that injury was playing up. Livia, Srirang and I trekked through deep snow, and eventually Livia and I stretched ahead a little, but not much. As we reached the mani stones, just shy of a very snowed over river with two bridges, I took a moment to try to understand my pain.

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We had opted for the path up to Ghyaru and Humde, because the views would look back across the valley at the Annapurna Masiff. The great mani stones, stood on a ridge overlooking the raging river below, and the smaller tributary that was would have to cross. Many slabs, rocks and smaller carved models carried one simple message, ‘Om mani padme hum. The beautiful artistic Sanskrit writing curved and glimmered in the various levels of light: ॐ मणि द्मे हूँ. Om/Aum/ ॐ [white] is a sacred syllable. Mani/ मणि [green] is a jewel (or bead). Pad/प [sky blue] plus me/द्मे [red] is the lotus flower – a flower sacred to Buddhism. Hoon/hum/ हूँ [dark blue] is the spirit of enlightenment. It can also be found in Chinese as 唵嘛呢叭咪吽 and Thai as โอมฺ มณิ ปทฺเม หูมฺ, amongst many languages and cultures.

Right here, on the pathway, the stone plates featured the six syllabled mantra as a form of Tibetan prayer. Some had clearly been painted, but most were natural earthly colours. Decades and possibly centuries of devotion made up this wall, like many other walls throughout Nepal and other countries. I’ve seen many mounds and cairns in similar fashions. Each one, I believe, offers prayer to the locality and beyond. The time and effort for each creation could be seen. No corners had been cut. Devotion had been placed on each faithful stone. This wall was around about two metres high and sagged just a little. It was long as coach and as wide as a wardrobe. You always walk around a Mani wall, the same way the Earth rotates. Buddhism has rules. Against the backdrop of the Himalayas, spiritualism and nature hugged each other. Lichens and mosses covered what surface they could, and birds occasionally perched on the walls, looking down at the snow, trying to find the little food available. At this moment, I assessed the bridges. Livia and I decided the lower bridge route would be the safest option. We set out.

After crossing the lower bridge, we scrambled upwards a few and awaited Srirang. He chose the upper bridge and we met once again. I walked up one gentle wide path and Srirang and Livia chose a steeper more direct route. They met me as I was sat down. My head was pounding inside – and I felt a little sick. There was dizziness. I ate some biscuits and drank plenty of water. Srirang and Livia were concerned. They suggested a rest and we discussed the injury or whether it could be altitude sickness. We were about 3500m up and we had never rushed the journey so far. Ghyaru (3730m) lay just a few metres upwards. After an hour, I decided I had to descend. Livia and Srirang disagreed but we all agreed, “if I feel better tomorrow, I’d head back up.” With that I scuttled back to Upper Pisang, and enjoyed the views of the frozen lake below on the plains, and the ever-angry flows of the Marshyangdi River. I was welcomed back into the same lodge. Even to this day I cannot recall the name of the lodge. It had a Sherpa-Tibetan family and they were ever so nice. I said about my discomfort and they said that I did the right thing.

After an evening of talking with trekkers on their way from Manang, and a few individuals heading upwards, I slipped off to bed. The dal baht power didn’t seem to be shifting my headache and numerous litres of water made me get up during the night several times. Peeing into a frozen toilet with no water to flush it, isn’t a nice experience, at 4am in the freezing cold. Still, it beat watching celebrities on mind-numbing television shows. I’d also spent hours on Wi-Fi trying to talk with customer services at Trip.com – for the second night running, to see if I could move a flight to Hong Kong, because of the growing seriousness of the COVID-19 outbreak in China. Many airlines were cancelling flights and by this time Nepal had apparently closed its borders to China and reportedly banned Chinese tourists. In my anxious mind, it made sense to be proactive and try to remain in Nepal. The border crossings between China and Hong Kong were rapidly becoming fewer too. Why fly to absolute uncertainty?

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I awoke a little refreshed but still with a headache. I made the choice to descend further. I set out just before 11am and walked back. I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t relieved. I just had a pain in the head that wouldn’t go away. The walk back was tough as the walk up. The deep snow and occasional blustery winds made it a slog of a day. As I rounded the cliffs and the path led through to The Farmhouse at Bhratang, I spotted a jeep. The driver helped me get to Chame. At Chame, I met a doctor who looked at my head, tested my reactions and concluded concussion. He said no need for emergency treatment and suggested I head back to Pokhara or rest for several days in a warmer village downhill. I was in luck, the jeep driver took me as far as Besi Sahar! Back to the beginning. Here I was dropped at the hotel Manaslu and booked onto the first coach to Pokhara that morning. It felt sad but I had a mix of emotions in my head, anxiety and a head injury.

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The U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office advised against all travel to China but didn’t state a clear reason why. The outbreak seemed to be mostly confined to Hubei and a few other areas. The U.K. wasn’t even screening passengers on arrival from any Chinese city. Was it really that serious?! Could I return to China or not? Would I have to head to the U.K.? Could I stay in Nepal by extending my visa? I had a tight budget and worry had been with me for days. Worry and concussion are not ideal bedfellows.

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The cumbersome coach clumped along, bouncing and bumping, throwing passengers here and there, and visited countless villages on the route back to Pokhara. At one stop a toothless elderly man sat on a step. He had no shoes on and his clothing looked unkempt. His face crinkled from years of exposure to the sun. He looked at me. He smiled. He gestured with his fingers the shape of a smile, over his face. That’s what it is all about. Experiences, moments and smiles. I smiled back, greeted and waved goodbye as the cumbrous coach continued headlong. I could take much from this journey and experience.

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Looking back at the day where the rock had hit my head, I’d been clicking away like crazy on my camera before that. After that, I’d rarely taken many photos. It clearly marked a change in my behaviour and my general health. The physical and mental challenge had just been knocked out of me. Yet, I experienced many great moments, even on the jeep journey back down. It isn’t every day a herd of goats gets in your way! From then on Nepal would still give me more great moments, but the trek had finished.

So, what next?

Vivid moments on the Earth’s crust.

好 (nĭ hăo) / Namaste / Welcome!


Eddie, Eddie give us a wave!

Rest in peace Eddie Large. The comedian born in Scotland came to Manchester as a kid and adopted City. Well City adopted him as a mascot later on in the years and one thing about him and Syd Little, they really were a sweet comedy pair. On his heart problem: “He said, “What stresses you out?”, I said, “football”, he said, “What team do you support?”, I said, “Manchester City”. He said, “That’s it.”” Later he ends the brief video story as, “I don’t blame it on City, but he did.” Rest in peace big man – and condolences to your family. The likes of Matt Lucas saying that Eddie Large offered him support when he started out says a lot. Eddie Large has a large legacy.


Words and actions are being thrown around in these tough times. I love reading and can’t focus because the information that is out there is too much. There’s great and good. There’s sad and devastating. For example, the BBC News footage of the news presenter Jane Hill saying the government expected 30,000 ventilators. Before that, she sounded so bleak, and she shows all the pain in her face, “…and we have been double-checking this, but it does seem to say thirty.” So, so worrying. Even the media are struggling to comprehend this all now. Shandong province, of China, have sent support to the U.K.

“This virus is a disaster. Footballers can live without receiving a single paycheck for a few years, but I feel sorry for the person who wakes up at 6 in the morning and comes back at 9 at night just to feed his family. Us footballers can make a difference.” – Carlos Tevez, footballer

Someone, somewhere, wrote to me, ‘How’s the bat soup going down. & the puppy blamange desert?’At first I wan’t going t reply. There’s so much hate and pain going around. There’s so many xenophobic lines just bashed out on keyboards. I know, because all I want to do is exercise my right to reply or write something. Usually, I hold back. Spread peace and love. I try. I hate hate. But away, I went as per below:

This is obviously linked to wet markets and wildlife trade. China is pushing through some serious laws. They’ve lost so much face, and many lives, many. The world is suffering too. If it wasn’t here, it could have started in Vietnam, Korea, a whole list of countries. The thing is, it is too late to laugh at it all, because it’s on our doorsteps, everywhere, knocking and pushing its way through. We’ll all suffer for this. It is too sad for me to laugh at. Especially, seeing as bear bile is classed as a TCM (traditional Chinese med)… and is sanctioned to treat COVID19.

Sorry, I can’t joke anymore about this. Over here, in China, foreigners are experiencing xenphobia for importing cases into the country, jobs are going for fellow teachers and workers who were needed here. Gallow’s humour is all well and good but there is a time and place. The blancmange is to die for.

This virus and spread of disease may be hell for many. Some will go into lockdown and may never come out. Elliot Dallen imagined spending his last few weeks with friends. Now his final time is slipping away. I can’t imagine the dread he is going through and there are no words that I, or many others can offer for him. I hope he gets the tangible bonds of friendship and family time, he like many, are missing. Life must carry on, right to the end.


 

The journey goes on.

Leaving Chame (2710m) town, we clambered up a wide pathway, below a very steep cliff of a mountain. The rattle and whistle of prayer flags could be heard overhead. The path led out, upwards gently, hugging the valley. Eventually in reached a small village and then another smaller village. Bhratang (2850m) was quite a small village. Not so much a village, more of a hamlet. A small number of houses before modern signs for The Farmhouse. The Farmhouse is an eco-resort, and many note it as being a heaven for apples. I was excited. I wanted to try an apple from here, despite knowing that the orchard much be closed. Maybe, just maybe they’d have one or two apples knocking around in a cold room. I clung to hope. The Farmhouse has a link to both Bhratang Apple Farm and Agro Manang. This is Nepal’s biggest and most famous source of apples. Maybe, they’d have some apple sauce? Some ciders? Apple vinegar? The apples that the bus in Swayambhu, Kathmandu had carried (to Pokhara) had come from here. I’m not a huge apple fan (I could have said big apple, right?) but the smell of those apples on that bus journey was scrumptious.

Soon after I would pass a huge apple orchard with discernible damage from storms. Power lines, trees and fencing didn’t just lean over, it littered the scattered exposed earth. The acres of apple trees leaned towards the south in a way a rugby team would crouch in a scrum. The naked branches of each tree were bound together with reinforced ropes and supports, giving it the view of a kind of wooden graveyard. The towering rockface to the right of the path sparkled in the sunlight, with occasional ledges much like the whole mountain had been carved away by an immense force. The eco-park beneath it and The Farmhouse were closed. There was no chance of an apple tart or an apple flapjack. I refilled my water bottle from one of three gushing springs set in a wall.

The orchard was hidden by fences that could have belonged in Jurassic Park. Warnings about keeping out were everywhere. Every now and then a tree had fell out of the in, and into the road. Bits of electrical pylons dotted the pathways and the odd electrical wiring slung here and there. An apple a day may keep the doctor away, but this pile of ruins wasn’t inviting me to look for the scattered rotten apples on the floor. Quite the opposite. I trotted on.

Rounded a sharp-rising pathway from Bhratang, the huge western face of Pagunda Danda became visible. The mountain could easily have doubled as a slate of hill, or a hill of slate. It is so smooth-looking that you wonder if it has been moisturising for millennia. Many people trek the Annapurna Circuit for the biggies, the large peaks but views such as Pagunda Danda alone made my trip well worth doing. I can see the appeal of a scramble and ice-climb up the face, but with melting and sunlight upon it, the risks of avalanches were high.

Avalanches had been noted from just before Chame village onwards. One avalanche field had swept trees, boulders and all in its path down across the pathway. The pathway had been sliced open again and cleared. Either side of the road potato-shaped but basketball-sized balls of frozen snow piled high, with twigs, branches and stumps jutting outwards. On the lower levels of the pathway, fallen electric pylons and rocks the sizes of cars had crashed downwards. The avalanche was not fresh, but it wasn’t particularly old. Looking upwards into the steep valley to a mountain ridge, I deliberated about where all this material had actually come from. It was frighteningly too much for mind to compute.

The second avalanche field I encountered was on the opposite bank of the gushing Marshyangdi River. It was so big that it covered over the river and arrived at the steep base far below my footing. The river had tunnelled through the frozen snow overhead. It was an eerie sight to behold. Just before that field a few tonnes had piled on the sharply-carved Bhratang to Chame road making the area impassable, and causing a huge landslide to make the footpath as wide as a human could walk safely. Just. Below in the river, a carcass of a Toyota jeep sat well-below the narrow road overhead. Later, Livia had found out that back in October, several people were on board as the jeep slipped off the road. Thankfully all had managed to jump clear. A real miracle in the mountains.

The sharp road is but only wide enough for one car. The rock above is barely two metres high. It’s a ledge that commands real respect and no hanging around. A long horizontal slat has ice caps and blastholes in equal scatterings. Walking far from the edge, I could peek at the drop below. Ravine of the week was alongside me for several hundred metres. I felt I needed to be roped to the wall behind me.

The largest path of avalanche destruction lay soon after the perils of the cliff track. A huge sweeping sheath of snow and debris had swept from the southern flank of Pagunda Danda. This casing of ice and power had ripped over the pathway into the river below. A clearly demarked pathway was cut through and lined with pines from nearby trees. The crevices and nooks around which were not safe to linger for too long.

On approach to the well-named Marshyangdi River Bridge, Pagunda Danda’s splendour was there for all to see. This 1500m (4,900ft) elevation is striking. Almost like a vivid piece of the Earth’s crust curved outwards and upwards in a kind of skateboard park half-pipe shape. It isn’t beyond the imagination to picture people skiing down the snow covered silky-looking solid surface or perhaps cycling up the shiny and extraordinary rockface itself. I was reliably informed by a passing guide that once upon a time it once was a lakebed. My imagination could barely see that. Now, local legends believe that mass of rock, known as Swarga (heaven) Dwar (gates) is the route to the afterlife. After leaving your mortal remains behind, you must clamber up this wall to reach the beyond. Few cracks and very little green grew along this gargantuan surface. Its various tones glimmered in the sunlight. Swarga Dwar is heavenly.

I decided I’d walk over the wider bridge. Bad idea. Not so soon after, I had to double back in deep-unbroken snow to the pathway that connected from the smaller chain suspension bridge. Still, the views were worth it, or that’s what I kept telling myself. On crossing the bridge, I noticed that not one, but of my walking boots had worn splits in them. They would remain watertight for that day, but worry set in. How easy is it to buy a pair of UK size-14 boots in the mountains? Was there much demand for European-sized 50 boots in that neck of the woods? Would a repair shop be open in Manang?

The slog up to Dhukur Pokhari (3240m) involved a little bit of that famous Nepali flat (little bit up, little bit down) on the last section. Ordinarily, I’d have enjoyed that, but waist-deep snow and a heavy frame meant I spent a fair bit of time digging myself out and starting up and over again, only to have to dig myself out again. Occasionally, for the sake of variety I flumped over like a dropped teddy bear and rolled around in the snow. These are the moments we hike for – to get in touch with nature, even if gravity is fully in charge. This also gave me time to really appreciate the incredible views. Snow-capped peaks are in every direction and the lower hills around me give glimpses of the fuller Annapurna range. The path had been a zigzagging tour of the under-canopy of pines and firs. The trees had nestled so closely at times that sunlight had failed to melt much of the deep snow beneath the natural green sunshade.

At Dhukur Pokhari, a brightly coloured lodge offering a fruit juice and sun-bathed benches caught my attention. Several trekkers were tucking into what looked like proper potato chips. Would they also have gravy and a nice piece of haddock too? I decided that lunch was needed. Well, actually my belly was rumbling like hell having ran on a trekker’s fuel bar, porridge and omelette for far too long. I greeted the lodges family, “Tashi delek” and took the menu from them. The crisp air, with sunshine beating down on me, reminded me of a winter’s sunny day on Morecambe Bay. I was warm despite the now sub-zero temperatures.

After a lunch of vegetable momos, chips, and allu paratha (potato in a bread), I didn’t enjoy the dal bhat later that evening, but I did have plenty in the tank for the final part of the walk. The steep upwards pathway through to Dhukur Pokhari had burned a fair bit of energy but on leaving the village, the trail was quite smooth, with only a few upward rises, and most of them in the finale of the path.Livia, Srirang and I set out once more and remained together for the final push of the day. The air was much thinner than earlier than day, and a huge radio mast amongst the crumbling old and proud new buildings marked out the final stop for the day. It grew ever closer.

After crossing a footbridge, alongside two twisted bridge remains, the pathway snaked in and out of small bushes and a very hidden abandoned settlement. To the left the river moved away, and fields spread outwards. To the right a new peak became clearer. Pisang takes its name from Pisang Peak (locally called Jong Ri – 6091m high), of which Paungda Danda is its south-eastern subsidiary peak. The so-called ‘Great Wall of Pisang’ was easily visible in the fading sunlight. Pisang Youth Club’s football fields could be made out amongst the snow on our right, as the goalposts gave it away. To our left, a huge sweeping curing avalanched seemed to have completely lost momentum at a stonewall. It was stonewalled just a metre from our footpath. The jagged windswept icy tufts of the avalanche stood in contrast to intact wheat shoots to the avalanche’s left.

Upper Pisang (3300m) is part of the Pisang village. Lower Pisang (3200m) is its slightly lower down and over the valley other half. About 307 live across 105 houses, according to a census in 2011. It seemed on my visit, that far fewer people were here. Arriving at our guesthouse, the lucidly turquoise Marshyangdi River could be seen a hundred metres or so below. If life it what you make it, then right there and then, life was wonderful. To reach Lower Pisang, you don’t cross the bridges, you follow the river and cross a different bridge. The Lower Pisang plains and the buildings looked cold and uninviting because the mountains above cast such a large shadow below.

Upper Pisang has sweeping great views of Annapurna II and ample opportunity to take endless snaps on your camera. The lodge’s family feel is completed by a young girl singing from YouTube videos on a phone. Mother and father, busy cooking occasionally pop out to check on her, and she looked up every time, with full respect and listened to all instructions, in the Tibetan language.

After gaining 600m in elevation and trekking about 14.5km that day, we’d all earned a good night’s sleep. I tucked under my extra blanket and crept into my sleeping bag. I sat up suddenly and took one last look outside at the valley beneath and the few twinkles of electric light. The dark sky and stars made me realise how cold it was, so I slipped back into the sleeping bag and soon fell asleep, deep into a dream…

“Listen as the wind blows, from across the great divide, voices traoped in yearning, memories trapped in time. The night is my companion, and solitude is my guide…” – Possession by Sarah McLachlan

 

Cover image by the angry hungry Hungarian and great trekker Livia (Srirang and I passing an avalanche field the day after arriving at Upper Pisang):

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