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!

The £80 season ticket.

你好/ Ní hǎo / Nín hǎo / Hello / How do / S’mae / Namaste

 

“Mr John, what’s your favourite season?”, Billy asked. His tiny frame jiggled around with excitement as he happily danced the question from his chirpy mouth. He looked in anticipation of my answer. In his eyes, I think I sensed he wanted me to answer winter. He could see that I was sweating from the 35°C heat. I have been quite vocal about my dislike of summer and heat since around March when the mercury hit 30°C for the first time this year.

To his surprise, I could see it in his eyes, I did not reply spring, summer nor autumn. The expected word of winter did not disembark my mouth. “Billy, I like the football season best.”

The response was quite international, “Huh?!” One simple sound of confusion with calculators flashing in his young eyes. And smoke billowing from his ears. His thought processes however surprised me. He understood, “You like the start and end of football games in the year but not no games.” Spot on. Grab your A-stars now and go directly to university. How perceptive of you Billy.

Now, flash forwards a day to older-than-eight-year-olds. During a conversation, I was asked which season I like best. I gave the same reply. Nothing. Not a single question or notaion of understanding. The boy in grade 8/junior school 2 was flummoxed. Uterrly mystified and totally foxed. So, rather than let him avoid the subject, I asked if he understood. He replied, “of course.” Very confident. So, I said, “please explain.” I didn’t expect much more information to come. The body language of the boy shown he had been thrown, possibly flabbergasted and bewildered. There was a rabbit in the headlights. He opened his mouth, “In winter it snows, so there is no football. In summer, it is too hot, so there is no football. In spring, it is too wet, so there is no football. In autumn it is windy a dry, so this is when the football season is.” I liked his answer, it had a kind of mathematican’s logic to it. I explained the traditional football seasons of Europe run from August to May. There are variations of course. I said summer football is a huge outlier and probably because the weather is too hot, the fields (pitches) too firm. His reply was, “Well, why is the World Cup in summer?” I said it probably boils down to availability and less interruption to less leagues. I said the winter World Cup of 2022 in Qatar will be an outlier.

My years have never been measured by lunar calendars, Gregorian dates, academic planners or such. No, I opted for cards handed out with the Manchester Evening News’s The Pink years ago, and other wonderful football season date lists.  That first date tunnels utter anticipation until the close season becomes pre-season. Pre-season dates are foreplay to the full activity of the football season proper. Waiting for the football season is a time in itself. Here shirts are released, players exchanged, cold, bought and loaned in or out. Words of war are spoke and expectations set, high or low. The battle is far from underway. The Community Shield is looked at as a friendly, unless you’re in and then it is a trophy, unless you lose. There are contradictions in the making from supporters everywhere. Prices of season tickets, games, and all the accessories of the devout football fan are bickered over. “I won’t buy that” becomes an impulse buy. Quarells placed on pause since May (or June) slide to on. Fantasy football teams are prepped. Bookies collect their bets and forms.

TV subscriptions and schedules are juggled around bills and holiday plans. The ripple of every change is mirrored by the frantic actions of a football fan cancelling a wedding in Benidorm in favour of a weekend wedding at Bolton’s Travelodge. Well, Bolton host your team that weekend. Aberystwyth Town’s last season kit is folded away, and you’re pestering Steve Moore at the clubshop on a daily basis. You’re pinging off text message after twitter message after Whatsapp group query, “When is the new Aber Town top out?” You know that by the time your £80 season ticket is printed, you’ll have the famous black and green on your chest but can’t be sure you’ll be wearing it before Gresford Athletic or Llanidloes Town visit. You’ll dig out your oldest kit and call it retro those days. When is the Nathaniel MG Cup Round Two draw? You overlook the first batch of round dates. It matters not to you.

This pre-season I will travel further than before for City’s four preparation games. Taking in the Premier League Trophy in Nanjing and Shanghai,  a game at Hong Kong Stadium versus Kitchee SC and then the EuroJapan Cup game in Yokohama against F. Marinos. Taking in a trip to Japan excites me. Time to do some planning.

Former City Manager Manuel Pellegrini returns to China having coached Hebei Fortune. Former sky blue hero, Pablo Zabaleta could face City. I’ve paid 288RMB ticket for each game on mainland China. Not a tenner in the sterling world, but not too expensive considering the tickets can equate to the below:

£71/£122 via ManCity.com. Newcastle Utd or Wolves v Manchester City. Fri, 19 Jul 00:00. Shanghai’s Hongkou Stadium.

£43/£65. West Ham United v Manchester City. Tue, 16 Jul 00:00.Nanjing Olympic Sports Centre.

I’m told my ticket in Yokohama was for a similar price to the 288RMB, although I’ve seen some weird four-figure numbers banded about too. This all makes Aberystwyth Town’s £80 season ticket look good value.

 

再见/ Zài jiàn / Bài bài / Ta’ra / Goodbye / Hwyl Fawr / Dhanyabaad / Alavidā