XL

Lately the glasshouse whiteflies fly all around like shattered and scattered autumnal snowflakes. That’s during daylight. Not at 4.35am on a Monday morning. After just 4 hours of sleep, I departed for and then arrived at Manchester Airport, by bus and then train. I felt sleepy.

Walking through Terminal 3’s Customs they checked my toothpaste and deodorant in some kind of smear test. The need to stay fresh had to rule out that I’d joined Al Qaeda. Post-September 11th, 2001 has really made air travel irritating. My flight from Manchester to Katowice was smooth enough. Landing in Poland, I had to await the check-in desk to open. A walk outside revealed this Polish airport was closer to the Arctic Circle than the city of Katowice.

With two hours to go until take-off, I paid my bargain forty-eight quid boarding pass fee in Zlotys. Later Trip.com refunded this having not shared my data to the airline for the connecting flight. The wait was pleasant enough, at a modern and clean airport devoid of the failings of Manchester International Airport. The flight rumbled down a runway, complete with a toppled-over turboprop aircraft just in view. That positioning of a busted plane surely needs a review on TripAdvisor.

Landing in Dortmund, I walked through a crowd of Manchester City fans with shirts and things to sign. The odd Dortmund fan littered amongst them. I shuffled myself aside and watched as the reigning Premier League Champions dribbled through. Dressed in black sportswear, most of them looked like they were straight out of JD Sports. Waiting for that made me miss the bus to the city centre.

About an hour later I paid for my bus to town, and a fellow Blue who didn’t have cash to hand. European standards about card payments are so inconsistent and often inconvenient. Not that Great Britain is much better. I miss the convenience of the Wechat application in China and its ability to do anything, even issue toilet paper.

German efficiency is a phrase often banded about, with seriousness and wit. I found my apartment in the district of Funkenberg after a quick U-bahn-tram journey. A local dinner at a taverna of mushrooms and schnitzel quickly found its way to my belly before I went back for a good night of shut eye.

Having slept well, I checked out, darted to the Dortmund Haubtbahnhof at Königswall 15. I grabbed a coffee from a generic bakery chain and locked my bag away for 4 euros a day. I returned back to my locker after realising I’d locked my coffee in the locker, before crossing the road to the Deutsches Fußballmuseum. I like football. I like museums. I like Germany. The arrangement could have worked out well.

Sure enough the varied exhibits, mostly bilingual, were diverse, organised and engaging. A 3D holographic show, some nostalgia, loads of World Cup materials and a display on Women’s football feature throughout the museum but the 19 Euro charge in to see Paul the octopus encased and a sweaty Mario Götze World Cup winning boot seems excessive. England’s National Football Museum is suggested donation entry, but Germany has won four trophies to England’s one, so perhaps they’ve earned the right to price their security accordingly.

After the football museum, I had a ponder around the city of Dortmund, Germany’s eighth most populated city and noticed how many concrete and modern buildings there. In 1945, allied troops from the west flattened approximately 98% of homes, factories and other buildings of inner city Dortmund. Dortmund was Germany’s most bombed city in one night and one month. A month later the ground assault rolled through and Dortmund’s Nazi days were over.

Ballspielverein Borussia 09 e. V. Dortmund are one of Germany’s most successful and colourful football clubs. They also have handball, athletics, ice hockey and countless other sports because they’re a sports club with 145,000 active members and not just a footy club. Die Schwarzgelben play in black and yellow, resembling bees and have a fantastic fan base, even if they do sing You’ll Never Walk Alone.

Prior to the game friendly beer drinking, schnitzel and sausage tasting could be found outside the ground in picturesque settings, as well as every pub in town. The concourse in the ground was similar before, during and after City’s frustrated draw. The home team and fans celebrated their progression to the knockout stage. City took it in their stride.

The swift return to collect my bag at the railway station postmatch, followed a brusque walk to the central station. I grabbed it from the locker and went to get a sandwich for the late train at 23:30ish. The train went a whole stop, with everyone aboard experiencing a crush like stampede experience and sweating crazily. At Bochum it stopped and allowed an ambulance crew to attend to an emergency. Then another train arrived, also destined for Dusseldorf, as musical chairs started. Everyone wanted to be on the first train out.

The train arrived on Dusseldorf, close to 3am. I had a hotel booked for the next night, check in from noon. I was lucky and found a scenic spot by the Rhine until then. During my time in Dusseldorf I walked the banks of the Rhine, admired the architecture and increased my step count. Good food, great culture and a pleasant trip ended on a Thursday flight to Manchester.

By Friday, I had added one to thirty-nine and reached forty (XL in Roman numerals). A pleasant Vimto ice cream with Brahma after coffee in The Rascals Cafe (Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre) with my sister Christina took up the afternoon. In the evening I met my Mum, Paul and Kat from Shenzhen Blues for dinner and to see comedian Nick Helm at The Stoller Hall. After getting back, I walked Panda and the pleasant day ended with slumber time. A happy birthday.

Step back: II.

Striding off the jet, up the steep long gangway into the terminal building, I plodded hard and fast. I walked with conviction. At the Terminal building luggage belt and special items, I had to meet Panda.

Panda, the border collie with attitude, had been boxed for 17 hours plus pre-boarding time, and was fast approaching the 24 hour mark. I passed passport control and wandered off to collect my luggage. Neither Panda nor my backpack had arrived. The conveyor spun around and eventually the 30kg juggernaut of a backpack arrived. I lugged it over to the area for oversized or special baggage and waited.

Amongst the discarded polythene wraps and seemingly forgotten golf buggies and cycling cases, I slipped back and slumped against a wall. Here I reflected that I was already feeling calmer having left China and its measures to achieve dynamic zero CoViD-19. I also was enjoying some diversity of culture, having mostly been surrounded by Han Chinese and Guangdong for three years.

“That mountain you’ve been carrying, you were supposed to climb.” / “你身上背负的大山,是你本该攀登的.”

Panda didn’t arrive quickly. Nor did the five other dogs being awaited by other travelers around me. After querying customer services, the glass door at the end of the annex to luggage slid open. Out on pallets slid a whole kennel of dog crates. Here a whining and happy Panda looked simultaneously pissed-off yet relieved. His owner, equally happy to see his puppy-like eyes.

“每个人都是独立的个体,但我们联系在一起” / “Everyone is an individual, but we’re connected.”

To Customs and the anything to declare section we went, showing our papers, well Panda’s jabs and rabies inoculation sheet, etc. The chilled out inspector handed back our papers and allowed us to depart, having not even looked inside the dog crate. Arrivals was above Amsterdam Schipnol and by a car park. Time to unleash the beast.

I frantically used a small metal key card to remove the straps fastened around Panda’s dog crate. Then we wheeled outside and pondered what to do with the dog crate. From here on, Panda deserved to be back on his leash and free. Immediately on opening the door, near to a tree, an excited Panda leapt out and washed my fast, and just as quick, squatted and deposited a bottom compost pile. I scooped it into a dog pooh bag and discarded it. But, the dog crate, unspoiled and un-soiled was a tougher matter.

“Don’t cry because it is over, smile because it happened.” / “不要因为结束而哭泣,微笑吧,因为你曾经拥有”

I looked around one outer flank of the airport railways station. Nowhere to be found. No places to donate a dog crate in close proximity. Not even an area for recycling or refuse. With time rattling away, I decided a bicycle park seemed a safe bet. I disassembled the dog crate and pushed it into a wide bicycle locker. It wasn’t a good idea to leave an unattended object of that size by a major international airport.

I had a pre-booked train ticket go Rotterdam for a hotel booked in advance. Now, Panda needed a ticket for the journey so I queued ahead of his first dedicated rail ticket. We both scuttled down to the platform for our train to Rotterdam Zuid Station. On the train Panda met a whole range of friendly people and I chatted to an Indian metallurgist working in the Netherlands. The country had made a very special imprint in a short space of time. Great transport, friendly people, diversity, many cycles and cleanliness. We’d only been there an hour and it felt so relaxed.

A brief stroll from the station to B&B Unitas at J.B. Bakemakade on the Binnenhaven Dock didn’t take long. Here the host allowed us on board and shown Panda and I to our room. A brief introduction and then we set out for Panda’s first well-deserved and much needed walk in Europe.

Starting in Rotterdam’s Feijenoord area, we headed towards the centre and admired the architecture. Well, I enjoyed the building shapes and designs, whereas Panda enjoyed the walls, corners, footers of lampposts and other fittings etc. After a good few kilometres, a lot of leg-cocking and no dinner, we arrived back at the quaint boat hotel.

Being about 193cm tall on a boat, I had to duck into the shower cubicle, which was considerably shorter. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it, or felt uncomfortable, but it’s certainly something to be aware of. Actually looking back on the stay aboard Unitas there’s nothing I didn’t like. The gangplank is a metal grill, which I didn’t like carrying Panda over it, because it is shoulder-width at best, however expecting a wider pathway is silly. The boat hotel is quaint, friendly and located close to Rotterdam Zuid train station. Red-eyed Panda and I slept like logs.

The breakfast, ate on deck, was deliciously fresh and hearty, from a basket and full of variety. The surrounding area was great for a wander with Feyernord’s football ground down the road, and plenty of shops around the corner. It’s an idyllic hotel, in a city but seemingly away from the hustle and bustle. I wouldn’t swap the experience for any other hotel.

Our long day walk took us across many parks but notably into Zuiderpark to see a windmill (by Kromme Zandweg), and eat a delicious and filling lunch at the calm setting of De Bonte Keukentafel. A perfect setting for an afternoon wander, complete with historic windmill and farm to its side. Again Panda received a fair share of attention. Welcome to Europe, Panda.

Panda and I stayed at the dog friendly boat hotel, for one night only, en route to Rotterdam Europoort. The hotel helped arrange a taxi towards our ferry, and off we went…

Lately.

Good evening 晚上好 / 你好 Hello!

Lately it has been a manic period of hustle and bustle at Tungwah Wenzel International School (TWIS). Also, in my free time, I’ve been heavily hard at work procrastinating and doing the things I enjoy doing, whenever I feel they’re necessary. Whoever said a lack of responsibility was easy, lied. Cappuccino has been close to hand. Almost as luxury as the pair of Ravemen CR900 cycling lights. An upgrade from the N900 models. Remote controls and battery level monitors were too tempting.

The Diploma Programme team have been working solidly under great leadership. The application and candidate status has become approved. Not bad for a school without any current high school students! Now we’re gunning, pedal to the metal, for the completion of MYP’s International Bachelorette status.

The uncertainty of when travel to the U.K. hangs over my head like a Titanic-sized Goliath of scrapped metal. At times it feels like it may drop and make my noggin more squishy than nature intended. At other times, the optimism factory is producing positive vibes and sending them out in Olympic-sized swimming pool proportions. With every passing news article, input by experts, advice of Olympians going to Beijing 2022 and chilling in quarantine for twenty-one days prior to the Winter Olympics. Nothing is certain.

For two of our Language and Literature class groups, students selected Lord of The Flies and It’s Kind of a Funny Story. Exams have been prepared for the former and the latter shall be assessed by essay. In the meantime, the second units are in full preparation. As are units three to five. The school year map is freshly under way. And that’s before looking at Science classes with grades 6 to 8. Hopefully the weather will drop below thirty degrees Celsius to allow some extra evening preparation motivation.

I recently caught up with Shenzhen Blues, Katherine and Stephen in Shenzhen. A fantastic Turkish meal at Mevlana (#154 Zhenxing Road, Huaqiangbei, Futian) with a witty Pakistani waitress made for a fun afternoon. Shenzhen is a city with great food and a fantastic place to recover after hiking. And matter about City’s impressive draw at Anfield.

The relentless and ferocious Guangdong heat has tested my mind and body, and ruined my balcony garden. The grape vines perished in the inexorable sunlight and the numerous passion fruit plants became single digits. The uncompromising sunshine has dried my daisies and ruthlessly culled my apparently less than shaded herb garden. The harsh weather has seldom given way to rain, typhoons or monsoons this summer. It’s dogged single-minded unyielding approach to the environment has been cooking and drying for too long. Today hit 34 degrees Celsius and that was a cool part of this last week!

Goodbye 再见

Stage XII: Serendipity x Terra

Nihao! 你好!Hello!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zaijian! 再见!Goodbye!

Stage XI: Abuji Cuo

你好!Nihao! Hello!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

再见!Zai Jian! Goodbye!

Stage X: Shangri-la Too

Nihao! 你好!Hello!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zai Jian! 再见!Goodbye!

Stage IX: Dali (and the mysterious Aubergine)

你好!Nihao! Hello!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zai Jian! 再见!Goodbye!

Stage VIII: Chengdu & Don’t

你好! Nihao! Hello!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

再见!Zai Jian! Goodbye!

Stage II: Shanxi’s Great Wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good night (or whatever time it is)!

Best of British.

How do/你好,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ta’ra. 再见