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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They’re Here To Save The World?

你好 (nĭ hăo) / Namaste / Welcome!

Let’s start with goats. Goats at the seaside to be precise. Smooth Kashmiri goats popped own from the Great Orme for a bite to eat in sleepy Llandudno. Not once, but twice. Twitter and Andrew Stuart have been following this closely.

Dana Barrett: “That’s the bedroom, but nothing ever happened in there.”
Peter Venkman: “What a crime.”
Lines from Ghostbusters (1984).

Bin linings are being reported as medical head covers. Clinical bin liners are also being used to cover feet. Aprons, basic kind, no special functions too. Welcome to the modern NHS that is reported battling COVID-19 with improvisation. Reports of doctors and nurses being told to go from wards with COVID-19 patients to wards with no reported cases. Staff breaking down in tears. Mental health of our heroes under so much pressure. At home and abroad. That leads me to the saddest news I’ve read today, and there is so much to choose from, so much pain and suffering now. The suicide of Daniela Trezzi. The National Federation of Nurses of Italy reported that the 34-year-old nurse was worried she’d transmit COVID-19 to others. 5.670 nurses and other medical or healthcare workers have been infected by COVID-19. They are the frontline. They are under immense stress and trauma. They need support, everywhere.

The gamble of delaying lockdowns and social distancing, in favour of herd immunity is now in full swing. The UK leadership reacted too slowly, and their herd are now suffering. Some will be lambs to the slaughter. Others will be asymptomatic. Some will get a tough flu. Some will remain with damaged lungs. All will know somebody who has or had COVID-19. Now, the tricky part. How many are ready to bury their loved ones? There won’t be many, if any. Few will need to inter because this virus will require cremations for the dead. Lay to rest your worries because if you are six feet under, your government will carry on regardless. They won’t put in the ground changes for one person. Your loved ones will carry on. They will have no choice. This government will secrete and conceal its failings, opting to cover over cracks and protect the economy at all costs. As Oasis sang, in Half The World Away, “I would like to leave this city; This old town don’t smell too pretty and; I can feel the warning signs running around my mind…”

Christina helped me Skype Dad. So happy to talk to my Dad. Miss him. Miss all my family and not knowing when I can return home to see them all is tough. BUT, we’re at war now. Time to soldier on. Some might say we will find a brighter day – cheers Oasis. This one brief video call does raise my spirits dramatically. I’m not yet skipping and skinging, but I’m certainly less slouching tiger, hidden madman. I’m now flitting between previously downloaded TV series and making video classes for class 3F’s online education. Series 1 and series 5 of Inside No. 9 have been watched. The first episode of the fifth season is titled, ‘The Referees a…’ so that’s why I skipped series 2 through 4. Maria delivering my laptop from my apartment was a great relief. Although wi-fi here is mostly off and the phone signal is up and down like a yoyo. Thankfully before the summer, I’d downloaded many videos in advance.

Brothers and sisters in shit, I present to you another double banana! This double banana is a sign that you should never give up, and that good things await for you. the beautiful thing about never giving up, is that you have to try it just once, and then its forever, because you never give up.” – Shittyflute,YouTube.

Today, I ate a twin banana. A double banana. I have never seen one before. On unsheathing the mammoth yellow fruit, I pealed back the skin to reveal two perfect bananas, side by side, with the tiniest gap and no bonding between the two. What witchcraft was this? I quickly consulted the WTF hotline and spoke with Dr Google. The good doctor threw up a pregnancy myth as the first of 33,000,000 results in 0.48 seconds. I fail to believe that many webpages contain even a waft of twin bananas. Women’s Health and Wellness stuck to the top of the hits. I clicked it. I was visitor 201119. I’m not a woman but I read on regardless. It seems in the Philippines that to eat such a double banana is believed to produce Siamese twins. A myth according to Desiree F. Manlapaz-Gonzales, MD. The only valuable information I gathered was that a twin banana has about 20% of your necessary daily value in potassium. Now I just need a further four twin bananas. I didn’t click the link on the left of the page marked as CANE VINEGAR for the treatment of VAGINAL PROBLEMS…

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Regarding the foods within quarantine, if the toilet pipes block here, that’s me tipping corn congee, on a daily basis; flicking corn from my lunch and generally burying the uneaten corn as far away from my single-use plastics as possible. Food has been a mixture of just good enough, and adequate. There isn’t anything to rave about, but I wouldn’t moan too much about it either. The hotel’s range in sustenance and fodder are more varied than some other people will be experiencing these days. I’m lucky. Three meals a day, plus the option to have food delivered where needed. I can’t complain.

It isn’t easy to overlook what world leaders are doing and saying, or who is blaming who, but if we all react to this then they win. They’ve distracted us. From the moment I boarded a flight back to China, I’ve seen nothing but professionalism and dedication to ending the spread of this disease and virus here. I’m a guest in China. I’m British. I love my hometown and I’m a slightly proud Mancunian (the people of Manchester) and it pains me to see what is happening back home, and, that I can do little to help my family and friends now. So, here I am, luckily. A lucky one. A fortunate one. I am in quarantine because I cannot risk the lives of my second home. Dongguan is looking after me, and I respect that. I just wish I had better Wi-Fi, but I can’t be in a bad place with three square meals and a roof over my head. Remember, the control of this outbreak is still going on, and we can’t take chances.

“Gozer the Gozerian? Good evening. As a duly-designated representative of the City, County and State of New York, I order you to cease any and all supernatural activity and return forthwith to your place of origin, or to the next convenient parallel dimension.” – Ray Stantz, character in Ghostbusters (a movie from 1984)

We can’t distrust the use of Traditional Chinese Medicines (TCMs), or modern medicines, or possible new cures, or experimental treatments. What works for one, may not work for others, but let’s not label everything as bobbins (a Mancunian term meaning not good). Anyway, it is good to be back in Dongguan, despite the circumstances. I hope everybody here has come from this stronger – and as I said back when it all started in Wuhan, stay strong, really, stay strong.

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Unfortunately, the first four days in isolation were very long. I’d read plenty of Jack Reacher pages by the author Lee Child. I’m certainly ploughing my way through that series. I’d occupied myself with some lifting (the desk, a chair, a sofa and a smaller coffee table), some hops (over hurdles made by two beds paced evenly), some star jumps, and generally making a pratt or myself. My dim-witted hours seemed to last for hours. I know deep down people are in far worse places, but all I could experience and understand in those moments was myself being useless and clueless. I spent more time on my phone than ever before. I began to become worried that I’d leave here with eagle-like claw hands. After two weeks in quarantine, I might become a Lego man.

Fortunately, Maria delivered my laptop computer on day five. So, at least I could type some crap. Some snacks were also in a bag alongside bananas and blueberries.

Unfortunately, the Wi-Fi here is mostly down to zero and my phone internet isn’t 4G or even 3G at the minute. Things upload and download slower than a sloth breakdancing on a dance machine in an arcade.

Fortunately, a neighbouring room has allowed me to use their hotspot from time to time.

Unfortunately, I ache from lack of activity and cannot find ways to stay sprightly.

Fortunately, when I am free of quarantine, I’m going to be far more active than ever before.

Unfortunately, Newcastle Utd FC became the first Premier League club to put staff in furlough as coronavirus causes financial squeeze. Mike Ashley has never been known for generosity.

Fortunately, Vincent Kompany is supporting the staff and players as they take cuts at Anderlecht whilst revenues are off the cards.

Unfortunately, masks are only now be advised at UK hospitals. Staff absences care at record levels. Even Trump is laying into Boris Johnson. The Express ran a bizarre April Fool’s piece about Brexit not being delayed. Yawn. Much bigger things to do, right now…

Fortunately, Joe Wicks is making PE lessons and donations are reaching the NHS.

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Here in quarantine spirits are good, despite a fire alarm and some late night movie watching which echoed down the corridor ruining my sleep. Also, no sharp things are allowed and there is a no alcohol rule. As long as there are no Grêmio or Internacional rivalries brewing, one nail file should be okay, but sadly no booze. None. Not a drop. A dry hotel with no opportunity to step beyond the bedroom door. Only 450RMB a night, remember. The swimming pool is closed outside, which is just as well, considering it has fish, algae and snakes on the pool’s edge. And cats that probably pooh on the mouldy deckchairs.

My sleep is odd. I can’t sleep so easily. I find my body suddenly decides 01:00hrs is a time for a jog around the 5m x 7m room. Even setting the alarm for the breakfast delivery at 07:40 isn’t hard. I wake up before the hazmat-suited guard drops the food and dashes away from my door. The temperature checks are between 9am and 10am, and then 8pm to 9pm. I have little to look forwards to or get excited about. It is all rather dull, but as I said, and as I will maintain, I’m not risking my life on any frontline like brave medics around the world and I’m not homeless sleeping in a social distancing-marked car park in Las Vegas.

There are supplies and things in the room: bottles of water, shampoo, shower gel, washing up liquid for laundry, toilet rolls (I have 13 spare), a kettle, a fan, a television with CGTN (a Chinese perspective of the global news), a two-seater sofa (I’m alone and no company is allowed), two single beds (see previous entry), an air conditioner (disabled, because they can cause viruses to spread), two vented and permanently opened windows, two cups (no spoon), a serving tray, a chair with a desk and two new towels of various sizes. There is a small coffee table, a wardrobe, a bucket and a sink bowl. They all have uses. Mostly mundane uses. Rather like this writing. That’s all folks. No massive ending or crescendo of purpose. Just this.

The end.

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Wonder Lost Wanderlust

Sawasdeekhap / Namaste / Welcome!

As pensioners and the vulnerable wipe away thoughts of pasta on toast, and dream of times, the better times, when three-ply toilet paper was a thing, Britain slips closer to the abyss. Gone are considerations of single-use plastics and the overuse of carrier bags. Armed with media footage of Australians panic buying toilet paper, Britain laughed at first and then they went out, with little shame and emptied shelves rapidly. Scenes in supermarkets across the lands, far and wide resembled lootings of old, and movies that centred around cataclysmic events. Football fans could not be heard chanting, “We’re fucked and we know we are…” over and over again. Amongst all this Liverpool held a half-marathon. Well Liverpool’s second football team Liverpool F.C. weren’t in action, so why not?

Food bank baskets were frantically emptied and hand soaps pilfered from hospitals across the land. Every man for himself, straight out of 1930s USA had arrived in Britain. The Great Depression reenactment society were even too busy to invite their friends on Facebook to this mass event. Luckily for the selfish amongst Britons, they’d already sneakily arranged their own do. And so, everyone went bat-shit crazy making Overlord of That America, Donny Trump proud as punch. It kept everyone away from his golf courses on Irish and British turfs. Same place anyway, right, Donny? Or is it not?

“And one of the reasons the UK, basically, has been: It’s got the border; it’s got very strong borders. And they’re doing a very good job. They don’t have very much infection at this point, and hopefully, they’ll keep it that way.” – Donald Trump, lover of borders, March 2020.

Community and social care are at stretching point. World relations hang on knife edges and just one stupid tweet can make the retro dark ages look modern and all right here, right now. So, we must each abandon hope, loved ones and become ultra-selfish now. I’m going to panic buy piccalilli, Marmite (in the hate camp, but needs and musts), and head off to an island and start a rhubarb and Rumex obtusifolius farm. Just need to learn how to farm wheat, bake bread and all that. What’re the key ingredients of brown sauce and Vimto? Any good (and uninfected) piggy farmers/butchers out there? Preferences will be given to those who have more skills than Bear Grylls and are of the opposite gender. These are not equal opportunity times. Nor, are they easy, for those apart from loved ones and family. Still, our older loved ones are being told to isolate themselves – and us younger ones are expected to be immune (or bust) according to Shit Donald Trump Boris Johnson… happy days, indeed. Ignore the WHO’s advice of test, test, test and go against the grain of the globe. What could possibly go wrong?

Let’s look for positivity. My Aunty Susan mentioned about a man with a mini bus taking the elderly shopping; community groups setting up help; local shops finding ways to get food delivered to those in need etc. That’s how it should be now. Not just, me, me, me, me, me (please like my blog), me, me, me… and my neighbour back in Manc, offered a note to Mum and co. to help with shopping assistance if needed.

“Panic on the streets of London; Panic on the streets of Birmingham; I wonder to myself; Could life ever be sane again?” – The Smith – Panic

As our brave NHS receptionists, nurses, doctors, cleaners and staff put themselves on the frontline, we must remember each will no doubt have family back home waiting. Their selfless acts may expose their mothers, fathers, children, husbands, wives, partners and grandparents to what is now on our shores. The days of Covid-19 are here. These true heroes are the real line of defence. Not all heroes wear capes, but let’s hope the British government tests them, protects them and provides them with more than shoddy NHS 111 advice or social distancing blurbs.


 

And, now for something completely different…

Walking to Khudi wasn’t the biggest of walks. A commute for many. The tourist bus journey from the day before had been a largely bouncy and claustrophobic affair, with little comfort and a variety of smells that were neither pleasant nor hell. The seats filled fast around the halfway point of the journey and emptied faster on arrival to Besi Beshar. The stop-start nature of the journey had jolted muscles and bones in ways only experienced when falling down hills. The first day of wandering was welcomed with joy. Accompanied by the rapid flowing Marshyangdi River to our right shoulder, off we trotted, up a gentle rise, through a farm field and away we went. The beginning had began.

Unlike the colourful yet featureless interior of the bus, the fresh air of the trail enveloped all senses. A breeze blew through my lack of hair and my nostrils filled with warm spring air. My birds filled with great natural sounds, unlike the bus’s Nepali music blaring out on a setting known as too loud. The dusts that blew through the window on the bus journey seldom visited our walk that day. The repetitive beats of Nepali music were soon replaced by water flowing, leaves rustling and animal cries. Goats? Check. Engines humming? Negative.

Embarking on a journey with beaten muscles is tough. It doesn’t inspire a lengthy trot. The backpack, made by Deuter, had been a secondhand purchase, but it fitted well offering comfort across 55 litres. A zip-on, zip-off daysack sagged from its exterior, making for an odd balancing act but after a few hundred metres it felt part of my super-structure.

Little bit up, little bit down, Nepali flat, actually felt very inappropriate today. The walk was not up at all. Good job! I had read many trekked as far as Tal in one day but I certainly would be going nowhere near there. Gentle and slow, and away we go, was a good motto to begin. The journey is key. You’ll experience more in a long trek and walk, then a rush and a click of the camera. You must always go at your own pace, and if with others, the pace of the slowest – or at least agree where to stop each day, in advance. The region by Annapurna wasn’t a tick-box exercise. It was, to me, a way to explore and see a little bit more, and understand more than I had done the day before. Relaxation, the testing of my physical condition and so on, were just bonuses. Stories for future camp fires or to slap online via a blog would be huge advantages, but not necessarily the aim of the wander.

Here, I was with good company (thanks Srirang and Livia), able to stroll off or amble a tad behind, with my mind. All two brain cells could have a natter and give me some clarity over this, that and the other. So, within a few moments, we’d decided Khudi would be our first port of call. Khudi, and the Maya hotel, right by a road bridge, had a hot spring pond. The chickens loved it. The heat obviously drew in insects and the garden was lush and well-kept. Two separate dining areas looked down on the thunderous Marshyangdi River whilst upstream a kind of footbridge was suspended over the river. The room costs 500NPR (4.21 USD/3.48GBP)and the food was pleasant enough. Dal Bhat daily, with a lovely pickle. I checked out the next morning, happy with my 2800NPR bill, despite it being far higher than the local rates.

The next day involved a bit more trekking – and 20NPR naturally grown bananas (five fresh fleshy ones). After around 10km, the end point was the village of Bahundanda (1310m).

After a snack in Bhulbhule (840m), the trail passed through much dust, passing the ugly hydroelectric dam and the Chinese construction project around there and Ngadi, it was good to escape the hum of engineering and electrical production. The silted river eventually cleared to a bluer and clearer channel. Signs for Wanderlust (also written as Wonder Lost due to an advertising error) appealed because of the words hot and spring. The guesthouse offered us a free room (0NPR, 0USD, 0GBP) on the condition we ate breakfast and dinner there. Deal done. I would check out after two nights with a bill for 3280NPR. I didn’t just eat Dal Bhat, I managed big breakfasts and copious amounts of coffee, the milky kind. As Srirang and Livia rested, I tumbled down a path freely, almost skipping in a happy way. Bats flew around me as daylight faded, and I found two hot springs bubbling away, with an orange rustic appearance. The muddy sludge around each pool shimmered in an unappealing kind of way – an uninviting emerald green stain, flanked by dry looking grasses and rich plants, fed by the rich waters emerging on the surface. The waters gently slipped down a pebbly slope into the raging Marshyangdi River below.

Many people spend one day plodding the road from Besi Behsar to Bahundanda and few stay longer than a night. Bahundanda was so relaxing that we stayed for two nights. It gave Livia the chance to shake off the Coronavirus bug she had, and Srirang and I chance to go over the other side of the valley. Here we clambered up to two villages, Arkhale (R-Kelly?) and Gairigaon. There was plenty of time spent observing a river of goats – they were everywhere, in trees, on rocks, all along the paths and probably on dogs’ backs too. A goat herder carried a small kid along the pathway and greeted me. He could have been a hundred years old. He certainly had no teeth but a very friendly smile, despite his lack of gnashers. On the opposite valley, towering over Bahundanda, was a conical mountain, almost volcanic in shape, and two small hot spring pools at the mountain foot, on the banks of the ferocious Marshyangdi River. Dry terraces, possibly of rice and other grains gave the appearance of monstrous steps to the southern face of the village.

In the distance, I could see a small group, of colourful porters and guides ferrying excessively large backpacks and colourful trekkers behind them. I couldn’t see it, but I guessed at least one, and if not all the porters had sandals or other such ill-suited footwear for lugging weights far beyond their light frames. We descended back to the lodge, and enjoyed our meals, despite Srirang picking up a sprain or strain from some rock-scrambling. Well, we were avoiding bears. Maybe. Possibly. Or, just a little off the beaten track? I’m still finding the many seeds that stick to you, on my clothes now.

The Annapurna Circuit isn’t a complete loop, which is just as well, because 230km is a long walk. After a late check-out from Wander Lost, I left Srirang and Livia, looped onto a blue and white pathway and reached Ghermu around lunchtime. Here, I ate homemade potato momos (soft boiled dumplings), omelette, chapatti and a cup of milky tea. I talked with the owner of the Peaceful Lodge, who was wearing a Chelsea FC jacket, as his other job was to coach the local football team – alongside his other job as porter and guide. He explained more about the local Gurung people and the stretched flat plains of the Ghermu (1130m) village. He pointed out several eagles in the distance and we also discussed vultures and their importance to the circle of life. The day had involved a great little ascent surrounded by farmhouses and glorious scenery. Each slope was tough on the feet, yet farmers and village life seemed to zip uphill at breakneck speeds – carrying baskets of wood, and even rocks to repair a rising footpath.

We stayed a night in Ghermu in a place where I cut my head open on a low beam, twice. The second time did not help at all. Not that the first was any pleasure. A gecko clung to the cold walls, as we sat eating outside and enjoying the calm area. Our cook, who seemed to be the only cook in the village, was the same man from the Peaceful Lodge, earlier that day. Community in action.

The following morning involved a lazy and sluggish breakfast. On descending a steep path down to the footbridge to Syange, we walked through the Late-Mulka Bahadur Curying’s Memorial Gate which proudly had written, “Thanks for your visit.” After crossing the swinging suspension bridge, the west bank of the Marsyangdi river, the Lhasa Guest House and all the other lodges appeared closed. Drills and noise erupted from a nearby waterfall’s foot. A new concrete lodge was being built alongside the Besi Sahar to Chame Sadak (road). The road climbed upwards, sweeping left and right and hugging a few hairpin bends. There were few and far between sections of footpath acting like little breaks from the road ahead. Plenty of milky coffee was had after one particular rise, allowing Livia and I to await Srirang, who was nursing a leg strain, and plugging on despite the pain. A cyclist pedaled on upwards. He stopped and we talked. His intention was to cycle the entire Annapurna Circuit – and he bubbled with his native Dublin accent and enthusiasm. After talking by a roadside lodge and restaurant, he pedaled on, never to be seen by us, until the next time. His touring bicycle made mean work of the steep rocky road. Its handlebars, frame and his back didn’t look too prepared for wet and cold ahead. Brave man.

A cute kitten lolled around our feet and played blissfully as Srirang arrived. We then trekked on. At Jagat we took a wander through the long village before ducking back for the Mont Blanc hotel. The fresh coffee sold it to us. The Hotel New View wanted 2000NPR per night, per person, per room, but the Mont Blanc quoted a fairer 100NPR. A saving of 1900NPR for just ten footsteps. The sun-drenched top floor oozed warmth and I dropped my bag down. I did ask the owner why he had named his lodge after a mountain far away in France. He said he liked the name. It stood out amongst the Three Sisters, Everest, Manaslu, Annapurna, Peaceful Lodges, Tibet, Tashi Delek, and other names that formed a quite predictable list of lodge names.

Hotel Mont Blanc make sure that the guests come first. Welcomed with a warm smile, we stepped inside the lodge. On viewing a sun-baked top floor, it would have made no sense to have said no. The finest cappuccino for breakfast and great food throughout. Try the tagliatelle lasagna with local tomatoes and a hint of spice. I had room 4 on the top floor by the cold shower and squat toilet but wasn’t disturbed. On the ground floor is the hottest hot shower in Nepal. Trust me I have tried a few that claim to be hot. This one does not disappoint. Khusi and his wife pointed us to two different hot springs, both delightful. There’s a nice trek to Chipla on the opposite side of the river and you make see monkeys nearby one of the many waterfalls. A most wonderful place to stay. So good that we stayed an extra night. Try the Dal Bhat for a fully flavoured 24 hour power… ready for the days ahead.

Jagat allowed ample opportunity to feel the serenity and embrace the awe of the valley underneath. Here I dipped in my first hot spring bath, and observed tomato plants growing nearby. Monkeys flipped through trees and the fresh mountain air quenched every need of the day. Rivers, forests, and humanity sat side by side, as did a huge landslip of trash next to a trickle of beautiful waterfall. Supply and demand leaves to much rubbish at lesser accessible places with totally inadequate waste management systems. In the distance, snow-capped peaks peaked between clouds and rocks edged out precariously from mountains upstream. Banana trees, pines, tropical and lesser-tolerant of warmth plants towered around the village, flanked with great wide trees and great slowing green ground-level leaves. Jagat is a tranquil village perched on what appears to be a huge rock. Beneath it the Marsyangdi flows and to the north west side of the village, a stepped waterfall smashes into a pool, misting and swirling outwards.

The trek goes on… just like the news of our not-so-friendly COVID-19…

Visit Kathmandu 2020.

Sawasdeekhap / Namaste / Welcome!

I’m sat here, in Thailand, writing an chomping away on a bag of makok. These fruits come from the Spondias Dulcis flowering plant. They’re sour, and pickled ever so slightly. The tough flesh makes it feel like a beastly olive. I’ve had this fruit in curries before, and always wondered what it was. Now, I know, I like makok. Oh. That’s erm, awkward. I like to eat… No I can’t finish that. Makok is very… No, not there either. The sour pickled green ball is yummy. That’ll have to do. I bet it’d make a mean dip if the chunky seeds were removed. Just don’t name the dip.


 

Finally, I have got round to my time in Nepal this year. 2020 has been marked as Visit Nepal 2020, a concerted effort by the Nepal government to get overseas and overland visitors to bring their hard-earned money into the country – and experience ever-lasting moments that will tease visitors back time and time again.

The landscapes from valley to valley within Nepal can give you sensory overload. My experiences across two visits gave me a bombardment of sounds, sights, tastes and colours. The moment I left Nepal the first time, I wanted to return. This applied to the second time – and has since applied to this third time of visiting.

I touched down in Kathmandu, Nepal once more. This trek was to take in some of the Annapurna Circuit region. With prior knowledge of snowfall being heavy, I purchased some rusty looking blue crampons in the twisting narrow streets of Thamel. I’d enjoyed a great breakfast at the Northfield Café and a good night of sleep at the Northfield Hotel. I was excited and happy to be back in Nepal. My plan was simple. Go for a wander. No aims, no worries. Some passes and some mountains can’t always be seen. It is, what it is. Bumping into Srirang at The Café With No Name, he revealed his plan to trek the Annapurna Circuit with Livia, from Hungary. We’d all met last year trekking the Everest Base Camp route. I had no problems about joining them on the walk this time around. Srirang looked much leaner than last year. He must have been training hard in his native Mumbai city.

Armed with a great salad, and a wonderful pumpkin soup, I tucked into my Panini and enjoyed the feel of this wonderful backstreet café. A ginnel is the route to the small and atmospheric café. All the profits of The Café With No Name are sent to the charity Our Sansar – which benefits street children and brings them into education. Every great coffee or beer you have, benefits someone. That’s maybe why I decided to visit this place every lunchtime I had spend in Thamel, this time round. You can find it down a small alleyway. Look for a chalkboard when you face from the central supermarket looking in the direction of Purple Haze Bar. When you reach the bar, swing left and somewhere by Merry Hotel, you’ll find this treasure of a café. Expect to feel at home on the crate-made tables, and cosy furniture. There’re books to exchange and lots of things to make the eyes wander. The staff are great and so heartwarmingly friendly, it makes you want to live in Kathmandu. Perhaps the world’s dustiest city needs great retreats. This is one such wonder. Expect to feel a great musical vibe and return time and time again.

At Northfield café, that first morning, I sat with a beaming smile on my face. I enjoyed a good hearty breakfast, with the masala omelette filling my belly, alongside a strong coffee. The staff went to turn on the heater, but I was enjoying the cool air. Cold air sharpens the senses. It keeps your wits sharp. It helps me to focus. Heat makes me sleepy and sluggish. I sat watching people drift up and down the street outside. Few shops were open. Shutters sank and sagged to the ground like dull metallic cold blinds to the world beyond them. A few clear western people walked by. Some were spiritualists, hippies long off the bandwagon of Thamel’s once famous Freak Street, trekkers, climbers, cultural tourists and no doubt a few who reside in Nepal for work. There’d be some amongst them feeling enlightened, some caught in the ambience and many sponging up the vast cultures around them.

Looking at the headwear of those passing by, there were knitted ski hats, traditional and regional ethnic pieces, and an equally diverse array of jackets. Some combined with various pieces of formal office wear and others with striking multi-coloured knitted socks. Evidence of around 125 different people and 123 languages mingled with tourism and those from elsewhere. It all belonged perfectly. A tapestry of diversity in a wealth of colour. This intertwined nation coexists with such ease. Poverty and adversity sit only around the corner from the luxury cocktail bars and the bright lights of pocket-sized night clubs.

The tarmac road created less than two years ago, now looks swollen, crumbled and churned. Bits stand out here and there. A vintage Royal Enfield motorbike tackled potholes and narrowly missed  a static scout mannequin outside of a store proudly displaying Gurkha knives, the kukri. Khukuri World Store was a trove of gifts, memorabilia, and shiny things hoping to lure people inside. The scout model held out a Nepal flag, its beautiful triangles coated with the sun and moon, a combination of blue, red and white like no other flag. Next door to this knife and survival gear shop, a sprawl of 100% natural cashmere and yak wool piles spilled over two steps. The Friendly Pashmina Shop had so much stock, it was practically leant against the White Mountain Outdoors shop further along the row. Above which was a White Water Rafting Co., somewhere beneath layers of dust and soot. Dusty raincoats, sleeping bags and long puffy down jackets hung still, half admitting that they’ll never find a buyer anytime soon in that state. A ginnel (tiny pathway) into Nana Hotel looked uninviting between a sodden empty crates and Nepalaya Money Exchange. The shutters of Al Noor Gems revealed little indication of what treasures lay within. I guess even Indiana Jones would be put off by the rusting bulk of metal. The possibility of tetanus for the sake of some fool’s gold wouldn’t be a good gamble.

A hairdresser and the ATM cash machine tussled for space over a few cubic metres as the morning footfall started to increase. School children dressed in an array of uniforms drifted in small clusters or singularly up and down the road. A hooded man, slimmer than a twig, drifted amongst the crowd playing the sarangi (a string instrument) and trying to sell many of the same pieces from his sagging shoulder bag. Along the very same road, powerlines and cables draped the floor as workers fed neat replacements overhead, clearing years of cluttered dangerous cables. Trybal Handmade’s shop’s lights flickered in reply. A call for help and stable feeding. New life, please.

Inside the glass-window front of the restaurant and a little over the shoulder, a family sat enjoying their foods and drinks. The grandmother of the group made gratified noises as two younger women, perhaps in their forties, jostled food around their plates. Three young children ate quietly with great respect for their surroundings. They talked infrequently, warmly and softly, amongst themselves in what I believe was Urdu. I don’t know the language but I recognised one or two words. A smiling waitress with big beaming eyes came over to them and served them tea. The well-kept long hair spilled from her headscarf far beyond the rear of her waist. Her hand glittered with earthly coloured stones, natural and modest yet bold and fitting. The Northfield Café itself had warm earthly colours dominate the walls, and even a real tree trunk shot up through two floors and out of the roof offering a canopy of green amongst the buildings.

Effigies of door gods stand by the glass entrance doors. A piece of A4 paper is taped onto the inside of the door. It boasts of WARM DINING inside, without skimping on the use of capital letters. By now my omelette had vanished and a second cup of coffee had found its way into my hand. Three men joined the large respectful group. The conversation remained tender and calm. The younger children remained as attentive as I did to my coffee.

Two staircases within Northfield Café stretched upwards. Two lobbies spilled outwards giving an aura of space. The energy of the room had a seamless flow. My eyes strayed around the room enjoying the care and attention each member of staff gave to newly seated customers. Each patron matched the calm of the room. The staff both blended in and simultaneously made themselves available. Hidden servants of the spiritual rooms of Northfield Café. The very essence of the symbiosis within the walls. Just like the draw of Kathmandu, I was excited to be back in the Northfield Café once again.

Sticking to food, we visited Gilingche, a Tibetan restaurant, far too late in the day and ate far too much. I had to take a doggy bag home – and fed a dog. I’ve visited here a few times and always enjoyed it.

Following two days in Kathmandu and a few purchases, Srirang and I took a tiny taxi (enough room for knees by your ears), two bags and a squashed driver to the new bus station. Here we purchased our bus tickets to Pokhara. And with a ticket for 17:00 and being told it would take around 13 hours, we departed just after 15:00 and arrived less than 9 hours later. The bus had spent an hour loading with apples on an industrial estate within Kathmandu too. It stopped at the Dal Bhat Power restaurant, around half way – and the scenic route had weaved perilous mountains throughout the foothills of the Kathmandu valley and the lower Himalayan range all the way to the reasonably flat Pokhara area.


 

Visit Nepal 2020 has progressively barred visa on arrivals to many nations. China, as Covid-19 origin, copped for it first. Three missing Nepali guides and four Korean trekkers succumbed to a terrible avalanche that also saw hundreds of people rescued from the Annapurna Base Camp region. In 2014 alone, 40 people were killed on the Annapurna circuit in one sever snowstorm. Nature rules these ranges. Man (and woman) is a guest. On top of this Donald Trump and USA struck Iran’s top military brass with missiles, putting many under the impression that perhaps a global war would follow. Even days after I landed the tragic news of eight Indian tourists died in a room, probably from carbon monoxide poisoning. With a lack of flights, and mobility – or will to travel during a time of pandemic, Nepal’s tourism, imports and other support lines have shrunk. Hotels, trekking lodges, guides and other such avenues offered to overseas clients have receded faster than my hairline (in the last decade). The demand from these avenues to agriculture and industry will slim faster than a diet pill overdose. An already struggling country is facing yet more challenge. I witnessed Kathmandu on my return from Pokhara and the Annapurna regions. It was akin to that of a ghost town. Nothing much happening, but worry and fear. And on top of all this (and more), many have mocked the artistic interpretation of the yeti drawn up for the Visit Nepal 2020 campaign.

Rhino deaths, Nepal may struggle even further. Over half of the money, earned overseas by Nepali workers, comes from Qatar (think World Cup construction), the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain. As the virus hits that region, Nepal has taken actions to keep its people safe and on Nepali soil. It was no surprise to see that Visit Nepal 2020 has been postponed until 2022. I hope to return for Visit Nepal 2022 – and maybe I’ll pop back in 2021, if time permits. But right now, humanity is battling. We must pull together.

But, first a cup of tea…