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…

Stage VIII: Chengdu & Don’t

你好! Nihao! Hello!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

再见!Zai Jian! Goodbye!

Stage VII: Chaka

你好!Nihao! Hello!

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

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

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

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

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

Zai jian! Goodbye! 再见