Stage IV: Rainbow Mountains

How do!

Here we go again…

A little later than expected the Z6207 train rolled into Zhāngyè (张掖) Railway Station. The Lanzhou to Xinjiang Railway (兰新铁路/Lánxīn Tiělù) Service was not expected to terminate there. It would carry on to somewhere along the 1904km (1183 miles) line, perhaps even Ürümqi itself. The train Oliver and I had arrived on was not the train we were supposed to arrive on. We were supposed to have arrived on the 12th by 12:51. Here we were, in Zhangye, on the 13th, at 16:40. Our replacement train had been six hours late leaving Yinchuan in Ningxia, so that had long missed the connection at Lanzhou West in Gansu. We’d looked at countless alternative routes, alternative plans, flights and in the end, just waited. No simple solution presented itself. Many dull hours in Yinchuan station led to us boarding a train and waking in Lanzhou, to then tackle 12306 Chinese Railway customer services, with a handful of crap Chinese and a bucketful of determination. With regret, we opted for a 5 hour train journey in standing room only. By room, there was little room, although for the last hour of the journey, we managed to sit down. The train was cooler than the outside 38°C.

After arriving the local security and medical team at the station made us supply dates of travel, PCR (COVID-19) test results, green codes, phone numbers, places we intended to stay and our pet dog’s mother’s maiden-name. It was just a small hiccup in an otherwise wonderful travel. COVID-19 had seen many people pull their masks up as we approached. A very thoughtful act! Their saliva and spray from breathing could no longer get in our pathway. Some even jumped out of our way. Being vaccinated and the current pandemic has made many question our arrival dates into China. My standard response is, “Wǒ cóng 2020 nián 3 yuè 26 rì kāishǐ zài zhōngguó, wǒ yǐjīng liǎng nián méiyǒu chūguò guóle.” I may get that on a T-shirt: 我从2020年3月26日开始在中国,我已经两年没有出过国了。I have been in China since March 26th, 2020. I have not left the country in two years. Maybe on the back of my new Manchester City shirt?

The first thing we did was say hello to Waits and then go for dinner, an early one, a local dish of chicken in thick noodles and plenty of sauce. Waits had recommended it. We devoured it. Little remained. Following that we enjoyed a walk around the Zhangye Wetland Reserves (a Ramsar site: Ramsar is in Iran and happens to be where the 1971 Convention on Wetlands was held). The Hēihé (Black River or Weak Water/弱水/黑河) banks give this fragile temperate desert environment a surreal edge. It is a set of oases – some small oasis, some huge. I spied a Baer’s pochard (Aythya baeri), some gulls and a stork flying over. The water, in the evening, had cool fresh feel, lowering the temperature of the air around. It gives life in a tough place to live. We talked a little before all retiring to our hotel, leaving Waits to drive the short road home.

On the recommendation of Waits, the Zhangye Pingshan Grand Canyon (平山湖大峡谷; Pingshanhu Daxiagu) became our destination for our first morning in Zhangye. We hired a taxi to the destination for 229RMB. With access, via tickets costing RMB, and paths spanning out to the 1040 square kilometres filled with red-layer Mesozoic Jurassic rocks and sands. Gullies, stacks, sandstone mountains and years of erosion capped with grasses, small shrubs and few signs of trees as the near-sterile mountain swept over an almost-infertile great distance to the barren desert below. Here, Oliver and I wandered and explored the desert area, where it was spitting and cloudy. The toasting desert temperature of 35°C dropped to a pleasantly mild 22°C. After our wanderings we headed to the car park, and the Didi app failed us. We tried in vain to get a taxi. No joy. Not until Oliver managed to ask a hotel to help us. A kind woman taxi driver offered to get us to our next port of call for 258RMB (including an 18RMB toll charge).

Looking back as the taxi car pulled onto the new highway, the towering mountain-scape beyond the canyons looked dark green. The aspens, spruces and cypresses soon disappeared and the bleak desert surrounded the highway for some time. Soon after passing through the tollroad, the car slid into a long tunnel appearing beyond a range of mountains closer to Zhangye’s city. The car slowed and the driver explained something, and that her friend would carry on the journey. Her friend drew alongside our car and we were delivered on the roadside like contraband. Her friend was a talker, and never shut up yapping, even after Oliver and I fell asleep. We awoke as the car skidded to a halt at another of Zhangye’s Danxia landforms. The driver took my Wechat for contacting later and pushed for us to use her taxi on the way back. I declined, because we didn’t want to be rushed. I said I’d order her taxi later and pay. She agreed but still persisted. I said to her, “Do not wait.”

The colourful mountains of 张掖七彩丹霞旅游景区 (Zhāngyè Guójiā Dìzhìgōngyuán/Zhangye Qicai Danxia Scenic Spot) rise and fall like towering sea waves. They are devoid of life. Few plants grow. This is the driest area of the desert. The strata of rocks displays multitudes of colour over an area of around 510 square kilometres (200 square miles). The public access to the park is limited to a handful of areas to prevent erosion. The organic sediments make for a rainbow effect with colours often hard to describe. I went with blue-yellow, but Oliver said it was green. We couldn’t agree. Iron, trace minerals, sands, salts, uplifted sediments and silicilastic rocks make for a vivid and overwhelming landscape. Hematite (a kind or iron oxide), Danxia formations, yellowing metallic sulfurous rock, green chlorite rich clays and purple slithers give the eyes a challenge to decipher the blend of colours. Cameras do not do the region justice. Watching sunset here was a treat, just like the superb market Waits recommended for dinner afterwards! Gansu knows how to do beef noodles!

The shuttle buses, walkways and guided routes of the Zhangye National Geopark are a must. Long may people witness the glory of nature’s Qilian foothills. At first Oliver and I were disgruntled at being corraled along a pre-designated route, but the volume of people (easily tens of thousands) merited the passing of numerous gift shops, cafes and hot air balloon ride areas. The millions of years that have seen dinosaurs and their terrain smashed to smithereens gives us the impressive ‘Rainbow Mountains’. Tourism is under regulation to allow for that to continue. The 74RMB ticket includes the shuttle bus journey. Walking solo is now banned. Walking out of the exit gate after our wander, and checking my phone, I spied I had 8 missed calls from the taxi driver who had got us there. Just as I looked up, Oliver said, “Here’s the driver!” And, she tried to push us to move faster. I purchased some delicious apricots and Oliver browsed the souvenirs casually. Eventually we boarded her car. She had gained another customer who was sat waiting. We went back to the city. She dropped off the man, and he paid 200RMB. At which stage, we were famished, and decided to find food there. We told the pleasant but pushy taxi driver. She then demanded 450RMB! We agreed at 100RMB. She had tried to rip us off.

At 东大街 (Dond DaJie) we found 甘州市场 (Ganzhou food market; Ganzhou is the old provincial name) and ate twisted dish noodles (without fish). Cuōyúmiàn 搓鱼面 looks like fish, beef noodles and a crispy crunchy 洋芋擦擦 (potato wipe?). It was so good, that we went there the next day for lunch and ate like pigs, drank lemon water like it was going out of fashion and chilled in the heat. The day had taken us around Zhangye’s city centre to see the old wooden pagoda (西来寺; 50RMB not well spent), Great Buddha Temple (大佛寺: to see a lay down 34.5m long Buddha; 40RMB well spent) and the Bell & Drum Tower (rebuilt 1668, which now doubles up as a traffic roundabout; 10RMB entry). The city of Zhangye has much to offer, but sadly time was limited. With Waits being busy, I decided, over a cold Dayao (大窑: an Inner Mongolian soft drink that tastes like bubblegum), to depart the day after Oliver.

Oliver departed, on Thursday, by Didi taxi car to the Lanxin Second Railway/Lánxīn tiělù dìèr shuāngxiàn (兰新铁路第二双线) Zhangye West Station (张掖西站) and I turned right from the food market area. His connecting flight in Shenzhen being a week or so away, and my need to carry on wandering led to the shaking of hands and goodwill words. Now solo, I wandered around the city’s many parks and then went for a late afternoon nap. Afterwards, I met Waits for dinner and nattered until late.

Departure for myself came the next morning (Friday), again from Zhāngyē Xī Zhàn. Here I caught the D4011 to Jiayuguan. As it was available, I grabbed a first class train ticket for 125RMB. I wouldn’t usually do that, but as Chester-born comedian Jeff Green used to say, “F**k it, I’m on holiday!” So, I sat comfortably and enjoyed the plains, mountains, and rolling parallel railway.

Ta’ra for now!

J5: University Challenged

你好/ Ní hǎo / Nín hǎo / Hello / How do,

The Marine Biology field course arrived, and with my tooth being so painful I really struggled with the work.  I submitted an incomplete report, managed to attend all the trips, but really struggled to motivate myself for the work.  It was not all doom and gloom, as I met Nicola Brown, well kind of.  I was feeling something completely different.  Her vibrant smile met my eye. I barely spoke to her but could not stop thinking about her throughout the field-course.  I felt I had to get talking to her somehow, someway, someewhere but chance never came my way, my injured tooth ruling out possibilities, and my lack of confidence to talk with her.  I did find her name via a friend, Rob Palmer, who was also in her Marine Biology field course group.  Nikki, Lisa Bates, and Rob soon hung around together very often.

 

My own football would go well for me, post tooth-extraction.  Having only managed three university Dig’s league games, a 4-2 win where I hit the woodwork twice! A 2-1 win, here I bagged my first university strike in ages!  And, a 2-1 win where I had to come off as my head was killing me!  On the 18th of November me and Rob, went to see Scouse comedian, Jeff Green (From A-Z) live at the Art’s Centre.  As comedians go he was the bee’s knees!  Rob later gave me the live at the West End DVD for Christmas, equally wonderful!.  On Saturday the 20th of November, I was working behind the bar, my first full night of being in charge.  The place only bloody had a fire (in the lounge bar, not the function room we were working in).  Anyway, Jonathan (Buzza), me and the two bouncers evacuated the Club house even though we extinguished the first fire.  Sadly, the fire must have reignited whilst we had been clearing the building.  Before long the lounge bar was devastated!  A sad day for the football club, and its interior decorated in historical memorabilia. I remember the sad eyes of Rhun Owens, then-long serving and devoted club secretary when he arrived to the smouldering remains.

 

On the 27th of November my-then brief ex-girlfriend Lisa Bates held a video night at her house in Borth.  She had provided enough of a buffet spread to serve a Glastonbury crowd twice-over, alongside enough spirits and wine to provide Borth with a new pub.  There was at one tsage twelve people watching movies in her lounge.  By sleeping time, Claire and Paul had gone to use Lisa’s bed, Lisa had gone to her spare room, Nikki, Rob, Rich and I were camped in the lounge.  I fell asleep the soonest; shattered by incessant tooth pain.

 

The funfair used to arrive in Aberystwyth on the last two Mondays of November, and the first Monday of December.  Never-the-less, Nikki, Rob, Lisa, Louise, Laura and Wyn joined me for the final two Mondays.  The Crazy Mouse rollercoaster (it claimed to be the largest mobile rollercoaster in Europe) and the extremely high G-Force were brilliant but I enjoyed going on other smaller rides, usually with Nikki, who was the most daring of the group! Our group being who they are we went on some fairground stalls and won some raffles.  I won three Caterpillars (of which I asked Nikki to mind one) and Rob, Lisa, Louise, and Nikki all won cuddly toys ranging from unicorns to monkeys. I never had luck with these stalls, usually.

 

The 7th of December arrived.  The day the tooth was to be removed.  I was so nervous I couldn’t eat breakfast.  At 12pm, the dental surgeon/devil was deep into the process of making me feel as uncomfortable as possible.  I have to say, that day was one of the scariest days of my life.  Did it hurt?  IT BLOODY WELL DID!  Half hour of X-rays, 15 minutes of assessment, 10 minutes of numbing my jaw off, and the final quick extraction, followed by a click as a crack in the jaw slammed shut, alongside me fainting on the way downstairs, did not make for an entertaining day.  The headache I had upon to then, for at least 4 months vanished immediately, and I will admit I was a tad dazed, confused, and physically tired.  Mentally I was shattered, but that didn’t take much.  That day I was driven back to Aber, via Bangor City versus Aberystwyth Town’s games (shhhh!), after all I just wanted my own bed, and to get back to normal.  On arrival back into Aber, I went round to Nikki’s and chilled with her and Rob.  I didn’t want to be alone.  I wanted to see Nikki, and get a good hug!  The next day I missed the 1-2pm lecture, favouring sleep.  I was going to for a gentle stroll in the evening, but decided on going to training with Penparcau FC.  You know how it is.  That was the best three-hour evening session I’ve ever done.  In reality, I was back, back and ready to go.  After that session, Nikki came around and gave me the best hug I had ever had, lasting a good few hours.  For some unknown reason we watched Santa Clause 2, The Aristocats, and GCSE Bytesize until 4am.  I let Nikki use Nige’s room (whilst he was away) for some sleep, as I collapsed in bed.  On Thursday night, Nikki came around again, which was wonderful, as she is great company and really friendly lass.  Yet again we watched DVDs into the early hours, but this time the hug was more warmly, and the urge to kiss her became overpowering.  However, all the signs were there for a kiss, but I didn’t want to risk our friendship.  I mean I’d fancied her since I set eyes on her in September’s Marine Biology field course.  Hands were close, arms wrapped around each other, heads leaning by each other, cheeks rubbing, and eventually the courage came to share a kiss.

On Saturday, I played for Penparcau out in Llanrhystud, scoring a crucial extra-time goal, we won 5-2.  That evening Nikki invited me to her friend Krissey’s roast dinner.  We went all the way to Trawsgoed.  The journey was a pleasant drive through the backs and beyond of Welsh countryside.  An excellent meal cooked by Krissey and her boyfriend later, a long chat with Nikki’s mates Harvey and Deanna before setting off back to Aber under the cloudless black sky. On the Sunday I missed playing football for the UWA Greens in the Dig’s League.  I took Nikki for Sunday lunch at Harley’s.  Things felt amazing.  I mean I’ve had strong feelings before for particular ladies, but at that time it was off the Richter scale.  On Tuesday night, Nikki made me stir-fry at mine.  It certainly beat the pasta I made for her on Wednesday night!  Ah, Wednesday night, a night of torture in training.  A 20-minute beach shuttle-run session, and long jog just to punish players for not turning up to training, proved to tire me out.  I could feel the aches and strains long into the evening!  I always give my excuses in well before not turning up!  But still teams get punished not individuals, but it does make you feel a damn bit fitter!

On Friday we went out for Nikki’s birthday, dressed as angels and devils.  Naturally I’m an angel, so I fancied a change and was as a devil (even though I hate red!).  We started at Nikki’s flat drinking Taboo etc.  In the Academy we met Gav Allen and a few other footy lads.  Not many drinks later we arrived at a heaving Varsity, where I lost my white-chocolate-vodka-virginity.  Interesting drink, looks like Rhino semen, tastes like rubber-chocolate.  In the Cambrian we had a few cocktails, as Laura and Debbie chatted up the bar stewards.  One taxi journey uphill later, and into the Union we went.  Good old Move night, and a great night.  Eventually 12am came And Nikki turned 22.  An amazing night and the Union managed an extra half hour of Christmas songs post-bar-closing.  On Nikki’s birthday we went for a cooked-breakfast, and then we strolled up the seafront and generally enjoyed the day.  I cooked a pizza (cheating with pre-made bases this time!) and we watched a film, and then Match of the Day. A leopard can’t change spots for stripes.  On Sunday, we separated for awhile.  Nikki had to tidy her house, and I had to tidy mine.  On Monday morning Nikki went home (Cornwall!) and so did I – for Christmas!   Over the Christmas holidays, I was mostly working on my University project work, and ringing the land of pasties to see how Nikki was. The easy thing about being with Nikki was we both allowed time to get to know each other and never rushed into anything.  The hugs and kisses we shared made me tingle and feel wanted; something I cannot claim to have felt before sharing these special moments with Nikki.

I haven’t really described Nikki, but even if I did, so I might as well try to remember her bac k then.  Nikki was kind, caring, interesting, articulate, cheeky as a monkey, lovely, warm, gentle, and everything a dream about a great partner would contain.  Nikki spent a year away from University working in New Zealand and seemed an expert on there!  Nikki and I got on so well because our interests were alike, she loves comedy as much as I do (but she quoted Little Britain more than I cared for!).  She was sporty (plays netball, watches rugby etc), and I’m football crazy, football mad!  There were lots of things for us to do, see and learn, and at the time I believed Nikki would be the one! At one time I was a city boy, lost in its vastness and devoid of any feelings for someone, but in the town of Aberystwyth I fell for Nikki.  That secluded spot revealed that I was no longer concealed behind a window, peering out at the views below and across. For then, I was free from that prison, free to dream once more, free to feel hope and push aside fear.  I didn’t feel like the luckiest guy in Aberystwyth, more like the luckiest person on Earth, or maybe the Universe, because somebody believed in me and cared for me, in ways that I hadn’t experienced.

Regular phone talk of when we would see each other again, and desires for the day to arrive carried us through the Christmas period.  We had arranged to spend the New Year in Aber.  The last hours of 2004, and the first few of 2005 were to be spent in the Glengower.  New Year’s celebrations at The Glengower’s Western Night were quieter than we all anticipated, however with me and Nikki, Rob and Lisa, Laura and Wyn, and Susan it was a fun night.  I was content with spending those moments in Aber. Back home, my one-time secondary school friend Emma looked at a picture of Nikki.  Em accused Nikki of being just a pretty face, which wasn’t fair as Nikki had a great arse and lovely legs too!  Nikki departed Aber on the Bank Holiday Monday of the 3rd; the day Penrhyncoch Reserves beat Penparcau 2-1 (They did field four Cymru Alliance players and a Welsh Premier player! It was a hellish hard game.).  Nikki had to finish her family holiday away. At least at home in Cornwall, she could concentrate on revision without having Mr Procrastinator 2001-4 distracting her. My personal revision was chugging along slowly.  One exam was so mentally hard, because I had tunnel-vision and desired to read up on other subjects too. I’d even spent hours writing a season of ideas for Aberystwyth Town’s football programme. I was not cut out for studying… or focused…

TO BE CONTINUED