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 III: Walls & Fences

Dear curious folk and readers,

I am writing from near the seat of the West Xia Kingdom (1038-1227). The city of Yinchuan is about 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) away from the tombs and mausoleum. The bone dry eastern face of the Helan mountain range towers over the mausoleum site. The site spans around 50 square kilometers (19.3 square miles) and approximately 9 imperial tombs, with a huge 253 lesser tombs. They’re still making discoveries to this day.

The tombs are incredible to witness. The museum at the entrance has six very modern galleries full of relics discovered across the site. The lighting, style and interactive nature of the artefacts is we’ll organised. There are plenty of opportunities to visit the a 3D cinema, gifts shops and grab plenty of water for the outdoor experience that follows. From the museum you can walk to a bus transfer. Here we opted to walk to the mausoleums and experience the desert ambiance.

The mausoleum site is spread out, striking and feature-rich. Steles, towers, sacrifice palaces, earth walls, and natural damage by winter floodwater alongside cracks in the earth covered the whole region. Using three-wheeled scooters after plenty of walking, we managed to see huge distances of the area. Sunblock was applied almost hourly, as grasshoppers flew by with clicking sounds and cute Gerbil-like rodents scampered around. With two litres of water, the day was comfortable, but more is advisable in 38 degrees heat! The sun is not your friend.

The day was a great investment in exploring the state’s deep history and culture. A taxi from Yinchuan cost 60RMB and a return Didi taxi car cost 85RMB with entrance fee being about a 100RMB. Just over two hours on the scooters cost 130RMB (but we certainly went off the beaten track).

The following day, Mr Oliver and I set out for the Great Wall. I’d suggested the Ming Great Wall stretch by a place called Sanguankou (三关口明长城). The three passes are about 2.5km apart. We didn’t go there. Mr Oliver found a section using Baidu maps and an overhead satellite photo near to the G307 highway (Ningxia to Inner Mongolia). So, after a Didi taxi car journey we hopped out in searing heat in the mountainous Alxa desert. Having left Yinchuan’s continental arid climate we were now at the mercy of the sun.

We scrambled up a mound of earth to see a watchtower, wandered down the road and looked at the adjacent wall sections. Here we respected every fence and sign. Then we went under the highway and followed a section of wall through fields and over hills. Horses, hares and hawks were frequent witnesses to our hiking. The enigmatic landscape surrounding the wall had so much to offer the eyes.

Fences came and went, so we walked close and far at times. We started trekking at about 10:30am and ended around 19:00hrs. Some sections had the backdrop of a Jeep safari driving range, whilst others had civilian roads with a handful of tourists driving by and saying hello. At some stage though we had to get back to Yinchuan. The map shown a road to the nearby Wuwa Highway and G110 highway. We avoided the military warning signs on a path seemingly headed into the mountains, passing some civilian contractors and wandered (now without any water left) along a bleak ever-expanding straight line slab of concrete. The road was intensely energy-consuming.

Towards the last 3km, just past the tanks, a car with two men gave us a lift to the highway. That journey was curtailed and after three hours of explaining our day’s walking route, photograph inspection and travel document verification we were driven to the village of Minning. The People’s Liberation Army were extremely hospitable. They seemed to understand that we’d strayed into their tank range unintentionally. They appreciated our desire to see the Ming Dynasty Great Wall.

The gate guardsmen gave us hot noodles, a cake and some fruit. And frequent, much needed water. The chief who came with at least three officers and the Public Security Bureau policemen kept apologising for taking our time. It was all rather surreal. We were able to cancel our onward train journey, and hotel for the next night. We also apologised politely and shown our sorrow at wandering into a restricted military zone.

The Public Security Bureau policemen waited with us whilst we tried to get a taxi or Didi car. As it was midnight, nothing was coming, so we spoke with a nearby hotel receptionist. He ordered a car for us. We got in, whilst being watched by the three policemen. They approached then checked the driver knew where we were going. Finally, they checked his credentials and found he was an illegal taxi driver. So, we stepped from the car, “for your safety” and the Police dealt with him. Annoyed by that inconvenience, we started to hike and try to get back. The Police gave up and headed back. Eventually we flagged down a van.

Nestled between chicken feet in buckets, flies on the roof and 400RMB lighter for it, we made it back to the hotel we’d checked out of that day. We retrieved our left luggage and checked-in. All is well that ends well. Our next journey is the 1842 train to Gansu’s Lanzhou city to meet a connection to Zhangye. What waits for us there?

Until next time, goodbye…

Namche Bazaar (is the place to find me)

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

Yesterday I played 7-a-side football with my new team Dongguan Raiders F.C. Sporting our bright pink kits we had another victory. Our team has played three games this last week with two wins and one midweek friendly training game against Murray’s F.C. Our team has Chinese, Italian, Serbian, German and Ukrainian players – alongside the token Mancunian. On Saturday, I also joined Murray’s F.C. in our game at Zhuhai against the Guangzhou Phoenix team. We won 8-2. It now means a draw or win against Zhuhai, in Dongguan at the month shall be enough to claim the inaugural Guangdong Super League. Football shall move into the sidelines for me now. I have 88 days to train for my debut Spartan Race. I opted for the killer 13km Super option. That involves 25 obstacles too. It is a challenge. Am I ready? No. Will I be ready? I’ll do my best to be. The trekking in the Himalayas tested me mentally and I feel that anything is possible. The arrival of the next challenge is always welcoming. After that, I’ll need a new challenge. Suggestions please. Of course, I’m still looking back on the time spent in Nepal…


31st January 2019

One week of trekking was to completed today. The walk from Kharikhola, via the Karila Pass (2730m) to Paiya (2730m) started with a reasonably steep climb up towards Bupsa Danda. Here made for a good brew stop and somewhere to enjoy the view. From Kharikhola’s Magar people to panaromic views of valleys and looming landslides, to Sherpa settlements and the Bupsa Danda village itself, heaven could easily have been placed on this spot of Earth. The hilltop is delightful.

From there the trail is up and down, but really gently. In fact it is the closet to a day’s walk being flat on the entire wander so far, and later to come. It feels like deception. At the end of the walk, we settled down a for a night’s sleep in a lodge. Here we met a trekking nurse who volunteers in Nepal, having retired from work in Germany. Her partner and guide, from Nepal spoke German and they were accompanied by several porters. We spoke at great length about porters and guides leaving Nepal for better opportunities. He seemed quite aware that many Nepali people are trapped in Qatar. Political and visa issues have been a problem. He mentioned the reduction in porters has resulted in an explosion in the mule population. The destruction to the pathways in two years was clear to me. A country ravaged by natural disasters, civil war and political turmoil now had to contend with horse-donkey hybrids smashing up a great Himalayan trail.


1st February 2019

Leaving Paiya that morning we headed towards Surke. At Surke, Livia, Srirang and Ishwor went up to Lukla for supplies. We carried on up the pathway to Phakding (2610m) passing waterfalls, frozen streams and increasing numbers of lodges and houses. Around the sacred villages of Ghat, large boulders cast shadows over the pathways beneath. Some sported sproutings of trees and the odd leafless giant. Almost every rock had faces of lichens and bedcovers of moss. Beyond every short mountain towered ridges of snow-capped peaks. Eventually the trail met the main pathway from Lukla towards Everest Base Camp. Here we noted a huge difference in footfall. More people, more often. Now we were in the home straight. The business end of the greatest most popular and well known Himalyan trail. Also, those we passed by on their way up had some similarities. Most looked fresh and clean. Some had minor altitude exhaustion, having arrived a few thousand metres up at the modern and recently legendary Lukla airfield.

Under grey skies we plodded onwards. The pathways seemed to level on this day, and we stopped for lunch at a Sherpa family’s lodge. Reading the family’s walls of certificates and talking to the owners was quite interesting. The owners’ son is a pilot based at Kathmandu – on rescue helicopters. They regularly see him flying overhead. Their daughter is also overseas in Switzerland in the hospitality sector. Mountain people seldom leave the mountains, it seems.

From the moment we passed Surke to the upper levels of Phakding, the numbers of stupas, gompas, murals and mani stones seemed to explode. This region is known as extremely sacred. The Nepal version of the Etihad Stadium in Manchester. Many prayer wheels had been turned, so much so that my fingers became dirty from the dust. The clear signs of mules everywhere to be seen. The most obvious being the pathways under repair.

The modern looking Sherpa Guide Lodge was our stay that night in Phakding. We paid 3000NPRs for a shower each, twin room and food wasn’t much more on top. I’d seen this pine-looking wood and clean-cut brick building under construction two years ago. We were the only guests this time. The daughter of the owner was in charge. The next day she was due to head to Kathmandu to see her parents. The walls featured awards and commendations of her father’s achievements, photos of their family lifestyle and traditional prayers from Buddhism. It was a pleasant place to eat Dal Bhat number nine. The views of the near-Alpine looking region sat outside in total darkness. The roar of the river drifted away as I slipped into a deep untroubled sleep.


2nd February 2019

Phakding to Monjo (2835m) wasn’t too far. A few hours to the gateway to the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is Sagarmartha National Park. Having a gander at the monthly tourist record really shows how few people explore outside of the peak seasons (March-April & October-November). It also makes me feel like peak season may be a tad too busy to enjoy the freedom of the great trail.

As you enter the Khumbu subregion it isn’t hard to see why the Lonely Planet guide ranks it as the sixth best region to visit globally. This patch of northeastern Nepal has mountain scenery at every turn. Colourful Danfe birds resemble pheasants. The national bird can be seen amongst a whole host of colourful birds, mountain goats, musk deers, and other wildlife. The colourful guesthouses fell away as we entered the park, having paid our 3000 NPRs and a deposit of 1000 NPRs for a new tracking GPS card. Good idea. Less lost people in the Himalayas. Over one of the Dudi Kosi river’s many footbridges and we pass through Jorsalle (2740m), stopping at the last hut overlooking a river below. Here some yummy foods were required. The final hike upwards after luch would be near brutal. Over another bridge, we crossed down onto the river-accompanying pathway, up to some steep scary steps, and then to the final bridges looking up at the Namche pathway. Up the valley, Everest, Lhotse and a face of mountains hid away in clouds. We wouldn’t be seeing their beauty on this day, but Oasis sang, someday we’ll find a brighter day.

The Dudi Kosi river flows from the Mount Everest massif, just east of Gokyo Lakes and flows south, beneath Namche Bazar before heading west of Lukla. It was the same river heard during a night’s sleep at Phakding. Each bridge over the river seemed to always be occupied by flowing mule caravans. They were a bit pongy.

One last push, up the brow and around into the horsehoe-valley of Namche Bazaar (3441m), some energy was needed. Posters for the last edition of the Tenzing Hilary Everest Marathon and stickers offering all manner of expedition group, from nations so numerous the writing and logos blurred into a mesh of hieroglyphics. The downhill marathon is held every May 29th. Count me out. The maximum entry is 250. I’ll let those who want it, have a crack.

Over the last few hundred metres of walk, we met Nawang Chhiring Sherpa. He said that his lodge, Mt. Kailash Lodge, was free to stay at as long as we ate our meals there. He wasn’t pushy and seemed quite welcoming. As he guided a Taiwanese couple up the hill, we talked a little with them. Maria now had Mandarin-speaking company. An easy decision, and in hindsight one with zero regret. We would spend a total of two nights there on the way up and one on the way down. We’d recommend it to everyone too. Srirang, Ishwor and Livia joined us for the second night. The room wasn’t too cold too. Dal Bhat TEN was yummy with a crunchy prawn cracker on the side.


3rd February 2019

If ever I run away to get away from it all and not tell anyone where I am heading, then Namche Bazaar is the place to find me. I’d consider it the picture-perfect position to retire too. This morning, after a full belly, we had coffee and hired some thick down jackets. Following that we enjoyed a leisurely stroll up to the Everest View Hotel. The first of our altitude acclimatisation days was neither taxing nor boring. With lunch at the Everest View Hotel we peered through limited gaps in the clouds at Everest itself, Lhotse and Ama Dablam. To the east the tips of Thamserku (6623m) permeated from the drifting clouds. We’d walked by the sprawling grass runway of a near-silent Syangboche Airport and by yaks patrolling the high pathways. Through snow-lined fields and up a ridge to the mansion-like stairway of the grand hotel.

Thamserku is one of my favourite mountains to observe. Thronged by trees until around the 4000m mark, it was littered with snow and rocks thereafter. It has two almost identical peaks that resemble little horns. It is bulky and broad. With throngs of cloud circling high up, it is very atmospheric.

Excitement seemed to erupt from nowhere. Here I was looking up at vultures! Actual vultures gliding over away from dark cloud, towards gaps in the lighter cloud. Very much like Pterodactyls flying in a Jurassic Park movie, their broad wingspan effortlessly glided into the thickening clouds. Almost as soon as the elation began, it was over. The descent to the Sherpa Life Museum was swift and easy. The museum itself was interesting and full of photos. The colourful way of the Sherpa people is finely illustrated – and it also includes a mountaineering room with photos of those who have scaled summits throughout the region.

The charm of Namche Bazaar is multi-layered. West of the village is Kongde Ri (6187m) and other rolling hills around the basin of the village. Thamserku (6623m) looms to the east. The horseshoe-shaped village sits across many layers. It is almost as if someone carved the land to face the sun at sunset. Through the village centre sits recently renovated water features and statues. The eyes of the stupa face in four directions with helicopter pads in almost every direction. There are buildings of old rock, and timber structures amongst inconspicuous and understated concrete builds. The unobtrusive nature of man in the elements of nature and the rhythm of life is throughout the grounds. Cows and stray dogs walk the narrow passages. The silk road feels more short-gauntlet and less mammoth-journey here. Around 2000 people live here at the busiest point of year, yet during deep to late winter it feels sleepy and at rest. Save for helicopters and freight cargo flights, little sound of machines can be heard. Dal Bhat XI sat in my sleeping belly, ready to power the next new day.

#7 KHARIKHOLA 0900 – PAIYA 1730: ~ 7km.
#8 PAIYA 0900 – PHAKDING 1730: ~ 10km.
#9 PHAKDING 0800 – NAMCHE BAZAAR 1630: ~ 7km.
#10 NAMCHE BAZAAR – EVEREST VIEW HOTEL & GENERAL WANDER: ~ 10km

 

To be continued…

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