I awoke on Wednesday just after 05:30. I’d had about 5 hours sleep. The rooster may have fell under the category of an unwanted alarm clock. Bizarrely, I couldn’t nod off again. Yesterday evening had been quite subdued. I’d hung out with Echo and QiéZi (茄子) in their funky friend Cici’s juice and snack bar. Over blueberry and banana toasties it was decided that QiéZi and I would visit the legendary Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡/Hǔtiào Xiá) on the Jinsha River (Jīnshājiāng/金沙江) in Lijiang Naxi autonomous county (Lìjiāng Nàxīzú Zìzhìxiàn/丽江纳西族自治县). The chance to see more of Yunnan (云南) wasn’t something to pass up. Besides which QiéZi is a wise traveling companion.
Checking my phone at 05:45, I see we’ve grown to a group of 6 people and we’re headed to a trek somewhere near Shangri-La county (香格里拉县/Xiānggélǐlāxiàn). I have until the 3rd of August to play with, so as the Reverend Gallaghers said:
“You gotta roll with it You gotta take your time; You gotta say what you say; Don’t let anybody get in your way.” – Roll With It, Oasis
So, I gave in to not being able to sleep more, grabbed a coffee at the cosy Song Sisters Bookshop and Cafe before departing the fantastic hospitality of The Jade Emu. Song and Dave are most welcoming owners and have knitted a fantastic community for those wishing to pass through, or stay a little longer.
Nomadic QiéZi arrived with the driver and we set off, with her friend Cici to collect two more friends. The journey began with a chattering driver, who gave so much information along the way, and recommendations. We stopped for hot corn and potatoes – although I declined the corn. The driver also provided yogurt and a selection of fruit. QiéZi gave me a coffee early on too, so a welcome toilet break arrived at an ideal time. No sooner had we left than we arrived, give or take four to give hours of driving.
Our group of six entered a restaurant and ate delicious breads, with a sweet cottage cheese and a meaty potato dish. A jolly day with a few games of wéiqí (围棋, sometimes called Go). The game involves black and white stones and is a territorial game of strategy. There are variations on the original but for this occasion, it was first to five in a row. Simple. Fun. Entertainment.
The evening involved sitting on our arses talking and planning tomorrow. The heavy rain brought about my several freakish weather fronts will challenge the next two days and any potential wanderings. The group have their eyes on Abuji Lake (阿布吉错). This may prove overambitious, but not every journey has to complete. Some off the beaten tracks lack tracks at times. The hard to find details for the trail aren’t exactly clear or enlightening. If the walking starts at Jiulong Yangchang (九龙羊场) then all is good.
Right now the courtyard of Desti Youth Hostel, complete with two big cute dogs isn’t a bad place to chill and await the next day. With a giant screen showing an Indian movie and a variety of games in a covered area, it’s a great place to be.
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!
The Great Wall (长城) is massive. It’s length exceeds the distance around the U.K.’s total coastline (I believe). Fact check that at your heart’s content. Heading from Xi’an involved a night train on a soft sleeper bed. The room had old yellowing lights, grim grey walls and no power sockets. It was cost-effective to travel and bunk, than to bunk at a hotel then travel. The selected option had no shower and barely a place to brush your teeth in comfort. The on board restaurant car involved a selection of noodles, room temperature water or baijiu (rice wine).
Having finished Lee Child and Andrew Child’s The Sentinel, sleep was an easy choice. My former colleague Mr Oliver occupied the attention of an enthusiasm kid trying to charge his phone at a busted power point outside our bunker of a room. The lack of ventilation wasn’t so bad because our closest window slid down from time to time. Waking up at 01:30hrs due to a slammer of a man thumping down his suitcase, thrashing his shoes off and generally bumping everything with loudness wasn’t so bad. Until his eruptive snoring. Still, I fell asleep well.
From Taiyuan station we wandered to a bus station, Jiannan Bus Station, bagged tickets and sat down to eat in a Chinese equivalent of a greasy-spoon cafe nearby. The Shanxi pickles were good alongside egg pancakes and eggs. After an uneventful journey with a dab of xenophobia, we arrived at the mining region of Yangquan (coincidentally where I’m writing this now). Immediately a Didi taxi was booked to Niangziguan and the village of ShuiShangRenJia. The water village has multiple bubbling springs feeding babbling brooks and streams. Some pass through and under buildings. Our homestay had such a variety of flowing water over the roof and in the restaurant area.
The above was written yesterday evening and since then there has been an overnight train journey on hard seats. Think little old ladies spitting into metal pans, snoring and general discomfort. On the positive side, some fellow passengers made space for my rucksack and moved from my first seat. Mr Oliver and I drank a few McDonald’s-based beers, pretending to be customers at the American Embassy branch of Taiyuan. It passed some of the three-hour transfer time.
We have wandered through Guguan Pass and Ningzi Pass in recent days. Seeing the old stonework and some newer sections has allowed us to explore a few off the beaten track avenues. Some knee-deep in thorns and prickly bushes, with wasps the size of fighter jets buzzing by our heads. Some horsefly species surely must take their name from that of them being the size of a horse. Scorpions and centipedes have whipped by and so far been avoided. Although mites and spider bites have likely been experienced.
The jagged snaking Great Wall sections at Guguan are far more dramatic than that of NingziPass. The protrusion at the latter have been remade in recent years but sit atop a splendid village and river landscape. At our lodge of choosing, the owners have decorated the walls with photos and artworks of the locality. The waterfall these days is hidden around a river-side theme park and tacky attractions. However, the Great Wall lines an ancient village.
Guguan is an oddity. The wall towers over a fantastic entrance gate. The ground is lined with centuries of horse and cart worn stones. Around the entrance, a highway slides through (under a section of bridge connecting The Great Wall). The scars of industry, mining and the Revolution periods of China’s new era shroud and strangle the Great Wall before releasing it’s higher levels to a combination of wild scrubland and farmlands.
The short stay in Shanxi was a pleasant one with local people gifting us refreshing cucumbers, crunchy crisp pancakes and an abundance of pleasantries. The food was excellent and varied. The people were generally warm and welcoming. The whole visit was delightful, despite the heat! However, I won’t miss the relentless thorn bushes (or the snarling dogs)!