Step back: III.

The taxi dropped Panda and I at the Rotterdam Europoort ferry terminal. A pleasant taxi ride with a talkative and kind driver had ended the worry of how to cart my 30kg and 10kg backpack, whilst ensuring Panda was safe on a leash. We arrived with ample time to allow Panda to water every bush and stone on the way to the terminal building. I was certain Panda appreciated this task.

Panda and I sat on a stone bench looking at the colossal MS Pride of Hull. Ferrying to or from Hull and Rotterdam daily, this Bahamas-registered tax-dodging haven of P&O ferries, has capacity to take 1360 people and about 250 vehicles. Christened by Cherie Blair, wife of Tony, this Italian-built ship has been active about 22 years. The WiFi didn’t work. Panda and I boarded and I checked him into the below-deck kennels. He wasn’t too pleased with me. Panda even snubbed a biscuit at the boarding reception.

So, once again, Panda was intentionally abandoned. He was left in his extra large kennel, neighboured by a zoo of dogs, each with its distinct yap and growl. Panda had had one heck of a journey. I felt immense pride in him and reminded myself to ensure he gets a jolly good walk in England, as soon as we were back and settled. Up the decks I climbed and went to my room for a sit down, after getting a new key card…

The Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company Ferries, or P&O Ferries had shamefully recently sacked all 800 staff across many ships. Whilst their new agency staff from the Philippines were friendly and warm, the company itself would not have been my choice, but for a lack of options. This was the only route. As was the on board cinema movie choice, Top Gun 2: Maverick. A flight movie on a ship isn’t a bad experience. A pint of Cornish Doom Bar, and a cider was also needed. An early night rounded off a simple sailing evening.

Waking in the box cabin, I didn’t know the sun had arisen, nor that land had been sighted. I quickly made myself ready and went to the deck’s Sun Lounger area. That name wouldn’t pass the trade descriptions act. Going outside I witnessed the grey openings of the river Humber and a British coastline that surely the Vikings must have thought ad being a bit off-putting. “Hey Knut, can’t be much worth seeing this way. How about we swing south for the Mediterranean?” Rhubarb wouldn’t have been introduced at that period of history. The onboard breakfast options were equally void of colour.

Eventually the ship docked and like everything British in the 21st century, something didn’t work. The offloading was to be by one route and not the usual walkway off. For foot passengers, had to wait for all vehicles to disembark. Panda, now retrieved and happy-go-lucky, boarded a bus alongside many foot passengers and I. The bus from the car deck went up a ramp, turned right, barely travelled a hundred yards and then emptied its belly of people and goods… with a patient cats and dogs. Her Majesty’s border forces checked Panda’s papers and off we went, onto British soil, or tarmacadam to be exact.

A tenner of a taxi ride later into the town station, and Hull witnessed bombings comparative to the 1940s Luftwaffe passing overhead. Panda deployed several loads right on the doorstep of the railway station main entrance. When you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go. Panda went. His bowel movements had been limited since Rotterdam on the previous afternoon, so he did very well to save it for later. Besides, the train we were booked on, was cancelled. So, why not relax, and let it go.

Having negotiated the chilly North Sea by ship, two trains would guide Panda and I through Yorkshire and over the Pennines to Manchester. All aboard.

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 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!

Murray Christmas.

早上好。Good morning.

Having boarded a Didi taxi car (express service) to Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport Terminal Two, I’m currently motoring up the whatever it’s called highway northwards. As the car hurtles towards the border of Dongguan, I realize that this is only the second time I’ve left Dongguan city proper since returning in Spring 2020. In October, I went to Suzhou and that’s about it. I haven’t been to Shenzhen at all. I had a football tournament with Murray’s FC in Foshan for a day. And, a school trip to Guangdong Science Centre, allowed a few hours on the outskirts of Guangzhou. Okay, so travel has happened, but not much.

As many people around the world, just like family and friends back in the UK can relate, travel these days is a rare thing. It’s not always wise. I’m lucky, no, I’m privileged to be able to move around in relative freedom. Many people will travel domestically in Chinese New Year. The mainland of China often resembles a fast paced Rubik’s cube at that time. I doubt that I’ll travel then. The risks will increase, despite the experts here saying the risks are low.

So, here I go, heading to catch a flight to Shangri La Airport. And it isn’t a fictional airport or city. Zhōngdiàn (中甸) was renamed to Shangri La (Xiānggélǐlā/香格里拉) to draw in tourists. Mission accomplished. The so-called picturesque Yunnan province city awaits. From there I hope to trek/ramble/walk into the wider area of Díqìng Tibetan autonomous prefecture [迪庆藏族自治州]. This will give me a risk free (although under caution and care) wander in a mountainous land. Armed with face masks, hand cleaning gel and common sense, tonight I’ll be sleeping at a higher altitude.

The Didi car driver called me to check I was okay for today, immediately after pre booking the journey yesterday. Powered by Cantonese and Mandarin power ballads, at an acceptable volume, the driver, Mr Yang is allowing his electric Toyota to zip forwards. This Uber-like service has been invaluable since it appeared on the scene to foreign customers several years ago. Using my poor Chinese, I feel quite proud to have understood many little phone and car conversations. Each driver has been my spoken Chinese tutor for some time. The cost of the journey today is about 330RMB for an estimated 99 minutes of travel time. I figured the cost worth it when placed against other options. Had I have gone by train (40rmb), stayed in a hotel for a night (120+rmb), used local taxis etc it wouldn’t have been far off the cost of this journey. Besides, I was able to enjoy flour noodles and hotpot yesterday evening.

So, with my bags packed, a litre of pure orange juice, a premade sandwich and familiar warm music, the darkness of 5am passes me by, occasionally punctuated by rear taillights and a rare street lamp. Strangely, unlike other solo or group walks, I’m far from excited. It’s Christmas time. I’m alone. I’m far from home. I expect that my green health QR code will be accepted but I may encounter some wariness or prejudices. I could be wrong. I hope so. I don’t believe people are bad but I do believe there’s lots of worry around. Worry leads to fear. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to suffering. Sorry, too much Grogu and Yoda there.

Last Saturday, Murray’s FC held its annual Christmas game and barbecue. There aren’t many places in the world where you can mix a large group of people and play football. We really are in a strange time. There were many missing faces and we all pass on our love and peace to Murray’s FC players, friends, associates, past and present. We may have adopted the Dongguan F.C. moniker but we’re still the same sharing and caring team that welcomes all. Even Man U fans. The game finished 7-7 and marked by second 8-a-side goal in three months. Gareth Southgate wasn’t there to witness it. He won’t get my rejection either. The ball, fueled by Alvaro’s strike, bears an imprint of my gonads to this day. I can still taste them. Horrible moment. Other than that, it was a very pleasant day culminating with a barbecue at Liberty bar.

In closing, my bag has simple cold weather clothes, a lesser spotted windbreaker (Sherpa brand from Nepal), a rain jacket layer, walking boots, a sleeping bag, a walking pole, a notepad, a camera and little else. Supplemental oxygen? No thanks. I’ll take the altitude change slowly and surely. No rush. No aims. Just explore. Waterfalls, glaciers, and mountains are all bonuses after months in the city of Dongguan. So, what now?

再见 Goodbye. Have yourself a Murray Christmas. 圣诞快乐。