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

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…

Idyllic Wild

新年快乐!Happy New Year!

The road from Feilaisi (飞来寺) is long and winding, with concrete under foot or wheel. Towering on the opposite side of the valley is Kawagarbo (6740m) and Yunnan province’s highest point. The roads bend and wind up and down to a checkpoint. At this point, one must surrender 27.5RMB. This gains you access to the Yubeng village scenic area (雨崩村). Starting an ascent at Xidang Spring (西当温泉), my colleagues Javier and Carmen headed up alongside me. We were to follow a trail marked by green bins. The spring of the village was rather an anti-climax.

Javier surveys the spring.

Those green litter bins and new saplings littered the pathway upwards. The path would zigzag across numerous dirt tracks and one under construction concrete road. For the entire ascent, I stopped only once for hot milk and some water in a tiny rickety-old-shack. The pleasure cost me a staggering 130RMB. The man had seen me coming. Each half litre bottle of water was 10RMB and the milk was 110RMB. The man charged 200RMB for noodles to a group calling by. In the future, always enquire about prices before accepting goods. I did wonder how at least 500 noodle pots stacked up at the wooden lodge’s side hadn’t improved the roughness of the building.

The route up had a positive gain of over 1100 metres. At its highest point, my lower legs enjoyed some much needed respite. At which point, a Snickers chocolate bar, not my favoured choice, tasted marvelous. I’d passed through some great panoramic viewing points before reaching Yubeng Upper Village (雨崩上村). Nazongla Yakou (那宗拉垭口) wasn’t too dramatic, but the views on entering Yubeng certainly brought a beaming smile to my face. A good 6 hours from Xidang to YuBeng was needed. On arriving, I checked into the Yak Butter Inn.

The Yak Butter Inn has a flowery name. It should be renamed to something feline like a cattery. The lodge has numerous large moggies strutting around. Young long-haired fuzz balls can be seen curled up in various baskets and cushions. A lone dog limps around, evidently resigned to being shy of any further pack members. The pleasant warmth of a wood stove heats one corner of the room, as the sun licks through windows at another. A busy kitchen emits fragrances of common Chinese cuisine and piping hot teas. A young cat thwacks my leg with its paws seeking attention.

Yak Butter Inn cattery

I elect to stay at the Yak Butter Inn for one night. A night in a shared dormitory reminds me that I no longer want that kind of experience. Farting, belching, snoring and a roundabout of lights-on, lights-off motions are one thing. Hearing Douyin/TikTok at every hour is another. With my colleague Oliver and his entourage arriving the following evening, I changed lodges. Two nights later, we changed lodges again. No rooms at the second inn, due to New Year bookings. The kind Tibetan owner had served us great Pu’er teas (普洱茶) and good hearty hiking food.

Before Oliver arrived, Carmen, Javier and I wandered upwards to the Sacred Waterfall (神瀑). A gain of 600 metres altitude. It being winter, the waterfall was mostly frozen and receding. The valley walk up from Yubeng Lower Village (雨崩下村) was gentle with a solid pathway built to guide tourists slowly in one direction and back again. CCTV and Chinese good luck shapes marked the route making it impossible to go off the beaten track. Walking poles needed a soft base and were generally of little use. The five hour round trip was pleasant enough with sweeping chains of prayer flags coating the latter stage of the route. Overflowing green rubbish bins and hundreds of scattered Red Bull drinks cans added shame to such a holy route. Chipmunks, adventurous and cute, sought treats amongst furry green moss-coated ancient trees. The cool fresh air a certain reward for stretching your legs out.

Sacred waterfall valley

Prior to walking up the valley, our trio had a few jumps and twists around the flowing streams that sit just above Lower YuBeng. The great boulders and pebbles are home to a logging camp which causes the water channels to splinter like roots from a tree. The transition into the old woodland beyond is chilling and in the shadow of the mountain. Like many places, frozen snow regulates the ambient temperature, giving a dark murky cool feel. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Master Yoda lived here. An icy world in opposition to the sun dried bank over the gentle flow of the stream. Perfect for Jedis in hiding.

A six to seven hour walk from Yubeng Upper Village (雨崩上村) via Xiaonong Base Camp (笑农大本营) gets you to the cold dry icy landscape of the Ice Lake (冰湖) at 3900m, nestled beneath Kawagarbo. The great overhanging peak condensed with snow from seasons of snowfall and heavy wind looms overhead. The wind reminds you of nature’s power, driving in, swirling and biting sharply. Remnants of receding glacier shelves and loose looking snow shelves linger menacingly. They will fall one day. The Ice Lake lived up to its name. Some of the ascent (around 800m gain) that day necessitated crampons. My tough boots bore the brunt of careful footwork and one walking pole, as I climbed the challenging route. No crampons for some. The donkey tracks and frozen soil pathways before it zig-zagged up and down various forestry climates battering my boots into disrepair on the return journey. Rhododendrons, pines, cypress trees and other green species reflected various browns, reds and greys. It was a real rainbow of a route.

Great place to lay down and look up

Mother Nature has been busy here. The valleys around YuBeng are dramatic. They’re microclimates with epic visual proportions. Each has a mysterious feel to which evidently religion has become attached. They’re places of stories and tales, entwined to folklore and legend. As a devout daydreamer, they’re a place to let the mind go and wonder as you wander. Every twisted tree, shadowy rock or distant sound could start a new story. Farming, the traditional Tibetan ways, mixes with a blend of the modern and the local wooden builds make way for tourism-aimed metal and concrete lodges. Glamping has arrived, but the Tibetan pilgrimage routes remain. New stories will yet be told.

Abandoned cabin

Beyond the idyllic setting of managed walking routes, it’s possible to trek along an ancient Buddhist pathways. That pathway leads to a glacier, snuggled beneath Kawagarbo. Remembering that climbing the mountain is banned and ill advised, it’s possible to follow an ancient trail through woodland, across a grass plain into a kind of Alpine tundra. The evident altitude cools much of the area and ice watetfalls, streams and ponds are frequently found higher up. The thickness of mosses, lichens and bearded trees drape on wilder routes. The mountain hinterland maintains a natural ecological state, and away from the beaten track, it’s the best place to witness it. Leave only footprints. Certainly don’t attempt the long walk to Myanmar. But enjoy the diversity of fungi and lichens.

The Northwest of Yunnan has quickly become my favourite place in China. YuBeng is itself a piece of heaven on Earth. Perhaps the nearby city of Shangri La should hand over its adopted name to the village of YuBeng. This growing tourist hotspot will see many pilgrimages, changes and challenges in the coming years. Will it sustain its beauty? Only time and UNESCO status will tell. I was told around twenty households made up YuBeng in the last decade. Now, there’s a Guangdong restaurant, Hong Kong style guesthouses, plenty of Sichuan options and even a family from Shandong (Eastern China). It will be tough to retain the Tibetan charm and character. Like much of the world, this corner of Dêqên is becoming quite samey-samey. The same old KTV can be heard by a shattered water prayer wheel. Up the way, steamed Cantonese food can be ate, with an ancient Stupa baked under a solar powered streetlight. Mani stones hide behind new hotel signage. The old ways are slipping from sight.

I’ve experienced a little altitude sickness, for most of the region is over 3200m. Discomfort in sleeping for the first few days, some muscle exhaustion, breathlessness at times and minor headaches resolved mostly yesterday. Enough so to enjoy a light Shangri La Beers lager or two, with delicious fresh yak meat, at the insistence of our lodge owner.

Hung out to dry

This morning when I walked into dining area of the lodge, I thought the weather-beaten looking Tibetan men had all had an argument. The dozen men, that seem to be ever present within the lodge (under renovation and expansion), were sat one per table at various parts of the room. On getting my door key, I spied that they were all head down and deep into Mandarin Chinese writing and reading textbooks. I left them to study in peace, passed the hanging yak meat, locked my door and joined Oliver, Piotr and Benedict for breakfast at another lodge.

Piotr works for shell. Oliver had met him and others on the way up from Xidang. Sociable Oliver teaches to travel and travels well, making friends as he goes. Knowledgeable as he is, he can be a little loud, as is the Australian way for many. He’s a sound lad with a keen eye to see more, do more and learn more. It’s a pleasure to have him as a colleague at Tungwah Wenzel International School. He met Piotr and you’d think they were best friends. It’s pleasing to see. The two entered the ice cave, skidded on the ice lake and galloped up the glacier together. Some people are more astronaut than astronomer. I’m happy flirting between active and observer. The mountains are familiar and here I feel relaxed. Wandering around watching jays feeding in the undergrowth satisfies me just as much as ascending ridge lines. We did enjoy a little camp fire and tea though.

Somewhere like this

Sat reading Roald Dahl’s Someone Like You, on a moss covered rock, shaded from the bright sun, as it dropped below the mountains overhead will no doubt remain my favourite place to read for many years. The gentle stream underneath that feeds into either of the three great rivers makes me feel dreamy and sleepy. The Jinsha (later Yangtze), Lancang (later Mekong), and Nujiang (soon to be known as Salween) rivers come from the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau. People from roughly 22 ethnic groups (Naxi, Lisu, Tibetan, Bai, Yi, Pumi, Nu, Dulong etc) live in and around the starting areas of these great rivers. One drop of rain water into this relatively narrow area of basins could end up in the Andaman sea by Myanmar, or flow by Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, or slip through Tiger Leaping Gorge towards Jiangsu and Shanghai. I look up from my book, watching a clump of ice break up and drift downstream. What a pleasant little journey.

Until next time…

“Welsh Wales”, as Mum says

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

Mention Wales [威尔士] to anyone from the U.K. and they’ll instantly have an image in their mind. That image may vary from a mythical place they’ve never been, shitty holidays in Colwyn Bay or the exotic-sounding-yet-ultimately-disappointing Barry Island, or Tom Jones. Stereophonics, Ryan Giggs and leeks may even come to mind.

To me, Wales was home for several years and forms part of my ancestry. I have a deep respect for Welsh pride and the diverse heritage. I also like castles, which is one huge reason to love Hen Wlad fy Nhadau [Land of my Fathers – the Welsh national anthem [国歌]. Wales’s land surface area [国土面积] covers 3,074,067m2. If the tide is out, then you may see a little more – whether sunken (think Borth forest) or lost lands (causeways). Wales has the highest concentration of castles per land and considering many are beyond ruins or have drifted away in time, this quaint principality of the U.K. has views like no other, often with a castle standing mighty. If there isn’t a castle nearby, then I guarantee a church, chapel or parish won’t be far away. Even the stones have stories!

民俗文化 [scenery]世界上每平方英里城堡数量最多的地方 The largest number of castles per square mile in the world.

The official languages [官方语言] of choice are Welsh [威尔士语] and English [英语]. During my time in the shadow of The National Library of Wales, I was encouraged to learn Welsh (Cymraeg). The library, surely one of the greatest, sheltered artworks, books and manuscripts during World War II. Located in Aberystwyth underneath the Penglais campus of Aberystwyth University, the views from the front door are dramatically panoramic. Here you can sit on a wall, over sweeping views, and read Aberystwyth Mon Amour by Malcolm Pryce. An ice cream, made of whelks, on a sunny December day completes the perfect picture.

March the 1st is a colourful day with leeks, flags and daffodils. As spring tip-toes in, the Welsh hold St David’s Day. A kind of St Patrick’s Day without Guinness. Their patron saint probably won’t understand novelty inflatable dandelions quite the same way. Like many great nations, food is important. Welsh Food [威尔士美食] is no exception. Ask for a Welsh rarebit and you’ll get cheese on toast. The historic pieces are laverbread (made from seaweed), cawl (a kind of lamb stew), cawl cennin (leek soup, they love the leeks!), (obviously from Wales) and cockles. Finish a meal with Welsh cakes, bara brith (a fruit bread). With most of the population near the sea, Welsh meals are often influenced by sea food. The Glamorgan sausage and Llymru (flummery, in England) are two treats to try. Like most of neighbouring England tatws (potatoes) make an appearance often. Tatws Popty and Tatws Pum Munud are the best examples. Maybe, ask Beca [贝卡] at the local café to cook some for you.

One fact that always seems to crop up is that Wales has more sheep than people. Its capital, Caerdydd [Cardiff 卡迪夫] has a population [人口] of just 350,000. Other major towns and cities aren’t anywhere near as big. Swansea [斯旺西], Newport [纽波特], and Wrexham [雷瑟汉姆] usually get a nod. Some villages like Hay-on-Wye host important folk culture [威尔士风景] festivals such as literature and music events. Even Chris Gunter is popular.

Wales is quite some place with lung-busting names like Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch and places simply called Pant or Mwnt. Chinese Tourists have created new names for difficult sounding Welsh places. Wales and China can have a bit of fun language exchange it seems. Angharad [安哈蕾德], Rhiannon [莱安诺] and Dafydd [达非德] have made it from the valleys of Glamorgan into the cities of Beijing and Shanghai. Welsh names are travelling. Also travelling from Wales are such great things as Doctor Who and Welsh-production movies. Following years of E.U. Objective One funding and near-independence of the principality’s government, Wales is flourishing. Between free prescriptions, university grants and Welsh whisky exports, there is opportunity galore.  Not bad for a country that lost its primary mining industries in a heartbeat.

 “来自中国的学生,亚伯大学欢迎你们!Welcome to students from China!”

Rhys [莱斯], Gethin [盖亭] and Lowri [萝莉] went into a bar. Don’t worry, there was no trouble! Ieuan [爱恩] was serving that night, because Nia [妮娅] had called in sick. She may have been off drinking with her mate Ffion [菲昂]. We’ll probably never know unless we watch Pobol-y-Cwm (a BBC and S4C TV production since 1974). My friend Tomos [托莫斯] told me that the show is all the rage in Wales. It has been showing as a drama on S4C since 3 days after I was born (so, it started on the first day of November 1982). The channel mostly has success showing rugby, international football and the Eisteddfod. SuperTed, Fireman Sam, and more recently FanBoy & Chum Chum found their creations in Wales via this channel. During my years in Aberystwyth I seldom watched S4C but I did meet numerous local TV stars such as Glan Davies. I can still recall writing his Welsh Male Choir schedule for their U.S. tour. Whilst doing that I was watching Hinterland, a very Scandinavian style detective piece set around Aberystwyth. Bethan [贝覃] was possibly the victim’s name, but I can’t remember…

The 28 letters [28个字母] of the Welsh alphabet [威尔士字母表] have always fascinated me. The lack of J, K, Q, X, V and Z can’t be any good in scrabble.

A, B ,C ,Ch, D, Dd, E, F, Ff, G, Ng, H, I, L, Ll, M, N, O, P, Ph, R, Rh, S, T, Th, U, W, Y

Wales is great for shopping [购物], outdoor activities [居住 户外活动], entertainment [娱乐], education [教育] and general tourism. There are Chinese language websites such as Wales.cn [威尔士]. To be a well-rounded tourist of student in Wales, is to open one’s eyes to endless possibilities and countless dreams. Wales is wonderful. You can find someone called Elenor [艾莲诺] and ask them.

选择亚伯的理由Why Aberystwyth University

My Grandfather came from Welsh lineage and sadly I know so little about the John Roberts side of the family. Stories of lobsters boiling in high-pitched hell gives me the need to learn more about my Welsh forefathers. If one thing that I learnt during my time in Aberystwyth University, it was the need to question and research. So, at least I can dig up the past.

“亚伯被投票选举成为英国最佳大学城,斯旺西大学赢得英国最佳学生体验奖。Aberystwyth has been voted best university town in Britain, Bangor consistently places high for Tutor quality and Swansea University has won an award for being the best student experience in the UK”

Sports [体育] in Wales include the usual array of popular sports. The World Bog Snorkelling Championships [沼泽地徒手潜水锦标赛] are eye-catching if not a little muddy. World class sports feature throughout the calendar: Wales Rally GB [英国威尔士汽车拉力赛], one day cricket internationals [国际板球比赛], mountain biking [威尔士山地自行车], and general cycling [威尔士自行车运动]. Walking [威尔士竞走], rambling and hiking are common too. The Millennium Stadium [卡迪夫千年体育场] is the premier sporting shrine housing music, football and the national sport of rugby. In south Wales you’re more likely to see Cerys [塞瑞斯] playing rugby than football. Her friend Sioned [秀内] in north Wales will equally likely be kicking a football and not the egg-shaped ball. In mid Wales, Catrin [凯特琳] is confused and can opt for all variety of sports. Equally her friend Elin [艾琳] could be uninterested in sport and find plenty to keep her busy. Just ask Alys [艾莉丝] at the local fish and chip shop. Wales has much to offer, just don’t expect a train direct from north to south on the west coast…

 

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


Hwyl fawr ffrindiau,
Hwyl fawr ffrindiau,
Hwyl fawr ffrindiau,
Mae’n amser dweud hwyl fawr.
Twdlw a bant â ni,
bant â ni, bant â ni,
Twdlw a bant â ni,
mae’n amser dweud hwyl fawr.
Goodbye friends,
Goodbye friends,
Goodbye friends,
It’s time to say goodbye.
Toodle-oo and away with us,
away with us, away with us,
Toodle-oo and away with us,
it’s time to say goodbye.