The voice came from the ground. It was a single loud clunk. Clunk! It sounded like localised thunder. It’s waves shot upwards towards my ears. A metre away in any direction it would be inaudible. Almost imperceptible that a large rock could move and create such a loud static sound. The eagle spotted a kilometre overhead may have spotted it. The black kite perched nearby definitely did.
Distracted by a pretty and handsome young couple saying, “Hello tall man”, I slipped on the loose near-horizontal dusted ground and hit my armpit on a pointy-up blunt branch. After all the near-vertical declines and sharp jagged spines of rocks, it made sense to slip on an easy area of walking. The now vanished chains of support weren’t there. Drops of suicidal angles had scattered behind me. Plain and simple became my hazard. Complacency in action. Or inaction in complacency. Anyway they looked a happy and cute couple. They witnessed a size-fifty shoe slide and a tall man wearing a Dal Bhat power 24 hour T-shirt ram a tree branch by armpit. The girl spoke, “Xiaoxin”. That means careful. So, I stumbled past them, 小心 indeed.
Today, marked a walk starting at 07:30 from Dongchong to XiChong and back, on the DongXiChong trail. I started with Dong (east 东) and ended west at Xi (西) but liked it so much I returned for a second helping of Dong. Like you do. This classic coastal pathway was at times stunning, at other times saddening. The mountains meeting the sea formed a terrific seascape. Clear blue seas and grey skies that eventually turned blue made trekking easier than being under baking sun rays all day.
The nearby Pingshan mountain and a view of Sanmen island did little harm to my vivid impressions of DaPeng peninsula. Cliffs and rock scrambling have long been my thing since experiencing it with Grylls Head outdoor adventure centre and Chapel Street Primary School in year 5. Rocks, holes, tiny islands, bridges, stacks, columns and landforms made by sea erosion towering over sea reefs and the omnipresent imposing tides of an angry sea can’t be a bad day out. It certainly perks your ears up for the cry of seabirds and the crash of countless waves. I wondered, as I wandered, how many stories can each shell tell?
Between the coastal villages of Dongchong and XiChong it is mostly undeveloped, save for the XiChong observatory and three small beach shacks. A few steps and chains have been fitted but nature mostly rules the route. There’s litter, at shameless quantities and annoying spray painted signs pointing out numbers for boats, lodges and so on. I’ve heard it compared and listed as one of the top ten routes in China. Perhaps that needs confirming. Also, that’s a worrying statement about the state of coastal routes. Yes, there are beautiful near golden sands at either village and some great pebble beaches between, but surely there’s more?!
The potential for ecotourism is high provided the litter mountain can be contained. If you can’t carry it back, why carry it there? Discarded wrappers, bags, drinks bottles, beach mats, hats, parasols, gazebos, barbecues and more were seen. Almost all was made in China, so no blame can be sent across the South China Sea. The blowing sea breezes and tides can only be responsible for so much. Humans as a disgrace for the rest. The National Geographic Magazine may need to review their write-ups. Although this walking route is not far from Shenzhen bustling centre, it feels remote and relaxing. Just about two hours from Futian via Yantian port!
16km of up, down, sideways, forwards and back ruined my Altra walking trainers. They’ll need replacing. They’re good for rough wear but not for smartness. This highly scenic route is dusty and tough at times. I enjoyed the 8km walk there and around XiChong so much that coming back made sense. Meeting nobody for three hours on my outbound journey was rewarded with meeting many friendly faces on the return journey, even if I was turned away Mary and Joseph-style by two coffee places in XiChong. On returning to Dongchong a kind shopkeeper pointed me to a shop selling Nespresso coffee. Not a bad end to a walk.
Finishing the day following a video call could only be done one way. Seafood. The local barbecue restaurant was perfect. There’s a few places to choose from. Most feature the animal kingdom, well the aquatic part, anyway. Reflecting on a day well spent, I thanked the trekking gods that I didn’t encounter whatever or whoever left behind all the crap that local village volunteers were bagging up.
I can’t roll my eyes. Nor can I change my seat. The old man besides me is yelling like thunder. His voice so loud that my chest is shaking. His young grandson is shaking a phone, striking it on my legs. He’s but a year or two under half a decade of age. He’s just watered the seat too.
I can’t change my seat. Nor can I stand up. The elderly man has boxed me in. There’s a stack of mangoes, sticky and sweetly overpowering in fragrance. They hide the wretched stench of urine. They boy ignores every dramatically loud instruction. “DO NOT PLAY!” “BE QUIET!” “DO AS I SAY!” His flabby chin wobbles with every wasted forced breath.
I can’t silence the noise. Nor can I use my earphones. I’ve dropped them onto the floor. Into the piss. The gray old man, swats his grandson’s head but still the boy persists in screaming and cheering. “Automan! Automan! Automan!” One superhero and his name rattle throughout the coach. The smell is getting warmer now. The heat of the coach’s overworked air conditioner is vaporizing the urine. Breath it in.
I can’t understand the old man. Nor can the old man see I’m annoyed. The child suddenly stops. He ceases all noise. His grandfather keeps hitting his head. Not gently. There’s a slapping sound. Thud! Thump! Slap! He shouts and balls at his prey. I kick my bag to try and stop the flow of warm stinking yellow waste water finding it’s way to my bag. The bag skips a beat and lodges between the old man and his grandchild, now sat on the floor. The grandchild looks up and strikes the old man with my bag. Oh! My! Gosh!
I can’t understand what the old man is shouting at me. Nor can he catch my look of innocence. He spits between his words and I suddenly want a rain jacket. The flow of words and abuse rains down on me. I’m thankful for my face mask. He prods a finger at me. I understand a few words. Foreigner this. Foreigner that. America or something. Go away. Get out. And that’s when I decide I’ll never use a public coach again. The end.
“Hey, are you coming to Ürümqi with me?”, an Aussie called Oliver clamoured. By clamoured, I mean kind of yelled, bawled, wailed or yawped but not in a negative kind of way. You see, Oliver is one of those nice Australian folk who happen to be part human, part megaphone. I don’t think I have heard him whisper. Not once. It may be the only way to get heard over his 21 grade 5 students. I’m not sure. But, anyway, he definitely said it in a voice where people in the far of Dongguan could have heard, or perhaps even the people of Ürümqi heard a little.
We were sat eating ‘shāokǎo (燒烤)‘ and not because barbecue is an Australian’s go-to meal. We’re not reinforcing stereotypes here! It was Friday evening, after school. Laura’s fella was having his birthday and it felt like a good thing to do. A mixture of Chinese, Spanish, French, Moroccan and Venezuelan, American, Australian and British people outside a Xinjiang-family’s restaurant eating great lamb, livery bits and other wonderful breads on a Friday after a long hot week seemed like a good idea. The Wusu beer and Nángbĭng (新疆烤馕flat bread) went down a treat, following spicy peppers, mushrooms and okra. the chäyza (茄子, qiézi) was a little spicy but pealed away on my chopsticks delightfully. With Oliver’s words in my ears, I told him how I planned to go see my mate Waits up in Gansu province, but it would be a little rushed and not easy to get there and back again.
Having tried to order a rice dish polu (抓飯, zhuāfàn) containing raisins and carrots, I gnawed on meaty lamb skewers (新疆羊肉串) covered in red pepper flakes, cumin seeds and various peppers. The salty taste complimented the juicy flesh well.Oliver growled on, “Come see the Jiaohe ruins, mate.” The Jiāohé Gùchéng (交河故城) ruins have been on my radar for some time.The word mate has been echoing since the day I met Oliver in August, “Would you like an orange juice, mate?” He swiftly blended an orange or two with ice and has been ever-present at school in positive form.And now, after a recent December wander in Yunnan, he’s telling me Piotr and I are being called upon. He’s putting the band back together.
Elwood: “It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark… and we’re wearing sunglasses.” Jake: “Hit it.” – The Blues Brothers starring John Belushi & Dan Ackroyd
Flights were booked hastily and probably without due diligence. Hand me the international baccalaureate risk-taker profile certificate please, Now, it’s time to book a swab test for the old COVID-19 proof that freedom of travel is okay. Then, there’s the weather. It could be a sandstorm, blizzard, snow, or sunny. Depends on the zone. And because China has one timezone, sun rises later and earlier than here in Dongguan. Next Sunday, sun rises around 07:46hrs over Ürümqi and sets at 20:39hrs. More than an hour later in difference than here in Dongguan! So, I am sat here with about a week to go making a loose itinerary. One that sadly won’t take in the songs of Dilraba Dilmurat. All this information research has happened inside a day. Pages 502-515 of the DK Eyewitness Travel China edition have been read. All this because of Oliver! Not Lionel Bart’s Oliver! Our very own colleague, Áleifr (the name meaning ancestor’s descendent) has set about a trip to a region of Uyghurs 维吾尔/Wéiwú’ěr) people one of China’s 55 officially recognized ethnic minorities. The region itself is a hotbed of multiculturalism and history.
On arriving, as I land in Ürümqi a day before Oliver, because I believe in maximum holiday time, the Xinjiang Silk Road Museum (新疆丝绸之路博物馆) next to the Grand Bazaar at No. 160 Shengli Road should be visited. Here I hope to find more information before Oliver lands on the Sunday, and hopefully catch Piotr up, who will already be there. The lay of the land and a good map may be helpful. My friend Ty, of Murray’s FC. has already said he will put us in contact with a driver and a guide from his home town area. Maybe I’ll look up sand therapy. Sadly, far east of there is Hāmì (哈密), famous for sweet melons of the same name, although the area and its fascinating ‘Devil City’ moniker intrigues. As does the ‘Ghost City‘ around Karamay and Wuerhe.
Nature needs to be seen and the receding faster than my hairline Urumqi No. 1 Glacier(乌鲁木齐1号冰川; wū lǔ mù qí 1 hào bīng chuān) seems to be a good start. Half of China’s 20,000 glaciers are all located in Xinjiang, and its proximity to the peak of Kyrgyzstan-Chinese Jengish Chokusu (托木尔峰) makes sense. That towering peak (7,439 m/24,406 ft) forms the roof of the poetically-named Mountains of Heaven (Tiān Shān 天山) mountain range heavily influences the geology and geography of the whole region. They’re part of the Himalayan orogenic belt so there’s certainly diverse terrain near to Ürümqi. Time spent in one of the world’s most remote and distal (to any seas) shall be a new experience.
At 6000-year old Turpan (tǔlǔfān/吐鲁番), there’s Huǒyàn (火州 place as hot as fire), the Flaming Mountain (火焰山 Huǒyànshān) to the north, an irrigation exploration at Kariz (meaning well) Well (吐魯番坎儿井乐园) and the Sugong Minaret(苏公塔) to the east. The Bezeklik Grottoes could be possible. Then there’s the Apandi people and their Grape Valley (葡萄沟), the Bezeklik Grottoes (Bózīkèlǐ Qiānfódòng 柏孜克里千佛洞), Gāochāng Ancient City (高昌古城), and the Astana cemetry (阿斯塔那古墓 Āsītǎnà Gǔmù). There’s certainly the oasis-village Turoq valley (吐峪沟 tǔyùgōu) 70km away. Travel around the region may be difficult but the lure of rail travel hold strong. Two railway lines pass through the region: 南疆铁路; Nánjiāng tiělù; and one from Lanzhou (兰新铁路第二双线). Seems Turpan will need a few days. And that’s before finding information on Biratar Bulak. I hear this region is often nicknamed as China’s Death Valley. Earth’s second-lowest depression is an incredible 155 metres (509 feet) below sea level! The world’s largest Naan stove sounds more at home in the U.S.A. but can be found at Darwaz. I’ll try and convince Oliver and Piotr to go.
The journey to the west will hopefully meet with less difficulty than the Monkey King met. In Journey to the West, by Ming dynasty writer, Wu Cheng’en, the protagonist met a wall of flames, which was likely at Xinjiang’s Flaming Mountain. Uighur (the people of the region) legend has it that a dragon lived in the Tianshan mountains (south of Ürümqi) but was slew by a hero who had grown annoyed at the dragon’s diets of children. That spawned the dragon blood to form a scarlet clot: eight valleys of the Flaming Mountain. One for each piece of the chopped dragon.
I told Waits that I’d go to Gansu in summer (because the UK is not a viable option) and from there I’d probably head to Xi’an to see the Terracotta Warriors. The armies of Qin Shi Huang really should be marketed to the basketball crowd here. I’d buy a basketball shirt with Terracotta Warriors Basketball Club on it. Maybe I should suggest to T.W.I.S. that Terracotta Warriors International Society would make a good history club. Or perhaps, in summer, I will enjoy the humidity and heat of Dongguan. Nothing is certain, but optimism and positivity being made by our souls. Scatter!
To quote Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, “That’s all folks!” That reminds me, I have still never watched Space Jam, and I heard there is a sequel this year!
I wanted to write this on Dad’s birthday. I procrastinated. A habit I possibly learnt from Dad. Let’s talk about my Dad. He’s half of the reason why I exist. Now, where to begin? Last week, I had a video call with Dad on his birthday. He was sat on his lounge sofa and the frustrations of being unable to get out were etched on his face. Dad’s never been a mountain climber or a road cyclist, but he’s always been someone who enjoys the outdoors.
Dad, as father to Shaun, Tina, Asa and I, hasn’t always been perfect. Who amongst us, can say they are free from mistakes or poor choices? This is life, and the consequences of one action or inaction ripple like a stone crashing into a millpond. Things between Dad and I haven’t always been gloss paint or even matt, or emulsion. There have been paint spillages. I still love my Dad and I feel his love too. I’m lucky. I can’t imagine life without a Dad, and I truly don’t want to feel the loss of my Dad (or Mum): that would hurt too greatly.
Dad mentioned, in our last call, he’d been ‘cutting back Himalayan barbed-wire‘ or in layman’s terms, chopping the plants of blackberries. It was good to hear that the garden was once again embracing Dad. I grew up at Joyce Street allotments listening to City’s away games, or playing with our dog Pup on the nearby Broadhurst Park. Dad always seemed to have his allotment patch (and at times, two allotments).
Before my teenage days, I was acutely aware that Dad bodged things together. A loose panel fastened awkwardly here, and a piece of perspex draped there. Never quite fitting. Always in a place that served purpose. Not pristine, always functional. Dad would show me blackbirds nesting in his grey monolithic-looking shed. He’d feed me coriander and thyme, unwashed from a patch of ground. I would eat delicious tomatoes, rich in flavour, second only to my Granddad’s – and truth be told, not by much! I recall eating cucumbers, strawberries and planting potatoes, dancing with goats, finding old toys in impromptu concrete paths and losing races to my older brother Asa. The allotments were a good place to be. With Dad.
During the summers, sometimes he’d help at the Joyce Street Farm and I’d get to feed ponies, gain the trust of feral cats, collect chicken eggs, much out the horses and play with ducks. The goats were always my favourite. They’d be loaned out to allotment holders to go mow their plots or let out to feed on an adjacent banking of grass. Chickens and poultry would scatter up and down on a free range grass plain. Sometimes I’d stay there and enjoy the peace. Other times Pup and I would go bonkers and break the peace.
Dad with Granddad would take us to Tottington for cuttings and chrysanthemums. We’d go to Chester for seeds. It wasn’t unusual to serve Granddad leaning over walls taking a few freelance cuttings of his own, from other people’s gardens. Dad, Asa and I would walk ahead seemingly oblivious but totally aware. Other days and evenings we’d meet his friends, the legendary John ‘The Ghost’, Ernie at the farm, locals at the Working Man’s Club, etc.
Whether it was spam butties, salad from the allotment, a pie at Newton Heath market or reduced to clear food, I can’t say I ever went hungry. Boxes of broken biscuits at Manchester Victoria station or vanilla custard slices were probably where I got my sweet tooth. What I’d give to sit down with a shandy at Newton Heath Working Man’s Club, or Two Dogs Alcoholic Lemonade at the defunct Castle and Falcon, and talk with Dad.
From an early age, caravan holidays have been a thing. Actually, since Nana and Granddad passed away, Dad has maintained a. succession of caravans in Morecambe. They’ve been a holiday home for family, neighbours and friends of the family. Ritz Carlton they’ve never been, but a stone’s throw from Morecambe’s famous Midland Hotel, they’ve always been cosy and convenient. Walking with dogs, Snowy, Suzie, Pup, Nomaz, Jerry, Nobby, Blue, and others, even cats Sky and Lucy, around the caravan park resort or along the beaches to Heysham have given a great sense of relaxation to many an Acton.
There’s no place like home. I miss Dad, equally as much as I miss my Mum and other tribe members. I live and work here in sunny Dongguan, and have no plans to leave here. I enjoy the challenges of my job far too much. I respect the freedom it affords me. I hope in this troubled year I can be home for Christmas. The COVID-19 pandenic has probably stopped a summer jaunt to Manchester. And even if I could go back, could I visit all the family at all their houses without myself being the risk of spreading this godforsaken virus?
Dad loves trains, and as a former painter and decorator of ‘anything but the trains’ he’d steam through stories about the places he’d been, witnessing snow on Winter Hill (in summer) and what painters do when watching paint dry. It took me a while to understand that the word crumpet wasn’t always food. These days the meaning would generate the #MeToo on Twitter. We’d visit steam trains or famous stations, as long as there was no cost. We’d ride in luggage cars, behind diesel trains or then speedy Intercity 125. Being sat on huge sacks of seaweed heading for Manchester’s gardens seemed normal to me. It was a pungent form of social distancing, far ahead of its time.
My Aunty Christine tells me Dad was a talented artist, and studied so. I’ve seen some of his works but it seems time has hidden them in Dad’s clutter. Uncle George, the youngest of Dad’s brothers and sisters, told many stories of them at Wembley, away games and Maine Road following the mighty Manchester City and occasional scraps with hooligan types. I could always see the family love in Aunty Irene’s eyes for Dad, but an awkwardness towards Dad’s habits. Our family, like many, has its quirks and oddities. I wouldn’t change it for the world.
One birthday, I pretended to sleep. I think I was disappointed that Dad hadn’t picked me up that weekend. Dad was supposed to pick me up every Saturday. My parents had divorced at, for me, an early age. I wasn’t in a broken home, thankfully, but the new norm for us all was different, yet not unheard of in Manchester. So, one night Dad opened my bedroom door and I was sleeping. But, I wasn’t. The gift was wonderful. I regret not sitting or waking up. I regret not hugging my Dad.
Gifts were always welcome. Books from the barrow at Manchestet Victoria Station, from Mum and Dad were always a treasure. Animal books, and adventures became habit. Over the years Mum would collect tokens and send off for hugely discounted books. I still have some here in China now. They’re both sentimental and functional. Dad would sometimes find stray Lego bricks and these little tokens (of an expensive luxury toy) fitted well. The two square road pieces with a helipad and three lanes were rarely out of use. I know that the once-paraffin barrel of Lego passed from me to Astrid and Paul, and then over to Shaun and Christina. So, a collection started by Mum and Dad has served well.
After completing the Morecambe Bay CrossBay run, I spotted Dad near the finish line and he took some photos of me looking shattered and void of energy. Cheers Dad! I was so happy to see Dad, that day, at Hest Bank. I think Christina and Shaun with there with the West Highland terrier Jerry. Either way after a mostly solo half-marathon distance through Morecambe Bay, it was a heartwarming sight. Also, it was at one of Dad’s favourite places, a sandy bank on the expanses of Morecambe Bay, complete with passing trains in close proximity.
There’s much more I can write about Dad. Perhaps I will one day.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 householdsmade 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.
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.
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.
Let’s not dwell on COVID-19 and it’s terrible spread throughout the globe. It’s been a challenging and upsetting year for many. The less said on this eve of a new year, the better. Stay positive.
With trips to Nepal, Thailand (as a Corona refugee), Suzhou and now Yunnan, I’ve been lucky to experience a variety of cultures and religions in different shapes and forms during 2020. All have stood the test of time and all have stories about being adaptable. 2021 for the human race will be no exception. I’ve been lucky to get some travelling in, during this new norm but unlucky not to travel and see loved ones. The future is tingling with uncertainty but when a reunion comes about, I’m certain it won’t be wasted.
Climatic change, political indecision, blundering idleness by an impenetrable elite, racism and divide, disease and worry. Twenty twenty’s themes will carry on into this year as we all live as best we can. The gloom of a serious Sir David Attenborough message should stay with us. As should Amnesty International. Black Lives will always matter. #MeToo? Where changes are needed things will always need to happen. Vaccines and immunisation can only cure so much.
2020 allowed me opportunity. I’ve been blessed to start work at Tungwah Wenzel International School. A few weeks of expensive quarantine and drastically overpriced return flights got me back into China, as others faced even tougher routes to work or pathways no longer open. It’s been a good ride at work so far. I can only see it getting better.
Football for and with Murray’s FC has provided a regular escape from a landscape tinged by trepidation. Having also joined Dongguan Bulldogs, for a few games of tag rugby, and several solo bike rides, freedom has been a privilege.
I’m writing from a cold bed in YuBeng village, Yunnan, China. I’d like to write more but like the new journal in my bag, there’ll be plenty of opportunity and positive days ahead for the writing of new well remembered days. All the best for 2021. Keep hope in your head and heart.
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。
I’ve never done the U.K.’s longest train journey. If you depart Aberdeen at 08:20 you can be stepping into the Cornish night at 21:43 that same day. The destination of Penzance is around 13.5 hours (1162km/722 miles) from Aberdeen station (built 1867), via about 33 stops. The CrossCountry train costs £102.50 in advance or £241.00 on the day. It isn’t a sleeper train. It sounds tortuous.
So, boarding the sleeper train from Humen (Dongguan) via Shenzhen North (深圳北站) to Shanghai was a little less daunting. I could spend most of the journey kipping. I departed at 19:43 and arrived by 06:50 in Shanghai Hongqiao (上海虹桥站). Aside from a man taking my photos and two girls playing on their bright phones in the shared bedroom cubicle, it was an unremarkable but comfortable journey. Wearing a mask for the duration was a necessary evil. The return journey (10:20 from Hangzhou East[(杭州东站) to Shenzhen at 20:39) was much tougher, having to be seated for so long with little chance to stretch. The connecting journeys at either end made for a short wander (less than an hour each time). Considering Shenzhen’s station opened in 2011, Shanghai’s station the year before, and Hangzhou was built in 1992, but refitted in 2013, and all the trains were modern, it was surprisingly easy to scan my passport and travel ticketless, all for about 700rmb each way (around £79.10). Modern rail network. Fair prices – even if they were inflated for the Golden Week holiday period (黄金周).
Why did I travel so far? Well, madness. I haven’t left Dongguan’s city prefecture boundaries since March 26th 2020. The post-COVID-19 restrictions and worries haven’t helped. The first holiday of the school year gave me 8 days to play with. So, armed with an invitation by Tina, my coffee shop friend, off I trotted. The ancient city of Sūzhōu [苏州] is twinned with and often compared to Venice. It is in the same province as Nanjing, a walled-city I visited last summer. I liked there. I was certain that with everyone’s love for Suzhou that I wouldn’t be disappointed. For years I have been hearing from Tom, Dick and Harry how good the city is for travelling around. The hotel selected was the swanky Pan Pacific Suzhou (苏州吴宫泛太平洋酒店). Located close to the Auspicious Light Pagoda (1004 B.C.) it included access to the Panmen gardens and original South Gate of the once-walled-city. Built in 1996, the hotel bizarrely has U.K. plug sockets and other western trimmings but is now undergoing a substantial refurbishment. The location is ideal and relaxing with a great Xinjiang restaurant over the road, and restaurants onsite. The swimming pool looked good, but I didn’t take my trunks.
Suzhou’s tourist areas are colourful and lively. They’re a blend of the old world and new. There’re heaps of plastic and mass-produced goods claiming to be handmade and local. The shops that sell them, and snacks, are numerous. It can feel like Groundhog Day going by the frontages but amongst the clutter there are some genuine brilliant pieces of gold dust. There are collectible shops offering keepsakes and relics, coffee shops that have art galleries and art galleries that have coffee shops. There are hidden away alleys with tiny teashops and real dabs of history throughout the city. There’s a Finnish restaurant, the usual array of western food (Sera Nera [十全街吴衙场40-1号, 近迎枫桥弄] is one Italian place I will recommend), Ann’s teahouse offers English-style food, and then there’s local bites from bugs to great fish to choose from. Suzhou seems green and spread out, it’s rather like Norfolk in that hills and mountains are rare (as goes most of that general region to Hangzhou and Shanghai). It isn’t a terrible place to be, but it isn’t amazing either. Perhaps I hanker for the sea and mountains more.
So after a few days, I am sat back in Dongguan. Echobelly’s Great Things has just played on BBC Radio 6 Music. The bass and treble were just perfect for a summer’s day. It’s not summer here. It’s 24°C. This is autumn. It’s cooler and much more comfortable than other days this year. Yesterday’s walk around Dalingshan (from Cháng’ān [长安] town’s Lotus Mountain) was nevertheless a little sweaty and warm. I’d ate an excellent breakfast (English, of course) at Ziggy’s American Diner before zipping past Chang’an Park, and heading for what’s know as Lotus Mountain. Here I spotted a lake by the Lotus Villa Hotel (莲花山庄酒店, 长安镇莲花山). Within seconds the familiar flash of a kingfisher whisked by, and disappeared into a tree. Various herons, bitterns and egrets scattered around the quiet lakeside. A smell of sewage ruined the impression.
From the lakeside I headed upwards along a road, gently winding its way to a temple under restoration. Beyond that steps and a clearly marked-path guided me to numerous summits, but not the main peak (capped by radio masts and fenced off). The huge advantage of walking to the peak is that you can carry on towards Dalingshan Forest Park (大岭山森林公园)/. That is a far quieter and greener route, however like the Lotus Mountain litter lined many pathways and piled up hugely at rubbish bins. For a country with so many plastic reusable water bottles, single use plastics really do ruin parks. The reward of a wander through Dalingshan gave me the sight of the worst camouflaged moth ever and a pretty green mantid. That and a good stretch after the long train journey back from Suzhou via Hangzhou, Shenzhen North station and Humen town.
I’ve lived in China for six and a bit years. Too many flash bars pop up, look shiny and then go. Ziggy’s Bar has come, evolved and carries on, withing Chang’an town. With the nearby diner, and a proper set aside bar, it is a refreshing collective. Mitch, the boss, and his team are welcoming. The bar has great decor with movies, music and western culture slipping between a touch of the east. Expect great ciders and beers (domestic and imported). There’s Boddingtons Bitter from Manchester (well, now Luton), cider from Beijing, great ales on tap and in bottles. Spirits needed? Plenty here. Worth a ride out of central Dongguan or other areas for a proper knees-up, pool game, board game or a chill out session. Live music is also available. I didn’t visit the bar before the walk. I stopped by the diner. Joining friends, I grabbed the English breakfast and supped good coffee. The breakfast had great bacon, hash browns, warm beans, proper black pudding and filled my belly nicely. I can also recommend the fish and chips or the burger range, having been a few times in recent weeks. I don’t too much like the colour red, but the mood of the diner, with a jukebox, appears like an advertisement for Coca Cola. There’s other décor that makes you feel you’re no longer in China. It’s an oddity to step from the footpath of Chang’an into a different world. The good thing was that my belly enjoyed the leap of faith.
The world’s first purpose-built railway station terminus was Liverpool Road in Manchester. It opened in 1830. It was the start of the first true railway too. Two tracks, timetables and proper stations accompanied the steam locomotives. Not surprisingly the first railway warehouse, Liverpool Road Railway Warehouse followed. It houses much of the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry now. Looking at that example, it’s amazing to see the speed at which China slaps railway lines across its national soil. That day when Manchester and Liverpool opened their railway, the MP for Liverpool William Huskisson slipped and was ran over by Robert Stephenson’s Rocket. The Liverpool and Manchester Railway (L&MR) was the first of its kind, and just 50 kilometres long (31 miles). Now, in China, the network of rail covers 121,000 km (75,186 miles) and it is growing every year. It plans to plan to expand the network to 274,000 km (170,000 miles) by the year 2050. I am just thankful that the 1,758 kilometres (1,091 miles) from Dongguan (Humen) to Suzhou involved music by Los Lobos and the latest Doves album, alongside John Bude’s The Lake District Murder novel (a classical detective yarn with plenty of detail and little happening).