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…

Farewell 2020. Happy New Year.

Dear all,

All the very best for 2021.

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.

Peace and love x

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。

School’s out for Christmas

How do. Nihao. 您好。

Parent Teacher Conferences? Check.

Student reports? Check.

Holiday homework? Check.

Bags packed? Check.

Pen and notepad? Check.

Green health QR code, masks and hand wash? Check.

Thunderbirds are go…

Can trekking be done in Yunnan, China? Only one way to find out..

明年见吗?See you next year?

Rails to Suzhou

Good day/Namaste/S’mae/How do/Hello/Nihao,

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).

Thank you kindly for your time.

Bypassing Liverpool since ’94

How do! / 你好 (nĭ hăo) / Namaste / Welcome!

This week Liverpool F.C. won the Premier League. Well done to them. There has been some boasting [19?] and gloating [mainly aimed at Man Utd and City]. James Milner, now a Champion at Liverpool F.C. had left Manchester City for pastures new and ended up in Anfield. He could have taken a train, car or even a ship to his new club.

Manchester by the Sea may sound like a crap funfair placed by a pond in Heaton Park, but it is actually a title of a movie by Kenneth Lonergan released in 2016. It won awards for acting and stuff like that. It has a soundtrack that doesn’t feature Oasis, The Charlatans or the Happy Mondays. Is it worth seeing? Not a clue. I’ll get round to it, but this movie set in the seaside town, first settled in 1629, of Manchester, Essex County, Massachusetts hasn’t got me yet. No hard feelings Casey Affleck.

Mark Vincent Collins, of The Charlatans, was born in Barton-on-Irwell, which is almost Manchester, but we call it the City of Salford. The Barton Swing Aqueduct allows a canal to pass over a canal. This Roman invention of the Aqueduct was modernised to become a moveable navigable aqueduct. It was a first at the time and many believe it is still the only of its kind. It opened in 1894, year of Manchester City’s naming, and remains working now Built to last by a Derbyshire firm from a plan by Sir Edward Leader Williams. A proper leader he was. So much so, few, if any have followed.

Birmingham may be the city of canals with more miles (56km/35 miles) of canals than Venice (42km/26 miles) but Manchester started the modern canal trend. The Bridgewater Canal runs from Runcorn to Leigh via Manchester. There was no river or stream. It was all dug in deep and long. Since 1761, steamboats, barges and small boats have utilised this modern canal. Used to ferry cotton goods and materials from the sea by Runcorn to Manchester and beyond, and vice versa, the canal was a great innovation. But, after over a hundred years if use it got mucky and couldn’t handle the traffic. Small ships could no longer navigate the near-impassable rivers Mersey and Irwell. The Irish Sea was an awfully long way away.

So, Manchester, faced with the problem of low rainfall, an expensive and limited railway cargo network and rivers ‘hopelessly choked with silt and filth’ (Owen, David, The Manchester Ship Canal, Manchester University Press) removed the barriers. Liverpool’s excessive goods fees had made it cheaper to head east to Hull for goods. That wasn’t good. On October the 7th, 1882 Punch magazine illustrated that Manchester’s idea to bring the sea inland was laughable, “MANCHESTER-SUR-MER. A SEA-DUCTIVE PROSPECT.” Proposals, legal matters and paperwork were underway, and within five years the ground for a new canal was broken.

ship canal

Opened a few days after completion, on the 1st of January 1894, by Queen Victoria, the Manchester Ship Canal was 58km/36 miles long. It is now the 10th longest ship canal in the world. At the time of opening it was second only to the Suez Canal (193km/120 miles) in terms of length for ship canals. Setbacks such as the lead contractor dying, harsh weather, floods (in a dry canal!), and serious money shortages, it was a miracle the canal had been completed. The Pioneer, a steamer, owned by the Cooperative Wholesale Society unloaded sugar that first day. Rouen, Normandy (France) and Manchester were connected and the Stereo MC’s weren’t around to record it.

There’s a great bleak and brown looking landscape by Benjamin Williams Leader (brother of lead engineer Edward Leader Williams) entitled ‘The Excavation of the Manchester Ship Canal: Eastham Cutting with Mount Manisty in the Distance’. Short names for paintings were evidently being rationed around the Long Depression era. The scarred Mount Manisty, Cheshire (a 30m/100’ tall hillock from earth extracted to form the ship canal) sits over the canal in present day and with its coating of trees, it looks to have been there forever. Manchester Liners used to pass this point and their ship the Manchester City, launched on the 27th October 1898.

The oldest proper canal is the Grand Canal of China (大運河 A.K.A. 京杭大運河; Jīng-Háng Dà Yùnhé or the Beijing–Hangzhou Grand Canal). It was started in the 5th century before what is known as the common era. Since then, this now UNESCO World Heritage Site, has ran over 1,794 km (1,115 miles). This Chinese mammoth of a canal is mostly improved rivers, watercourses and some extant diversions of rivers. Merchant Marco Polo, scholar Ibn Battuta, Italian priest Matteo Ricci and Scottish tea-hunter Robert Fortune went to the Grand Canal. The Grand Canal was intended for barges and not shipping.

By comparison, the Panama Canal, opened in 1914. It is 82km long and now is the 8th longest ship canal in the world. The Port of Manchester was once the U.K.’s third-busiest port. Just as the Panama Canals fortunes flagged then raised again, so did Manchester’s Ship Canal. Following slumps from the 1950s to 1960s, the Manchester Ship Canal almost faded away. Nowadays the city’s ship canal ends in Salford and is home to Media City (IV, BBC, Coronation Street, Blue Peter and CBBC), the Imperial War Museum and other leisure facilities, such as The Lowry Centre. You can still take a cruise to the sea – by way of leisure on regular excursion boats (take the Snowdrop from Irlam Locks). The Port of Manchester closed in 1982 and it wasn’t until regeneration kicked in around Salford Quays in the 1990s and then a greater rejuvenation in the decades that follows that the Manchester Ship Canal experienced a new wave of glory.

Far from the times when the Manchester Blitz saw bombs rain down on Trafford, the Manchester Ship Canal and the Port of Manchester, the sights now are much more of green banks and pleasing on the eyes. There’s prosperity around the wharfs, Detroit Swing Bridge, and the National Waterways Museum sits by the Ellesmere Port branch of the Shropshire Union Canal. There’s still a heart beat to the old ship canal yet.

Peel Holdings owns both the Manchester Ship Canal and the Port of Liverpool. Port Salford and the Atlantic Gateway may arrive by the year 2030. The locks, sluices and weirs of the old Manchester Ship Canal are far from closed yet. Ships will continue to sail under the high-level Acton Grange Railway Viaduct, as Network Rail work overhead on the West Coast Main Line, and the dramatic Queen Ethelfleda Viaduct Britannia Bridge (Runcorn Railway Bridge). The linear port has been accessible for over 125 years now and the once nick-named dirty ‘big ditch’dug by navvies is synonymous with the name of Manchester.

In memory of those who died creating the Manchester Ship Canal.

The Mancunian Way, Dongguan

How do! / 你好 (nĭ hăo) / Namaste / Welcome!

“I feel so extraordinary; Something’s got a hold on me; I get this feeling I’m in motion; A sudden sense of liberty.” – New Order’s song True Faith.

I’m patriotic towards the U.K. in a way. I sing praise and fly the flag for great people, wonderful history and fantastic places. I know that the story of the U.K.’s history has often been brutal, cruel and deserves little love. Even within the 21st century the U.K., as it moves away from a colonial and European past, and becomes less connected, yet more dependent on overseas trading and manufacture is and always will be a wonderful country. It’s my home. I was born in Manchester, England. I don’t call myself English. I’m British, when I choose to be. I’m Mancunian always. I have Celtic blood in me from my Irish and Welsh great grandparents. My roots are clear and free. But this tree doesn’t cling to the past and history. This tree wants to expand and be watered by different skies. For me tradition and culture are important but understanding and freedom to choose your own pathway are far more intrinsic to living. This tree is currently sat on its arse in Changping, Dongguan. Today’s and yesterday’s rugby and football have been washed out by Dragon Boat rains. I have some free time.


Today, I want to show a gallery and write a little about the culture of Dongguan and China. I’ve been here for the vast majority of the 2308 days now (11th February 2014). I believe many great days have passed and many more will follow. That’s why I am right here, right now. I arrived and didn’t feel too much way of culture shock. Around me a reasonably established cultured expat community threaded amongst the fabric of the local workforces and people of Guangdong.

“Because we need each other; We believe in one another; And I know we’re going to uncover; What’s sleepin’ in our soul” – Acquiesce by Oasis.

Since, I arrived I have seen Dongguan grow and grow. It is now classed as a Megacity. It seemingly will never stop growing. There are skyscrapers and apartment blocks skimming the sky in every single district of Dongguan. Whereas in 2014, I’d notice dozens of these mammoth constructions and many more sprouting buildings, now I am seeing hundreds and hundreds of established communities and hubs here, there and everywhere. I used to consider Nancheng and Dongcheng as the central axis of Dongguan. Now the townships of Chang’an (home of Oppo), Changping and the ever-growing former fields of Songshan Lake (home of Huawei), and the sprawls of Liaobu town could easily be seen as central areas. The arrival of the Huizhou to now West Dongguan Railway Station (soon to be Guangzhou East) or 莞惠城际轨道交通  /莞惠线 Guanhui intercity railway has added to rapid growth. As it joins the short-named Pearl River Delta Metropolitan Region Intercity Railway System (珠江三角洲地区城际轨道交通). That’s more than 65 railway stations in close proximity to Dongguan. Like all of the Pearl River Delta, this city is growing fast – and going places.

 

When not hopping on 200 km/h (124 mph) railway systems, I have ample opportunity to meet great people. Dongguan‘s community is largely migrant with people coming from all over China and the world beyond. International jet-setters with lives here, include Serbians, Kiwis, and even Scousers. They can be found in some of the office places, factories, bars and restaurants throughout the city. Playing football with Brazilians or Russians, or cycling with Dongbei people is possible or a spot of chess at Murray’s Irish Pub with Ukranian opposition. Anything goes here. Drinking homebrew at Liberty Brewing Company (曼哈顿餐吧) in Dongcheng after playing tag rugby with Tongans, South Africans, Germans and Malaysians makes me realise how lucky I am. This is a city that is tidying up and beautifying itself at an alarming rate.

Throughout the 6.5 years of life in and around Dongguan, I’ve slipped up and down ginnels, seeking out the new and old. There have been trips to pizza joints in obscure areas, Dragon Boat races watched, Cosplay events attended and English competitions observed. Dongguan, like Manchester, has a heartbeat that shows anything is possible and if it isn’t here, you make it. You can make something new, or your bring something to the party. You can sit and complain about people taking your photo or saying, “wàiguórén” (foreigner/外国人) or you can show the people around you, your worth.

This week I was asked by the Dongguan Foreign Bureau to teach them. Sadly, I cannot fit their demands into my day. I’ve bene lucky to narrate advertisements, wear watches for model shoots, test-drive new bicycles and play with new robotics before they reached their target audience or global factory floors. Daily life has been far from mundane here with oddities and pleasures as varied as can be. What’s around the next corner? Well, visas are quicker and easier to get, despite more rules and demands. It seems far quicker than when I first arrived. Sometimes, I doubt that I have done everything right, yet it seems clear and simple. Just a checklist. This week I received my medical report back. Now, I need just a few other items for the 2020/21 visa… That’s progress.

Bridges have been made and links that could prove lifelong. The west and east have collided in bizarre ways often forming a touch of the unique. There has been colour, rainbows and diversity amongst the traditional and the common. There have been flashes of light and inspiration. There have been days when solitude has been sought and there will be more, no doubt, but one thing I find, and have found throughout my time here, people are just that. Just simple down to earth, regular people going about their days, looking for peace and good opportunities to survive or better themselves. There are more cars and less bicycles, which shows that some people’s bank accounts and credit-ratings have improved. Quality of life needs balance, and with that the subway/underground system of Dongguan is projected to change from one line to seven lines.

Words can say how thankful I am for my time here. I am enjoying life in different ways to others, and being who I want to be, when I want to be. I’m selfish or I’m sharing. I’m open or I am closed. I read or I watch. I write or I dictate. There are times to slip unseen, and times to lead an audience. It is good for the mind to be bored or alone. I truly believe that’s where creativity lies. It sits there waiting to be tapped and delivered to paper, computers or other outputs. I can wander from craft beer breweries to model car clubs to fusion and western food restaurants with ease and all of the time remain connected to modern and old China.

There is plenty of ugly in Dongguan, just like the rest of the world. To quote the 18th century French phrase, “ne saurait faire d’omelette sans casser des œufs“:  You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. Humans must learn from the stains and damage we have caused to our planet globally, whether disease or pollution. We can’t give in. Our cultures, our pride and our people need to fight on and find solutions. Just as #BlackLivesMatter, all lives matter – whether human or worm or bug or panda. Life must find a way. Dongguan is radically changing its energy consumptions, factory practices and the way its environment is being respected. This is good for all. Maybe, I should really put my words into action and finish studying towards the HSK (汉语水平考试 Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì) course for the Chinese Proficiency Test.

 

Dongguan has gone from a place with a handful of limited cinemas, to those with the IMAX, vibrating seats, private screens and many of the latest releases from the west. KTV bars make way for baseball batting cages, ten-pin bowling, archery cafes and all the latest crazes. The great thing is that with Wechat (born 2011), Alipay etc, you can leave your wallet behind and pay swiftly with ease using these simple electronic methods. Gone are the days of using equations and haggling to get a taxi a short distance. Piles of services are available via your phone, including electrical bills, water bills and Didi (driver and carshare service) is one such saving grace.

During these COVID-19 pandemic times, your phone provides your health code, advice in travel, guidance on health services and help. Dongguan’s local services for healthcare, private insurance and banking are on your fingertips, rather than a a few hours out of work. Life can be as fast or as slow as you wish. In 2010, Dongguan was named a National Model City for Environmental Protection and greenways, green belts and other greenery followed. There are hundreds of parks now, over 1200… it is easier than ever to stay healthy.

There is culture around us, old temples, modern pagodas, relics of time and shells of history. Dongguan’s landmarks are a tad tough to visit now. The Cwa humid subtropical climate here is far above the reported average annual temperature of 22.7 °C (72.9 °F). The rainfall is typical of the land below the Tropic of Cancer now. It is raining cats, dogs and occasionally elephants. Wellingtons and umbrellas are common sights these days, rather than the Dongguan Yulan Theatre, GuanYinShan (Budda mountain), Hǎizhàn bówùguǎn (海战博物馆 Opium War Museum) or Jin’aozhou Pagoda. Even a trip to my local coffee shop, Her Coffee, is like a swim in a river. It is blooming wet lately. As a Mancunian, I feel at home.

I’m here for education – to both teach and to learn. This city has hundreds of educational institutions, even Cumbria’s St. Bees are opening a school here. I’ve heard there are around 550 primary schools, 480 kindergartens and several universities now. To bump into a teacher amongst the 21,000 plus teachers is not unusual. Although it seems every second teacher works for one of the many Eaton House schools here. I’ve heard Tungwah Wenzel International School (TWIS) in Songshan Lake is one school to really watch. Like its neighbouring Huawei school, it is massive with around 1,000,000 square metres of surface area. I’ve seen the modern sports gyms, performance space and technology labs. It uses the latest gadgets and networking. It really is 21st century over there at Songshan Lake. Although Huawei have a German-style train-tram zipping around, piping back to older days. Dongguan University of Technology(DGUT; 东莞理工学院) is one of universities in the area meaning that you can educate beyond your teenage years here. It really is a place to learn. Watch out Oxford and Cambridge! Maybe that’s why Trump is always bad-mouthing China’s growth?

From eating chicken anus, to two weeks of quarantine in XiHu Hotel, Dongguan has given me more time to turn the contents of my head to words. Now that I am ready to publish a novel, I need a publisher, but how to do this during a pandemic? I haven’t a clue, but I know one thing, the challenge will be tough and worth it. Nobody ever climbed a mountain to sit at the top and look down without seeing another mountain, right? At the end of the day, the sun sets only to rise again. Dongguan faced lockdown impeccably and other challenges, just as the world did and does. Chin up, keep going and let’s crack on.

Last night, I ate Korean barbecue with great people to celebrate a treble-birthday, followed by proof that I am terrible at ten-pin bowling and awoke today feeling optimistic. The world is often reported to be going through a pandemic-sized recession. As the world sailed a wave in 2008 and Dongguan grew from that recession, I will everyone to go on. Manufacture a bucket of optimism. Just like the strings of New Dawn Fades by Joy Division, there is darkness but remember these famous lines: It was me, waiting for me; Hoping for something more; Me, seeing me this time; Hoping for something else. In 2008, low-tech industry switched to the high-tech. Boomtime arrived. Chances are that one in five phones around the globe were made in Dongguan. Is your phone Vivo, Oppo, Honor or Huawei? It was probably made down the road from me. So, Dongguan is closer than you think.


Manchester isn’t any place I will visiting in person for some time, so it has to come to me via playbacks of Oasis gigs at Maine Road and the written word. Over the next few months, I plan to read the following Mancunian-connected books:

Hell is a City – Maurice Proctor; The Manchester ManIsabella Varley Banks; Passing Time – Michel Butor; Magnolia Street – Louis Golding; Fame is the Spur – Howard Spring; Lord Horror – David Britton; The Emigrants – WG Sebald; Cold Water – Gwendolyne Riley; The Mighty Walzer Howard Jacobson; Manchester Slingback – Nicolas Blincoe; Vurt – Jeff Noon; A Man’s Game: The Origins of Manchester City Football ClubAndrew Keenan; Mary Barton – Elizabeth Gaskell; Cranford – Elizabeth Gaskell; North and South – Elizabeth Gaskell.

“I was thinking about what you said; I was thinking about shame; The funny thing how you said; Cause it’s better not to stay” – The Last Broadcast – Doves

Before quarantine.

你好 (nĭ hăo) / Namaste / Welcome!

“In general what I tell people I have learnt is that it’s far better to make a friend out of a possible enemy than an enemy out of a possible friend. You can’t go far wrong.” – Bob Weighton, aged 112 – interview on Good Morning Britain.

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“We need to call Mr Lam back in 20 minutes,” Gerry said, explaining that we had little time to make a decision or get out of Thailand. Monday had started heavily, with worries about an impending closure of the whole of Thailand. Royal mandates and decrees were in position and martial law was on the horizon. A state of emergency was teetering into play, threatening one to three months of lockdowns. Flights were being cancelled and the prospect of all international flights being suspending was approaching fast. We’d been supplying our Principal, Mr Lam with regular requests for assistance for many days, as it was. And, both Gerry and I had had flights cancelled in the run up to that Monday. My Thai Air Asia flight could be rebooked, as long as it was before the scheduled flight on April the 1st, April Fool’s Day. Trip.com, the agent that I booked with has yet to provide any customer assistance. That’s understandable considering the world’s population of humans have big, big, big problems now.

The British Embassy and UK Foreign Office were essentially telling all British citizens to fly home to the motherland – a green land heavily infected with COVID-19. The Thai people said I could remain there and all I needed was a British embassy letter. The UK Foreign Office had previously said don’t go to China – and had yet to retract that statement, despite China being one of the few places seriously controlling the spread of COVID-19…

Mr Lam, and the school could not confirm of the school would be responsible for flight costs or any potential quarantine costs. At that stage, flight tickets had jumped from about 900RMB one way to 4660RMB – and quarantine could be anywhere between 200-400RMB a day. We were pretty much assured that we would be allowed home quarantine as many others had experienced this. Another colleague Nick, was trapped in Sri Lanka, with fast-diminishing flights outbound, but was due to fly on April the 3rd. Two colleagues, Garth and Jason had been in Dongguan during their lockdown and were finally enjoying restaurants and fresh air after lengthy periods tucked in their homes.

So, I agreed with Gerry, that we had to go. With that Mr Lam booked us on a China Southern Airlines flight to Guangzhou. So from an evening playing four-in-a-row and checkers with science teacher Sirimook, I was frantically packing my bags and cramming bottles of Vimto into spaces that weren’t actually there. Around midnight, I was lay on the bed, everything packed and ready to go. It seemed to fast. This was an urgent few hours.

IMG_20200325_091650I awoke at 7.30am, I jumped onto the hire bicycle and returned it to Mr Wichai, who was very kind throughout the hiring period of said mountain bike. As I jumped on a tuk-tuk back, I told Gerry to fry up some of the Wiltshire bacon and the black pudding that we had ordered for a future treat. He complied, and as the kind woman driver of the tuk-tuk waited outside, we tucked into the quick breakfast, doused in HP brown sauce and then bid Amy and Eddi good luck and goodbye. They were to remain there indefinitely and would probably not emerge until Liverpool lifted the 2019/20 Premier League title, and the world was a safer place.

Back onto the friendly tuk-tuk driver’s tuk-tuk, we zipped out Chanta village gates, waving goodbye to the security guard and gatekeeper (in a mask, just like us), and turned right, then left at the roundabout, across the really quiet main road. We stopped so that I could pick up my City hat, it blew off due to turbulence and a gust. I ran to grab it. A snake darted off the near empty roads. I jumped back onto the tuk-tuk. The driver floored it. We reached the modern Hua Hin Airport to Bangkok Airport bus station. We paid her 600 baht for her driving, way above the usual rate – but she certainly wasn’t getting many customers that day. Hua Hin was desolate. Everyone who could fly away, had gone, or were at the airports desperately finding a way to their native lands. About a tenth of the average million visitors to Thailand were at that time stranded or clutching at straws to get out. We grabbed our bags and went to the counter. Almost all the buses that day had sold out. Our luck was in. We paid 294 baht. Within an hour we boarded the full 11:30am service, which left 30 minutes. The usual journey time was anticipated to be three to five hours dependent on traffic. We arrived before 2pm. Way too early check-in. Even with roadworks, our coach had practically flown into Bangkok uninhibited.

At Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, our temperature was checked on the way in and we were each labelled with a green sticker. We were in. After being told that we were far too early to check in, we skipped past many returning Chinese nationals in hazardous materials suits. Some had full facial gas masks on. Some wore visors. Many sported full body rain ponchos that could be found in theme parks across the world. Others had kits resembling a kind of pale Ghostbusters. We wandered downstairs, well travellators, for lunch passing sets of four seats with two red exes closing off the central seats. A green tick meant that you could sit down. Posters, banners, hand gels, sanitizers, signs, announcements and swarms of temperature gun-toting airport staff. The pandemic response was clear to see.

Next was some queuing on red dots and trying to occupy one red dot on the floor per person, without being close to the person in front or behind. After dropping our bags in, scanning a QR code which gave us a National Health Commission of China health declaration, in Chinese, we proceeded to customs and passed several LED screens full of cancellations. Very little was due to fly that day. We were lucky. I showed Gerry that the Spring Airlines flight to Guangzhou that evening was cancelled. That was our other possible way out. There still was a chance that we would not lift off the ground. Flights were also known to face diversions and returns to their departure airports. We kept hope.

wx_camera_1585137521122After a goodbye beer in the airport, we grabbed sandwiches to go, quickly, as our flight’s departure had moved forwards a little. We boarded the flight and at the rear of the plane we were able to move from row 57 to 61 and enjoy lots of empty seats. They’re here, they’re there, they’re every slipping where, empty seats, empty seats… No headphones in flight and all the staff had latex hands, and half-hidden faces. After the usual health and safety video, the China Southern Airlines, flight CZ364 taxied and then rocketed down the runway. The wheels lifted and the plane went skywards. Up, up and away.

After an inflight sandwich or two, and a pre-packed inflight snack pack, our flight descended. We had no real idea of when we would eat next or how the reported quarantine and testing processes would be. We’d filled in the health declaration form – the first of four paper sheets that night and following early hours. Another QR code later, and we’d replicated the paper form on an electronic giving us a further QR barcode to provide to the epidemiological investigations team, after two temperature checks. Here a translator copied my English form to a Chinese form. Gerry was led away to another room. Eventually I was also directed to that room. The cast of Outbreak, in their sky-blue and white uniform hazmat suits wandered in and out. Gerry was led away to a smaller room and came out soon after saying the swab test was uncomfortable.

When my turn came, a young suited and booted man, who I could only see the eyes of, through steamed goggles, led me into the smaller room. Here I as happy that no needles were involved. That was – until a roughly 12cm swab was tunnelled up my left nostril and then my right one. It seemed to last forever. It was probably closer to a second or two. After that, I felt relief that it was over. Then a second swab appeared. The medic in white said, “Say, ahhhh.” I was closer to saying, “ARGHHHHH!” My gag reflex made me throaty and horrible in sensation. It was a vile feeling. I left the room with a taste of something unrecognisable and utterly vile. I whipped my mask down and swigged a few needed gulps of water. Gerry and I were each handed a stamped certificate to say that we’d had the tests. Out we went, through the next temperature gates and over to customs, after filling in yet another form. After passing customs, we found our bags slowly spinning around the baggage carousel amongst many other suitcases. At least ten baggage carousels filled the great arrivals hall. We were the only two souls within the room. It was now close to 01:30 on Wednesday morning. We’d landed around 23:30 the previous day. After gripping our bags, we passed through the customs declaration channels, gone right up a cordoned pathway, up some escalators and then left over a bridge. A young girl sporting a full hazmat suit directed us the only possible way we could walk, forwards.

The path was a bridge, entirely sealed and led to some stairs on our right. Down we went and turned right. Gerry mentioned that it reminded him of the registration tents of a marathon run. After scanning another QR code, and filling another paper form, we sat down and awaited a bus or coach to Dongguan. All around us, many tables displayed towns within Guangzhou, cities around Guangdong and one sign for provinces beyond. Eventually, around 3am, a dozen or more fellow Dongguan-bounded passengers were marked outside. Considering Gerry had stopped someone taking a bottle of hand-sanitizer by accident, they were all lucky to be boarding. In fairness, it was placed next to the complimentary water bottles. What struck me about ot all, here we were, in a nation at the time, that had suffered thousands of deaths, tens of thousands of infected ill people and yet spirits were high, and nobody seemed worried.

The coach departed with an escort vehicle. For some unknown reason there was a beeping sound for some time. I imagine it was to do with the hazard lights being on. The coach slowed down around Machong Town and a half-sleepy me heard my number (2) and Gerry’s number (3) and went to depart. I managed to get off the coach. In actual fact it was everyone but numbers two and three. So, back onboard I went. Then, the coach started up again and away we went. The bleeping sound never relented. As the coach pulled off the highways to more local roads, we could see recently constructed barriers between gardens and walls of MDF and scaffolding. Eventually, the coach passed the Botanical Gardens, pulled left, and a few hundred metres, left again into West Lake Hotel. The escort car shot up the raise to the hotel at the top of the hill. We followed, slowed and then stopped. The doors opened. We departed. Hazmat suits everywhere. Here they carried our bags, checked us in with yet another form at 05:00. The actual cost was to be an eye-watering 450RMB a night. I was handed my room number. No key. Gerry was allocated a different floor and wing of the hotel. Off we went. At the fourth floor (in the UK, it’d be the third floor), I told Gerry I’ll see him soon, and off I went, a few doors down on the right. I stepped through the door into quarantine.

It begins.

 


 

This week in Manchester, little Britain and the world.

“It’s irresponsible for the Prime Minister and Health Sec to say they’ll only self-isolate for 7 days. The WHO say people can be infectious 14 days after symptoms stop.” – Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, Labour MP for Tooting/NHS hero: A&E Doctor

Mancunian people, whether workers or businesses have always been known for their spirit when faced with the terrible. Mancs, not manky mongrels. Through kindness and solidarity, Manchester, whether blue or red, or other, whether queer, straight, transgender, lesbian, gay and all the wonderful colours of the spectrum of sexuality have and will always show love to hate, love to fear, and togetherness in adversity. Yes, there are exceptions and every village as their idiot, but we don’t look down on that lot, we reason, we educate ‘em and we again show love.

So, NHS, you beautiful creation and wonderful giver of life and provider in strife, here’s the City of Manchester Etihad Stadium, council-owned and City-leased for you to use as you see fit. Do as you need, because you need and they need, more than we need. Cry Sis’? No crisis, the superheroes with their inadequate masks and their gowns weakened by cuts, are here fighting. They’re our front line and with them I feel fine. If anyone can save me, it won’t be Superman, Batman or the Avengers, it’ll be Doctors like Rosena Allin-Khan, in Tooting, or our boys and girls in blue (or whichever nursing colours they choose) in Wythy, and my place of birth Crumpsall and the numerous other trusts up and down these green and pleasant lands. But, they need us. They need our volunteers, they need our support and they need us to stay indoors. The longer we do this, the sooner we’re out. If you anyone out, don’t give them a clout, maintain a distance and shout, “Oi, get inside and don’t be snide.” Feel the rhythm, feel the ride? No time for a sneaky bobsleigh ride. Watch the tele’  instead. Or find yourself lucky with beeping at the bed. Don’t be misled, by Trump and his fools, or Boris and his tools, 14 days here, is better than 14 days under soil, feeding worms and all the bugs. Overhead, thoroughbred might be okay, but in their hospital beds, some won’t live, and that’s the thing that you can give. A chance. One little chance. Stay at home, like I said.

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Returning to China has been eye-opening. What’ve I seen? World class control. Top rate protection. No risks. This is the now, and not the beginning which obviously was a huge Alan Ball’s up. I’d rather be here than Britain, right now. That says a lot. I’d be home in a jiffy, if I felt it was safe enough to protect my family and friends. I feel I can’t offer much more than a mass clap for the NHS.

The clap for the NHS was wonderful. It gave hope and lifted spirits. It wasn’t the true support that the NHS needed, but it was as a national scale response to the superheroes both in the UK and beyond that are battling for our lives. Some are giving their own lives. The government dissection and eventual evaluation of what could have been done better has begun, and will continue throughout, but I think the time to reflect must be after. Not now. By all means, question now and help to make suggestions. What’s absolutely unforgivable is that this Conservative government do not care about the general population of Britain. They found money with consummate ease to ease the worries and support the masses. It seemed mostly to support the upper echelons and middle tier of society, with so many hidden support packages for business and industry. People, the working class mainly, may not have jobs to go to after all of this blows over or fades away. That’s on the assumption that they make it through this alive.

This government downsized our capacity for dealing with outbreaks. They made devastating cuts and prevented those in medical capacities from having access to adequate personal protection equipment. The matter of Brexit pressed on and the warnings of SARS-CoV-2 barely existed. Not that any rival party politics groups were waving warning flags either. Nor was the WHO. The Conservatives seem, on the surface, to be facing up to their mistakes of old, realising that the chasm-like depth of suffering was on their doorstep – and soon enough it was flooding in and around them, swirling and taking no prisoners.

COVID-19’s arrival comes on the back of decades of reductionism at the NHS. Many aspects of the NHS are under market control. Cash for care. Money for statistics. Insurance by stockpiling medical goods, undermines profit and gain. Why put things in boxes and let them go dusty?

Capitalism protected itself (in June, not now) in unparalleled ways during this exceptional time. Chancellor Rishi Sunak was pushed forwards with his cool and emotional responses. A temporary floatation of cash keeps many people feeding the industries essential to keeping an economy afloat. This impermanent flash of generosity may be short-lived. Does it protect newly self-employed staff? No. Those undertaking redundancy recently? No. Those on a zero-hours contract? No. The unemployed and those on disability? No. They can apply for Universal Credit, which was increased to £94.25, up about twenty quid in these harder than hard times. £377 per month may help you travel far enough to buy the last bag of pasta, or pay a water bill on time. If you’re self-employed you can get up to £2500 a month. Chancellor Rishi Sunak cited fraud as being a huge concern. These are hardly terms to discourage people from going outside looking for a bit of work on the quiet. How long will this go on?

Government grants, from state funds, are bailing out businesses in a period of unknown. Like the idea of herd immunity, it could well be the same as pissing into the wind. Not of much use. The big plus being that the workers of Britain will not experience hunger or poverty, for now.

Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, had already said he couldn’t live on £94.25 a week. Around £330 billion has been set aside for business. The unemployed have a ringfenced figure of £7 billion to enjoy amongst themselves – over time. We’re in this together – some less than others, some more than others, and many doing near nothing – and some doing nothing but getting paid for it. There’s no such thing as equality. None. The rewards seen by businesses aren’t meant for the working classes. In a nation divided by those susceptible by this COVID-19 disease, there are already people plagued by means-testing, heavy taxes, debt, student loans (hell, years ago, I’ve thought about suicide on that subject but never considered it – I couldn’t hurt anyone in my family or my friends), and so many crippling factors. Now a fairer government would say, okay, hey, this is bad, erm, let’s have X amount of the pot divided by the population number. Each payment will be weighted larger towards those with care costs, children, disability, assistance requirements etc. Those who own a house, have less outgoings, no travel or fuel costs, will get less. Those stuck overseas and unable to return will get X, Y and Z provided. What am I talking about? A fairy tale. Stabilise people and their minds, keep them indoors and protect each other. Not with this government…

To highlight the hate directed at the mis-leadership that is this government’s modern day Neville Chamberlain, Boris Johnson (better described by Stewart Lee as…), preoccupied with conserving their social order and trying to escape self-isolation a week early is getting death threats and utter abuse. As his chancellor supports those who earn more (the more you earn, the more you get support), Boris is locked away in Number Ten Downing Street. Health Secretary Matt Hancock and England’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty are also isolating alone. They all tested positive for COVID-19. Each shown symptoms of the viral disease that treats its hosts to universalism, something the Tory hosts may never understand. The Tories don’t care about you. Boris didn’t receive much love either. Just many cheers of joy and a few death wishes too.

A twat is a twat, but nobody truly deserves death or illness for being that. We’re not Gods and we don’t deserve to hang each other on nooses. As disgusting as someone is, isn’t it more human to reason, debate, democratically talk sense to a thickie… if not then, we all deserve the end. That’s bleak. That’s horrible. I imagine somewhere his education and his upbringing wasn’t like yours or mine and that shaped him. By all means don’t feel sorry for him, but don’t default to being Adolf bleeding Hitler on him. Yes, Boris, has years of systemic life-reduction methods and decision in his tank, but does anyone have the right to respond with heinous distasteful emotional attacks on the man? Is anyone entitled to stab a man in the back on his bed of illness? His policies may target groups of people and favour the few, but deep down below that tuft of white mop-hair, he’s a human. Or at least a lizard-humanoid, because he ONLY needs 7 days of self-isolation.

Or, we could argue that illness and hate is deserved. His floundering and dithering government sat back on this COVID-19 outbreak too long before making a huge U-turn to take it on. Dawdling the message of herd immunity fell away for the delaying weaker policy of ‘please stay at home’ and struggling into an eventual negligence and incompetence, aside from the heart-warming handclap. Personally, I don’t respect faltering Boris. He lost my respect long ago as stumbling Mayor of London, and wallowing as other fools since then. I won’t be his fan. Luckily, I won’t be wishing he dies or gets ill. I will be wishing that this government wakes up and gets its act together. Britain, the UK, England, whatever, it cannot go alone. The world must act together. Pool resource. Put aside emotion and concentrate on this global issue. Mother nature has a great new way to make compost – or air pollution via cremations. COVID-19 isn’t to be defeated, but gently turned away and eradicated. Viruses, like governments, and civilisations can fade away. Humanity should not. But, it does need to adapt P.D.Q. (pretty damn quick).

Unluckily, Brazil’s top dog and general knobhead, posing president Jair Bolsonaro has laughed at and almost denied COVID-19 as the world struggles. He even threatened to sack his health minister and any experts critical of his regime handing. Brazil is at high risk.

Luckily, some nations are taking action. The National Health Commission of China will not dismiss a second wave of this disease outbreak. That’s why the borders of China were closed to foreigners, on the 28th of March 2020. Around 10% of China’s so-called imported cases came from returning foreigners. As xenophobia and fear ramps up, China has called for calm. It also imposed a rule that allows one airline to go to one country, once a week. Posing the selfish question, how can I get to the UK in summer, if this carries on?!

“One thing I think the coronavirus crisis has already proved is that there really is such a thing as society.” – Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Twitter.

Luckily, COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate and isn’t corrupt.

Unluckily, the longer this goes on, the more our lives will change because of COVID-19.

Luckily, some nations are seeing drops in infections and deaths.

Unluckily, COVID-19 could be here for a while or mutate…

Luckily, Trump is taking U-turns and allowing states and other proper leaders to do a job.

Unluckily, Trump.

Luckily, Dyson and F1 are making ventilators, Brewdog are making hand gels, Santini (cycling jerseys) switched to making masks, and so many great stories. Trump is using the Korean War-era Defense Production Act to get General Motors producing items of use to the medical profession. Food banks, which shouldn’t exist in the first place, are being supported by major supermarkets.

Unluckily, many on the frontline of healthcare have died or are in isolation.

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The above image was made by SZ Blues member Waits.

Luckily, City & Utd came togetherand supported local foodbanks. #ACityUnited

Unluckily, Bugzy Malone’s boredom led to a crash. Get well soon.

Bastard of the week: McDonald’s asked for help from customers. This was only a week after Ronald McDonald House evicted a ten year old boy. NB: While the fast food company provides funding and organisational support, Ronald McDonald House Charities is an independent charity.

Luckily, many medics returning to fight against the outbreak. The NHS is testing more workers than ever before. #StayHomeSaveLives

As COVID-19 almost doubles every five days or so, it isn’t all doom and gloom. People are recovering. That’s key. Hope.

I’d like to leave you with this:

“There is no such thing as society.” – Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister (U.K.), 1979-1990

Hey, Maggie, we’re about to really find out… look up from Dante’s Inferno and see how we get on.


Personal Protection Equipment
I keep getting asked about how to buy masks from China. I can’t help, I’m in quarantine. If you need any masks, give Maria at Unique Dongguan a shout on Skype (+86)18122819259, 370105612@qq.com, or #wechat for info or help. #covid19UK #covid19 – and take a look at: dgsali.com

I’m not gonna give up.

Sawasdeekhap / Namaste / Welcome!

Before the climb, we’d stopped in Danagyu, at a lodge on the right-hand side. It was busy. A family were playing cards. Kids were running around and one managed to hit both Livia and I with first her walking stick and second a snotty finger. I was fully aware of the coronavirus outbreak by now. It was by now February. Hygiene was on my conscience but this terrible toddler was not sharing my concern. Bogies smeared down my leg. I used soap and water to clean it away. Eventually a teenage girl came over and shuffled the toddler away. We’d already ordered pumpkin soup and momos now. Having seen the soon to be altogether contour lines on the map, our engines for walking needed some much needed fuel. One trekker’s bar wasn’t going to be adequate.

After reaching a waterfall tucked in a tight ravine, Livia went right along the road, and I went left up some steep steps. Srirang was just behind Livia, with his sore leg, yet he soldiered on and never gave in. Tough lad. After only a few steps, I started to see speedy little Himalayan squirrels and the view backwards of the peaks nearby to Manaslu was marvellous. Upwards was very much that. Up, up and away. After some crumbly steps, that could have been made of Lancashire cheese of apple crumble topping, I managed to reach the road, and cross straight over back onto the pathway. Here the green trees folded outwards ever so slightly, to show stacks of natural compost on the forest floor. The air had a damp natural earthy smell and occasional felled logs rotted alongside the trail. The track would mostly rise and do little of a fall. Soon enough the mud and dirt track became covered in frozen snow. Not the fluffy soft and easy to trudge through kind, but the solid mostly with a metre drop inwards should I find the bit unable to tolerate my weight, kind. And it seemed I was in for many steps up, and a few deep into the partially frozen snow. Heave. Heave. Heave.

The snow pretty much didn’t want to convey me and with every drop my boots, and the best part of my legs disappeared. Out came the crampons. Out came the determination. Onwards I went. My imagination enjoyed the peculiar eerie silence. I imagined packs of wolves, snow leopards and bears watching me go by. Not your ideal range of animals to picture you pass by, especially if one of them was very hungry, but here I was in the territory of nature, and damned if I was going to imagine Minecraft or a rock concert.

The pine trees shed patches of snow and melt water dripped all around me. Glorious rays of sunshine broke the canopy and occasionally I caught glimpses of mountain tops here and there. Then, a sudden crashing sound in the trees ahead, had me at full alertness. I froze solid as the iced floor around me. Silence resumed. Then a larger and louder thump and crunch. Something was in the trees ahead. I heard a racket and a commotion. Voices yelled from the canopy to my immediate left. The thuds and thumps were accompanied by a disturbance in the snow maybe a few hundred metres away. Then I spotted a monkey, Himalayan langur, springing up and down in the snow, swiftly from tree to tree across a small clearing. They didn’t seem too perturbed by the snow, but didn’t hang around either way. I tried to shoot them. My camera wasn’t quick enough though.

Throughout this journey, I had seen many mammals. These included Himalayan langurs, Assam macaques, Rhesus macaques, Irrawaddy squirrels, orange-bellied Himalayan squirrels, Himalayan striped squirrels, voles, Himalayan field mice, Himalayan pika, shrews, a variety of bats, and some wild boar, I’d never seen many animals in the snow. It was a privilege to enjoy the monkeys and hear them move over the forest. It was a welcome break from the constant in and out walking motions of the snow. I also had chance to reflect about the fall onto my walking stick which had gave the stick a slight bend, or three.

After crossing many streams carefully, over tiny little snow-covered bridges, and occasionally playing find the rock over the odd crossing point, I reached a stretched out chain bridge. Snowfall and heavy damage had ripped one end of the supports from its foundations. The two guard rails fanned out, practically useless. It wasn’t quite and Indiana Jones movie, but it looked far more precarious than comfort. The river flow was about five metres wide, pummeling steeply down to the River Marsyangdi many metres below in altiiude. I decided to chance my luck at a bridge further upstream. After 200 metres, I realised that this was the only bridge. I hadn’t seen one downstream either. Whilst I could hear the river nearby, I couldn’t see it and no alternative route evident. The flayed and flawed bridge was to be my point of movement. A way like no other.

So, off came the crampons, and then I positioned my rucksack tighter to my back. I stowed my walking sticks. I pulled out my thin winter gloves with extra grips (thanks Black Diamond) and I stepped through the first pocket of snow on the bridge. I tested the bridge for movement. First with a little weight and then applying all slowly, readied to dive into the snow to the side of the bridge. Then, I did a kind of half-hop. The bridge was surprisingly sturdy – a real testament to the Gurkha builders who had provided so many bridges across the country. From that, I leant and tested the sideways cable to my left, uphill and in appearance the least damage of the handrails. I turned square onto it. I placed my left hand over my right hand and never left any motion rightwards without one very firm hand on the rail. By the time I’d reached the centre of the bridge, the rail tilted upwards, almost as it should have been and all the snow had melted in the sunlight. I gently walked up to the other side and looked backwards. Stepping off the bridge was a relief. Then I peered left at the small landslips dotted along the river bank.

The fallen ground and occasional uprooted tree didn’t prove too much of a challenge. The trail banked left and into an open field, which led onto a rock-cobbled road. Each rock was jagged and unwelcoming. It had a Lord of The Rings feel to it. Wild, and otherworldly. Onwards, I plugged until reaching the Hotel Royal Garden, where I met Livia aftera few minutes. Here, I also met Shadow. Shadow wasn’t his name but for that day he would be my little shadow and follow us throughout the village of Timang. After a great lunch, Srirang joined us, and we checked in for the night, just 100 metres down the road. Ahead of us the weather looked bleak and unsettled. So, a Sherpa family welcomed us, and we dropped our bags into a room each. The Hotel Manaslu View Point had a view of Manalsu in the distance and the panoramic view in all directions was a clear sign that we were now in the Himalayas, proper. Timang (2630m) was about 400 metres higher than Danagyu (2200m). The air temperature was much more-icy here. Clouds floated over the mountains behind us, disguising hidden peaks and over the River Marsyangdi to the opposite side, occasional matchstick-looking pine trees, empty of leaves and needles, stood like wooden stakes in a cemetery. There looked to have been a nuclear blast over the valley. Even the ground appeared clear of life.

This village was both sinister and beautiful. Firstly, the crows, those often billed in horror movie birds, were everywhere. They made themselves known with sharp piercing cries and occasionally softer sounds. The Kāga (काग Nepali for crow or craven) here were not Carrion crows. These were bigger ravens, Corvus corax tibetanus, with long grey neck feathers. Light on their feathers gave a beautiful purple-blue iridescence. Amongst the pairs of ravens, Carrion crows moved and foraging by jackdaws, and other smaller birds like sparrows could be seen through the village. Now, the sinister, I described wasn’t too much about the crows…

One single storey building with a shop front on the right of the road gave me new heebie-jeebies. Outside the front a man swapped tyres on a jeep. At the side of this passengers from the jeep waited patiently. At the rear of the building in the garden, an animal pelt hung from a washing line. From a distance I couldn’t work out if it was red panda, a dog or something of similar size. I know that the rules in Nepal are extremely strict regarding hunting, but I could not for the life of me understand what it was. It was, in all probability, a goat – and certainly unwelcoming. And, not far from that pelt on the washing line, a dead crow was tied up by its neck, flying in the wind like a grim version of a child’s kite. I expected haunted hillbilly music and a narrative from an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

After a great dal baht, in front of a warm fireplace, we all departed for bed. The matchstick looking cluster of spiders in the toilets gave an appearance of buffalo pubic hair [you know what I mean!] – and they seemed to detect the cold too, nestling together like brush hair in the corners of the long cold toilet room.

After a good night’s sleep, a great omelette and some defrosted ice-water, we three departed, bidding our farewell to Shadow the dog and a variety of goat kids in the nursery nearby. The road headed out, skirting around the brow of the hills beside us, never quite leaving the river below. At Tanchok village it doubled back inwards, crossing a frozen stream before lurching back into the river valley below. It slid gently up to the crossroads at Koto before nestling its way into Chame (2700m), complete with signs for yet more hot springs. Monkeys had been sighted in the forest’s brow by the village of Tanchok, by Livia and I stood watching them for some time. Here the valley started to tighten up and appear much steeper than previous days.

Chame is a colourful place, but in February, the sun sets early, shrouded by mountainous ridges to the west. Here a dozen municipal buildings and hospitals can be found. Derelict military barracks stand to the village’s north. It is a town of about 1200 people. In winter it is quiet with many people heading to Kathmandu and Pokhara. There are signs of the April 2015 earthquake having struck here. There were also some very good small supply shops and chances to get some much needed fruit into our diet. We checked into the cosy New Tibet Hotel and Restaurant sandwiched between a brittle looking cliff face and the river’s east bank. We then had a wander around the village which seemed to be many scattered lodges along a kilometre of two. An upper level village to the west looked more modern and functional, but less touristic. There were the usual array of schools and public facilities with prayer flags visible all across the high points.

After the walk Livia tucked into her billionth bowl of rice pudding, and probably ordered one for the morning too. Seeing Livia eat rice pudding in a wolf/koala/bear hat was quite a frequent sight on the journey. I often had scrambled eggs, porridge and buckwheat bread of chapatti. Always with a milky coffee or tea. Several bank machines were available in the village but there was no internet and sporadic power cuts for the two nights that we stayed. There was even a roadblock on alert for any walkers from China! By now fear and panic about COVID-19 had spread up the road. I kept news that I had left China over two weeks before arriving there to myself. I’d heard Chame described as an often crowded place. We met only two other trekkers, both French and both walking solo (with a guide).

Our lodge was less than two minutes of walking from a lovely spot. The hot springs doubled up as an open air launderette. Livia and I washed our clothing in the warm flow of water, as local soldiers soaked up the minerals in the neighbouring swimming pool. The spring itself was a dull green bubbling hole with pipes jutting from it. Nothing exciting to the naked eye. The miracle of life and fresh water was surrounded by man-made concrete and exploitation. Still, it was a good place to wash my underpants. Bloody warm too. Later I scattered my clothes on the balcony and added some socks to a warm chimney to speed dry them in the fading sunshine. Night was soon rolling in, complete with starry skies and ice-inducing temperatures. To be continued…


 

On the I’d booked a flight between Bangkok Don Mueang International Airport and Shenzhen for April the 1st. April Fool’s Day. Appropriately Thai Air Asia cancelled it yesterday. As I had used Trip.com to book it, I have to use Trip’s customer services. Flight FD596 is no more. On top of that, my visa expires here on April the 14th. I have been told that to stay here, I need to have a letter from the UK Embassy to say that travel to my country of residence is not possible. The UK Embassy won’t give such a letter for British citizens traveling to China. Thailand’s Immigration won’t allow me to stay because I can currently fly to the U.K. There are flights to Guangzhou at drastically hyper-inflated prices but even they could be pulled. Trip.com’s phone numbers ring a little and then hang up, all three of them! Their email reply reads as follows:

“Due to the huge backlog of emails caused by Corona Virus pandemic, we are sincerely sorry that your email won’t be able to get reply as usual. It will be delayed but no later than 30 days. Kindly recommend to manage your ticket online or though APP.” – modern day example of a crappy auto-response from a customer disservice centre, March 2020.

I get that we’re in a global catastrophe and the world is going mad buying excessive amount of bog rolls and shutting borders, but when you haven’t got much cash, or hope to get around, and your head feels like it is going to explode if it doesn’t release the bubbling rage and worry inside. I even paid for new cycle lights to allow me to break out of my body, and fly away, like a bat out of hell… or at least peddle fast from stray dogs and monkeys now coming out from the temples and sanctuaries in search of food. Next I expect to see chameleons on sun loungers, well maybe not see them, but at least know they’re there when the fly numbers drop down. That’d be more amazing because as I am aware, there aren’t chameleons in Thailand, but with current world problems, maybe they’ll bounce back like other wildlife – especially now people are talking more about wildlife trade ending. Or, will this COVID-19 world hide a debate about climate change?

Still, worries aside, it could be worse. It could be much, much worse. I worry for others. I’ll survive and money I haven’t got will add to other money that I never had. You can’t repossess from a hobo, right? Especially one trapped in Thailand… trapped, with just two bottles of Vimto and two frozen portions of black pudding. Nope, it ain’t all that bad! Stay strong. Survive. Beyonce and her mates told you to.

“I’m a survivor (what), I’m not gon’ give up (what); I’m not gon’ stop (what), I’m gon’ work harder (what); I’m a survivor (what), I’m gonna make it (what); I will survive (what), keep on survivin’ (what)” Destiny’s Child’s song was covered by 2WEI.

 

Pokhara footsteps.

Sawasdeekhap / Namaste / Welcome!

Kathmandu to Pokhara is a long and winding road. The Beatles didn’t sing about it though. The final stop of the 700NPR bus journey was on the edge of Pokhara (827-1740m) by the sports stadium. We checked in at 0100 on the 21st of January 2020, in the Obey Guesthouse, where Srirang had arranged to meet Livia, the angry hungry Hungarian from last year’s trek. I said hello, looked at the rooftop view and fell into a deep sleep. I slept like a baby. In the morning, a bit later, around 9am, I awoke. I stretched my legs, had a cold shower and dressed. I walked up the three floors to the rooftop. I looked south, trees and rooftops, east, a building obscured my view of more trees and rooftops. I walked up some steps to the next layer of the building. Standing on top of the building, my jaw dropped. I looked north, a little west and east. What a panorama! The prominent views of the tourism capital of Nepal are striking.

Pokhara is in the top left corner of the Seti Gandaki valley, if you look at the valley as football goalpost set. The mountains can rise over 6,500 metres across just 30 kilometres. You can see Dhaulagiri (8167m), Annapurna (6000m to over 8000m over several peaks), Manaslu (8163m), Machhapuchchhre A.K.A. Fishtail (6993m). Meanwhile Phew Tal lake sits at just 827m at the Lakeside area of the city. The moderate humid subtropical climate was just hovering around the low teens of 11°C, which made it feel very comfortable. At night, it fell into single figures. Very comfortable indeed. The World peace pagoda stands to the south, a cave full of bats lies to the north. Resorts, climbing shops, massage houses, spars, restaurants and lakeside boating are everywhere. Temples, shrines, gumbas, and forestry – serve the population that sits under half a million. The sprawling metropolitan city is far bigger than Kathmandu, and it feels far greener. This is a city that has survived much hardship losing the great India to Tibet trading route, following the Indo-China war in 1962. However, tourism has grown since. The British Gurkha Camp and Indian Gorkha (Gurka) camps are here. Many education sites are here. Some major businesses are based here.  The airport (soon to be replaced) and roads have regular and easy to find transport links across the country. Oh, and yoga is everywhere.

For dinner, I ate a masala curry, with roti bread. For lunch, I skipped it. For breakfast I tucked into omlette and a peanut dish with spices. Alu patthar was needed alongside the breakfast – a lovely potato bread. Just like the city of Pokhara, every area and every meal was geared for every kind and every taste. Pokhara’s lakeside area was akin to Blackpool lights in England, but smaller, and much quieter. By now the news of the coronavirus Covid-19 was emerging into Pokhara. Sellers on the streets offered a selection of fruits, “Sir, pineapple? Bananas? Ganga?” I declined all, before later watching City beat Sheffield Utd on my phone, as the temperature hit 2°C.

On the 22nd, we set out to the TIMS office, which doubles up as ACAP (Annapurna Circuit) entry – and the Nepal Tourism Board (all flanked by the ill-fated Visit Nepal 2020). TIMS and the ACAP are essential for trekking the region. The national park has strict control. On the day we visited, we were told that the highest we could trek, was Manang due to heavy snowfall – and missing trekkers on the Annapurna Base Camp trail. Under clear blue skies, and an air temperature of 20°C, we entered the doorway to news crews, cameras and stressed looking trekkers complaining that they were airlifted out of Annapurnas region without choice. They would have to pay once again, if they went in. And, they had to get their insurance companies to pay the helicopter rescue fees. The perils of trekking in full motion. Many trekkers seemed oblivious to the lost reported guides and trekkers. We answered questions with the ACAP and TIMS before passing over 2000NPR and 3000NPR respectively. We’d essentially agreed to take zero risks, and trek only as far as Manang. To me, I was fine. I just wanted to get onto the trail and see the sights, meet the people and enjoy a safe walk with good views. I decided there and then that not reaching the pass or completing the Annapurna Circuit was fine. It is what it is, as my older brother Asa, always says.

Pokhara is a very spaced out city. It’s relaxed and very green. There is so much to see and do. It is at the top of the league in terms of watching people go by, and enjoying the sounds of birdcalls. Nature is all around you, whether it is kites swooping overhead, tropical birds chirping in the morning or the croak of frogs. Then, there are many friendly and cute dogs, cats and the occasional free-roaming cow ambling along the roadsides.

With the terrible news coming out of Wuhan, of a pneumonia-causing virus, I became hyper-aware of people around me. Every sneeze and cough triggered a twinge of worry. The spate of deaths in China may have been a long way away, but in my mind, it could have been much closer. The spread of such trouble, just like heavy snowfall could easily have remained an ongoing worry for our trek.

On the 23rd, we checked out from the Obey Guesthouse (1000NPR per night), had breakfast and caught a taxi to the bus station in Pokhara. We departed Pokhara at 1135 for Besi Shahar at 1700hrs. Besi Shahar is only 760m in elevation. On arrival we stayed at Manange Chautara – Hotel Kailash. 200NPR a night, plus food and drink, we went to bed and readied ourselves for the walk. We were in no hurry, because we could only go as far as Manang. I had to leave Nepal by February the 15th, so that was settled. Take it all in, enjoy the walk. Rather than break the camel’s back, the next day, we walked just 7km to Khudi, staying at the Maya hotel, alongside the river and bridge. On the short 3 hour trek, we’d had brews at the ACAP check point, watched Himalayan Grey Langur monkeys for a while and not rushed at all.

 

The journey had started. How about your journey?