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?

Visit Kathmandu 2020.

Sawasdeekhap / Namaste / Welcome!

I’m sat here, in Thailand, writing an chomping away on a bag of makok. These fruits come from the Spondias Dulcis flowering plant. They’re sour, and pickled ever so slightly. The tough flesh makes it feel like a beastly olive. I’ve had this fruit in curries before, and always wondered what it was. Now, I know, I like makok. Oh. That’s erm, awkward. I like to eat… No I can’t finish that. Makok is very… No, not there either. The sour pickled green ball is yummy. That’ll have to do. I bet it’d make a mean dip if the chunky seeds were removed. Just don’t name the dip.


 

Finally, I have got round to my time in Nepal this year. 2020 has been marked as Visit Nepal 2020, a concerted effort by the Nepal government to get overseas and overland visitors to bring their hard-earned money into the country – and experience ever-lasting moments that will tease visitors back time and time again.

The landscapes from valley to valley within Nepal can give you sensory overload. My experiences across two visits gave me a bombardment of sounds, sights, tastes and colours. The moment I left Nepal the first time, I wanted to return. This applied to the second time – and has since applied to this third time of visiting.

I touched down in Kathmandu, Nepal once more. This trek was to take in some of the Annapurna Circuit region. With prior knowledge of snowfall being heavy, I purchased some rusty looking blue crampons in the twisting narrow streets of Thamel. I’d enjoyed a great breakfast at the Northfield Café and a good night of sleep at the Northfield Hotel. I was excited and happy to be back in Nepal. My plan was simple. Go for a wander. No aims, no worries. Some passes and some mountains can’t always be seen. It is, what it is. Bumping into Srirang at The Café With No Name, he revealed his plan to trek the Annapurna Circuit with Livia, from Hungary. We’d all met last year trekking the Everest Base Camp route. I had no problems about joining them on the walk this time around. Srirang looked much leaner than last year. He must have been training hard in his native Mumbai city.

Armed with a great salad, and a wonderful pumpkin soup, I tucked into my Panini and enjoyed the feel of this wonderful backstreet café. A ginnel is the route to the small and atmospheric café. All the profits of The Café With No Name are sent to the charity Our Sansar – which benefits street children and brings them into education. Every great coffee or beer you have, benefits someone. That’s maybe why I decided to visit this place every lunchtime I had spend in Thamel, this time round. You can find it down a small alleyway. Look for a chalkboard when you face from the central supermarket looking in the direction of Purple Haze Bar. When you reach the bar, swing left and somewhere by Merry Hotel, you’ll find this treasure of a café. Expect to feel at home on the crate-made tables, and cosy furniture. There’re books to exchange and lots of things to make the eyes wander. The staff are great and so heartwarmingly friendly, it makes you want to live in Kathmandu. Perhaps the world’s dustiest city needs great retreats. This is one such wonder. Expect to feel a great musical vibe and return time and time again.

At Northfield café, that first morning, I sat with a beaming smile on my face. I enjoyed a good hearty breakfast, with the masala omelette filling my belly, alongside a strong coffee. The staff went to turn on the heater, but I was enjoying the cool air. Cold air sharpens the senses. It keeps your wits sharp. It helps me to focus. Heat makes me sleepy and sluggish. I sat watching people drift up and down the street outside. Few shops were open. Shutters sank and sagged to the ground like dull metallic cold blinds to the world beyond them. A few clear western people walked by. Some were spiritualists, hippies long off the bandwagon of Thamel’s once famous Freak Street, trekkers, climbers, cultural tourists and no doubt a few who reside in Nepal for work. There’d be some amongst them feeling enlightened, some caught in the ambience and many sponging up the vast cultures around them.

Looking at the headwear of those passing by, there were knitted ski hats, traditional and regional ethnic pieces, and an equally diverse array of jackets. Some combined with various pieces of formal office wear and others with striking multi-coloured knitted socks. Evidence of around 125 different people and 123 languages mingled with tourism and those from elsewhere. It all belonged perfectly. A tapestry of diversity in a wealth of colour. This intertwined nation coexists with such ease. Poverty and adversity sit only around the corner from the luxury cocktail bars and the bright lights of pocket-sized night clubs.

The tarmac road created less than two years ago, now looks swollen, crumbled and churned. Bits stand out here and there. A vintage Royal Enfield motorbike tackled potholes and narrowly missed  a static scout mannequin outside of a store proudly displaying Gurkha knives, the kukri. Khukuri World Store was a trove of gifts, memorabilia, and shiny things hoping to lure people inside. The scout model held out a Nepal flag, its beautiful triangles coated with the sun and moon, a combination of blue, red and white like no other flag. Next door to this knife and survival gear shop, a sprawl of 100% natural cashmere and yak wool piles spilled over two steps. The Friendly Pashmina Shop had so much stock, it was practically leant against the White Mountain Outdoors shop further along the row. Above which was a White Water Rafting Co., somewhere beneath layers of dust and soot. Dusty raincoats, sleeping bags and long puffy down jackets hung still, half admitting that they’ll never find a buyer anytime soon in that state. A ginnel (tiny pathway) into Nana Hotel looked uninviting between a sodden empty crates and Nepalaya Money Exchange. The shutters of Al Noor Gems revealed little indication of what treasures lay within. I guess even Indiana Jones would be put off by the rusting bulk of metal. The possibility of tetanus for the sake of some fool’s gold wouldn’t be a good gamble.

A hairdresser and the ATM cash machine tussled for space over a few cubic metres as the morning footfall started to increase. School children dressed in an array of uniforms drifted in small clusters or singularly up and down the road. A hooded man, slimmer than a twig, drifted amongst the crowd playing the sarangi (a string instrument) and trying to sell many of the same pieces from his sagging shoulder bag. Along the very same road, powerlines and cables draped the floor as workers fed neat replacements overhead, clearing years of cluttered dangerous cables. Trybal Handmade’s shop’s lights flickered in reply. A call for help and stable feeding. New life, please.

Inside the glass-window front of the restaurant and a little over the shoulder, a family sat enjoying their foods and drinks. The grandmother of the group made gratified noises as two younger women, perhaps in their forties, jostled food around their plates. Three young children ate quietly with great respect for their surroundings. They talked infrequently, warmly and softly, amongst themselves in what I believe was Urdu. I don’t know the language but I recognised one or two words. A smiling waitress with big beaming eyes came over to them and served them tea. The well-kept long hair spilled from her headscarf far beyond the rear of her waist. Her hand glittered with earthly coloured stones, natural and modest yet bold and fitting. The Northfield Café itself had warm earthly colours dominate the walls, and even a real tree trunk shot up through two floors and out of the roof offering a canopy of green amongst the buildings.

Effigies of door gods stand by the glass entrance doors. A piece of A4 paper is taped onto the inside of the door. It boasts of WARM DINING inside, without skimping on the use of capital letters. By now my omelette had vanished and a second cup of coffee had found its way into my hand. Three men joined the large respectful group. The conversation remained tender and calm. The younger children remained as attentive as I did to my coffee.

Two staircases within Northfield Café stretched upwards. Two lobbies spilled outwards giving an aura of space. The energy of the room had a seamless flow. My eyes strayed around the room enjoying the care and attention each member of staff gave to newly seated customers. Each patron matched the calm of the room. The staff both blended in and simultaneously made themselves available. Hidden servants of the spiritual rooms of Northfield Café. The very essence of the symbiosis within the walls. Just like the draw of Kathmandu, I was excited to be back in the Northfield Café once again.

Sticking to food, we visited Gilingche, a Tibetan restaurant, far too late in the day and ate far too much. I had to take a doggy bag home – and fed a dog. I’ve visited here a few times and always enjoyed it.

Following two days in Kathmandu and a few purchases, Srirang and I took a tiny taxi (enough room for knees by your ears), two bags and a squashed driver to the new bus station. Here we purchased our bus tickets to Pokhara. And with a ticket for 17:00 and being told it would take around 13 hours, we departed just after 15:00 and arrived less than 9 hours later. The bus had spent an hour loading with apples on an industrial estate within Kathmandu too. It stopped at the Dal Bhat Power restaurant, around half way – and the scenic route had weaved perilous mountains throughout the foothills of the Kathmandu valley and the lower Himalayan range all the way to the reasonably flat Pokhara area.


 

Visit Nepal 2020 has progressively barred visa on arrivals to many nations. China, as Covid-19 origin, copped for it first. Three missing Nepali guides and four Korean trekkers succumbed to a terrible avalanche that also saw hundreds of people rescued from the Annapurna Base Camp region. In 2014 alone, 40 people were killed on the Annapurna circuit in one sever snowstorm. Nature rules these ranges. Man (and woman) is a guest. On top of this Donald Trump and USA struck Iran’s top military brass with missiles, putting many under the impression that perhaps a global war would follow. Even days after I landed the tragic news of eight Indian tourists died in a room, probably from carbon monoxide poisoning. With a lack of flights, and mobility – or will to travel during a time of pandemic, Nepal’s tourism, imports and other support lines have shrunk. Hotels, trekking lodges, guides and other such avenues offered to overseas clients have receded faster than my hairline (in the last decade). The demand from these avenues to agriculture and industry will slim faster than a diet pill overdose. An already struggling country is facing yet more challenge. I witnessed Kathmandu on my return from Pokhara and the Annapurna regions. It was akin to that of a ghost town. Nothing much happening, but worry and fear. And on top of all this (and more), many have mocked the artistic interpretation of the yeti drawn up for the Visit Nepal 2020 campaign.

Rhino deaths, Nepal may struggle even further. Over half of the money, earned overseas by Nepali workers, comes from Qatar (think World Cup construction), the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain. As the virus hits that region, Nepal has taken actions to keep its people safe and on Nepali soil. It was no surprise to see that Visit Nepal 2020 has been postponed until 2022. I hope to return for Visit Nepal 2022 – and maybe I’ll pop back in 2021, if time permits. But right now, humanity is battling. We must pull together.

But, first a cup of tea…

Contagious travels in Hua Hin

Sawasdeekhap / Namaste / Alright there,

And the drum keeps banging the rhythm to the beat… and the beat goes on, and the beat goes on…

In an era when British comedian Joe Lycett, had changed his name by deed poll to Hugo Boss, to take on the corporate bullies and claim some of the German fashion brand’s name, it isn’t difficult to be reminded that now is a huge time for popularity. Every Tom, Dick and Prince Harry has their 15 minutes of fame. Being a YouTuber can be a lucrative profession. In my mind it ranks down there with unblocking a U-bend on a toilet. But, who am I to judge? I don’t ask for followers or likes. You can take it or leave it, but please keep reading, or I will cry into my cornflakes tomorrow. Again. Tears and milk. Remember that every morning? Well, you don’t have to look far. Hysteria and pain is everywhere. You should have seen my reaction when they postponed the Thai football leagues.

Centuries of studies into the seasonal flu, versus weeks of study into the current SARS-CoV-2  that leads to Covid-19 brings my thoughts to one fact. There are too many so called experts, political or otherwise, tampering with and slinging news at the public in many nations. Okay, some have strong censorship and can control it a wee bit, but right now, go to almost any western media source and there are live streams and blogs dedicated to death tolls and outbreaks. Our minds are at risk of contracting God knows what. I should be sorry for my use of a possibly fictional character to those with a negative disposition to God. I could have used other prophets and so on, but some people are a tad more militant in their replies these days. Thinking of which, a certain Supreme Leader’s Expediency Council member has fell victim to this dreadful outbreak. As have at least two other top members of parliament – and their military leader was taken out by US missiles recently. Expect a power vacuum in Iran then.

Australia burnt at an alarming rate. Many other forest fires popped up around the globe. Then flash flooding and droughts and biblical locust invasions. Wayne Rooney returns against Man Utd too. What next? Armageddon by an asteroid? Well, we’ll all have so much toilet paper stockpiled, it should bounce back into outer space. If not, feel free to land here: 53.4631° N, 2.2913° W. There’s always and has always been something bad going on around the world but rarely do we have chance as a species to really share the plight of humanity. We’ve blissfully hidden the climatic change issue behind the smog of car fumes and turned a blinded eye to the seas of plastic. Hoaxes, lies and damned statistics. What’s the point in worrying? What’s the worst that could happen? Everybody’s dead Dave. There’s even a drought in Hua Hin, Thailand, where I am. The waterfall at Pala-U is more of a dry wall installation. It is a good job Gerry and I didn’t cycle the 75km to see it. Saddle sore and disappointment.

IMG_20200228_173925Hua Hin is a lovely place. I’m told it is a good town for a gentle introduction to Thailand. Less ping pong balls, and more deckchairs. I’ve only been sexually assaulted twice by rather aggressive and overzealous characters. Just being polite and saying no has worked. Oh, and a rather large sidestep whilst removing a hand from up your shorts. And telling someone to put the scissors down. Keep calm and carry on. Since arriving in Thailand, I departed the Bangkok International airport for 294 baht, by an air-conditioned bus to Hua Hin. Gerry had said look out for the Airport and Stamford International University. Here I was escorted by a shuttle taxi van to Chanta Village. On arriving here, I met Eddie and his wife Amy, also seeking refuge from sunny Dongguan, China. They own a place in the village but had let it out until May. So, Eddie and Amy had rented somewhere nearby. Gerry had invited me along to cut the rental costs. 8,300 baht (about 204 quid) for a month each. Although after two weeks we had to move across the road, as the condominium owner was to return (and they haven’t yet, annoyingly). Still, we ended up paying the same, with electricity a little on top. There’s the added benefit of a private room (I started with bunk beds and moved to a room with a double bed) and a swimming pool. Who can complain at that?! And, kitchen facilities, to prepare cheap eats and survive the outbreak.

IMG_20200225_090812To date I have visited Cha Am’s beach and harbour, on a reasonably round cycle ride of about 55km. The journey took in Wat Marikathaywan, some mangroves at Sirindhorn International Environmental park, Cha Am Forest Park (and education centre based along a section of the main road from Hua Hin to Bangkok), and passed by the Thai-Victorian era Maruekathaiyawan Palace. The journey between the latter and Cha Am itself, involved two double punctures to front and rear tyres, that cost 60 baht to repair in a motorcycle garage. All’s well that ends well.

IMG_20200227_152659In the future, I want to ride up and see some caves at Khao Nang Phanturat. An impressive six-armed Buddha denying all senses outside the statue of King Naresuan and Neranchararam temple was worthy of a quick stop – and here a man greeted Gerry and I in the oddest of ways, using his little English to create a conversation that made little sense. Brave and happy man. I won’t laugh at him, because my Thai stretches to hello, thanks and left or right, and forwards. One day, I’ll master stop and some numbers.

wx_camera_1582609364233Around the corner from where we’re staying, and north a bit, you can find the Venezia resort. I’ll avoid a false Venice right now (not because people are avoiding the real one due the bug outbreak). It looks kind of plastic and uninviting. The Cha Am area actually is on the line of where we’re staying, marking a border with Hua Hin. The beaches here are golden soft sands and lovely. Cha Am’s central beach is practically washed away by tidal erosion but good enough for a swim for a few hours like we did. We stopped for a lovely Pad Thai and salad at the oddly-out-of-place-named Apple Crumble restaurant. I had one of the best iced cappuccinos ever. On the beach we chilled on loungers and had a dip, being pummeled by wave after wave, some much higher than 2 metres, but still fairly safe to jump in and through.

IMG_20200228_163705Another day, a solo cycle ride to Pranburi Forest Park, south of Hua Hin allowed me to see an impressive mangrove forest from a wooden raised pathway and appreciate the many crab species from above. The beach views out to sea and the general feel of the well-managed forest park made for a calming meander following a hard slog against the wind. On the return leg of the journey, I swung left into the Ratchabak Park – to witness the awesome standing Seven Kings of Siam. As statues go, against a sunset or sunrise, these are a splendour and a half! The Seven Kings of Siam, sounds like a movie. There should be such a series (if there already isn’t). The history of each king is rich and diverse. Thailand is a rich land of freedom and the Thai history has royally shaped the present. These statues stick out far and wide. They’re sighted in a facility for training NCOs. They’re sacred. People come here on pilgrimage. I’d recommend to anyone to have a gander and learn a little history whilst you’re at it from the magnificent seven.

wx_camera_1583407256590With sweeping views north and south, and obviously out to sea, Hua Hin beach is just the place to get some perspective on the lay of the land. Set down a ginnel from the Hilton Hotel and the main bar and restaurant areas, it is easily accessible with plenty of things to keep you there all day. Sun loungers, massages, deck chairs, juicy fruits and rockpooling are just a few things to busy away time. Then, there’s swimming, running on the fine sands and other such activities. You can see kite-surfing to the north and fishing boats to the harbour a little south. Not the worst way to relax.

IMG_20200219_195613First, Hua Hin Railway Station is a living museum, with active trains and all the electronic boards of a modern station. The royal pavilion is grand. It is unique. It had an air conditioning unit for a reason. Beyond the dramatic Guard’s Room, Police Station and numerous old station relics, you can find an old railway hand-cart in one direction (south) and an old steam engine on a siding (northbound). The evening makes for a pleasant time to take photos and it even feels a tad romantic, even to a solo traveller like me.

IMG_20200221_164711Firstly, I could pan the Wat Khao Takiap temple area for a visit. I won’t. It is worthy of a pre-informed visit. Don’t show me your gums and teeth at my comments. Nor, show it to the monkeys or the many stray dogs. If you have a catapult, or a watergun, consider taking it. Beware of anything shiny and anything sweet. If you value your appearance, blend in. We, the human race, created this shrine, and we fed the monkeys, and all the other animals there. The monkeys bred, and bred and from my recent visit, even the one with a wonky leg was having a go at breeding. There is some serious erosin around the brow of the far temple, so take care. If you’ve got that far, then you have no doubt passed hundreds of (long-tailed?) macaques. They’re not that bad. They’re just surviving and doing a reasonably good job of it too. Respect them, and respect the views. It is worth a wander. Forewarned is forearmed. Don’t feed the monkeys.

IMG_20200302_002456Soi Bintabaht Walking Street is essentially a street full of bars, snack sellers and hawkers trying to flog you Man Utd posters or other cheap tack. However, it is a great place to watch sports on the telebox, natter away to friends, play pool (billiards to some), engage in mindless conversation with strangers and watch people amble by. Yes, it is a girly bar area, but everyone is friendly enough, apart from the lady who wanted to rearrange my downstairs forest, but even she was joking. I hope. There are plenty of sidestreets and ginnels, each offering similar bars or slightly more classy food restaurants. It is very friendly and it is easy to forget that some people aren’t lucky enough to be high-power bankers or run cruise liners. Here the bar staff and friendly strangers can be the most down to earth and real that you can find. Be careful of the scissors though. Snip, snip. I wouldn’t mind but I’m not overly hairy…

wx_camera_1581849088144There are two huge malls here. One shopping centre is called BluPort. Some places are a little expensive (their sport shop sells Manchester City shirts and shorts though with 40 percent off). Plenty of food places and choice. Almost everything is here including a cinema and banks etc. The thing I visited for was the Hua Hin immigration office for visa advice. They’re open from 08.30 to 15.30 Monday to Friday. I found that should I need to I can extend my visa by 30 days, then a further 7 days without leaving the country. Now that’s useful. The other mall or shopping centre is called Market Village. Again, some places are a little expensive (Puma do sell Manchester City shirts though); and some are useful (Tesco Lotus is a fairly big store) and then there’s a Home Depot or something like that (for water hand pumps and so on). Plenty of food places and choice. Electronic goods on the third floor, by a cinema and banks etc. Now, I had left Nepal with very little summer clothing. I’d donated most of my winter clothing and hiking gear to a local charity in Kathmandu. So, on arrival to Hua Hin, I grabbed two pairs of shorts for 400 baht. Since then, I’ve grabbed one further pair of shorts. And one t-shirt. Everything I had was long-sleeved and too hot.  I’m in fully committed survival mode after all.

See you on the other side…

Millennium Bug 2.0: The First Final Post?

Sawasdeekhap / Namaste / How do,

Where does one begin? It’s been a long old time since I banged my thoughts and feelings out in words. I expected that I’d be writing after the scheduled holiday in mid-February, but hey, here we are. Not exactly in an apocalyptic world or doom and gloom, but certainly, not an ideal world – if such a thing ever exists.

In February 2014, my Gran passed away. From then on I found writing this blog (transferred on a Bosman from Wix) to be the only way to fill the void from writing letters or talking to my Gran. For those of you still with grandparents, treasure them dearly. They’re often wonderful people with experience and a calming nature unlike our parents and the youth of today. Many have endured severe and harsh times, to give our parents and therefore us the lives we have today. Some have lost more than we can possibly imagine. Some have existed quietly and contently, oblivious to the modern consumerist world of the new millennium. Here we are.

I haven’t tapped a single blog post out since the first day of 2020. There’s a multitude of emotions and a bucketful of experiences that I want to share. I need to dig in deep and find the spot to begin. Okay, so, here we go. I’m sat on a white PVC dining room chair, at a desk too short for my cumbersome long body and legs. There’s a desk lamp wedged against two Siamese designed box lamps. A coaster with the name Thailand holds my glass of diluted butterfly pea cordial. Ten parts water to one part syrup. A stack of novels by Lee Child, and various toiletries are scattered over my desk. The air conditioner behind me hums and brings coolness to the air. My double bedroom curtains are drawn. The heat outside is unbearable. I’m typing on a HP Pavilion laptop computer, bought for just 3990 baht (about 99 pounds, in the UK). It is secondhand and has been mostly worrying with some reliability issues. It is far from new. Will it do the job? We’ll see. But, what is the job?

I’m in exile. Kind of. Well, enforced exile. Sort of. I found myself in Kathmandu with a flight to Hong Kong, knowing that I could have arrived with few options to cross into the mainland of China. A mainland plagued by a coronavirus. If you haven’t heard about this virus, you’re in a different time or incredibly good at avoiding it. The virus originated in Wuhan, Hubei province – a city twinned with my hometown Manchester. I’ve never visited there. I have no intentions to go storming in any time soon. The virus was contained but escaped. It had spread across China. At the time of my flight, nearly a month ago, nothing was certain. Now, about three weeks later, less is certain. Certainty is a far off vision. Borders have closed across the world as the virus spread from China and hit Australia, the Middle East, Europe, South America and North America. Deaths have been recorded in their scores. The virus coupled with underlying issues or poor health makes many very susceptible to death. Its fatal outlook and contagious modes have worried many.

The once silenced Dr. Li Wenliang issued warnings, wafted away by authorities. He is very silent now. The virus claimed him, and dozens of other medical staff have followed. After much worry that the virus was nicknamed Wuhan Virus, or China Virus, the World Health Organisation, dubbed the virus severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS coronavirus 2 or SARS-CoV-2) and the disease as Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). SARS-CoV-2 causes the disease and as of today around 3200 people have died globally. Yes, more people have died from seasonal flu, but this virus moves far faster and appears to be far more contagious. The news has been a constant flow of virus cures being worked on, rumours of sufferers being incinerated alive, conspiracy theories, racial tensions and President of the USA, Donald Trump even calling the virus a hoax. There’s nothing worse than a hoax call in the financial and political world. If only, Dr. Li Wenliang had or had not spoken up sooner.

Hand washing to the national anthem, etiquette when coughing, and avoiding close contact with sick people have been determined to be good ways to avoid contracting the virus and avoiding any disease. Numerous countries have shown evidence of community transmission. So, that’s why I did not fly to Hong Kong. Airline advice. That and the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office pretty much flashed the words DON’T GO TO CHINA in big bold letters. You’re on your own if you do. Do I fear the disease? No. It is, what it is. Do I fear being controlled and losing some freedom? Yes. Lock-downs have gathered pace in China and beyond. Okay, I’m prepared to miss Milan Fashion Week or Hua Hin City’s football games, but I’m not prepared to stay in an apartment all day and all night. My mind would rival the virus for ways to kill me. Being stir crazy is not fun.

De facto house arrest star Jiang Yanyong (and possible Big Brother contender), SARS victim Carlo Urbani and Valery Legasov will never be household names. To some they are martyrs, to others they represent hindrance. Li Wenliang joins them on a list of people we should know about, and why, and what the reason they did. The latter for me, I knew little about, but having read that he died 4 years younger than me, and with two children (one unborn at the time of his death), rings in my ears. The truth-loving ophthalmologist even carried on working in the face of danger, silenced by Wuhan Police for making false claims on the internet. So, here I am in Thailand, sat down writing on the internet. Worried more about my conscience than that of a virus. Worried more about friends and family, than this writing being seen as a threat to a nation. Worried more about my job, than my dwindling bank balance. Since initially landing in Nepal, and hearing the early virus spread news – and now, it’s been about 47 days or so. Let’s see where we’re at in a further 28 days. I survived the Millennium Bug and bird flu passed me by. What next? Well, maybe a good writer would write about why he’s touching up the Asian elephant. Not me. 28 days later…

Goodbye for now?

Leave only footprints. 请只留下脚印

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

Run boy run sang by Bugzy Malone featuring Rag N Boneman is a soulful grime song. It shares its title with Woodkid’s Run Boy Run as featured on the album The Golden Age. There are so many songs that have the theme of escape or running away. Think Everybody’s on The Run, as belted out by former-Oasis man Noel Gallagher. You’ve got to love yourself these days. Bruce Springsteen sums it up with his song, Born to run. Either way, running right now feels as if a knife is embedded deep into my right calf. I’m certainly in no hurry to pick up the top 100 running songs albums or exercise megahit CDs that usually line the shelves in the run up to Christmas.

So, in order to occupy my recovery with a target, I’ve been digging around. And it all makes sense. Everywhere I look there are hints. In recent weeks I have seen shoes presenting the brand of Khumbu. A message appeared in my inbox from Srirang and Livia about their springtime plans. China had a recent movie release called The Climbers, focused on very early Everest expeditions. There was even an email in my junk email box from Everest Windows. On WeChat, I received a message from a Sherpa friend. But, above all that, my heart is longing for the glory of walking amongst the Himalayan mountain range. There is a deep-seething hunger that hasn’t gone away since the day I stepped from the bus onto the soil of the Jiri road in 2017. Seeing those mountains stretching west, east, north and climbing from the clouds of Nepal, on that bus journey has captured me. I read of many people, famous and unknown to the masses, that returned year after year – and everyone I met there had either returned or had immediate plans to come back. Whether it is the spirits of the mountains, the allure of the nature or the warmth of the people, Nepal gets into your skin. A small country with a big heart.

Deep down, my heart is torn. I want to go home and see family for Christmas, yet circumstances have worked against me. My sister Astrid will probably be most disappointed, but she’ll be the first one I’d like to take away in the summer holidays of 2020. I wish I could be there for all my family but I’m selfish. I want to see and do more whilst I still can. There should be plenty of time to make good memories in the future. You can’t have it all. The world is too big and too diverse for one lifetime.

So, Makalu, Manaslu or a trek near to Annapurna called are now on my radar. Makalu is a serious beast and February is noted as being too cold to attempt that trek. Plus, it has an offshoot trek that can get you back onto the path to Lukla – the famous Everest trail. However, that’s proper mountaineering actually – and rope climbing. Not quite the rambling I wish to do, right now. As a route it looks amazing, with diverse tropical valleys, temperate zones and then some serious Himalayan tundra. Plus, you get to see the world’s highest mountain range from a new angle – and all those glorious peaks in between there an India’s Sikkim.

Tumlingtar 285m – Mane Bhanjyang 1440m  – Chichara 1980m – Num 1851m – Sheduwa/Sedua 1500m – Tashi Gaon 2100m – Khongma/Kauma 3760m – [REST/ acclimatisation] – Dobato 3700m – Jark(Yak) Kharka 4800m – Hilary Base Camp 4800m – Makalu Base Camp 4870m – and back again…

Manaslu really seems inviting. There is need for a Restricted Area Permit (RAP) [USD50-100 +15/day over 7 days] because it touches the sensitive regions of the Tibetan-Chinese border. You also need the Manaslu Conservation Area permit [NPR2000] and the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) entry fee [NPR3,000]. There are quoted trekking times of 14-22 days, depending on fitness and whether you explore the Tsum Valley. If that is the case then this area could allow time to fly to Meghauli Airport and get over to Chitwan national nature reserve. Rhinos and mountains. Tempting, very tempting.

Soti khola (710m) – 14km Machha Khola (900m) – 22km to Jagat (1340m) – 20km to Deng (2095m) – 19km to Namrung (2900m) – 10.5km to Lho Gaun (3180m) – 8km to Samagaun (3500m) – [REST/ acclimatisation: Pungyen Gompa or Manaslu Base Camp ] – 8km to Samdo (3690m) excursion to Tibet border – 6km to Dharmasala (4450m) – Larkya La Pass (5220m) 24km to Bhimphedi (3590m) – Gho (2515 m), 26km to Tilje (2300m) – 19km to Chyamche  (1410m) – Besisahar – and back again…

The third option is Dhaulagiri’s base camp trek which a friend has recommended highly. Highly being an appropriate word because it will be quite amongst the clouds. Ranked 7th globally, Dhaulagiri (धौलागिरी) stands at a dramatic 8,167m. The massif is the highest mountain within a single country’s borders. Dhawala (धवल) translates to dazzling, white, beautiful and giri (गिरि) is mountain. Its parent peak is K2. From 1808 until 1838 it was listed as the world’s highest point until Kangchenjunga was surveyed. Dhaulagiri I’s peak has a sudden rise. In just 30km of distance it juts up a staggering 7000 metres from the Kali Gandaki River to the southeast. The south and west face have equally dramatic 4000m rises too! The climbing history is dramatic and marked with deaths. The south face has never been completed. Plenty of contours on the trekking routes too. Might be worth further consideration and research

Trek Beni to Babichaur ( 1000m / 3280ft ) 6-7 hrs; Babichaur to Dharapani ( 1565m / 5134ft ) 7 hrs; Dharapani to Muri ( 1850m / 6068ft ) 6.5 hrs; Muri to Boghara ( 2050m / 6724ft ) 7.5 hrs; Boghara to Dhoban ( 2630m / 8626ft ) 6 hrs; Dhoban to Italian Base camp ( 3500m / 11,480ft ) 6-7 hrs; Rest and Acclimatization day; Italian Base camp to Glacier camp ( 4250m / 13,940ft ) 5 hrs; Dhaulagiri Base camp ( 4650m / 15,252ft ) 4 hrs; Acclimatization day; Dhaulagiri Base Camp to French Col 4 hrs; Hidden Valley Camp ( 5000m / 16,400ft ); Hidden Valley to Yak Kharka (4200m / 13,776ft) 6 hrs; Yak Kharka to Jomsom ( 2,715m / 8,910ft ) 7-8 hrs

 

Yesterday, as part of the recovery from my calf muscle tear, I hobbled up Baiyunzhang (白云嶂) in Huizhōu (惠州). It is 1003m tall, and in warm sunshine it certainly felt every metre as high, as we’d started from about 150m. Nick, Milly and Almog made good company on the dry walk upwards. The golden meadow at the summit was worth the wander having stumbled up dry dirt paths and tested my aching calf muscle beyond that of what I should have done. Around the uneven loose sands and slippery pathways birds tweet away and snakes slither through the undergrowth, oblivious to those who walk the well-defined path upwards. Unlike the sun-exposed first and last sections of the path, the middle section is under canopy. Here mosquitoes dart in front of your eyes, more keen on your warm blood than your desire to trek upwards.

Leave only footprints.  [ 请只留下脚印 qǐng zhǐ liú xià jiǎo yìn ]

The trail up Baiyunzhang (meaning ‘white cloud sheer ridge’) is sadly surrounded by so much discarded litter and rubbish. It is sad to see. Passing fellow hikers on the route, they all had bags and pockets. There is no excuse for trail waste. Perhaps we should all greet each other along the route with a phrase, “Leave only footprints.”  [ 请只留下脚印 qǐng zhǐ liú xià jiǎo yìn ]

Huizhou’s other mountains for hiking are: Luofu Mountain (罗浮山), Nankun Mountain (南昆山), Xiangtou Mountain (象头山), Jiulongfeng (九龙峰), Lotus Mountain (莲花山), Baima Mountain (白马山), Wumaguicou (五马归槽), Baiyunzhang (白云嶂), Honghuazhang (红花嶂), Xieyan Top (蟹眼顶), Pingtianzhang (坪天嶂), Wuqingzhang (乌禽嶂), Axe Stone (斧头石), Xianren Village (仙人寨), Guifeng Mountain (桂峰山) and Sanjiao Mountain (三角山).

Next weekend I am looking for a hike in the Shenzhen area. Perhaps Maluan Shan Mountain (马峦山, address: 深圳市区东北方向约50公里的龙岗区坪山街道马峦村 – Xinxiu metro statio) or Dananshan (大南山) or the pretty looking peak of Wutong Shan Mountain (梧桐山, address: 深圳羅湖區梧桐山村 – bus 211 from Cuizhu metro station exit B2). So, with this all in mind, I’m going for a walk now and a little think…

 

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