Hot steps.

晚上好 Good evening. 你好。Hello!

The trek today was bloody tough. Tougher than it ought to have been. I’d had a big breakfast, two trekking bars, two bread rolls stuffed with optimism and sustaining properties. Three litres of liquid and two well-packed ice-lollies. Yet, something was missing. A double dose of electrolytes in tablet form on two occasions was also deployed. Yet, it was a tough slog at the final furlong. The 30 degree heat and the lack of opportunity to hide from the sun were unkind on my delicate physique.

The trek started somewhere between relentlessly hot and smouldering heat more befitting the devil’s home. A jolly group of wandering enthusiasts gathered having been dropped from a convoy of cars at the foot of a hilltop road. Here a few stretches and introductions were made. The local security guard took a few details for the Dapeng trekking pathway requirements. Here on, we wouldn’t see a shop or house for hours.

The last leg of the meandering pathways into Xi Chong (西冲) village was under the cover of darkness. After using my eyesight for as long as physically possible, I switched to 900 lumens of torchlight. The results were splendid. I spied various toads, geckos and even a praying mantis. Also, it helped in avoiding the bloody big orb spider webs.

Armed with a Snickers chocolate and nut bar, at least two extra litres of water (thanks to kind and caring people) the latter stage of up a bit, down a bit and up some more before down was possible. Cramp in both legs and dehydration had been a real stumbling block since our stop at a waterfall and stream. The sit down took my lagging stride but it didn’t ruin the views.

Throughout the walk, people were people. Stripped away of the hustle and bustle of life, and the majority of people I have met in China are warmhearted and friendly. Rehmy the ‘Chinese Lara Croft’, Sophia and two very kind students shared fruits and words. That’s exactly the reason I joined the Global Hikers walking group in Shenzhen today.

The route takes in mostly coastal pathways, scrambling over rocks hot enough to fry eggs on and scrubs of coastal forestry. Expecting bugs, I was armed with citronella. Expecting sun, I was armed with factor fifty sunblock. Expecting scree and slippery bits, I wore my trekking trainers. They fitted the job perfectly. The up, down and around the bays overlooking the distant Hong Kong under bright sunshine certainly feels like a walk. It’s delightful at stages and testing at others. I have no regrets.

谢谢你。Thank you kindly. 再见 Goodbye.

Junbesi.

One kilometre up. Another one down. Toughest climb and hardest descent of my life. Sweat, tears and muscles burning like volcanic lava. At stages the fumes of my depleted energy switched my head into autopilot. I walked aimlessly and without thought. Vacant. Empty. Even desperation and hunger departed my mind. My soul carried me. Hope hadn’t slipped away completely. Bruised worn feet made it through the darkest evening to night. A bed and a meal waited for the day’s end. A great sleep followed. Two different years, two tough challenging experiences. Twice. Twice, the walk carried on.

Yesterday was such a day. A tiring cycle ride to play football. A testing first half-hour. A stretched thirty minutes followed. A near empty final third. And then. And then the ride back. A thirty minutes cycle ride doubled in time. Ten grueling ten kilometres. Sweat. Pain. Tears. Two cups of yogurt and a litre of water. Knackered. Back against the wall. The cycle bad become the rupture machine. A test of stamina and mind over matter. The Junbesi of Dongguan in high humidity and subtropical heat. I crawled into bed following a shower. The kind of shower that involved slumping and letting the warmer than usual water just hit from above. Careless shower. Even sleeping in bed I fed mosquitoes and didn’t care. Exhausted.

Tough moments are there to be overcome.

Stage XII: Serendipity x Terra

Nihao! 你好!Hello!

Lee Child mentioned in his novels, that his character Jack Reacher never goes back to a place he’s visited. It’s a state of mind. I’m not Jack Reacher. I’m too short and not as strong. I went back to Dali’s Ancient town in a car with Qiézi (茄子) and the trio of girls that set out with our driver in the first place. It had only been for two nights away, but such was the refreshment of the trek, it felt longer (in a good way).

I checked into the Jade Emu Hostel once again, who were so busy that they put me into a neighbouring hotel. A room is a room. Then it was time for a coffee at Movie Time Coffee Shop, surrounded by a chilled setting. Qiézi joined me for a cuppa and we talked a little. Two dogs, one tiny and one medium in stature had a fuss, before climbing all over us for hugs and attention. It was a pleasurable end to a good day.

The following morning I met QiéZi with Xiao Jie, one of the girls from the trekking, and we wondered to a set of temples (including Gantong temple and a nunnery) and trails on 苍山 Cāngshān, starting somewhere near Dali University (by Xuefu Lu). The gentle upwardly walks led to BuLuoSi temple and a view of numerous waterfalls. We didn’t return to Dali’s old Town (古城, Gǔchéng) but instead bypassed it to meet QiéZi’s good friends Lin and Spirlo. The once top 13 city (in terms of size – in the year 1000AD) is a sprawl of farms and villages along the Cāngshān range. Lin and Spirlo live at the far end of along road, and down an alley, in a lovely little farmhouse surrounded by gardens rich in vegetables.

We’d gone from orchids, rhododendrons, camellias and birdsong to a relaxed house filled with warmth and harmonies. The six cats with their talented masters of Lin (from Fujian) and her Greek husband Spirlo were great company. Plenty of conversation was had from talking about the didgeridoo to football to camping and trekking.

The final full day involved a filling breakfast of omelette and salmon at Serendipity cafe and diner. It did exactly what it said on the label filling my belly to the brim. Not a bad iced coffee indeed! Then, a wander to drink fruit juice, natter and following that a gander at the market on Sānyuèjiē (三月街) and all the marvelous oddities for sale. A fire festival is due in Dali around about now. After which a spot of planned spontaneity was called for, planned and put into action. A relaxing mix of sensations followed. I’ll write about that another time.

The day culminated with the eating of tiramisu at the Terra cafe. It was by far the best tiramisu I have ever experienced. Qiezi, Xiao Jie and I were eventually joined by Echo. As is very Echo, she broughta new friend along. Farola talked star signs and birth times (08:37, if you aren’t wondering). They ordered more tiramisu but by then I was stuffed like a well-fed teddy bear at a teddy bear factory. I’ve tried many and few have satisfied. It took me a while to realise that Terramisu wasn’t a spelling mistake but a variation on the cafe name in the food type! And, then Qiezi and Xiao Jie bid everyone goodbye. It could have ended there and then, but the magic carried on.

I was invited by both Qiezi and Xiao Jie to Lin and Spirlo’s farmhouse. Qiezi had taken the responsibility to feed their six cats. I pondered the difficulty of getting from there to Dali Railway Station. Echo asked me, “What’s stopping you?” She was completely right. Nothing was stopping me. I hugged Echo goodbye and I’m not ashamed to say a few tears formed in my eyes. Emotions can be high at times of homesickness and when you really appreciate great friends.

Leaving Dali behind, I feel like I will return. There’s much more to explore and within the whole province of Yunnan, there’s too much nature to ignore. I’ll probably be back. The final night lay on the ground staring at stars with Qiezi and Xiao Jie was special. Qiezi made a few very wonderful photos. Sharing the sights of five shooting stars in one night was a unique experience.

Home is where the heart is. Your heart doesn’t have to just be in one place, at one time, or with one person. Hearts are open. Making a connection irrespective of time and space is a wonderful experience. There needs to be more love and peace in the world. In the words of Qiezi, “Everyone is free spirited and an adventurer. Independent individuals but connected together.” It’s been a delightful and unique time in Yunnan. My heart feels warm and my head clearer than ever. Something will travel with me from these days that started in Dali and I leave behind a piece of my heart.

“We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day.” – Vera Lynn song We’ll Meet Again written by Ross Parker (Mancunian) & Hughie Charles (also born in Manchester)

Zaijian! 再见!Goodbye!

Stage X: Shangri-la Too

Nihao! 你好!Hello!

I awoke on Wednesday just after 05:30. I’d had about 5 hours sleep. The rooster may have fell under the category of an unwanted alarm clock. Bizarrely, I couldn’t nod off again. Yesterday evening had been quite subdued. I’d hung out with Echo and QiéZi (茄子) in their funky friend Cici’s juice and snack bar. Over blueberry and banana toasties it was decided that QiéZi and I would visit the legendary Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡/Hǔtiào Xiá) on the Jinsha River (Jīnshājiāng/金沙江) in Lijiang Naxi autonomous county (Lìjiāng Nàxīzú Zìzhìxiàn/丽江纳西族自治县). The chance to see more of Yunnan (云南) wasn’t something to pass up. Besides which QiéZi is a wise traveling companion.

Checking my phone at 05:45, I see we’ve grown to a group of 6 people and we’re headed to a trek somewhere near Shangri-La county (香格里拉县/Xiānggélǐlāxiàn). I have until the 3rd of August to play with, so as the Reverend Gallaghers said:

“You gotta roll with it
You gotta take your time;
You gotta say what you say;
Don’t let anybody get in your way.” – Roll With It, Oasis

So, I gave in to not being able to sleep more, grabbed a coffee at the cosy Song Sisters Bookshop and Cafe before departing the fantastic hospitality of The Jade Emu. Song and Dave are most welcoming owners and have knitted a fantastic community for those wishing to pass through, or stay a little longer.

Nomadic QiéZi arrived with the driver and we set off, with her friend Cici to collect two more friends. The journey began with a chattering driver, who gave so much information along the way, and recommendations. We stopped for hot corn and potatoes – although I declined the corn. The driver also provided yogurt and a selection of fruit. QiéZi gave me a coffee early on too, so a welcome toilet break arrived at an ideal time. No sooner had we left than we arrived, give or take four to give hours of driving.

Our group of six entered a restaurant and ate delicious breads, with a sweet cottage cheese and a meaty potato dish. A jolly day with a few games of wéiqí (围棋, sometimes called Go). The game involves black and white stones and is a territorial game of strategy. There are variations on the original but for this occasion, it was first to five in a row. Simple. Fun. Entertainment.

The evening involved sitting on our arses talking and planning tomorrow. The heavy rain brought about my several freakish weather fronts will challenge the next two days and any potential wanderings. The group have their eyes on Abuji Lake (阿布吉错). This may prove overambitious, but not every journey has to complete. Some off the beaten tracks lack tracks at times. The hard to find details for the trail aren’t exactly clear or enlightening. If the walking starts at Jiulong Yangchang (九龙羊场) then all is good.

Right now the courtyard of Desti Youth Hostel, complete with two big cute dogs isn’t a bad place to chill and await the next day. With a giant screen showing an Indian movie and a variety of games in a covered area, it’s a great place to be.

Zai Jian! 再见!Goodbye!

Stage IX: Dali (and the mysterious Aubergine)

你好!Nihao! Hello!

Salvador Dali has nothing to do with the Yunnan city of Dàlǐ (大理). The draw to Dali has been the art district, cycling, the coffee and cafe culture and my friend Echo. Also, wherever I’ve been in China, everyone mentions the comfortable weather of Yunnan.

Echo or Eck published a poetry little picture book recently. She’s made her nomadic home in Dali. Here she’s honing her artistic talent, existing comfortably and living happily. I dropped by (via Guiyang and Kunming) from Chengdu, Sichuan province to say hello. I told Echo I’d arrive on Sunday but Saturday afternoon, walking by the Terra coffee shop seemed as good a time as any. Yunnan is great for growing coffee and Dali has no shortage of coffee shops.

A good old chinwag and catch up preceded a walk through the ginnels of Dali’s ancient old town to a door in a wall. The door was open and smooth tempting beats were gently rolling out. Ducking below the low entrance, an Old-styled yard with greenery and tables greeted us. Echo’s friend (or should I say complication?) Yali and his brother were serving up delicious pizzas. The pomegranate tree nodded towards the range of locally-produced liquors. Here Echo introduced me to Myrtle Bee, a girl named QiéZi (茄子 or eggplant/aubergine). There were several others but my recollection for names had by now been overwhelmed.

Meanwhile my mouth had been delighted by a cream cheese and tomato pizza, followed by a further shared pizza with zucchini and deliciousness on top. The pesto dip was a smart move. A side salad featured a baked cheese and rocket lettuce. It was a bit too salty for my pallet, but overall very tasty. The funky beats faded and a disappointing bar called King Cat followed. The music wasn’t my cup of tea, but it saved wading through deep puddles and high-bouncing rain. After a later than expected hour, I arrived back to the Jade Emu China Australia International Youth Hostel, only to find my swipe card to enter didn’t work. The matter resolved itself and I slipped off into dreamland.

I didn’t need a sign for Cāngshān (苍山). The imposing green and cloud-kissed range of peaks. The Didi taxi driver from Dali railway station to the hostel had given ample chance to view the waving weaving green peaks. So, with a late rise and a belly full of good food, I set out for a waterfall recommended by a friend. On passing a set of small waterfalls, I headed up a track made by goats or sheep or possibly very narrow humans. The steep track disappeared and I soon found myself jutting between soft earth, trees and huge fluffy plants. By which stage I’d reached a ridge, with a very confuddled water turbine worker, who then directed me up a hidden pathway towards the top ridge. It was a tough but pleasant trail.

The undergrowth swept away to reveal a near-hidden valley tucked between two mountain ridge lines. I wandered down, dipped my feet, watched the butterflies and listened to the idyllic birdsong. One can definitely relax when clouds cuddle the mountains above, and gentle breezes softly drift around your chest whilst your feet are in chilly flowing waters.

Once again Busa called for dinner. Their second opening night led me to catch up once again with Echo, her Yali and other friends. The waitress Hazel, from Changde, took an interest in the book I was reading. A few days later, the tatty and soggy paper back was left for her to read. Echo’s friend QiéZi invited herself to my next walk the following day. Cāngshān (苍山) once again would be the wandering space.

With little barefooted QiéZi (who is no taller than 155cm), we set out towards the Cloud Jade pathway of Cāngshān. Passing the chair lift to our left, then our right, then left again we ascended. Stopping for Pu’er tea, a coffee and a snack at a park Police point seemed reasonably normal. The local boss had her grandson playing with leaves as she served a refreshing brew to us both. We left behind the options of hospitality and wandered paths here, there and everywhere. My pigeon Chinese and a relaxed mood made the afternoon to evening a satisfying and contented ramble.

By about 8pm, after almost eight hours of moving forwards, we descended through dark shadows and paths more at home in the deepest darkest parts of JRR Tolkien novels. Emerging from utter darkness, with only the company of fireflies, seemed to take a while but the adventure was nevertheless a great day out!

The next day (which is today, now) I decided this town needs a little more of my presence. I decided for the remainder of the holiday that I’d be here or there, but not so far from Dali. Why not? A place that puts a smile on your face and opens you to the nature around it, isn’t all bad! Ian Fleming penned some of his books in his Jamaican home of Goldeneye. Perhaps a few days in Dali and I may have found my Goldeneye.

However, a few hours later, I changed my mind. Have shoes, will walk. I will keep looking for answers and smiles.

Zai Jian! 再见!Goodbye!

Stage VIII: Chengdu & Don’t

你好! Nihao! Hello!

The first train from Chaka Lake station left on time. I’d spent an hour or so prior talking to a young your guide called Ethan. His tour group were busy exploring Chaka Lake. He kindly shown me the mine workers’ village and a nondescript shed that doubled up as a shop. Inside it was crammed with fresh vegetables, beers, spirits, dry foods and all the things life needs to survive. The dark shop had a big bottle of water and a bottle of lemon tea. That’s exactly what I wanted for the four hour train ride ahead.

As I went to pay, Ethan, born in Qinghai and a graduate of philosophy, beat me to it. He insisted. It’s hard to fight warmth and kindness from people at times. We sat on his your coach, complete with snoring driver, and talked about Buddhism, Confucius (孔夫子 Kǒngfūzǐ), Muslims (Hui), and harmonious people. He mentioned how one grandfather had fled persecution during the Cultural Revolution, on the advice of fellow villagers and how another had ridden his horse away from the late-World War II battlefield with Japan.

I changed at Xining for the second train. A sleeper carriage all the way to Chengdu (成都). I awoke, still with three hours to kill, flipped open Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries and half-read, half-day-dreamed. Alighting the train at Chengdu Railway Station, I emerged into a world of grey. Concrete and aged. My first impressions lacked enthusiastic joy. I headed down to the subway for a tube train to the Chengdu South Railway Station.

I departed the station’s subway via exit C, emerging into a barren building site. I turned right, trying to find a way to the other side of the surface railway. After about a kilometre of walking, I arrived at the Skytel hotel. I checked in without trouble, then headed out for an exploration of the city’s relics.

My initial impression of the city softened. Littered with monasteries, relics and life, the city of Chengdu became a green established city with limited construction (unlike many other cities) but sadly one that has far too many flyovers and cars. I visited a monument to Zhūgě Liàng (诸葛亮), the one time legendary military leader and prime minister of Shu Han (蜀汉) during the Three Kingdoms period. From there I tasted black ice cream from a black cone. No apparent explanation could be given. The Wuhouci (武侯祠) temple was okay but the modern Jinlin Ancient Street (锦里古街) around it was heavily commercial, in a way resembling so many other cities that have tourism at their hearts. The new version of an old style street is very much a photogenic tourist trap.

The biggest draw for tourists lies to the city’s northeast. The city of Chengdu is famous for the Chengdu Panda Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding Centre. It’s a kind of zoo limited to red pandas (the original panda) and a handful of aquatic birds… and Giant Pandas. The 58RMB ticket seemed a little harsh at first. Every enclosure had a sign saying that Giant Pandas can’t go outside in warm weather. For me it was no problem. For many other fare paying customers, they were angry on the border of irate.

On entering several internal enclosures, I managed to see a few scruffy Giant Pandas. Their housing having turned their white to grey and black to dirty. Usually Giant Pandas sit with their arse to the windows. Maybe to drowned out the think it on the glass by adults and kids alike. Tired looking security staff didn’t seem interested in keeping the noise down. Some opted for megaphone to make sure you didn’t stay still too long and enjoy the majestic mountain beasts.

Cameras and selfie sticks are all fair and good, but waving them around carelessly striking a Mancunian in the face will only result in an ouch and a tut. Said person then asked me to “小心” (xiǎoxin) which means be careful. It was entirely my fault to be stood still and swiped by a careless metal pole with an iPhone begging to be stamped on. But, instead I tutted. Tut!

I observed Sichuan Opera (四川歌剧院) on the way to meet a good friend Momo and also caught up with an organiser of the Dongguan World Cup for beers, a natter and midnight snacks. His former student friends were all policemen and lawyers. It was an interesting insight into Sichuanese language and culture. They were all so very friendly. Just like the Taoist people at Qingyanggong Temple (青羊宫) and Du Fu’s cottage (think Chinese Shakespeare). Most of the food I ate was not too spicy (微辣; wēilà) but often it was too oily and spicy. The midnight snack hotpot from a Chongqing boss (老板 lǎobǎn) was delicious, even though I’d ate earlier!

Sichuan pepper (花椒; huājiāo) isn’t too hot compared to Thai and Indian foods. It’s just a little more drying with a kind of mouth numbing effect. Although for one meal, passing a Scotts Fish & Chip shop I had to try it. For 110RMB, the large cod and chips with a drink didn’t disappoint at all! A huge Tibetan area by the Wuhouci temple also had my belly full far too much. Meeting Momo in Comfort Cafe (British-style) meant my two days in Chengdu featured a balanced diet of hot and bland. A good Ploughman’s is hard to find. Sorry, Comfort Cafe, I didn’t find it. The piccalilli wasn’t bad though.

Meeting a student who was travelling alone, I ended up exploring the Panda Museum at the Chengdu Panda Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding Centre with Jason. He explained how he was studying to be a soldier. I didn’t ask questions. Anyway, we tagged along together and ended up going to the immersive Jurassic World exhibition. The 168RMB allowed a wander through some animatronics and simulations. It wasn’t bad and took me back to the first Jurassic Park movie and book. A highly enjoyable contrast to other cultural parts of the days in Chengdu. Chengdu is truly a modern old city with a futuristic outlook.

Next stop: Dali (after a bloody noisy train journey… or three). It’d be nice if the obese woman and her young child that is full on slobbery would stop screaming down their phones. The phone calls are not really helped by the in-out, in-out nature of tunnels and mountains. Almost everyone around them is going on mad. I’ll just tut. Tut!

再见!Zai Jian! Goodbye!

Stage VII: Chaka

你好!Nihao! Hello!

I arrived at Chaka Station (茶卡站, Chákǎ Zhàn) 151km from the gargantuan Qinghai Lake, and 300km from Xining. The smooth railway journey was sandwiched between sweeping views and seemingly endless tunnels. The train ground to a halt on the single track. A chugging diesel engine had swapped with an electrical unit at some stage of the journey. I guess that hour where I had a nap.

The station was immediately at the gate of the scenic area. Chákǎ 茶卡盐湖 Salt Lake (Yánhú) has a salted bed. That’s the reason for such a high level of reflection. There are salt mines around these parts. It’s known as a photographer’s wet dream. For 60RMB (less in off season) and a further 50RMB to board a quaint sightseeing train, there’s much to be seen across the 105 square kilometres of lake. I walked the 3km to my hotel, checked in and then walked back.

Chákǎ is a Tibetan word meaning salt lake. It’s located around 3059m (10,036′) above sea level. That’s probably the reason the Gaoyuanhong Inn has disposable oxygen canisters for sale. That and some salt products. Salt seems to be a thing here, having been mined for three millennia. I read the salt below the water can be 5 to 15 metres in depth. And, every time it rains more salt is brought down the valleys. The once sea area keeps providing. Some claim it is infinite.

There are sightseeing platforms and decking everywhere: a tall 30m tower; a platform with the words ‘I love Caka’; two hearts in love as a platform; and the mirror of sky squares. It’s a real draw for tourism, apparently attracting over a million visitors a year. Sculptures are present and some honour the Wuxian tribes who once harvested the plains and salts of Chaka. Closer to the present there’s an abandoned salt factory and salt-mining transportation hub. There are yachts, helicopters and all manner of ways to see the lake’s splendour.

A smaller lake, Sky Number One Lake, is a little east of Chaka Lake. However, I’m not rushing to it. My experience of saltwater is that it stings broken blisters, makes you really dry and forms a crusty layer over your skin. I’ll take it easy and enjoy the sunrise then have a wander.

Zai jian! Goodbye! 再见

Stage VI: Xining & Kumbum

Nihao! Hello!

The train rolled into Xīníng (西宁) and I skipped immediately down the stairs, found a wee man’s room and had a piddle. As exciting as the journey was, I could not go to the toilet. The views and valleys were something else. The tunnels were also rather long, and I didn’t want to gamble on missing any scenery whilst urinating. Hence, the urgency at Xining’s plush railway station.

Xining is the provincial capital of Qinghai (青海). It is home to Mongols, Tibetans, Han Chinese, and Muslims (Hui). It has a mixture of vibrant cultures. Walking around Lotus Lake (Mayigou Reservoir), I witnessed Tibetan music, Muslims walking and relaxing and Han Chinese carrying umbrellas in the afternoon sun. The train journey into Qinghai crossed huge expanses of grasslands, tight valleys and mountains beyond mountains. There’s nature in and around the area. The WWF (not the wrestling lot) have an office here.

The language around here is different, it’s Mandarin but Qinghaihua dialect. Like the language the cultures and food are quite diverse too. Almost as diverse as the routes of water within this province. The three great rivers of China have their sources in Qinghai. The Mekong, Yellow (黃河) and Yangtze rivers all begin here. Xining’s Huángshuǐ hé (river/湟水河) is a tributary of the Yellow River.

I started Monday by moving hotels. My first choice hotel had no vacancies for two nights so I moved to the Xinsu 1357 Inn. I should have stayed here sooner. The wooden and brick lodge was cosy with lovely lighting and Tibetan decor throughout. Even the room key card came in a hand-carved wooden block. Immediately after checking-in, I set out for the Tǎ’ěr Sì (also known as Kumbum Monastery 塔爾寺). Near to Xining, the 14th Dalai Lama was born and he later spent time at Kumbum. As did Peter Fleming, journalist brother of James Bond creator Ian Fleming.

The monastery was dazzling and wrapped in the blanket of history. There were some buildings rebuilt after a fire in 1912 but mostly the temples and shrines dated to the 17th century. The number of monks is residence is close to 300, a tenth of its peak population. The odd cat and umpteen pigeons scattered between the natural bird population seen on the green fringes of the site.

Whilst wandering a passageway, a pretty young girl stopped me. I’d seen her distinctive glow in a courtyard just moments before. Her curious eyes and manner stopped me and asked me a few questions. My favourite question was, “It’s all in Chinese, how can you understand?” I replied that I’d visited many Buddhist places in Nepal and then we talked about travels. Stacey, as she introduced herself, was a recent Masters graduate and worked with the internet. Smart kid. She’d been to France to study and had a bubbly personality. I bid her goodbye and she scuttled off back towards her native Beijing.

The cultural day featured The Great Lama’s Residence, Yak Butter Scripture Temple (a huge butter sculpture in a refrigerator of a modern temple), then the Huangzhong Huanghe Cultural Museum. From there I wandered to Huangzhong County Museum, and a Tibetan Museum by the Mayigou lake/reservoir. I’d already walked the pleasant area around the reservoir the day before. Today I aimed for the food festival site at it’s far end.

I joined a Tibetan family’s stall and ate a kind if bread with lamb inside. This came with a spicy coleslaw-like salad and some rolled dough noodles (擀面皮 gǎnmiànpí). It was all delicious and a fantastic way to feel full on a walk back. That and an ice cream.

Frustrating things happen. That’s life. Some conversations lack progression or clarity. That’s the way of life. The important thing is to be polite and patient.

“When did you enter China?”
“March 2020.”
*pause*

“When did you enter China?”
“March 2020.”
*thinking*

“When did you enter China?”
“March 2020.”
*puzzlement*

“When did you enter China?”
“March 2020.”
*does not compute*

“Show me your vaccine certificate.”
I complied.

“Did you leave China since coming to China?”
“No.”

“Please wait a moment.”
Minutes pass.

“When did you enter China?”
I repeatedly point at my passport entry date stamp.

Questions about where I was yesterday, the day before, last week follow.
“So, you have no job?”
“I’m a teacher. I am on holidays.”

Guess the next question.
I ignore the train conductor. Until the next visit. This time she has an array of questions…

I was asked why I was on holidays; how I have worked in China since the pandemic; why I have no wife; why I didn’t go back to the UK; why I didn’t stay at home; which school I worked at; do the school allow travel; do the school know where I am; why am I travelling alone. I had an audience around me. One person insisted on translating for me. A kind stranger. One passerby stood an recorded it on his phone. I imagine I’ll be on TikTok/Douyin soon enough. After all of that I was none the wiser as to what I’d done wrong. Perhaps I’d stolen some hotel soap. I didn’t want to leave the bar of soap to be wasted. Perhaps, I didn’t give my first pet’s name?

Tuesday’s 8am train from Xining railway station arrives at Chaka Lake by 12:10. The hard sleeper service cost 275RMB return, but it meant sprawling out with a book would be possible, and not a hard seat for the bottom. The Gaoyuanhong Inn would provide a night’s sleep before returning at 17:10 on Wednesday for a 21:30 arrival in Xining. That should fit in a trip to the Dongguan Mosque (东关清真大寺; Dōngguān Qīngzhēndàsì) before departing Xining…

Chaka Lake and Chaka Khan are two very different things. The latter is a Singer-song writer, born in 1953, famed for I’m Every Woman and Ain’t Nobody. Chaka Salt Lake is often known as the ‘Mirror of the sky.’

Zai jian! Goodbye!

Stage V: Wall’s End (Jiayuguan)

Nihao! 你好! Hello!

The pass at Jiāyùguān (嘉峪关) is the Ming Dynasty‘s western end of the Great Wall of China. From 1368-1644, the Ming Dynasty rid China of Mongols and had 16 Emperors. During which time, 168 years of facial lifts have led the Great Wall to it’s current state of appearance. That and some careful restoration work in the 1980s too. The pass lies on the Hexi Corridor (河西走廊 Héxī Zǒuláng) at the narrowest point, which is a plain between the Tibetan & Mongolian Plateaus.

For the afternoon, I visited the Overhanging Wall (悬壁长城), the First Pier of the Great Wall (长城第一墩; changcheng diyi dun) and Jiayuguan’s original fort area. The taxi driver I had selected had agreed 180RMB for the routes and waiting times. The 120RMB tong piao (ticket) allowed access to all three sites. Although at the pier site an electric car is on offer for 20RMB for those wishing to avoid the baking sunshine. The dry hot sunshine is only comfortable for so long!

The Ming Dynasty’s Great Wall’s western end was a slog down a valley to a closed bridge to look up as the river sloshed by heavily. The River Lai fed by the Qilian mountains gave life to many regions but here few plants braved the unforgiving desert earth. After a while I headed to the museum in the 56 metre high cliff face and the final beacon of the Great Wall. The signposts were published in English, Chinese and Japanese. The English mostly resembled gibberish. Although I ascertained that this part of the Great Wall was built around 1539CE across 18 years. With that I went to the Overhanging Wall, next to a huge desert with military operations under way. Best to avoid that. I looked down from the picturesque wall at a ski slope and wondered how such a hot place could ever get snow!

The final stop was the fortified city of Jiayuguan. The Silk Road’s trading and tax station of old. Rammed earth, yellow and sand-like dried mud mixed with rice pastes, stones and straw have been shaped to scar the landscape around this region. The wall, of course, was a defensive garrison and outpost of a nation growing in strength and stature. It could even be said that some sections would blend into the surrounding desert. For unlucky invaders, trenches would lay hidden on approach to the wall, often filled with hazardous death-and-pain-inducing problems. Gansu’s northwestern city of Jiayuguan is named after the pass. The loess and windswept substrate reflected the sunlight up and at you.

After exiting the ancient walls of Jiayuguan, I found the Great Wall Museum was long closed. It shuts at the odd time of 16:30. It being 19:30, I tottered back to my hotel and ate some local barbecue foods on the way. My aching feet appreciated the early night’s sleep.

Following a good sleep at the Railway Station Ibis Hotel and an okay breakfast, I was lucky enough to hire the same taxi driver for 150RMB. I had initially enquired about the July 1st Glacier and mountain park (七一冰川) but was advised the whole area is closed for safety and conservation reasons. So, a new plan was made. First we stopped at the underground tombs of 魏晋墓葬 (Weijin Muzang). Here you could only visit one of nine unearthed tombs. It being far below the surface. The museum is a little underwhelming as most of the tombs had long been plundered. The few artefacts and coffins on display are nevertheless impressive. On, by cart, to the tomb site, and you alight in a wide open space.

I’m in a wide open space. There’s a wooden shelter. Beside that a concrete block the size of a small garden shed. A mound of earth covered in pebbles and grit protrudes. A small metallic vent sits atop. It looks out of place. The aggressive sunshine beats down. I feel out of place. An electric police cart parks in the shed’s shade. It is out of place. The shed’s metal door opens on aching hinges. A policeman gestures for me to enter. He’s the site security man and ticket officer. He clips my ticket and points to a staircase. I slip down underground. A welcome respite from the heated day overground.

The 36C heat of outside fades in just a few steps. Subterranean coolness wraps around me. After a few dozen steps, I’m at a largely concrete anteroom. Here I see a wall and facade of great detail. A small arch allows access to the tombs beyond. I crouch and enter admiring the majestic brickwork entrance.

Inside the tomb’s tight entrance, the dazzling array of colours leap from the four wall. The brick dome overhead looms over my tall frame. I strangely feel no claustrophobia but do feel calm. The air is still and silent. It’s eerily unmoving. The details of the drawings and the colours envelop my eyes. It’s morbid fascination has grasped me. I visit the three tombs in a line ducking through short archways to enter each ancient gallery. No photography is allowed. The light flickers ever so slightly. I reach for my phone to use the torch function. It radiates a deep pocket within the tomb. The drawings stretch into a smaller tube lined with bricks and stones. It’s a magical piece of history. The region has ruins everywhere to see.

Next the taxi driver kindly visited Yěmáwān Cūn (野麻湾村). This village with a sand and rammed earth fortress nestles between corn and other farmland. Watermelons were being grown across the road. I shuffled around the wire protection fence admiring the sparrows and swifts that had made nests in the crumbling ruins. The front of the fortress faces the main road and the rear is less dramatic but well worth a wander. The flooded farm fields next to this barren piece of earth are suitably contrasting. The modern art of survival alongside the old dried and decayed survival walls. All in sight of the snow capped Qilian Mountains many kilometres away!

The Qilian Mountains (祁连山; Qílián Shān) peaks at Kangze’gyai around 5808m (19055′), not the name of the whole mountain range. Interestingly, the uncle of the notorious flying ace Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen (The Red Baron) had once named the almost 800km long mountain range. Uncle Baron Ferdinand went with the local name of Richthofen Range. He also created the name Seidenstraße which these days we know as the ‘Silk Road’.

My silk road following was almost over. The D2758 train at 11:09 from Jiayuguan South will whistled through Zhangye West  on Sunday passing through a place called Mingle before arriving at Qinghai’s provincial capital city Xining for 14:36. The seat I should have been on in carriage 11, had a sleeping individual across three seats on a packed carriage. His snoring was causing perturbation to other passengers. I should him. Nothing. Again. Nothing. I said excuse me in Chinese. Nowt. So, I moved to an empty seat and hoped for the best.

The Qilian Mountains straddled my right hand view. Their snow caps contrasted greatly with the foreground view if rolling desert hills and the northern reclaimed agriculture on a plain once covered in arid nothingness. That’s all for now. Time to enjoy this train journey.

再见Zai Jian/Goodbye

Stage IV: Rainbow Mountains

How do!

Here we go again…

A little later than expected the Z6207 train rolled into Zhāngyè (张掖) Railway Station. The Lanzhou to Xinjiang Railway (兰新铁路/Lánxīn Tiělù) Service was not expected to terminate there. It would carry on to somewhere along the 1904km (1183 miles) line, perhaps even Ürümqi itself. The train Oliver and I had arrived on was not the train we were supposed to arrive on. We were supposed to have arrived on the 12th by 12:51. Here we were, in Zhangye, on the 13th, at 16:40. Our replacement train had been six hours late leaving Yinchuan in Ningxia, so that had long missed the connection at Lanzhou West in Gansu. We’d looked at countless alternative routes, alternative plans, flights and in the end, just waited. No simple solution presented itself. Many dull hours in Yinchuan station led to us boarding a train and waking in Lanzhou, to then tackle 12306 Chinese Railway customer services, with a handful of crap Chinese and a bucketful of determination. With regret, we opted for a 5 hour train journey in standing room only. By room, there was little room, although for the last hour of the journey, we managed to sit down. The train was cooler than the outside 38°C.

After arriving the local security and medical team at the station made us supply dates of travel, PCR (COVID-19) test results, green codes, phone numbers, places we intended to stay and our pet dog’s mother’s maiden-name. It was just a small hiccup in an otherwise wonderful travel. COVID-19 had seen many people pull their masks up as we approached. A very thoughtful act! Their saliva and spray from breathing could no longer get in our pathway. Some even jumped out of our way. Being vaccinated and the current pandemic has made many question our arrival dates into China. My standard response is, “Wǒ cóng 2020 nián 3 yuè 26 rì kāishǐ zài zhōngguó, wǒ yǐjīng liǎng nián méiyǒu chūguò guóle.” I may get that on a T-shirt: 我从2020年3月26日开始在中国,我已经两年没有出过国了。I have been in China since March 26th, 2020. I have not left the country in two years. Maybe on the back of my new Manchester City shirt?

The first thing we did was say hello to Waits and then go for dinner, an early one, a local dish of chicken in thick noodles and plenty of sauce. Waits had recommended it. We devoured it. Little remained. Following that we enjoyed a walk around the Zhangye Wetland Reserves (a Ramsar site: Ramsar is in Iran and happens to be where the 1971 Convention on Wetlands was held). The Hēihé (Black River or Weak Water/弱水/黑河) banks give this fragile temperate desert environment a surreal edge. It is a set of oases – some small oasis, some huge. I spied a Baer’s pochard (Aythya baeri), some gulls and a stork flying over. The water, in the evening, had cool fresh feel, lowering the temperature of the air around. It gives life in a tough place to live. We talked a little before all retiring to our hotel, leaving Waits to drive the short road home.

On the recommendation of Waits, the Zhangye Pingshan Grand Canyon (平山湖大峡谷; Pingshanhu Daxiagu) became our destination for our first morning in Zhangye. We hired a taxi to the destination for 229RMB. With access, via tickets costing RMB, and paths spanning out to the 1040 square kilometres filled with red-layer Mesozoic Jurassic rocks and sands. Gullies, stacks, sandstone mountains and years of erosion capped with grasses, small shrubs and few signs of trees as the near-sterile mountain swept over an almost-infertile great distance to the barren desert below. Here, Oliver and I wandered and explored the desert area, where it was spitting and cloudy. The toasting desert temperature of 35°C dropped to a pleasantly mild 22°C. After our wanderings we headed to the car park, and the Didi app failed us. We tried in vain to get a taxi. No joy. Not until Oliver managed to ask a hotel to help us. A kind woman taxi driver offered to get us to our next port of call for 258RMB (including an 18RMB toll charge).

Looking back as the taxi car pulled onto the new highway, the towering mountain-scape beyond the canyons looked dark green. The aspens, spruces and cypresses soon disappeared and the bleak desert surrounded the highway for some time. Soon after passing through the tollroad, the car slid into a long tunnel appearing beyond a range of mountains closer to Zhangye’s city. The car slowed and the driver explained something, and that her friend would carry on the journey. Her friend drew alongside our car and we were delivered on the roadside like contraband. Her friend was a talker, and never shut up yapping, even after Oliver and I fell asleep. We awoke as the car skidded to a halt at another of Zhangye’s Danxia landforms. The driver took my Wechat for contacting later and pushed for us to use her taxi on the way back. I declined, because we didn’t want to be rushed. I said I’d order her taxi later and pay. She agreed but still persisted. I said to her, “Do not wait.”

The colourful mountains of 张掖七彩丹霞旅游景区 (Zhāngyè Guójiā Dìzhìgōngyuán/Zhangye Qicai Danxia Scenic Spot) rise and fall like towering sea waves. They are devoid of life. Few plants grow. This is the driest area of the desert. The strata of rocks displays multitudes of colour over an area of around 510 square kilometres (200 square miles). The public access to the park is limited to a handful of areas to prevent erosion. The organic sediments make for a rainbow effect with colours often hard to describe. I went with blue-yellow, but Oliver said it was green. We couldn’t agree. Iron, trace minerals, sands, salts, uplifted sediments and silicilastic rocks make for a vivid and overwhelming landscape. Hematite (a kind or iron oxide), Danxia formations, yellowing metallic sulfurous rock, green chlorite rich clays and purple slithers give the eyes a challenge to decipher the blend of colours. Cameras do not do the region justice. Watching sunset here was a treat, just like the superb market Waits recommended for dinner afterwards! Gansu knows how to do beef noodles!

The shuttle buses, walkways and guided routes of the Zhangye National Geopark are a must. Long may people witness the glory of nature’s Qilian foothills. At first Oliver and I were disgruntled at being corraled along a pre-designated route, but the volume of people (easily tens of thousands) merited the passing of numerous gift shops, cafes and hot air balloon ride areas. The millions of years that have seen dinosaurs and their terrain smashed to smithereens gives us the impressive ‘Rainbow Mountains’. Tourism is under regulation to allow for that to continue. The 74RMB ticket includes the shuttle bus journey. Walking solo is now banned. Walking out of the exit gate after our wander, and checking my phone, I spied I had 8 missed calls from the taxi driver who had got us there. Just as I looked up, Oliver said, “Here’s the driver!” And, she tried to push us to move faster. I purchased some delicious apricots and Oliver browsed the souvenirs casually. Eventually we boarded her car. She had gained another customer who was sat waiting. We went back to the city. She dropped off the man, and he paid 200RMB. At which stage, we were famished, and decided to find food there. We told the pleasant but pushy taxi driver. She then demanded 450RMB! We agreed at 100RMB. She had tried to rip us off.

At 东大街 (Dond DaJie) we found 甘州市场 (Ganzhou food market; Ganzhou is the old provincial name) and ate twisted dish noodles (without fish). Cuōyúmiàn 搓鱼面 looks like fish, beef noodles and a crispy crunchy 洋芋擦擦 (potato wipe?). It was so good, that we went there the next day for lunch and ate like pigs, drank lemon water like it was going out of fashion and chilled in the heat. The day had taken us around Zhangye’s city centre to see the old wooden pagoda (西来寺; 50RMB not well spent), Great Buddha Temple (大佛寺: to see a lay down 34.5m long Buddha; 40RMB well spent) and the Bell & Drum Tower (rebuilt 1668, which now doubles up as a traffic roundabout; 10RMB entry). The city of Zhangye has much to offer, but sadly time was limited. With Waits being busy, I decided, over a cold Dayao (大窑: an Inner Mongolian soft drink that tastes like bubblegum), to depart the day after Oliver.

Oliver departed, on Thursday, by Didi taxi car to the Lanxin Second Railway/Lánxīn tiělù dìèr shuāngxiàn (兰新铁路第二双线) Zhangye West Station (张掖西站) and I turned right from the food market area. His connecting flight in Shenzhen being a week or so away, and my need to carry on wandering led to the shaking of hands and goodwill words. Now solo, I wandered around the city’s many parks and then went for a late afternoon nap. Afterwards, I met Waits for dinner and nattered until late.

Departure for myself came the next morning (Friday), again from Zhāngyē Xī Zhàn. Here I caught the D4011 to Jiayuguan. As it was available, I grabbed a first class train ticket for 125RMB. I wouldn’t usually do that, but as Chester-born comedian Jeff Green used to say, “F**k it, I’m on holiday!” So, I sat comfortably and enjoyed the plains, mountains, and rolling parallel railway.

Ta’ra for now!

Stage III: Walls & Fences

Dear curious folk and readers,

I am writing from near the seat of the West Xia Kingdom (1038-1227). The city of Yinchuan is about 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) away from the tombs and mausoleum. The bone dry eastern face of the Helan mountain range towers over the mausoleum site. The site spans around 50 square kilometers (19.3 square miles) and approximately 9 imperial tombs, with a huge 253 lesser tombs. They’re still making discoveries to this day.

The tombs are incredible to witness. The museum at the entrance has six very modern galleries full of relics discovered across the site. The lighting, style and interactive nature of the artefacts is we’ll organised. There are plenty of opportunities to visit the a 3D cinema, gifts shops and grab plenty of water for the outdoor experience that follows. From the museum you can walk to a bus transfer. Here we opted to walk to the mausoleums and experience the desert ambiance.

The mausoleum site is spread out, striking and feature-rich. Steles, towers, sacrifice palaces, earth walls, and natural damage by winter floodwater alongside cracks in the earth covered the whole region. Using three-wheeled scooters after plenty of walking, we managed to see huge distances of the area. Sunblock was applied almost hourly, as grasshoppers flew by with clicking sounds and cute Gerbil-like rodents scampered around. With two litres of water, the day was comfortable, but more is advisable in 38 degrees heat! The sun is not your friend.

The day was a great investment in exploring the state’s deep history and culture. A taxi from Yinchuan cost 60RMB and a return Didi taxi car cost 85RMB with entrance fee being about a 100RMB. Just over two hours on the scooters cost 130RMB (but we certainly went off the beaten track).

The following day, Mr Oliver and I set out for the Great Wall. I’d suggested the Ming Great Wall stretch by a place called Sanguankou (三关口明长城). The three passes are about 2.5km apart. We didn’t go there. Mr Oliver found a section using Baidu maps and an overhead satellite photo near to the G307 highway (Ningxia to Inner Mongolia). So, after a Didi taxi car journey we hopped out in searing heat in the mountainous Alxa desert. Having left Yinchuan’s continental arid climate we were now at the mercy of the sun.

We scrambled up a mound of earth to see a watchtower, wandered down the road and looked at the adjacent wall sections. Here we respected every fence and sign. Then we went under the highway and followed a section of wall through fields and over hills. Horses, hares and hawks were frequent witnesses to our hiking. The enigmatic landscape surrounding the wall had so much to offer the eyes.

Fences came and went, so we walked close and far at times. We started trekking at about 10:30am and ended around 19:00hrs. Some sections had the backdrop of a Jeep safari driving range, whilst others had civilian roads with a handful of tourists driving by and saying hello. At some stage though we had to get back to Yinchuan. The map shown a road to the nearby Wuwa Highway and G110 highway. We avoided the military warning signs on a path seemingly headed into the mountains, passing some civilian contractors and wandered (now without any water left) along a bleak ever-expanding straight line slab of concrete. The road was intensely energy-consuming.

Towards the last 3km, just past the tanks, a car with two men gave us a lift to the highway. That journey was curtailed and after three hours of explaining our day’s walking route, photograph inspection and travel document verification we were driven to the village of Minning. The People’s Liberation Army were extremely hospitable. They seemed to understand that we’d strayed into their tank range unintentionally. They appreciated our desire to see the Ming Dynasty Great Wall.

The gate guardsmen gave us hot noodles, a cake and some fruit. And frequent, much needed water. The chief who came with at least three officers and the Public Security Bureau policemen kept apologising for taking our time. It was all rather surreal. We were able to cancel our onward train journey, and hotel for the next night. We also apologised politely and shown our sorrow at wandering into a restricted military zone.

The Public Security Bureau policemen waited with us whilst we tried to get a taxi or Didi car. As it was midnight, nothing was coming, so we spoke with a nearby hotel receptionist. He ordered a car for us. We got in, whilst being watched by the three policemen. They approached then checked the driver knew where we were going. Finally, they checked his credentials and found he was an illegal taxi driver. So, we stepped from the car, “for your safety” and the Police dealt with him. Annoyed by that inconvenience, we started to hike and try to get back. The Police gave up and headed back. Eventually we flagged down a van.

Nestled between chicken feet in buckets, flies on the roof and 400RMB lighter for it, we made it back to the hotel we’d checked out of that day. We retrieved our left luggage and checked-in. All is well that ends well. Our next journey is the 1842 train to Gansu’s Lanzhou city to meet a connection to Zhangye. What waits for us there?

Until next time, goodbye…

Stage II: Shanxi’s Great Wall

晚上好 Good evening (or whatever time it is),

The Great Wall (长城) is massive. It’s length exceeds the distance around the U.K.’s total coastline (I believe). Fact check that at your heart’s content. Heading from Xi’an involved a night train on a soft sleeper bed. The room had old yellowing lights, grim grey walls and no power sockets. It was cost-effective to travel and bunk, than to bunk at a hotel then travel. The selected option had no shower and barely a place to brush your teeth in comfort. The on board restaurant car involved a selection of noodles, room temperature water or baijiu (rice wine).

Having finished Lee Child and Andrew Child’s The Sentinel, sleep was an easy choice. My former colleague Mr Oliver occupied the attention of an enthusiasm kid trying to charge his phone at a busted power point outside our bunker of a room. The lack of ventilation wasn’t so bad because our closest window slid down from time to time. Waking up at 01:30hrs due to a slammer of a man thumping down his suitcase, thrashing his shoes off and generally bumping everything with loudness wasn’t so bad. Until his eruptive snoring. Still, I fell asleep well.

From Taiyuan station we wandered to a bus station, Jiannan Bus Station, bagged tickets and sat down to eat in a Chinese equivalent of a greasy-spoon cafe nearby. The Shanxi pickles were good alongside egg pancakes and eggs. After an uneventful journey with a dab of xenophobia, we arrived at the mining region of Yangquan (coincidentally where I’m writing this now). Immediately a Didi taxi was booked to Niangziguan and the village of ShuiShangRenJia. The water village has multiple bubbling springs feeding babbling brooks and streams. Some pass through and under buildings. Our homestay had such a variety of flowing water over the roof and in the restaurant area.

The above was written yesterday evening and since then there has been an overnight train journey on hard seats. Think little old ladies spitting into metal pans, snoring and general discomfort. On the positive side, some fellow passengers made space for my rucksack and moved from my first seat. Mr Oliver and I drank a few McDonald’s-based beers, pretending to be customers at the American Embassy branch of Taiyuan. It passed some of the three-hour transfer time.

We have wandered through Guguan Pass and Ningzi Pass in recent days. Seeing the old stonework and some newer sections has allowed us to explore a few off the beaten track avenues. Some knee-deep in thorns and prickly bushes, with wasps the size of fighter jets buzzing by our heads. Some horsefly species surely must take their name from that of them being the size of a horse. Scorpions and centipedes have whipped by and so far been avoided. Although mites and spider bites have likely been experienced.

The jagged snaking Great Wall sections at Guguan are far more dramatic than that of Ningzi Pass. The protrusion at the latter have been remade in recent years but sit atop a splendid village and river landscape. At our lodge of choosing, the owners have decorated the walls with photos and artworks of the locality. The waterfall these days is hidden around a river-side theme park and tacky attractions. However, the Great Wall lines an ancient village.

Guguan is an oddity. The wall towers over a fantastic entrance gate. The ground is lined with centuries of horse and cart worn stones. Around the entrance, a highway slides through (under a section of bridge connecting The Great Wall). The scars of industry, mining and the Revolution periods of China’s new era shroud and strangle the Great Wall before releasing it’s higher levels to a combination of wild scrubland and farmlands.

The short stay in Shanxi was a pleasant one with local people gifting us refreshing cucumbers, crunchy crisp pancakes and an abundance of pleasantries. The food was excellent and varied. The people were generally warm and welcoming. The whole visit was delightful, despite the heat! However, I won’t miss the relentless thorn bushes (or the snarling dogs)!

Good night (or whatever time it is)!

Fight or flight?

Good evening, day, night, morning or afternoon.

Walking from Dongchong village to Nao’an or something like that, I passed a scene of struggle at the roadside. I didn’t call the police. I began to intervene but stopped myself as the majestic Under-sieged victim lifted itself up. It landed on a perch of twigs and then in some high grasses. Beating its wings with all its mighty energy

This may seem like a dead butterfly. It was battling to fly away against many ants. Eventually it made a tree but once I looked closer I could see the ants had mortally wounded it. It never seemed to give up trying to fly. Using every part of its fading energy. It twisted. It turned. It pulled itself away. Until the ants entered its body through their gaping infliction of a sound.

The magnificent coloration of its wings, a fluffy white underbody and shiny black to red legs made it look unearthly. The ants didn’t see beauty. They computed it as a meal and opportunity to support their queen and nest. Life is brutal.

Until the next battle.

Dongchong to XiChong (and back)

你好Hello

The voice came from the ground. It was a single loud clunk. Clunk! It sounded like localised thunder. It’s waves shot upwards towards my ears. A metre away in any direction it would be inaudible. Almost imperceptible that a large rock could move and create such a loud static sound. The eagle spotted a kilometre overhead may have spotted it. The black kite perched nearby definitely did.

Distracted by a pretty and handsome young couple saying, “Hello tall man”, I slipped on the loose near-horizontal dusted ground and hit my armpit on a pointy-up blunt branch. After all the near-vertical declines and sharp jagged spines of rocks, it made sense to slip on an easy area of walking. The now vanished chains of support weren’t there. Drops of suicidal angles had scattered behind me. Plain and simple became my hazard. Complacency in action. Or inaction in complacency. Anyway they looked a happy and cute couple. They witnessed a size-fifty shoe slide and a tall man wearing a Dal Bhat power 24 hour T-shirt ram a tree branch by armpit. The girl spoke, “Xiaoxin”. That means careful. So, I stumbled past them, 小心 indeed.

Today, marked a walk starting at 07:30 from Dongchong to XiChong and back, on the DongXiChong trail. I started with Dong (east 东) and ended west at Xi (西) but liked it so much I returned for a second helping of Dong. Like you do. This classic coastal pathway was at times stunning, at other times saddening. The mountains meeting the sea formed a terrific seascape. Clear blue seas and grey skies that eventually turned blue made trekking easier than being under baking sun rays all day.

The nearby Pingshan mountain and a view of Sanmen island did little harm to my vivid impressions of DaPeng peninsula. Cliffs and rock scrambling have long been my thing since experiencing it with Grylls Head outdoor adventure centre and Chapel Street Primary School in year 5. Rocks, holes, tiny islands, bridges, stacks, columns and landforms made by sea erosion towering over sea reefs and the omnipresent imposing tides of an angry sea can’t be a bad day out. It certainly perks your ears up for the cry of seabirds and the crash of countless waves. I wondered, as I wandered, how many stories can each shell tell?

Between the coastal villages of Dongchong and XiChong it is mostly undeveloped, save for the XiChong observatory and three small beach shacks. A few steps and chains have been fitted but nature mostly rules the route. There’s litter, at shameless quantities and annoying spray painted signs pointing out numbers for boats, lodges and so on. I’ve heard it compared and listed as one of the top ten routes in China. Perhaps that needs confirming. Also, that’s a worrying statement about the state of coastal routes. Yes, there are beautiful near golden sands at either village and some great pebble beaches between, but surely there’s more?!

The potential for ecotourism is high provided the litter mountain can be contained. If you can’t carry it back, why carry it there? Discarded wrappers, bags, drinks bottles, beach mats, hats, parasols, gazebos, barbecues and more were seen. Almost all was made in China, so no blame can be sent across the South China Sea. The blowing sea breezes and tides can only be responsible for so much. Humans as a disgrace for the rest. The National Geographic Magazine may need to review their write-ups. Although this walking route is not far from Shenzhen bustling centre, it feels remote and relaxing. Just about two hours from Futian via Yantian port!

16km of up, down, sideways, forwards and back ruined my Altra walking trainers. They’ll need replacing. They’re good for rough wear but not for smartness. This highly scenic route is dusty and tough at times. I enjoyed the 8km walk there and around XiChong so much that coming back made sense. Meeting nobody for three hours on my outbound journey was rewarded with meeting many friendly faces on the return journey, even if I was turned away Mary and Joseph-style by two coffee places in XiChong. On returning to Dongchong a kind shopkeeper pointed me to a shop selling Nespresso coffee. Not a bad end to a walk.

Finishing the day following a video call could only be done one way. Seafood. The local barbecue restaurant was perfect. There’s a few places to choose from. Most feature the animal kingdom, well the aquatic part, anyway. Reflecting on a day well spent, I thanked the trekking gods that I didn’t encounter whatever or whoever left behind all the crap that local village volunteers were bagging up.

再寄 goodbye

XinJiang: Itinerary

你好 / nǐ hǎo / How do, here we go again…

“Hey, are you coming to Ürümqi with me?”, an Aussie called Oliver clamoured. By clamoured, I mean kind of yelled, bawled, wailed or yawped but not in a negative kind of way. You see, Oliver is one of those nice Australian folk who happen to be part human, part megaphone. I don’t think I have heard him whisper. Not once. It may be the only way to get heard over his 21 grade 5 students. I’m not sure. But, anyway, he definitely said it in a voice where people in the far of Dongguan could have heard, or perhaps even the people of Ürümqi heard a little.

We were sat eating ‘shāokǎo (燒烤)‘ and not because barbecue is an Australian’s go-to meal. We’re not reinforcing stereotypes here! It was Friday evening, after school. Laura’s fella was having his birthday and it felt like a good thing to do. A mixture of Chinese, Spanish, French, Moroccan and Venezuelan, American, Australian and British people outside a Xinjiang-family’s restaurant eating great lamb, livery bits and other wonderful breads on a Friday after a long hot week seemed like a good idea. The Wusu beer and Nángbĭng (新疆烤馕 flat bread) went down a treat, following spicy peppers, mushrooms and okra. the chäyza (茄子, qiézi) was a little spicy but pealed away on my chopsticks delightfully. With Oliver’s words in my ears, I told him how I planned to go see my mate Waits up in Gansu province, but it would be a little rushed and not easy to get there and back again.

Having tried to order a rice dish polu (抓飯, zhuāfàn) containing raisins and carrots, I gnawed on meaty lamb skewers (新疆羊肉串) covered in red pepper flakes, cumin seeds and various peppers. The salty taste complimented the juicy flesh well.Oliver growled on, “Come see the Jiaohe ruins, mate.” The Jiāohé Gùchéng (交河故城) ruins have been on my radar for some time.The word mate has been echoing since the day I met Oliver in August, “Would you like an orange juice, mate?” He swiftly blended an orange or two with ice and has been ever-present at school in positive form.And now, after a recent December wander in Yunnan, he’s telling me Piotr and I are being called upon. He’s putting the band back together.

Elwood: “It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark… and we’re wearing sunglasses.” Jake: “Hit it.” – The Blues Brothers starring John Belushi & Dan Ackroyd

Flights were booked hastily and probably without due diligence. Hand me the international baccalaureate risk-taker profile certificate please, Now, it’s time to book a swab test for the old COVID-19 proof that freedom of travel is okay. Then, there’s the weather. It could be a sandstorm, blizzard, snow, or sunny. Depends on the zone. And because China has one timezone, sun rises later and earlier than here in Dongguan. Next Sunday, sun rises around 07:46hrs over Ürümqi and sets at 20:39hrs. More than an hour later in difference than here in Dongguan! So, I am sat here with about a week to go making a loose itinerary. One that sadly won’t take in the songs of Dilraba Dilmurat. All this information research has happened inside a day. Pages 502-515 of the DK Eyewitness Travel China edition have been read. All this because of Oliver! Not Lionel Bart’s Oliver! Our very own colleague, Áleifr (the name meaning ancestor’s descendent) has set about a trip to a region of Uyghurs 维吾尔/Wéiwú’ěr) people one of China’s 55 officially recognized ethnic minorities. The region itself is a hotbed of multiculturalism and history.

On arriving, as I land in Ürümqi a day before Oliver, because I believe in maximum holiday time, the Xinjiang Silk Road Museum (新疆丝绸之路博物馆) next to the Grand Bazaar at No. 160 Shengli Road should be visited. Here I hope to find more information before Oliver lands on the Sunday, and hopefully catch Piotr up, who will already be there. The lay of the land and a good map may be helpful. My friend Ty, of Murray’s FC. has already said he will put us in contact with a driver and a guide from his home town area. Maybe I’ll look up sand therapy. Sadly, far east of there is Hāmì (哈密), famous for sweet melons of the same name, although the area and its fascinating ‘Devil City’ moniker intrigues. As does the ‘Ghost City‘ around Karamay and Wuerhe.

Nature needs to be seen and the receding faster than my hairline Urumqi No. 1 Glacier (乌鲁木齐1号冰川; wū lǔ mù qí 1 hào bīng chuān) seems to be a good start. Half of China’s 20,000 glaciers are all located in Xinjiang, and its proximity to the peak of Kyrgyzstan-Chinese Jengish Chokusu (托木尔峰) makes sense. That towering peak (7,439 m/24,406 ft) forms the roof of the poetically-named Mountains of Heaven (Tiān Shān 天山) mountain range heavily influences the geology and geography of the whole region. They’re part of the Himalayan orogenic belt so there’s certainly diverse terrain near to Ürümqi. Time spent in one of the world’s most remote and distal (to any seas) shall be a new experience.

At 6000-year old Turpan (tǔlǔfān/吐鲁番), there’s Huǒyàn (火州 place as hot as fire), the Flaming Mountain (火焰山 Huǒyànshān) to the north, an irrigation exploration at Kariz (meaning well) Well (吐魯番坎儿井乐园) and the Sugong Minaret(苏公塔) to the east. The Bezeklik Grottoes could be possible. Then there’s the Apandi people and their Grape Valley (葡萄沟), the Bezeklik Grottoes (Bózīkèlǐ Qiānfódòng 柏孜克里千佛洞), Gāochāng Ancient City (高昌古城), and the Astana cemetry (阿斯塔那古墓 Āsītǎnà Gǔmù). There’s certainly the oasis-village Turoq valley (吐峪沟 tǔyùgōu) 70km away. Travel around the region may be difficult but the lure of rail travel hold strong. Two railway lines pass through the region: 南疆铁路; Nánjiāng tiělù; and one from Lanzhou (兰新铁路第二双线). Seems Turpan will need a few days. And that’s before finding information on Biratar Bulak. I hear this region is often nicknamed as China’s Death Valley. Earth’s second-lowest depression is an incredible 155 metres (509 feet) below sea level! The world’s largest Naan stove sounds more at home in the U.S.A. but can be found at Darwaz. I’ll try and convince Oliver and Piotr to go.

The journey to the west will hopefully meet with less difficulty than the Monkey King met. In Journey to the West, by Ming dynasty writer, Wu Cheng’en, the protagonist met a wall of flames, which was likely at Xinjiang’s Flaming Mountain. Uighur (the people of the region) legend has it that a dragon lived in the Tianshan mountains (south of Ürümqi) but was slew by a hero who had grown annoyed at the dragon’s diets of children. That spawned the dragon blood to form a scarlet clot: eight valleys of the Flaming Mountain. One for each piece of the chopped dragon.

I told Waits that I’d go to Gansu in summer (because the UK is not a viable option) and from there I’d probably head to Xi’an to see the Terracotta Warriors. The armies of Qin Shi Huang really should be marketed to the basketball crowd here. I’d buy a basketball shirt with Terracotta Warriors Basketball Club on it. Maybe I should suggest to T.W.I.S. that Terracotta Warriors International Society would make a good history club. Or perhaps, in summer, I will enjoy the humidity and heat of Dongguan. Nothing is certain, but optimism and positivity being made by our souls. Scatter!

To quote Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, “That’s all folks!” That reminds me, I have still never watched Space Jam, and I heard there is a sequel this year!

yǒu kōng zài jù / 有空再聚 / See you soon


Some possible places to stay include the below, just in case somebody needs to see where we can stay. Or not. It seems camping is ill-advised.

Hotels in Urumqi
Bestay Hotel Express Urumqi Hongshan:No.49 Yangzijiang Road, Shayibake District, Urumqi
Bayinhe Hotel Zhongshan:No.71 Wenhua Road, Tianshan District, Urumqi
Sheraton Urumqi Hotel:No.669 Youhao North Road, Sayibake District, Urumqi
Bogeda Hotel: 253 Guangming Road (光明路253号), Urumqi Tel: 0991-8863910
Xinjiang Metian International Youth Hostel: 726 Youhao South Road (友好路726号), Urumqi Tel: 0991-4591488
Pea Fowl Mansions: 489 Youhao South Road (友好南路489), Urumqi Tel: 0991-4522988
Yema International Business Clubhouse: 158 Kunming Road (昆明路158),Urumqi Tel:0991-7688888
Suba Hotel: 140 Gongyuan North Street (公园北街), Urumqi Tel: 0991-5590666
Siver Birches International Youth Hostel: 186 South Lake Road (南湖路), Urumqi Tel: 0991-4811428

Hotels in Turpan
Huozhou Hotel:Shuiyun Square, Donghuan Road, Turpan
Silk Road Lodges – The Vines:Muna’er Road, Muna’er Village, Turpan
Tuha Petroleum Hotel:No.230 Wenhua Road, Turpan
Jiaotong Hotel: 125 Laocheng Road (老城路), Turpan Tel: 0995-8531320
Turpan Hotel: Qingnian South Road, Turpan Tel: 0995-8568888
Xizhou Grand Hotel: 882 Qingnian South Road, Turpan Tel: 0995-8554000
Dongfang Hotel: 324 Laocheng Road, Turpan Tel: 0995-6268228

© Google Earth

Toes.

Funny looking things they are. Five little protruding rounded stumpy endings. Not like leaves on trees. More like branches that broke away and fizzled out their growth. Each one with a kind of cover. Those shiny nails continually grow and need hacking back like a rainforest refusing to bow to the city. Hairs grow from mine, wiry and infinitely unorganised. I look down on them usually, because if I’m looking up, it’s either exercise or gravity winning.

I’ve seen people with more or less of the usual number of five digits. I’ve seen webbing between and I’ve seen tattoos and scars. Mine sometimes resemble a relatives head shape. I won’t tell you which older brother that is, as he’ll probably be upset. I’ve seen fluff under my nails, often blue or black in colour and more than a fair share of mud and dirt. My toes have ached and hurt and witnessed impressions of Lego bricks and even three pin plugs.

I can’t remember my toes being sang about ‘This little piggy’ and so on but I know my Mum played with my toes as a young child and baby. These days my Mum wouldn’t be seen near my toes, and I’m all the better for it. They’re my toes and they’ve walked with me everywhere I’ve been. They’ve swam and danced and kicked and been strong as tiptoes. These toes are my toes and I’m proud to have them here for the journey ahead. Where are we going next?

Simple questions. Simple answers.

“Do you play football in the rain?”

“Of course!”

It’s raining.”

“We play on on an all weather pitch.”

“Don’t you get wet?”

“Yes, a little.”

“It must be very cold, right?”

“Not really, because we move and heat our muscles up.”

“What about your skin?”

“Skin is waterproof.”

/////

“What are you doing tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow, I’m cycling.”

“It’s raining tomorrow. How can you cycle in the rain?”

“Rain jackets and care.”

“Rain is cold and dangerous. Won’t you catch a cold?”

“A cold is a virus. I may be more susceptible but it’s unlikely I’ll catch a cold due to rain.”

“What about your skin?”

“Skin is waterproof.”

////

“We can’t go outside tomorrow. What can?we do?”

“We can go outside.”

“But… but… it’s raining. How can we?”

“Macintosh jackets, umbrellas and Wellington boots are useful.”

“What about my skin?”

“It’s waterproof.”

Yunnan, finally.

Happy New Year. 新年快乐。

I awoke on January the 2nd in Shangri La. The final day of trekking around YuBeng (雨崩) village involved a 500m ascent followed by a 1100m descent to XiDang village. YuBeng translates directly as rain and collapse or avalanche. As Piotr, Oliver and I were ascending we heard a mighty crack in the air and watched an avalanche high on the wide expanse of the Hengduan mountain range. A shelf somewhere near Kawagabo peak slid away. Rather noisy.

On arrival at XiDang, our driver Mr ZhaShiDingZhu (扎史定主), a warm-hearted Tibetan, picked us up. He would take us to Shangri La. Our driver stopped at three historic monuments, two dramatic views and to enjoy a chicken hotpot. It was a good journey indeed. The long road of return was pleasant and a fitting end to a wonderful few days in the mountains. Arriving late to pleasant digs gave us all a chance to rest our weary heads.

A day of gentle cycling and pottering around followed. With hire bicycles from the Boudhi Boutique Shangri La, Oliver and I cycled around old buildings, shops and I stripped down to my underwear as the rear of my trousers underwent a cheeky repair. The shopkeeper wasn’t too perturbed but his wife certainly showed embarrassment.

In Shangri La, Oliver and I bid farewell at breakfast to Piotr. He was off exploring more snow-capped wonders. As he wandered off, Oliver and I meandered and ambled up and down the Shangri La old town. Between gift buying and sightseeing, we ate great Nepali food at the Bohdi Boutique Inn. A most wonderful find. Shangri La beers did their best to quench our thirst and that’s where the trip closed. One simple flight back the next day and we were back to Guangdong. Yunnan was far away but close to my heart.

So, what now?

Firing into 2021

新年快乐。Happy New Year.

Lodge two of three in Upper YuBeng

Sat eating our selection of dishes, people were drifting by the window in small groups. Sometimes one or two. Sometimes ten strong. Our dishes featured Tibetan pork, eggplant, potato in some shape and form, lovely eggs, and various vegetables cooked to perfection. Our New Year’s Eve selection was delectable. Piotr, Oliver and I supped Shangri La Beer local lager and nattered away carelessly. By 10pm, Oliver was flagging by the hot stove and Piotr was busy on a phone call. I suggested Oliver can sleep as nothing seemed to be happening. Soon after we all decided to go and get some fresh air. And beer. Mainly the beer.

With our carrot dangling before us, we set off like donkeys on a mission. We briefly called into a neighbouring hotel/KTV bar before watching a party there. It was rather boisterous and loud but not our cup of tea. The warm stove was welcoming but the floor beneath it rocked precariously. Off we set to the Yak Butter Inn, and the many cats within. Here the boss welcomed us but a group of footbath users were less than warming. The cats wandered around, greeting us with gentle mewing and meow sounds. A beer sank ever too easily and we strolled back to our lodge. Still people passed by heading to the upper part of Upper YuBeng.

After another beer at our lodge;curiosity swung it’s hands at us. We followed the now more frequent groups heading to the upper limits and temple area of Upper YuBeng. Off we trotted. Here, by Upper YuBeng’s main stupa, a group of a few hundred people were doing their best to resemble Chinese druids. A swelling and pulsating circular throng of people moved around to no particular beat. Some instructions by people in the middle rang out. A central fire, with warmth attracted Piotr and Oliver. I stood around the edge trying to make sense of it all. As 2020’s final minutes arrived, a ripple of excitement charged through the gathering.

Western breakfast, almost. Sadly, no HP Sauce.

A girl from Beijing grabbed my hand and explained the proceedings. Sparklers, countdowns and fireworks with some local dancing. And that’s almost what happened. Some of it was wonderful, other bits disorganised and cumbersome. Either way it was a welcome surprise and a great experience to share the welcoming of 2021 with trekkers, some local Tibetan people in modern takes on traditional headwear and attire. I never thought I’d see Apple-brabded Yunnan clothing. This is China, after all. Everything is possible. The next morning involved Tibetan pork, eggs and Tibetan bread for breakfast. Well if you’re heading off, head off on a full tummy…

Happy New Year for 2021.

Idyllic Wild

新年快乐!Happy New Year!

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

Javier surveys the spring.

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

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

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

Yak Butter Inn cattery

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

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

Sacred waterfall valley

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

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

Great place to lay down and look up

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

Abandoned cabin

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

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

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

Hung out to dry

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

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

Somewhere like this

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

Until next time…

Farewell 2020. Happy New Year.

Dear all,

All the very best for 2021.

Let’s not dwell on COVID-19 and it’s terrible spread throughout the globe. It’s been a challenging and upsetting year for many. The less said on this eve of a new year, the better. Stay positive.

With trips to Nepal, Thailand (as a Corona refugee), Suzhou and now Yunnan, I’ve been lucky to experience a variety of cultures and religions in different shapes and forms during 2020. All have stood the test of time and all have stories about being adaptable. 2021 for the human race will be no exception. I’ve been lucky to get some travelling in, during this new norm but unlucky not to travel and see loved ones. The future is tingling with uncertainty but when a reunion comes about, I’m certain it won’t be wasted.

Climatic change, political indecision, blundering idleness by an impenetrable elite, racism and divide, disease and worry. Twenty twenty’s themes will carry on into this year as we all live as best we can. The gloom of a serious Sir David Attenborough message should stay with us. As should Amnesty International. Black Lives will always matter. #MeToo? Where changes are needed things will always need to happen. Vaccines and immunisation can only cure so much.

2020 allowed me opportunity. I’ve been blessed to start work at Tungwah Wenzel International School. A few weeks of expensive quarantine and drastically overpriced return flights got me back into China, as others faced even tougher routes to work or pathways no longer open. It’s been a good ride at work so far. I can only see it getting better.

Football for and with Murray’s FC has provided a regular escape from a landscape tinged by trepidation. Having also joined Dongguan Bulldogs, for a few games of tag rugby, and several solo bike rides, freedom has been a privilege.

I’m writing from a cold bed in YuBeng village, Yunnan, China. I’d like to write more but like the new journal in my bag, there’ll be plenty of opportunity and positive days ahead for the writing of new well remembered days. All the best for 2021. Keep hope in your head and heart.

Peace and love x

Tashi Delek

Tashi Delek / 你好 / Hey, hey!

It was Christmas Eve and I enjoyed scrambled eggs, with toast and cappuccino. I decided to have an easy day of wandering. To acclimatize to altitude is important. I drank ginger tea, water and ate bananas with other dried fruits. Other tricks include walking high and then sleeping low. So, for Christmas Eve, I looked for a bumpy mountain. I had my eye on a few peaks around this valley that envelopes Shangri La city. The cold was manageable with a City shirt and my trusted Sherpa jacket. The Italian wool socks were and are highly effective too. Nighttime hit -12C outside but inside a Green Tree Hotel it was standard room temperature.

Following a late breakfast at The Compass, I headed to LánYuèGǔ (蓝月谷) which translates to Blue Moon Valley. It’s real name is Shika Mountain (石卡山; Shíkǎshān) and it towers to the west above Diqing Shangri-La Airport (DIG). The airport is at at around 3280m. I was able to wander up to about 3500m, way shy of the peak towering above. There were too many people saying, “You shall not pass.” Strong winds had closed the nearby cable car and every path upwards. Rules is rules. I headed back and spotted some cranes, a photo opportunity or two and plenty of construction. Some splendid stupas and magnificent views made for a pleasant wander. Blue Moon wasn’t all that, but the name belongs to City’s chant so what’d you expect?

In the evening, I enjoyed local Tibetan food and hospitality before heading back to rest. I woke up in the same Green Tree hotel, opposite the city bus station. At 08:20, I was on a bus headed for Déqīn town or city. Unsure what it actually is. From there many trails lead off to waterfalls, glaciers and villages.  This area is spelled as Diqen, Díqìng and Deqin (བདེ་ཆེན་རྫོང་). It’s rather confusing. Since Tibet handed over Kham province to Yunnan province, it’s become autonomous (迪庆藏族自治州). The many names should be a starting point for a clear up. By noon, after a climbing route of a road trip, the bus pulled into Deqing city’s bus station. Here I was told that I could go onto Feilaisi (飞来寺) village. I agreed and returned after a quick lunch. Less than an hour later and the bus halted outside a terrace of hotels. Opposite stood a rather imposing two metre wall. Beyond that wall, a view to a kill. The picturesque and snow capped range of MeiLi Snow Mountain (梅里雪山).

After a few minutes standing outside I checked into the a catching named hotel, Deqin Snow Mountain Town Tourist Reception Center (No.2 Reception). I couldn’t find the sequel. After dropping my bag up four flights of stairs, I grabbed my camera and crossed the road into the Mingzhu Langka Viewing Platform, and following my health code check, I was away to wander and enjoy the view. The panoramic settings on cameras was made especially for this kind of scene. The clear air, beautiful blue skies and Lancang river valley below only added to the dramatic setting. A main deck with 8 stupas, a rare Mani wall, and an abundance of prayer flags made my Christmas Day special in ways I hadn’t previously imagined.

The fluttering sound of prayer flags, slapping each other, and spiraling up and down on winds with the fragrance of incense and juniper took me moments to clear my mind. The overwhelming scenery had swallowed me up. With each majestic cloud hovering like a pirouette over the many peaks, it was easy to catch my jaw falling lower than usual. The interjection ‘wow’ felt seriously below par, yet it flew out of my mouth with consummate ease. The main peak, Kawagarbo, is 6740m up. Tibetan people refer to it as Nyainqênkawagarbo. It’s a hugely sacred mountain and climbing is banned. Climbers have tried and in 1991 it claimed 17 members of one expedition. It is a sinister and magnificent looking mountain range with twenty peaks, of those 6 tower over 6000m. Tibetan pilgrims cover a different distance each year, circumambulating 240km (150 miles) around the mountain base, praying to the warrior God inside the mountain. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has a real spiritual ambience. I’d look upon the framed snow peaks on both Christmas Day and Boxing Day in wonder. Absolutely stunning.

On Boxing Day, my light stroll rewarded me with views of at least ten vultures and different angles of the mountains over the raging river below. Dinner was nothing to shout home about but the oranges and pomegranates around Feilaisi certainly need a positive mention.

The walk goes on…

School’s out for Christmas

How do. Nihao. 您好。

Parent Teacher Conferences? Check.

Student reports? Check.

Holiday homework? Check.

Bags packed? Check.

Pen and notepad? Check.

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

Thunderbirds are go…

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

明年见吗?See you next year?

The Mountains Are Calling

Greetings from Dalingshan, Dongguan, P. R. C.

I slept too much. Having showered around 6pm this evening, I lay on the bed drying in a towel. I woke up by 11pm. A glass of grapefruit juice and a bowl of honey nut loops followed. The crisp cold milk gave me a breakfast feel, despite no sunlight finding my balcony. I slowly awoke and reflected over a simple weekend.

For a few hours today, my Australian colleague, Mr Oliver and I walked up Lotus Mountain in Chang’an town. We descended towards Dalingshan. It was a pleasant walk but the questionable air quality and lack of visibility outside of the grey spectrum made it less impressive. Numerous people covered their mouths as two foreigners strode on by. The insulting behaviours have been less of late, but today it happened often enough to feel deliberate and perplexing. On the flip side, enough men cleared their throat whilst staring into my face, enough for me to remember this unusual yet familiar passing greeting. I still wonder if they clear their nose and throat out when they pass others, or even alone. If a tree falls in a forest and nobody is around to hear it, did it make a sound?

Today’s sweaty walk was riddled with steps. Yesterday’s activities involved an exchange of the B. Twin Rock rider 520ST for a Merida Challenger mountain bike. A need for a larger frame necessitated such a move. Plus the Decathlon bicycle seems cursed. Three punctures, two collisions and a creaky seat later, I feel 8 months of regret about this cycle needs to be resolved. Those who resolve conflict, seek solace.

A class with Tina, and a good salad made with heart yesterday were highlights amongst a day filled with BBC’s McMafia TV series and very little else. The autumn grey skies are here. It feels cooler but also warm at times. My mind is muggy and in need of something more. The mountains are calling.

Time to sleep. Peace and love x

Thanksgiving Day.

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

“And I was taught to feel, perhaps too much, the self-sufficing power of solitude.” – William Wordsworth, The Prelude.

So, my trek in Nepal was over. I’d passed through up to 28 ethnic groups of people, notably Thakali, Gurung, Magar, Chhetri, Bhotia and some Tibetans. I’d seen Annapurna II, Manaslu, my favourite haunt of this trek, Pagunda Danda and other great mountains. I’d passed through areas housing maybe just 45,000 or so people in a short distance and across great swathes of area. The river Marshyangdi had been by my side from beginning to the end, and never more than a few kilometres away from my wanderings. I’d tread along a world-renowned trekking destination that needs great care, for peril lurks at every ridge. Remarkable waterfalls, dense forests, and other climatic wonders had lined the sub-tropical, temperate, sub-alpine and alpine bio-climatic zones. These imposing regions offered diversity in both mammal and bird species, and plants that I’ve never seen anywhere else before, and no doubt will never see somewhere else. The barks of musk deer, the swoosh of vultures, the tweets of life from tree to tree, and flashes of Himalayan Langur will stay in my memories.

I’ve met people connected with agriculture, animal husbandry, tourism, the military, conservation, Buddhist monks and other labouring forces. These stirring moments reminded me why I love to visit Nepal. There have been moments when I’ve looked in shame at crumbling mountain sides, ripped open by new roads, and power lines draping over great scenery. The price of a modern world has cut open a blend of people in need of the new age, with as many in fear of what will arrive. Can these ethnic groups survive the new ways in, and the new exposure to the outside world? Will everything change too fast for some to understand? Will education and investment bring new opportunity? Can the high pressure on natural resources be reduced? Will an unequal distribution of tourism wealth and benefits leave some people behind? Poverty is there, but can it seriously be eradicated? Will Chinese hydroelectric dam projects benefit anyone if they have mostly Chinese workforces? Will Indian investment be reduced as Nepal juggles the money of China over India?

With hunting, poaching, pollution, loss of habitat and humans getting ever closer to wildlife, can the Annapurna or Manaslu parks be improved to reduce these problems? Will climate change, flooding and increased tourism add greater strain to the region? I read that 18% of the world’s plant species can be found in the Annapurna Conservation Area. The project there highlights that 58% of Earth’s birds are present. A staggering 33% of Earth’s reptiles have refuge in the region. Amphibians (20%), butterflies (53%), and flowering plants (18%) represent significant proportions of Earth’s species too. There’s much more to Annapurna than snow leopards and possible yeti sightings…

To have walked through the largest protected park of Nepal was a privilege. I sat down to a cold coffee in Pokhara and stroked my sore head. I decided I would fly from Pokhara to Kathmandu. My friend Jodie was to visit Kathmandu a day or so later. I decided the long arduous coach journey was too much for me. Besides I like to fly and the price wasn’t too bad (732RMB) – and bookable via my Wechat money and Trip.com application. After a few wanders from the now ghostly quiet Pokhara, I was ready to fly.

Before doing so I took in the sights of Pokhara, a bat cave and the Gurkha Memorial Trust. Since joining the British Army in 1815, after showing valour in the battlefield against the British, the Gurkhas have enjoyed great connection with Britain and India. The museum itself was alike almost every museum and trust collection, with cabinets of medals, regalia and factsheets. Photos of hundreds of faces, stories and campaign information could be found throughout the large building. I was welcomed by two former Gurkha soldiers in full uniform and shown to the ticket desk, then set free to enjoy the words of regimental life, the sounds and read about Victoria Cross winners. A history sheet was handed to me and I spent a good couple of hours perusing the displays. I had passed the museum by chance, and prior to walking to Bat Cave in the direction of Mahendra Cave not even know there to be such a museum. I did not expect to be so detailed and well-constructed. The passion of many had created their space to inform, educate and celebrate. Here I learned the name Gurkha comes from the hill of Gorkha, and not from a specific race of people. Better to die than be a coward, is the Gurkha motto. Their history attains to that. Long may they have the welfare and care of those who respect them.

Now, Bat Cave is called that on every sign. I could see signs for the religious Mahendra Cave frequently. Those signs had Nepali Sanskrit and English on. The Bat Cave just had English. Bruce Wayne had no chance of hiding a Batmobile and Batwing in there. Green foothills surround the cave, but before you get there, a gate, with a kind of turnstile not out of place at a 1980’s football ground and a pay booth await. Here they try talking you into hiring a guide. I resisted that. I wanted tranquillity. He handed me a large lamp. I handed that back and shown him my simpler headtorch set. In I went. After a few steep steps, a dip and a ducked head I was in the main cavern. Alongside me were around 70-100,000 horseshoe bats. I dipped my torch and gazed on enjoying the cold humid chamber underground. The floor is slippery, the air is whiffy (it is a home to nature, after all), and my good footwear helped me a great deal. I reminded one small group to stay quiet, and they respected my wishes – and that of the bloody great big sign saying to be silent. There was a tiny passage for an exit, but I doubled back without trouble. I wanted to avoid a bump on the head.

After the 20km round-trip walk, I headed back to Obey Guest House. The family were really very nice. Sushil’s place had been recommended to Srirang and I by Livia on our first brief stop in Pokhara. Each time I’d stayed, I ended up the same room: up the stairs, first right turn, first room. The big clean room had a double bed, coffee table, hat stand, two small chairs, a bathroom with a steaming hot shower and a sink for a proper scrub down. There was a tiny balcony and the door would open to allow me to put my stinking walking boots outside. On the top floor, there are several levels to appreciate the panoramic views and a place to sit with a garden table. The family were really welcoming, warm and friendly. They check on you and make you feel at home. Sushil had washed some of my laundry before the trek, and it was waiting in a bag for me, alongside some trainers I’d left behind. The lodge is a tall pink building up a road from Lakeside. It’s easy to find. There’s Wi-Fi and the family pointed us to a simple and tasty breakfast place at the top of the road. Every morning I awoke to beautiful bird call, and at night I enjoyed peaceful ambience. I had several good sleeps there. Sushil pointed us to the nearby TIMS office, other amenities and gave great advice throughout. If you want to stay somewhere peaceful without hassle and worry, then obey me and look up Obey Guest House.

I do have to apologise to Obey Guest House because I stupidly left my smelly walking boots on the balcony when I left… I hope that they turned them into a plant pot! They probably couldn’t be repaired, and they certainly won’t be now! Sorry Sushil and family!

So, with the wheels lifting off the Pokhara runway, flight YT676, operated by Yeti Airlines departed, I assume. I’d been shuffled onto an earlier departure that eventually departed later. Not to worry. It was a good flight. The flight comfortably descended into the Kathmandu valley and once again I was in the cradle of rapid urbanisation. Here I enjoyed more days at Northfield Café and hotel, met a good man to embroider my travelling shirt, and enjoyed a haircut. With room in my bag, eight Lee Child novels filled my bag and that was that. I was ready to go. Goodbye Nepal. Thanks to Srirang and Livia for great company. Thank you to all of those people I met. See you again.

 


 

Almost 54 days later, I am writing this piece. I should have been in Hong Kong and heading over to Dongguan, China on the 15th of April. Here, I am in Dongguan, preparing to end my time in quarantine. If my PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) test comes back as negative tomorrow, I will be allowed to go to Dongguan’s Changping town, to fill in more forms and scan a QR code to show that I am virus-free. I’ve penned a letter to the management and local government officials here. Maria and Waits translated it for me. It’s as per below:

 

二零二零年四月八日
8th April 2020

 

给相关人士 To whom it may concern.

 

诚 挚 地 感 谢 

T H A N K   Y O U   K I N D L Y !

我从心底里感谢你。谢谢你对我的帮助。就像一名优秀的曼城足球运动员一样,我会敞开心扉。我在这里的日子很艰难,但你们更加辛苦。Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you kindly for helping me. Like a good Manchester City football player, I wear my heart on my sleeve. My time here has been tough, but you have been tougher.

当你路过西湖的时候,不管是东莞的这家酒店,还是那片著名的杭州的湖,还是惠州的那座城市,你都一定能够感受到你所做的这一切带给你的荣耀,是你肩负起了这份重任。When you pass West Lake, whether the hotel in Dongguan, the famous lakes of Hangzhou or the city of Huizhou, you’ll be able to think of the pride that you made a difference. You answered the call.

是你让所有人一起团聚;是你给予了爱人、朋友和亲人们一起纵享新时刻的机会;是你,在保护我们,你在照看我们,是你放弃了你们自己的时间,而把精力全部投入到了我们身上。You brought people back together. You gave loved ones, friend and family the chance to enjoy new moments together. You protected us. You looked after us. You gave up your time and gave us all your energy.

你为我打扫卫生,检查我的健康,为我尽心尽力。你让我的肚子饱饱的,并激发了我不知道我能做的锻炼。每当我口渴的时候,你就在那里。You have cleaned up after me, checked my health and waited on hand and foot for me. You have kept my belly full, and inspired exercises I didn’t know I was capable of. Every time I have been thirsty, you have been there.

我是东莞的客人。广东的客人。来中国的客人。你让我很受欢迎。我非常喜欢东莞。这是一座充满希望、想象力和雄心的城市。就像我的家乡曼彻斯特一样,这里也有工业路线,但这里的工业路线也越来越多。I’m a guest in Dongguan. A guest of Guangdong. A guest to China. You’ve made me welcome. I like Dongguan greatly. It is a city of hope, imagination and ambition. Like my hometown of Manchester, it has industrial routes but here too has grown to be so much more.

我们是如此的幸运,生活虽有不便但我们还是在这儿。那些倒下的人、那些逝去的人和那些殉职的人——正是因为他们,我们才能好好地活着。让我们一起为他们默哀片刻吧。We are the lucky ones. We are inconvenienced but we are here. Those who fell, those who died, those who died – it is because of them, we can live well. Let’s observe a moment of silence for them.

 

 

Mr John R. Acton

 


 

TO THE HEROES.

To the NHS staff in the U.K.; and to those health workers, care assistants, doctors, nurses, specialists and all going about in essential jobs right now. I salute you. Keep fighting on. Never give in. You are true heroes. The world needs you. I wish you well. Good luck! This is your hour to shine. Inspire the next generation and those who can and should support you. Look after your neighbours and we’ll find a brighter day. Peace and love!

 

Spiritually thunderstruck.

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

A kind of swishing sound, only just perceivable to my ear, was what I heard. It happened in such a microscopic space of time that I had no time to react. My instinct said the sound was to be alarmed at. My brain had the signal. The computations were in process. It didn’t add up fast enough. As soon as my central nervous system was signalling peril, it struck. It skimmed more than struck, gliding over my head and landing with a thump two metres to my left shoulder. My head had slowed its momentum and the rock landed with a dull thud. The snow around it had remained intact. It sank into a hole maybe a leg’s length deep. As I peered into the hole, one eye was facing up the slope, making sure this rock’s bigger relatives weren’t coming down to flatten me. The slope was still enough. I gave a little more time to viewing the rock in the hole.

It was slate in colour, crumbly around the edges, rough and worn underneath but jagged and unforgiving on the top. The size, well, it was close to that of a red house-brick. I reached down to touch it. It weighed as much as two bags of sugar, if not a little more. I thought to myself, if that had landed on me more directly, I’d be as good as gone. Game over? I assessed my injury. It was a bump and no bigger than two (or three) that I had experienced earlier in the trek from headbutting low roof rafters and doorframes. It’s a habit I have tried to avoid since being a kid, but as my Mum will agree, I am clumsy. It’s in the genetics somewhere.

With that new bump obtained between Bhratang, the beginnings of the huge western face of Pagunda Danda, I just carried on to Upper Pisang. Not much I could do but knuckle down and see how it panned out. Initially that day, I was fine and later that day, I was still okay. The next day, as we departed the lodge and started our walk onwards, I started to feel an ache spanning from the bump back to rear-right of my head. After an hour of trekking that ache became near agony. It was either the rapid onset of altitude sickness, or that injury was playing up. Livia, Srirang and I trekked through deep snow, and eventually Livia and I stretched ahead a little, but not much. As we reached the mani stones, just shy of a very snowed over river with two bridges, I took a moment to try to understand my pain.

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We had opted for the path up to Ghyaru and Humde, because the views would look back across the valley at the Annapurna Masiff. The great mani stones, stood on a ridge overlooking the raging river below, and the smaller tributary that was would have to cross. Many slabs, rocks and smaller carved models carried one simple message, ‘Om mani padme hum. The beautiful artistic Sanskrit writing curved and glimmered in the various levels of light: ॐ मणि द्मे हूँ. Om/Aum/ ॐ [white] is a sacred syllable. Mani/ मणि [green] is a jewel (or bead). Pad/प [sky blue] plus me/द्मे [red] is the lotus flower – a flower sacred to Buddhism. Hoon/hum/ हूँ [dark blue] is the spirit of enlightenment. It can also be found in Chinese as 唵嘛呢叭咪吽 and Thai as โอมฺ มณิ ปทฺเม หูมฺ, amongst many languages and cultures.

Right here, on the pathway, the stone plates featured the six syllabled mantra as a form of Tibetan prayer. Some had clearly been painted, but most were natural earthly colours. Decades and possibly centuries of devotion made up this wall, like many other walls throughout Nepal and other countries. I’ve seen many mounds and cairns in similar fashions. Each one, I believe, offers prayer to the locality and beyond. The time and effort for each creation could be seen. No corners had been cut. Devotion had been placed on each faithful stone. This wall was around about two metres high and sagged just a little. It was long as coach and as wide as a wardrobe. You always walk around a Mani wall, the same way the Earth rotates. Buddhism has rules. Against the backdrop of the Himalayas, spiritualism and nature hugged each other. Lichens and mosses covered what surface they could, and birds occasionally perched on the walls, looking down at the snow, trying to find the little food available. At this moment, I assessed the bridges. Livia and I decided the lower bridge route would be the safest option. We set out.

After crossing the lower bridge, we scrambled upwards a few and awaited Srirang. He chose the upper bridge and we met once again. I walked up one gentle wide path and Srirang and Livia chose a steeper more direct route. They met me as I was sat down. My head was pounding inside – and I felt a little sick. There was dizziness. I ate some biscuits and drank plenty of water. Srirang and Livia were concerned. They suggested a rest and we discussed the injury or whether it could be altitude sickness. We were about 3500m up and we had never rushed the journey so far. Ghyaru (3730m) lay just a few metres upwards. After an hour, I decided I had to descend. Livia and Srirang disagreed but we all agreed, “if I feel better tomorrow, I’d head back up.” With that I scuttled back to Upper Pisang, and enjoyed the views of the frozen lake below on the plains, and the ever-angry flows of the Marshyangdi River. I was welcomed back into the same lodge. Even to this day I cannot recall the name of the lodge. It had a Sherpa-Tibetan family and they were ever so nice. I said about my discomfort and they said that I did the right thing.

After an evening of talking with trekkers on their way from Manang, and a few individuals heading upwards, I slipped off to bed. The dal baht power didn’t seem to be shifting my headache and numerous litres of water made me get up during the night several times. Peeing into a frozen toilet with no water to flush it, isn’t a nice experience, at 4am in the freezing cold. Still, it beat watching celebrities on mind-numbing television shows. I’d also spent hours on Wi-Fi trying to talk with customer services at Trip.com – for the second night running, to see if I could move a flight to Hong Kong, because of the growing seriousness of the COVID-19 outbreak in China. Many airlines were cancelling flights and by this time Nepal had apparently closed its borders to China and reportedly banned Chinese tourists. In my anxious mind, it made sense to be proactive and try to remain in Nepal. The border crossings between China and Hong Kong were rapidly becoming fewer too. Why fly to absolute uncertainty?

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I awoke a little refreshed but still with a headache. I made the choice to descend further. I set out just before 11am and walked back. I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t relieved. I just had a pain in the head that wouldn’t go away. The walk back was tough as the walk up. The deep snow and occasional blustery winds made it a slog of a day. As I rounded the cliffs and the path led through to The Farmhouse at Bhratang, I spotted a jeep. The driver helped me get to Chame. At Chame, I met a doctor who looked at my head, tested my reactions and concluded concussion. He said no need for emergency treatment and suggested I head back to Pokhara or rest for several days in a warmer village downhill. I was in luck, the jeep driver took me as far as Besi Sahar! Back to the beginning. Here I was dropped at the hotel Manaslu and booked onto the first coach to Pokhara that morning. It felt sad but I had a mix of emotions in my head, anxiety and a head injury.

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The U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office advised against all travel to China but didn’t state a clear reason why. The outbreak seemed to be mostly confined to Hubei and a few other areas. The U.K. wasn’t even screening passengers on arrival from any Chinese city. Was it really that serious?! Could I return to China or not? Would I have to head to the U.K.? Could I stay in Nepal by extending my visa? I had a tight budget and worry had been with me for days. Worry and concussion are not ideal bedfellows.

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The cumbersome coach clumped along, bouncing and bumping, throwing passengers here and there, and visited countless villages on the route back to Pokhara. At one stop a toothless elderly man sat on a step. He had no shoes on and his clothing looked unkempt. His face crinkled from years of exposure to the sun. He looked at me. He smiled. He gestured with his fingers the shape of a smile, over his face. That’s what it is all about. Experiences, moments and smiles. I smiled back, greeted and waved goodbye as the cumbrous coach continued headlong. I could take much from this journey and experience.

A2803410

Looking back at the day where the rock had hit my head, I’d been clicking away like crazy on my camera before that. After that, I’d rarely taken many photos. It clearly marked a change in my behaviour and my general health. The physical and mental challenge had just been knocked out of me. Yet, I experienced many great moments, even on the jeep journey back down. It isn’t every day a herd of goats gets in your way! From then on Nepal would still give me more great moments, but the trek had finished.

So, what next?

Vivid moments on the Earth’s crust.

好 (nĭ hăo) / Namaste / Welcome!


Eddie, Eddie give us a wave!

Rest in peace Eddie Large. The comedian born in Scotland came to Manchester as a kid and adopted City. Well City adopted him as a mascot later on in the years and one thing about him and Syd Little, they really were a sweet comedy pair. On his heart problem: “He said, “What stresses you out?”, I said, “football”, he said, “What team do you support?”, I said, “Manchester City”. He said, “That’s it.”” Later he ends the brief video story as, “I don’t blame it on City, but he did.” Rest in peace big man – and condolences to your family. The likes of Matt Lucas saying that Eddie Large offered him support when he started out says a lot. Eddie Large has a large legacy.


Words and actions are being thrown around in these tough times. I love reading and can’t focus because the information that is out there is too much. There’s great and good. There’s sad and devastating. For example, the BBC News footage of the news presenter Jane Hill saying the government expected 30,000 ventilators. Before that, she sounded so bleak, and she shows all the pain in her face, “…and we have been double-checking this, but it does seem to say thirty.” So, so worrying. Even the media are struggling to comprehend this all now. Shandong province, of China, have sent support to the U.K.

“This virus is a disaster. Footballers can live without receiving a single paycheck for a few years, but I feel sorry for the person who wakes up at 6 in the morning and comes back at 9 at night just to feed his family. Us footballers can make a difference.” – Carlos Tevez, footballer

Someone, somewhere, wrote to me, ‘How’s the bat soup going down. & the puppy blamange desert?’At first I wan’t going t reply. There’s so much hate and pain going around. There’s so many xenophobic lines just bashed out on keyboards. I know, because all I want to do is exercise my right to reply or write something. Usually, I hold back. Spread peace and love. I try. I hate hate. But away, I went as per below:

This is obviously linked to wet markets and wildlife trade. China is pushing through some serious laws. They’ve lost so much face, and many lives, many. The world is suffering too. If it wasn’t here, it could have started in Vietnam, Korea, a whole list of countries. The thing is, it is too late to laugh at it all, because it’s on our doorsteps, everywhere, knocking and pushing its way through. We’ll all suffer for this. It is too sad for me to laugh at. Especially, seeing as bear bile is classed as a TCM (traditional Chinese med)… and is sanctioned to treat COVID19.

Sorry, I can’t joke anymore about this. Over here, in China, foreigners are experiencing xenphobia for importing cases into the country, jobs are going for fellow teachers and workers who were needed here. Gallow’s humour is all well and good but there is a time and place. The blancmange is to die for.

This virus and spread of disease may be hell for many. Some will go into lockdown and may never come out. Elliot Dallen imagined spending his last few weeks with friends. Now his final time is slipping away. I can’t imagine the dread he is going through and there are no words that I, or many others can offer for him. I hope he gets the tangible bonds of friendship and family time, he like many, are missing. Life must carry on, right to the end.


 

The journey goes on.

Leaving Chame (2710m) town, we clambered up a wide pathway, below a very steep cliff of a mountain. The rattle and whistle of prayer flags could be heard overhead. The path led out, upwards gently, hugging the valley. Eventually in reached a small village and then another smaller village. Bhratang (2850m) was quite a small village. Not so much a village, more of a hamlet. A small number of houses before modern signs for The Farmhouse. The Farmhouse is an eco-resort, and many note it as being a heaven for apples. I was excited. I wanted to try an apple from here, despite knowing that the orchard much be closed. Maybe, just maybe they’d have one or two apples knocking around in a cold room. I clung to hope. The Farmhouse has a link to both Bhratang Apple Farm and Agro Manang. This is Nepal’s biggest and most famous source of apples. Maybe, they’d have some apple sauce? Some ciders? Apple vinegar? The apples that the bus in Swayambhu, Kathmandu had carried (to Pokhara) had come from here. I’m not a huge apple fan (I could have said big apple, right?) but the smell of those apples on that bus journey was scrumptious.

Soon after I would pass a huge apple orchard with discernible damage from storms. Power lines, trees and fencing didn’t just lean over, it littered the scattered exposed earth. The acres of apple trees leaned towards the south in a way a rugby team would crouch in a scrum. The naked branches of each tree were bound together with reinforced ropes and supports, giving it the view of a kind of wooden graveyard. The towering rockface to the right of the path sparkled in the sunlight, with occasional ledges much like the whole mountain had been carved away by an immense force. The eco-park beneath it and The Farmhouse were closed. There was no chance of an apple tart or an apple flapjack. I refilled my water bottle from one of three gushing springs set in a wall.

The orchard was hidden by fences that could have belonged in Jurassic Park. Warnings about keeping out were everywhere. Every now and then a tree had fell out of the in, and into the road. Bits of electrical pylons dotted the pathways and the odd electrical wiring slung here and there. An apple a day may keep the doctor away, but this pile of ruins wasn’t inviting me to look for the scattered rotten apples on the floor. Quite the opposite. I trotted on.

Rounded a sharp-rising pathway from Bhratang, the huge western face of Pagunda Danda became visible. The mountain could easily have doubled as a slate of hill, or a hill of slate. It is so smooth-looking that you wonder if it has been moisturising for millennia. Many people trek the Annapurna Circuit for the biggies, the large peaks but views such as Pagunda Danda alone made my trip well worth doing. I can see the appeal of a scramble and ice-climb up the face, but with melting and sunlight upon it, the risks of avalanches were high.

Avalanches had been noted from just before Chame village onwards. One avalanche field had swept trees, boulders and all in its path down across the pathway. The pathway had been sliced open again and cleared. Either side of the road potato-shaped but basketball-sized balls of frozen snow piled high, with twigs, branches and stumps jutting outwards. On the lower levels of the pathway, fallen electric pylons and rocks the sizes of cars had crashed downwards. The avalanche was not fresh, but it wasn’t particularly old. Looking upwards into the steep valley to a mountain ridge, I deliberated about where all this material had actually come from. It was frighteningly too much for mind to compute.

The second avalanche field I encountered was on the opposite bank of the gushing Marshyangdi River. It was so big that it covered over the river and arrived at the steep base far below my footing. The river had tunnelled through the frozen snow overhead. It was an eerie sight to behold. Just before that field a few tonnes had piled on the sharply-carved Bhratang to Chame road making the area impassable, and causing a huge landslide to make the footpath as wide as a human could walk safely. Just. Below in the river, a carcass of a Toyota jeep sat well-below the narrow road overhead. Later, Livia had found out that back in October, several people were on board as the jeep slipped off the road. Thankfully all had managed to jump clear. A real miracle in the mountains.

The sharp road is but only wide enough for one car. The rock above is barely two metres high. It’s a ledge that commands real respect and no hanging around. A long horizontal slat has ice caps and blastholes in equal scatterings. Walking far from the edge, I could peek at the drop below. Ravine of the week was alongside me for several hundred metres. I felt I needed to be roped to the wall behind me.

The largest path of avalanche destruction lay soon after the perils of the cliff track. A huge sweeping sheath of snow and debris had swept from the southern flank of Pagunda Danda. This casing of ice and power had ripped over the pathway into the river below. A clearly demarked pathway was cut through and lined with pines from nearby trees. The crevices and nooks around which were not safe to linger for too long.

On approach to the well-named Marshyangdi River Bridge, Pagunda Danda’s splendour was there for all to see. This 1500m (4,900ft) elevation is striking. Almost like a vivid piece of the Earth’s crust curved outwards and upwards in a kind of skateboard park half-pipe shape. It isn’t beyond the imagination to picture people skiing down the snow covered silky-looking solid surface or perhaps cycling up the shiny and extraordinary rockface itself. I was reliably informed by a passing guide that once upon a time it once was a lakebed. My imagination could barely see that. Now, local legends believe that mass of rock, known as Swarga (heaven) Dwar (gates) is the route to the afterlife. After leaving your mortal remains behind, you must clamber up this wall to reach the beyond. Few cracks and very little green grew along this gargantuan surface. Its various tones glimmered in the sunlight. Swarga Dwar is heavenly.

I decided I’d walk over the wider bridge. Bad idea. Not so soon after, I had to double back in deep-unbroken snow to the pathway that connected from the smaller chain suspension bridge. Still, the views were worth it, or that’s what I kept telling myself. On crossing the bridge, I noticed that not one, but of my walking boots had worn splits in them. They would remain watertight for that day, but worry set in. How easy is it to buy a pair of UK size-14 boots in the mountains? Was there much demand for European-sized 50 boots in that neck of the woods? Would a repair shop be open in Manang?

The slog up to Dhukur Pokhari (3240m) involved a little bit of that famous Nepali flat (little bit up, little bit down) on the last section. Ordinarily, I’d have enjoyed that, but waist-deep snow and a heavy frame meant I spent a fair bit of time digging myself out and starting up and over again, only to have to dig myself out again. Occasionally, for the sake of variety I flumped over like a dropped teddy bear and rolled around in the snow. These are the moments we hike for – to get in touch with nature, even if gravity is fully in charge. This also gave me time to really appreciate the incredible views. Snow-capped peaks are in every direction and the lower hills around me give glimpses of the fuller Annapurna range. The path had been a zigzagging tour of the under-canopy of pines and firs. The trees had nestled so closely at times that sunlight had failed to melt much of the deep snow beneath the natural green sunshade.

At Dhukur Pokhari, a brightly coloured lodge offering a fruit juice and sun-bathed benches caught my attention. Several trekkers were tucking into what looked like proper potato chips. Would they also have gravy and a nice piece of haddock too? I decided that lunch was needed. Well, actually my belly was rumbling like hell having ran on a trekker’s fuel bar, porridge and omelette for far too long. I greeted the lodges family, “Tashi delek” and took the menu from them. The crisp air, with sunshine beating down on me, reminded me of a winter’s sunny day on Morecambe Bay. I was warm despite the now sub-zero temperatures.

After a lunch of vegetable momos, chips, and allu paratha (potato in a bread), I didn’t enjoy the dal bhat later that evening, but I did have plenty in the tank for the final part of the walk. The steep upwards pathway through to Dhukur Pokhari had burned a fair bit of energy but on leaving the village, the trail was quite smooth, with only a few upward rises, and most of them in the finale of the path.Livia, Srirang and I set out once more and remained together for the final push of the day. The air was much thinner than earlier than day, and a huge radio mast amongst the crumbling old and proud new buildings marked out the final stop for the day. It grew ever closer.

After crossing a footbridge, alongside two twisted bridge remains, the pathway snaked in and out of small bushes and a very hidden abandoned settlement. To the left the river moved away, and fields spread outwards. To the right a new peak became clearer. Pisang takes its name from Pisang Peak (locally called Jong Ri – 6091m high), of which Paungda Danda is its south-eastern subsidiary peak. The so-called ‘Great Wall of Pisang’ was easily visible in the fading sunlight. Pisang Youth Club’s football fields could be made out amongst the snow on our right, as the goalposts gave it away. To our left, a huge sweeping curing avalanched seemed to have completely lost momentum at a stonewall. It was stonewalled just a metre from our footpath. The jagged windswept icy tufts of the avalanche stood in contrast to intact wheat shoots to the avalanche’s left.

Upper Pisang (3300m) is part of the Pisang village. Lower Pisang (3200m) is its slightly lower down and over the valley other half. About 307 live across 105 houses, according to a census in 2011. It seemed on my visit, that far fewer people were here. Arriving at our guesthouse, the lucidly turquoise Marshyangdi River could be seen a hundred metres or so below. If life it what you make it, then right there and then, life was wonderful. To reach Lower Pisang, you don’t cross the bridges, you follow the river and cross a different bridge. The Lower Pisang plains and the buildings looked cold and uninviting because the mountains above cast such a large shadow below.

Upper Pisang has sweeping great views of Annapurna II and ample opportunity to take endless snaps on your camera. The lodge’s family feel is completed by a young girl singing from YouTube videos on a phone. Mother and father, busy cooking occasionally pop out to check on her, and she looked up every time, with full respect and listened to all instructions, in the Tibetan language.

After gaining 600m in elevation and trekking about 14.5km that day, we’d all earned a good night’s sleep. I tucked under my extra blanket and crept into my sleeping bag. I sat up suddenly and took one last look outside at the valley beneath and the few twinkles of electric light. The dark sky and stars made me realise how cold it was, so I slipped back into the sleeping bag and soon fell asleep, deep into a dream…

“Listen as the wind blows, from across the great divide, voices traoped in yearning, memories trapped in time. The night is my companion, and solitude is my guide…” – Possession by Sarah McLachlan

 

Cover image by the angry hungry Hungarian and great trekker Livia (Srirang and I passing an avalanche field the day after arriving at Upper Pisang):

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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.