This is a true story.

Good whatever time it is,

“She used her body just like a bandage;
She used my body just like a wound” – Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are, Meat Loaf

I’m lay watching The Big Lebowski. I’ve finished three seasons of Fargo in the last few weeks. The original series based on the movie was fantastic. The second was equally addictive viewing. The third starring Ewan McGregor (from Perth) and David Thewlis (of Blackpool) was less enthralling but largely watchable. The black comedy crime drama is certainly well filmed, scripted and produced. Martin Freeman (from Aldershot) stars opposite Kirsten Dunst (Small Soldiers and Jumanji) reminds me that some child actors go on to better things. Allison Holman, Colin Hanks, Ted Danson and a host of others make for great casting. Billy Bob Thornton definitely gains points for portraying the word sinister.

This week has seen my first wild tortoise spotting. I moved the miniature mobile speed bump off the road to about twenty metres into forest grasses. I have the mosquito bites to show for it. That evening’s wander sighted many toads, frogs, moths and a few mantids.

I wasn’t going to watch the fourth series of Fargo until I spied Ben Whishaw (from Bedfordshire) is amongst the Star-studded cast. Killarney, County Kerry, Ireland is represented by singer Jessie Buckley. The original Joel and Ethan Cohen brothers have a long list of great movies as directors, producers and so on. What makes me a great fan is their script writing ability. They’ve written the script for Bridge of Spies for Steven Spielberg, and rumour has it that. a Scarface remake is under their pens. Joel, without Ethan, will be involved in The Tragedy of Macbeth. Denzel Washington as Macbeth is intriguing.

Anyway, when you can’t ride a bike, kick a ball and feel utterly energy – devoid, then movies are a good escape. That and the musical writings of the late Jim Steinman. No matter what, Jim Steinman’s music is all coming back to me now. Those who haven’t listened to his works, sang by others, should read ’em and weep. Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart and Meat Loaf‘s Bat Out of Hell are essential playlist features. Steinman was a highly influential lyricist, playwright and composer. He dabbled as a solo artist and expertly produced Sisters of Mercy and Take That amongst others.

“There are times I think I see him peeling out of the dark,
I think he’s right behind me now and he’s gaining ground” – Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are, Meat Loaf

Jim Steinman, 1/11/1947 – 19/4/2021

Enjoy your [insert time period]

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

Defending mosquitoes.

Good evening.

The sequel to yesterday’s post involves the sudden deaths of five winged attackers. Slain at my hand on entering the apartment. As I squeezed through my open door, in a heartbeat, and closed quicker still, these terrors followed me in. The ones spotted are gone. At least one more remains.

Beware the lone gun. They blend in. They lurk in shadows. Mosquitoes aren’t like you and I. They’re equally not all bad. Sorry to say that.

Mother mosquito is doing a good deed. She’s genetically-programmed to hunt you and I down. We’re targets stuffed full of proteins and nutrients that give her a child-bearing body. Our amino acids are like the prenatal supplement human beings buy at a pharmacy. They’re good for eggs. Daddy mosquito is busy eating fruit and watching the football.

Whilst his mouth parts are shoved into juicy fruits, she’s probing you and I with her elongated snout. Her segmented body is often so light that we seldom notice the deed until the girl has left. Her wings rarely touch their target. She uses organs called halteres to gather intelligence before dipping in on her target. The original bouncing bomb over a dam. And they have separately formed compound eyes which may explain why swatting them can often prove difficult. Olfactory systems are fine tuned to smelling our perspiration or nonanal, also called nonanaldehyde, pelargonaldehyde or Aldehyde C-9. By the time you read them, chances are you were bitten.

For the girly mosquitoes, they start as eggs (thousands clutched together like a raft of doom), turn to larva then a pupa before becoming fully grown irritations of adults. Their male counterparts do the same steps but don’t directly irritate by biting people. From floating on water, they hatch into algae feeding juveniles before turning into proboscis hammering adults. Some live up to a week. Some species can live for several months. Splattered specimens don’t live as long. The adults breed and lay eggs in cupped leaves, ponds, lakes, disused waste containing water, cracks with water, and all shape and form of water containing objects or places. Just when you thought it was safe to pour out the water…

Mosquitoes are actually about 112 different genera. That makes up several thousand species. Not all feed on man (or woman, or child, or LGBTQ+). Other arthropods are on the menu. They’re on most corners of the Earth, provided a meal ticket is available, invited or not. It seems at times like every species is having a crack at me, and thankfully they’re not.

They’ve got bad reputation because of their irritating bites, and other small matters like malaria, yellow fever, Chikungunya, Dengue fever and so on. The list is longer than the average serial killer’s whoopsy points. They’re adapted to their watery breeding grounds and that’s where a vector can bring a long a nasty friend. The circle of life in inglorious action.

Transmission of disease kills. Pangolins and bats can take a deep breath, knowing they’ve possibly spread less harm to the COVER-19 world than an ill-timed Celine Dion world tour or mosquitoes. In fact, it’s said that of over half of the people that walked the Earth, mosquitoes carried the vector that helped caused their demise.* They’re the UPS of death. Much like, as the WHO are indicating, perhaps COVID-19 started life from a delivery system. Or perhaps mosquitoes are not responsible for that many deaths?**

Tonight’s ideal human menu: a starter of O type blood, with a side of human prone to abundant skin bacteria. For the main course, a heavy breathing type (to test that legendary mosquito detection skillset), alongside high body heat release. Dessert will comprise the blood of a pregnant woman. The ideal menu will then be inherited as a genetically-controlled component, meaning that mummy mosquitoes daughter will love your taste too!**** Our crepuscular (or otherwise) feeders don’t like to be disturbed in the day, however the ferocious Asian Tiger Mosquito hunts during daylight. And its spread from Southeast Asia to the globe has been rapid. Thanks to international travel and freight, it finds itself feeding overseas. Its distinct striped appearance is best noticed as you squish its central nervous system outwards.

Many cultures say mosquitoes evolved from the ashes of giants and their mortal remains being incinerated. Punegusse may well be the cause or that if a 79-million year old piece of Canadian amber containing Paleoculicis minutus*** would be a good evolutionary story. Whatever was stomping around when old P. minutus was buzzing about, I hope it was equally as bugged as I am by one lone wolf fly zipping around my apartment right now.

Did you know that before Walt Disney even dreamed of Mickey Mouse, Windsor McCay animated the mosquito in 1912? How a Mosquito Operates was state of the art for? its time. An animation about a man being tormented by mosquitoes. Almost a hundred and ten years have passed. Who can’t relate?

Citations:

*Timothy C. Winegard (31 Mar 2021). The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator. Text Publishing. p. 2. ISBN TBC

**“More or Less – Have Mosquitoes Killed Half the World? – BBC Sounds”. http://www.bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 2021-03-31.

***G. O. Poinar; et al. (2000). “Paleoculicis minutus (Diptera: Culicidae) n. gen., n. sp., from Cretaceous Canadian amber with a summary of described fossil mosquitoes” (PDF). Acta Geologica Hispanica. 35: 119–128. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-10-29. Retrieved tonight.

****Fernández-Grandon GM, Gezan SA, Armour JA, Pickett JA, Logan JG (22 April 2015). “Heritability of attractiveness to mosquitoes”. PLOS ONE. 10 (4): e0122716. Bibcode:2015PLoSO..1022716F. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0122716. PMC4406498. PMID25901606.

CHAPEL STREET NEWS – May 1993 – Edition 2

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

From the archives of Chapel Street Primary School (Levenshulme, Manchester) via my own scrap book. Arthur Lowe (best known as Dad’s Army‘s Captain Mainwaring) went to the same primary school as I. Chapel Street Primary School was founded in 1903 (March 21st). It is over 100 years old. Like much of the world, students are currently unable to attend school due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“After 21 happy years at Chapel St I will be retiring at the end of this school year. My retirement coincides with the centenary of the school and I am so thrilled to be a part of this historical occasion.”- former Head Teacher, Mr Gary Kershaw, 2005, Manchester Evening News.

CHAPEL STREET NEWS

[cost 20p] / May 1993 – Edition 2 – Page 3

It’s wild – not the kids!

By our wildlife correspondent, John Acton (Year 5)

When we arrived we were told to unpack.

DAY 1: we went on the rope course. Later we explored the grounds. I saw a mouse. At night we had the legendary cuckoo spit lecture.

DAY 2: we went rock scrambling near Morecambe. Also we did canoeing. I thought I saw some pike. We arrived on an island and saw a goose lay an egg.

DAY 3: we went gorge-walking and abseiling. Then we went tunnelling.

DAY 4: we went horseriding and caving.

I saw a wild ferret or a weasel. Later we had a barbecue. On Thursday we saw some deer. We heard some cuckoos.


LETTERS PAGE

Dear Chapel Street News,

I would like to recommend Ghyll Head to all little juniors. It is very educational.

John Acton (5.AJ)

CHAPEL STREET


 

The above writing and a vague memory of a story I’d called ‘Samson The Wonder Dog’ based on my own dog Pup are probably the first few times I tried any real writing. Encouraged by Mr Andrew Jones, during my time in 5AJ I used to look on in awe as Amanda Tetlow, Evangelia Votski, Ian Gray and Paul Rawcliffe would do great pieces of writing. They made me want to be better at writing.

“The trick is to believe it. And the best way to believe it is tell the truth. Stories should all have an element of truth in them. Truth can be boring. You sometimes have to tart it up a little bit.” – Sir Billy Connolly

Now, I am encouraging students in China, aged 9-10 (the very same age) to write their own stories and to try writing more. Life feels good, despite the worries. Yesterday, two government departments of Dongguan assured me that renewing my visa and transferring my work permit will be okay, despite having only one blank passport page. As my present school asked me to renew a contract two days ago, I had to give them a notice that I will change employer at the end of the school term (no later than August the 1st, 2020). Since I listened to and re-read the quote by Sir Billy Connolly, I have fell in love with the below quote:

“It’s up to yourself. You manufacture it. You either look at the world one way or another. It’s the old half full half empty. It’s up to you. The world’s a great place, it’s full of great people. The choice is yours. Pessimism is a luxury you can’t afford”. – Sir Billy Connolly on optimism, BBC Radio Five.

I love it. You manufacture optimisim. Pessimism is unafordable but the components of optimisim sit inside your factory waiting to be churned out. So, stay positive and make some optimisim.

Their gaff, their rules?

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

“If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” – George Washington

Before I write any more, firstly, I need to clarify that I hate the idea of animals suffering. Actually, it forms one of the reasons why right now I do not have a pet. If I cannot be certain where I will live within twelve months, how can I look after a cat, dog or hamster? I’ve been lucky enough in my life to be raised around animals. My Dad and Mum gave me Pup, who was with me for about 17 years of my life as man’s best friend, a wonderful dog. There were cats along the way, Basil (think of a detective that was a rodent), Sparky and Tigger (original, right?). I had umpteen hamsters: Bright Eyes, Stripe, Gizmo and Gremlin to name but a few. Astrid, my sister, will tell you of her hamster Doris, and how she selected it on the basis that it bit her bigger brother (me) in the pet store. There were mice, bred and rehoused, with responsible intentions. I had fleeting dreams of being a vet – but for a huge dislike of blood. Then, it was time to study a BTEC National Diploma at North Trafford College and eventually study a BSc Behavioural Biology. Since then, my wildlife and animal passion has evolved into a pastime, set of interests and hobbies. The professional world was oversubscribed, underpaid and hard to escape clicks. It wasn’t for me. Instead I find myself softly influencing future generations and making people think twice.

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”- S.G. Tallentyre, The Friends of Voltaire.

Stumbling into education with transferable skills just meant I swapped elephant dung in the morning for a whole raft of new pooh. I’m in China, their gaff their rules. But I can talk freely about some topical issues. What is a wet market? Well, it’s just a marketplace that sells fish, meats, vegetables, and fruits. The produce is not dry (like fabric or electronics). The goods at wet markets are perishable. Not all wet markets slaughter animals or have a fishmongers. Across the Indian subcontinent (e.g. Thailand), China, Japan, Korea and the island countries northwest of Australia, wet markets can be found and are a common feature of daily life. Foods can be fresh, cheaper than supermarkets, and going to these markets themselves can be a huge part of your social life. It is tantamount to culture and traditions for many people. To close many wet markets may be seen as xenophobic and cause more problems. But, will these same wet markets yield the next outbreak?

Wang Mengyun’s video of a bat being eaten in Palau has become infamous. It is disgusting in my opinion. What adds further disgust is that RT and the Daily Mail, amongst many, posted this via news outlets and social media claiming it was from Wuhan. I was even sent it on the Chinese app Wechat. I’m not justifying or defending her, or any other fools eating weird crap. Data and images can easily fit any story, without, erm, actual information. Of course, if China is involved, then there’s always an element of menace and worry from a social point of view. What exactly are they up to over there?

The wet market here hasn’t reopened (and many will never reopen, as many are rumpured as marked for demolition, to be replaced by more sanitized versions) which is great. I’m actually excited for when it does because they have limited the list of edible species right down. You wouldn’t believe the list before. There was no list. It could have been likened to taking a walk in a zoo. Except, that zoo was closer to The Green Mile, and all the inmates were destined for the grimmest of chops. Owls, giant salamanders and frogs may not appear on the menu in Beijing, but across this large nation of China, there are huge differences in diets. Here in Guangdong, it is said that the Cantonese eat everything with four legs, excluding chairs and desks.

Afterall the list isn’t far off what is approved as meat in the U.K. The most exotic things are to be found all over Britain such as ostrich, deer, reindeer, alpaca etc. Sadly, the list still includes fur species: mink, foxes and raccoons. BUT activism and conservation are growing here. Thoughts are changing. Many influential and middle-class people really believe that bigger changes are coming. Conservation and animal welfare are some of the few things people can protest here. The WHO advised China to “sell safe food with better hygiene”. That seems to be triggering a huge revolution in hygiene. There’s revulsion at the rich who can afford palm civet soup, braised bear paws and deep-fried cobra. These rarities are not farmed or caught for everyone. There’s status and face to show off, and keeping up with the Joneses is on the menu. Rebecca Wong explains in her book about the illegal wildlife trade that things are far from simple.

The China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation is pushing for an end to meats from wild sources. Many cities such as Shenzhen and several provinces are banning the sale of wild-sourced meats – yet China only has a temporary ban in place (and that excludes use for Traditional Chinese Medicines – T.C.M.). Is the ban effective? Well, The Daily Mail, managed to get images and a journalist into Guilin, Guangxi province and show dogs alongside cats, with T.C.M. posters showing bats. The W.H.O., the U.N.’s Convention on Biological Diversity, have called on China to do more.

China’s Wildlife Protection Law to permanently make catching and eating wildlife as a food into a criminal law will follow. The decision’s first real steps had been made on February 24th 2020. It is expected the list of 54 wild species bred on farms will be further reduced. Do people really need to eat hamsters and bird of prey? Do these horrific farms need abolishing? Does the farm license from The State Forestry and Grassland Administration conflict with their interest in wildlife protection? Places like Guangzhou and this province of Guangdong will need to seriously rearrange their eating habits. Chinese news sources, backed and owned by the state, have decried the practice of eating wildlife. One such piece, China Daily, went further than most with an English opinion piece by author Wu Yong. He correctly pointed to the Institute of Virology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (home base: Wuhan) and their publications warning of the next big outbreak, following SARS in 2012. There are voices from within China banging a drum to the same beat: stop eating wildlife (50% of people surveyed in 2014 said wild animals should not be eaten). And should the laws come how vague will they be? How will provinces, cities and local areas enforce the laws? Who will steady the balance books of those who need the income?

“Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom – and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech.” – Benjamin Franklin

It is easy to say that wild animals carry viruses, and should they not be eaten by people, then there is little to no chance of these zoonotic viruses affecting human lives. If we do, then the viruses are with us. But, how many viruses start on farms from long-term domestic animals? Think Pandemic H1N1/09 virus and its outbreak from Mexico/U.S.A. in 2009 that killed about 151,700-575,400 people globally, according to the CDC. The problem is that for some their eyes are bigger than their bellies. They don’t want you and I, or others telling them what is right or wrong. For some status and entitlement is paramount. Why can a rich U.S. hunter go and shoot a lion in Africa, when a poor villager can’t catch pangolin in Vietnam to support their family? Will bans work? Will the trade go from loosely regulated to completely underground shady dealings? “Psst, wanna but a civet?” What is a civet anyway? I imagine many having seen a pangolin too. Look them both up. They’re wonderful little critters. Just don’t grill them!

“It is clear that not in one thing alone, but in many ways equality and freedom of speech are a good thing.” – Herodotus

China has endured food safety scandals, unusual additives being included in food, a distrust of food regulation, corruption and countless public health appeals and campaigns seeking to improve standards. If you live here long enough, you’ll know having diarrhea tablets to be most useful. Food poisoning happens and at public ad even private restaurants, finding hand soap can be a miracle. Everyone carries hand sanitiser and tissues, but few look forwards to visiting an outside toilet. To get to the modern regulation systems of the U.K. standards, the U.K. under the name of Great Britain and its Empire had many flaws and faults. Many want change but it will take time. Not every country is perfect, some wash their chicken in chlorine, don’t you America? Tradition and odd ingredients need talking about, at least. Without conversation and debate, how can we as people strike a balance between nature and need?

This pandemic is always going to throw up many questions. Should all wet markets adapt and abandon tradition in favour of hygiene and high standards? Yes, for the sake of humanity, surely! Should we be searching for the next big pandemic? Should we be vaccinating our pets and our zoo animals when the cure to COVID-19 arrives? Will the virus replicate and mutate in other domestic animals? Have we ignored the warnings (2017 and so on) for too long? Will wildlife poaching rise in the shadow of little eco-tourism? How many more lies will the internet spread about handwashing?

“We have to go see Bill Gates and a lot of different people that really understand what’s happening. We have to talk to them, maybe in certain areas, closing that Internet up in some way. Somebody will say, ‘Oh, freedom of speech, freedom of speech.’ These are foolish people. We have a lot of foolish people.” – Donald Trump, Twitter user.

Keep talking. It’s the only way to progress.

 

The cover image: chicken anus on a stick. From a Taiwanese takeaway store, in China.

 

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!

 

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.

 

Rainbow tapestry.

Sawasdeekhap / Namaste / Welcome!

Last Sunday, I went on a run. Yes, I walked occasionally after the 3km mark, and jogged a bit, but the beach was slanted to the right (east), which is not good when you have right ankle and tendon weaknesses. My right ankle has been suffering instability for year but since late autumn it has been recovering. There is no pain but the super over pronation is inwards and makes it easy for me to roll my ankles and my flat feet. Running is not something that I enjoy nor do I want to do. So, last Saturday evening Gerry and I cycled 20km or so to Cha Am. He was joining the Cha Am Bikini Run (10km run). There were other options such as the half-marathon and a 5km run. As he picked up his bib, to go over his USA flag speedos, I asked if you could run without wearing a bikini or speedos. That is to say, I was curious if you could run in regular shorts and shirts, rather than naked. The gentleman said yes. I asked if I could join the 5km run. I parted with 450 baht and was handed the running number 1143. It had space on it for a temperature check, because of COVID-19 and so on. So, just after 6pm on Saturday, I was to run at 6am the following day. Cheers Gerry!

I crossed the line, sweating and knackered. Just below 36 minutes for the heavy bugger on the old 5K beach run in sun-licked Cha Am. Not bad for someone who hates running. When the world stops worrying and this virus, disease and panic goes away, we’ll mourn the lost and seek normality. Until then, keep hope and do as much as you can in these dark hours. Don’t blame and judge. Be the difference and look to inspire. I entered the 5K run because infectious human attitudes made it appealing. It was a challenge and we as a species are always capable of rising to a challenge. Together we’re stronger. Seeing runners with smiles on their faces and their tribal passion for this sport made me escape the worries of the days ahead. The COVID-19 pandemic is shattering lives globally and I may end up trapped in Thailand for some time. It is what it is. We must find the light of positivity wherever we can. Apinterfood (Hua Hin) has made my day in recent weeks. I’m in Thailand enjoying ice cold Vimto. I wish all around the world peace and love at this difficult time. Vimto has and will bring calm. We need more calm. Less sensationalism, more calm. More Vimto too. Don’t panic buy Vimto. Share the purple love juice. As a wise Mancunian saying goes, “Stay safe our kid.”


IMG_20200201_124646

Back to the Nepal trek we go, and the many sounds of the Marsyangdi River. Leaving the cute puppy eyes, and Jagat behind, the first thing we witnessed was a sheep or goat completely cut open. It seemed a wedding or some other such festivity demanded it. The one thing about the hugely multicultural Nepali lifestyle is, you’re never more than a day or so from a regional, local, religious or personal holiday. All are fascinating in a mammoth amount of ways, however, stepping around a bath of blood on the muddy pathway was a bit too much for breakfast. In my eyes, anyway. Not long after leaving Jagat (1130m), Chamche (1385m) was a passing point. A stunning waterfall cast a rainbow in the blowing water spray, commanded a great place to stand and enjoy the view. Many more waterfalls followed that day, cutting and jutting from the high valley sides, but the Chamche Waterfall opposite the Boong Waterfall and Dense Fall Restaurant was a fine way to inspire a good walk.

Switching away from the road, I clambered along a trail pathway that faced into the ugly road over the valley. The road was a continual scar among the awe-inspiring mountainsides and colossal rocks. The dribbled blasted rocks and erosion alongside the scar gave the appearance of a weeping mountain.

IMG_20200130_170616Tal (1700m) was over a hill. By over the hill, I mean very far away and plenty of up, up, up. Not a hint of what Tal would look like because ultimately some very large geological features were doing a good job of screening the beyond. After some really emotional digging in we were back on the pathway, Livia and I, walking with Srirang not far behind. The few restaurants and hotels along the way were closed, and water had to be gained from river feeds into pipes, and then straight into the Life Straw bottle. Clean and fresh. The great sinister and prophesying slopes ahead didn’t encourage but we dug in. On reaching the top we had an eagle’s eye view into Tal, with an eagle flying beneath us over a wide valley plain and lake within the Marsyangdi River. The overlooking stone gate faced onto Tal. We toyed with how long before Srirang would arrived but decided the best thing was to find somewhere to eat. A gent introduced himself, and told us that his lodge was sadly under repair. His friend from Jagat, at Mont Blanc Hotel, had recommended his sister’s lodge. We said, not to worry, and carried on. We went all the way to the farthest point of the village, Paradise Lodge on his recommendation. Here we ordered food and fussed a local dog that followed us. The pumpkin soup and momos were brilliant. Well needed after that wander, The widened-valley stretched across the banks of the river beneath with a stone plain giving home to the village of Tal. Behind it the Tal waterfalls plummeted downwards powering a turbine or two.

IMG_20200131_094804After a cup of milky coffee, the weakest coffee ever, but warm and sweet, Srirang walked up the garden path. He did not have his backpack. He said he’d checked into Tashi Delek Lodge (named after a Tibetan greeting). We retreated back there and dropped our bags in. The girl at the lodge had wide Tibetan eyes, wonderfully smooth hair and a figure to die for. I seldom judge someone as breath-taking at first sight. She was. And, without appearing like a debauched foreigner, I politely thanked her for showing me to the wide room, and she slid away quietly. A man I assumed to be her father, and a woman who was clearly her mother shuffled around the garden and lodgings in the start of the Manang district. Before a wander out, we ordered our dinners and dal bhat was on the menu once again.

We set out back towards Jagat, but only as far as the lake and plain area opened out downstream. A golden looking dog joined us. He, Livia and Srirang were having a whale of a time. I wandered along quietly amazed at the litter amongst the river bed and shore. It is always sad to see a natural place covered in plastic and soggy discarded clothing. Some will have no doubt been trekking waste, but much would have been due to a lack of waste management. Plastic is a global menace. Tal sits on the line of Tibetan Nepal and Hindu Nepal. A clearer division of cultures was visible. Today’s dal baht was the best that I had ever had. I thought about how many argue that the road across the valley doesn’t detract from the beauty of the area, triggered by a motorbike ripping the arse out of the valley’s silence.

IMG_20200130_163546Before dinner, Livia, Srirang and our new Kukura (कुकुर – a dog) – abandoned Livia’s impressive learning of Nepali language and we went to see the waterfall, lit up by several bulbs and enjoyed the setting sun over the snow-capped mountain ranges of the west. To our north up the Marsyangdi River, cold clouds gathered and swirled. To the south, similar clouds menacingly eddied and flowed over distant peaks. We looked at pictures of a spider and Livia, with Srirang set about creating a kind of social media profile photo montage. The day had been epic in terms of the scale and ravines witnessed, with such dramatic sweeping scenery accompanying us along the way. Following steep stones and vast drops, a few photos of an eight-legged critter seemed fitting. The big and small, side by side.

IMG_20200131_104942The following morning blue skies greeted us all. I’d woken around 7am but we departed closer to 10.30am. Why rush? Armed with a stodgy breakfast we set off early, having chewed on buckwheat bread, omelettes and porridge. The beautiful girl waved us goodbye. The river bent north-west, and we followed the banks, as the valleys once again enclosed the Marsyangdi River. After only a short distance the river pointed north, and we looked upstream at gaping valleys. But, first we enjoyed a smooth and calm waterfall on our right shoulders. Livia washed her hair and Srirang rested for a while. I plodded up the stairs slowly at first and then having reached a crest, decided I’d trot on a little. The valley below deepened and over the river the road slipped lower below me. The mountains above me cast shadows and sunlight broke through the occasional pockets of bamboo forestry. Here the plants became more deciduous than before, with the air temperature hovering just below teens in centigrade. Sound thundered up from the deep vaIMG_20200131_121925lley beneath. After passing the first yak of the journey I found the small village of Karte. That was an ideal break point after some knee-stress-inducing steps on the route so far. As my lunch of pumpkin soup and momos was readied, I walked over the suspension bridge and back. By 12.50pm, I was at Karte, and now I had met the sister of a certain doggy back in Tal. Her puppies were nearby too. I sat and enjoyed the views and had a quick gander on the internet, via the lodge’s wi-fi. Here I read an excellent account of this trekking region by Tasha Amy (spotting a familiar dog too).

Somewhere after Karte, I decided to plonk my bottom down and have a short nap. I positioned my feet on a comfortable rock and slid my head back onto my resting backpack. Why rush? I hadn’t walked too much extra before reaching Dharapani’s first few guesthouses. Here I greeted the owners if the bright pink and green New Tibet Guest House. With a view up at a very high suspension bridge, I decided this would be a good place to stay – especially as Srirang, Livia and I had decided this would be the day’s end. I checked in, explored the waterfall over the river, had a wander within the village and waited not too long for Srirang and Livia to arrive. Dharapani has a few houses, and a population of just over a thousand, throughout about 232 houses. It is the gateway to the Manaslu trekking routes and all climbers who want that scap, head througIMG_20200131_161129h here. The so-called Gandaki Zone of northern Nepal. Just across the river a further 102 houses, house about four times as many people as front doors. The village of Thonje can be reached by a swinging suspension bridge. A river valley to the north-east gives Thonje a headland sandwiching it to the north-west by the Marsyangdi River. The north-easterly direction to Tilche and a village called Goa looked cold and uninviting. The name Thonje means ‘pine trees growing on a flat place’ in Gurung language.

IMG_20200201_131727An hour’s climb up a near vertical cliff-hugging pathway is not the best thing to do for a late breakfast. But, it had to be done. That vertical line of suspension bridge was calling out my name. Eventually I reached the steep-faced village of Nache (2300m) overlooking a sweeping plain and several farming stepped fields. I ducked into the Dona Lake & Restaurant lodge for lunch. With views of Manaslu (8163m) I sank a bowl of pumpkin and onion soup deep into my belly. Lovely vegetable momos joinIMG_20200201_140008ed the soup moments later. After thanking the owner and their family, I swiftly wandered around the bend, shuffled by two bulls blocking the path and skipped on forwards. To walk on a very-raised footbridge was my intention. The pathway descended and Annapurna could be seen across the opposite valley and way off into the distance.

Heights sometimes give me the heebie-jeebies. There’s a touch of anxiety and apprehension. It doesn’t freeze me in panic or fright, but I don’t feel completely comfortable. This bridge, the Nachai Tamrang bridge, was one heebie-jeebies instiller of the highest quality. The valley below is deep (more than 412m). After crossing, I passed some loggers and wandered through the cool pine forest interior. The chilly evening air was refreshing and I spent a long time pondering if the pathway would start to go downhill. It didn’t seem to go that way, until I found a landslip of many tonnes of soil. Just beyond it I could see prayer flags, a large chalky-coloured rock and some white-washed painted bricks and wood.

A Tibetan monastery, just about on the map (Coordinates: 28.526666408038352, 84.36179227677985), more than 55 years old received me. I hadn’t expected it. The monk shouted down to me, after his black dog had alerted him of my presence. I returned the call with a greeting, and asked for advice on how to pass the huge landslip in front of me. He kind of pointed and said, “There isn’t an easy way. Take great care”, followed by a gentle chuckle. I’d fathomed out a pathway to my right, and looped it around but again it had to cross the landslip, over a distance of two metres. Aside from that the landslip was mostly 5 to 15 metres wide. It ran down into a steep pocket of bushes and mud for about ten metres. I couldn’t slip far. I could get buried. It could have been dangerous. So, I did what anyone else faced with a lengthy walk back, I winged it. I jumped over the first metre with consummate ease, and pushed myself into the soft earth, to allow for a steady flick into the solid growth by a tree and then shuffled up to the gate at the top.

I talked with the resident monk, and he told me of the story of his predecessor who had been there for 55 years. He showed me damage on a wall from the terrible earthquake years ago, the huge tree grown from a seed by his predecessor. The steep garden reaching up from two buildings featured diversity in its birdlife. The national bird, the Himalayan Monal (Lophophorus impejanus) foraged amongst the peaceful greenery. Wind battered away at flags, and several thin cats wandered around. I had a guided tour within the small monastery and made a donation. With light fading I bid farewell, and shuffled off downhill for the bridge to Thonje, and then the eventual bridge to Dharapani, back to my lodge across the way from the highest bridge that I had ever seen, just upstream from the skeleton of a sagging bridge and its replacement nearby. The warm cushions and the fireplace alongside hot meals made for a good night of sleep, despite the icy cold temperatures outside. Dharapani will stick in my mind as one of the most pleasant places on this journey.

It had rolling power cuts as during daylight, they turned off the power whilst they fitted new power lines. Several huge boulders, landslides, avalanches and other such damage had created supply instability. Leaning and/or crushed pylons needed replacing for many kilometres. The monsoon seasons, the winter, the dry days, and other erosion factors made life hard for local people. The power and a recently installed internet feed gave a very modern touch, along with the new road creating regular gas deliveries and other luxuries throughout the region. What many take for granted around the world had only just arrived. The old and new. The New Tibet Guest House even had western toilets, complete with fully flushing bits. What wasn’t to like? A warm shower and a sit-down pooh. As many returning trekkers passed me by advising of closed pathways near Manang, I didn’t worry. If I couldn’t go that high, I’d not be too upset. The journey was already wonderful.

 

At Dharapani (1900m), on leaving our permits were checked. It was all very official and the Police here advised that trekking beyond Manang was unlikely for several days. Livia and Srirang looked disappointed but I guessed they’d wait it out. I was on a tight timetable and wouldn’t be rushing up, either way. The journey was magnificent and for me it had no planned end point. Something special always arrives if you let it. Okay, that sounded very Walt Disney, but I truly believe that you can’t force a trek in the Himalayas. Just go with flow. Feel the rhythm, feel the ride, it’s bobsleigh time…So, that day we slipped through Odar ( a village where I was told  a landslide killed a sleeping trekker some years ago) , Bagarchap (2160m – a village once washed away in 1995), Danagyu (2200m – an unappealing lengthy village, with a Buddhist Monastery opposite a Hydro Electric Plant warning about dangers in the workplace and you only having one life…), and spent some considerable time climbing to Timang (2710m). Livia and Srirang took the road, but I was bored of the road and wanted to see more natural settings that dusty rocks and broken lines of earth.

So, here began the tough part of the trek… forests of pine and fir…

 


Life will find a way.” – Ian Malcolm, character in the novel Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton

Back to today’s news. Tragedy. More grimness and COVID-19 panic. More worries. It is making me feel down, actually. I worry. I try to escape.I don’t want to see Chinese people boasting how their great nation beat the virus. It isn’t over. I hope to hell, for many it will be over soon. Yes, great doctors and nurses have done wonderful things. But, leaders and officials have let people down. Still, the late Dr Li Wenliang has been exonerated by his government. Too little, too late? 

A while ago, Boris Johnson said he’d take the virus and disease outbreak – on a Friday. He called a COBR meeting for the Monday. This is the same man who said to sing Happy Birthday twice whilst scrubbing your mitts. USA had a drive-through testing centre made by Google. As foot-tap alternatives to handshakes greeted each other, I couldn’t help wondering how they take their shoes off, which obviously were exposed to things that people touched, and probably, hands earlier in the day… The Ian Duncan Smith virus harms the elderly amongst us and this virus is going all Energizer bunny, on and on, and on. It’s tragic but please stay safe, calm and dish out some Gallow’s Humour. Keep your stuff upper lip. The battle goes on.

“If there’s one thing the history of evolution has taught us, it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories, and crashes through barriers painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh, well, there it is.” –  Ian Malcolm, character in the novel Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton

Life goes on.

 

A refuge (with passion)

Sawasdeekhap / Namaste / Welcome!

In the first week of my arrival in Thailand, I was blessed by a visit to the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT). The word sanctuary implies something of an ethical nature. This is one such place. WFFT is an Elephant refuge and more. For just 1800 baht per person, Gerry and I were picked up in Hua Hin and dropped by the swanky I-Love-Phants-Lodge within the WFFT’s grounds. Our kind hosts told us to make ourselves at home, but avoid the trunk of a neighbouring mischievous elephant nearby. At lunch time we returned to the lodge for a fantastic and filling buffet meal. Animal lovers and those infected by passion for a good cause can learn much in this day out – and feed well.

Back in 2001, this N.G.O. (non-governmental organisation) started up. Since then, it has grown and stands for rescue, rehabilitation, and combatting the illegal animal trade. There’s an educational side too. Today, it offers visitors a full day out, to explore their grounds under supervision. The guides are knowledgeable, passionate and witty. As well as seeing rescued animals, you can meet volunteers, see their ambitious expansion of paddocks and community-available veterinary quarters. There’s a chance to further understand each animal’s case and hear of their many success stories. Expect to see gibbons, macaque, loris, langur, reptiles, otters, deer, birds and floppy-eared elephants. No touching is allowed but you do get to wash an elephant, feed an elephant and see them up close and personal.

The good work of the WFFT has made its way into living rooms around the world. The BBC, Bondi Vet, Animal Planet and National Geographic have showcased some of their work – but you can help out by getting involved, visiting or donating to help more than 600 animals on-site.  Eating lunch in the lodge allowed a view of gibbons, and their awesome swinging arms, alongside roaming elephants bathing themselves in dust and the sound of an orchestra of birdlife. I sat reading about how in 2012, they stood against government-backed raiders, battled in the courtroom, helped after the devastating 2004 Tsunami and worked overseas with other such groups, spreading the good name of Thailand. Founder Edwin Wiek has recently joined a parliamentary advisory committee charged with strengthening the 2017 Wildlife Preservation Act. There’s hope for gibbons and more, yet!

In Thailand, people pose with sedated tigers, gibbons and overworked elephants. Other animals join that list. The exploited animals are often torn painfully from the wild. Death has most likely come to the animal’s parental group. Inbreeding has likely happened in the case of tigers. Mothers forced to birth as quick as physically possible. Mistreated, malnourished and abused animals can occur in any country around the world. Here, there are monkeys trained to fetch coconuts and other animals performing stunt tricks. I’ve seen this kind of thing in China, and it sickens me that humanistic behaviours are forced upon people, all in the name of greed. Human amusement and bemusement, especially within the tourism industry strips, degrades and humiliates. Some argue it is traditional but can’t argue for ethical. We as travelers and tourists have a responsibility to end the demand. Or, will we just take one more selfie with a gibbon smacked off its tits on sleeping tablets? If people didn’t go to places like the notorious Tiger Temple, there’d be no demand. Simple as.

How did an elephant become a taxi on a Bangkok street? What does the weight of two people and a cradle cart do to the spine of an Asian elephant? How did the tiger train so well to get where it is? Use your noggin, your bonce, your head, wobble it a bit and let some steam filter out. Be diligent. A moment of research could mean your hard-earned money goes to a nasty man or to the good of mankind adding some beauty to the creatures of Earth. If you support the nasty man and his nasty animal place, you’re condoning crimes against wildlife and nature. Is that you? Support. Wreck the wilderness. Deaths. Abuse. Parade. View. Support. And on and on. Pain and suffering. Is that what you want just for a few likes on Instagram or Facebook? Right now, the Covid-19 outbreak is denting tourism and sanctuaries need support more than ever.

Around Thailand, there is an increasing change in attitudes towards conservation and animal welfare. The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project (reintroducing the once extinct gibbon to the island of Phuket); Chang Mai’s Elephant Nature Park; numerous dog and cat rescue centres (many providing adoptions, neutering and vaccinations); Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary (again Chang Mai); more elephants at Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES) in Sukhothai; and yet more free-roaming elephants at the Krabi Elephant Sanctuary.


 

Speaking of suffering…

There’s a huge difference from the Manchester Derby games of the 90s. City didn’t compete for trophies then.  They certainly didn’t have two pieces of silverware in the cabinet for the current season.  We didn’t win against Man Utd that often and Old Trafford was a place of dread. All derby games can go either way, with single moments being turning points.  A weird free kick for a foul that probably never was, a hand offside, or a penalty claim waved away. That’s football. City didn’t deserve the win yesterday. This season we’re soft in our hunger and leadership. There really are a few sparks missing. Still, much to play for.

The bragging rights have gone, 3-1 to Them Lot. We’ve had worse days.  Be nice if we can meet them in the Champions League and put that right. Oh… oops. That sounded proper RAG then, and I didn’t even want it to be arrogant. FA Cup semi, if we both make it? Sterling, Ederson, Rodri, and nOtamendi, with Zinchenko didn’t set the world alight and will surely be a tad better next time round. Really set it up for Liverpool at our place, wouldn’t it be nice to give them the guard of honour? That doesn’t bother me thankfully. Right, I’m going to go and polish Ederson’s boots and re-stitch his gloves. Manchester City ruined my life? Never. The boys in blue never give in.  Next.


Back to Chef Cha’s?

Today I have mostly been eating breakfast. Chef Cha is very convenient. Too convenient. After a bowl of breakfast cereal and a glass of orange juice, I’ve found myself drawn to the occasional late breakfast (or I guess some call it brunch). For elevenses, I’ve enjoyed scrambled eggs, bacon, toast with a salad trimming, and a coffee for 150 baht a few times this last week. With my friends Eddie and Gerry, we’ve also sampled some great evening foods there too. There’s a great mix of western and Thai foods. The restaurant itself is sheltered from the sun (unless you opt for the very in the sun areas), has both a sheltered indoor area and a very enclosed area too.

There’s a quaint feel to the place, that is both modern and classic. The decor isn’t loud. The music is well-balanced and cosy. The staff in Chef Cha are really warm and welcoming. Even the two very clean cats that visited rolled around without disturbing our food and shared some affection afterwards. There’s class there too. Chef Cha has a great wine list and a reasonable selection of both soft and hard drinks. If you do get time, have a look at the walls, and see the former Hilton hotel chef’s personal history. You can’t fault people who take pride in their passions. Fair play. I’ll be back again soon. Maybe tomorrow, in fact. Right after the aloe vera massage, maybe?

So much joy you can give, to each brand new, bright tomorrow…