Category Archives: Walking

Playing at being ‘Jane in the Jungle’.

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Finally, the time of procrastination is at an end…  Back in China, almost settled into my new apartment, and knees as operational as they will get: time to don the hiking boots and explore the great outdoors of Hangzhou and beyond!!

Over the past twelve months, I have been on a fair few trips in China, mainly with organisations that cater well for the expat community…  Cash-rich (relatively speaking) and time-poor, weekend trips are often the only option for us, with longer trips reserved for Chinese national holidays or the long summer break when everyone hankers after an opportunity to escape China’s pollution and insanity, as well as Hangzhou’s oppressive heat.

Recently, a new travel group has burst onto the scene, this time based in Hangzhou itself.  Capitalising on a gap in the market for low-cost trips for eager low-budget travellers such as students and English teachers, they offer day trips for the adventurous and hike-loving,  all within easy reach of Hangzhou…  give or take a few hours of sitting in a coach… So my last few weekends have been fairly action-packed on a quest for the hidden gems and thrills of Zhejiang Province.

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Noodle Village

After an early start and a tedious drive battling with holiday traffic in China, we reached the ancient noodle village of Panzhoujia…  If we had expected to take part in the noodle making ceremony, we had arrived in the wrong season.  Tea leaf picking was the more urgent, and clearly more profitable business rather than entertaining hapless tourists with draping over-long noodles over the extended chain of arms…  Of course, we – all twenty of us –  had a little go and carefully stretched one noodle between us before having the pleasure – and it was a pleasure – of eating the famed noodle soup trying to fish out the meters-long noodles…

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The 3-D Village

Chinese people have a knack of spotting business opportunities where we might see none… Derelict and remote buildings nestled against a hillside would hardly attract our attention, but how better to entice the masses than by decorating walls with 3D paintings and calling it the ‘3D Village’…  And when a visit to this place coincides with the spring extravaganza of rapeseed flowers on the hillside terraces, you can be guaranteed of an influx of visitors and a healthy supply of traffic jams..

Authentic Hangzhou

Real adventure can definitely be found in and around Hangzhou with the Hash Harriers – the running/hiking group with a ‘drinking problem’.  Admittedly, I have so far stuck to hiking the trails rather than running, but a slower speed means more chance to take in the often spectacular scenery.  A recent night hike revealed Hangzhou’s West Lake in its nocturnal glory, a blaze of colour reflected in the water.  And of course,  there is more fun to be found off the beaten track, clambering over rocks and sliding down muddy slopes, experiencing some of the few remaining authentic nature areas that escaped a Chinese makeover…   Nothing beats a bit of a ‘Tarzan and Jane’ exploit!!

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Tianmen Mountain challenge… walking the glass plank…

And then there was the challenge of the ‘Coiled Dragon Cliff Walkway’, built along the edges of Tianmen Mountain’s summits, clinging to the sheer vertical cliffs. Part of the cliff-hugging walkway had a makeover last summer and those who dare can now brave a walk over the 100m long tract of crystal clear glass looking all the way down to the bottom of the cliff… It is not for the faint-hearted and requires a bit of stamina as the walkway is only reached after climbing 999 steeps steps.  Not a mean feat on warmer days, but the views of the valley and the surrounding nineteen peaks are awesome and certainly worth the effort.  And the scary looking bridge suspended between two peaks???  Luckily, it looked more flimsy from a distance; it was clearly well-maintained and in good condition to make sure that visitors do not come to a sticky end…  At the end of the climb, we found a delightful little pool, fed by fresh water streaming downhill…  How could anyone resist the temptation of dipping their feet in???

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The dangers of courting danger…

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They say that your life flashes before your eyes when you find yourself in a scrape that could easily have a sticky end…   I can assure you this is not the case.  Instead the air explodes in  a firework of colourful expletives, closely followed by desperate appeals to a merciful God:  ‘Please, let me not break any bones!!’

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‘Tiger Leaping Gorge’, Yunnan Province, China

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With a little imagination you can see the tiger’s eye and nose, crouching, ready to pounce

We were on the last of our hikes, the one we had not been warned about.  ‘Tiger Leaping Gorge’ – a scenic canyon on a primary tributary of the Yangtze River –  indeed featured on our itinerary, but we were assured that after our initial two days of strenuous trekking, we could retire our walking boots and gear.  As it was towards the end of our week’s adventure in the most beautiful province of Yunnan, with its snow capped mountains and spectacular mirror lake, I had put on my last clean t-shirt.  Crisp and white, unworn and fresh from Wal-mart, on its first outing, not a stain or blemish in sight…  Too late to fish out my proper walking trousers or a more suitable t-shirt, I settled for the essentials: changing my footwear and leaving behind my hiking poles.  Better not to carry anything in your hands, as it would be a hindrance on the way up, the guide argued.  Anyway, what could go wrong during a one-hour descent into the gorge and a two hours ascent on a well-worn path?

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‘The First Bend of the Yangtze River’, near Lijiang.

Earlier in the week, in the Meli National Park, we had tackled punishing steep climbs, when the high altitude sucked out all our energy and everyone struggled to catch their breath on the sharp inclines.  Our efforts and hard work were rewarded by awe-inspiring scenery and the sheer excitement of a mission successfully completed.  Nothing could surpass the glow of the awakening sun settling on the snow-capped mountains… Unless maybe glimpsing the arch of the rainbow thrown across the mountain range by a scattering of early morning raindrops.

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Nestled between the high peaks of the  Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (5,600 m) and Haba Snow Mountain  (5,400m),  the Yangtze courses through the ‘Tiger Leaping’ gorge in a series of treacherous rapids, deemed too perilous to navigate, and flanked by almost vertical, sheer  2000 m cliffs.   It is by far the most dangerous stretch of the river, and only two teams of rafters and sailors are known to have survived the attempt to pass it. Exhilarating to be so close to this, we thought, as we edged nearer the turbulent waters.  We eyed the wobbly bridge spanning the gap across the river to a large body of black rock outcrops jutting out from the gush.  A perfect spot for a group photograph.

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Just a few hundred metres along, another suspension bridge hovered over the thundering river,  a temptation hard to resist.  A small group of us ventured into its direction, in pursuit of yet another envy-inspiring picture to post on WeChat or Facebook and to revel in the dare of watching the water crashing underneath.  I stopped briefly to take a few shots, but clearly lingered too long whilst all the others in the group disappeared around the bend and into the distance.  Not a soul in sight.  I stuffed my phone in my pocket and tried to catch up with them…

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To this day, I cannot fathom what happened.  I have traversed many rickety bridges and walked gingerly on narrow ledges, always checking carefully I have a sure footing.  Maybe I was in too much of a rush and threw caution to the wind, blasé about having tramped over too many shaky and ramshackle constructions.  Maybe I just thought there was a wider crossing over the crevice in the rocks.  Perhaps I slipped on the curved surface of the tree trunk spanning the gap.  Or maybe part of the wood gave way…  When I surveyed the area later on, there was certainly evidence a chunk of wood had recently broken off.  In the end it did not matter, because whatever the reason, I found myself tumbling down the rock face, down towards the rush of the Yangtze River eagerly waiting at the bottom.

To begin with, I dropped down feet first, then on my back, my fall softened by sturdy bushes and plants and cushioned by a backpack bulging with my fleece and waterproofs.  I watched the mocking leaden sky peeking through the foliage.  No time to panic, my only concern: no one had seen me fall… the path in front of me and behind had been empty.  OMG, I kept on thinking!! ‘Oh no, oh my God,’ as I kept on slipping further down.  How did this happen to me? ‘How the hell am I going to get out of here…  oh, shit…’  The welcome respite from some branches that held my weight was short-lived as they quickly and suddenly gave way..  And I continued downwards, where greenery was scarcer and bare rocks protruded menacingly.  I hit my head on a rock, more aware of the sound than any pain..  How far was I still from the river?  How high was the path above the river?  How many more rocks would I crash into??  What would happen if I broke my legs or an arm?? Please let me not break anything!!

After an eternity of seconds, I came to a rest on a ledge extending from the vertiginous rocks, still conscious and able to check my vital signs: my phone was still in my pocket and working! But I watched, shaking,  as my water bottle escaped from my backpack and rattled further down, sneering with every bounce.   No time to wonder about the dull pain in my left ankle and having yet again hurt my left knee; no point in worrying about the bump on my head.  I needed to get out of there, quickly and on my own… Not once did I cast a backward glance to see how close I got to the river or how wide the little ledge was.  I scanned the wall looming in front of me, peering through the shrubbery to see how high I needed to climb…

At lunchtime, the Spanish pilot in our group of travellers related a story about a man who spent two days crawling out of a ravine after he crashed his car and broke both his legs.  We talked about the extraordinary willpower it must have taken and how he would have dealt with unimaginable agony.  Where does the strength come from?   Of course, with both my arms and legs sufficiently intact,  I was not in any such predicament, but the adrenaline rush that accompanies a stressful situation blots out the pain and turns jellified joints and muscles into incredibly strong steel rods.   I did not try to use my phone or even check whether there was any reception.  I felt the might of Hercules speeding through my veins and used all my resolve to haul myself up, hoping the plants that protected me from the worst on the way down,  were anchored deeply and would support me out of the crevice and back onto those wonky pieces of wood.  I probably only tumbled down 5 or six metres,  not enough to call the air rescue team…

Finally reaching the ‘safety’ of the path, I felt the sticky mess on the back of my head.  Hands covered in blood, red and green stains on my new t-shirt, I must have looked a sight.  Luckily, the cut was only superficial as my walking hat had shielded me from more deeper wounds… and I only saw the rainbow of bruises on my body when I got back home two days later.  It could have been so much worse.. but I never made it to the second bridge over the Yangtze River, feeling definitely a little too shaky after the experience.

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And as if I had not had enough adventure for one day… instead of meandering along the winding slope to the top of the gorge, we made our way up via an assembly  of ladders fixed against the  sheer  90˚ rock face.  Definitely the quicker way up, but safer????  We ‘only’ had  a few hundred rungs to go, so  I grit my teeth and got on with it…

In the future, I shall look at wobbly, decaying bridges and dicey river crossings with the respect they deserve and just maybe not be so flippant about them…  Courting danger can be dangerous indeed and good endings are not guaranteed!!

Dragon Boat Festival without the boats or dragons..

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I know what you are expecting.  The name Dragon Boat Festival says it all:  long, narrow boats laboured across lakes and rivers in pursuit of being the first one to cross the finishing line.  And indeed, if I had stayed in Hangzhou with the thousands of other Chinese locals and visitors, those might have  been the images I captured.  But having experienced the throng of the masses during the first of my ‘long holidays’ here, I thought it best to plan an escape and leave the sights of Hangzhou behind.  What chance would I really have stood to make it to the front of the crowd to take the coveted pictures??

As it happened, I found out about a travel organisation which caters for the likes of us, ex-pats: time starved and travel hungry trying to squash seeing China into the meagre weekends at our disposal..  Or being tempted further afield by neighbouring countries with pristine beaches, endless azure seas and skies, exotic  vistas barely touched by tourism.  But with only a short while to the three day break, the more extravagant trips had long been snapped up and I was left to explore Tulou country, an area in the Fujian Province, close to Xiamen, renowned for its unique fort-like circular buildings designed by the Hakka minority as large fortresses and living spaces in one.  Maybe not my favourite destination, but with Western company guaranteed,  it certainly beat the prospect of a swarming Hangzhou …

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We left on Thursday, a day almost entirely eaten up by a very, very long train journey.  Although we may only have moved a pin prick on the map of China, it took us 8 hours to reach our destination, or at least the train station where we all met and then transferred onto our bus to carry on our journey, onto the Tulou – part of yet another UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site – where we stayed for the night.  I suppose the prospect of spending the night  in ‘ancient Chinese mud castles’ had its charms.  Luckily rooms had been upgraded with mod cons such as fans and sockets to ensure phones and camera batteries could be charged… and of course satellite dishes to guarantee access to what goes on in the rest of the world.  And there was hot water in the shower…although the wiring probably would not have passed any safety regulations in the western world!

With precious little time to waste, the weekend was crammed with activities.  A quick glance around the Tulou after allocating rooms, and then a delicious dinner was followed by sampling local teas, some more delicate and aromatic than others and the more drinkable and delectable ones definitely extremely expensive.  But it was interesting to watch the tea ceremony and rituals: the washing of the delicate cups carefully held and handled with tweezers; the tea being poured unhurriedly; endless cups of fragrant tea perfumed by just a minuscule amount of tea leaves and flowers used over and over again..

On Saturday we explored the surrounding Tulous, mostly circular buildings dating from between 960 AD to as recent as 1949 and marvelled at the mud and wooden structures and the circular perfection.

We took silly pictures near the pillars erected to commemorate the chiefs of the villages and walked between the Oolong tea terraces to get great views of the valleys.  We hiked in the drizzle, and the rain and downpours, and delighted in locally grown coffee.

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On Sunday we made our way to Gulangyu,  an island with a long colonial history, just off Xiamen.  After China lost the first Opium War, sometime in the mid 19th century, 13 countries including Great Britain, France and Japan established consulates, churches, and hospitals and the island is now famous for its classical and romantic European-style architecture.  Not that there was much on show for us…  As so many Chinese places of interest, Gulangyu is vying for the ‘UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE’ accolade, just another one to add to the already long list of sites.  And as the inspection is looming next year, no efforts are spared to spruce up the joint.  Buildings of interest are wrapped in scaffolding, narrow paths and roads are broken up with clouds of dust settling on the street food, and the crowded beach is still littered with debris… Maybe we just came about 12 months too early to revel in the legacies of colonialism.

 

 

England’s Green and Pleasant Land…

 

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The lighthouse, Berwick Upon Tweed, near the Scottish border

Did I like Kerala, one of the older students at the school enquired towards the end of my stay in India.   Surely, there was no other place in the world as green and beautiful as Kerala??   ‘It is after all God’s Own Country,’  she added.

It is impossible to argue with the greenness of Kerala,  but although the state indeed has some spectacular scenic areas, would God allow its countrymen to spoil such splendour by piling up rubbish along the roadsides??  So let’s not forget the true origin of the famous adage: it was thought up by the creative director of an Indian ad agency to promote tourism for Kerala… so rather subjective to say the least.  He clearly never set eyes on William Blake’s green and pleasant land!

But how can I blame the children of the school for thinking that only Kerala boasts green countryside as it never occurred to me to show them photographs of  England!!  So, in the past few weeks I have been documenting my travels in the country so that at least I can put the record straight and allow my future students a glimpse of what the world looks like beyond the boundaries of their geography books.

During my 10 week stay I covered the length of England, touching the sea in Bournemouth, lingering in the rejuvenated city of Birmingham and being caught in a January snowstorm courtesy of Storm Henry near the Scottish border.   Okay, as I was here in the winter months, the countryside was only a muted green speckled with the yellows and browns of sun-starved grass, with bare branches stretching out against darkened skies,  and early splashes of colour overshadowed by the ghostly skeletons of last summer’s flora.   Then there were the towns, a marriage of history and innovation, and unintended additions of local artists… And every so often the sun would peep out to dazzle land- and sea-scapes with an intensity to rival Kerala’s.

Seaside in the South: Bournemouth:

 

Walking in the New Forest with the family, South-East England.  And watching the wild ponies:

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Lickey Hill Walk in the Midlands on Boxing Day:

 

Suburban Birmingham, in all its glory…  maybe not all the pictures are suitable for use at school!!:

 

Birmingham: a city in transition as modern architecture fuses with history:

 

And after a four hour train journey from London’s King’s Cross I enjoyed the spectacular views of Berwick upon Tweed, immortalised by Lowry, its ancient and fortified walls bearing witness to the incursions of the Scots. The Scottish border a mere 5 km away… What about the Saturday morning blizzards?  A mere trifle to contend with for weathered walkers such as Liz and me…

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