There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 19 December 2016

Cannock Chase Mild and Dry - So Much Better: The (N + 6)th Annual Fish and Chip Walk

I wonder how many annual Chip Walks I have been on? It may be as many as twenty - Francis and I have the honour (?!) of having walked every one of them - but this is definitely the seventh on this blog. Brian, an ever-present until 2011 but now removed to Torquay, kindly commented on last year’s post that I was still finding new things to say. Well that was last year, this year I am struggling...

Cannock Chase is the perfect place for a winter walk; a pile of pebbles a hundred metres high is always going to drain better than the surrounding Staffordshire clay. Unfortunately the Chase is not very big, at 68km² it is England's smallest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and as we all live west of the Chase and the lunchtime stop is fixed at Longdon (or the Chetwyn Arms, Brocton, when the Swan with Two Necks was closed) available routes are not numerous.

We met at the Cutting Car Park at Milford on the Chase’s western edge, just like last year only this time it was not raining. Six participants is a healthy turn out and it was good to see Alison C and Sue who had been unavailable last year. Anne who has been with us the last two years was unfortunately unavailable and Torquay-based Brian, must be regarded as a permanent absentee from this, though not other walks.
Sue, Mike, Alison, Francis and Lee
Cutting Car Park, Milford

As usual we walked towards the Cutting itself (which I wrote about in ((N + 3) Jan 2014) and, again as usual chose the path along the top, avoiding the muddy bottom.

Choosing the path along the top rather than the one with a soggy bottom
 I rarely look into the Cutting, but I did this year and was surprised by its depth.
Looking down from the top of the Cutting, Cannock Chase
At the end we passed Mere Pits and, again as usual, walked along the lip of the Sherbrook Valley to the largely empty Coppice Hill car park. A small diversion took us to the bird feeding station. In last year's rain there had been many birds, but my attempts at photographing them were as dismal as the weather. This year there were fewer, but I got a reasonable shot of a great tit.
Great Tit, Coppice Hill feeding station, Cannock Chase
As on all these walks we eventually turned down into the valley and equally inevitably crossed the brook. There is not much of it this far up and some of us eschewed the stepping stones and strode through the inch deep water.

Down into the Sherbrook Valley, Cannock Chase
From here we turned onto Pepper Slade. 'We don't often come up here,' Francis remarked. Had a cheery Black Country musician appeared among the pepper vines and yelled 'It's Christmas' it really would have been different, but this is the Chase, where most paths look like every other path - and that includes Pepper Slade. I don't want to sound grumpy  - it was great to be out in the fresh air on a mild, dry December day - but I am just struggling for something new to say, and I discussed the local use of 'slade' back in 2011.
Pepper Slade, no Noddy, no spice
Near the top was a plantation of ‘Christmas trees’, though they were obviously not, as they were still there in late December - and a bit spindly too.

Not really Christmas trees, Pepper Slade

Progressing to Rifle Range Corner (though the WW1 rifle range has long gone) we paused while some thought was given to the route, not that there was much choice.
That's clearly not Santa  getting advice from a couple of dodgy looking elves
Rifle Range Corner, Cannock Chase
We followed the minor road (Penkridge Bank) for a couple of hundred metres before turning right down towards Fairoak Lodge. Well off the road and deep in the woods is a clearing with a few houses. We had intended turning left down to Fairoak Pools but missed the path, arriving in the yard of the last house just as the owner came out. 'I think Santa's lost his way, ' he said cheerily, which was odd as though Lee and Alison were impersonating elves Santa himself was not actually with us this year. He directed us back up the path where we found a small track descending in the right direction. Sue set off down it.

Sue heads off down the narrow track
There was no sign and it was so small I wondered if we were on a deer trail, but it soon widened and we quickly reached the path past the pools.

The path widens as it heads down to the Fairoak Pools, Cannock Chase
We stopped for coffee at the same seat as last year. Although the continuous drizzle was mercifully absent this time everybody except Alison  decided the bench was too wet to sit on.

Coffee break by one of the Fairoak Pools
Last year the water fowl had been pleased to see us. This year they ignored us - perhaps they remembered that we had not fed them. We fed ourselves though, Mike generously sharing a tray of mini mince-pies.

One of the Fairoak Pools, Cannock Chase
Refreshed, we continued along the bed of the River Budleighensis (see last year's report) past the two Fairoak pools and then turned right between the Stony Brook pools to cross the brook on the day’s second set of stepping stones.

Across the stepping stones between the Stony Brook Pools, Cannock Chase
We followed the path to the minor road, walked under the railway bridge to the Hednesford Road, crossed it and started the long drag up Miflins Valley. Every time we come here I describe it as a 'long drag'; it is a steadily rising path which seems to return little for the effort made. I am also irritated by my inability to discover the origin of the unusual name. The only notable Miflin I can find was Thomas Miflin, Governor of Pennsylvania in the 1790s, but his family came from Wiltshire.

The long drag up Miflins Valley, Cannock Chase
Despite my dislike of Miflins Valley, I must admit it has some fine beech trees. I photographed one last year and some different ones this year.
Beech trees in Miflins Valley, Cannock Chase
The path eventually runs into the continuation of Marquis Drive. It is difficult to believe that on such a well-worn track we could make the second navigational error of the day, but we did. The Chase is not an easy place to navigate; the rights of way shown boldly on the map are sometimes barely visible on the ground and the often substantial forestry tracks are faint on the map. We headed too far south and reached the wrong side of Wandon caravan park. I have never been to Wandon before but now know it is not worth the detour. The result was a slightly longer than expected walk along the minor road to the Stile Cop car park from where Lee drove us to Longdon and the Swan with Two Necks.
Arriving at the Stile Cop car park
The object of the walk is fish and chips. They tried to palm us off with their 'Festive menu' but we stood firm. 'We only have five small fish and chips,' the six of us were told. Sue, who in 2011 disgraced herself by eating chicken and pasta on a chip walk (‘I don’t like the greasy batter’) looked smug but redeemed herself anyway by ordering scampi and chips which has been deemed acceptable since at least 2014. Then Alison was informed that, despite earlier suggestions, none of the five remaining fish were gluten free. She had gammon steak, but under the circumstances escapes censure.
Lee, Sue and Francis get stuck into their fish (or scampi) 'n' chips
Swan with Two Necks, Upper Longdon
The fish was described as ‘small’ which clearly involved some use of the word previously unknown to me; I was well stuffed and failed to finish.
Swan with Two Necks, Upper Longdon
There was no question about whether there would be an afternoon walk - unlike last year when the atrocious weather was a terminal discouragement - but as lunch arrived just before two it was three o'clock before Lee had driven us through Rugeley and past the now redundant power station to the Seven Springs car park. My map does not mark any springs in the vicinity, let alone seven.

With sunset at 3.55 it was never going to be a long afternoon, but we left the ‘springs’ at a smart pace through an area of silver birches.
Through silver birches from Seven Springs, Cannock Chase

From here there is hardly any descent into the Sherbrook Valley and we crossed the stream on the third set of stepping stones for the day, but the first called The Stepping Stones.
Crossing the Sherbrook at the Stepping Stones, Cannock Chase

A very gentle climb up the other side brought us back to the Cutting car park just as the sun was setting. And so ended a very pleasant day’s walk.
And back towards the Cutting

Despite my misgivings I did find something to say - over a thousand words of something - though little of it was new (and the stuff about Thomas Miflin was deeply irrelevant!). I'll try again next year.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Wuyishan (2) Bamboo Rafts and Tianyou Peak: Part 9 of South East China

Wonder Wang, the imaginatively named young man in Chengdu who had planned this trip for us had warned that ‘there would only be Chinese breakfasts’. No problem, we thought, a good Chinese breakfast is infinitely preferable to a bad ‘western breakfast'. Today, though, we were not offered a ‘good’ Chinese breakfast. With several busloads of tourists to deal with the staff had put the food out early, the noodles had congealed into a single inseparable lump and the rice… well, best not.

M (our guide) turned up for her free breakfast – well no one can ruin a boiled egg – and afterwards we set out for the Wuyi Mountains UNESCO World Heritage site.

Location of Wuyishan (Wuyi Mountains) in south east China

The day was dull and grey, though not cold, and the entrance huge and forbidding. The Chinese authorities like to open up these sites, invite tourists by the hundred thousand and then strictly regiment everything they do; their desire to control transforming a wilderness area into a facsimile of a Disney Adventureland. My resulting grumpiness prompted Lynne to remind me that I travel to experience other cultures, and this was the Chinese way. She was right, which made me even grumpier, but the Chinese revel in it, marching in battalions behind the leader’s flag as he or she barks out instructions through a hand-held loudspeaker.
Standing in front of the entrance to the Wuyishan scenic area

Once inside, we strolled through the trees to an area where shuttle buses and road-trains waited to whisk the masses to their approved recreation zones. M found the right bus (we would have had no chance without her) and we travelled several miles down an ordinary road to what seemed an ordinary village.

We were there to board a bamboo raft for a trip down the Jiuqu Xi (Nine-Bend River). The Chinese need to enumerate everything (the Five Sacred Mountains, the Four  Great Gardens...) springs from the same source as their desire to regiment and be regimented but I love the futility of trying to define the number of bends on a river.

The Chinese, of course, turn up mob-handed for their river trips. The rafts hold six and we had to wait while M found a spare foursome we could tag along with. Her ability to speak Chinese was invaluable but she struggled to communicate with us. Although local tourist flock to the Wuyi mountains, foreigners are a rarity and if we insist on coming to such places we should not be overly surprised when our ‘English speaking’ guide doesn’t.

Eventually we settled into a boat and pushed off.
Setting off down the Jiuqu Xi (Nine-Bend River)

The six passengers had a crew of two, a man at the back with a pole…
Action man helps us down the Jiuqu Xi (Nine-Bend River), Wuyishan

…and a woman at the front with a pole and the gift of the gab. She kept the four other punters entertained and informed, but it rather washed over us. Her hat was covered with tin foil, perhaps for a protection against Wuyi’s semi-permanent drizzle, but if she worried about aliens stealing her brainwaves it would help with that too.
While the talking came from the front, Jiuqu Xi (Nine-Bend River), Wuyishan

The river enjoyed occasional outbreaks of ebullience, calling them ‘rapids’ would be over-dramatizing,….
Approaching an outbreak of 'ebullience', Jiuqu Xi, Wuyishan

…and bamboo floats very low in the water, so when encountering an ‘ebullience’ it was wise to raise one’s feet.
Lift your feet, Jiuqu Xi, Wuyishan

Wet feet or not, the Wuyishan Scenic Area is appropriately named and we floated past sheer cliffs,…..

Cliffs beside the Jiuqu Xi (Nine-Bend River), Wuyishan
….peered into the misty depths of the mountains…

The misty Wuyishan Mountains

….and marvelled at unusual rock formations.
Rock formations beside the Jiuqu Xi (Nine-Bend River), Wuyishan

Occasionally the rafts formed themselves into a queue….
A queue of rafts on the Jiuqu Xi, Wuyishan

….with some overtaking,….
Overtaking our rivals, Jiuqu Xi,Wuyishan

But for two hours we generally drifted quietly on, under the only bridge…
Bridge over the Jiuqu Xi, (Nine-Bend River) Wuyishan

….and, near the end, past Yunnu Hill, the symbol of the Wuyi mountains.

I am uncertain which word best describes Yunnu Hill, but I am sure it is not ‘hill’. I have been unable to discover the Chinese word used, but official translations can be misleadingly rigid. The Chinese for ‘river’ is (pronounced with a rising tone, roughly ‘huh?’), we were rafting on a , unfailingly translated in official guides as ‘brook’ while liú is ‘stream’, but the Chinese words hé, and liú only roughly correspond to river, brook and stream (and what about gyhll, burn and beck?). Being a requires a lot of water, whereas a 'river' can be more modest; I have referred to Jiuqu Xi as Nine-Bend River, because to me it looks like a river not a brook.

Yunnu Hill, Wuyishan

M met us at the disembarkation point. ‘How do the boats get back to the start?’ I asked, having seen none travelling upstream. I rephrased the question several times using simpler and simpler words and in the end received an answer, of sorts, ‘by car’ she said.

Several minutes walking brought us to a pedestrian street lined with smart wooden cabins selling snacks, drinks and tourist tat. M seemed to be telling us this was a 10th century Song dynasty village though every structure we could see was clearly 21st century; perhaps she was just saying that the retail outlet was called Song Street. Her next statement was less ambiguous: ‘you have lunch.’ It was barely 11 o’clock and despite our early start we were not ready for food, so we politely declined. This threw her into confusion; she arranged to meet us again in half an hour and wandered off.

We had a look round thinking we might buy something for our grandson, but having dismissed the crossbows with their hard, sharp bolts as inappropriate there was nothing to do but drink coffee. We re-read Wonder Wang’s itinerary, after the rafting ‘you will climb up Tianyou Peak, the sheer rock peak that just rise skywards, to have a bird’s eye view of the magnificent mountain.
My rock climbing career started and (I hope) finished on one fear filled afternoon in July 1972, so if pitons and carabiners were out of the question the only way up a sheer peak was by cable car. These are difficult to hide so presumably it was not nearby.

We were killing time, and as it was limited that felt wrong. The drive would use time profitably and might even reveal a place for lunch, and if not, well, so be it.

Armed with this misapprehension we rendezvoused with M and announced we were ready for Tianyou (Heavenly Tour) Peak. She led us on a lengthy walk along concrete paths and across the bridge over the Jiuqu Xi. We kept expecting to encounter a car park, but in the end we encountered Tianyou Peak.
Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan

Mt Huangguang (2,158m, 7,080ft) is the highest peak in the Wuyishan range, Tianyou, at 808m (2,650ft) is relatively insignificant and from where we stood the peak was little more than 100m above us - but it looked forbiddingly sheer.

M led us up a some steps.

Up the steps to the side of Tianyou Peak
We had been climbing for a while before it dawned on us that somebody sometime had part constructed, part hacked steps all the way up the side of the rock face. The route was obvious, so M informed us that we could walk to the observation point, she pointed to a pavilion high above, and return the same way, or continue to the top (828 steep steps) and descend the other side (2000 shallower steps). M, though roughly half our age, would wait at the bottom.

Starting up Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan

We settled down to some upward plodding and reached the pavilion surprisingly quickly. We took a breather and enjoyed spectacular views down to the Jiuqu Xi….
Looking down to the Jiuqu Xi from the pavilion on Tianyou, Wuyishan
…further up the rock face….

Looking up the Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan
….and across to the adjacent peaks. 
The nearby peaks, Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan
Eastern Wuyishan is an example of the ‘Danxia landform’ common throughout south eastern and southern China. Cretaceous red sandstone, lifted and cracked by shifting tectonic plates, has undergone millions of years of erosion to produce distinctive ‘hills’ with steep sides and flat wooded tops.

We got our heads down and continued plodding so we could soon look down on the nearby peaks, the river and the pavilion – half way according to M – and…
Looking down on the adjacent peaks, the pavilion and Jiuqu Xi, Wuyishan
…up to the next part of our climb
The next part of our climb
I have mentioned (more than once) the Chinese preference for making visits en masse. Our path up Tianyou was pleasantly uncrowded, but here is a photograph borrowed from travel agent Access China Travel taken in roughly the same place during a holiday.

Access China Travel's picture of the same part of Tianyou, Wuyishan
Near the top the more exposed route was cordoned off and the last part of ascent was on a pleasant path behind the peak.
Nearing the top of Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan
A boy came running down to us. ‘Hello, where do you come from?’ he started before going through the complete school book conversation with confidence and unusual accuracy. ‘Thank you,’ he said at the end before running off up the steps.

At what appeared to be the top was a small temple and a kiosk where my pointing and smiling was rewarded with two much needed soft drinks. Communicating the price is normally straightforward, the young lady could have used pencil and paper, a calculator or her fingers, but her strategy was to say a number and keep repeating it until I understood. It failed, and then failed again and again and.. After so many visits to China I am ashamed to admit I still do not know any numbers above ten and  after multiple fruitless repetitions, a waiting customer interrupted. ‘Fifty,’ she said. I had expected to pay a premium, the merchandise has to be carried up on foot, but not £6+ for two small drinks. I shook my head, put the cartons back on the counter and made to walk off. ‘Why?’ the customer asked. ‘Too much,’ I replied. ‘Not too much,’ she said ‘only fifty, one five, fifty.’ ‘One five, fifteen?’ I ventured. ‘Yes, one five, fiftee.’ I thanked her and handed 15 yuan to the bemused girl in the kiosk. Chinese English speakers almost invariable omit final consonants but this confusion has somehow never arisen before. The English words ought to be more distinct.

Thirst quenched, we found yet more steps to climb. Behind the temple we passed some (possibly ancient) calligraphy….
(Ancient?) Caligraphy, near the summit of Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan

….and some Jinjunmei tea bushes (spelling varies). Wuyishan is the home of Lapsang Souchong, and Jinjunmei is its superior version. 100g of top Jinjunmei allegedly sells for US$1,600; these bushes growing in marginal conditions might produce ‘top’ jinjunmei – or may just be a curiosity.

Jinjunmei, near the summit of Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan

We soon reached a sign pointing to the summit. The path hardly rose as we crossed the peak’s flat top but there was no feeling of exposure, it was so well wooded we could see only the surrounding trees. A little pavilion marked the high point. We were all alone so we put the camera on a wall and took a selfie.
The summit, Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan 

This anti-climax was followed by many, many downward steps, and no sooner had we started than the rain, which had threatened all day, began to fall. South winds bring clouds rolling in from the South China Sea and the first high ground they hit is Wuyishan, so although the climate is warm it is notoriously wet.
We were passed, at a run, by the boy we had spoken to earlier and then, at a more measured pace by his older brother. He thanked us for our patience and hoped we had not been bothered. We said it had been a pleasure to meet such a polite and enthusiastic youngster but did not tell him his little brother’s English was almost as good as our guide’s - it would have been only a slight exaggeration.
The descent round the back of the mountain offered no views so it was a long plod through an unrelenting downpour.
A long downward plod through unrelenting rain, Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan
M was waiting in the dry, but she too was uncomfortably wet (pardon my schadenfreude) by the time we reached the car park, where a road-train took us out of the Scenic Area. M found our driver and we headed back to town, proving en route the truth of her earlier statement; the bamboo rafts do indeed return to the start 'by car'.

The bamboo rafts go home by, well not quite 'car', Wuyishan
In the evening, dried, rested, and by now hungry, we ventured to a nearby restaurant - continued rain discouraged walking further abroad. We may not know our spoken numbers but we were pleased that we were able to peruse the Chinese menu and select a beef dish and a vegetable dish, though how they would be cooked remained a mystery. We also ordered a cheap unknown side dish out of bravado.

The beef and Chinese cabbage were excellent. The mystery dish - strips of some pickled vegetable - was a bit dull and we had no more clue what it was when we finished than we had when we ordered it. Including rice and beer a good diner came to less than £10 - and we had duly entertained the little audience that gathered to watch the weird foreigners eat.

South East China

Part 10: Xiamen
coming Oct 2017