Nicholas Quirke was immersed in history on 30 May 2020 when the day started with a cycle ride to the Presidential Palace which has had a long narrative as a seat of power. A Palace in the Ming Dynasty, it was eventually, after the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, where Sun Yat-sen was sworn in at as the provisional President of the Republic of China, where he kept offices, while the Qing Dynasty’s last Emperor languished in the Forbidden Cityand it was also the Headquarters of the Nationalist Government of the Republic of China. Chiang Kai-shek also had his office in the palace until 1947 when Mao’s Peoples Republic relocated to Beijing. The palace, its extensive gardens and strange mix of Ming and 1920 architecture focuses mostly on its incarnation as the political centre for the government of the celebrated, revered figure of Sun Yat-sen who was not only a Chinese philosopher, physician, and politician, but served as the provisional first president of the Republic of China and the first leader of the Kuomintang. It was a fascinating and beautiful walk through China’s confusing post 1911 history. A wonderful exhibition of photographs documenting all aspects of life and culture in China at this time occupied the stables and Nicholas was utterly absorbed by what they depicted, including to his horror, means of punishment and torture, with an image of a man, the skin on his chest and thighs flayed, distressingly burned forever into his memory. The mood was lifted considerably when they cycled to the uniquely located Librairie Avant-Garde bookstore, a cultural icon of the city, and hidden in a former government parking lot underneath Wutaishan Stadium, which has Also been used as a bomb shelter. It was opened in 2004 by Qian Xiaohua who hoped the bookstore could serve as a spiritual guide for the people making their way in darkness. “A good bookshop should provide space, vision and nurture the city with its humanitarian spirit,” “It’s a place for people to have dreams in the city.” And it was indeed a wonderful space to be in, though he did feel the customer service, helpful as they were, and as vast as the store was, was not particularly considerate as when he asked where he might find a copy of ‘ The Dream of The Red Chamber’ in an English translation, the assistant kindly led him to where it was at a run, trying to maintain his dignity to keep up with them was not easy for him. They then cycled to temple based Vegan restaurant whose claim (backed up by a certificate) was that their food was an ‘intangible element of Cultural heritage in Jiangsu’. Energised by the taste of a Centuries old food tradition, their next major sight seeing venture a trip around Xuanwu (Black Tortoiser) Lake, which legend claims is named for a black dragon seen in the lake which looked like a tortoise and snake. They traversed the Lake via five islands interconnected by arched bridges, with temples, pagodas, pavilions, gardens, teahouses, restaurants, entertainment venues, a small zoo, and other attractions. The late lunch has left them feeling stuffed so they had a small supper at the hotel before heading across the city For a walk along the Yangtze River, the third largest river in the world, to see the famed Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge, a double-decked road-rail truss bridge which opened in 1968 and the first heavy bridge designed and built using Chinese expertise. Night had fallen and they tried to capture the span and the glory of the bridge at nighttime with some limited success. Their walk led them to a seemingly isolated and dockside territory with its towering metal structures and looming super high rise building, which in the darkness and cold was unsettling for Nicholas who was also concerned that searchlights were scanning the skies for an unknown purpose. He was relieved to get a taxi to the safety of their hotel and the comfort of his bed
Nicholas Quirke was 4500m up a mountain on 2 May 2021 and in warrior spirit. A short car journey, after an early breakfast of pumpkin congee, barley bread and sesame Bing, took them to the foothills of Xhika snow mountain. This was one of 9 peaks in the hangshan range and from its snowy summit all the mountain tops can be viewed. There was only one way to the top and that was by cable car. He was looking forward to the views and was disappointed when they got inside the carriage to discover that the glass was shattered and the view obscured. They suffered the poor view but fortunately there was a station mid way and rather than share a car they stopped and waited for the next cab. There were posters and quotes from ‘Lost Horizon’ and once again he felt like he was living in the story and headed towards the mystical mountain. There were only two and they had been joined by some others but as they wanted the car to themselves they stopped anyone else getting in to the anger of the staff. They had the car to themselves but the equilibrium of the day had been shattered. The views soon soothed their tempers and ire was replaced with awe. They were getting hugest and higher and the rock escarpments were jaw dropping in size. He was lost in the views but a little let down by the lack of snow on Snow Mountain. Approaching 4500 m it was very cold and the a little altitude sickness set in with lack of breath and a headache. The spectacular views were truly remarkable and he couldn’t help but share his excitement on live video. He was excited too when he found a small patch of snow and another opportunity to stray from the given path. The altitude was marked with a sign and a typical Tibetan shrine where the obligatory photos were taken. When they had finally had enough of the cold they traveled back down the mountain and stopped to take in the grasslands and ranch of the plateau. It had threatened to be a wet and cloudy day but once again the sun was beating down on the brown scorched earth and though cold gave the views a dramatic colour. He had another encounter with an animal when a yak which had focused its attention on him scarily tossed its horns at him. They enjoyed some snacks outside the closed and derelict restaurant and went back to take the last leg down the mountain. They were the first in the queue and when the cabs next came round to their fury and that of they people behind them a couple with their granddaughter from further down the line pushed their way into their cab. They were prepared to share but the rudeness of the couple made them obnoxious and their behaviour was fuelled when the girl started playing a noisy game on her phone. A request to stop was ignored and Nicholas indulging a small fantasy he had always had found a noisy piece of music on his phone and played it at full blast. Peng followed suit and they travelled down the the rest of the mountain with a hideous cacophony of sound terrorising them all. The mood for a fight dissipated once they were back on terra firma and after freshening up at the hotel they went to cafe where they spent the a relaxing couple of hours. There was one last temple they wanted to visit which sat above Shangri-la from where a view of the city and its iconic citadels could be viewed. By the time they set off the sun was beating down making the walk a little uncomfortable. They reached the temple, photographed the beautiful pavilions and prayer flags and when Nicholas asked if they could go up a flight of stairs the monk directed them to the other side of the building where they found themselves climbing a suspiciously rickety ladder onto a small unused roof top. It felt like they had made some kind of mistake but they took pictures and descended to walk to the restaurant where they planned to have supper. Rather than go back the way they came they took a different path down the mountain and once again found themselves in a graveyard before eventually finding the exit. A simple small and delicious supper was consumed afterwards went back to the hotel to pack and prepare and sleep for their departure early in the morning.
Nicholas Quirke was breathless with astonishment on 1 May 2021 by the landscape he found himself in. It was both terrifying and beautiful. They were travelling to a gorge and it required a drive through mountain passes that dwarfed everything in sight. They had to stop when he spotted a shrine with prayer flags stretched across the gorge and pinned up the cliff face. It was no mean feat to achieve that as the mountain side seemed to be sheer rocky face. They had not yet reached the scenic spot but this view was just the first of a sequence of vistas that moved from the impressive to majestic to spectacular. Their journey did not pass without the obligatory police check and endless list of questions about his status and once they were satisfied he was not a health risk he passed through and the reached their destination deep in the valleys of the Hongshan Mountain range and is at the junction of Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet provinces. Bala where they would eventually reach is a mountainous village sitting high in the clouds and previously was isolated from the outside world. In Tibetan language, “Bala” means people who migrate from Batang(巴塘). And it is recorded that the people moved here in the Tang Dynasty giving it a history of more than 1300 years, in search of an ideal home away from war and suffering. Apparently the Blue Moon Valley described in the book Lost Horizon is within the Balagezong Grand Canyon. It is also said among the local people that this is the place where the immortals live, the real “Shambala”. At the end of the village, colorful sutra streamers around Marnyi stones sway in the wind and in the distance, Balagezong Snow Mountain can be seen. Legend has it that a brave and powerful Chieftain Sinaduoji(斯那多吉) of King Gesar in the Batang region, led his people there at the cost of blood and life. In a long talk with an old Lama, he learned of the Buddhist sutras of Tibetan Buddhism recording a place called Shambala kingdom, surrounded by a snow mountain like eight-petal lotus and was the ideal pure land that Tibetan Buddhists yearned for and thus settled in Bala. To this day Bala Villagers still use the oldest Tibetan dialect and the language is known as a living fossil of the Kangba Tibetan dialect. Until recently there has been no highway and mules and horses was the only means of transportation. Usually the villagers spent several months getting out of the village to buy some necessities of life until a villager of the Bala village named Sinadingzhu(斯那定珠), raised the money and built a road to the outside world for the villagers of the mountain. This road not only let the villagers get out of the village, but also let the outside people have a chance to see this paradise. A bus took them up the mountain with a stop at the beautiful rebuilt Drolmalhakhang temple originally constructed 1300 years ago and at the highest point they could go they followed an ancient road along the mountain side which at one point had the scariest walkway he had ever been on. The metal bars were nearly a foot apart and below his feet was a sheer drop It was dizzying but satisfying achievement though it did nothing to cure his vertigo. In the village itself they were able to go inside a home and experience the lifestyle the villagers enjoyed. They journeyed back down the mountain to the river and they were able to walk along side the banks of the gorge and absorb the sights and colour of many of the visitors. A trip back down the river was offered but it was twice the entrance price and the parsimonious pair walked back, but not before he left his DNA by building a small structure in a garden of rock shrines. When they got back to Shangri-La they were hungry and found a suitable but expensive restaurant that could serve them vegan food. Fortunately they had just finished their meal when two parties of Laowai came in with their guides and they realised it specifically dealt with foreigners and the restaurant obviously had a deal going with the tour guides. They quickly escaped the french and German parties and with another day on a snow mountain planned they went back to their hotel, worked and slept.
Nicholas Quirke was loving the landscapes he was seeing on 30 April 2011. The first thing after breakfast which, they had to wait for as it was not served till 8 am was to go and collect the car from the airport and this very simple transaction completed in less than 10 minutes was giving them the freedom to roam the mountains and farmlands that surrounded the city. They were driving about 30 miles to the immense Potatso National Park with a lake and mountain to navigate. The road to get there had not been surfaced and it was a dusty, bumpy journey though he did get to see some of the really beautiful farm buildings. They had intended to spend the day there and were disappointed on arrival to discover that they would not be able to climb the mountain. They were transported a further 5lm bus to the shore and began their walk with the other visitors around the lake perimeter. The views were beautiful and the haunting sight of a halo rainbow reflected in the lake provided them with one of many photo opportunities and a lot of fun. Visiting scenic spots feels like a very controlled and a very popular leisure activity in China and there is often little opportunity to go off and explore beyond the confines of the official paths. The sights you are led along are beautiful and are often the most stunning and beautiful but the sense of being alone in the great vast wilderness is not an option. Used to the ‘right to roam’ in the UK this regimentation provoked in him a need to ‘go rogue’ to leave the path and to see beyond the designated route. On the way to the Park he had spotted what looked like a temple and as their trip was shorter than expected with no mountain to climb they stopped on their way to another location to have a look. It turned out to be a disused theme park and was closed but the derelict exterior gave him an opportunity to take more pictures. The grasslands (farmland) though also a park was less formal and after they had stopped at a viewing platform to photograph the landscape from above they entered the park and roamed freely communing with the horses and walking along the shore of the lake. There had been drought warnings in the area and it was clear to see that the lake here had already receded and the stench of the stagnant water was overwhelming. The sky and scenery were dramatic and he could really feel himself in a foreign land. They returned to the town which was equally foreign and he found himself partaking it the town square dance. What started as a few people dancing to traditional Tibetan dance music grew as visitors joined the throng and the atmosphere of joy was completely infectious and even the reserved Peng engaged in the festivities . As labour day celebrations accelerated the main square in front of Giant Turtle Hill was filled with people dancing and the temples and town were lit up with colourful pretty lights. It was now packed and getting late and he needed to work and sleep and prepare for some mountain the next day