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 feeling his age on 11 June 2021 when Peng confirmed over breakfast that were visiting another mountain in the Huangshan range. Mount Jiuhua 九华山 was in Chizhou and an important Buddhist site. It is one of the four famous Buddhist mountains in China. 719 AD, Kim Qiaoque, a prince came to Jiuhua Mountain and cultivated himself for 75 years. He died at 99 years of age, his corporeal body stayed intact. Because he was very similar in appearance to Dizang Buddhisattva, the monks there believed Dizang Boddhisattva was reincarnated in him, as a result, Jiuhua Mountain became the place to hold rites for Dizang Boddhisatva. The mountain is not only famous for its Buddhist culture but also noted for its natural landscapes featuring old pines, green bamboo forests, strange rocks, waterfalls, streams and caves.. A legend says that the great poet Li Bai of Tang Dynasty travelled here and wrote “Magic is divided to two branches, sacred mountain generates nine glories.” giving rise to its name Mount Jiuhua. He also wrote ‘Sailing down the Jiujiang River the other day, I saw the Jiuhua Peaks in the distance. Looking like a heavenly river hanging in heaven, Its green water embroidering cotton rose hibiscuses’. This information and the notion that it was mostly going to require visiting temples he was appeased and weary bones found it in them to move. After 18 months of visiting temples around Korea, japan and China he should have known it was going to require some hefty physical work and through they took the cable car up to Tiantai Temple situated on the mountains highest peak. It of course required climbing nearly 1000 steps and in the humid heat and high temperatures he made slow tortoise like and sweaty progress up to the glorious yellow shrine. Like many of the temples he had encountered it was in full working order and unusually had not suffered any ill fate during the cultural revolution. Like the parable of the tortoise and the hare to his surprise he arrived at the temple top before Peng and was delighted to discover a collection of sedan chair carriers fast asleep in their vehicles. He had as usual been the object of curiosity and happily posed for photos with strangers excited to see the ancient westerner. There was still the peak to be reached and a short climb had them looking in the distance at another peak which seemed to have a path to it. To his astonishment he found himself suggesting they walk there and take the cable car down and then get transport back to the car which they had left in a full car park in the foothills of Tiantai. There was a punishing descent before an equally painful climb the other side but the walk afforded breath taking views, another encounter with a monkey and the eventual pleasure of a mountain side path with dizzying views into the deep valley below from where he was able to conduct a live FB moment and was delighted in the UK’s early hours to be joined by his friend Phil Weaving. He was saturated with sweat by the time they got to downward slope and hardly had the energy to record the trip down. It seemed more trouble than they had thought to get back to the car and they had to wait 30 minutes for a bus which dropped them about halfway along the route they needed to take. It coincidentally was a small Buddhist enclave and was home to a temple which held the withered mummified bones of Qing Dynasty monk, Abbott Longshan in the Zhiyuan Temple. Nicholas lost sight of Peng at this pong and when he had climbed yet more steps and found himself on the road to the Small Tiantai temple he texted and discovered he had pointlessly climbed up the mountainside as the artefact was in fact near the base of the climb he had undertaken. He asked for help from some local food sellers and they directed him to a short cut and he was finally reunited with his friend. The body was on display in a glass cabinet at the back of the temple and it was impossible to see the remains. When they got to the bus stop to take them to Tiantai they discovered the last bus had just left and the only way was by taxi and they were asking a high price for the 2,5km walk. Peng decided to walk and Nicholas kept the bags and went ion search of somewhere to have tea. He found a restaurant and they made him a Huangshan mountain green tea and he not been seated long before he got a call from Peng who said he had returned as the 2,5 walk was all up hill over a thousand steps and he couldn’t face it. Nicholas finished his tea and asked to pay but they refused his money and said it was free. He must have really looked exhausted for them to have taken such pity on him. He was though overwhelmed by their kindness and hospitality and was once again deeply impressed by the generosity of spirit so many Chinese showed him. He did note though that when he sat down the restaurant was empty and by the time he left there was a thriving trade which meant that it was possibly his presence that had attracted the custom and they were grateful for that. Whatever, he rejoined Peng they negotiated a good price for the taxi and arrived to find the care park completely empty but for their car. He tried to enjoy the ride back to the hotel but exhaustion had set in and once they were in the room they ordered a take away and some delicious iced teas and a mango and coconut milk bubble tea. He was promised an easier day with a visit to an ancient village and that thought gave him the respite he needed to sleep.
Nicholas Quirke was amazed by the never ending majesty of the landscapes he encountered in China and on 10 June 2021, though it was 7 hours of exhausting exploration he felt almost ecstatic by the awesome sights, the fun and the punishing climbs that he experienced. Huangshan 黄山 meaning the Yellow Mountain, is a famed range in southern Anhui Province originally called “Yishan”, but renamed because of a legend that Emperor Xuanyuan once made alchemy there. It’s scenery, peculiarly-shaped granite peaks, Huangshan pine trees, hot springs and views of the clouds from above have made it the subject of traditional Chinese paintings and literature with over 20,000 poems written in its honour. The many peaks, were explored by the pair and the views really were breathtaking. The brown yellow mountain tops emerging from the sea of cloud were haunting and mystical and it really felt like he was in the clouds. It was pouring with rain when they started the day and as thunder storms were predicted he was armed with umbrella and rain coat and oddly looked forward with a sense of adventure to experiencing the views and climbs in intense precipitation. By the time they reached the entrance to the cable car the rain had abated. The first peak they went to was Shixin 始信, start to believe, and the mountain top offered a staggering view of the clouds from above, a vista known as the “Huangshan Sea”[ because of the cloud’s resemblance to an ocean. The peak was home too for Tibetan macaques, a local species of monkey which were particularly mean and rather scared Nicholas when one jumped at him and then went on to thump Peng on the back. It was amazing the speed with which the views changed and with the changes came altered temperatures and weather from humid and warm to cold and raining. His presence on the mountain seemed to impress the fellow travellers, several of whom wanted their photograph with him The range is known for its stone steps, carved into the side of the mountain, more than 60,000 throughout the area and thought to be more than 1,500 years old. It was up and down these steps that they. reached the tallest in the range. Lotus Peak, Lianhua Feng which, at 1,864m was their final ascent and by far the hardest and having reached the summit he was not sure he could descend. His legs were really painful but he eventually discovered that the easiest way down for him was backwards. Of special note on the mountain were the Huangshan pine which is considered an example of vigor because the trees thrive by growing straight out of the rocks. The Welcoming-Guests Pine, which is thought to be more than 1500 years old was the last stop of the day before they took the cable car back through the mist. They drove to another city in the Huangshan district and on the drive he spoke with his sister Kate who was celebrating her birthday. They checked into the hotel, ordered a Hui cuisine takeaway which turned out to be too much for them to be consume it all and as it base flavour is the stinky tofu favoured in the south nope really pleasurable on the pallete. Muscles and bones ached and it did not take long for sleep to overwhelm.
Nicholas Quirke was ready for another adventure on 9 June 2021, though the flight from Beijing was not until the early evening. Severe weather warnings were announced and it was likely that the flight would be delayed, possibly cancelled! He couldn’t think of a time In his life where his travel plans were potentially disrupted which made him realise just how lucky he had been. The morning was whiled away in last minute preparations and cleaning before the journey began with a Didi to the airport. The weather was bad and was getting worse and it did not surprise that when they got to the airport flights had already been delayed and there was a back log. They were there especially early as Peng had a work meeting and needed to find a quiet corner to work in leaving nicholas to idle nearly 3 hours away before their plane to Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) in Anhui province took off. It actually only turned out to be an hour late but they still needed to let the hotel and car hire company know they would be late and he spent his time working and watching and episode of ‘The Mosquito Coast’. When they were given permission to board everyone was issued with rain macs as it was a transfer service to the actual plane which was again in the furthest possible location. It was teeming with rain and he was one of the few who utilised the free lurid yellow mac. He was a little worried that they would be flying in storms and that it would be a trip beset with turbulence but it was surprisingly smooth and by the time they got there the rain had abated. It was dark though and he was delighted to discover that the car rental company picked them up from the airport and took them to the office to complete the paperwork. What an amazing service was provided by the car companies and not something he was used to experiencing in the west which, more often than not involved a lengthy search for the remote car hire office. The car was smart and within the hour they were at the hotel and checking in. They were given an upgrade to a suite with a bath and for the first time since he had been in Hangzhou over a year before he was able to enjoy a soak in a tub, one of the pleasures he missed from home. They were climbing the mountain the next day and as it was already late going to bed was imperative. He still could not quite believe he was getting too enjoy another part of China when only 6 days previously he though he would already be back in the UK. Fortune had smiled once again and sleep swiftly followed its wide happy grin.
Nicholas Quirke was feeling tired and the last thing he wanted to do on 6 June 2021 was go to the school and teach. He blamed the high temperatures for his ennui and consoled himself with the thought that the afternoon could, in fact, would be spent in inertia. It was a significant solar date in the Chinese Callander Mang Zhong which translated to Grain in Ear, when the weather becomes significantly hotter and it’s the ideal harvest period for crops such as wheat and barley. The amount of rainfall also increases and they were entering the Plum Rain season (also known as Mei Yu in Chinese). With the day characterised by high temperatures and possible precipitation he maintained a steady paced cycle to the school along his usual route. Fortunately the children were clearly feeling the heat too and it was a relief to him that they were moderately docile for their lesson and for once they got plenty of work done. Chloe too was low maintenance in the increasing heat and with both classes passing without incident he rode the subway home. To mark Mang Zhong they switched the leaves on the Lego bonsai from blossom to green leaves and ordered a Huangshan style wrap for tea in honour of their next destination. A new drama ‘Lissy’s Story’, from the pen of Stephen King and with the steller cast of Julianne Moore, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Joan Allen was being broadcast and they spent the day watching episodes 1 and 2 before giving the evening to ‘Flashback’ to which The ‘Monty Python’ catch phrase “My brain hurts” could be applied as the perfect description of how he felt watching the film. The story of parallel timelines and the rapid editing had him so confused that he really didn’t know where he was. That said, there was something he liked and kept him watching. Maybe it was the enthralling presence of the time shifting Dylan O’Brien. Its hadn’t really got much cooler and with the AC whirling he took to his bed and a slightly restless sleep.
Nicholas Quirke was beyond astonished on 7 June 2021 when he left the exit / entry office. He had been incredibly grateful that he had been granted an additional month and he had been all for booking his flight for the 6th of July as evidence of his commitment to the officials that he would leave China but being uncertain of the exact date he would have to leave by he refrained from any rash purchase. On arrival at the bureau they had to wait a little before he was seen and he felt anxious watching the flustered and upset actions of a laowai with an officer desperately trying to make sense of what they he was being told. He knew this feeling and as the complainant seemed to be about what the applicant had been told on his last visit and what they were telling him now, his own nervous state flared. He couldn’t help but wonder if they would say the same thing and he would be expelled. Nicholas worried pointlessly as the main question that was asked was had he purchased a flight and as the well worded answer from Peng was that they were still looking to find a cheap flight and the fact that they seemed to be impressed that he had been vaccinated he was granted 60 days. So he was in fact going going to be in China till August which he had not been expecting. From 6 days to 60 in 5 days was a swift turnaround and he felt like a phoenix risen from the ashes. It would take him a while to assimilate that he could not only go on the trip they had planned for Huangshan but he might even be able to fit in another 2 journeys. Feeling positive he cycled to Teasure at U-town mall where he planned to work till it was time to get to the school for his lesson with Jean. As soon as he had ordered a tea and settled himself in a comfortable spot he called Kim in Melbourne whom he had arranged a catch up with. As always the talk was invigorating and he left the call with his energy soaring. It was another day without lunch and he was quite hungry by the time he got home and greedily ate two ice lollies, a coconut yoghurt, some nuts and as they watched a Movie, ‘Our Friend’ two packets of crisps. In the mood for something at bit more light hearted they finished watching about halfway through and watched the first episode of ‘Mythic Quest’ which really amused him and suited his positive mood somehow though he was unable to sleep well and another restless night caused him to wake at 5am on 8 June 2021. With the next two months assured he was able to focus on the next journey which started the next day and the his morning and afternoon were spent in preparation, ironing, while watching ‘The Mosquito Coast’ packing and clearing out the fridge of degradable food for their lunch. He was surprised by how quickly the day passed and at 2.30 he had to set off for his final class of the week. He had noted a friend on FB had posted some pictures of Hollyhocks and read a plethora of comments about how English country garden these elegant tall flowers were, but they actually originated in China and the sidewalks proliferated with these dazzling flowers. He was always a little discomposed by the reading class he had on a Tuesday evening , but on this occasion it went incredibly well and he’s realised exactly how much the children actually enjoyed his lessons. Not only did Jenny comment on their enjoyment but he could see from their engagement and laughter how fond of him they were. He was not sure that this was important but it made him feel good and the class pass quickly and enjoyably. He wanted to keep pinching himself to confirm that he was still here as part of him believed he should be on plane back to the UK if he had abided by the original decree and not listened to Peng and appeal. He could still enjoy a post shower massage in the chair and watch a film on the immense TV screen which, that evening was the end of ‘Our Friend’ He liked how unsentimental this sad story was and loved the fact that that it did not follow a linear plot line. Shifting perspectives of the lives pre and post a cancer diagnosis of a couple and their close friend gave an incredible depth to what was an everyday story of sickness and death and how it touches and changes people. He really felt like he was part of this journey and as bit by bit ‘Our Friend’ and his own demons are revealed he wanted to be a part of the story. It had its depressing side but the redemptive nature of friendship give it an uplift that made it really worth watching and prepared him for sleep, though his tiredness probably came from the lack of slumber the night before.