4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the tag “Karst”

Up and Down in Zhangjiajie (by Carmen)

Snow frosted limestone tower

Snow frosted limestone tower

As we embarked on the China portion of our trip, there were a handful of places and experiences that were absolute musts: hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge, watching sunset on flooded rice terraces, eating lots of Sichuan food, and seeing Zhangjiajie (also called Wulingyuan). You may not have heard of it but you’ve probably seen pictures. The ethereal landscape of towering limestone pillars mysteriously shrouded by mist has become a well photographed corner of China. We boarded a bus from Changsha in order to see them for ourselves.

Mossy stream bed

Mossy stream bed

Monkey considering whether or not to attack

Monkey considering whether or not to attack

After buying the entry ticket and making it through the aggressive vendors at the front gate, we entered a place of quiet and calm. Even the one monkey we saw was pretty chill. I was happy about this since I had read that they like to attack people for food. We walked along a paved path following a mossy stream bed called the Golden Whip. In fact, our entire walk over the next few days would be on paved paths since the Chinese generally don’t care for the whole dirt trail thing in their parks.

Misty cliff view

Misty cliff view

Thin pillar tower

Thin pillar tower

And then we went up. Endless staircases climbed from the stream bed to the cliff edge over 1000 ft (300 m) above. It was so high, we passed the snow line and in the shadows snow crystals would crunch beneath our feet. Breathlessly we made it to the top and took in the stunning view of the canyon.

See the tiny people at the viewpoint?

See the tiny people at the viewpoint?

The viewing platforms the park had built were right on the edge! We lingered to enjoy the views and watched as tour bus groups would rush in, take a zillion photos of themselves, then run to the next platform.

Avatar mountain banshee

Avatar mountain banshee

Hallelujah Mountain

Hallelujah Mountain

Soon enough it was time to find some mountain banshees and fly around the park for a closer look at the towers. Park officials insist that Zhangjiajie was the inspiration for Avatar, though James Cameron doesn’t whole heartedly support this assumption. I could definitely see the similarities. To solidify the connection there was an official ceremony to rename one of the towers Hallelujah Mountain, the name of the fictional floating rocks in the movie. And of course they installed the banshee photo op. Classic.

Number 1 Natural bridge

Number 1 Natural bridge

Locks of love

Locks of love

Thin tower with bridge in background

Thin tower with bridge in background

Shortly after our banshee ride we came upon the “Number 1 Natural Bridge.” China likes to name lots of things “Number 1,” but I might actually agree with them on this. It was spectacular. Walking on it was exhilarating. I suppose since it is such a special spot, people have started placing locks on the fences to symbolize love, friendship or even wishes.

Bench with awesome view

Bench with awesome view

Sunlit tree

Sunlit tree

We walked along the cliff edge path for about an hour enjoying the view. As the sun began to set we made our way to our lodging for the night. Our hostel was a simple one within the park bounds. Since there was nowhere to go at night everyone ate and played in the main common room. We bundled up to survive the freezing indoor temperatures (no heat of course) and played cards while gobbling up some fried rice.

Escher-esque stairs

Escher-esque stairs

Nathan the map reader

Nathan the map reader

Our plan for the next day was to hike to a nearby village in the morning and then head to some eastern viewpoints in the afternoon. The only problem was our map. Even the best map you can buy is mediocre with no real scale or indication of topography. We ended up going all the way back down to the stream bed, then back up almost to the cliff’s edge, then back down, then back up, then…well you get the picture. So. Many. Stairs. It was exhausting and it ended up taking the better part of the day.

Fog rolling in

Fog rolling in

Dramatic cliffs

Dramatic cliffs

For all of our efforts, we didn’t get to see as much as we would have liked as the fog started hemming us in. We finally made it to the main park road and I hopped a park shuttle to the hostel. Nathan pushed on to the eastern views.

Looking down on thin towers

Looking down on thin towers

The Two Towers

The Two Towers

Fortunately, the fog situation was a little better to the east and Nathan got some great shots. It started getting dark and I was relieved when he walked through the hostel door. Turned out he caught the last shuttle bus back!

Me in the fog

Me in the fog

Us with a limestone arch

Us with a limestone arch

Our third and final day in the park we were completely fogged out. Literally we could not see more than 100 feet in front of us and all the viewpoints were simply walls of white. What made it even more sad was that two days later perfect sunny days were expected. Sigh. We climbed down the cliff stairs one final time vowing to return one day to see what we missed.

Market street in Zhangjiajie City

Market street in Zhangjiajie City

Noodles from the classically dingy restaurant

Noodles from the classically dingy restaurant

Our stay in the park was sandwiched between two days in Zhangjiajie City, 40 minutes southwest of the park. We weren’t expecting much from the city as we were only there for the nature but we really enjoyed our stay. A block up from the cleaned up shopping main street was a narrow market street that was just our style. Inside a dingy cafe, we ate some yummy noodles in a slightly tangy broth while rubbing elbows with locals at the one communal table.

Sizzling beef

Sizzling beef

Another fun eatery sat in the middle of a lane just east of the main square. Our hostel pointed us to it on their homemade map and recommended some dishes. A warm plate of beef kept hot with a table burner and a large plate of stir fried greens were placed before us and we did our best to eat it all. Its deliciousness ensured we were extra full that night.

View from our room's balcony

View from our room’s balcony

Complex the Bajie hostel is located in

Complex the Bajie hostel is located in

With full stomachs we slept well at our hostel, the Bajie. It was one of our most comfortable stays in China. I wish we could have stayed more nights there but it’s a little tricky to find. Upon arriving to the city, after walking up and down the street five times in the rain at night we eventually gave up and stayed somewhere else. Those are the not so fun parts of traveling that simply come with the territory.

Finally, we said goodbye to Zhangjiajie. We liked the town and the park and want to return someday. And next time, we will be able to find our hostel!

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A Long Train Ride to Guanxi (by Carmen)

The karsts Guanxi is know for

The karsts Guanxi is know for

A lot can happen in 24 hours. But sometimes, very little does. This was the case on our very long train journey from Kunming to Guanxi province. Why on earth would we take such a long train ride? Well, we had already survived a 27 hour bus journey between Hanoi and Luang Prabang, so we figured that this had to be better. Also, we much prefer train travel over flying. It’s fun to be able to look out the window and see the countryside. And the fact that you can’t do a whole lot forces you to relax. In our case that meant a lot of time to read and work on writing for the blog.

Nathan and his instant noodles

Nathan and his instant noodles

We left bright and early on a Sunday morning. As we boarded the train, we realized that we were seriously low on snack supplies relative to our train mates. Everyone else had large shopping bags full of cookies, fruit and many bowls of instant noodles. We had two bowls ourselves, a few apples and oranges and some sunflower seeds to act as breakfast, lunch and dinner. But hey, we weren’t going to be moving much. How much did we really need to eat? Nathan was pretty excited for his instant noodle bowl. Everyone, and I mean everyone, on the train had brought some for their lunch and dinner. It was definitely richer and tastier than the ubiquitous Cup-o-Noodle in the States. But I still felt a sodium overload as I slurped from my bowl.

Bunks on the train

Bunks on the train

In the end, the ride was over pretty quickly. It was by no means a luxury ride. We slept on the top bunk of a hard sleeper, there was one squattie pottie for our train car and no dining area (only hot water for all those noodles). Our bunkmates were pretty quiet, which we weren’t expecting. The Chinese have a penchant for having loud conversations even when people are sleeping feet away. But overall our experience was pretty good. We rolled into Guilin a little restless but rested enough.

City and nature together in Guilin

City and nature together in Guilin

Red decoration on the top of a karst

Red decoration on the top of a karst

Guilin is the capital of the Guanxi province and provided our first taste of the limestone cliffs the region is known for. This was now our third time seeing these geological formations, having admired them on Koh Phi Phi and Halong Bay. But here in China, they were a little different. For one, the karsts were denser (of course). Also, it was awesome to see the cliffs in an urban setting. Guilin looks like many other Chinese cities but when you round the corner and see a huge wall of rock jutting out of the earth, it just makes you smile. We climbed to the top of one of these cliffs to get a view of the city through the wintery mists. Since it was close to the lunar new year it was festively decorated in red.

20 Yuan Point in Xingping

20 Yuan Point in Xingping

Our true destination in Guanxi was not Guilin, it was the smaller town of Xingping. This is where some of the most beautiful scenery was to be found. So beautiful, in fact, that the area was depicted on the 20 yuan bill! After the viewpoint we walked on along the river, through tiny villages and past karst after karst.

Farm with karst backdrop

Farm with karst backdrop

Grassy meadow along the river

Grassy meadow along the river

The walk was peaceful for the most part except for a handful of experiences. Like so many other parts of China, tourism has made a mark. For example, as we left for the hike we considered taking a bamboo raft to our destination and walking back to Xingping from there. However, we didn’t like the price of the raft so we said no. But the tout followed us for a good half hour trying to negotiate (but never coming close to our counter-offer). It was tiring! Also, we passed a few restaurants on the path geared towards rafts that stop there for lunch. They, too, aggressively tried to get us to eat there. Then one woman followed us for 15 minutes after we passed her restaurant in order to make sure we would take a raft with her friend at the next river crossing. I didn’t like these pushy vendors and the whole situation felt like we were just two big dollar signs. This happens a lot in tourist regions of China and I’m sure we could handle it better if we knew more of the language. But in the end we just gave up with the second raft woman and walked back 2 hours to Xingping. We were tired out anyway and ready to call it a day.

The wide Yulong River

The wide Yulong River

Orange groves

Orange groves

Following the road

Following the road

But not everyone is so rude. We had another river crossing in which the price was set and reasonable. The ferry driver was friendly and said “good bye!” to us. These are the people I like to focus on. They allow us to relax a bit more and just enjoy the natural surroundings we came to see!

20 Yuan Point at sunset

20 Yuan Point at sunset

We approached Xingping just before sunset. Nathan decided to watch it from 20 Yuan Point while I decided to relax on on hostel’s rooftop. They were both good choices – it’s hard to find a bad view in Xingping.

Old street in Xingping

Old street in Xingping

Rustic part of Xingping

Rustic part of Xingping

Guilin noodles

Guilin noodles

We needed something restorative after our long hiking day. On top of that, we were both feeling a little under the weather. In China, comfort is found in a big bowl of noodles. We stopped for some Guilin noodles in the morning. These thick rice noodles were topped with a few bits of meat, a splash of broth, chives, chili and some pickled green beans. All for only $1. A great way to wake up in the morning.

Market frenzy

Market frenzy

Calligraphy

Calligraphy

After our noodles we meandered around the market. There were so many people for such a seemingly small town! On top of that people were gearing up for the new year. The calligraphy stand seemed particularly popular for this reason.

Naan in Yangshuo

Naan in Yangshuo

Next we were on our way back to Guilin to catch the train to Guangzhou. We passed through the tourist town of Yangshuo but didn’t stay long. After our adventures in Yunnan, we knew it would just be full of the same old shops. Instead we picked up some naan bread from a Muslim Chinese stall and kept on moving.

George Washington Immortalized in China (by Nathan)

George Washington keeping an eye on China

George Washington keeping an eye on China

We sat in the stone forest admiring the towering rock pillars. Then our Irish friend pointed out George Washington staring down at us from above. I never expected to see this familiar face in China, but somehow I was not surprised that this curly wig and angular face found its natural way here. The strangest and most drastic natural rock formations have found there way to twist and grow out of China.  I was surprised that we did not have to pay extra to take this photo ;)

Overlooking the stone forest

Overlooking the stone forest

Nathan, Michael and Albert climbing to the top

Nathan, Michael and Albert climbing to the top

We had buffered a layover day in Kunming before traveling farther east in China. We had been enjoying hanging out with our new friends Albert and Michael so the four of us decided to travel to the Stone Forest. We found a unique landscape crowded with interesting rocks and hoards of Chinese tourists. To our benefit 95% of the people remained in 5% of the park, so it was easy to find paths for us to explore on our own.

Carmen and I in the forest

Carmen and I in the forest

Small pond

Small pond

The site of our beer break

The site of our beer break

We meandered around the park for several hours.  We roamed through miniature cantons and through passageways. The Chinese had actually spent a good effort paving and maintaining paths throughout the park. We found a nice perch to enjoy the scenery with a few beers.

Pig faces at the market

Pig faces at the market

Black footed chicken is popular

Black footed chicken is popular

During our layover in Kunming there was an essential visit for Carmen and me. We had to return Zhuanxin market for tofu noodles and mushroom buns. We roamed the market enjoying all the variety and freshness that only a Chinese market could offer. There were pig faces smoked and ready to take home as well as black footed chickens.

Kunming is a great city, at the heart of Yunnan.  We were well connected to some beautiful natural and historic sights. But after over three weeks of traveling solely in the Yunnan we packed our bags to explore the karst topography of Xingping in Guanxi province.

Spicy rice noodle tofu

Enchanting Halong Bay (by Carmen)

Lone fishing boat in Halong Bay

Lone fishing boat in Halong Bay

The extreme heat of Saigon had started to cool off a bit by the time we reached Dalat and Hoi An.  Now that we were in northern Vietnam it was actually cold.  A thick fog covered the horizon upon our arrival at Halong Bay.  This was not a good thing. We were here for the famous views of limestone islands jutting out of the bright blue water.  If we wanted fog Julia, Jonathan, Nathan and I could have stayed in SF where it is plentiful.  But we had no choice but to go with the flow as our tour guide ushered us to the port.

Our Halong Bay boat for sleeping, eating and sightseeing

Our Halong Bay boat for sleeping, eating and sightseeing

Choosing a tour operator was tricky since each one seems to have just as many bad reviews as they do good ones.  We finally opted for Ethnic Travels and hoped for the best.  I breathed a sigh of relief when our little white boat pulled up to the port. It had a spacious deck above and a cosy dining space below.  Our rooms were clean and comfortable and even had private bathrooms!  It was better than plenty of hotels we’ve stayed in.

Layers of islands

Layers of islands

Small limestone island

Small limestone island

As we embarked on our journey the islands were still shrouded in a thick mist.  But towards the end of the day the sun began to break out, illuminating the beautiful islands that surrounded us.

The textures and colors of our row boat

The textures and colors of our row boat

A floating village home

A floating village home

After cruising a couple hours we made a stop for a floating village.  I expected this to be a sort of tourist trap in which you float around a bit then spend most of the visit at a shop.  But I was surprised instead by an actual, functioning floating village.  It was kind of like a squatter settlement where people do not have to pay any rents.  They just build their little abode and anchor down.  Simple bridges connected the structures, which are more like floating houses than boats.  I liked that the convenience store was a boat filled to the brim, carrying toiletries and snacks, was making its rounds as we rowed by.

Sunset Halong Bay

Sunset Halong Bay

Nathan leaps into still waters

Nathan leaps into still waters

By sunset, we pulled into a protected cove.  I had expected many other boats to surround us since Halong Bay has a reputation for being crowded.  But we were the only ones.  I saw a few boat clusters in the distance but I think our captain was taking us off the beaten track a bit, which I appreciated.  Fewer boats also meant it was easier for Nathan, Jonathan and some of the other hearty souls on the boat to jump off the deck into the water 15 feet below.

Fried fish dinner

Fried fish dinner

Julia, Jonathan and Carmen post-feast

Julia, Jonathan and Carmen post-feast

The food was surprisingly good.  There was generally a fried fish, meat dish, and a couple veggie stir fries at every meal. Dessert consisted of cut bananas, pomelo, pineapple and/or watermelon.

Carmen impersonating a professional kayaker

Carmen impersonating a professional kayaker

In the morning we had the opportunity to kayak around the cove and explore two caves.  Both caves were large and actually went all the way through the island.  In one, they had built a type of banquet hall with chairs and tables ready to be set out.  It would be so awesome to have a party there!

The port at Bai Tu Long Bay

The port at Bai Tu Long Bay

Walking the plank

Walking the plank

Before we knew it our time in Halong was up and we were headed to our next destination, Bai Tu Long Bay.  This is a much less visited area and the simple harbor was much smaller than that of Halong.  This time we boarded a smaller boat because we were on our way to a small island to stay the night.  This boat crew was not exactly as experienced as the first one.  For one, they all looked to be under 25.  And as we pulled up to the island they managed to get stuck on a mud bank. After waiting for the water level to rise a bit we did make it to the harbor, but promptly crashed into a sitting boat.  From there, we walked a series of narrow planks hopping between boats to make it to the dock.  Did I mention that it was dark and we all had our backpacks on? I would not say it was particularly safe but all of us did make it.  We piled into tuk tuks for the bumpy ride to our lodgings. That night the group toasted our successful and safe arrival with beers and rice liquor.

Village market

Village market

By morning only Nathan rose early enough to catch the morning market.  He reported that people sold very small quantities compared to the markets we’ve been to in towns and cities.  For example, a woman might only be selling a bowl full of clams or bag full of shucked oysters or bunches of lettuce greens.  He indulged in s couple corn filled dough nuts and brought me back a peanut bun. What a sweetie.

Horseshoe Crab

Horseshoe Crab

Bai Tu Long beach

Bai Tu Long beach

Shells and sand in close up

Shells and sand in close up

Instead of taking a tuk tuk back to the harbor we took a leisurely bike ride.  We stopped for a walk on a deserted feeling beach.  Now I was really wishing for the heat of Saigon.  As we walked along the shore we found a funky looking horseshoe crab and a series of beautiful shells.

Biking our way to the boat

Biking our way to the boat

All hands on deck

All hands on deck

For only lasting three days we fit a lot into our tour.  Thankfully, the sun came out for us at just the right times.  The limestone islands were as enchanting as I’d hoped.  And as always, it was great to share the experience with friends.

Limestone cliff close up

Limestone cliff close up

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