4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the tag “Towns”

Road Trip New York & Vermont (by Carmen)

New York in May has been lovely. The warmth of spring has been blissful after such a harsh, looong winter. Summer’s humid heat is just around the corner, threatening to blast my memories of numb fingers and toes into oblivion. So it is strange to think that just two months ago I was staring at a rental car that wouldn’t start, clutching my backpack and breathing fog into a crisp -8°F (-22°C) morning.

View of Poughkeepsie from the pedestrian bridge over the Hudson River

View of Poughkeepsie from the pedestrian bridge over the Hudson River

But let me back up a bit. Nathan and I found ourselves with a few days off around mid-March and decided to make the most of it. We toyed with the idea of hopping the pond to visit a friend in Dublin but the flight prices were just too much to bear. So we stayed local, rented a car and road tripped it along the Hudson River to Vermont. The route was the opposite of most people’s instinct to go south and escape the cold. Our goal, however, was to actually enjoy the winter. Snow and ice in a city context is a nuisance but in more rural settings winter sports become available. Skiing, cross country, snowshoeing, ice skating…the snow was beckoning us to go north.

Icy Hudson River view from the walkway

Icy Hudson River view from the walkway

We had 300 miles to plough through on our first day so we broke it up with a few stops as we drove along the Hudson River. Our first stop in Poughkeepsie found us strolling along Walkway State Park, a former rail bridge converted to pedestrian use five years ago. It offers great views of the icy Hudson River 200 feet below.

Next up was the town of Hudson, where I found the best bookstore in the world. Upon entering, you see the expected shelves of fiction and non-fiction. But look to the left and you encounter a full on bar with interesting drafts being consumed by friendly locals. Patrons are welcome to take their beer with them while browsing the books and thoughtful cup holders are provided so one can flip the pages. There should be many, many more businesses like this.

When we finally arrived in Burlington that night we were exhausted. Thankfully, our Airbnb hosts provided us with nourishing vegetable soup to take the chill off. They apologized that it was only vegetarian and not vegan, which instantly made me think of vegan-friendly Berkeley.

City Market Cooperative in Burlington

City Market Cooperative in Burlington

If I had any doubts about Burlington’s similarity to Berkeley, it was completely erased by a visit to the City Market Co-op. I dearly miss my Berkeley Bowl grocery store with its mountains of fresh produce and generous bulk section. City Market had an even bigger bulk section! And it’s a functioning co-op that provides dividends to its members. I certainly didn’t expect to go grocery shopping on this trip but that’s exactly what we did, at a fraction of the cost of markets in NYC. Take that Whole Foods.

Beautiful fudge at Lake Champlain Chocolates on Church Street

Beautiful fudge at Lake Champlain Chocolates on Church Street

Nathan, expertly snowshoeing at Shelburne Farms

Nathan, expertly snowshoeing at Shelburne Farms

Feeling at home in Burlington, we made our way down the main drag, Church Street. After a stop for a bite of rich fudge at Lake Champlain Chocolates, we walked a few doors down to the local outdoor store to chat with staff about the best places to snowshoe. They directed us to Shelburne Farms, which in warmer times is a sustainable farming education center on the lake. It was designed in the 19th century by none other than Frederick Law Olmsted (of Central Park fame) as a picturesque rural setting. For our visit we didn’t see the farm’s cows but the rolling landscape was covered in fresh snow for us to tromp through. At the farm shop we picked up some of the farm’s delicious cheddar for the road. Not that we had far to go – our next destination was Magic Hat Brewery five minutes up the road. The psychedelic brewery visitor center fit perfectly into Burlington, home of the band Phish. We tasted all the beers on offer and especially enjoyed the passion fruit juice infused Steven Sour.

Walking on (frozen) water!

Walking on (frozen) water!

Wind swept ice

Wind swept ice

Frozen Lake Champlain lighthouse

Frozen Lake Champlain lighthouse

Nice day for bike ride

Nice day for bike ride

At sunset we made our way to the waterfront to take Lake Champlain. The lake was an important trade route between Canada and New York and battles between Americans and British were fought in these waters. In the middle of March, though, the harbor was completely iced in so Nathan and I took a nice walk on the ice to the lighthouse. Later that night we went to the town’s Irish bar to listen to some jigs and reels in celebration of one of my favorite holiday – St. Patrick’s Day!

Cross Country skiing at the Von Trapp Family Lodge - note the metal maple buckets

Cross Country skiing at the Von Trapp Family Lodge – note the metal maple buckets

Our 2nd morning was frigid beyond belief and, as luck would have it, our rented car had a dead battery. Fortunately, we only needed a jump but unfortunately we couldn’t find someone to help us out. We decided to have breakfast at a nearby cafe, the Barrio Bakery. The warm egg sandwich and blueberry scone helped us feel better and one of our fellow patrons eventually gave us a start.

We bid goodbye to Burlington and drove east to Stowe for some cross country skiing at the Von Trapp Family Lodge – yes, that Von Trapp Family. While The Sound of Music was based on a true story, the musical didn’t cover the fact that the Von Trapp’s became a touring singing group that eventually opened a ski lodge. The lodge has a framed picture of Maria Von Trapp skiing the same trails we did.

Glorious Ben & Jerry’s ice cream cone straight from the factory

Glorious Ben & Jerry’s ice cream cone straight from the factory

Working up a sweat on the ski trails meant time for a rewarding treat. And really, ice cream is an amazing thing. Even when it’s so cold outside your body aches, it’s nearly impossible to decline a waffle cone filled with rich, creamy ice cream. We had no chance resisting the pull of the Ben & Jerry’s factory, even with our snowy surroundings and cold start in the morning. I was somewhat shocked to find 20 other visitors with us on a Monday afternoon in March. Twenty more were lined up for the next tour a half hour later. We all scream for ice cream, I suppose.

Covered bridge near Woodstock, VT

Covered bridge near Woodstock, VT

After a pit stop in the state capital, our final night was spent in the tiny, incredibly cute village of Woodstock (but not that Woodstock). We were pleasantly surprised to find an excellent, casual restaurant near the village called Worthy Kitchen. After filling up on shepard’s pie, we tucked in for the night in our B&B.

On our last day we experienced more quintessential Vermont experiences – covered bridges and maple tapping. It being the start of sugaring season the maple trees were just beginning to release their sweet nectar which is boiled down to our favorite pancake topping.

The tastes and views of Vermont were everything I’d hoped for but was over far too quickly. It whet my appetite to further explore New England. Maine lobster rolls anyone?

Vermont humor (Source: Vermont Independent Clothing Co.)

Vermont humor (Source: Vermont Independent Clothing Co.)

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Road Trip Redwoods (by Nathan)

A good start to any road trip: breakfast at Acme, brunch at Sol Food, and Pinot Noir in Anderson Valley.

A good start to any road trip: breakfast at Acme, brunch at Sol Food, and Pinot Noir in Anderson Valley.

Our blog has been overshadowed by many crazy life events over the the past few months. Obviously returning to the real world after a trip around the world is tough. But…we are bringing the blog back! The next few weeks will be dedicated to bringing our stories to the present.

Every successful road trip requires a few essentials- a supply of snacks, solid tunes, interesting diversions, good company and an end destination. We set out from San Francisco to visit my grandparents 450 miles away in Oregon. The plan was to see some of the beautiful California coastline, hike in the towering redwood forests and enjoy every bit of the landscape along the way. Within the first several hours we were off to a good start with an Acme Bakery apple tart, brunch at the ever delicious Sol Food and wine tasting in Anderson Valley (favorite winery – Husch). Road trip Pacific Coast here we come…

Northern California Coastline

Northern California Coastline

A blooming California poppy

A blooming California poppy

Descending from Anderson valley onto the California coast is a subtle, but exciting experience. The pinot noir vineyards and patchy redwoods pull away to reveal the jagged and tumultuous Mendocino coast. Highway 128 ends and Highway 1/101 is the only route left to meander is way along the coastline.

Carmen celebrating not scraping the mirrors of our rented car!

Carmen celebrating not scraping the mirrors of our rented car!

What! A tree you can dive through? Yeah, we did that! Because every good American road trip requires a visit to a 60’s style tourist trap. Carmen expertly maneuvered our rented Ford Focus through the Chandelier Tree. We had now entered the redwood forests of California. To everyone that has not been to see California redwoods, there are several national, state and local forests that spread throughout California. The Northern California coastline boasts the tallest trees in the world, Kings Canyon in Central California, the fattest, but there are redwood forests all over the place. To name a few of just this trip, we saw Hendy Redwoods, Smithe Woods, Richardson Grove, Humboldt Redwoods, Prairie Creek Redwoods, Redwood National Park and Jedediah Smith Redwoods. Each park or forest is can be enjoyed along the drive, but it is the national and state parks that really take the prize for being spectacularly amazing.

Nathan in Fern Canyon

Nathan in Fern Canyon

Redwoods holding onto the shear bluff

Redwoods holding onto the shear bluff

Early in the road trip we had received a recommendation to visit Fern Canyon. The canyon was formed by a small creek that cuts through the redwood forests, carving a narrow gulley into the hillside. The vegetation is lush, vibrant and dripping with life. It is such an impressive sight that it was used for filming the first Jurassic Park movie. Usually, visiting the canyon has a fee but lucky for us it was free State Park day so we drove right onto the five mile dirt road towards Gold Bluffs beach. The road was in fairly good condition with the exception of a creek that caught us off guard; let’s just say I was happy it was a rented car that jumped that ditch.

Fern Canyon

Fern Canyon

Wild elk near the mouth of Fern Canyon

Wild elk near the mouth of Fern Canyon

One amazing thing about the Redwood National Park is that there are a few wild herds of Elk that migrate through the park. Supposedly they like to go swimming in the ocean! We did not see any elks catching waves, but we did get to see five of them eating shrubs near the beach. This female elk was huge and not at all scared of our presence.

Towers of Redwood National Park

Towers of Redwood National Park

Nudist tree? Open for interpretation.

Nudist tree? Open for interpretation.

The thick redwood forests around Lady Bird Grove

The thick redwood forests around Lady Bird Grove

Within the Redwood National Park, we headed towards an excellent and easy hiking loop in the Lady Bird Johnson Grove. This is probably the third or fourth time I have been here in my life and every time I love it. There are a handful of short or long trails that make it easy to fit in a short or long hike during the road trip. We started with just a small loop, but both Carmen and I got excited and we continued to meander through the forests for a few hours. We did see this rather graphic tree, which we dubbed the nudist tree, that continues to make us laugh.

Tree canopy

Tree canopy

Nathan and one “Big Tree!

Nathan and one “Big Tree!

As we hiked up and down the hillside we heard this faint, yet tremendous crash. Somewhere in the distance a tree branch or maybe an entire tower collided into the ground. It was an amazing rumble that of course sparked the existential debate of a fallen tree in a forest absent of listeners. Walking between, around and through these trees creates a similar feeling to exploring a great city. The height, the culture of the environment are something I enjoy through my core. The majestic height of these trees is inspirational to me to design taller and more beautiful buildings.

Phosphates for 25cents in Oregon!

Phosphates for 25cents in Oregon!

It was tough, but we dragged ourselves back into the car for another five hour stretch of roadway. The end destination of our trip was southern Oregon. It is always exciting to visit my family here. The city where they live has a small-town feel with a very homey downtown. One of my favorite places on the main street is this old pharmacy that sells phosphate sodas for 25 cents. There is a nostalgic charm that continues to welcome us. Oregon boasts an easy-going tranquility that we rarely have seen in all of our travels. To get out of town for a while my aunt took us on a hike along the Rogue River and in the rolling hills.

Fresh beets from the farmer’s market.

Fresh beets from the farmer’s market.

At the time of our visit, the farmer’s market was abundant with local vegetables. We stocked up on several types of beets and made a delicious salad to enjoy on the deck. It was a spectacular road trip that concluded with great food, sunshine and the wonderful warmth of family.

Hanging out with the family on the porch

Hanging out with the family on the porch

Taking a Long Sip in Pingle (by Carmen)

Canal bridge in Pingle

Canal bridge in Pingle

One of our favorite places in Yunnan was Shaxi, a town with maybe a thousand people. The size of most cities in China are jaw dropping. Visiting the tiny towns provides insight to a slower and community oriented side of life. With this in mind we decided to take a day trip to Pingle, a couple hours east of Chengdu.

Pingle street

Pingle street

5D show!

5D show!

Pingle is over 2000 years old and was a stop on the famous Silk Road trade route. Little has changed architecturally since the Ming dynasty – some of the towns trees have even been in the same place for a thousand years. But that was then. Now, everything in China is rapidly changing. While we were there many of the little lanes were under construction to better support the tourist masses. And of course all the tourist junk shops. My favorite though was the Avatar 5D stand. 3 dimensions just wasn’t enough!

Wall of bamboo

Wall of bamboo

Nathan wondering how to climb bamboo

Nathan wondering how to climb bamboo

There wasn’t a whole lot of information on Pingle online so we discovered our activities while there. For example, we saw a sign pointing to a bamboo forest. Plenty of rickshaw drivers tried to take us there but we decided to walk. About 10 minutes later we found a valley filled with a sea of bamboo.

Crossing the stream

Crossing the stream

Picturesque bamboo stream

Picturesque bamboo stream

Most of our walk was along the one road that cuts through the valley. That meant that every so often we had to jump to the side as a car or rickshaw going much to fast sped past us. But for the most part it was peaceful and beautiful. Eventually we found a small path that crossed the river and wound along the stream for a bit. Then we caught a rickshaw back to town.

Roof tiles in town

Roof tiles in town

Riverside tea

Riverside tea

Finally, we drank our tea. This was the real reason we came to Pingle. Nathan and I had so enjoyed the tea houses of Chengdu and Zigong that we wanted more. The ones in Pingle line a calm river where kids played in the mud and casually threw their trash into the flowing water. In the tea houses the clink of mahjong tiles and families having convivial conversations filled the air. It was as chill and peaceful as China gets. The tea was delicious and Nathan and I settled in for a long afternoon of sipping and people watching.

Stairway to Heaven in Emeishan (by Carmen)

Stupa at the top of Emeishan

Stupa at the top of Emeishan

We were peregrinos once again. But this time it was a little different. For one, we were in China on the holy mountain of Emeishan. Second, we were only going to hike 50km not 800km. Instead of churches, we would encounter temples. Instead of a bottle of wine with our patatas bravas we would eat a simple bowl of vegetarian noodles and drink tea. Instead of the end of summer we were hiking at the end of winter. All in all, we were ready for these changes and excited to see a more spiritual side of China.

Carved Buddha at trailhead

Carved Buddha at trailhead

Forest steps

Forest steps

Map of Emeishan

Map of Emeishan

Emeishan is one of four sacred Buddhist mountains in China and has been a site of ancient pilgrimages for centuries. A series of temples have been established along the trail to house and feed people walking to the top. A carved Buddha welcomed us at the trailhead and we began to ascend the steps built into the forest. We struggled a bit to find the correct trail since the best map we had was a schematic one from the hostel. But after some asking around and pointing we made our way to the temples.

Tibetan style Shenshui Pavillion

Tibetan style Shenshui Pavillion

 Psychedelic purple cabbage

Psychedelic purple cabbage

One of the first temples we encountered was the Shenshui Pavillion. It was covered in a riot of bright colors, similar to the Tibetans ones we had seen in Zhongdian. We took a bit of a break, then pushed on. Shortly afterwards we saw this awesome purple cabbage plant; nature’s own version of colorful decorating.

Stairway in the forest

Stairway in the forest

Wannian Temple entrance

Wannian Temple entrance

Up and up we went. The stairs through the forest at times seemed never ending. But we kept looking out for the next landmark or temple. In a few hours we were able to reach the famous Wannian Temple

Six tusk elephant at Wannian Temple

Six tusk elephant at Wannian Temple

1100 year old bronze elephant

1100 year old bronze elephant

Wannian Temple is the oldest on the mountain and is dedicated to Bodhisattva Puxian. He liked riding a white elephant and this has become a symbol of the mountain. A giant bronze elephant with six tusks was constructed 1,100 years ago(!) to honor him and bring luck and long life to the people.

Stairway down

Stairway down

Stairway up

Stairway up

And then there were more stairs. We had started the day at 500m (1,650 ft) and our ultimate goal, the Golden Summit, was 3,077m (10,100ft). But it wasn’t one straight up shot. There were foothills to traverse and winding paths that followed the natural contours of the mountains. So we definitely felt like we had climbed all 3000m, if not more! When we couldn’t take the steps anymore, we would take a break. There were plenty of cafes and tea houses along the way vying for our business. We eventually stopped for lunch in a café that seemed to be full of local construction workers. Gong bao pork and stir fried greens is an excellent way to fill up for a hike.

White elephant bathing pool

White elephant bathing pool

Simple noodles at the monastery

Simple noodles at the monastery

Looking down at white elephant temple

Looking down at white elephant temple

Our final destination for the night clocked in at 2000m. The White Elephant Bathing Temple is so named for the time Puxian flew his elephant to a pool at this site in order to bathe it. By the time we made it to the top of the infinitely long staircase, we were exhausted and so happy to the bright red walls of the temple. After checking in for the night, we went directly to the dining hall for a hot bowl of noodles. The cook got a big kick out of the fact that we wanted it lao ji (spicy) – many people can never believe that a lao wei could like spicy. But we piled it on and were very happy and comforted. We then took our large water thermos to our room to drink tea and warm up with our electric blankets.

Sunrise at White Elephant Bathing Temple

Sunrise at White Elephant Bathing Temple

Oil lamps at the rustic Taizi Ping temple

Oil lamps at the rustic Taizi Ping temple

Prayer flags

Prayer flags

The next morning we were on a mission. We stopped briefly at the temples along the way, soaking in each one’s individual flavor. Some, such as Taizi Ping, were very rustic affairs in comparison to the more elaborate Wannian or even Shenshui.  Hidden from the path Nathan spotted enormous curtains of prayer flags that weaved through the forest.

Deep gorge

Deep gorge

Cliff

Cliff

Monkey on the cliff

Monkey on the cliff

As we neared the top, the trees became less dense and we could see the dramatic gorges and cliffs of the mountain. And that’s where we encountered the monkeys. Monkeys are a common theme in many Chinese parks and people love to feed them. It’s odd, though, that they are then terrified of them when they get close. I do not quite understand the Chinese relationship to wildlife – it’s like a mix of entertainment and distrust.

Nathan on the final steps

Nathan on the final steps

Six tusk elephant at the top

Six tusk elephant at the top

Finally, after two days, 50km and 3000m, we were on the final steps of Emeishan. White elephants greeted us as we made our way to the top.

Stupa at the top of Emeishan

Stupa at the top of Emeishan

Us with stupa

Us with stupa

And then we were at the golden stupa. It was installed about 6 years ago so it does not have much historical significance. But I think it adds a lot to the atmosphere and is beautifully crafted.

Golden Summit Temple

Golden Summit Temple

Golden Summit Temple with stupa

Golden Summit Temple with stupa

We were lucky to have such a sunny day as the mists of Emeishan are legendary. And so are the crowds. I haven’t mentioned that 99% of the thousands of visitors that day had not taken a step on the path we took. Sadly, Emeishan has been overrun by the cable car. Many people were there just to take their million photos, including with us, and then they head to the gift shop. I understand that not everyone can hike the way Nathan and I did but it does cheapen the experience when those that can don’t try at all. Is it really a pilgrimage anymore when you haven’t even had time to ponder your journey, to the top and in life?

Father and daughter who wanted to take a picture with me

Father and daughter who wanted to take a picture with me

The one good thing about this easy access to the top is the easy access down. Nathan and I hike an hour down to the bus station and caught a minibus for the 1.5 hour drive back to town. I was mulling over my thoughts and getting over the shock of being in such a tranquil environment during most of the hike and then being jolted by so many people at the top.

That’s when something strange happened. As the driver took a bathroom break at one of the cable car depots, he opened the back door for anyone who wanted to get out. At that point, a lady threw her walking stick out the door. A very old woman then felt around the ground for it and I realized that she was blind. The woman on the bus had given her the stick so that she could resell it later but didn’t even have the decency to hand it to her. Fortunately, the old woman had a companion, another woman of the same age, who helped her find the stick. Together they lifted up empty plastic bags apparently asking for something. It felt like everything was happening in slow motion as I was trying to figure it out. The companion pulled out a plastic bottle and it finally dawned on me – they simply wanted plastic bottles. It was at that moment that the driver, who had returned, shut the door and left them in a cloud of dust. Something about these two women pulled strongly at my heart. Simply based on history, these women must have experienced a lot of hardship in life. They should be honored, but instead were treated with disdain. They were extremely humble to all these people on board who had just paid 150RMB ($25USD) to go into a spiritual, sacred site. I can only imagine what $25 would have meant to them. I thought about these women a lot since I’ve seen them. I had plastic bottles I could have given them but due to confusion and language barriers, I pulled them out too late. I hope they are ok. I wish there was more I could do. And I wish there was more focus on helping these hard working yet destitute elderly woman than building more malls for the nouveau riche… And there is my tale of temples, burning thighs and heart ache on Emeishan.

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.

Does Yuanyang Actually Exist? (By Nathan)

Rice terrace reflections

Rice terrace reflections

The first time I saw photos like this, I was convinced they were fake. No way could an entire mountain be transformed into stepped platforms and then subsequently flooded. It did not physically seem possible, in no way was it real. Well, having been to the Yanyang rice terraces I can say that they are real and more magnificent than any photo can justify. The magic of the terraces is that their shapes are very organic matching the flow and contours of the mountains, but the squareness of the stepped walls and the immense retention of water is a reminder that humans are actively contributing to this landscape.

Woman farmer walking the terrace edge

Woman farmer walking the terrace edge

Cascading topography of Duoyishu

Cascading topography of Duoyishu

The vividness of the terraces was obscured by the fact that we arrived at night. For some frustrating reason the busses from Kunming are sleeper busses that travel during the day and arrive late at night. We loaded into a tiny minivan and bounced along the road for over forty-five minutes to arrive at the little town of Guanyinshan in the heart of the Duoyishu terraces. After pounding on the door for a few minutes, we finally got the hostel to open up and let us in. We woke to a cloud-filled valley that provided further mystique to the land formations. As the sun rose higher into the sky the mist dissipated revealing the splendor of Yuanyang rice terraces.

Duoyishu rice terraces

Duoyishu rice terraces

Close-up of Duoyishu rice terraces

Close-up of Duoyishu rice terraces

I am still grasping it, but the entire mountain has been excavated into millions of tiny rice fields. The steepness of the hillsides has been transformed into topographic layers. Each step of 4-6 feet curves and flows with what was the original natural mountain. The uniqueness of Yuanyang, compared with other terraces, is that the terraces are constantly filled with water. The people have engineered thousands of canals to flow in and around all of the terraces to create these beautiful reflection pools. Every piece of land has been manipulated and optimized to produce rice.

Hiking with new friends through Duoyishu terraces

Hiking with new friends through Duoyishu terraces

Colorful terraces

Colorful terraces

We went over to Jacky’s Guesthouse for breakfast and a view from their rooftop. This is one of the best views in Duoyishu and Jacky is an imperative resource for visiting the terraces. Most of the tourists have to pay a fee to visit these platforms throughout the region. We felt that this was overpriced and the money did not get to the locals. Jacky helped us determine some hiking routes around terraces and rustic villages to explore. We also had the good fortune of meeting some like-minded friends who were eager to roam around the mountainside.

Hani women building a new home

Hani women building a new home

Men smoking a tobacco water pipe in Shang Village.

Men smoking a tobacco water pipe in Shang Village.

The women in these areas work extremely hard. We saw them carrying bundles of harvested vegetables, wood, rocks, and wet concrete everywhere we went. The women were constantly working these manual labor jobs. During our walk through one village the women were working together to pour a concrete floor on a new home. We saw few men working these jobs, maybe they were out earning money somewhere else. The men we did find were thoroughly enjoying some tobacco from a water pipe.

Traditional Chinese mountain village

Traditional Chinese mountain village

We traversed down rocky paths into roadless villages. The water-filled terraces wrapped all around us and we continued our walk on whatever trail we could find. We scrambled up jungle cliffs, trudged in muddy creeks and balanced on the clay retaining walls. Our exploration gave little feeling of actually conquering or completing anything, but constantly reminded us how small we were in this enormous farmed mountain. Everything was terraces, and every terrace was irrigated with water. Tiny untouched villages scattered the hillsides, but everywhere was a terrace indistinguishable from one another.

Admiring the view of the Lao Huzui terraces

Admiring the view of the Lao Huzui terraces

Water-filled dreamscape

Water-filled dreamscape

Walking in the depths of the terraces is a humbling activity. It is also an easy way to get lost. We found ourselves two towns over and down the valley. We arrived back at Jacky’s, but the sun was quickly going down and sunset was fast approaching. We hired a minivan for the group of us to go and see another famous set of terraces- Lao Huzui

Sunset on the rice terraces Lao Huzui

Sunset on the rice terraces Lao Huzui

Sunset reflection pools

Sunset reflection pools

Another forty-five minutes away on another valley are the Lao Huzui terraces. The viewing spots are high on the cliff 500m above the rice fields. The valley faces the west making it perfect to watch the sun disappear on the horizon. The pools reflect the orange and pink light forming what appears to be an enormous lake that is like a fabric wraps around the mountains. The six of us had a good time sharing experiences of travel and China but most of all we sat awestruck with the beautiful view.

Terrace hopping in the dawn light

Terrace hopping in the dawn light

Sunrise Duoyishu

Sunrise Duoyishu

The next morning we were able to get a nice sunrise at Duoyishu. I hopped around from terrace to terrace. I balanced on the clay walls and traversed the steep hillside. The sun slowly peeked over the mountains and the terrace pools reflected the blue sky.

Trash-filled creek

Trash-filled creek

Despite the magnificent beauty of this landscape it was difficult to not be frustrated with how the environment is treated. I still do not understand how trash and crap can be thrown into the same water source that feeds the people of this area. The Chinese can build some of the grandest most beautiful things, but forget to recognize the public health flaws right in front of them.

Reflection pools and tree

Reflection pools and tree

I really liked this one tree that appeared to have survived all the human alterations to the land and found a way to cling onto the hillside.

Bada rice terraces

Bada rice terraces

I wanted to do some more hiking, Carmen had some computer work to do. I joined in with our new friends Michael and Albert for a walk to explore more terraces. We came across the Bada scenic viewing area. It was part of the tourist ticket that neither of us had. After being turned down by the women at the entrance we continued our walk down the road. It was amusing to us to find a dirt trail that wrapped around the ticket booth, we crouched down and creeped in…woo hoo free entry.

Home-cooked meal in Quanfuzhuang village

Home-cooked meal in Quanfuzhuang village

Home-cooked meal in Quanfuzhuang village

Home-cooked meal in Quanfuzhuang village

The presence of these friends was immensely useful when looking for food. They both have been studying mandarin abroad and we asked a local man where we could eat something. In a matter of seconds this random man escorted us into his living room and sat us down at a miniature table while he got to work in the kitchen. He cooked us roasted duck, stewed fish, pork and rice cake then joined us at the table with a jug of moonshine rice liquor. We feasted, they had a small conversation and I drank when i was told to. It was a wonderful meal and our sincere host made us feel very welcome. It was difficult to leave, but we grabbed a quick photo when we said goodbye.

Whispy blue sky

Whispy blue sky

Then we had to say goodbye to Yuanyang. We bought another bus ticket tried to find comfort on the cramped bed. The gorgeous beauty of the mountain terraces became another memory, another fantastic experience of our travels and one of those unbelievable photos that I can say “that is real, I was there.”

Finding Peace and Cold in Zhongdian (by Carmen)

Monastery through the prayer flags

Monastery through the prayer flags

“Brrr, it’s cold up there.” This was everyone’s reaction when we mentioned we were going to Zhongdian. The town, in the northern reaches of Yunnan, is pretty much as close to Tibet as it gets without going there. It was just so tantalizingly close to Tiger Leaping Gorge that we couldn’t resist. So we hopped on a minibus headed north.

Street in "old town"

Street in “old town”

Roof tops of "old town"

Roof tops of “old town”

We got dropped off in “old town”, which I have to use quotes for. The old town is actually completely new, built by the government to attract some of the tourists away from old town in Lijiang. It is cute and old feeling for the most part, with crooked streets and wooden Tibetan style buildings. It was rather dead in the winter but I could imagine a lively place in the summer.

However, the government didn’t stop there. The tourism agency has gone on to say that Zhongdian is the legendary site of Shangrila, the magical utopia of James Hilton’s novels. Hilton used pictures of southwest China for inspiration of his work but really, it was a metaphorical place. The government officially changed the name to Shangrila anyway. I don’t know, I just like Zhongdian better.

Amazing dumpling meal

Amazing dumpling meal

Market vendors with cheese and prayer flags

Market vendors with cheese and prayer flags

We ventured out of old town for lunch the next day, determined to find something a bit more local. When I saw the sign for the dumpling restaurant I became excited and we entered through the steamy door.  I thought, “We are in southwest china, why are we eating northwestern cuisine?” But it turned out to be the best choice ever. We got a plate of fried dumplings and a plate of boiled ones. A side dish of slivered pig ears and some spicy cucumber chunks and we were set. Oh was it good. Perfect pork filling, wonderful sour, salty, spicy dipping sauce. Yum. We had stumbled on a treasure that the whole town seemed to know about. As the lunch hour progressed, customers from all walks of life streamed in. Even people in traditional outfits. The desire for good food was our common bond.

After our lunch we walked along the main boulevard of town which was lined with vendors. Two popular items were prayer flags and yak’s milk cheese, both at a fraction of the prices they charge in “old town.”

Monastery from afar

Monastery from afar

Stupa with prayer flags

Stupa with prayer flags

The main attraction of Zhongdian is a few kilometers north of the center. The Ganden Sumtseling Gompa is a 300 year old Tibetan Buddhist monastery set in a beautiful windswept valley. We almost didn’t go. The ticket price was almost double what we expected and after all the high price tickets in the other towns we had visited we had had enough. It is hard to see where the money for these tickets is going. But we paid up and our first views of the monastery instantly made us feel better. We approached by walking clockwise around a lake, past a stupa with many prayer flags fluttering in the wind. Moving clockwise was an important requirement for the monastery, within the compound as well as in individual rooms, as this is the direction one would spin a prayer wheel.

Ceiling painting on the main gate

Ceiling painting on the main gate

Front of one of the temples

Front of one of the temples

The entrance gate gave us a taste of what we would find inside. The layers of color and patterns was so intricate yet harmonious. Each of the various buildings we visited was painted in a similar fashion which contrasted with the rather stark mud colored exteriors.

Wonderfully painted interior

Wonderfully painted interior

Examples of the paintings of morals and religious stories

Examples of the paintings of morals and religious stories

Inside the paintings would pop with vibrancy. Many of the temples depicted the same themes. For example the stages of enlightenment metaphorically represented by a black elephant becoming white. Or the bird on top of the rabbit on top of the monkey on top of the elephant. All these have background stories I’m sure but they seemed mysterious to me. While many themes were repeated there was one shrine in particular that was unique from the others. The walls were black with neon sketches of skeletons and animals. Sadly no pictures allowed.

View from the roof

View from the roof

Gilded roof

Gilded roof

In our temple to temple meanderings we eventually found a little spot to get out onto the roof from where we could look out past the gilding and onto the city and the lake.

One more of the monastery

One more of the monastery

We did see a few monks in the temples arranging offerings, meditating or greeting people. They looked a little cold in their simple robes. Overall the cold winter weather (highs were in the low forties and of course nowhere, not even our hotel room, had true heaters) gave the monastery a feeling of austerity.

Local villager women

Local villager women

A yak!

A yak!

Tibetan style construction

Tibetan style construction

Outside the monastery walls a village had formed. We walked around, admired the heavy Tibetan style architecture, pet the yaks. It did feel a bit strange though, like I was intruding. I wonder how much money the villagers get from the high priced ticket.

Nathan with 20 layers of clothing

Nathan with 20 layers of clothing

Sleeper bus

Sleeper bus

We could only handle so much cold. Nathan was wearing almost everything he had! Zhongdian was a brief but worthy interlude on our Yunnan tour. We made our way south on a long journey to warmer weather and magical rice terraces.

Trekking Tiger Leaping Gorge (by Nathan)

Mother nature's craftsmanship: Tiger Leaping Gorge

Mother nature’s craftsmanship: Tiger Leaping Gorge

What is it about canyons that can so intimately engage human kind? Observing the intricacies of the water-weathered terrain is like reviewing the life’s work of a master craftsmen. Each fluctuation in the landscape is a hard-earned blow of hammer and chisel, each contour sanded smooth and the landscape fiddled with over millions of years of geologic time. Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the inspiring and beautiful masterpieces in this world. Enormous mountains jut vertically into the sky and the rather calm Yangtze River is transformed into a violent earth-carving tool. There is no better way to observe this type of landscape than walking; hiking the cliff’s edge is the best way to experience earth’s craftsmanship.

Cliff edge of Tiger Leaping Gorge

Cliff edge of Tiger Leaping Gorge

Finally we hiked Tiger Leaping Gorge! I have wanted to hike this stretch of canyon for four years now. We originally learned about it in a favorite travel book of ours called Lost On Planet China by J. Maarten Troost. After our first trip to China, we knew that we needed to spend some more time exploring this country. We needed more time to eat its delicious food and see the depths of natural and historic sights that there were on offer. Yunnan and Tiger Leaping Gorge remained a central element of our travel planning for this entire year abroad.

Hiking trail signage at beginning of trail

Hiking trail signage at beginning of trail

Turn right at " This Small House"

Turn right at ” This Small House”

We started the hike in Qiaotou after taking a early morning bus from Lijiang. We stopped at the one guesthouse in town, Jane’s, to drop off our excess luggage and we began the hike up the hillside. I had expected few or no signage, so it was nice to see the frequent yellow and blue arrows leading us from Jane’s to the trail. The one tricky spot came at about 2-3 km into the walk-at “this small house.”‘ Turn off the paved road and walk through the courtyard onto the marked dirt path.

The enormous entrance into Tiger Leaping Gorge

The enormous entrance into Tiger Leaping Gorge

The rocky foot trail

The rocky foot trail

We were immediately struck with an enormous depth and magnificence of the canyon. The steepness of the cliffs appeared near vertical and the sparsely snowcapped mountains were so high, but so close. The footpath was well worn, a couple feet wide, but very rocky and unmaintained.

Wall of corn

Wall of corn

The tiny village with Naxi Guesthouse

The tiny village with Naxi Guesthouse

We walked for another twenty minutes to Naxi Guesthouse for some lunch. The women were very nice and fixed us some simple and slightly bland Chinese food. We admired the wall of corn that dried in the sun and then we began our steep ascent up the mountainside. Late January has to be the perfect time to hike this trek. We had sunny weather around 15-20C (60-70F) and we saw almost no tourists. Off-season tourism in China is proving to be the way to travel.

Tree clinging onto the cliff

Tree clinging onto the cliff

We reached the bottom of the infamous “28 bends” after already counting to ten. We had been climbing for seven kilometers but we determined that the real climb starts at a small building that sells drinks during high season. Carmen and I pushed on up through the switchbacks and we slowly but steadily climbed up the cliffside. For anyone who decides to count the bends, I recommend only counting full switchbacks that take at least five to ten minutes to cross. I was pleasantly surprised to reach the top with only counting 25. Both of us had actually expected a much more difficult and challenging ascent.

Self-portrait at top of 28 bends

Self-portrait at top of 28 bends

Steep vertical cliffs carved by the Yangtze River

Steep vertical cliffs carved by the Yangtze River

In total from Qiaotou the climb to this point was maybe 800m. The lookout point at top only met the elevation of slightly below the middle of the mountain across the canyon. We could not help but compare the climb and canyon with some of treks earlier this year. Colca Canyon in Peru is the worlds deepest canyon, but the mountains are very rounded so although the hiking was much more challenging, the landscape was not as drastic as the Chinese gorge in front of us. The Grand Canyon is unmatched for its beauty and hiking, in my opinion.  Tiger Leaping Gorge has steep vertical mountains but the red Navajo sandstone and ease of do-it-yourself hiking in America is very rewarding.

Carmen hugging the pine needle mound

Carmen hugging the pine needle mound

Every couple hours we would encounter a tiny village or a series of small plots of farmland. Carmen in particular enjoyed this tower of pine needles that looked so soft that she could hug it. Of course this type of thing always turns out more prickly than she could have expected.

Pipeline eyesore

Pipeline eyesore

They are building like crazy in China…everywhere. As we walked through each town we started noticing that every building had a brand new solar water heater on the roof, then we realized that some towns had ten to twenty buildings that were less than a year old. Even here on the steep cliffs of the Yangtze River, the Chinese are flocking to inhabit and make a living for themselves. Unfortunately this development does not care about the aesthetics of the landscape. This water pipeline was just one of many that snaked through the landscape. The placement of electric lines on the trail is also very discouraging as some awesome photo spots are plagued with droopy wires and decrepit leaning and fallen electric poles. Nevertheless, the scenery is beautiful and we just walked passed it in search of another awesome lookout and there were many places to enjoy the view.

View from the toilet

View from the toilet

Our serene mountain getaway- Half Way Guesthouse

Our serene mountain getaway- Half Way Guesthouse

Stark peak of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain at 5600m high

Stark peak of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain at 5600m high

Most specifically, the bathroom at our Half Way Guesthouse had one of the best views. Turning our heads just slightly mid-squat and we were faced with 4000m of glorious mountain across the river. Unfortunately we did not want to get too distracted and become unbalanced. Losing aim has bad consequences when hovering over a trough. There was an even better view from the dining hall and roof that looked unobstructed into the gorgeous gorge.

Carmen hiking at sunrise

Carmen hiking at sunrise

Waterfall crossing along trail

Waterfall crossing along trail

We were comfortable exhausted after over 16km (10mi) of hiking. We grabbed an early dinner and drifted into deep rejuvenating sleep. We woke before sunrise to get a jump on the hike ahead of us. As the dawn light broke through the canyon we traversed the rocky path. There were a few waterfalls but they were not too challenging or wet for us to cross. After about 8km (5mi) we found ourselves in the tiny tourist town of Walnut Garden.

The gorge from sunshine trail

The gorge from sunshine trail

We passed the cool hours of the morning with some breakfast and tea. The sun was slowly finding its way into the canyon and it was not until about 10:30am that we felt there was enough sun to not freeze our butts off walking down into the depths of the gorge. We started from Sean’s Guesthouse and followed the “sunshine trail” deep into the canyon. After about forty-five minutes of walking a young girl offers to sell us some drinks and candy. We politely turned her down, then she insists on us paying a fee to use e trail that we just walked. We had expected this but it is still frustrating to pay a park entrance fee then again pay some tart that stands in middle of the trail. We haggle a bit and settle on 10¥ for Carmen and I to use the trail in only one-direction.

Be careful not to cross this

Be careful not to cross this

We walk around the corner and were stopped abruptly by a mean-looking bulldog-faced girl. Now, she has the same sign as the other girl, but she is charging for the “ladder trail photo spot.” We were planning on using this trail, but charging to take a photo is ridiculous. We knew that there was a toll booth at the top of the ladder trail that we suspected would also try to charge us. So I decided to step passed her. She jumps in front and growls and screams and starts pumping her tiny balled fist into her pudgy left hand. I found this display of violence comical and disgraceful. I paid a hefty tourist ticket to get in the park but it is not acceptable to bully tourists for more cash.

Then I noticed a brief moment when she was distracted, the wind fluttered, her phone beeped and in three steps I was passed her. I unleashed the dragon from the cage. She screamed, squealed and barked everything she could at me. The intensity of her anger sprayed heavily on my face with thick insults. Standing on her tippy toes she gripped my jacket as if she planned on throwing me to the other side of the mountain. I stayed calm, happy that I maintained composure in China. I look at Carmen and I see one of those faces that immediately humbles me and sets me on track. I see a face that says, “What are you doing? Now I am fucking trapped over here while you and that crazy bitch are arguing over $3.25!” I convince Broozie Lee to stop pumping her fists and we pay the full toll (or maybe I got across from free and Carmen paid double). Looking back at it, this incident reflects the challenges of a miscommunication. If I knew I would not get charged at the top for the same trail, or if I knew that they actually maintained the trail (which turned out to be clean, safe and well-maintained) then maybe this would have been smoother.

Tourist rock on the Yangtze River near Tiger Leaping Rock

Tourist rock on the Yangtze River near Tiger Leaping Rock

Another five minutes and we were on the main tourist viewing spot, Tiger Leaping Rock. The legend has it that a magnificent tiger fled human hunters by traversing the steep mountains. The hunters encroached on the tiger and cornered up him against the Yangtze River. The tight canyon confined the river into a raging pulsing body of rapids and waterfalls. The panic-stricken tiger paced on the last remaining landform expecting his inevitable death. As the hunters encroached down the hillside the tiger leapt in desperation. The river raged below, but gloriously, the tiger flew over the tumultuous water and landed gracefully on the river bank. The distance was too great for the hunters. The tiger swiftly climbed and disappeared into the mountains. The people and the place were forever changed with the memory of the tiger and the remaining Tiger Leaping Rock.

Yangtze Rapids

Yangtze Rapids

We sat on one of the rocks and admired the river as the water violently slammed against the rocks causing one of the most abusive rapids I could ever imagine. We were forced to yell across the thundering sound. There are a handful of places to visit at the water, but many of them require bribing this one family for each photo. I think the best spot is the free on e at the end of the trail. The mountains ascend almost vertically from the water’s edge and the Yangtze snakes in the the distance.

Ladder trail up from Tiger Leaping Rock

Ladder trail up from Tiger Leaping Rock

We climbed out of the canyon to discover that the ladder trail had significantly more elevation gain and was more challenging (exposed in the sun) than the 28 bends. There actually is a sixty foot ladder (optional for those that trust Chinese safety standards). We huffed and puffed our way to the top excited to have completed a wonderful Tiger Leaping Gorge trek. The scenery throughout our two days was magical.  It is impressive how  for just a short distance these mountains confine the river to create a drastic and impressive landscape. It is possible to look in both directions to see the mountains and canyon disappear, the Yangtze flattens and resumes a gentle flow across the landscape. Back at the cliff’s edge, the river no longer takes on the characteristics of thrashing through the canyon. The whitewater softly meanders through Tiger Leaping Gorge slowly carving and chiseling it more elegantly than ever before.

Shaking Off The Beaten Track in Shaxi (by Nathan)

Shaxi historic theater

Shaxi historic theater

The idea of finding a place that is beautiful, historic and free of crowds in China sounds like a myth. Few places have been untouched by tourism in China.  If a town has the slightest bit of charm then the Chinese have already torn down most of it and added a few hundred shops with an entrance ticket to visit the town. I am afraid that my writing this post may influence and change a truly wonderful town forever. A special thanks to our friends Adam and Yun for recommending this place. We loved the tiny town of Shaxi; there was charm, and a rustic simplicity to it that made it easy to explore, relax and enjoy being in China.

Winter park in Shaxi

Winter park in Shaxi

The town originated from one of the original tea and horse caravan villages of two thousand years ago. Horses were constantly being traded from Tibet to Southeast Asia for tea and the subtle valley surrounding Shaxi was the ideal place for a stopover. Fortunately it takes a little hoop jumping to get to Shaxi. We rode a regional bus to Jianchuan from Dali, then a tiny minivan to Shaxi, this two-step process is usually enough to shed off ninety-nine percent of the tourists. A highway is planned for completion near the town in the next year, so I imagine this little village in the Himilayan foothills will soon be changed and made into another Chinese shopping mall.

Rustic painted building

Rustic painted building

There is just one paved road with a handful of tiny restaurants, shops and craftspeople. A historic cobble-stoned path, Sideng Road, leads down to the historic center with an original theater from the Qing dynasty four hundred years ago. It is easy and fun to get lost in the winding rock pathways. The rustic wood-framed buildings with tile roofs appear unchanged for thousands of years.

Five hundred year old bridge over the Heihui river

Five hundred year old bridge over the Heihui river

Carmen and I immediately set out to exploring the town. It did not take long, because soon we had passed by everything there was to see a couple times. Down in the valley the Heihui River cuts through the terrain. There is a traditional Chinese bridge near the town and supposedly an even older one downstream connecting another village. We did not get that far as our bigger exploration of the area was spent hiking into the mountains.

Breakfast beef noodles

Breakfast beef noodles

Mountain tombstones

Mountain tombstones

We grabbed a hearty breakfast of beef noodles, we glanced at crude map and we set out to wonder through the mountains and villages of Shaxi. Our original destination was the “White Dragon Pool,” but after hiking for six hours on trails that we thought was the correct one I can say that we did not find the pool. We did find stunning views, several rock carvings and tombstones tucked into the mountainside.

Terraced farmland east of Shaxi

Terraced farmland east of Shaxi

Springtime cherry blossoms

Springtime cherry blossoms

We passed through delicately terraced farmland green with sprouting vegetables, corn, rice and even a few cherry trees with blossoms already encouraging spring. Our path varied from a groomed dirt road, to a passable foot trail to bush whacking up a few creeks. The temperatures were brisk, but warm and enjoyable for a winter day.

Friendly family of donkeys

Friendly family of donkeys

Farmland near Shaxi

Farmland near Shaxi

On our return hike we found a family of donkeys traversing the path in the opposite direction. We approached a little wearily being careful to see how they’d react to us. Then the foal stepped towards us and affectionately nudged its head against our outstretched hands. The adults did the same, leaning their bodies towards us, eager as dogs for a little petting. We said our goodbyes and continued down the mountainside. The farm huts and terraces enhanced the landscape all around us.

Our stop in Shaxi was peaceful; China without the negative aspects of Chinese tourism. The town and surrounds are very timeless.  The old and beautiful type of place travelers dream of. I am excited that we had the opportunity to explore and enjoy it while it still exists.

Tribal Villages and Foraged Food of the Nam Ha Jungle (by Nathan)

Riverside canoe at Sopsine village

Riverside canoe at Sopsine village

Real Laos is in the jungle, deep within the banana trees and bamboo forests. Eighty percent of the population of Laos lives in rural communities. Many people live in tiny sleepy valley towns, but some communities are tucked deep into the mountains. Tiny muddy trails meander through the forests connecting the stilt villages of the mountain. We wanted to visit this more rugged Laos, we wanted to learn more about the bountiful food source of the jungle and learn about traditional Laos people. I was getting a little restless and a hike in the mountains was just what I needed. So we packed bare essential packs and loaded into a tuk tuk to bring us to the base of the Nam Ha national protected area.

Sweet jelly and bean soup

Sweet jelly and bean soup

Tiny colorful river fish

Tiny colorful river fish

Our first stop was the local market in the city of Luang Namtha. Carmen and I had visited this market a day earlier so we went for our favorites. Some sweet soup with a mix of jellies, beans and sweet milk was first on the menu. On the other side of the market there were these tiny fish that shined with iridescent greens and blues as we passed as well as the usual chopping blocks stacked with meat, blankets mounded with vegetables and a few caged rodents, chicken and ducks for sale at the perimeter. I had been eyeing some local lao lao, a rice liquor similar to what we had in Vietnam.  But this moonshine was more raw and burning, a toxically good late night sipper. It sold in re-used plastic water bottles that often have caps or plastic wrap and a rubber band. I bought one thinking it would be fun to share with the guide and other people in our trekking group.

Carmen being taxied across the river

Carmen being taxied across the river

Dense banana leaves provided constant shade

Dense banana leaves provided constant shade

Interwoven bamboo forests

Interwoven bamboo forests

Our hiking began when the tuk tuk stopped at a tiny hut alongside a dirt road. We wobbled onto a tiny canoe to the other side of the river, our trail head. Our guide, Singh, was immediately resourceful in hacking away at the bamboo to create us all walking poles. We stopped to dig up some fresh galangal and to look at the funny local potato. There was almost no visible sunlight as the banana trees and bamboo forests were extremely thick filtering everything in bright greens. The hike was steep and damp. We clambered up the slippery hillside along tiny foot holes dug into the trail. It was wonderful to be walking again, Carmen quickly fell into Camino-like meditations and I enjoyed powering up the hillside.

Bamboo water bottle

Bamboo water bottle

Lunch on banana leaves below a rattan hut

Lunch on banana leaves below a rattan hut

The pace was slow and steady with many breaks. We would stop to discuss local plant life, or try on banana leaf hats, sip fresh bamboo water or test our skills on a crafted bamboo flute. The trail leveled and we pulled off our packs at a rattan hut in the forest. With some banana leaves as our table we consumed our first lunch in the jungle. The food was bought from the market that morning and consisted of a cold pork laab salad with mint and chilies  There was mashed rattan and banana flower salad and a heaping mound of the Laos staple, sticky rice. Re-fueled, we continued through the thicket back to the river Nam Thong.

Animals sharing a feed bowl

Animals sharing a feed bowl

Khmmu food storage at Sopsine

Khmmu food storage at Sopsine

Our first night in the jungle was a home stay with the Khmmu people in Sopsine. There was a dirt road connecting the village from a few years ago, but only a few traveled to town each day. The people mostly survive on subsistence foraging and farming. The whole village was active with fifty or so playing children and hundreds of dogs, pigs, chickens and ducks. At feed time, one of the teenage boys pours some grainy slop in a tire and all his animals attack it with ferocity. It was fun watching piglets of just a few pounds try to fill themselves along roosters and comparably sized puppies. The buildings were fascinating to me of course.  Everyone built their one-story, one bedroom homes on stilts. The kitchens were outside and elevated as well. There was one water faucet in town that was active with hundreds of people that evening. Everyone bathed (fully clothed) at the faucet or the river, and the townspeople were just as intrigued to watch and observe us at we were at them.

Carmen jungle creek crossing

Carmen jungle creek crossing

It was a sad decision for Carmen and I to get rid of our hiking boots after the Camino when we knew that we would be doing more trekking. But it was more important to save weight on our backs than protect our feet. Carmen was cursing that decision after our first day of trekking. The path was slippery and all of us tripped at some point of the hike. Carmen took the trophy.  She typically is more careful and precise in her walking than me, so when she falls the yell and crash is heard throughout the forest. I turned back to see Carmen arms spread out from her sides, mud caked onto her hips and elbows and her right leg twisted behind her. We get her up, we rub some tiger balm onto her sprained ankle and knee and we hobbled down the hillside. In the village that night we were impressed to learn the genuine concern and sympathy that the local women had for Carmen. One insisted that she create a local medicine to apply to Carmen’s ankle; looking at the ingredients of ginger and salt, Carmen decides to proceed. The woman’s face is thick-skinned and weathered, the room is dimly lit by candles, she bends over to more closely examine Carmen’s foot. She looks at it with deep intensity, so close her nose is almost touching the skin, then “wchieu!” The woman begins spitting all over Carmen’s foot. Apparently the proper procedure to make the paste was in the mouth. The she rubs the foot vigorously with her hands and begins blowing on it. Carmen puts her sock on and we look at each other a little confused and desperately trying to restrain ourselves from the unpredictable laughter.

Lao Hai tasting

Lao Hai tasting

That night we also had a healing elixir that we could all enjoy. Our guide Singh learned my interest to try any local concoction of fermented liquor and was excited to share a real Lao specialty. Lao hai is made from rice and husks sealed with yeast and water in a clay jar. It ferments for several weeks, the the two foot clay pot is muscled to some party location. The earth seal is broken and long bamboo straws are inserted into the fermented mash. They then add many cup filled of water which causes the swollen rice kernels to replace the alcohol with water. After a few minutes the bottom of the jar is filled with a delicious alcoholic juice. The taste was extremely sour, sweet with a touch of fermented funk; most specifically like a starburst candy rubbed around in the sediment of an unfiltered beer. After each series of gulps, the liquid would be replaced with additional water until the liquid at the bottom no longer tasted alcoholic. Unfortunately just sipping was not allowed, at first I was encouraged to drink one cup full, then two, then three, then…we acquired another lao hai clay pot…then four more cups of liquor. Then I stopped. It was just a little shy of the apex, but I did good; unfortunately the girl with a sensitive stomach did not fair so well that night and our guide was hungover the next day. Me, well I woke up fresh as a daisy to nearly fifty roosters causing a commotion over tussling a few chicken feathers, if you know what I mean?

Fire in the jungle to cook our lunch

Fire in the jungle to cook our lunch

Heart of rattan and banana flower stew

Heart of rattan and banana flower stew

Our second day of hiking would be about 13 miles (20 km) up and down the jungle ridges and following a creek through the forest. The water flow was mild, but we crossed some thirty times on our way to the lunch locations. For lunch, or local guides from Sopsine foraged for several stocks of rattan, we stripped them of their spiny bark and separated the crisp pearly heart. The banana flower was also deconstructed and the most tender pedals and filaments were kept and the bitter tougher sections discarded. They chopped a four inch diameter section of bamboo into a two foot vessel. In goes the rattan, banana flower and water; then stuff from the packs: onion, chili peppers, pre-cooked beef. This bubbled and stewed over the fire for 45 minutes when it was drained into a bamboo boat serving dish. A handful of sticky rice on a banana leaf plate and we feasted.

Our local guide cutting down banana tree

Our local guide cutting down banana tree

Butterfly in the forest

Butterfly in the forest

At the time it felt so easy and resourceful to use the jungle in this manner. We were able to feed and use the everything around us. I followed our fourteen-year-old guide into the forest. He was wearing flip flops that I saw him repairing earlier, I had my sneakers. He moved so fluid through the jungle that my loud trampling run could barely keep up. We make it to a grove of banana trees and he points at the leaf above. I think he is going to climb the fifteen foot stalk for a flower or leaf, instead I dive for cover as he slices through the eight inch trunk with four on-target whacks with his machete. He cuts off two of the six-foot leaves and we drag them to serve as a table-cloth. The area of our hike is a national protected area, but it felt like the local people and the tour groups do little to actually protect it. As a tourist, and outsider to the area, regretfully I am also a contributor.

Ants diligently and resourcefully traversing a log

Ants diligently and resourcefully traversing a log

Creek mushroom

Creek mushroom

Shortly after this I started noticing the heaps of rattan and banana scraps that have been left in the river, the forests of banana trees decimated and the enormous teak trees felled and milled into timber. I also noticed the beauty in the small creatures of the forest: a handful of ants, a butterfly and a mushroom. We passed three hunters that were illegally (but hungrily) searching for monkeys and birds on our trail. We did not see any animal wildlife during the three days. Singh, was really empowering as a guide, he literally picked up every piece of plastic he saw during our trek. Nevertheless, he still lit the fire with plastic bags as the starter. I think the people generally care about their environment and jungle, but their people have been surviving here for hundreds of years despite the imaginary protection zone that encroaches near their village. I have mixed feelings- I thoroughly enjoyed learning about surviving on the jungle, but I was uncomfortable seeing the effects of tourists like me to the jungle. The jungle is bountiful and I am happy that we had a chance to experience it.

Carmen under our "hut" next to the fire

Carmen under our “hut” next to the fire

Cheers! Real bamboo cups

Cheers! Real bamboo cups

That night we were roughing it. We laid out our cheap borrowed polyester sleeping bags on banana leaves beneath a tiny bamboo and banana leaf shack. We had a fire that I turned into a bonfire and I was later scolded for using up all the wood (that I gathered). We cooked again over the fire, but the night was short. We were all tired, a little cold and eager for the deep sleep that accompanies a long day of hiking.

Nam Khone farmland

Nam Khone farmland

Village street of Nam Khone

Village street of Nam Khone

Traditional Lentan fabric-making

Traditional Lentan fabric-making

The next morning we woke early with hot chocolate from bamboo mugs and fried rice our of banana leaf bowls. About a half hour walk into the jungle and the trees disappeared to make way for the Lentan village of Nam Khone. Many of the people of these communities have heritage from from Tibet and southern China as they were once refugees that settled in Laos two hundred years ago during Chinese civil war. The houses were mostly built on stilts with tangled alleyways confused with roaming farm animals and children. We hung out at the new school that the E.U. had built as well as watching a group of women unwind and prepare to weave a traditional fabric. The women tie their hair in a tall bun above their head that is decorated with silver coins, a thick indigo fabric is wrapped around their body and white wool angle-warmers finish the traditional outfit. We crossed through the village to rejoin the trail that climbed into the bamboo forest.

Three farmers carry their daily harvest across the river

Three farmers carry their daily harvest across the river

We hiked for several more hours that day. We cooked again using rattan, banana flowers and bamboo. It was so nice to be hiking again, up and down the mountains and through the forest is always an exhilarating experience that I enjoy. The end of our trek was met with a quick swim in the River Nam Thong and walk through the roadside village of Bom Pieam. We loaded into the tuk tuk and bounced our way to Luang Namtha. The jungle was a wonderful opportunity. We were able to gain insight about the people and their environment as well as forage for some of our own food. The impacts of our presence was not fully positive, but I value the experience enough that I would probably do it again.

Rice noodles with red sauce

Rice noodles with red sauce

That night we again slept like babies, exhausted from our trek. Our morning was rushed, we packed, checked-out and scurried around town in search of breakfast. We settled on someone’s front yard turned into a restaurant. We were given steaming bowls of rice noodles with some mysterious red sauce. I do not know if this was intended, but the end product was a delicious pasta bolognaise. Spicy and thick with tomatoes and herbs, we shoved in chop stick full after chop stick full. What luck for us to find a delicious local dish that could please our nostalgic appetites.

Nam Ha Jungle trekking map

Nam Ha Jungle trekking map

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