Hiking in LongSheng

The Bamboo Bones

With a return trip to Beijing for work, I flew out a couple of days early to visit the mountainous rice terrace area outside of Guilin with Adrian. This is the story of our journey.

Ping An

Friday morning we were picked up by our driver in the city of Lingui (just outside Guilin) around 8:15am, first stop was a department store to get a memory card, some plastic bags to line our packs in case of rain and some water. We then started off for the LongShen terraces and the small village of PingAn. I felt like we were back in Yunnan, the roads were muddy in a state if construction with potholes and puddles. Once we came to a complete stop for 15 minutes behind a line of cars eventually when we started moving to find a truck smashed into a car was the cause of the backup. Finally on a decent paved road we made good time until we hit the winding road that started climbing up the mountains towards the terraced areas. We turned off the main road and purchased our entrance ticket (80 RMB per person) and then started up an even smaller, more narrow winding road until after 8 km and around 20 minutes we came to a gateway for the entrance to the village of PingAn.

Zhuang Traditional Meal

We got our packs together and as we were getting ready a lady approached us and asked us if we wanted to eat at her home, which was about a 30 minute walk out of PingAn in the direction toward DaZhai, we agreed as we followed her down the narrow lanes of the village lined with the typical Chinese tourist fare : fruits, sweets, jewelry, baubles etc. Along the way I kept noticing people were cooking over fires with sections of roasting bamboo. The bamboo was around 2 -3 inches in high or 4-5 inches in diameter. The section of bamboo was around 15 inches with the nodule enclosure forming a natural seal on the top and bottom. These bamboo sections were laid over the fire until the were charred and blackened. I couldn’t figure out what they were cooking but we would soon find out. Along the way the lady pointed out a chicken and asked us if we wanted to eat chicken, we said sure and she pulled out her mobile and called ahead for what I guessed was the unlucky day for a soon to be dead chicken. We arrived at her “restaurant” an open covered pavilion with no one present. She proceeded to start a fire and took four bamboo sections and drilled a hole in one end with an electric drill and the other end had a corn cob stuffed in it. She put them over the fire and would occasionally dip them into a bucket of water the color of gray sewer schlop that we pretended not to notice. The husband came by with his long bloody fingernails (presumably from chicken slaughtering) helped me point out on the menu some Chinese characters for Winter Bamboo and Lao Meat, he said it was pork. We ordered those up and some tea. After 20 minutes she pulled the bamboo out of the fire and with a large knife cracked them on top splitting them open, she set them on the table and opened them so you had two long bamboo containers. One was filled with chopped up chicken, including the prominent pads of the chicken feet and the other was full of sticky rice with bits of corn and pork. I had no idea to expect this. The rice was decent but the chicken was your typical Chinese rural Chicken (should have learned my lesson after ordering chicken in Yunnan) – scrawny with barely any meat on its bones and what meat was there was spread across a myriad of chopped up bones. You couldn’t take a bite for fear of crunching into a bone and the sparse meat hardly made it worthwhile. In fact the chicken feet seemed to have the most “meat” own them, perhaps that is where the Chinese love for chicken feet came to be. The Winter bamboo was delicious and Lao’s Rou was a salty pork with dried bamboo, both quite tasty and we ate more of them than the chicken. Before we left we’d noticed many tourists passing by carrying umbrellas and we purchased a couple of large ones to carry in the event the fog and mist turned to rain.

Longsheng Rice Terraces

After we finished our lunch we asked for directions to Da Zhai, the husband really wanted to guide us for a fee but I refused insisting we could walk on our own. He said he’d walk us through the village to show us the path and then after weaving up the hill to the path he offered again to guide us warning us of how many small paths there were up ahead with many intersections, confidently undeterred we politely refused again and set out. The path was paved with Guilin green marble and immediately started winding through the terraces. Being close to winter the terraces were full of stuble, burnt rice stalks and a bit if water here and there ; there were signs along the way pointing to 9 Dragon 5 Tiger terrace. We rounded a corner and suddenly the path changed to a muddy trail that led down to a dirt road. Unsure we headed up the road passing an empty building, a short while on another building where a woman was talking to someone, when I tried to get directions she told me everyone was sleeping so we carried on down the muddy road. From here we asked another woman which direction to DaZhai and she confirmed the roads direction. We came to another small shack further down the road and the also confirmed the direction. Carrying on we crossed an empty dam with no swimming signs and no water; afterwards the road become much rougher, muddier as if recently hewn through the steep forested hills. We climbed up and around and over several hills on a muddy rocky road strewn with recent logged trees in heavy fog and mist. Eventually after 15 minutes or so things felt wrong, we were in a country of a billion plus people, on a road to nowhere and we could hear absolute silence, no cars no people, nothing. I was able to get a signal on my phone and we were headed in the general direction of DaZhai (despite the twists and turns) so we carried on another five minutes until we came upon 3 branches, all of which seemed they could head in the right direction but on then other hand maybe not. So we turned around and started walking back; at least it was down hill. As we got close to the dam we came upon a lady crushing plastic bottles to recycle. I offered her money to walk with us to DaZhai telling her in my simple Chinese we didn’t want to walk the big ugly road to DaZhai, we wanted to walk on the small path. She pointed out to a small branching path from the road right behind us and said that would take us to DaZhai but it was way too far and she didn’t want to go, I asked her if this was for sure the path to DaZhai and she said absolutely. So off we went on a small path we’d missed earlier. Immediately the path seemed proper, rocks were laid in the mud and orange peels, occasional plastic bottle and footsteps confirmed we were on a utilized trail.

She Wore Her Hair Long

We meandered through the terraces once again, following the main path at junctures. We saw no one in the mist and fog but carried on. A while later we came to a small stream that cascaded over a small waterfall, an arched bridge crossed the stream and several wooden houses were built on either side next to fields with a few chickens scratching around. A small boy was playing outside one house and I asked him which way to to DaZhai. A Yao woman with her hair wrapped around her head came out, she was in her mid 30s, she was joined by a older woman whose piled up hair was even larger. They informed us the path between the two villages was in the wrong direction and we had to go up and around the hill. At this point I was done risking navigating the paths ahead and I asked her if she’d guide us, she said yes; we agreed upon a price (which meant I’d started too high, but I didn’t really care) and she went off to change her shoes. The elderly woman said “long hair” in English and asked me if I wanted to take a picture. I asked how much, we haggled from 50 to 20 and agreed on 30. She perched herself on a terrace and proceeded to unwind her hair. I was disappointed to see that while her hair was well past her waist there was another long thick plait of hair that was cut and wrapped in a pony tail. Later I learned that when they are 18 they cut their hair and keep wrapping it in the rest of their hair. After unwinding and combing out her own hair that was all combed forward over the front of her face, she proceed to wind her own hair and the detached pony tail back into her thick turban of hair. I took some video and we followed the younger woman up the path. She climbed effortlessly while we followed a bit more slowly behind her.

Longsheng Rice Terraces

We made our way though the terraces until we came to another small village, navigating which path through the winding houses would have been difficult with out our guide. We stopped at a small shed that was the last grocery store to buy water at before heading on to DaZhai. We waited for the guides friend to close up shop as she’d be joining us. Four young teenage boys hung outside the shop smoking cigarettes, with long pierced ears, bleached bangs all of them wearing slippers. The cool fashion of each genation seems a bit odd to those elder. Off we set out of the village on a path between two hills that went consistently and relentlessly up. We came to a juncture where our guide said she was going left to her home, her friend would guide us on and she’d catch up to us. We carried on upwards following her younger friend who wore a pink jacket, platform tennis shoes and talked the entire time on her cell phone. Near the top we stopped at a pavilion to wait for our guide, while waiting i opened my GPS app and got enough signal to load the terrain maps, I could see a path we were following. We only waited 5 minutes before our guide came walking up out of the mist. Off we went down now through terraced fields, at times the path actually followed the contour of the terrace for a ways until dropping down and around. Eventually we climbed up another small hill and came to a juncture where we ran into a man coming up. At this point I could see the path wandered down and around to DaZhai around .8 miles as the crow flew. I pulled up the name of our hotel and the man said it was up and to the left while DaZhai was down and to the right. It was around 4:45 pm and it would be getting dark soon so it seemed a good time to call our hotel. Mrs Wu talked to our guide and did confirm the man was correct we needed to go up and to the right. We climbed the hill and walked a very short distance around seeing another village. Mrs Wu had come out to meet us and instead of another 20 minutes walking we were here. We paid our guide and followed Mrs Wu several hundred yards to he hotel which was new, only two months old and tonight we’d be their only guests. We walked into the large hall all made of wood and walked up to the third floor to our rooms. Double beds with the typical Chinese bathroom : tiled floor, toilet, sink and shower head spouting randomly off the wall with a myriad of cheap green pvc pipes on the bare walls. The windows were open, and it was freezing, we could see our breath, she pointed out the heater and said we could turn them on later. We took off our packs put jackets and went back downstairs to sit and enjoy a cup of hot tea. The large doorway was wide open and we sat in the wet cold watching the steam curl off our breath and drank cups of hot green flower tea.

Longsheng Rice Terraces

We ordered supper as we watched the English CCTV channel about banking regulations in WenZhou. Our dishes came out a while later : sweet and sour pork, stir fried pumpkin, fried rice and some stir fried greens, no chicken and much better than lunch, though maybe not as “interesting”. After a full belly we walked back up stairs with our heater remotes and fiddled with them until we got them to turn on as nice warm air finally poured out of them and heated up the room. I laid out my clothes, showered and settled into the bed under the thick blanket to write this blog and watch a few shows on my iPad, by 8:45 pm I was asleep. The standard Chinese hard bed was tough on my hips (should have blown up and slept on my pad) and a 3:30 am bathroom break ensured I would be awake plenty early to work on the blog and watch a few more shows.

Tartan Brollys in the Mist

The next morning Mrs. Wu fixed us a Western breakfast which included Lao Meat (which I came to learn is the Chinese name for dried salted pork or as she called it “bacon”), french toast and scrambled or fried eggs. The “bacon” was the same super salty pork with a lot of fat, stir fried with some carrots and veggies. The french toast was slight sweet and delicious and the eggs were your usual soaked in oil. After breakfast we set off down the trail for a 50 minute walk down to the village of DaZhai. We followed the large path through the terraced rice fields, things were pretty much the same as the day before : foggy and misty. We were joined in our walk by a dog who kept running back and forth up and down the rocky steps. Eventually we came to the town of DaZhai, crossed the river, through the gate and down the road to the main entrance where we found our driver waiting for us. My phone at this point was dead (I’d left my charger cord in the luggage in the car) and so we used Adrian’s phone to text Kolok that we were departing. The driver said we’d be meeting him in LongSheng.


After a 30 minute drive we arrived in the county seat LongSheng and waited for Kolok who was off buying treats. We greeted Kolok as he ambled across the bridge, and we all piled into the car and set out for the village of BaiShi. Along the way Kolok told us the story of where were going. Kolok is in his mid thirties, he has long hair and is a strict vegetarian. He speaks great English and works as a Chinese teacher at the Chinese Language Institute (CLI) in Guilin. He is also a musician who has been playing in bands in the YangShuo band scene for the past 12 years or so. His first band’s name was Math Equation and now he has two bands, one which he described as Punk Folk (because they don’t have a drummer) and the other as standard Rock Band. He is your quintessential hippy who waxes as poetic about waterfalls as the “Whoa Double Rainbow” dude on Youtube does; meaning that Kolok is very much unlike most Chinese people. 10 years ago his band and others were playing the bar circuit in YangShuo and the earnings of his band and others in one music festival was pretty meager, around a 1000 RMB. By the time they would have split that money between all the members the individual amounts would have been very small, so they decided to donate the money to a local cause. Somehow they came to know of a Grandfather whose first son and wife had died and he had a 9 year old son who was in some need. At that time the government didn’t cover the cost of education for orphans and so Kolok and his fellow bandmates decided to sponsor this young man by paying for his schooling. Through the course of this Kolok paid a visit to the small village of BaiShi (White Rock) deep in the mountains outside LongSheng and developed a close relationship over the course of 10 years, usually visiting the family twice a year and always for a couple of days during Spring Festival (Chinese New Year).

The village was a 40 minute drive up a narrow mountain road and then an hour hike on a very rough road and trail back into a small valley where there were terraced rice fields and around 10 families spread out on the hills. When Kolok first began visiting them, the only way in was to walk; goods were carried in and out via horse. The village gets its name for the white quartz that is found in the mountain tops. A mineral company wanted access to the rock and so the village agreed if they would build a road they could mine one of the small mountains. Since that time the road (dirt) has deteriorated somewhat, however it has brought some increased prosperity to the village. Allowing them easier means to export their bamboo and timber that grows on the mountain sides; consequently the villagers have been able to all buy a motorcycle to make the 4 mile journey more quickly. The 9 year old son has since grown to a young man and is working in a factory in GuangDong somewhere. We were on our way to spend a night with the grandfather and his family.

Harvest of Bamboo

In a small village before we turned off the main road we stopped for a quick lunch of Mifen (rice noodle soup) and bought some local Mandarin oranges and bananas. We drove up the road past several rock slides, and then up a narrow winding mountain road until we pulled off at the entrance to the dirt road to the village. We loaded up our packs and set off on the road. After a short distance, Kolok led us up the original trail to the village, which was more direct though steeper. The trail was fairly over grown in places as foot traffic has decreased and we hiked over the hills until the first terraces came into view. We passed above a waterfall that Kolok told us we could hike to see later that afternoon. We walked down through groves of large bamboo (8-10 inches in diameter) to the valley full of terraced rice fields which were dotted by small huts with large wooden houses set on the hill sides. The small huts were where traditionally the families had housed a cow which they kept enclosed but well fed. These cows manure was then collected and spread as fertilizer across the fields. Last year they finally sold off all the cows to another village as it was now cheaper and more economical from the perspective of time and labor to buy artificial fertilizer vs. the natural kind. We walked along the terraces past large stacks of cut bamboo until we climbed up to the home of Grandpa Liu who warmly greeted us at the door to his large wooden home. His wife came out and with her was Grandpa Liu’s 3rd son, his wife, their new 6 month old son and his 9 year old daughter. Kolok congratulated them on their new son (born in the auspicious year of the Dragon) and gave them a HongBao (red envelope) with a gift of money.

Cup of Tea

They welcomed us to the back of the home that over looked the valley, where we took off our packs and they invited us inside their main room at the center of the home. The room was 20 feet square, in one corner a waist high station that had a concrete and tiled sink aside of this was a round fire pit recessed into the cement floor. Small stools were around the fire which was small and fed from long branches and pieces of sliced bamboo. Atop the fire was a small circular iron tripod upon which sat a wok, next to the wok was a large covered pot which held steaming water. A small low movable cupboard next to the fire pit held a some foodstuffs when cooking. They welcomed us to sit by the fire on tiny stools and warm and dry ourselves from the wet hike in. They prepared for us a Guilin speciality : YouCha which literally translates to oil tea. First a small amount of oil is poured in the wok, approximately a 1/4 cup. Usually they would use pork fat but in honor of Kolok’s vegetarianism they used vegetable oil. To this is added a wet set of tea leaves, tea which has been hand picked by the villagers from the upper mountain slopes. After stir frying for a few minutes, water is added and then a pinch of salt. Meanwhile on the small cupboard a set of bowls are prepared, they are filled with roasted peanuts and puffed rice (just like rice crispies). The oil tea is then poured over the dried snacks and you drink the tea and eat the dried rice and peanuts. Kolok on the walk in had told us that as a measure of politeness in response to their hospitality we should drink at least three cups. I quite enjoy the oil tea, the broth is almost slightly soup like and the crunchy peanuts and rice are woody and delicious.

Pioneer and Waterfall

Afterwards the Grandpa, the second son, and the daughter accompanied Adrian, Kolok and myself as we took a walk down through the terraces to where we were across from the waterfall. The fog and mist blew in and out revealing and obscuring the waterfall from view. Aw we walked back the the main valley the Grandfather explained how every 5 years the villagers gathered and rotated “ownership” or assignment of the fields. The fields we know stood in belonged to his 3rd son who lived across the valley. When the Grandfather arrived in the valley over 50 years ago the fields had been abandoned by the Yao minority who had moved to a different location. We dropped the Grandfather off at his home and we walked across the valley to visit the 2nd son. The welcomed us into their home to sit around the fire, we begged off oil tea being full from our previous consumption. They went into their back room where they brought out a large round flat woven basket full of asian pears. They gave us each one and we peeled and ate them while we sat around the fire. Afterwards they showed us their home, which seemed to the common layout of all the homes in the village, and at least from the exterior the greater LongSheng county. Outside the home was a fish pond, where they raised carp to eat. The back room had a large rectangular concrete box that was around four feet deep and full of water. A large dipper made from the large base of bamboo floated on top, this water was spring fed from the mountains. Kolok told me that this spring was particularly special, every winter there were times when the mountains would be covered in snow and at times the waterfall and the springs would freeze over. Usually this only last a couple of days, however several years ago the cold persisted for two weeks. Every villager’s spring froze except for this one in the 3rd sons, the villagers all trekked to their home to carry water. They even brought over the fish from their local fish ponds to keep them alive in the spring which didn’t freeze. Around the side of the home they showed us a fairly large area that had dozens of logs stood on end, each around 5 feet tall. This was a sort of mushroom garden, from these they picked a large sack of fresh mushrooms which they gave us to take back for dinner.

Striding Along

We walked back across the valley to Grandpa Liu’s home, along the way we passed a section of the hillside where there were two foot sections of logs that were arranged in a large pile, they were in various stages of charred condition, some of them partially covered in dirt. Kolok explained that this was how the villagers made charcoal, they would set a fire under the log and then cover them with dirt to smolder which would produce charcoal. Back at the Liu’s we sat outside around a small round censor that was filled with this same burning charcoal and dried to our socks and shoes while we sat on couches. The 9 year old grand-daughter sat between Adrian on the couch while he pulled out his iPad and we showed the girl how to play Angry Birds and let her draw on the Paper application. Despite never having seen an iPad she handily figured out the game and made her way easily around the drawing app. Soon we were invited into the main room for our evening meal. The main floor opposite the fire pit, had a floor of wooden planks, this acted as a cellar where they stored potatoes. They had gathered a set of sweet potatoes from the cellar, peeled them and were stir frying them over the fire. They added these to bowls for oil tea along with the puffed rice and charred peanuts. From above the fire hung long soot blackened strips that were 3-4 inches thick and around 18-24 inches long. These were strips of salted pork that they cut and prepared each year when they slaughtered their pigs, usually around Spring Festival. The fire naturally smoked the meat, though in its current state it didn’t really look edible. To prepare this for dinner they washed it clean in water, sliced it and the stir fried. They prepared a bowl for dinner because I’d said that I’d like to try it. Kolok mentioned that people in the city of Guilin loved this dish but that to the villagers it was common. I noticed they didn’t really eat any, I only managed to eat 6 or 7 pieces. You had to pick carefully because there was at least 95% fat and a thin ribbon of meat, the darker the bits the more meat there was. The fat was translucent almost, the meat was chewy and salty. Finally we had a big bowl of the fresh mushrooms that the 2nd son had given us earlier.

Dinner Round the Fire

After dinner we sat around the fire for a bit, spreading our shoes and socks to dry. The TV blared showing a Chinese serial that depicted the Chinese during WW2 fighting the Japanese invaders. Kolok helped me translate while I talked with Grandpa Liu about the Great Leap Forward (大跃进 Dà YuèJìn) when everyone stopped farming to produce iron and steel. Grandpa said that times were really really hard but that things were a bit better in the village of Baishi because they could gather wild mushrooms and roots from the mountains. Even here in this remote valley there were a few people that died. Pondering this sobering thought it was time for sleep and they led us upstairs to show us our room. The second floor of the house had many rooms, most which were storage but one which was a bedroom with three wooden beds. The “mattress” was two inches of padding covering wooden slats; I was grateful I brought my pad. The blankets where doubled up and there was around 6 inches of covers, I was quite warm the whole night, though Adrian complained of being cold. The next morning things were quite chilly and we gathered around the fire to warm ourselves as they fed us more oil tea. Afterwards we put dry shoes and packed our bags. We gathered outside the home in the entryway, I set up my tripod and we took a few group photos before we shouldered our packs and walked back to the road.

The Liu Family

We said goodbye to the Grandmother and 3rd Son’s wife and Grandpa Liu and 3rd Son accompanied us up the hill and down the road where they also said goodbyes, but offering us to return any time and making Kolok promise to return over Spring Festival. We walked down the logging road, this time sticking directly to the road, which while longer than the overland route we took would be flatter and at least more dry. As we walked back the skies started to clear and patches of blue peeked through the clouds. Inevitably our conversations turned to the food we looked forward to eating as most return hikes seem to do. And the trail grew long as you slog along anticipating the end of the trail and the end of your journey.

Back at the road we found the driver hadn’t gotten our text messages about heading out early and we’d have to wait 30 minutes for him to arrive. Adrian was feeling pretty rotten by this point and he lay down on the road while we waited. I wandered through the bamboo taking a few photos of the forest. Back in the car we raced down the small winding road to the main road back to LongSheng. We stopped at a hot springs for a soak and rejuvenation. We bought a ticket and then entered the basement to change and shower. After this you walk outside, where being wet and the wind blowing you were quite chilled. We hurried up the steps to find a large pool. Adrian and I jumped in only to find it was full of cold air temperature water. Freezing we jumped out, crossed the road and ran up the stairs looking for the actual hot springs. We had to go up around 200 yards before we finally came to the hot pool, by this time we were shivering. The pool was quite hot, around 105 degrees, so hot that you had to ease your body in the water, inch by inch. Once in the water you couldn’t really move around but you had to sit perfectly still as any movement stirred up the water and was almost too hot to bear. We dipped in and out of the water off and on for 30 minutes before walking back down to change.

Back in the car we drove into LongSheng where we stopped at a Mifen (Rice Noodle) shop where we each had a large bowl of noodles for $.60 cents a piece. Then back in the car for the long two hour drive back into Guilin. Unfortunately our driver was driving me crazy. Some drivers have what iI find to be an incredibly annoying driving technique, I call them the spurts and surge driver. Rather than long continuos acceleration or maintaining an even speed, they will push off and on the gas. Over and over , vroom on the gas, then let off, then vroom on the gas, every 1-2 seconds. I wanted to scream at him to pull over and let me drive. Somehow I managed to not focus on this and we eventually arrived back in Guilin. That evening I met Robbie Fried, Kolok and a colleague at a local vegetarian restaurant where we enjoyed a nice dinner. A quite end to a great weekend of adventure before a long week of work in Beijing. I hope someday to return to Baishi and visit the warm wonderful people of China again.

Full set of photos on Flickr.

Categories: By Mark, travel in china | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Best of June and July – 2012

June and July were busy busy months and I never seem to get around to putting this together until now. We visited Xi’an, celebrated our anniversary, took a 10 day mancation to Yunnan and then winding down and geting ready to leave. This will be a long post. Click through on any photo for more details and information. Photos below after the break.























1. – The Unbroken Soldier
The Unbroken Soldier

2. – Xi’an City Wall and Moat
Xi'an City Wall and Moat

3. – Riding the Wall
Riding the Wall

4. – The Bike Wall Gang
The Bike Wall Gang

5. – The City Wall Door
The City Wall Door

6. – Guardians of the Gate
Guardians of the Gate

7. – China

8. – The Morning Glow
The Morning Glow

9. – The End
The End

10. – The Weight of Forever
The Weight of Forever

11. – The Old Goat
The Old Goat

12. – Granny Naxi
Granny Naxi

13. – The Mekong Big Bend
The Mekong Big Bend

14. – The Pass at 14K
The Pass at 14K

15. – Prayer Flags at 14K
Prayer Flags at 14K

16. – Temple at Feilaisi
Temple at Feilaisi

17. – Meido in Upper Yubeng
Meido in Upper Yubeng

18. – A Days Work
A Days Work

19. – View Valley Down
View Valley Down

20. – Smiling in the Rain
Smiling in the Rain

21. – Can’t see the Forest for the Moss
Can't see the Forest for the Moss

22. – Stone Cold Hiking Machine
Stone Cold Hiking Machine

23. – Through the Woods
Through the Woods

24. – China or Pacific North West?
China or Pacific North West?

25. – The Old man on the Stairs
The Oldman on the Stairs

26. – Smiles in the Rain
Smiles in the Rain

27. – Sidehill

28. – Holy Lake
Holy Lake

29. – Heel Clicking in the Rain
Heel Clicking in the Rain

30. – Through the Moss
Through the Moss

31. – Rounding

32. – The Middle Tower
The Middle Tower

33. – Pause to Admire
Pause to Admire

34. – Framed

35. – Hard Rain
Hard Rain

36. – The Floyds
The Floyds

37. – The City Shone
The City Shone

38. – Saint Peng
Saint Peng

Categories: By Mark, photography | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Reintegrating The Other Way

Moving back to Seattle and leaving Beijing has been a somewhat smoother experience than coming to Beijing. Mostly because we really haven’t left yet and all the hard stuff is on the other side.

Here are the logistics we went through in leaving :

  • Deciding to Return :  this might be obvious but for us we were going to be here either 18 months or  3 years; due to the impact of pollution on Stac’s health and opportunities at work in Seattle we ended up settling on returning.  We made this decision around April of 2012.
  • Offer from Work : this might seem strange but at Amazon due to corporate structure I had to get an official job offer letter to work back at Amazon in Seattle.  This is true for many foreign companies operating in China.  This seemed  to take a long time waiting on the particulars to return.  The offer includes the following standard repatriation benefits :
  • Costs for travel from Beijing to Seattle.  Given the mixup on my last trip I went ahead and purchased the tickets myself and got reimbursed.
  • Rental Car for first 30 days in Seattle
  • Temporary Housing in Seattle for 30 days while we find a more permanent home
  • Local Destination Consultant : for this most we didn’t need (bank account, driver license) so we are only going to use her to help narrow down places to rent when we arrive.
  • Moving – packing, transport and possible storage of our stuff from China to Seattle. How it gets there depends on how much stuff you have and the particulars of the offer.  We had a container on a ship as well as one air container.

Once again we had an overall coordinator with Graebel.  Once again he was based in a different timezone (US), so despite the fact he was very prompt and helpful, there was at least a 24 hour lag add to that at times coordinating with Amazon global benefits for clarification and things just seem slow, though we didn’t really require that much coordination.

We had a Physical Goods Coordinator who was located in Singapore and she gathered our customs documentation and worked with a local to China vendor to handle packing and transport.  The documentation was a bunch of paper work for customs, its a bit confusing but Graebel had a good guide to help you know what to write in the forms.  (Port of Call anyone?)

Between the offer letter and actual packing there wasn’t really a lot we could do but cull and purge what we wouldn’t be taking.  We couldn’t pack as the movers legally required they pack everything.  And mostly we just waited for the day to arrive.

Sante Fe the local moving company had to come and pack us on on a Monday, a full 10 days before our departure.  Clearing customs in China requires your physical passport and so they had to take my passport for a few days and you have to get it back in order to leave the country yourself.  They give themselves ample padding in case something goes wrong.  Monday at 9 am a coordinator from Sante Fe arrived who spoke perfect English.  His team was waiting in the wings.  One guy was there to build special wooden crates for our photos and art work that we brought with us from the US.  One guy was the furniture box builder, he could do amazing custom cardboard boxes to cover a few pieces of furniture we had purchased in China.  The rest of them descended like mad bees on the rooms packing into boxes. Prior to them packing I had a walk through with the coordinator and we put stickers on furniture and piles labeled as “Doesn’t go”, “Air” and “Boat”. I had to stay ahead of the packers clarifying here and there what went where.  By 2pm they were finished and were doing sweeps through the house for the last stuff we missed.  Packers are fast because they have no question over whether to pack it or not, they pack everything!  And they have no moments of nostalgia that grips you when you find that drawing Miles did from the 2nd Grade.  In total we had 91 “boxes” on the boat, some of which were crates for art and covered furniture.  In the air shipment we had 9 boxes and that left us with 6 suitcases or duffel bags to pack the remaining take on the plane with us.

Then we went to a residence hotel in Beijing (Ascott) to live for 10 days while we waited for our passports and our flights home.

A few days before we left I already got my notice that our air shipment would land in Seattle a day ahead of us where it would take from 5-10 days to clear customs.  Our sea shipment would arrive on September 2nd and go through a similar customs clearing process.

So sit at the airport waiting to board.  There is much to be done but we can’t really start until we get back to the States.  The list not necessarily in order of importance is :

  • Register the kids for school
  • Buy car
  • Get a sim card for our phones
  • Find a permanent place to live

And I get one day, Friday, before I return to work to get that all done.  🙂

Categories: living in beijing, preparing to leave | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments

To Miss and Not to Miss

And the Streets Shone

For the past 18 months China has become our home, and it’s surreal because many things are now just normal; the way things are. Readjusting to what I remember as familiar back home will be an interesting comparison.  As we prepare to leave China and return to the US I’ve been keeping a list of those things I will miss about China and things I won’t.  It’s important for me to emphasize that in listing these things I often say them with a wry sense of humor and wonderment not with a feeling of negativity. Some things in life aren’t negative they are just different.  Some of them are simple and trivial and some of them much more important.

Stuff I won’t miss about China

  • pollution – clean air is a blessing we often take for granted. Workmates in China sometimes seem unaware as it is part of their normal, one asked me : “is the air really that bad in Beijing?”
  • waiting for the elevator to go home or leave home (29th floor)
  • elevators with carpet that smell like wet dog and dog pee (lots of people in our apartment complex have pets)
  • having to pay an arm and a leg for American food stuffs. They are all imported from the US and subject to import taxes.
  • people smoking in public buildings, bathrooms and restaurants
  • people standing up on the airplane as soon as it lands and getting their stuff from overhead bins
  • people butting in lines without regard to place (see here for more about this “getting ahead syndrome”)
  • people hawking loogies everywhere
  • traffic – my own personal frustration with being stuck in traffic has become much more tolerant. I can sit in traffic for 30 minutes without getting upset, but I won’t miss the 20 minutes it takes to go 3 blocks and cross the 3rd ring road to go to SanLiTun.
  • sewer smells that randomly emanate from the bathroom or greet you on the street as you walk along
  • public restrooms that smell beyond your wildest imagination and seem to always have wet floors from an ayi that is constantly “mopping”.
  • slow and frustratingly blocked or disabled internet. Some of the speed issue is oversold or contended internet in apartment buildings, some is me wanting to access US sites that are world away and accessed through a small pipe that runs under the ocean. Some of this is the great firewall blocking sites entirely (YouTube, Facebook, IMDB) or just intermittent interruption, like gmail and google maps. I look forward to free unfettered fast access to the Internet – something I definetely l took for granted
  • Cable TV. We haven’t really had TV with real America TV channels since we’ve been here, we haven’t really missed it, won’t be getting cable when we get back.
  • preening that seems to be so common in the mirrors here in China
  • loud talking in the early morning that we over hear in hotels while on vacation or staying at the Zhao’s at the Great Wall (Chinese don’t know how to whisper it seems)
  • hot at the office : in the winter the heat from the heater is so unbearable I wore short sleeves to work and would sweat profusely.  In the summer the heat from sun cooked us, especially before 8 am when the AC turns on.

Stuff I will miss about China

  • the people. More than anything those individuals that I’ve been able to genuinely connect with, be they people I’ve had a chance to work with or that we’ve met on our travels.
  • driving in China : (much longer post here) – being able to drive with extreme flexibility when it comes to speed, lanes, uturns and general traffic laws and no fear of policemen or being pulled over.
  • feeling of security : no worries at night walking around, our daughter taking a taxi by herself to SanLiTun, to walk around with friends getting her nails done, buying crepes and eating dinner
  • food. I could go on and on about the food. And yes it’s “Chinese food” but it’s not the food you get at your local family Chinese restaurant in America. Its diverse, it’s delicious and it’s relatively inexpensive.
    Some of my favorite dishes or things about eating :

    • noodles – home made, either hand shaved or freshly pulled by hand
    • breakfast street food : guanbing and jianbing : round pancakes fried and filled with egg and sometime chicken and vegetables. Around $.75 and so delicious.
    • Peking duck – roasted with a wood fire , crispy skin and smokey flavor with plum sauce, I think the best value for your money is at Peking Duck Private Kitchen.
    • dumplingsDintaifung, fresh made by our Ayi, dumplings in the local basement cafeteria at work
    • being able to yell “fuwuyuan” (waiter) in a restaurant whenever you want something and they come running
    • no tipping – not required, don’t need it. Gonna be interesting going back and having to add this on to the bill.
  • Bathroom stalls where the walls go from floor to ceiling And the doors dont have 1/4 inch cracks at the seams. I like privacy in my bathrooms and China has it figured out, as does Japan. It’s not a matter of know how, clearly the US knows how to make bathrooms this way but it must be a matter of security over privacy.
  • our Ayi, Mrs. Li who took care of us everyday, her dumplings were amazing and I’ve forgotten how wash my clothes. Readjusting without here will be interesting.
  • living on the 29th floor and the view over ChaoYang Park or the view from the 28th floor at work.
  • being able to walk to the store in 5 minutes, 2 minutes if I ride my bike
  • mangosteens – a delicious tropical fruit that isn’t that common in the US
  • Monday at work – so quiet because its Sunday in the US. I could focus and get so much done
  • ice bikes and chair skating at QianHai during the winter
  • The Great Wall : I’ll write up a longer blog on this soon but I’ve been there over 21 times since we lived in Beijing.  This has been my refuge from the city and my substitute for the mountains of Washington.
    • JianKou : The prettiest and most wild section of the Wall close to Beijing. I’ve been there over a dozen times.
    • Zhao’s hostel : The small farmer hotel at the end of the road in the valley of Jiankou.  The family that runs this are some of my favorite people.  Their faces light up when they see me, as does mine when I see them; we are genuine friends despite our limited communication and I will miss them.
    • Camping at the Great Wall : From Miles and I’s first adventure there to the times in between, truly a memorable and treasured experience.
  • All the crazy exercises that the Chinese do in the morning along the streets and in the parks, hitting their arms with their hands, hitting their stomachs, walking two steps and then screaming “Hooaaahhh” at the top of their lungs.
  • being able to have Miles go to the bathroom literally anywhere when he’s really got to go.  This holds true for many people in Beijing, I’ve seen taxi drivers pull over on the side of a main road, open the passenger door and and take a leak on the road side or park and walk over to a bush to take care of business.
  • readjusting my sense of personal space in elevators and in walking in crowds. In China if you bump into someone it’s no issue, it’s normal and you don’t even say anything like your sorry.  In the US that will be considered rude.
  • my 10 minute bike ride commute to work
  • early morning bike rides along ChangAnJie, past Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.
  • Sofi being able to go to Sanlitun for a Saturday with her friends, get her nails done and get lunch all for $20
  • BCIS – what an amazing educational institution, great teachers who care, small classes, great tech integration, great facilities and resources.

As we return home, we leave China behind, our second home for that past 18 months. We’ll miss her and we look forward to return visits.

Categories: By Mark, living in beijing, preparing to leave | Tags: , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Driving in China vs. Driving in USA

In the Midst of Traffic

As we get ready to repatriate to the US I’ve been keeping track of the things that are different between driving in the US and China. These are also a list of things I have learned about how to drive in China.  This is my perception based on driving in China for the past 14 months and might be interesting for native Chinese drivers who’ll be driving in the US or those starting to drive in China.

China has a relatively new driving culture (as Hessler points out in his excellent book Country Driving) and things are fairly chaotic as viewed from a someone used to driving in the US, though I’ve had folks tell me its nothing like driving in India. I’ve really loved driving in China (more in a later post about what I will miss and love about China), but China has very strong defensive and offensive driving culture and those two factors feed on each other. The strong offense requires a strong defense, this driving behavior is rooted in a more general cultural phenomenon of aggressiveness I call the “get ahead” behavior.

For example right after the plane touches down on the runway, before the plane stops taxing, long before you arrive at the gate and the seat belt sign turns off, most Chinese jump out of their seats, grab their stuff from the overhead bin and line up to exit the plane. Or when lining up for the bus or the subway or the bank or at the grocery store, people will crowd, push, cut in line and attempt to get there first. This behavior seems exaggerated in the large cities where the population density is much greater and seems to generate from a feeling of there are so many people and such few resources that if you don’t push to get ahead you may not get anything. This is viewed as rude when viewed through the eyes of a Westerner but doesn’t seem to be much of a big deal to most Chinese, though there is chatter at times about being more “civilized”. Anyway this carries over to driving behavior in Beijing as well.

Here are the areas where things are different :

  • Honking
    In China your horn is your weapon, your warning signal to the other cars and pedestrians. Don’t try that, don’t do that, look out, I am coming or I am here.  In America : no horn unless a true I am gonna crash emergency or you just want to be rude or you need to react to a really rude driver.
  • Policeman
    In China police don’t matter at all.  When you see police cars often with their lights flashing you feel nothing, no fear, no concern and no regard.  You can pass them, you can speed past them, you can cut them off and they pay you no mind as you pay them none.   You never see any policeman on patrol, they never pull cars over and give tickets.  98% of the tickets are given by cameras, which they usually warn you are coming up ahead with a sign.  The one place that you do really have to pay attention to policeman is along ChangAn Jie near Tiananmen Square and the Peoples Congress, they are little more “I mean business” in these areas, you really can’t turn left on ChangAn Jie or not pay attention to instructions when given.  Of course you always want to obey the military police, but that is also another long story.
    In America when you see a police car you immediately fell fear, not because they will hurt you, but that they’ll pull you over for some traffic violation.  After all I’ve been in handcuffs at the side of the road, but that’s another story entirely.  I will have to readjust my “oh crap there is a policeman reaction”.
  • Pedestrians :
    In China they have NO right of way.  I have tried to stop for people at crosswalks and they just stare at you vacantly and wait for you to proceed, confused at why your stopping.   At the same time a pedestrian’s follow the “get ahead” behavior and will cross whenever they can get an advantage be the light green or even red. They have the following crossing strategies :

    • the “no-look-you-can’t-see-me-you-can’t-hit-me” strategy : if you don’t make eye contact and they can’t see you seeing them you have to swerve around them.  They will walk in the street or across the road and you have no choice but to honk loudly to spur them to action or usually slow down or stop to let them cross.  Making it as far as you can is the key to getting across the street and they will start across the street any time, the light could be green but on the last second before turning red and they will start across.   Often there will be a pedestrian in the middle of the road on the painted line with two lanes of traffic swirling around him.
    • power in numbers : a group will gather strength in numbers and inch out into road, slowly cutting off cars as the flow stops and goes due traffic jams. Eventually they will be enough to block the car and step across, again forward progress at all cost.

    In America the pedestrian has a right of way but at least you don’t generally have to worry about them jay walking in front of you at any random moment without regard to the color of the light.

  • Lanes
    In China : they are suggestions and don’t really matter, you can fill them in with as many cars as can physically fit into the space.  Interestingly bike lanes are observed and honored, though most often this is because there is a physical barrier separating the car lanes from the bike lanes either a concrete curb or a metal fence fastened to the road.  And because most everyone driving today once rode a bike everyone is very bike aware and there is none of the American attitude of : “hey bike, get out of my way and off my road”!
    In America : I will have to stay in the lanes.
  • Highway Driving
    In China its perfectly acceptable to drive on the shoulder of the highway, well maybe not acceptable according to the written law, but since there are no highway patrol people do it all the time. If all the lanes are blocked and you really want to get ahead pull into the shoulder and speed on down the road.  Or if the traffic backed up and your exit is coming up, drive on the shoulder to get access to your exit.  Also its fairly common to drive the wrong way down a road, especially if the road has two lanes and its not super busy.  I’ve done it myself a few time in a pinch instead of turning around.  I’ve even seen huge trucks with lights flashing speeding the wrong way down the shoulder on the highway on the way to Datong.
    In America : none of this acceptable, except maybe super super late at night after a concert when everyone is trying to exist side roads and get to the freeway.
  • Turning
    In China when you turn right there is no need to stop or even really look, you just drive moderately slow and merge into traffic, people are expected to stop for you. You also don’t have to stop on a red light to turn right, just cruise on through if you can.  This is as true on a bike as it is in car.Also when turning left you adopt the “get ahead” strategy of  the Boston Turn :  you either very quickly turn left before on-coming traffic can start going straight, or you slowly crawl your car forward until you block traffic and can proceed to turn.  Often when one car start this someone pull forward on their right and stack in front of them and then cars will turn further left behind them as the car pulls left, effectively “hiding” behind the car turning left in front of them.  Additionally if there is a left turn on a road with two lanes moving in the same direction drivers turning left will pull into the on coming lane, effectively blocking one lane of oncoming traffic.  When on coming traffic makes a right turn the opposite left turning car will us the right hand turn car as a shield to turn left.  Usually people will follow on behind and inside stopping all oncoming traffic and allowing multiple cars to sneak in a left hand turn.  This behavior is especially bad at rush our time with traffic can snarl with seemingly untangleable jams as no one is willing to give an inch and no one can even unblock the snarl because everyone crowds in behind.Another acceptable strategy is the drive-around-u-turn.  Lets say you want to make a u-turn but there are multiple cars ahead of you and the light is red.  If there is room you can just pull to the right of the cars (often temporarily blocking the bike lane)  and swing out around them and make the u-turn.

    In America
    : I have made a Boston Turn when I was in an extreme hurry and I thought I could get away with it but I knew if I got caught it would be a ticket for sure, in China there is no fear of tickets.
  • Ambulances
    In China no on pays them mind. You don’t have to get out of their way.  Heaven forbid if someone is truly dying and needs to get to a hospital.  And they really don’t even try that hard to drive fast, they just roll along in traffic at normal speeds with their sirens blaring and lights blinking.  I’ve never seen firetruck driving on the road. In fact for a large city you rarely hear that many sirens. I hear more sirens in background noise on conference calls with Seattle than I do living in Beijing on the busy 4th Ring Road with my windows open at night.  In America : when you hear a siren you have to immediately pull over the right and give them the right of way.

I’ll add more as I think of any new ones but in general I have enjoyed the freedom of driving in China.  Especially on the freeways where there are so few cars that once your out of the city the roads are fairly empty.  I’ll miss driving in Beijing and it’ll be an adjustment driving in the US, not quite as fun.  But I’ve got my Chinese Driver’s license and I’ll be back. 😉

Categories: By Mark, driving, driving in china, living in beijing | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments

Yunnan Mancation


Driving to the ends of the earth is one good place to find some sense of adventure. When you drive to the end of the road, where the pavement or gravel ends and the trail begins your bound to find something interesting.

Since August of last 2011, right after Seth and I’s successful climb of the Grand, I’d begun planning our summer 2012 adventure. I’d thrown around all sorts of ideas like driving from Urumqi in Xinjiang along the Karakoram highway to Khunjerab Pass at the border of Kazakhstan, the highest paved pass in the world at 15397 feet (4691 meters). Or driving from Shangri-la in Yunnan to Lhasa in Tibet. Eventually we settled on flying into Tibet and visiting base camp at Everest and other sights on the high plateau. BUT self immolations by Tibetan monks resulted in the Chinese government closing the border to foreigners so we opted to visit northern Yunnan which is just south of Tibet and whose inhabitants are all Tibetan. We were headed to a tiny village called Yubeng that is situated in a valley below Meili mountain where we planned to go hiking and do a little backpacking. There are no roads to Yubeng so getting there would be journey itself.

Mancation Group Photo

Our final group consisted of myself, Zhang Chao a colleague from the Beijing office who was a fellow outdoorsman who I’d been hiking and backpacking with in China, my brother Josh, my son-in-law Ramon and Seth. Josh and Seth arrived in Beijing and we set out for LiJiang in Yunnan via a flight on Eastern China Airlines. We arrived Wednesday afternoon and caught a taxi to town (a 30 km ride), I was struck by how many women were driving taxis, the majority were women, whereas in Beijing its rare to see a woman taxi driver. We were met in town by Chao who had proceeded us by train. We stayed at a small local hotel just inside the southern gate of the Old City of Lijiang. We rented a room with four beds for 110 rmb (Chao slept on the floor).

Lijiang Ancient City

LiJiang is a small city of around 1.5 million, the center attraction of the city is the ancient town where the NaXi minority people live. This old city is quaint maze of narrow stone streets along canals with stone houses with their gray tiled roofs and up turned eaves. Now the houses have been turned into tourist shops, bars and restaurants. Despite the usual factory made trinkets there are some very nice hand made goods that are made on site, such as the woven shawls, silver smiths and the Tibetan bells. You have to pay attention to the quality and craftsmen but you can find some unique items.  I purchased a large wooden carved placard with a relief of Buddha. Still the most enjoyable time in LiJiang is during the early morning hours when the streets are empty of crowds and the shops are closed up and you can walk in peace and quiet among the local shop keepers that are just making their morning rounds.

The Journey There

Chao had talked with several drivers regarding our transportation from LiJiang to XiDang where the trail to YuBeng began. The route is along the national road G214 which runs all the way from Dali to the Tibetan border. The distance from LiJiang to Feilaisi (small town past Deqin) is 367 km / 228 miles and the town of XiDang is another 32 km / 20 miles from Feilaisi and then its yet another 7 km past XiDang up to the trailhead to Yubeng. Google maps will tell you that this entire route will take you 9 hours but its much closer to twelve. This is due to several factors, one is that despite being a national road its only half complete, the road at our time of traversal was under a seeming constant state of construction. Some parts were paved and others were bumpy rocky sections that would shake your teeth out. Secondly is that there are lots and lots of curves, from a thousand miles up any road appears to be a straight line, but as you zoom in on the route there are interminable zigs and zags winding around long deep ravines. Often these large ravines had partial bridges built directly across but as they were yet unfinished we made the long route on dirt roads deep back into the ravine and around. Lastly is that the road snakes and climbs across several high mountain ranges, ascending from Lijiang at 7500 feet to 10,000 feet at Shangri-la and then up and over a 14,000 foot pass on the way to Feilaisi which itself sits at 11,300 feet above sea level before descending another 4000 feet to XiDang and then climbing back to the trailhead for Yubeng.


We met our driver ( 木杉 / Mù shān 139-8704-1980) on Wednesday night and took a look at his Nissan mini-van before settling on a price of 3000 rmb. 1500 for the journey there and 1500 for the return, he’d wait for us 6 days while we were in Yubeng. We left LiJiang Thursday morning at 5 am and settled into the car. There was a bucket seat in the front next to the driver and then two rows of seats one in the middle and one in the back. Our gear was stuffed behind the rear seat, 5 backpacks and a bag of group gear barely fit. The two middle seats really only had enough room for two people and the back seat was a bit cramped made for small kids rather than adults, if you sat back there you had to scrunch in sideways a bit. The initial road out of LiJiang climbs over a first ridge of mountains and is quite windy; this gave way to a bumpy road pot holed with construction. Josh was sitting in a middle seat and just as we hit the bumpy road construction he started complaining of being car sick. We gave him some Dramamine and transferred him to the front seat. He continued to moan and as we pulled up to a high pass he yelled “I am gonna barf” ; I had the driver pull over and he threw up in the gutter. A short while later at 8:15 am we pulled into the town of Shangri-la (renamed recently from Zhongdian to attract tourists) where we stopped for some Baozi for breakfast. Josh sat on the street outside before running to an alley to throw up again. Afterwards he claimed he felt better and he sat in the front seat as we drove on.

NaHai National Park

Just north of Shangri-la we stopped at a pull out that over looks Napahai National park, a huge green plain with a shallow lake. Such vast greenness, you could see the herds out on the plains grazing. They wanted to charge us a fee just to go through the stone fence, so I just climbed up on top of the fence for a few photos. We climbed over a 11,300 ft pass out of Shangrila and after several hours further on we crossed over the Mekong River, locally known as Jinsha Jiang (金沙江).  We stopped at another pull out where there was a big bend in the Mekong River. After a few photos we drove on into the town of Benzilan where we ate a restaurant for lunch. The food choices for the rest our journey would be limited to what was available the supply and would be more and more limited. Instead of a menu we were taken to the kitchen where we’re shown a large open fridgerated shelf full of vegetables and meat, we just pointed to what we wanted and they told us how they could prepare it. We also ordered a cup of the yak butter milk tea, which was thick, fatty rich and salty. I could only drink a little before reaching Tibetan tea satiation.

The Pass at 14K

After visiting a 2 rmb public bathroom that required nose plugging and eye aversion to use we got back in the car and headed north. From Benzilan north the road was in good condition and we made good time. About a half hour outside of town we came to the Dongzhulin monastery, destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, the temple was under major construction and we saw men sawing logs with a two-man hand saw. The monastery was quiet and we saw no other tourists. Photographs of the interior are forbidden so we contented ourselves by admiring the large butter sculptures and murals. The butter gave the interior a musky smell and we watched as the monks poured out rice and water for a ceremony. After our short break we headed north again climbing high along the side of the ridge where we crested at a pass at 14100 feet above sea level. We stopped and walked to a look out, we were dizzy, short of breath and had slight head aches from the altitude. From there it was a short drove down through Deqin, around the bend and up to the small town of FeiLaiSi. We arrived at 5:15 pm, 12 hours since we had begun, the town sits at 11,300 feet above sea level, there are numerous hotels that offer views of Meili Shan. We rented a room with 5 beds, two rooms and two baths for 400 rmb. We ate dinner in the adjacent hotel restaurant choosing our 6-7 dishes from the fridgerated shelf which cost us 175 rmb. The boss lady insisted we try the local flower buds they had collected, they were delicious stir fried with egg. We also tried yak meat which was dark, salty and a little tough.


After dinner we walked around town, heading up the road to the small Feilai Temple, where the town gets its name. The temple is set back off the road among fields of wheat and potaoes, the deep Mekong Valley falls away far below. We arrived just after the temple closed and we walked around the exterior and then back down to town to the viewing platform for Meilishan and watched a meager sunrise through the thick clouds and the prayer flags flapping in the wind.

As we drove from LiJiang to FeiLaiSi I was struck by how much the landscape reminded me of the Pacific NorthWest. While the elevation is much much higher the temperature is temperate. In the sections where the mountains catch the rain the hills are covered with deep green pines covered in moss. Wild native rhododendrons were in bloom all over the mountainsides, even at 14,000 ft. This contrasted with the sections left dry by high mountains that stole the rain and were arid and barren like Eastern Washington.

The Morning Break

The next morning we woke at 6 am to see the sunrise, things looked to be a bust given the thick cloud cover and we went to a small restaurant for some baozi for breakfast which were more bread than meat. Suddenly across the steeet the sky cleared and the mountains lit up with morning glow. Seth and I dropped our bread and ran across the street to the viewing platform to catch a view of Meilishan which hadn’t shown its face for the past 11 days. After a few photos at 7 am we piled into the van for the last leg of our journey by car, the 60 minute drive to XiDang. A kilometer out of town and we came to a road block and a line of cars and trucks. Workers were drilling in the cliffs and laying it a lattice of steel cables to prevent rockfall. We waited 20 minutes before they finally let us through. We wound back and forth in and out of deep ravines before turning left on a small paved road that made it’s way down toward the valley floor and the Mekong River.

The road dropped over 4000 feet to the village of Beng next to the river where we stopped at a gate ; we surrendered ours passports for registration and purchase our 85 rmb tickets to enter Meili Snow Mountains National Park. From there we crossed the river on a bridge and transitioned to a gravel road as we drove along the ridge line several hundred meters above the river bed. The road winds in and out, often with huge embankments that have been built to prevent erosion. The road is rocky where rains rip down gullies and cross the road to the river. In general our driver seemed to drive at least 20-30% faster on dirt and gravel roads than I would have, though to his credit for the most part everything was ok. Though there was one time on the road to XiDang when I was sitting in the very back and he hit a bump so hard that I hit my head on the ceiling. That wasn’t so fun. We had to slow down for groups of sheep and cows, once I even had to get out of the car and shoo them off the road.

Getting to YuBeng

End of the Road

You eventually reach XiDang, which is a very rural village set along a dirt road where the cows roam the streets. We stopped at a small store to ask where the trail head was. They informed us we had to drive another 7 km beyond the village until the road ends at a parking lot. Here you disembark and you can buy water and walk up the road to another staging area where the mule handlers wait and the trail begins. We hired two mules to carry our 4 bags and our bag of group gear over the pass to Yubeng, for insurance sake we hired one more mule to follow us just in case someone pooped out on the trail and they needed a ride. (No one did).  We started out up the muddy trail. You start hiking up through evergreen forests draped in moss with wild white rhododendron blooming along the trail. Prayer flags adorn the high points. There are 2 way stations before the saddle at Yaokou Pass (12300 ft/ 3749 meters) were there is another covered rustic tea-station where you can rest and eat. We had fry bread that tasted like scones, all it needed was some honey butter.

After a rest we made our way down the trail until we stopped in awe when lower Yubeng came into view. As we descended a gentle rain began to fall and we arrived at upper Yubeng (10500 ft above sea leve) where we went directly to MeiDo Inn and booked a couple of rooms that had views of the valley. All told the trip took us 5 hrs 15 minutes (discounting rests) with a total distance of 9.5 km / 5.85 miles and a gain of 4212 vertical feet / 1284 meters.

Yubeng in Clouds

We walked around the town after dinner up the single muddy road, passing a half dozen homes. The street was set with stones and there were stone fences. The pigs, cows and horses seemed to wander freely from field to their pens and their crap was everywhere. Crap and its aroma was a constant presence in the village during our stay. You’d find your self sitting in your room and you’d catch a whiff wafting from you shoes outside the door. We had dinner at at a local restaurant called Tibetan Wine and Dine. The menu was the standard go to the kitchen and pick out what you want. We ordered chicken stew, as Josh was craving some protein. We sat on balcony while we waited for our dinner; the views were amazing up and down the valley. There were two groups ahead of us and our chicken had to be killed, plucked and cut up before cooking in a pressure cooker. We waited well over an hour for our supper.

When dinner finally arrived the fried potatoes were delicious, the egg and tomato yummy as usual but the chicken was a complete let down. Chicken’s in China are butchered by chopping the meat into bite size chunks bone and all, this makes eating a normal chicken a delicate dance of picking the bones out from the meat, but with scrawny, mountain Yubeng chicken that has no meat on their bones it was sucking on bone, gristle and skin.   Our paltry chicken dish alone cost us 150 rmb. We went to bed tired and full but unhappy about the chicken.

Hiking in Yubeng

Saturday morning we woke around 7:30 (the sky and sunrise was obscured by clouds) and walked back down to Tibetan Wine and Dine for breakfast. We had thick fry bread and a scrambled egg, a little bland but a filling breakfast. By 9:15 we set off for Icy Lake. You walk up the road in upper Yubeng, past the stupa and follow the road through a beautiful valley forest before reaching the Yubeng river where you cross and then follow the trail up through the forest. This is a popular hike and has a well worn trail.  There are several covered rest areas on the hike. We spent two hours climbing up through huge trees and bamboo before reaching a pass at 3649 m / 11971 ft, you then drop steeply several hundred feet down a rocky trail along a river that has hundreds of mani stone cairn piles. We hiked up along the river to a high meadow where the fateful Sino/Japanese attempt on Meilishan set up base camp. There had been a light rain falling off and on the entire hike, we stopped at several covered structures to have some lunch. We bought a cup of instant Chinese noodles from the caretakers. Somehow the slightly spicy ended up being really spicy and as I was sucking noodles up I inadvertently sucked hot spicy broth up into my nasal cavities; I was wracked with spicy tear inducing fits of coughing for five minutes until I cleared everything out. We filled our water bottles up with hot water the caretaker had been boiling and warmed up a bit by hugging them, happiness is sometimes a hot water bottle.

Icy Lake

The rain was falling more persistently now so we put on our ponchos and got out our umbrellas (Seth and I carried umbrellas on all our hikes, best piece of gear we brought). We hiked up through a high meadow full of small evergreen trees that have been battered and gnarled by winter snows. There were flowers everywhere, small yellow ones that looked like tall glacier lillies, wild white roses, tiny purple flowered heather (though a bit bigger bush than the Washington variety) and beautiful yellow rhododendron. With the elevation we climbed slowly, ever so slowly to a notch in the ridge at 3856 m / 12650 ft and then drop down a 100 feet to a small pale blue glacier fed lake that sits at the base of MeiLi Shan massif. The rain was falling pretty steady and the top of the mountain was shrouded in cloud and fog. We stopped for a few group photos and then headed back up and down to the meadow; moving was important to stay warm. At 5:15 pm, 8 hours and 13 km / 8 miles after we began we arrived back at Upper Yubeng slightly cold and tired.

For dinner we wanted to try something else, the evening before we had met Monica; her brother and her rent a house they are using as hostel. She is from Singapore and spoke great English. She agreed to cook us some chicken curry. Sadly the chicken was true same as the night before : late and very very scrawny. More skin and bones than meat. They must be mountain chickens that run all day and each one costs you 150 rmb. That was the last chicken we ate in Yubeng.

Sunday we woke to a steady rain and decided to take a day off and just relax and stay in doors. For breakfast we went back to our friends at the Tibetan Wine & Food. We knew we’d be having thick fry bread with fried eggs again, we longed for a bit of honey which would have turned them into scones. When we arrived at the kitchen I noticed some long green peppers on the counter and asked if she had some onions. She said yes so I said I was going to help fix breakfast. I chopped the peppers and onions up with her cleaver and stir fried them in a wok until they were nice and soft we then made some awesome breakfast burritos with egg and grilled veggies on fry bread. Chao’s compliment was : “best breakfast yet”.

The bathrooms at Meido were primitive but they were pretty upscale for country squatters, at least they were porcelain squatters vs. a hole in the ground and they each had a private room with a door. Of course when it rained one of the bathroom’s leaked and you needed an umbrella to stay dry and at night you might have to share it with a toad that hopped in. Josh noted he had a psychological fear of squatters which tended to back him up but after a few days Seth observed they focused you by position and lack of a seat on the business at hand. Perhaps western civilization is doomed because we spend too much time sitting on our toilets with magazines and iPads. Lobsangs Trekker Lodge (139-8879-7053) had western toilets in their standard rooms but their squatter bathrooms for the common rooms were awful, maybe a not so subtle hint to encourage you to book their standard rooms : they were three slots in an open room with no privacy or running water. You did your business right next to your neighbor and in plain view of everyone else’s previous business.

Our showers at Meido were solar heated, which meant for us luke warm given the amount of sun we saw. There were two private wooden room with nails on the wall to hang your clothes and a cement floor with a single drain, one of which seemed to back up. Shampoo you could buy from a local store. Ramon and I had forgotten towels so we were delighted to find one little store had the super teeny Chinese hand towels for sale, but they were better than reusing Seth’s camp towel. The Meido Inn had just opened recently and was run by couple of Chinese partners. Our resident partner was a girl from ShenZhen who had quit her job at QQ and had been there a week and seemed over whelmed and burdened by being both the boss, the cleaner and wood cutter. She did have a pet monkey on a leash to keep her company though.  Ironically in China where one of the major surpluses is labor in Yubeng there isn’t enough people and so she was having to do multiple jobs.

We sat around editing photos, reading or playing games on the iPads. We set up my MacBook in an empty back room that was quiet and dark and watched The Grey. That evening we had dinner with fresh pork and peppers at Lobsangs (they kill a pig once a week in the village), that dish alone cost 45 rmb or the US equivilant of $28 (not through strict conversion of rmb to USD but in terms of Chinese salaries and costs). We inquired about the hike to Holy Lake and were told it was too steep to hire pack animals (joy) and we should have a guide, most people don’t hike there so they trail wasn’t as obvious. We hired a guide for 225 rmb who would lead us to the meadow where we would camp.

Cell service in Meido only works on China mobile and only during daylight hours when it isn’t storming too severely. (I still can’t figure out the only day part) So Saturday we had Zhang Chao call his girlfriend on the Meido’s bosses phone to email Stac and tell her that Mark and Ramon were ok and have her get a message to Amy that Seth was ok. That evening we got a text back on the bosses phone : “checking account problems need help” but by then there was no cell service. The next morning a new message went out from me : “if there is a problem have bank or Stacey call me” a few hours later the reply came back relayed via Zhang Chao’s girlfriend texting an email she’d received from Stac : “Stac cell number XXX XXXX XXXX” ugh, I guess I would have to call.

So I put on my shoes grabbed an umbrella and made my way up the road to Monica’s. No one was home so I waited until she came walking up the road in her hat, coat and rubber wellies (smart shoe choice given the rain and muddy roads). I asked her if I could borrow her phone to call Hong Kong. She said sure, he just had to change her phone to her Singspore sim card and that I would have to walk up the road to the Stupa where the service was better. Off I went up the muddy road until I was standing on a rock pile next to the pig pen mud hole below the white stupa and a green wheat field. After 4 or 5 failed dials I finally figured out how to dial Stac’s Hong Kong cell. Worried something was wrong I was relieved to hear that all was well and things were just very expensive in HK and they were worried about having enough money. I said “I’m standing on a rock pile in pig crap with rain falling all around me”. Stac : “yes but you chose that,” true I explained but hers were first world problems I am in the third world. I suggested she make a daily budget and she’d be fine. We chatted for a few moments and then I signed off.

Through the Woods

Since pack mules were out we’d be carrying our own packs, that evening we repacked all our bags, distributing group gear, paring down to the essentials for an overnighter at Holy Lake. The fact we’d all brought pack covers made the hike in the rain possible. Our guide met us at 8:30 am and helped carry our now huge group bag gear full of everything we’d be leaving behind. We tromped down the muddy trail in the rain, crossed the raging river that was swollen from two days of non stop rain and then humped up some stone steps to Lower Yubeng where we dropped our stay behind bags and gear at Sacred Waterfall Inn. Then we set off across the river again and immediately the trail starts up. You could tell the trail doesn’t get much traffic because there was very little garbage on the trail. I was disgusted and angered by the sheer amount of trash that people leave on the trails and in the camp sites. There seems to be no sense of cleaning up after themselves; packing out what they pack in, leave no trace is “throw your crap on the ground”. I’ve seen this same thing in the US as well, there have been times when I’ve carried a full bag of Mountain House garbage out of campsites, but its so much more pervasive in China. I think much of this comes from a lack of education (remember in the 1970’s in the US when this message was pushed hard : “Give a hoot, don’t pollute”) and the fact that in major cities if you throw something on the ground there is such an excess of labor that there are a plethora of street cleaners who will pick up the trash within the hour.

The trails starts off steep with short switchbacks taking you steadily higher. There is only one crossroads on the trail around 10,800 feet after about 30 minutes of strong hiking. Going up at the cross you just keep going up, coming down instead of taking the switchback you keep going straight down. This was the only choice in the faint but obvious trail. Thus a guide wasn’t really necessary for route finding, but he did agree to carry one of our packs. I volunteered mine and I hiked the first 30 minutes in guilt until I switched with Seth. Every 30 minutes we rotated between Seth, Josh and myself. We started in the rain and it continued all day. By my 3rd rotation without a pack I was looking forward to putting Seth’s pack on, hiking with an umbrella and a long sleeve shirt and shorts I was getting chilled, rain and the dropping temperatures with the elevation gain. By the 5th rotation I just kept the pack on for warmth and kept climbing up. After 3500 vertical feet the trail starts to level off a bit and not be quite as steep. Above you another 2000 feet or more looms a massive forest covered hill. We crested a small knob where there were prayer flags and views down into the valley.

By this time even with Seth’s pack on I was chilled to the bone and my hands were starting to numb with cold and my shirt was soaked with sweat. I stopped under a tree and stripped off my shirt, put on my Mammut soft shell and put my plastic purple poncho on over, more to retain heat than to keep off the rain since the umbrella did a pretty good job of that. Feeling much better Seth shouldered his pack and we carried on. From here we started to gradually traverse upwards on the side of the hill through a beautiful set of rhododendron bushes among large evergreens, it was almost as if you were hiking in a tended garden. Quickly we transitioned above treeline and we were on a fairly flat trail that traverses a steep hillside covered in small alpine shrubs and wildflowers.


As we made our way around the hill through slight fog a flat meadow came into view where there sat the low rock walls of an abandoned shelter. We descend down to the meadow. We had been hiking for 5.5 hrs in the rain and it was coming down pretty hard when we arrived at the meadow. We’d only covered 4.4 km / 2.75 miles and gained around 4400 vertical feet, our camp was at 13,671 feet. By this time I was warm but Ramon and Josh were very wet and cold. The first order of business was getting some shelter from the rain. The shelter had four rock walls about 3 feet high, on one side the wall was built up to point of 6 feet for a roof; there was a center pole and beam on one side of the shelter and on one quarter there was some of the large Tibetan wooden shingles (3-4 feet in length and 4-8 inches wide) that are the common way to roof buildings. There were numerous other shingles spread on ground inside to make a platform for sleeping; there was also a large number scattered on the ground outside the shelter, probably knocked down by snow. There was also a bit of old plastic tangled up in the rafters so we re-arranged that a bit, and then we started throwing shingles over the roof beams in the one corner. By stacking the shingles two deep you can pretty much prevent rain from leaking through. On top of this we then pitched Seth’s Beta-Mid shelter for an extra layer. To finish things off in one corner of our shelter we propped up Seth and I’s umbrella, this allowed us get almost 1/2 covered and set up two tents a 3 man Big Agnes for Josh, Zhang Chao and myself and Seth and Ramon in the other Big Agnes 2 man tent.

Shelter from the Storm

Josh and Ramon changed and got into their tents and sleeping bags to warm up and I started boiling water for our Mountain House dinners that Seth had brought with him from America. By 7:30 pm most of them were fed and in bed asleep, Seth and I waited a bit longer to eat and as usual beef stroganoff never tasted so good. Afterwards I read until 10:30 pm when I feel into a not so restful sleep. This was the highest I’d ever camped before and while I didn’t have a headache and wasn’t uncomfortable I felt and slept restlessly. I woke several times in the night, the last tie at 3:30 am; I must have read for an hour while I listened to the hard falling rain. We went to bed with the rain falling and woke up to the same, it had now been raining for three days straight. It never stopped raining, it only would abate and not rain hard. We boiled some water for breakfast and each had a single packet of maple and brown sugar oatmeal (I should have brought two per person).

We grabbed our umbrella’s and cameras, left everything else and set off for Holy Lake, which was a short 45 minute hike around 1.2 km / .75 miles with an elevation gain of 237 m / 780 feet. The trail was recently free’d from snow and wild flowers were desperately attempting to flower and were bright spots among the moss and high alpine grass. Surprisingly there was still small low rhodedederon bushes full of pink blossoms covering the hillsides. The lake sits at 14,200 feet in a small cirque and is larger than Icy Lake. When our guide had left us at the shelter the day before he had warned us : “Don’t even put your toes in the water, if you do the gods will kill you”. The falling rain and cold temperatures offered no temptation of taking a dip, we set up the camera under an umbrella for a group photo and then Josh, Chao and Ramon set off for camp while Seth and I went at a more leisurely pace, taking photos as we went.

Back at the shelter we broke camp, stuffing wet tents into bags and stuffing bags into our pack. Again Chao, Ramon and Josh set off first out of camp on a quicker pace. Everyone was a little tired of the rain, some more than others. As Seth and I chatted while we hiked down we commented on the very distinct zones that were set across the elevation bands on the mountain. We camped in the (1) high alpine zone above tree line above 13500 feet characterized by small ferns, heather, high alpine rhodies, alpine flowers and moss. (2) The Conifer – Rhodie Garden zone, below 13,500 feet this was very narrow with only a 500 vertical foot band, the rhodies grew so thick you would think they had been planted and were interspersed with large evergreens. (3) Giant rhodie forest, this was a rather large zone 750-1000 vertical feet of huge rhodie trees that were 25-30 feet tall, these were also interspersed with large conifers. (4). Bamboo zone which was rather larger, 1000-1500 vertical feet with clusters of skinny 3/4 to inch thick bamboo shooting heavenward and finally (5) the largest zone with “normal forest”, a mixed conifer deciduous trees to valley floor scattered with wild rhododendron bushes.

After we left the Conifer-Rhodie Garden the trail got steeper and with rain falling for two days straight the trail was muddy, slick and treacherous. Without poles things would have been very very difficult.  There are different gaits when your hiking based on whether your heading up or down and how wet and slippery the trail was. Going down in the mud with the trail as steep as it was you had to maintain constant tension in all your leg muscles; there was never any relaxation that comes when your foot rests comfortable secure on the trail. It was like descending on ice, you never knew when your foot would slide out from underneath you. We had a bet that the first person to fall was the last in the shower, Seth and I slipped several times but managed to never go all the way butt down, Josh went down at least three times. As we entered the final forest section the rain kept falling but the when you hike in the rain under canopy you don’t get the normal even pitter patter of raindrops, you get big intermittent rain bombs dripping from the leaves after the quantity of water and gravity overcome water’s natural weak covalent bonds. Amazingly for 5 minutes on the trail the rain did in fact entirely stop and we had 3-4 minutes of sunshine. We stopped to hold our faces to the sun and bask in its short lived glory. Near the end of the trail my legs were shaking from the constant strain of trying not to fall and the relentless down; the trail made Mailbox peak look walk in the woods. Finally we arrived at the bottom, crossed the river and thankfully only had a short walk to our hostel.

We spread gear on the porch under the balcony and in our room with five beds. Rooms and bathrooms in lower Yubeng are decidedly more rustic, there were no electric plugs and only a single bare bulb lit the room. By now we were all beginning to smell a little funky, it had been several days since our last shower. In our very close quarters in tents the night before Seth was talking about the Dirtbag Diary episode about the 5 types of BO. They are :

  • Type 1 : People who say they can’t bike to work because they will arrive at work “all sweaty”. Sweat dries and in a few hours it’s gone.
  • Type 2 : Beginning of smell, when you lift your arm and sniff there is a presence, you don’t want it on a first date but it is far from offensive.
  • Type 3 : Real BO, smells bad enough to offend other people and they definitely notice, they are not angry at you, but they would rather not smell you and but they don’t appreciate you or want to sit by you.
  • Type 4 : This is BO not coming just from arm pits but from feet and the lower hemisphere, all parts coming together in one force. Where people just notice type 3 and have a reaction to it, with type 4 they are genuinely offended. When you walk between tables at a burrito joint and people make angry faces. At first they can’t believe it and then they decide to judge you.
  • Type 5 : Type 5 is so bad it offends even yourself, you dry heave a little after accidentally lifting your arm. You sit down at a pit toilet in a national park and the first thing you notice is not the gallons of human waste wafting up from below you but the smell coming from multiple regions of your body.

We had definitely reached type 4 and despite the lack of even warm water we lined up for a cold shower and attempted to wash some of the sweat off our bodies and the mud off our shoes. That night we ate a hearty bowl of noodles at the hostel’s kitchen before settling down for the night.

Leaving Yubeng

Through the Moss

The next morning my legs still ached from their relentless pounding the day before. I joked with Seth that our hike to Holy Lake had been like a Green Rainier, hiking to the same height as Rainier’s summit but without the snow. Seth’s retort was that he had been calling it  The Chinese Water torture because of all of the rain. We ordered a set of mules to carry not only our gear out but to carry us to the top of Yakou Pass. First we had to carry our bags across the river and to the stable area where we met our porters. They did a lucky draw for who got assigned what horses and we loaded up our bags and climbed on our horses, donkeys or in my case pony. We dwarfed in size the animals we rode upon, Ramon looked like he could straddle the donkey he was riding, but to their credit they carried us the entire 3 km and 2400 vertical feet, they were tough little horses. Riding was definitely less exertion than hiking yourself, but your trading off pain in your butt from sitting on small wooden Tibetan saddle vs humping up hill. At the top of the pass we disembarked and after letting our legs recover we headed down the muddy trail to the trail head at XiDang. I was ready to be down and out and I hammered it pretty hard and fast back down. By the end I didn’t care about the mud only where I could step to avoid from slipping. At times I was boot skiing down the trail in the thick slick mud. I arrived around 12:15 to find our driver waiting for us and the others arrived within a half hour. We unloaded our bags from the mules, paid the porters and lugged our bags to the lower parking lot where we stowed gear and washed our legs and feet in the cold mountain stream. Josh and I left our boots on the steps of the entrance building and we all climbed in the car. A short 90 minutes later we were in Feilaisi where we stopped and had lunch.

Thankfully we had an extra day before our flight back and we only had to make it to Shangri-la, a drive of four hours. I sat in the back and listened to 4 hours of pod casts that I hadn’t touched (thank goodness). We were all waiting our return to civilization and real toilets and bathrooms. When you go backpacking your body has this psychological affect on your lower bowels, knowing you’ll be far away from comfortable bathrooms your body goes into lock down mode. Things back up and eventually at some point things will have to flow and you’ll just have to go no matter where you are. We’d left for Holy Lake on Monday morning and spent Monday night camped in the high meadow, Tuesday night we spent in Lower Yubeng with pit toilets and Wednesday night we arrived in Shangri-la. Thursday morning in Shangri-la in a hotel with western toilets and things still weren’t flowing. My body was still in lockdown mode and I was wondering how long it was going to take to wake things up. That morning we toured the Songzanlin Monastery (Ganden Sumtseling Monastery), this impressive set of buildings was first constructed in 1679 and then rebuilt after extensive damage during the Cultural Revolution.  Somewhere along the way Seth started feeling nauseous and after we exited the main monastery he sat on the steps for a few moments and then wandered up behind a fence and a tree on a hill where he vented his stomach on the ground.

Songzanlin Monastery

For lunch we were craving something western with real protein, I was sick of pork with peppers and stir friend egg and tomatoes.  We searched for a KFC (way more popular in China than McDonalds) but settled on a KFC copycat : Dicos. The Fried chicken and chicken sandwiches tasted delicious. Early afternoon we headed back for the last leg of the journey : the drive from Shangri-la to LiJiang. On the way back as we hit construction and rocky bumpy roads.  I am pretty sure our driver threw the suspension out in his van, he was taking way too many bumps at high speed. He seemed to believe the best way to get through rough roads was as fast possible, minimize the time you experienced them, fast but harsh. And the closer we got to LiJiang and the family he hadn’t seen in 8 days the faster he seemed to drive. Being China with loose driving laws passing any time is perfectly fine : blind corners and up hill was nothing as long as you honked your horn. Our driver had an annoying habit of pulling slowly out along side the car he was passing, as if this made backing out easier in a tight bind should another car (or massive truck) come around the corner or over the hill. I kept waiting for him to gun it passing with speed but he would gradually crawl pass them. I knew we were in trouble when with about a half an hour to go he put on his seatbelt. After over 500 miles and countless blind passes I guess even he got nervous that his luck might be running out. Finally we cleared the last mountain switch back and as we descended the city of Lijiang came into view. We pulled up at the southern gate of the ancient city where we had begun just over a week ago. Our driver sighed in relief as he put the car in park and helped us unload our gear.

We opted to stay at a “nicer” hotel which was around 300 rmb a night for each of our two rooms and we quickly showered and changed clothes and headed off into the ancient city in search of the small N’s Kitchen which had a reputation for great pizza. Finally we found the place among the winding streets and we sat upstairs reading magazines while we waited for our 5 pizza’s to come out. They came out piping hot with thin crust one at a time. Within 30 seconds of hitting the table they had been devoured as we waited for the next one. Smoothies and water melon shakes slaked our thirst as we wolfed the pizza down. Maybe it was the lack of cheese in my diet for the past week. Maybe it was the huge rush of massive amounts of food, but suddenly my bowels were waking up and things were rumbling. Thus set off a mad dash through the cobbled streets of old Lijiang heading for our hotel where we found relief. The food at N’s Kitchen had been so good that we went back for breakfast the next day as well as our final lunch before heading to the airport and our flight back to Beijing. We landed late Friday evening and were back home at our apartment by 9 and in bed shortly thereafter.

Pause to Admire

Saturday was the last full day that Seth and Josh had in Beijing so we had to cram in some sight seeing. We woke at 3:45 am and drove out to Huairou and the Great Wall at Jiankou. We arrived as the fog was burning off and parked on the muddy road at the JianKou (Notch of the Bow) parking lot and hiked up to the Wall. I had drug Sofi and Miles along and we opted for the most scrambly section of the Wall that led south west to ZhengBeiLou tower. Miles and Sofi did great scrambling up the cliffs and steep sections of the Wall. I love this portion of the Wall, its ruggedness keeps most people away and there are several amazing towers and cliff sections where you crawl through rocks and narrow points to enter towers. Finally a short 2 and half hours later we arrived at the large ZhengBeiLou tower where we took a quick break before heading down the trail that led back to the road. I gave Seth my pack and I ran down the trail and up the road to the car where I drove it back down to pick everyone up. We drove back to Beijing and showered quickly and drove to DinTaifung for lunch (amazing dumplings), then set off to Yashow market where Josh and Seth got new prescription glasses (around $60 US). Seth and I made a mad dash in the van across town for the Forbidden City where we purchased tickets at 3:45, 15 minutes before they stopped selling them. We did a quick tour through the Forbidden City before they closed at 5pm and then got stuck in traffic for 45 minutes making our way back across town to Chef Too where we met everyone for a celebratory steak dinner.

The next day I drove Seth and Josh to the airport where they met Zhang Chao for their flight back to Seattle. (Zhang Chao was immigrating to the US to work for Amazon). We’d had a great adventure in the back country of south-western China.


  • Total miles by plane : 1300
  • Total miles in the car : 500
  • Total hours in the car : 27 hours
  • Total miles hiked : 30
  • Total elevation : 15,280 vertical feet
  • Total miles by horse : 1.5 miles
  • Seth traveled 7556 miles to get to Yubeng from Bozeman (7300 miles by air, 250 by car and 6 by hiking)



Categories: By Mark, driving in china, hiking, outdoors, photography, travel, travel in china | Tags: , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Xi’an – An Ancient City

“Everyone loves the sound of a train in the distance” – Paul Simon

Morning on the Night Train

We’ve taken the fast train to Nanjing but we’d yet to take a night train. Knowing our time in China was short we planned a long weekend trip to Xi’an and booked our tickets on the sleeper train from Beijing to Xi’an. We’d leave Friday night at 8pm and arrive in Xi’an at 8am. Xi’an is the second most popular destination in China, the Terra Cotta Army reknowned as an 8th wonder of the world. The week was crazy and hectic as usual. I left work at 4:30 on Friday and had an hour to pack before I attempted to search for a taxi at 6 pm, a full two hours before our train departed. I was lucky to find a taxi quickly and he pulled around outside our apartment building, we loaded up and headed to the west Beijing train station.


A scant 25km across town, the journey took an hour due to traffic. You can drive from Logan to Salt Lake City in the same time a distance over four times as far and through as many towns, we’d never even left the city of Beijing. You forget how big the place is sometimes until you drive for an hour and watch the unending row of high rise apartments and office buildings. The Beijing West station is huge rising four stories above the street, you wind up huge cork screw entryways to exit the taxi amid a sea of humanity all carrying huge bundles and loads coming and going in an hurried scurry of activity. We walked to platform 8 and then down to the platform where we had to walk the entire length of the train to our car. The soft sleeper cars have a series of probably 15 4 bunk rooms. With a family of four we neatly filled up one sleeper room. The kids immediately climbed to the top bunk as we settled in for the night, what they had been complaining about before was now suddenly a fun adventure. We pulled out of the train and before long I was sound asleep, worn out from the week.

I woke up at 2am on my side unsure of where I was, my left arm asleep from being underneath me. I felt the comfortable trundle of the train as we rolled along the tracks. The use of the term soft sleeper must be relative because the narrow bed was pretty hard, though that is par for the course when it comes to Chinese beds and there preferences for firmness. I fell back asleep as we moved through the night ever closer to Xi’an.

I awoke around 4:50 am with grand visions of sunrise from the train. I was greeted with gray clouds and blackness as we raced through tunnel after tunnel. I suppose there are plenty of other examples where countries have bored their way through mountains (Switzerland) and tunnel to build railways but I was struck by what seemed for quite a while, more track in tunnel than out.

We pulled into Xi’an train station at 8 am. We packed up our bags and stepped of the train. Almost immediately Stacey was approached by a guy offering us a ride in his van to our hotel. He kept walking beside us as I incredulously inquired about how much, 15 rmb. “Each?”, “No together”. “Each?” “No, no, together”. So we decided to go. We walked to his van, he gave me his card : David was his English name. He worked for a travel agency. After loading up he asked if we wanted to go see the Terra Cotta Warriors. I said “maybe”, not wanting to commit. David told us that he would take our entire family for 400 rmb and that would include a visit to BanPo as well as the Terra Cotta Warriors. He also suggested we ask at the hotel how much it would cost for a driver. We drove to Sofitel at Remin Square and inquired after our room. We couldn’t check in until 1:30 but we could drop our bags off. I asked at the front desk about a car to Terra Cotta and they quoted me 850 rmb. So we decided to take up David on his offer. In the end his persistence ended up being nothing more than entrepreneurship hustle, if he didn’t find work he didn’t get paid.

Among the Soldiers

The Terra Cotta soldiers are 30km east of the city. You could take public transportation but its a ways out there, first it takes a while to get out of the city and then it’s a bit of a haul with traffic and such. I am glad we had a car and driver to take us directly there. Our first stop was beside the road where Stac ran out of the van and threw up in the street planner in front a military installation. The military guard came out and got after David for stopping. Stac thought she might be experiencing her early morning-no-food-nasuea so we bought some dumplings from across the street and carried on. We stopped at BanPo, which are the remains of the oldest discovered civilization in China, dating back some 6000 years. Before entering we stopped at a local noodle shop and Miles and Sofi got a bowl of noodles each. (I’d filled up on dumplings and tea hard boiled eggs). We walked around the BanPo exhibit, the exhibit consisted of covered pits that had remains of buildings, fires, pottery and burials from the ancient ancestors of the Chinese.

Along our journey David apologized but explained that he’d get in trouble with his boss if he didn’t visit either a jade factory or a silk factor for a tour. There was no pressure to buy anything but just going would get him credit. We asked which one was shorter and decided to visit the Jade factory. After a short 15 minute tour where Miles and I looked at swords and Stac bought her a ring we left again before stopping one more time for a very interesting tour of a factory that made “high quality” replicas of the Terra Cotta soldiers that we could buy at half the price of those at the museum. So we toured again and bought a set of warriors to bring back.

Terra Cotta Warriors - Pit 3

From there we drove and drove and drove until we passed the big low mound where the first emperor Qin Shi Huang Di was buried (200 BC). His tomb has never been unearthed due to Chinese respect (fear?) for the dead and disturbing fengshui. Around 1.5 kilometers from his tomb we came to the site of the Terra Cotta Army. In 1974 four farmers were digging a deep well when then ran into some broken pieces of terra cotta, unsure what they found they showed local government officials. From there the site was developed first opening to the public in 1978. There are three pits that have been excavated. The first is the largest over 20,000 square meters covered by a massive roof there are estimated to be over 6000 terra cotta soldiers and horses, of which only a few have been uncovered. The soldiers were posed in four basic forms but their faces each are distinct. They were then stood up with horses in pits that were covered with beams of wooden roofs which were then covered by mats and then mud. These roofs later collapsed and consequently the figures are all toppled and broken. Of the thousand figures uncovered only one was found intact unbroken. Countless hours of work has gone into painstakingly piecing the soldiers and horses to their restored condition.

The Unbroken Soldier

Pit two and three are smaller, one shows the pits largely still covered by the mud and crumpled wooden beams. The other shows more pits uncovered with soldiers and some close up glass inclosed exhibits that show the basic soldier poses and the general figures. This is the only time that you can really get close to the figures, in the other open pits you are either above them or far way from the figures and you can’t really get up close. I regretted not bringing my big 70-200mm lens, but it was cool to walk around the pits and consider the 2000 years of history. We had a long walk back out the exit through the usual shops hawking goods; lots of guys carrying replicas of the warriors in silk boxes.

Back in the car we drove the long ride back to our hotel. By the time we got back it was around 5:30 and every was tired from a long day that had started early. We were all too beat to go back out for dinner and plopped down in our room and ordered room service before falling asleep.

Xi'an City Wall and Moat

The next morning I woke at 4:30 and made my way south towards the city wall. I had grand visions of a glorious sunrise that was muted and mostly gray either clouds or smog, though when in China its always so easy to chalk it up to pollution. The wall wasn’t open yet and so I exited the south gate and walked west around the park outside the wall. I meandered back on the inside of the wall for a while. Xi’an has the largest intact city wall in the world, 15 km in lenght, its over 12 meters high and 15 meters wide. Its huge, any contemplation of trying to climb its very steep but slightly ever so slightly graduated bricks is quickly turned aside as you see how really steep the wall is. I made my way through a narrow gate back outside and turned the on the south west corner of the rounded junction to the north-west wall. Around 6:30 am I came up on a small park that was full of people exercising. There was a series of 20 or so ping pong tables and I paused to watch an elderly lady playing a man in his late 40s. Suddenly the lady was insisting I play her in ping pong and for the next 45 minutes her and her partner proceeded to beat me into ping pong submission. I was happy that toward the end my rust game had returned enough that I could volley with them a bit. I took a bunch of pictures of them playing and of course they wanted copies of the photos. I managed to get her address and hopefully I’ll be able to get a couple of prints made and mail them to her.

Riding the Wall

From there I walked back inside the city wall toward the drum and bell tower (also closed) before walking back to our hotel for a round trip of 10k. I showered and went down to breakfast while the family started waking up. Stac was pretty sure her nausea episode from yesterday was a stomach bug and so she stayed home in the morning. The kids and I grabbed a taxi to the southern gate of the wall where we purchased tickets to enter the wall. You walk through a large tunnel into a square where you can ascend steps to the top of the Wall. We rented bikes for 40rmb and set off riding west on the Wall. Luckily it was slightly overcast so it wasn’t burning hot though I was soon sweating with the backpack on. Miles and Sofi would race ahead initially while I paced myself. Each tower they would stop and buy a drink or an ice cream. By the time we reached east gate (one more gate to go to get back to our starting point) Miles was lagging big time. I distracted him by talking to him about the different kinds of bows and arrows, different kinds of swords and then the story about how when I was 11 I convinced my little brother Jon to attempt a jump over a creek pond and he fell in. We made it, a long way around, but very cool to ride on such a large Wall, it was awesome to see the city from so high up. Xi’an gives you the impression that it’s a Chinese city, it’s managed to maintain a sense of its history, even many of the new buildings are built using traditional motifs.

The Bike Wall Gang

We took a tuk-tuk taxi back to our hote; Stac still wasn’t feeling well haven’t spent some time hugging the porcelain throne. Miles stayed home, tired from the bike ride and Sofi and I freshened up and went back out to see the muslim quarter and the Great Mosque. Xi’an is the starting point for the famed Silk Road and has a large Muslim contingent. The district around the mosque is full of Chinese wearing white shirts, covered heads, men sporting beards and here and there you can see the middle eastern influence in their physical appearance. The area around the mosque is directly “behind” (north) of the Bell Tower, the streets are blocked from car traffic and restricted to foot traffic or tuk-tuk’s, motorcycles and bicycles. This main road north of the Bell Tower running north and south is wide and full of people on foot, either side with crowded shops full mostly of restaurants offering a variety of Muslim food : lamb, bbq, fried dumplings and pancakes and the soup Paomo which looked a little bit like slimy soup so we didn’t try it. Sofi and I ate some dumplings and bbq lamb skewers for dinner.

The Grand Mosque

West of this main road north of the Bell Tower are a series of small lanes that are crammed with shops and food stalls. We wandered down these until I came to a rather innocuous junction that roughly corresponded with the location of the mosque on my map application and I asked a lady where the mosque was located and she pointed behind me. There was a rather unassuming looking ticket entrance to the Great Mosque. We bought our ticket and proceeded through the entrance. Inside was a very large complex of buildings, impressive in their size and preservation. The typical central corridor with garden and pavilions with inscribed stele with buildings on either side is very Chinese in design and layout, but close examination reveals the inscriptions are in Arabic instead of Chinese. At the end of the compound is a large courtyard and a large Chinese style grand hall that is the prayer hall. The outside is adorned with Arabic inscriptions and there are a series of entrance ways into the hall, unlike most traditional Chinese buildings which have a single entrance way. There is a fence 10-15 feet in front of the doorways with signs asking you to not enter the prayer hall, so you can really only peer into the interior though the doorways from 15 feet away at the fence. When Sofi and I arrived late in the evening the place was empty except for a single caretaker, when he us talking and looking he invited us to come into the gate and look into the interior of the hallway. The interior was large with prayer rugs covering the floor. After asking several questions I asked if I could photograph the inside, he agreed and we went on our way back towards the main gate, grateful for the experience of something so Chinese and yet so different from typical Buddhist or Daoist designs.

Bumper Miles

The next morning I slept in and Stac still felt very sick to her stomach, the kids and I went out after breakfast to XingQing Park just outside the city wall on the south side. This a local park that has a large lake and is full of amusement rides. I was surprised that all the rides where at least 30 rmb per ticket (quite expensive, since lunch costs 10 rmb), this explained why there was no one riding them. So we proceeded to buy tickets for many of the rides which Sofi and Miles enjoyed and the locals watched intrigued by their skin color and their screams of glee. One of the rides was a reverse bungee which threw them up in the air over 50 feet, this is the one they screamed the loudest on. We ended our time in the park by the kids playing in the lake in the big overside plastic ball they can run around in like hamsters in the wheel except they are tethered to shore by a rope. We went back to the Muslim district for some delicious food before heading back to the hotel where we met Stac and caught a taxi to the airport. This was another lesson in distance, the airport is seemingly forever outside Xi’an. Getting out of the city takes a while until you final reach the airport expressway where we zipped along alone on the four lane freeway. The taxi driver didn’t use the meter (too late to negotiate after your already moving down the road) and we ended up paying 200 for the fare, but he covered the costs of the two toll roads, but I felt ripped off. The airport is big, airy, modern and new like everything else in China that’s been built during the building boom. We ate a donut at Dunkin Donuts (a let down) and waited at our gate only to be delayed once and then twice before being moved to a new gate and finally taking off a full two hours after our scheduled departure. Tired we landed late in Beijing after a short two hour flight and arrived home after 10 pm.

We loved Xi’an. We wish Stac had felt better while we were there, but we got to see the Terra Cotta Army together. We are glad we squeezed in a visit before leaving China.

Categories: By Mark, travel, travel in china | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Best of May 2012

Another group of the best of photos for the Month of May. Time is flying by too quickly. Click through on any photo for more details and information. We had took a long weekend driving trip to Datong, camping at Miles 12th annual Father and Sons campout, a visit to the Great Wall. Photos below after the break.























1. – In the HuTong
In the HuTong

2. – Looking a Camel in the Mouth
Looking a Camel in the Mouth

3. – Yungang Grottoes
Yungang Grottoes

4. – Seeing the Future
Seeing the Future

5. – Transformation

6. – The Morning Man
The Morning Man

7. – Bright Morning Smiles
Bright Morning Smiles

8. – The Daoist Dude
The Daoist Dude

9. – The Four Monks
The Four Monks

10. – Larry

11. – The Way Through
The Way Through

12. – The Boy
The Boy

13. – Carver the Explorer
Carver the Explorer

14. – Street Cleaners Setting Out
Street Cleaners Setting Out

15. – Long Morning Shadows
Long Morning Shadows

16. – Straight Up
Straight Up

17. – Misty Morning
Misty Morning

18. – The Way is Steep
The Way is Steep

19. – Peeking Through
Peeking Through

20. – Beijing’s Back Roads
Beijing's Back Roads

21. – Sunset over Park Avenue
Sunset over Park Avenue

22. – Hanging On
Hanging On

Categories: By Mark, outdoors, photography, travel, travel in china | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Driving to Datong

Driving to DaTong

I love road trips. Stac and I have been loading up the car and driving a 1000 miles on a weekend since the first days of our marriage when we were at school in Utah and we traipse through southern Utah and northern Arizona. We saw Monument Valley in our 4 door Toyota Corolla that had no heat while Kiah played with her electric toy guitar that played It’s a Small World After All.

DaTong is in ShanXi province around 250 miles northwest of Beijing. Thanks to the major infrastructure building of the Chinese government in the last 20 years there are national highways that cross most of China. So getting there by car is not an issue in general.  The two main attractions in the DaTong area are the Caves at DaTong and the Hanging Monastery. These two destinations are actually 80 kilometers apart. And there are actually a couple of other interesting things to see in the area as well. I’ll cover the logistics first and then more about the experience.

Looking a Camel in the Mouth

The Yunguang Grottoes or the DaTong Caves are 16 kilometers west of DaTong proper. After touring the caves in the morning, we headed south to the town of HunYuan where the Hanging Monastery is located. There is no real direct route from DaTong to HunYuan, there are two different routes and one is definitely shorter than the other by 60 km. We ended up taking the longer route due to a misreading of the exits and no short turn around once we were on the wrong freeway. In the end I preferred this route because we got to stop at the small town of YingXian and see the amazing 1000 year old all wooden Pagoda of Fong Temple. From here we drove to sleepy town of HunYuan, we somehow missed getting on thr toll road and ended up driving on the adjacent provincial road. The county road has no toll, is a bit bumpier on places and full of trucks. The adjacent toll road is brand new, beautifully paved and largely empty. In HungYuan we stayed at the Heng Greely Hotel. In HunYuan there are really two attractions, the 1500 year old Hanging Monastery and HengShan Mountain (or really Heng Mountain), which is one of the 5 sacred mountains of China and is covered in daoist temples and shrines.

We left Beijing on a Saturday morning at 5 am and drove to DaTong. The first hour was spent driving through Beijing, finding and picking up Seven on the west side and then heading north towards BaDaLing. The road grows narrow through this mountainous pass were the Great Wall protects Beijing. Even at six am the three lanes where full of massive trucks making their way up the pass, the three lanes becomes four and more as trucks squeeze to pass each others, tour buses and cars weave in and out of truck stacks as the race towards the tunnels and the otherside. My guess is there is no hour you can leave Beijing on this northern route and not dodge massive trucks.

Caves at Datong

You leave Beijing, enter Hebei (which encircles Beijing District) and make your way west towards Shanxi. After truck dodgeball at Badaling the highways are sparse in traffic and your easily able to make your way down the road. Quite often there are pull outs on the right side of the road. We must have counted 20 men peeing on the side of the road. At the Shanxi border we stopped to use the restroom and picked up our toll card for the highway. Datong came along fast enough and we exited paying a 70 rmb fare. Here the Google directions had us take the direct route through the middle of town to the caves. Direct it was, straight through construction, huge trucks hauling coal, big displays of backhoes and earth movers. We inched along until we finally got free and made our way to the caves.

Yungang Grottoes

The (云冈石窟) Yungang Grottoes are designated a Unesco World Heritage location and there is a new large entry system. You enter inside a large building to buy your tickets, and then exit through large doors and walk down a very large and grand outdoor walkway of huge elephants and newly crafted murals. The entire time your wondering where the caves are. Finally you come to a a long set of cliffs and the caves are carved into them. The oldest dating back 1500 years. They are largely buddhist in origin, there are over 50000 carvings in over 252 caves. Some of the caves have wooden facades built as temples to protect them, others are completely open. Some have wooden fences that really prevent entry and others you can walk entirely around. Many of the caves and the buddhist figures are monumental in size, I was not prepared for how large some of them were, not to mention the sheer number and the intricacy. The site was truly impressive. After a visit to the most impressive section of the caves we bought a ticket to ride back to the exit on large electric carts where you have the typical walk way through shops and restaurants. I stopped and had an older gentleman tell Kiah and Sofi’s fortune; you pay 10 rmb, he shakes around a cane with sticks in them. There are four character couplets with fortune pronouncements. After hearing how 100% positive each one was I accused him of only having happy fortunes, he promptly reached in and found me one that sounded like a sad country song : “You’ll lose all your money”, “Your family will abandon you”, “You’ll die alone”; that sort of stuff. So I guess its the luck of the draw.

Pagoda of Fong Temple

We loaded up the van and headed out of Datong to Hunyuan. This time we didn’t follow Google maps but headed outside the city on the loop / ring road. There was a tricky junction with the freeway and instead of heading south east toward Hunhuan, we headed due south. There wasn’t an exit for 10 km or more so we decided to just take the longer route and go through YingXian and see the ancient wooden pagoda. Pretty much everyone feel asleep while I drove. Sofi was crammed into the very back section of the van between the back of the back seat and the luggage. Everyone was still sleepy when we pulled in YingXian and everyone but myself, Seven and Teresa got out to see the pagoda. It was very old and very amazing to see considering it was made entirely of wood with no nails or metal. Sadly you can only walk around the main level and no longer walk up the stairs. We walked around and took some photos before heading back to the car. I stopped at a ATM to take out some money and we climbed back in the car and headed due west to Hunyuan. There is a nice new toll road but we missed the onramp and ended up on the provincial road with all the coal trucks. We pulled into Huyuan after a long long day and met the father of a friend of Teresa’s who was studying in Tennessee, I just always called him Hua’s father. When I went to pull out my China bank card I had the sinking feeling as a realized I’d left it int he ATM back in YingXian. After 60 seconds the machine eats the card, within that time window someone could push the button to retrieve the card but they’d still only be able to use it if they had the pin number. I get a SMS text message whenever someone uses the card and I knew it was idle. Rather than even try to go back and get the card I went to the local ICBC in Hunyuan and withdrew RMB on my US bank account. I was able to pay for the hotel rooms and everything was fine, though I had a bureaucratic headache in my future when I got back to Beijing.

ShanXi Feast

That evening for dinner we asked Hua’s father for a place to eat. He suggested we just eat at the hotel, insisting it was good food. I wanted something much authentic so I asked where we could get some local food. Up the road to the gas station and adjacent we’d find a place that fixed local Shanxi food. We walked up the road a fair bit, along the way we got endless stare after stare after stare. I don’t suppose they see many foreigners let along many of African descent. The restaurant was just a house across a dirty field. There was no menu and no prices. We were just to sit down and they’d bring us food. So we sat and they brought dish after dish, probably 12 or so in all. The food was interesting, there were three or four different kind of dumplings that were all of a “dry” variety. Authentic for sure, a taste of Hunyuan but not one I dream about.

A Morning Smoke

The next morning I woke early and was out of the hotel by 5am. I drove up the road toward HengShan mountain. Immediately upon entering the canyon you see an entrance sign to the Hanging Monastery. I drove down the steep entrance way to the canyon floor next to the river. I parked in the empty parking lot, it was windy and cold. The monastery was closed until 8 am so I took a look from afar. Due to the canyon walls there really doesn’t appear to be a good time to catch the monastery in good morning or evening light. I got back in the car and drove up the canyon through a large tunnel which was extremely dark; there were no internal lights, the sides seemed narrow and the road was bumpy with large coal trucks lumbering towards you with tiny pencil lights making small circles of light. On the otherside the entrance to Heng Shan mountain is under construction building a beautiful grand entrance, I was still to early so I kept on driving up the road to the next small village of XXX; around 1000 people live here in one story tiled roof homes stacked one a top the other in a narrow valley which had a local coal pit that had been dug out in its “back yard”.

Coal Mining Village

I parked near the road at the gas station and started walking up the narrow streets. The sun had yet to break over the mountain tops but there were already several folks walking around at 5:45 in the morning. I walked up the hill to get a better view of the city and saw two men squatting on the hillside having a morning smoke. I hiked up to them and chatted with them for a bit. They asked about my cameras (I had the D800 on one shoulder and my D7000 on the other). I showed them the wide angle and took a couple of shots of them and showed them in the view finder. I said good bye and walked back down by a large truck above the coal pit and a short little man was standing there watching the morning. I chatted with him and took his portrait as the morning light broke. He asked me for a copy of the photo and I wrote down his last name (Li). I still have plans to try to mail it to him and get it to him by visual reference.

Coal Miners

I then hiked up a small trail to the very highest point overlooking the village for a couple of photographs. Several houses had thick black coal smoke coming from chimneys as families cooked their breakfast. Below me a mother and daughter noticed the strange foreigner on the hill and soon the entire extended family was staring at me over the wall. I asked them if it was possible to make my way down the steep gully, they assured me and I walked down and into their courtyard to chat with them. The mother was an elder daughter of a middle aged couple. Her two brothers came out with their bowls of breakfast and chatted with me asking me (as everyone does) which country I was from : “America”. They were coal miners in an above ground mine up in the mountains. It was Sunday their day off and after chatting and taking a couple of photos the youngest one walked me back down a different path to my car where I piled in and drove back to the hotel for a shower and some breakfast.

The Hanging Monastarey

After everyone was ready we loaded up and headed for the Hanging Monastery. Hua’s Father accompanied us and through is guanxi he was able to get us all in the monastery without having to pay the entrance fee. A signed paper with an official stamp from a friend of his who was in charge the local sights let us enter. We walked across the suspension bridge over the river and up the stairs to the monastery. The monastery is a series of shallow buildings that have wooden poles appearing to provide support, which in actuality their are beams that are sunk into the wall of the cliff anchoring the buildings on the sheer face. You climb up ladders and wind you way up stair cases along gated walkways past shrines to Daoist and Buddhist figures. By the time you reach the top of the monastery (there are around three to four levels) and as you look over the edge of the walkways down into the canyon you can get a vertigo sensation. The path through monastery is a one way guide and Sofi and Miles somehow got ahead of us and they were a couple of levels above us hanging onto one of the corner poles and got a bit scared. Stac and I made our way up to them and we walked down to the entrance where we’d begun. A very impressive structure that would probably be closed to the public if it were in the States.

The Four Monks

Afterwards Stac and Miles went back to the hotel to relax and the rest of us went back up on HengShan mountain. You have to purchase a ticket to enter the mountain road and then you wind your way up a narrow road with blind hairpin curves to a large parking lot. Here you can either walk 30 minutes up a path that climbs several 100 vertical meters to a series of temples or you can purchase another ticket to ride the tram. At the top of the tram you have to show your ticket again for the second part to enter the temple complex. There is a series of trails which traverse horizontally along the mountain, climbing here and there to various Daoist temples built steeply into the cliff face. There were Daoist monks hanging out at each temple, many with large white beards and weathered faces. They were all so willing to chat and have their photo taken. At one of them I purchased a couple of peach pit bracelets in exchange for the four monks posing for a photo. One of them read me my fortune from a very old looking book that he claimed was from Ming Dynasty era. Teresa met us on the lower paths after having hiked all the way up and we walked back to the tram where we rode back down the mountain.

The Daoist Dude

That afternoon we went over to Hua’s parents homes to meet his wife and their grandchildren Amy and Audery. Amy’s mother Tracy met Teresa Bragg at school in Tennessee. Tracy later got married in China to Hua and they settled in the US where Tracy went to law school, first Amy was born and then Audrey. Hua is unable to work in the US because he is there as a guest on his wife’s student visa. When Hua’s post-graduate funding ended and he no longer had any income raising their children with them in the US became difficult. Their children returned to HunYuan in ShanXi county where they are being raised by their grandparents, Hua’s parents. When Tracy graduates from law school they will reunite with their children again in the US. The sacrifice of Hua’s parents is both impressive and at the same time commonplace. This commitment is at face value something any grandparent would of course do but the reality of it makes this not so common in the US. And yet in China the amount of time and devotion spent by grandparents on their grand children is amazing and inspiring.

A Generation Between

That evening we ate at the hotel and the food was really good, the next morning we were off by 10 am. Hua’s parents saw us off at the hotel and gave us 4 bags of dried soy beans for our journey home. Rather than head north to the highway I opted to head east and slightly north along the provincial roads until we headed north and reconnected with the main highway. This took us through the Shanxi countryside past farms that stretched dry across a dusty plain, past piles of coal in heaps along the road side and trucks, always big huge trucks lumbering on carrying their loads of coal. We pushed on through lunch and made it back to Beijing in time to grab a late lunch at a random stop off the 4th ring road before saying goodbye to seven and making our last leg home to Park Avenue.

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Categories: By Mark, driving, travel, travel in china | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments


Good Morning Railay

Our last big national and school vacation was Spring Break and Tomb Cleaning holiday. We were headed to Thailand a destination from Beijing that is only a four hour flight. Attempting to plan a holiday to Thailand is like trying to decide what food to try first at an all you can eat buffet. There seem to be an endless array of islands and travel destinations. We knew for sure we’d be going through Bangkok to visit Stan and his family who had since settled there from Hanoi.

We are more of Lonely Planet travelers than Frommers. We prefer the north shore of Kuai to Maui and will take backpacking over car camping. One major destination where everyone else goes that I wanted to avoid was Phuket; everything I’d read made it sound like an over built resort town and the reports of the west shore didn’t even recommend swimming.  Not my cup of tea if there are plenty of other options. Stan suggested we look into Railay Beach in Krabi province, south of Bangkok and east across the bay from Phuket. Railay Beach is a small peninsula  with no roads and no cars that is cut off from the mainland by large limestone cliffs that are reminiscent of the geography in Guilin. The only way to reach Railay is by long boat from small seaside town of Ao Nang. It sounded perfect.

Beat from the Heat

We planned on spending two nights in Bangkok and then 5 days in Railay. Our flights landed late Friday night at Bangkok and we caught a taxi at the taxi stands into Bangkok. We stayed at the Grande Centre Point Ratchadmri Hotel, the hotel was nice, new and the room was comfortable. After room service we immediately went to sleep. The next day we set off to see the Grand Palace. We walked down the street to the Metropolitan Rapid Transit to catch a train west towards the Chao Phraya river which snakes through the middle of Bangkok. The first thing we noticed was how hot it was, we were quickly sweating in the hot humid temperatures coming from dry cool Beijing spring. The MRT was air-conditioned and was a quick ride and a very short walk to the river. Here we bought a round trip ticket on one of the many river ferries that hold several hundred people and travel north on the river past the Grand Palace before turning around and making the return trip. The hot air felt a bit better with a breeze from the river as we watched the long boats zoom by. We exited at the Grand Palace stop and made our way through the crowded markets next to the river. We stopped at a shop to buy pants for Miles and I, since there are strict requirements about entering temples and palaces : men are not allowed to wear shorts and women must not wear short skirts and sleeveless tops.

White Gloves and Pink Hats

I wish I could tell you how amazing it was to see the Palace, the place of residence of the King of Siam and Thailand since 1872 but just as we approached the gate we were informed that the palace was closed for a practice parade for an up coming ceremony. Sadly we turned away as a parade of soldiers dressed in a colorful array of finery marched by with big top hats and a marching band. After watching the parade disappear down the street Stac was in need of finding a restroom. Finding a bathroom in the buildings outside the Grand Palace is like trying to find a public restroom on the grounds outside the Whitehouse. There just isn’t any such place, and the streets and rows of official buildings seems to go on and on. As we walked first this way and then that, it kept getting hotter and hotter. The sun was beating down, the kids were complaining about needing water and things were growing more desperate. Finally Stac found an official military building that would let her use the bathroom and while we waited the kids threw themselves down on the grass under a tree in the shade to rest; Miles even took off his shirt he was so hot.

Wat Pho

Slightly recuperated we decided we’d try to salvage the outing by walking to the very close temple of Wat Pho to see the reclining Buddha. The temple seems pretty cool, but we actually didn’t do that much exploring due to the heat. I was slightly disappointed by the buddha because not only was it smaller than the reclining buddha in Yangon but it was also in a much smaller building with less space between the buddha and the exterior wall so it felt more crowded and didn’t give you a chance to really stand back and appreciate the statue. Afterwards everyone was over heated and down and we started our reverse journey of taking the river ferry and then a taxi back to our hotel.

That evening we met Stan at Taling Pling on Pan Road for dinner. Nga stayed home with their daughter Anise who wasn’t feeling well. We ate some delicious Thai food and chatted about old times. The next day we had a morning in Bangkok before heading out to the airport to fly to Krabi. I had grand plans of waking up early and seeing some of the floating markets but my alarm was set for 7pm and I woke late, so we slept in and packed and headed to the airport early. The flight to Krabi was a short hour and fifteen minutes. At the airport we caught a taxi to the city of Ao Nang which took around 45 minutes or so. The cab dropped us off at the end of road at the waterfront where we bought four tickets for a long boat and immediately walked onto the beach and climbed into the long boat with four other people headed for Railay.

Round the Horn

Railay is a peninsula that has 4 main areas (map). The first beach closest to Ao Nang, and the furthest west is Tonsai beach, it’s reputed that the beach is not that great, but there is lots of rock climbing. Further east around a set of rocks lies Railay West on the west side of the peninsula. There is a narrow strip of jungle between the other side of the peninsula which is known as Railay East. Railay West has a gorgeous beach flanked by tall cliffs and headlands and a set of hotels and restaurants that sit back off the beach on narrow fronts of beach, that then go back quite a ways into the jungle. Railay East has more hotels and bars but there is no beach only mud and a mangrove swamp. To the south or tail end of the peninsula is the smaller and even more dramatic Phra Nang beach. This is one of the most beautiful beaches in Thailand with gorgeous white sand, large trees, dramatic cliffs on either end and two small sea stack islands just off the beach. There is only one hotel at Phra Nang, Rayavadee, and it is very very pricey but sits tastefully back from the beach and you hardly notice its there.

Mr. Miles

We raced in our long boat over the blue water across the blue water, with big white clouds, blue sky, along dramatic cliff lines with white sandy beaches. We first stopped at Tonsai beach to drop off four of our passengers. Not really sure where we were (it’s not like there are signs announcing the beach names), we asked our boatsman if this was Railay West, he told us to wait. A few minutes down the beach we pulled up to a long beach that had several dozen long boats pulled up on the beach. We climbed out and grabbed our bags. There is no dock, so your climbing over the side of the boat and walking in the shallow water to the beach. We could see wheel tracks of other folks who’d brought traditional luggage, we slung our packs on our backs and walked up the beach away from the water. The hotels along the beach are set on narrow fronts of land off the beach under a canopy of trees. There are no large signs that blazingly display the resorts names, and the address meant nothing as there are no roads only sand. We walked up to one set of buildings and then another looking for our hotel : Railay Village Resort. Finding it we entered and retrieved our keys. The weather in Railay wasn’t quite as hot as Bangkok, but I was still impressed by the covered dress of our Muslim host as she filled out our paperwork.

Bubble Bath

Railay Village Resort has two pools, one near the front desk across from the restaurant. There are two style of rooms, a set of single level cabanas that are set along a walkway of jungle shrubs, trees and flowers. Further back is another long pool that is flanked by a long set of two story rooms. Our room had a large king bed and a couch where Sofi slept, we had an additional cot brought in for Miles. There was a large jetted tub and the kids quickly jumped in their swimming suits and filled it with bubbles and made a mountain of suds. Most everything we’d read online reported that Railay Village food wasn’t that great so we went next door for dinner and relaxed while watching the sunset.

Long Boats at Railay

The next morning I woke early and headed out in the dark in search of the trail that would take me up to the top of several of the karst cliffs that overlooked Railay West and East. I walked east across the narrow strip of land to Railay East and then south along the sidewalk above the mangroves and mud to where the “beach” ended and the headlands began. I found a mud trail with ropes that would be slick when wet and began climbing up. I reached the makes look out but this was only about halfway to the top of the karst and I kept on up a faint trail that climbed up through the limestone cliffs and small trees. Finally reaching the top I made my way through bamboo and thick brush towards the highest point. There is no defined top, only the tallest piece of limestone you can stand on top of. The limestone is a light gray color and has been carved and worn by rain into sharp spikes, a slip while not deadly would be very painful. A low marine haze prevented much of sunrise but The next morning I woke early and headed out in the dark in search of the trail that would take me up to the top of several of the karst cliffs that overlooked Railay West and East. I walked east across the narrow strip of land to Railay East and then south along the sidewalk above the mangroves and mud to where the “beach” ended and the headlands began. I found a mud trail with ropes that would be slick when wet and began climbing up. I reached the makes look out but this was only about halfway to the top of the karst and I kept on up a faint trail that climbed up through the limestone cliffs and small trees. Finally reaching the top I made my way through bamboo and thick brush towards the highest point. There is no defined top, only the tallest piece of limestone you can stand on top of. The limestone is a light gray color and has been carved and worn by rain into sharp spikes, a slip while not deadly would be very painful. A low marine haze prevented much of sunrise but I watched the sun crest over the clouds and waited until it lit up the cliffs at Railay West, after taking a few photos I descended and went back to have breakfast with the family.

Falling In

The rest of the day we hung out by the pool and then later that afternoon Sofi and I went rock climbing with an outfit back over on Railay East. We walked back to the cliffs where I’d been hiking the morning before. There was over a dozen fixed routes along the cliffs and the place was PACKED, wall to wall climbers, a bit of a zoo. Sofi climbed first and was her usual strong self, she’s getting better at climbing with her legs versus arms, I followed on a short route. After seeing her climb the guide put her on a route that was at least 60 feet high. Sofi had to wait for a couple of others to descend before climbing up, she got a bit tired near the top but made it all the way. The guide and several other rope crews were visibly impressed. The guides encouraged me to try the same route since we already had the rope, reluctantly I tied in and set off. I was able to make my way three quarter of the way before my arms were pumped and while attempted to push off on my right leg I extended my knee way inside and I felt something pop. I immediately descended and my right knee has been tender for the past 6 weeks. (I am seeing a physical therapist and biking instead of running and it’s slowly getting better).

Dark Horizon

That evening we had a great dinner of grilled fish and we watched a dramatic sunset as dark clouds gathered on the horizon and lightning lit up the sky in flashes of light that turned the clouds a dark purple. The color seemed to go on forever and forever. That evening I arranged with our hotels front desk to reserve a kayak for an early morning departure. The next morning I didn’t make it down to the desk until 5 and by then the dramatic sunrise morning sky was already started. By the time I paddled to the middle of the bay the show was almost over but I paddled on heading south and east around the point of the peninsula and past Phra Nang Beach and around the other side to the point of Railay East’s most furthest reaches. The ocean waters of this long bay are mostly protected from large waves and the paddling was easy. The tall cliffs rose over head with their orange hued limestone contrasting with the green foliage that hung miraculously to the vertical faces. On my return I paddled out around sea stacks and watched the large sea birds circle. Just past Phra Nang beach heading back to Railay West there were several sea caves and narrow places that I could paddle through, which added to the sense of adventure. The rest of the day was spent with Stac and the kids hanging out at the pool, jumping and playing in the water. We ate dinner at the market street which served burgers and had a great Pranang Curry. That evening I walked up the street and shops and stopped in at Phra Nang Divers. The owner had been in Thailand for 20 years and seemed beaten down by the experience, he was now only booking trips through dive shops out of Ao Nang. I booked a trip for me to go diving and the family to go snorkeling.

Aqua Marine

The next day Stac had a head cold, probably too much AC, and Miles didn’t want to go so Sofi and I set out for the boat trip.. We met a long boat at Railay West at 7:30 with another father and his grown son for the short boat ride to Ao Nang where we transferred to the much larger dive boat. We hung out while a couple of other groups and a pile of gear and air tanks were off loaded. We set out for the 90 minute ride out through the small islands, past PhiPhi Island (where The Beach was filmed) to the small island of Bida Nok and Bida Nai. There was another girl, Jeni, who’s boyfriend was diving and she was snorkeling, she agreed to be Sofi’s snorkel buddy while I went diving. We did two dives, the prettiest was the last at Bida Nok just off the backside of the island in crystal clear water. I loved the sensation of floating free under the water and even though I only seem to get around to diving once a year my air use was good I seem to be over the hump of remembering how to maintain a sense of calm and breath control. We laid out in the sun on the long ride back, eating watermelon and pineapple and chatting with our fellow divers. Our boat had a diving photographer along who makes his living by selling digital copies of photos he took of the dives. He had a sweet fish eye set up with an Olympus and two strobes and his photos turned out great.


That evening we decided to rent kayaks as a family and paddle out past the point to Phra Nang beach and watch the sunset. Stac paddled with Sofi and Miles paddled with me. The only problem was that by the time we set out the wind was kicking up some waves and it looked like some rain on the horizon. We managed to stay close to the shore and make it around the point to the beach when the rain started coming down. We pulled our kayaks up on the beach and played in the surf and crawled around under the rocks to stay out of the rain. There wasn’t going to be much of a sunset and we wanted to get back before it go too dark. After helping Stac into the kayak, her and Miles paddled five feet off shore and capsized. They picked themselves up and I helped them back in and we set out paddling back. Miles and I ducked in and out of the caves in the rain as we made our way back to Railay West. We hadn’t seen the sunset but we’d had fun.

Paddling Out

Our final day in Railay I arose early again with hopes to see the sunrise from Railay East. I walked to the “left” along the beach to the north east out among the mangrove trees to where there was actually a beach again. The sunrise was non existent but it was a nice walk about. The rest of the day we hung out at pool. In the afternoon we walked through the Diamond Cave and walked up the hill to “The Rock” restaurant were we enjoyed some fresh fruit juice and nice views of the water looking east. That night we packed up our bags and prepared for one last adventure in Krabi before flying back to Bangkok. We arose early and our hotel helped carry our luggage over to Railay West were we caught a Long Boat east to Krisda Village were we met a van and set off for a 30 minute drive to Sumate Loh Lanta Yai Safari to ride elephants. We climbed up to a small platform where Miles and Stac climbed into a seat strapped to the elephant, their Mahot rode in front of them on the elephants heard. Sofi and I rode in the elephant behind them. Our elephants walked up a steep jungle trail through a set of rubber trees. Elephants are truly amazing, they are the original four wheel drive vehicles, climbing the rocky trail with stability and ease. At times it felt like you would fall off or out as the elephant walked up over a rock, but we stayed put. We then walked down to the river where the elephants rested in the water and got a drink before heading back to the platform where we dismounted.

Elephant Trekking

We paid a small fee to buy several bunches of elephants and the kids fed the elephants their treats. We also walked over to see a small baby elephant before loading up in the van and heading back to Ao Nang. We had a few hours to kill before our flight out of Krabi so we hung out in the air conditioned Starbucks and surfed the internet. Our flight back to Bangkok was uneventful and we checked in at the Twin Towers Hotel, which sadly was a run down place, a couple of gaudy steps above a motel six. A thin facade of presentability over thread bare carpets and faux marble fixtures. That evening Sofi and I went out to dinner and a movie. We grabbed a Tuk Tuk outside our hotel, a motorcycle converted into a cab with lots of bright shiny lights and we headed for the Paragon Mall. Malls are not usually my thing, but everyone said the food court in this place was not to be missed. And I was impressed. Paragon Mall made it clear that Bangkok’s got it going on, their middle class capitalism was in full flourishment, it made Beijing seem a bit hollow in comparison. We walked past place after amazing eateries until we finally settled on Thai food. Afterwords we headed up to the top floor which was an amazing movie theater. Thailand movie theaters make any other theater you’ve seen look like dump. They had plush theaters, that had three different tiers of seating, the most expensive being a big soft comfy couch for two. There were six different kinds of popcorn and a special coke zero lounge. Pretty amazing. We bought tickets to see Hunger Games and even though I didn’t like it we had a good time.

Tuk Tuk in Bangkok

The next day we packed up and went to the airport. As we checked in at the counter the attendant called over a supervisor. Never a good sign. More time went by and lots of furious typing on the terminal. Come to find out the flight was oversold, we had no seats. They booked us first class on Thai Airlines from Bangkok to GuangZhou and then from GuangZhou to Beijing. This would add a couple of hours extra travel time but first class was nice. The rows had two seats per aisle and so Stac and I sat together and Miles and Sofi sat together. Each time the attendants brought them a new drink or a menu or food or blankets they made surprised exclamations of delight. It may never happen again, but for the few hours things were really nice. In the GuangZhou airport we landed in one terminal and we rode in mega-golf cart along a big long connecting hallway that felt like something out of a Sci Fi movie. As we walked down the terminal to our gate I was struck by all the clothing stores, they were brands that made an attempt to sound western and foreign but where just “off” and not quite right. (A topic for a future blog post). A flight to Beijing and we back home from another successful venture in the great Asia area.

More Info

Set on www.flickr.com

Video of Railay Beach
Video of playing in the pool

Categories: By Mark, photography, travel, travel outside of China | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments