Back to China: Yunnan Part Two

We felt rejuvenated after our hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge and continued on by mini-bus through Yunnan to the tiny village of Baishuitai. Literally translated, Baishuitai means “White Water Terraces”, and it was these terraces that drew us to this secluded part of China.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Terraces1.jpg” title=”Terraces” caption=”So secluded, in fact, that we were the only people there.” position=”center”]

The idyllic limestone terraces are formed by fresh mountain water that trickles down from Haba Mountain. Deposits from calcium bicarbonate in the water took form over millions of years, giving us the pale stepped landscape you see here.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Terraces2.jpg” title=”Terraces2″ caption=”We loved the wide open spaces.” position=”center”]

Somehow we missed the entrance to the terraces, which turned out to be immediately across the street from our guesthouse. As a result we tramped through a farmer’s field complete with cows, thorn bushes and plenty of patties. Our trespass did save us the entry fee, though. Even if the official pathway to the terraces is crumbling from neglect, the terraces themselves are spectacular and pristine. All in all an enjoyable side trip, although it’s definitely out of the way.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TerraceStairs.jpg” title=”Path to terraces” caption=”Make sure you don’t fall through the boards!” position=”center”]

From Baishuitai we braved one final 8 hour bus trip through some of the most beautiful and unforgiving countryside in China. Sadly, the complete lack of road maintenance prevented us from taking any photographs on this extremely bumpy ride.

Next up was Shangri-La. Described by author James Hilton in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon, Shangri-La has become synonymous with an earthly paradise. It conjures images of a Himalayan utopia — an isolated and permanently happy land where people live for hundreds of years.

[ptcPhoto filename=”ShangriLaStreet.jpg” title=”Shangri-La street” caption=”Is this town from Lost Horizon?” position=”center”]

The town itself is criss-crossed by hilly stone pathways leading to restaurants, stores with Tibetan jewelry and crafts, and the central square where locals and tourists dance every evening. Shangri-La is also home to the world’s largest prayer wheel. We were able to turn it with the help of about two dozen other people.

[ptcPhoto filename=”PrayerWheel1.jpg” title=”World’s largest prayer wheel” caption=”Turning the prayer wheel was one of our more memorable experiences.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”ShangriLaTemple.jpg” title=”Shangri-la Temple” caption=”The temple is nice if you can get up all those stairs at this altitude.” position=”center”]

We splurged one evening on a Tibetan hotpot, which is a hearty meal of yak meat and vegetables. Shangri-La also has a local brewery with very decent beers to wash it all down.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TibetanHotPot.jpg” title=”Hotpot” caption=”There is no shortage of yak in this area of China.” position=”center”]

Unfortunately, the reality is that this Shangri-La was so named for tourism purposes in 2001 and doesn’t quite live up to the paradise that Hilton described. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice place to visit. Western-style restaurants abound (at least in the touristy old town) and it’s quite clean and well maintained. But again, it lacked the authenticity were were searching for.

[ptcPhoto filename=”ShangriLaYak.jpg” title=”Shangri-La Yak” caption=”Anyone up for a yak ride?” position=”center”]

Will we ever find a true, untouristed Chinese town?? Stay tuned as next time we head further into the Himalayas in our quest to find authentic China!

Back to China: Yunnan Part One

[ptcPhoto filename=”YunnanProvinceMap.png” title=”Yunnan Province, China” caption=”Yunnan Province, China” position=”right”]

After spending a couple months in Japan and Taiwan, it was with some trepidation that we returned to the Middle Kingdom. So far China hadn’t been our favorite country but we hoped that visiting the Yunnan Province would change our minds. This two-part post will take you on our overland journey from Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, up though the Chinese tourist towns of Dali and Lijiang, on a two day hike through one of the largest gorges in the world, and on to the famous town of Shangri-La.

We touched down in Kunming without high expectations since it’s another large Chinese city. We were pleasantly surprised to find that Kunming is a relatively clean city to walk around with nice parks and friendly people.

[ptcPhoto filename=”KunmingGo.jpg” title=”Playing Go in the park” caption=”Playing a game of ‘Go’ in the park” position=”center”]

There aren’t any major tourist attractions there, but Kunming has some great temples if that’s your thing.

[ptcPhoto filename=”YuantongTemple.jpg” title=”Yuantong Temple” caption=”The Buddhist Yuantong Temple does not disappoint.” position=”center”]

Our favorite part was just walking around watching people go about their daily activities.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FacesOfKunming.jpg” title=”Playing music” caption=”A street performer in Kunming.” position=”center”]

You’ll see interesting characters everywhere you look. This man caught our eye as we left the temple.

[ptcPhoto filename=”KunmingMan.jpg” title=”Bearded man in Kunming” caption=”He nodded when we asked permission for a photo, but said nothing more.” position=”center”]

Huge groups of Chinese women dance in public parks for exercise and social time. Some of the choreography is quite good.

From Kunming we headed out to Dali on what would be the first of a great number of Chinese buses we’d be taking. There’s not a lot to say about Dali, nor the nearby town of Lijiang. Both are Chinese tourist ghettos and rather contrived. Every square foot is filled with tourist shops selling virtually the same products catering to the thousands of Chinese tourists filling their streets.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Lijiang1.jpg” title=”Lijiang” caption=”A busy shopping street in Lijiang.” position=”center”]

While pleasant, Dali and Lijiang lacked the authenticity we were looking for so we moved on after a few days. The trek up north was worth it when we arrived to Tiger Leaping Gorge, though. The Yangtze River (Asia’s longest) flows through it, and it’s up there with the largest gorges in the world. Climbing through the gorge takes two days and there are spectacular vistas around every turn. Best of all, the TLG is almost completely untouched by domestic tourism so it’s almost free of crowds and litter.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TLGView.jpg” title=”TLG” caption=”View of the Tiger Leaping Gorge.” position=”center”]

The trek is relatively easy with exception of the “28 Bends” near the start of the trail. Horses are available for hire if you’d like to relax on the way up.

Keep a keen eye and nose, and you’ll find some alternative options for relaxation.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TLGPot.jpg” title=”Lijiang” caption=”You can smell it as you approach.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”TLGSam.jpg” title=”Lijiang” caption=”Sam enjoying the view after the toughest part of the hike.” position=”center”]

If you’re making the trek, we highly recommend stopping at the Tea Horse Guesthouse after the Bends. They have decent rooms (with heated blankets!) for about $20 a night.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TLGLaundry.jpg” title=”Tea Horse Guest House” caption=”Not a bad view from our room.” position=”center”]

At the end of the trek we stopped at Tina’s to heat up some Japanese ramen we had stashed for a special occasion.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TLGWindows.jpg” title=”Tina’s guesthouse” caption=”Out the windows of Tina’s Guesthouse.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”TLGCat.jpg” title=”Cat” caption=”Annoying, filthy, but adorable kitten at the Tibet Guesthouse (much better than Tina’s).” position=”center”]

Read on next time as we finish our trip through Yunnan and start gaining elevation in the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau!

Snapshot Sunday: Meet Me Under the Clock

[ptcPhoto filename=”GCSClock.jpg” title=”Clock” caption=”The Clock in Grand Central Station – New York City, USA” position=”center”]

Celebrating its 100 year anniversary, the Grand Central Terminal Clock was built to commemorate the opening of the Grand Central Terminal. The clock, which adorns the station’s information booth, has been featured in numerous Hollywood movies. Due to the clock’s central location it has become a popular meeting place, resulting in the phrase Meet me under the clock.

Click here to view a larger, detailed image.

Climbing Mount Fuji

Fuji-san. The iconic active volcano we’ve all seen in photographs and movies looming over nearby Tokyo. It’s an irresistible setting to escape the megalopolis, and a considerable goal for those aspiring to reach its summit. Rising to 3,776 meters (12,380 feet), Mount Fuji is the tallest mountain in Japan and has been a sacred site in Shintoism since at least the 7th century.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiClouds.jpg” title=”Fuji Clouds” caption=”Up in the clouds” position=”center”]

Climbing Mount Fuji was one of two activities around which we organized the beginning of our trip, along with the ill-fated Elephant Festival in India. Our friend Jelmini joined us in Tokyo and climbed it too – although he’s much faster and seems to have sprinted to the top!

[ptcPhoto filename=”Fuji5th.jpg” title=”5th Station” caption=”All together at the 5th Station” position=”center”]

With over 200,000 people scaling Mount Fuji every year, this is an extremely popular activity with locals and tourists alike. But it shouldn’t be taken lightly and a number of preparations should be made to have the best experience. Here are some things we learned.

1. Plan Ahead!

Due to its terrain and high altitude climbing Mount Fuji is only possible during the summer months of July and August. Unfortunately, most of Japan is quite hot in the summer so there’s a trade-off between being able to hike the volcano or being comfortable when exploring the Japanese cities.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiView.jpg” title=”Fuji View” caption=”There wasn’t much of a view when we set out.” position=”center”]

Traditionally hikers aim to summit Fuji just before sunrise in order to witness the spectacular view – some have said it’s the most beautiful in all of Japan. Since the hike takes anywhere from 5-7 hours, this requires either getting a late start and hiking through the night or booking a guesthouse halfway up the mountain. While guesthouses are plentiful, they fill up early in the season. When Sam and I called to book a bed about a month in advance, we were told that all beds were reserved in every guesthouse for the entire season! Our only option was to hike through the night and try to make it to the top by sunrise.

2. Pick Your Route Carefully

There are four hiking routes to the summit of Mount Fuji – each with its own advantages and disadvantages – so you need to select the one that makes the most sense for you. Each trail is divided into a number of segments with stations marking the end of each section. Stations can be anything from a single hut with restroom facilities to small villages of guesthouses complete with restaurants and warming huts. Most stations offer a service where they will brand your walking stick with a unique stamp for around $2. Collecting a stamp at every station is a fun way to turn your walking stick into a great souvenir (and walking sticks are absolutely necessary for this hike).

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiBrand.jpg” title=”Brand” caption=”Branding at the 7th Station” position=”center”]

The Yoshida Trail is by far the most popular since it’s easily accessible from Tokyo and offers well equipped stations along the trail. The obvious disadvantage is that the trail can be quite crowded. The second-most popular route, and the one that we chose, is the Subashiri Trail. You can get to the 5th station (where most people begin) from Tokyo by taking two buses, but it takes some time. Most of the stations along the ascent have everything you need, and there are far fewer hikers than the Yoshida Trail. The two trails meet up at the 9th station, so you have to climb the last bit in a single-file line.

3. Come Prepared

Sam and I were woefully underprepared for our hike up Mount Fuji. We should have taken warmer clothing, and our P.O.S. headlamps gave very little light and completely died an hour into the hike. We hiked the remainder of the trail using only starlight and trail markers to guide our way. Luckily the trail is well marked with a white rope skirting the trail. Nevertheless, it was not the safest experience and Sam had difficulty even seeing the ground below her feet. This made our progress much slower than it otherwise would have been.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FurtherThanItSeems.jpg” title=”Subashiri” caption=”Further than it seems” position=”center”]

There are a few places where the trail markers disappear altogether, so at those points we had to use our intuition to decide which direction to go. This is harder than it sounds when the fog rolls in at exactly the wrong time.

Don’t be fooled by the extremely hot temperatures in Tokyo in August. The elevation and total exposure to the elements means you need to be prepared for very cold temperatures and the possibility of rain or snow as you hike the volcano.

4. Consider the Proverb

There’s an old proverb about Mount Fuji: “He who climbs Mount Fuji is a wise man; he who climbs twice is a fool”. The reason for this proverb is simple – this is a tough hike! With nearly 6,000 feet of elevation gain and a 26% grade, it’s more challenging than most hikes back home in Colorado.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiGrade.jpg” title=”Steep” caption=”Yeah, that’s steep.” position=”center”]

Being a volcano with the varied terrain of black ash and blacker ash, and considering the fact that we were climbing in almost complete darkness, there’s not a lot to see as you climb. We tried to pass the time playing “I spy..”, although everything was either black or white so the game didn’t entertain us for long.

5. You Can’t Control the Weather

Despite some brushes with exhaustion, nausea, and frozen fingers caused by the gain in altitude, we made it to the summit with time to spare. Unfortunately, by the time sunrise rolled in there was little to see from the peak other than a white abyss.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiSunrise.jpg” title=”Sunrise” caption=”Sunrise?” position=”center”]

We made the best of things by enjoying a nice bottle of sake we had brought with us to celebrate the occasion. Jelmini and I also took a stroll and peered into the crater.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiCrater.jpg” title=”Crater” caption=”But once again – not much to see!” position=”center”]

I even had the chance to enjoy some Garretts Popcorn at the peak that we had procured in Tokyo the night before.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiGarretts.jpg” title=”Garrett’s Popcorn” caption=”The best popcorn in the world.” position=”center”]

6. What Goes Up Must Come Down

After more than 24 hours without sleep and an overnight hike in the dark, we were more than a little tired when we started our descent. The first hour is pretty easy and sliding down the volcanic ash on the Subashiri Trail is fun at first. But then the fun stops. Truly, this was one of the most difficult physical things I have ever done. Going up was tough and tiring, but going down was an excruciating never-ending slog.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiScree1.jpg” title=”Brand” caption=”More Fuji landscape” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiScree2.jpg” title=”Brand” caption=”Sliding down through the scree” position=”center”]

By the end, we all sort of felt like this:

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiAftermath.jpg” title=”Aftermath” caption=”Time for some shut-eye.” position=”center”]

Even with all the frustrations, climbing Mount Fuji was one of the more rewarding accomplishments of the trip to date.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiGate.jpg” title=”Fuji gate” caption=”Tori gate at the top” position=”center”]

But unless they install a zip line down, I don’t think we’ll be doing it again any time soon!

Looking Back: India

Although we’ve been sharing a lot of our experiences from the road, there are so many details about the places we’re visiting that aren’t captured in articles specific to places or activities. We decided to start a new project, “Looking Back“, which will be a series of articles that address some of the random things we’ve learned about each place, including our overall impressions and favorite moments. Hopefully this will fill in some gaps for our readers and help us remember the unique aspects of each country before they start running together in our memory. World travel has a way of making the last city a blur, let alone things that happened months ago!

We’ve written a lot about India but at times it’s difficult to be completely honest about our experiences without sounding overly negative. India truly has a lot to offer the traveler who is willing to venture far outside his or her comfort zone. But before considering a trip to India the following should be kept in mind. (Note: Yes, there is some ranting below and yes, I realize no destination is perfect.)

India at a Glance

  • Gross National Income (GNI) Per Capita: $1,530 – Lower middle income
  • Our Daily Budget (for two people): $42.23
  • Size: 1,222,559 square miles (about one-third the size of the USA)
  • Population: 1.21 billion people (about 3 times the population of the USA)
  • Population Density: 954 people per square mile
  • Government Type: Constitutional Republic
  • Ranking on the Global Gender Gap Report: #105 of 135 countries surveyed, scoring very low in Political Empowerment and Economic Participation and Opportunity
  • What Did We Learn?

    Lodging

    There are many levels of hotels in India, but if you’re a budget traveler you can expect conditions a bit below what you may consider reasonable at home. Hot showers are luxuries that most budget hotels do not provide. Luckily, much of the year India is HOT and it’s hardly necessary to have a hot shower. In super-budget places the plumbing is often laughably bad with toilets that are barely operational and sinks that drain directly onto the floor. Electricity is available most of the time, although considering the quality of some electrical work we saw, a surge protector is probably a good investment. Cleanliness is variable but we rarely had issues with bugs and most linens and pillows fell under the “clean enough” category. If a place was questionable we just used our sleep sheets.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”KannurView.jpg” title=”Arabian Sea” caption=”For a few dollars more” position=”center”]

    As Sam discussed in our budget article, lodging in India can be extremely affordable if you don’t mind the issues mentioned above. Prices and quality do go up rather quickly if you want a more comfortable level of accommodation.

    People

    As travelers, most of the locals you deal with on a regular basis are hotel owners, shopkeepers, servers at restaurants, transportation workers, beggars, and scammers – many of whom have little interest in you outside of getting as much money as possible. Some of them have no issues with scamming you or charging you well above the going rate for their services, and they may bug you endlessly when you clearly have no intention of doing business with them. Needless to say, these relationships don’t last long.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”IndiaChild.jpg” title=”India Child” caption=”I made a new friend.” position=”center”]

    Most other people you come in contact with on a typical day are Indian men. As a man myself I am usually ignored, but Sam gets quite a bit of unwanted stares – and occasionally more, as Sam wrote about in her post describing our Holi experience.

    If you want to meet genuine people who want nothing from you, try striking up a conversation while taking public transportation. Many Indians were interested in learning all about us and were open with sharing their stories and photographs. They’re not afraid to ask questions about your religion and relationships that Westerners might consider personal. Sometimes they wouldn’t leave us alone because they wanted to keep the conversation going, but in general we really enjoyed these interactions. It can be difficult to know at first whether people are being genuinely nice, but this is something you have to deal with in any developing country you visit.

    Safety

    Those overly concerned with safety will probably want to skip India. Leaving your hotel room can be terrifying. It’s hard to feel safe walking down the road when you have to balance between looking up at what’s coming and looking down at what you’re stepping in. We witnessed a number of accidents, most notably when I was hit by a rickshaw on a crosswalk while crossing the street. Traffic laws are almost completely ignored. You’re sure to see stray cats, dogs, cows, and even monkeys that will sometimes attack without warning. You’re probably not much safer in your hotel room as there are no fire alarms anywhere, nor emergency exits, nor, from what we could tell, building codes of any sort.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”DelhiElephant.jpg” title=”Delhi elephant” caption=”It’s all fun and games until someone gets trampled.” position=”center”]

    The good news is that we don’t think food safety is as big of an issue as people often say. Sure, there’s a good chance you’ll get sick, but most food poisoning passes rather quickly. Drinking only bottled water and going to restaurants that have a lot of customers will go a long way in helping you avoid the worst. And your stomach will toughen up if you stay long enough.

    Costs

    Prices are very low by western standards. In most cities we spent less than $10 a night for a hotel and maybe $20 a day for food, and it certainly can be done for less if you are on a tighter budget. With that said, prices for everything are about double what was listed in our 2007 Lonely Planet guide book and the price of major attractions is comparatively high for foreigners. Nevertheless, this really is one of the least expensive countries to travel.

    Do be aware that prices are not fixed for anything except food and trains. If you want a good deal on gifts, clothing, hotel rooms, taxis or really anything else, be prepared to bargain hard for it. When purchasing things the best strategy we learned was to never show interest in the item you intend to buy, but rather one right next to it. Find a reason you can “settle” on the item you want if they’ll take less money for it. Bargaining isn’t so much about making sure both sides are happy with the deal (which almost never happens), but rather making it appear that you didn’t get exactly what you wanted. In the end, try not to be one of those people that bargains down to the last twenty cents. It’s easy to get caught up in the process, but we always try to keep in mind that our very presence in their country means we’re probably better off.

    Sights

    Hopefully we’ve covered enough of the sights and activities in our articles that there’s no doubt you won’t be bored here. From temples to beaches, India has it all, but some of the best experiences come from just watching people go about their daily lives. India is extremely colorful and is full of interesting characters.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”India576.jpg” title=”Udaipur Ghat” caption=”Along the river in Udaipur” position=”center”]

    Food

    In general food is very good and varied in India. If you need meat with every meal, you may run into problems since it’s not always available. But India does have some of the most flavorful vegetarian food in the world. Despite its reputation, we didn’t find the food extremely spicy (full of spices, yes, but not all that hot), but I’m sure some will disagree. You do need to go to more local restaurants if you want good food though. Without fail, food served in hotels and more touristy towns ranged from bad to awful.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”IndianFood.jpg” title=”Kochi meal” caption=”Mmm, we miss Indian food” position=”center”]

    Noise

    Yes, I’m giving noise it’s own heading. Trust me when I say it is well deserved. India is an extremely noisy place. I’ve mentioned this before, but there is an epidemic of horn use there. The video below is of a relatively uncrowded street in Jaipur. The traffic flow is interesting to say the least, but make sure you watch with the sound on. The constant sound of horns blaring is commonplace, as practically every road in India is like this. At first it’s humorous how people honk at everything and at nothing at all. Eventually it does get to you. On more than one occasion I found myself yelling at the drivers who felt it necessary to honk continuously and without cause as they passed.

    It’s not just the traffic noise though, Indians themselves are generally just very noisy people. There doesn’t seem to be a concept of an indoor voice. People shout even if you’re standing two feet away. There’s no concept of entering a train quietly at three in the morning.

    One of the last places we visited in India was a hotel that was known for its quiet gardens. We visited hoping to get away from noise for a few days. The owner told us that Indians often complain when they stay there because it’s too quiet. I suppose if you lived your whole life with constant noise, dead silence might be unsettling.

    Our Best Memory

    One of our favorite memories from India is the morning we woke up early and saw the ghats in Varanasi. That experience really can change your views on how interconnected we all are, as well as what constitutes beauty.

    Would We Return? (aka, What Did We Miss?)

    We would certainly return to India after some recovery time. This time we’d focus our travels on far southern India and the northern area near Pakistan and the Himalayas (if safe). We’d also take some cooking classes to gain a better understanding of regional Indian cuisine.

    Should You Go?

    This is not an easy question to answer. India is huge and is quite different from one region to another. The urban areas are usually dirty (on the verge of disgusting), loud (on the verge of mind-splitting), and overwhelming (on the verge…or rather…completely tear-inducing). But it has such beauty and charm it’s very hard to write it off completely. India is not a place for all travelers, but if you are strong enough, traveling there can be a very rewarding experience.