Decidedly urban couple who quit their jobs and successfully backpacked their way through Asia for a year. They met Buddha, drank baijiu and learned to master the squat toilet. Now appearing in a new life as ex-pats in Singapore.

Monthly archive November, 2010

At the top of the world in Litang

The grueling bus rides, the near death experiences and massive vehicular breakdowns were totally worth it. We reached the top of the world and walked back in time – a time of coyboys and indians, pioneers and loose labor laws.

Tibetan Cowboy!

Would this pass CA smog inspection?

Litang is home to gorgeous women with long colorfully braided hair and beautiful long aprons. They walk past you praying and twirling prayer wheels, on their way to the large monastery or the birthplace of the 7th Dali Lama. Tibetan coyboys with long black hair and amazing bone structure rage through town on their motorcycles or home-made tractors. And little children with runny noses and ruddy cheeks run after you waving peace signs and asking for photos. What’s not to love?

Gorgeous Tibetan Ladies

Tashi dele!

I found it to be the most colorful, vibrant, and soulful part of our trip so far.  While the government presence in Litang is very (VERY) visible, the local Tibetan population is permitted to live a traditional life style and practice their deeply felt Buddhist beliefs.

Monks near the Monastery

That said, it was DAMN COLD! Litang is nearly 2.5 miles above sea level (400 meters higher than Lhasa) and in November there is certainly a bite in the air.  We soon found that the entire city had no running water.  Our room was unheated and we were given a bucket of water in order to flush the toilet (guess how long it took to figure that out…)

Heat at the hostel - a stove and hot water

The big thing to do in Litang is to attend a sky burial – basically a local funeral.  It’s a macabre thing for a tourist to do and I wasn’t entirely certain that I wanted to attend. First the “cutter” deconstructs the dead body and mixes it with flour. Then vultures then fly from the top of the mountain to eat the remains of the body.  We arrived at 8:30 to find that no one had died recently. Reprieve!

The views from the sky burial site were stunning.

Prayer Flags in Litang

Prayer Flags in Litang

Vinnie in Litang

As the sun hit and the city began to warm up, we discovered why Litang is called the wild west.  Just walking back from the sky burial we ran into every manner of farm animal – pigs, yaks, chickens and dogs.  The animals meandered down the street right next to women in long gloves doing laundry crouched over a stream, or a huddled around a spicket. I could only sympathize with their cold hands and think to myself “Why bother!” The water was terribly polluted and it was so cold outside that clothes don’t get very smelly. (Take it from me: no running water means two more days of not showering or changing clothes.  The running total is now at 5 days.)

Laundry day in Litang

Carrying home the washing machine

Water for Laundry

We grabbed breakfast – fried dough and dumplings  – at a street market where a 14 year old boy made and delivered our food. Even the most banal meal was made interesting, all we had to do was look around. At the market we saw raw meat hanging next to vegetables.  Men were smoking and women were haggling over prices, wearing their hard won goods on their back in large bamboo baskets. Kids were working, or playing. Everyone thought it was perfectly normal to sit outside in 25 degree temperatures to work, eat and talk.

It truly felt like we had walked back in time to the early frontier days in Denver, Colorado.

Young boy making our dumplings

Market in Litang

Walking down the street

The Great Sichuan-Tibet Highway Adventure, Part II

I don’t have much faith in my sense of foreboding – I’m always wrong when it comes to omens. But if I did believe in prophetic images, perhaps the Yak ass sold outside the bus station would have indicated that my life was in grave danger and that getting on the unheated, broke-ass bus headed to Litang in the middle of November was a foolish idea.

Yak ass

The bus wasn’t the only thing in bad shape: the passengers appeared to be a motley crew of monks, cowboys and outlaws. And at 6:30 A.M as we pulled out of the station, the bus was already filled with cigarette smoke, discarded sunflower seeds and expectoration. Sitting alongside the driver was a window wiper, the man in charge of making sure the driver could see out the window.  Who needs working defrost?

Cowboy friend on the bus to Litang

As we set off straight up the snowy mountainside it became immediately apparent that we needed snowchains ASAP. Small cars and construction vehicles were stopped in the middle of the road, some had spun out of control and were stuck for good, others were still attempting to make the climb.

As the bus rolled to a stop, all the men jumped off the bus.  Naively I thought they were helping with the chains and prodded Vinnie to lend a hand. As he was standing to get off the bus we both noticed the men whip out their goods and started peeing. One even squatted in front of the lights.  This is how we learned about our bathroom situation (there won’t be one for another 12 hours). Vinnie sat right back down.

Once the chains were in place, we weaved in and around the stalled vehicles, making it to the top of the first peek. Dawn broke. I somehow fell asleep…

Road to Litang

…Only to be jolted awake as the chains hit the pothole ridden dirt road. I nearly flew out of the seat.

The bus ride was bordering on fun – we clung to the seat handle in front of us and held on for dear life, nearly enjoying the jolting, bucking ride. The sun was shining, the snow was melting, and we were driving though picturesque Tibetan mountain villages.

AND THEN THE BUS BROKE DOWN.

The rear wheel spring had detached from the frame of the bus.  It turns out that the window wiper doubled as a repair man, and we definitely needed him because as Vinnie tells it, this was a particularly serious break down. Happily we were close to a one-road town – a town that happened to have a working repair shop equipped with an arc welding machine.

The repair shop

The dejected window wiper/bus repair man

Breakdown!

Waiting out the bus breakdown

An hour later we were on our way, but had no idea how long the tire would stay in place. Frankly, we only worried about the tire for a brief period of time, the stellar view out the window provided more than enough of a distraction.

Gorgeous views on the way to Litang

The view from the bus

Of course, the view can only distract you for so long.  Soon we noticed that the road was completely covered in ice, and the 3,000 meter drop was not protected by a guardrail, but a string of prayer flags.

Guardrail on the Sichuan-Tibet Highway

The bus continued to climb and climb and climb.  Along the way we ran into spot of trouble where trucks had slid off the road, and cars were stranded in the middle of the hill. But our bus driver had the power of Buddha on this side – our seatmates, the Monks, chanted the entire ride. In addition to the Monks, the bus was filled with the sounds of Tibetan women singing keroke, cell phones blaring chinese/german techno and shrieks from me.

Those shrieks were well deserved, because the turns became sharper, the lanes icier and the bus driver more intent on making good time. I wrote  my obituary for a good two hours (it all goes into a college fund for my neice with the provision that she visit my remains in China).

This was hell, even for the most mild mannered person in the world. Even Vinnie had enough by the 10th hour. At hour 11 he was yelling at Monks and Tibetan ladies.  Twelve hours after we left Kanding, we pulled into Litang, the highest city in the world. By that point I didn’t even care that the jolting, the chanting and the kereoke were over, I simply wanted to know how the hell were we going to get down off of this mountain.

There was no way that my bruised, chapped ass could handle another bus ride.

Kangding-a-ling, welcome to Tibet!

Ok, so we’re not really in Tibet. We’re in Kangding, the capital of the Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan. At 2,600 meters above sea level, we can barely breathe and it’s DAMN COLD!

A river runs through it

We arrived just after sunset and were kindly led by some christian missionaries to a popular backpacking hostel, the Black Tent Guesthouse.  I had a pounding headache from the rough bus ride and all I wanted was a nice, hot shower. Silly girl.

The women's toilet at the Black Tent

The hostel was entirely unheated. The (uninsulated) windows in our room were covered with gorgeous Tibetan tapestry to trap the heat and keep out the wind. There was one shower and one women’s toilet that I has the misfortune to use in the middle of the night.

To stay warm we huddled around the electric burner in the common room and drank warm water. Notice that I didn’t say hot water. We’re so high in the mountains that the water doesn’t boil, it evaporates. Between the warm water and the heat from the burner we were moderately warm  — until the electricty went out!

We spent most of the evening hanging out in the dark with our absolutely stunning Tibetan guesthouse host. She sang for us and demonstrated the traditional Chinese workout dance that you see in every courtyard, in every town in China.

Although the experience was wonderful, we were literally freezing. It wasn’t just that you could see your breath as you spoke – my toes went numb in the middle of the night! The next day we decided to hunt down a warmer place to lie our heads.

Sleeping in all my clothes

As we were looking for warmer lodging, we ran into a local farmers market selling Yak meat and got totally lost in the hills overlooking Kangding. We ended up wandering around a hillside neighborhood, curiously peering in on people’s homes.

Lost in Kangding

This is not a cow

A neighborhood in Kangding

After a few hours of blindly wandering in the freezing cold, we finally found a good Tibetan place to settle in.  It was also unheated but the lovely Tibetan cowboy owner gave us his personal heater.  How amazing! We headed back out to see the town.  It was gorgeous, even if the sky was grey and the temperature hovered around 35 degrees.

Monastery in Kangding

Kangding, China

It's a Tibetan Disney Castle

The Tibetan influence in this town is clear – even to me.  In Kangding you can see women with colorfully braided hair carrying prayer beads, men with long flowing hair and cowboy hats and Buddhist monks chanting as they passed you on the street. Prayer flags hang from every surface imaginable and the mountains are decorated with Tibetan script and images of Buddha. Our pictures don’t do justice to  the beauty of the town.

Mountain in Kangding

Back at the Tibetan guesthouse, as we wore our winter jackets to bed for the second night in a row, it became clear that this jaunt out west is going to be a little more than we bargained for. We’re wearing several layers of our warmest clothes and haven’t changed in three days. It appears that hot water and indoor heating is a thing of the past.*

This is what I consider an adventure.

* If  you’re reading this and planning your trip to Western Sichuan in winter, you should stock up on hygiene wipes – they make a good impromptu shower.

The Great Sichuan-Tibet Highway Adventure, Part I

Let me clear up one thing, the word “highway” implies a certain level of road development. This post should rightly be called, “The Great Sichuan-Tibet Snow-Covered Dirt Road Death Sentence” because truly, that’s what this was.

The guide book said not to travel to Western Sichuan in winter.  Does mid-to-late November really count as winter?  Yes. It. Does.

While in Chengdu, we tried to make certain that the roads were passable.  All we heard it that it’s “very cold” but no one mentioned that the lack of guardrails or the fact that the road is actually an ice covered, single-lane path on the edge of a 9,000 foot cliff.  So we took the physical challenge.

The bus ride to Kangding took eight hours, it was a beautiful introduction to the Daxue Mountain range and the joy of riding in a smoke-filled bus that hasn’t seen a proper cleaning agent in 15 years. This proved to be the less dangerous part of the trip.

The nearly two lane road followed a gurgling river to the peek of each range and through the plateaus in between the endless mountain ridges. As we got to the top of one mountain, another would appear before us. And even though we were climbing several hundred vertical feet, we were never a far drop from the river. (This is an important part of my escape plan.  I always felt like I might survive if the bus flew off the road, straight into the water.)

Rope Bridge on the Sichuan-Tibet Hghwy

Rope Bridge on the Sichuan-Tibet Hghwy

We drove by tiny villages where I was surprised to find women carrying huge bundles of wood across the rickety foot bridges to their house that appeared to be all alone in the mountain forest. The scenery was gorgeous: waterfalls peeking out between the lush trees that stretched up into the sky.   There were huge construction projects where men were busy logging wood, hauling rocks and damming the river.

Top of a mountain on the way to Kanding

As we got higher the green vegetation gave way to rock.  Just tons of brown-grey rock. It felt like we were on top of the moon. The houses turned into even more massive construction sites with boulders of every size being crushed, hauled and moved away to create tunnels, bridges and god knows what else.

Chinese Construction Sign

Chinese Construction Sign

I’m sure you’re thinking, ‘this doesn’t look so dangerous!’ but I haven’t yet mentioned the actual bus ride.

In China you don’t just drive with your eyes, you drive with your ears. As we took blind hairpin turns high in the mountain, the driver would lay on his horn, warning incoming traffic that we were coming round the bend. Enormous construction vehicles careened straight towards our bus, just missing a head on collision. It was a professional game of chicken with screeching brakes and smoking skid marks (on the road).

This was some IRT Deadliest Roads action and we were shocked and thrilled to finally make it to Kangding…

And when we finally found a hostel, this is what it felt like inside:

Damn cold in Kangding
Damn cold in Kangding

Read Part II of the Great Sichuan Highway and our trip to Litang.

Pandamonium!

People in Chengdu love their Giant Pandas. How could you not – they’re known for being hungry, tired and socially reclusive. Just like me!

Kris and Pandas

The first night we arrived in Chengdu the hostel played ‘Kung Fu Panda.’  I wonder if the writers did any research at all about the lives of Pandas because I can tell you, after spending only one morning hanging out with these adorable beasts, that they are lazy as hell. They’re like the Romans, they eat lying down and then fall asleep anywhere they see fit.

Sleeping Panda at Chengdu Research and Breeding Centre

Panda sleeping in a tree

We woke up at the ass crack to hoof it to the Chengdu Research and Breeding Center. (The Sichuan province is the only remaining place where Pandas live in the wild, and the research base is the go-to place for Panda research.) The Pandas are fed around 9, so you have to be there early or you will miss the fun. We arrived on time right in the midst of a fog storm.  I say ‘fog storm’ because you could barely see the hand in front of your face, needless to say see the Panda’s feasting on bamboo.

Panda, Bamboo, Tree

Our driver/tour guide knew his way through the base and delivered us at the best places to get up close and personal with the Pandas.  We peered through the fog to “ohh” and “ahh” as the adolescent Giant Pandas sat munching on breakfast, the Red Pandas scampered around avoiding the cameras and adults Pandas slept though everything.  We even went to the nursery to see the itty-bitty babies. I loved it.

Red Pandas at Chengdu Research and Breeding Centre

Red Pandas

After the tour was complete, we were shown into a cafe and told to watch a video about the Panda base.  This was slightly odd – the video was in English and went into extreme details about Panda mating rituals (or reluctance to mate).  One notable scientific discovery was that electrocuting the male’s genitals did not work particularly well, instead they now massage the men to retrieve their sperm.  This took 10 years to discover.  It seemed fairly obvious to us in the audience that men would prefer massage over electrocution.

Also, stuffed Pandas are frightening.

Stuffed Panda at Chengdu Research and Breeding Centre

Frightening Stuffed Panda

This is my quick video of a panda eating bamboo.  Enjoy!

Brief Service Announcement from Southwestern China

We may be M.I.A. for a little while as we’re heading by bus along the Sichuan – Tibetan highway.   We’re currently in Kangding heading west, then  south along the Tibet border – we opted not to go for the insanely expensive tibet permit this trip.

We’re currently over a mile high in the mountains and we’ll be doubling that height tomorrow morning with a 10 hour busride to Litang.  Since we’re still in Sichuan, the food is spicy hot, but it now has a Tibetan vibe to it – Yak.

The views out the window so far have been spectacular and frightening – crazy turns on cliff edges and playing chicken with trucks bigger then us.  One truck coming down hill that was passing oncoming traffic was headed straight for us, our bus driver slammed on the breaks to a full stop and the oncoming truck couldn’t get into the other lane – it was full on it’s breaks, with smoke coming out of them and burn marks on the ground, at the last minute, the truck squeezed between us and the other oncoming vehicle with literally inches on each side, i thought we were on for a head on collision!

But now that we’ve arrived safely – some photos from Kangding

Chendiggy with it

Big Mao

We’re in Chengdu, home of the legendary giant panda, spicy hotpot, rabbit heads and a big Mao statue.   And we didn’t actually know about the rabbit heads until we arrived at the hostel, but take it from us, this delicacy is everywhere.

We thought Xi’an was a great place to relax.  Little did we know that our next stop, Chengdu, is known for the slow pace of life and tea house culture.  Southwest China knows how to take it easy, and we’re loving it. Staying at hostels have been awesome (can you believe it!? I’m shocked) and the one in Chengdu has been awesome. We’re touring panda reservations, biking around the city and eating more crazy food.

Hotpot

According to the book the one ‘must do’ in Chengdu is eat spicy hotpot. Remember the words of warning from Ben in Qingdao?  Well, I’m happy to report that the food is indeed spicy but we managed to hold it together. “Spicy” isn’t really the correct way of explaining Sichuan food.  There is a “la” flavor which means spicy and a “ma” flavor which means numb.  The ‘ma’ is what gets you.

Take a bite of the ‘ma’ berry and you’re done for – your mouth is numb for the entire meal. The pickled peppers at El Farolito are put to shame by spiciness of Sichuan ‘ma la’ combination.

Avoid the ma!

We went to a place recommended by our hostel staff – I wanted authenticity and man, did we get it. The menu was only in Chinese and the restaurant staff did not know what to do with us.  I’m getting used to this, so I jumped up and started going around the tables, pointing to what other people were eating.  I don’t know if they were horrified or in hysterics, but I was hurriedly led to the kitchen where to cooks took great joy in showing me every strange, exotic animal bit that you could think of.

One waitress wanted to make damn sure we ate this hotpot properly and hovered around us, pointing out what ingredient we should add next, even filling our bowls.

Helping the Laowei with spicy hotpost

My hot bowl

Here come’s Peter Cottontail

Hotpot isn’t the only food that Chengdu is known for.  Spicy rabbit head plays an important role in the ongoing “I actually ate that” campaign.  Vinnie tore into the cheeks, using the cranium as a spoon to eat the brain.  I watched.

Rabbit Head and Rabbit Teeth

Chow down

Old Skool Zhongguo

Yesterday we headed out to a remote ancient village, the guide from our hostel led us down a dirt path into what felt like a part of China that is quickly dissapearing.  The village only has a few old timers left, most of the young people have moved into the city and only return on holidays. I’m not sure anyone will be there much longer either, a huge highway project is currently underway and plans to run right through the village…

We happened upon a “teahouse” (really a shed) where the stooped, weathered diners jumped up to offer their seats.  The chef at the teahouse was excited to show off her bare bones kitchen, equipt with a huge wok but no electricity. We bought some cookies and chilled, enjoying the company of the locals.

Woking it in an old school Chinese kitchen

Old timer

Walking tour

What should I do with all these plastic bottles?

After wandering around people’s homes, we were led to the commercial area of town.  Because people had been living in this town for a thousand years, it had become a kind of tourist destination for urban Chinese people. If you’ve been to China, you know that this means dress-up shops, chincy souveniers and crazy entertainment like haunted houses and bumper cars.  It felt a little like a Niagra Falls. I’m still not sure what touring an ancient village and playing dress up have to do with each other, but it’s the thing to do!

Let's play dress up!

Chillin’ in Xi’an

It’s really hard to stop, to just put down your pack and stay in for one whole day. We managed to find the best chill-out hostel in the world (seriously, ranked 9th worldwide) and take a break in Xi’an.  It didn’t hurt that we were forced to stay put for 5 days while our visa extension was processed…

During our time at the hostel we met tons of interesting folks, and have chatted about where we’ve been and where we’re going. Most people have been to the same places in China, or are on their way to the same places, so it’s usually just getting to know you chatter. The best reaction I have ever received was from a crazy group of Chileans who were super impressed that we grabbed an empanada and a terramoto at Piojera in Santiago, Chile. This place was a little rough, but I don’t think it merited this reaction. We are the “#1 freak couple.”  I like this title.

At this point we’re in the grove of backpacking.  We’ve significantly lightened our packs, downgraded our definition of “dirty” and have been sleeping and eating in questionable locations.  I think it’s only going downhill from here and I’m sad to fully realize that mani pedis are a thing of the past.

I got my first chinese foot massage yesterday.  As I took of my hiking boots the Chinese masseuse shot me a universal look that said, “Gurrrlll, you’re gonna need more than a foot massage…”

In addition to hanging out at the hostel and getting massages, we managed to hit up one of the coolest archeology findings of the 20th century.

Eternally prepared for the battle

The Terracotta army was found by a farmer who was digging for a well, instead he discovered huge chambers of warriors ready to protect their emperor in the afterlife.  Peering into the huge pits at these ancient, slightly surreal, beautifully crafted warriors made me feel a bit like Lara Croft sans cool gun and requisite bad guy. Though the never ending tour groups could easily be considered pure evil.

Broken Warriors

More Terracotta pics here.

Is anyone watching this…

Because it cracks me up.  I’m CRYING.  I’m pretty sure most people have the same initial reaction to eating crazy food and dealing with squat toilets – they just hide it a little better.

Watch more here.

Where in the world?

Yesterday we  met up with our new Israeli friends and headed on a day trip to see Buddha. We will send a postcard to the first person who knows where in China this Buddha resides.  Use your google terms wisely and it will be the first search result.

It's Buddha

Ahh! Attack of the Buddha!

At any tourist destination there are hundreds and hundreds of people – mostly Chinese. Sometimes it feels like the appearance of us white people actually trumps the thing they’re there to see. As usual we were mobbed with requests for photos.

Buddha, who? There are White People here!

And sometimes the pure challenge of getting to the destination is actually more fun than the site itself.  We’re getting really good on taking long bus rides, jumping in packed minivans and calmly negotiating the crazy traffic situations.

This is what you call sitting bitch

Just a normal traffic situation

Hiking Hua Shan Mountain

Writing this from the top bunk of a hard sleeper on a K series train to Chengdu (which translates to a smoke-filled, slow moving train with many stops). After our first experience on the ‘hard seats’, we upgraded to ‘hard sleeper’ – still not the top of the line for sleeping, and there were no other train lines between Xi’an & Chengdu.  We couldn’t be further away from where we spent last night, except for the fact that I’m once again on the top bunk.

Yesterday morning we woke up bright and early for a trip out to Hua Shan mountain, about a 2 hour bus ride from Xi’an. Not a normal bus, we grabbed a mini bus full of Chinese people.  The two of us were squished into the backrow between a chinese person who’s obviously popular because his phone is ringing off the hook and he likes to talk loudly, and on the other side, we have a man we literally picked up on the side of a major highway, carrying a large rice bag (the preferred luggage choice in most train stations in china) that’s sitting quite comfortably on his lap.

We pass the country side and a few cooling towers of nuclear power plants.

Side Note: Kristine is next to me, we’re at the end of train car #8 and everybody likes to smoke between train cars (so right below us at the door), never mind the no smoking signs.  So our hard sleeper is a bit smoked filled, no matter how many glaring looks Kristine throws them.

Another Side Note (I write like Christopher Nolan of Inception,  so please keep up) – Human/Body language translates incredibly well between the west and China.  Thumbs up is still a thumbs up, and head shanking still translates to yes/no in the appropriate direction.  The one thing that throws us off in China is number counting on the fingers.  I typically start with my thumb for 1, then index for 2, etc.  In China, your pinky is 1, and by the time you get to 3, it looks like a big OK sign and that throws me off.  They count using one hand instead of two, so five is a fist, 6 is a hang ten, and 8 looks like a pistol.  Don’t mistake a big ‘X’ of ‘no-no’ using two index fingers, that’s just a 10!

Back to the original story

So we pull up to Hua village and they drop us off at a beat up Chinese restaurant.  Everybody gets off, so we follow.  They all go to the back, down a hallway, so we follow.  Soon we get to the ever so familiar smell, ahh, squat toilets.  After taking a leak, I come back out to the front of the restaurant and Kristine is playing Charades (I prefer Pictionary and draw little images in my notebook) with a local on a wall map to find out where we are now and where the mountain’s trail entrance starts.  A few mintues later, our course is set to due south (always travel with a compass).

Hua Shan Village and Mountain in China

Making our way towards the mountain, we here the famous chinese proverb, “Sir, sir, Water? Gloves? Good Price!”.  We previously read that gloves were needed on this mountain and we could buy them on the trail.  So after inquiiring how much, we say “Thank you” and walk away – that’s how you find out the real price in China. (One fellow Irish traveller recommended coming back with 10% of their asking price, and at first, I thought that was insane, but it has indeed proved true.)  We bought 2 pairs of mesh cotton gloves for 1Y (15c) each a little up the way.

We knew Hua Shan was a big hike, 5-8 hours the long way or about 2-3hrs if you cheated with the cable car.  But we read about he beautiful views and hermit caves carved into the mountain and we choose the longer scenic route. To our surprise every path was dotted with independent vendors every few hundred meters, water, apples, cucumbers, ramen, red bull, flash lights, and gloves.

Mid November is a bit of an off season for the mountain but it was still filled with hikers, some for a day trip halfway up, others for an overnight journey like ourselves.  It’s one of 5 sacred mountains in Taoism – which is also why I belive people lived on the mountain, even today:

House on Hua Shan, China

It felt a bit Princess Bride’ish with hermit caves litteraly carved into the side of the mountain and ladders hand carved into the rock.  Could you imagine living here all alone 200 years ago?

Hermit Cave in Hua Shan mountain

Sign for 'Hairy' women on Hua Shan mountain

The first 4km weren’t so bad, a little steep at parts, but nothing compared to the hoofing up some of San Francisco’s steeper hills.  Then it quickly changed to rock climbing, not full on, as there were hand carved stairs and chains – or as one blogger put it, “not dangerous but strenuous“.  It was an awesome challenge and we felt great all the way to the first peak at 6km.  It was full of challenges, but it was so fun, and unbelivible views – and we never had done anything like it before (remember, we’re “urban” hikers, not “hiker” hikers.)

Kristine on Hua Shan Mountain

vinnie on hua shan

Kristine on some steep Hua Shan stairs

vinnie on steep hua shen stairs

We were both impressed with how steep the climb was and needed to refuel. After the first peak, the North Peak, I had to engergize with some red bull, snickers, and a precooked packaged hot dog cooked in chile peppers.  Kristine had to turn on Lady Gaga to keep her spirits high (she also stated, “This is a sacred mountain” repeatedly to remind herself why we were doing this).

After ascending a bit more, the signs weren’t clear to us if we were heading to the correct peak, East Peak, as there are 5 peaks. We spotted another white couple and asked them.  They were headed to the same place, so we joined forces, they were an engaged couple from Isreal, he had 10 years of miliarty training behind him, so a good person to have on the ascent up.

We had hoped to catch the sunset from South peak, but had to settle with an obstructed view from another mountain peak – still, that was beautiful:

Sun Set behind South Peak on Hua Shan Mountain, China

After the sun set, I threw on my headlamp and we paired up with another couple, this one from Shanghai, China, and they spoke excellent english as well as chinese.

A strenuous 45 minutes later and we made it to the top though we could only see our feet in front of us, and the tempature changed from t-shirt & shorts weather to fleece lined jacket and thermals.  The last 2 hours of the climb was brutal for us but the views and other people were really motivating.

Vinnie climbing up stairs carved into the mountain

Beauitful view from Hua Shan

Our chinese friend booked our beds (he got the best possible price) and we shacked up in an unheated ten-bed dorm at the top of the mountain.  We grabbed some hot nooodles & pork soup from the cafe, lots more H20, then retired early with a handful of hot sipping water in our room.  (Funny to note is that through our travels through China we’ve taken a kind liking to cups of hot water).

Kristine tucking into the top bunk at the top of Hua Shan Mountain, Xi'an, China

We booth woke up at 12:30am fighting the urge to pee – it was damn cold and there was no indoor plumbing.  Walking out the door to the “outhouse” I realized it was freaking snowing!  It felt mother f’ing freezing in the unheated dorm, but I didn’t realize it was actually freezing!

Our alarms were all set for 6:30am to catch the sunrise.  The whole room woke up to each other’s shuffle, we booted up and packed up to head outside.  There was about an inch or two of snow on the ground and we carefully climb up steep icy stairs to rerach the viewing peak. Since we’re not “real” hikers, it didn’t dawn on us that you can’t see a surnise when it’s snowing out! Instead we saw the white sky brighten and called it a sunrise.

From there, we decide to start the trek down with our new friends, the Israelis.  The first 1km down is all snow and zero visiblity with slushy and slippery conditions:

Slush and snow on Hua Shan Mountain

Kristine & Vinnie at the top of Hua Shan East Peak

Winter on Hua Shan

Kristine and I opted out of hiking the full trek down (you can’t see much anyways) and snaged tickets for the cable car, which unfortunately didn’t provide us beautiful views because of the snow.  At least Kristine’s screams still made it exciting – she’s scared of heights, (don’t take that girl on a ferris wheel!)

Hua Shan Cable Car

We took a cable car to a tourist bus, to a taxi, to a mini bus (which made us wait 1 hour till all the seats were filled), drove 2 hours to Xi’an, then hopped on a public bus back to our hostel, Shuyuan – which btw, is the hands down best hostel I’ve every stayed at.  It has 2 bars, one filled with wealthy locals, and the other with travelers.  Super friendly staff, a dog, a cat, and now, 1 turtle.  I met a bunch of interesting folks, including Paul from Belgium, who is biking around the world!

We’ve been having a great time and maybe now we have earned the rights to our URL, ‘Urban Hikers’

See all of our Hua Shan photos here.

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Cut back to ‘now’: Now we’re on a 13 hour overnight train to Chengdu, it left at 10:18pm, and again, we find ourselves on the top bunks of another crazy adventure – the overcrowded, smoked filled, economy K series trains of China!

Beijing Highlights

We ended up spending nearly two weeks in Beijing, I don’t think we missed much. Of course we did all the proper tourist things – how could you not, they’re so accessible!  We ended up at Tianamen Square nearly every day as we zipped around checking out museums, shopping streets, and food markets. I think I have 100 pics of me n’ Mao.

In a country of contradictions, it felt like Beijing managed to tie everything together. It didn’t seem odd to be staying in an alley where most homes didn’t have indoor plumbing and grab a $5 taxi to check out the designer stores in the super posh Sanlitun shopping street. There was nearly a pattern to the rickshaw vs. Audi battle taking place on the city’s streets (or at least you could run across without being sideswiped by a silent electric scooter).

We loved all of Beijing, but here are our touristy highlights.

Forbidden City

In Seoul we checked out the Gyeongbokgung Palace.  One of our Korean friends made a point to say, “In Korea we had Kings, In China there were Emperors. Wait to see the Forbidden City.”  At the time I thought he was being humble.

The Forbidden City is stunning.  Standing at the Gate of Supreme Harmony, you can actually feel how massive and imposing the Chinese empire once was.

Urban Hikers at the Hall of Supreme Harmony

Vinnie at the Forbidden City

Kris at the Forbidden City

Summer Palace

When the Qing Emperors were feeling stifled by only having 179 acres in central Beijing, they escaped to their Summer Palace. How Manhattan of them…

The Summer Palace had some really cool stories and reconstructed buildings (most of the grounds were burned by the imperialist forces during Boxer Rebellion. Yes, this includes US troops). My favorite building was the Sea of Wisdom Temple where you could look out across the grounds all the way to downtown Beijing.

Vinnie loved the marble boat built by the famed Dowager Empress Cixi.  The story goes that Cixi built the boat with fund re-appropriated from the navy. Because the navy wasn’t able to successfully defeat the foreign powers during the Boxer Rebellion, foreigners were able to gain an even bigger foothold in China.  The Qing dynasty collapsed three years later!

Kris with a view of Beijing

Vinnie in the Long Corridor

Cixi's Marble Boat

The Great Wall

We did our homework and played this one right. Most folks head to the easily accessible Badaling section of the Great Wall.  I’m sure that the wall is still great over there, but it was recently restored and raging with tourists. Instead we headed to the less trafficked Jinshanling section built in the 16th century and hiked towards Simatai.

Wow.

This wasn’t a walk, it was a hike. Up a mountainside. On deteriorating brick stairs. Through crumbling watch towers. We were surrounded by gorgeous mountains, blue sky and that’s about it. Occasionally a vendor would jump out of the wall, “Beer, Water, Tee-shirt?” quickly followed by, “Ok, ok! Later?”

We passed a few tourists, some with our group, others walking the opposite direction, but basically we had the wall to ourselves. It was gorgeous, dare I say, a wonder.

Urban Hikers on the Great Wall

Vinnie and the wall

Spot the Urban HIker

Represent!

We went to many, many other places and took hundreds of pictures.  If you want to check them out, head to our flickr account. Apologies in advance for sideways videos!