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 December, 2010

Here’s to more stories in 2011!

Tonight we’ll be spending New Year’s Eve out in front of Taipei 101, the 2nd tallest building in the world with Stephen and his awesome friends.

There will be a dragon of fireworks climbing the building – can’t wait!

100 days and 21,159 km of traveling!

Last year’s show:

Taroko Gorgeous

Ilha Formosa. Beautiful Island. I swore those were the lyrics to some Madonna song but I was wrong; Formosa is the name the Portuguese gave to Taiwan as they sailed on past in the 16th century. I totally agree, this island is straight up stunning AND super easy to explore.

Longshan Temple

Saying some prayers for my Grandma at Longshan Temple

National Theater in Taipei

National Theater in Taipei

After a debauched week of endless nuits blanches, we dragged our quickly aging bodies out of bed and stumbled, possibly still drunk, to the train station. A week in Taipei had already softened our traveler’s edge, and something as backpacker basic as packing our bags felt us feeling exhausted rather than excited about our upcoming trip around the island.

Dolla Dolla Bills Y'all

But we had to go. Already my cousin Stephen was having back problems from sleeping on the couch and we were all beginning to feel the effects of too much fun and not enough sunlight.  With our heads full of rumors about tropical beaches and stunning scenery, we jumped on a high speed train and headed down the east coast (no K-series hard seat trains in Taiwan!)

Holy crap!

The east coast of Taiwan is simply breathtaking. Highway 11 runs straight down the Pacific coast, tightly hugging the jagged coast one one side and on the other, the forest mountains that happily made beach-front construction nearly impossible.  Our first stop on the east cost was Hualien where we immediately jumped on a bus to Taroko Gorge.

What a bus!  It couldn’t be further from what we suffered through on the way to Litang. And it was Free!

Bus to Taroko Gorge

A bus of a different color

Taroko Gorge is a wonderland of marble cliffs, massive stone boulders, and crystal clear turquoise water.  Most folks explore the gorge in tour buses, getting off to take a quick photo and jumping back on again.  How awful!

Homey don’t play that.

We jumped off at the first stop and stood there slack jawed, staring at the enormous canyon rising above our heads.  Our hike meander through the gorge led us through the tunnels and trails traditionally used by the Truku people. There are still a few Truku still living in the gorge, making their living selling handmade woven goods and fruity liquor. We happened upon a booming liquor stand 3 km into the hike, people were hiking in with cardboard boxes to carry the bottles home.

We walked all day, managing to see only a few of the amazing sites that Taroko has to offer. By the end of the hike our pallor had returned to normal, our eyes appeared less bloodshot and our standing heart rate managed to decline slightly.  I believe we managed to fully recover from the perfect storm that was a week in Taipei.

Note for those of you heading to the Gorge: Rent scooters. The bus is great but only comes once an hour to take you between hikes in the gorge.  A scooter will allow you to see more, without waiting.  No one told us this, but we would have been too hungover to manage to drive a scooter anyway.

Shankadang Trail, Taroko Gorge

Shankadang-a-doo Trail, Taroko Gorge

Big foot lives in Taroko Gorge

Big foot lives in Taroko Gorge

Swallow Grotto Trail, Taroko Gorge

Swallow Grotto Trail, Taroko Gorge

Swallow Grotto Trail, Taroko Gorge

Marble cliffs in Taroko Gorge

Lantern Explosion in Pingxi

Every Chinese New year there is a lantern festival in Pingxi, Taiwan.  Huge, person-sized lanterns are lit on fire and the heat sends hundreds of paper-mache lantern into the sky. I image it’s pretty beautiful. (Don’t ask where the burning wire lantern frame lands, I still haven’t figured that out.)

Pingxi Lantern Festival 2007 by sheng-fa lin

We have no plans to be anywhere near China during Chinese New Year as that would be my personal hell – a billion camera-happy people vacationing en masse led by screeching tour guides. But in Pingxi you can send a lantern wish at any time of year, so we seized our opportunity to send good wishes for the year of the Rabbit.

We send you our wishes!

First you buy the giant paper lantern and write wishes all over it. Then you head over to the (active) train tracks and send it into the air.  How many people can you wish for, really? Somewhere along the way I remember reading that it’s impossible to maintain more than 150 stable social relationships at one time. Honestly, I think I top out at 20 people, and couldn’t manage to fill up the entire lantern with enough wishes. (Hint:Write Big).

Well, the Chinese Lantern God must have been pissed that I didn’t send enough wishes into the air because the damn lantern blew up in my face.

(OK, we paid for fireworks and that’s what blew up. But the fuse was too short and they blew up on the ground.  Very dangerous stuff, this Lantern wishing!)

Taiwan is AWESOME!

If you had told me that Taiwan (TAIWAN!) is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, I would think that you had too much happy tea in Dali. Who knew such an island -one with marble canyons, palm trees and hot springs – exists just outside China? Who knew that there is an entire population of Han Chinese who eat delicious food but don’t scream or attempt to run you over with their scooter? Who knew that there was a city with beautiful temples, fabulous food and class-A hiking within the capital city.

WHO KNEW? And why didn’t you tell me?

Climbed this Mother! (Mother Loving Mountain)

We Climbed this Mother! (Mother Loving Mountain)

Ok, there are a lot more words that I want to say about Taiwan, but I’m too worked up with sheer surprise and utter delight.

Perhaps we spent too long in China? Maybe the emotional toll of internet starvation and the physical strain of avoiding death by scooter was just too much.  Could it be that I had forgotten the wonders of a fully developed, democratic country?

Ya! I love Taiwan!

As we were boarding the airplane in Kunming, China, an older gentleman cut in front of us while screaming into phone, “WEI!” Landing in Taiwan the world felt a little different -a little calmer, more orgainzed, less frantic. I couldn’t put my finger on the exact difference until we were on the airport shuttle bus.  A phone rings, a man answers and in a sexy low timbre says, “Wei-baby.”

These people are STANDING in LINE!!!

OK, so it’s not just the people (whose kindess is legendary), it’s also the sheer amount of things to do and delicious food to put in my mouth. In one week we managed to drink our weight in beer, hit up a night market, binge at TWO all you can eat/all you can drink venues, get our Gaga on at KTV and hike a gorgeous mountain.

It could help that we’re staying with my cousin Stephen (the one who slept in the woods after partying with us in Korea) and he’s a faaabulous host.  Not only do we have his huge queen size bed and soft fluffy pillows, we have also been adopted by his crew. This country is AH-mazing!

Welcome to Taiwan!

Stephen's Crew of Cool Dudes

Don’t say goodbye, say see you again.

As we got on the plane we geared up for our final transportation battle, here’s what we expected:

There would be a olympic-grade race for the gate culminating in a series of shoves, pushes and elbows to be the first to enter the plane. Once embarking the plane, there would be someone sitting in our seats, covertly attempting to smoke their cigarette, or spit seeds on the floor. The woman behind us will receive a call on her cell and shrilly scream “WEI!” as if the person on the other end were deaf. And there would be bags upon bags of red and white striped rice bags being used as luggage.

The scene we expected

Surprisingly, this didn’t happen, or just maybe we learned how to deal with the crazy.

There was a rush for the gate with full out sprinting and elbows to the head to ensure first place. But we managed to avoid it. The cell phone conversation was had by a man, and not a women (that doesn’t mean there was no screaming). And wonder upon all wonders, there were no rice bags used as luggage- they were replaced by cardboard boxes.

Entering the plane we could only laugh at what we know now, at the predictable series of events that we brace ourselves for on a daily basis. From the daily game of charades, the incomprehensible shrill staccato conversations, the squatters, the cigarettes, the smog, the double twin beds, the fellow travelers, the crap internet, the noodles, and the occasional odd piece of meat.  Through it all we’ve learned a little about ourselves and the country that is reportedly poised to take over the world.

Village life in China

I learned that modernity is not always beautiful thing and it shouldn’t come at the expense of history. In China there is a palpable feeling that this is a country on the move – but the move from where and to where is not entirely clear. Every city seemed to want to copy the success of Shanghai and without giving much thought to the external factors that make a modern city successful, they tear down the old and paste in the skyscrapers, business men and stores. As tourists, it became increasingly difficult to find the historically unique aspects to each city as they were being eaten up with the same expensive box chains and luxury stores of the future.

I don’t say this to romanticize the poverty of subsistence farming, or undervalue the massive success of what has been thirty years of economic reform. I’m simply surprised at how modern China has paved over millennia of history.

Smog city, anywhere China

Life in China is cheap, but goods and services aren’t. Everyone of those new name-brand stores are over-employed with bored looking, highly styled men and women who have nothing to do because the high price of the goods keeps the customers away. It’s not just the stores that are full of employees, everywhere you look there are tiny hole in the wall stores manned by little old ladies with raisin faces who are selling poorly made The North Face knockoffs or camouflage army surplus gear. Next door there is a shriveled old man selling the same thing, and so on down the street. One street after another full of stores – the big ones selling crap that people can’t buy and the small ones all selling the things that people can actually afford.

In the United States, people love the expression, “work hard, play hard” but in China the expression should be “work hard, work harder.” Leisure activities are for the financially successful and the huge majority of the country just isn’t there yet. Instead, people work all day – everyday. Temporary houses are set up near constructions sites where hundreds of hard hat-less men pound out projects in days rather than months. Homes are torn down and new buildings appear in weeks. The sidewalks are being built as you walk on top of them.

Temporary dorms next to construction site

China is full of hard working, cheap labor and it’s impossible not to see this as a tourist. On every train sit thousands of migrant workers heading back home carrying rice bags of clothes and mop buckets full of Baiju. In the cities wide-eyed people in cheap, ill-fitting clothes take instructions from subway workers on how to buy a ticket, and how to ride the metro – for thousands of people (perhaps millions) the World Expo was their first time outside of their small village.

It’s amazing to see how quickly China is being built and to see the huge adjustment from farm workers to city dwellers. I’m thrilled to have been witness to the insanity and breakneck speed that life is moving in China, but man, I’m tired.

China has been the great equalizer: all foreigners are foreign no matter if your French, American, Chilean or South African. We met friends from around the world and we all had one thing in common – culture shock. Never have I seen Vinnie lose his shit the way he did on the bus to Litang. He actually yelled at Monks! Never have I felt more frustrated when trying to understand just why the peanuts that I was pointing to were “mei yo” or “don’t have.” (How can you not have them, you’re holding them in your freaking HAND!)

All people traveling to China have to learn that things won’t happen the way you have come to expect. Don’t try to sell the idea of baby diapers when going in the street is just as easy, and cheaper!  Don’t attempt to explain that driving at night with the lights ON is a safe idea, when driving with the lights off saves electricity. Why should you expect to buy a train ticket online, when everyone knows you have to go to the train station three days in advance to book your trip.  It’s just the way it’s done. China has created it’s own rules and you’re expected to figure them out, whether they make sense or not.

China, no diapers

Diapers? No need!

By the end of these two months, we were just beginning to figure out those rules. Part of me feels like we should stay longer, join in on the frantic pace of modernization and take advantage of all the obvious opportunity that China has to offer. The other part of me is simply spent. It takes a lot of energy to keep up with China and I’m ready for a vacation!

One thing that I’m sure of is that I will be back to China and by the time I do,  I’m sure it will be a completely different country.

Fa ra ra! Happy Holidays!

Urban Hikers Christmas Card

Vinnie’s look back on China – Part II of II [Politics]

communism.jpg

Communism

Some of my thoughts before arriving at China was that of a communist state.  There is just one political party, the Communist Party of China (CPC/CCP).  I knew there was a mix of capitalism thrown in, but I didn’t know what that would feel like.  Walking down the streets of Shanghai, we visited the building where the CCP first convened with Mao heading the round table – if the “veil” of communism wasn’t appearent to us before visiting, then the Jaguar dealership 2 blocks away, the yuppie high-rises across the street, and the Chinese people sporting Nike ‘Just Do It’ t-shirts in the building that birthed the CCP definitely showed us just how transparent the veil is.

The political atmosphere in China feels more like it’s a large corporation – China, Inc. Everyone is behind the brand – speaking out about it might get you fired, and you’re pretty content as long as you’re A) getting promoted and B) your salary increases each year.  Maybe that’s the sweetest thing for a large multinational corporation –  instead of multiple international conglomerates, they’re alll owned and controlled by one entity, who also sets the laws.  But I now have a clearer understanding of why the Party really wants to starve off inflation (forgot decreasing exports) – if prices rise to fast and the majority of the population is left struggling to afford the basics, you’ll get angry mobs (which sounds familiar back home).

However, I absolutely adore the old Communist Propaganda, from our tin mug with a worker’s message, to my Mao bag, to my CCP hat.  Beijing had lots of this, from public statues and museums, to hip little resturants sporting 1960’s posters and military dishware.   Before my visit, I was pretty ignorant on the past 50 years of Chinese politics.  But my curioustty took over and I was fascinated with reading up on the history of China and it’s neighbors.  I’m really glad I did and I *highly* recommend reading Wild Swans.

After reading the horror stories of how communism came into power in China, with the red guards, the cultural revolution, and a number of other atrocities.  Along with my vague awareness of communist systems in other parts of the world (former USSR, North Korea), I’m led to belive that communism only leads to corruption and brings out the worst in people.  I’ll be adding Karl Marx to my Kindle readings.

The irony is that communism continues to be pushed forward in China. We met young card carriers and non-card carriers.  But most people pointed out to us, that if you want a good career, i.e. a government job with great secondary benefits, power, and respect, then you’ll need to be a card carrying member, attend the meetings, and repeat the mantras.  And so the party continues to propel itself forward.

capatilism in the ccp.jpg

Capitalism in the CCP

Capitalism is alive and *booming* in China.  There is a free spirt for anybody to setup shop on the corner and hock some goods or delicious street food.  If anything, it would seem easier to setup your on stall in China then the U.S. because most U.S. cities are burdened with permits, food inspections, etc.  However, the one thing that stuck out to me in China, is that when you walk down a street of stalls, everybody copies each other, there was very little differentiation.  Why would I choose one vendor over another?  The goods are exactly the same, the price is the same, so where’s the differenation?  In nyc walking down the street, you might seen t-shirt vendors, hat vendors, sunglass vendors, etc.  But they don’t oversaturate each other and all sell exactly the same things.

There are lots of high end fashion stores in China, catering to the small percentage of upper middle class and foreigners.  However, many of the shops sit empty most of the day.  I think the costs for running the store and paying rent is met on the slim revenues.  I didn’t see the capitalist  ‘consumer’ demand we’re so used to in the US (however, Walmart in China is just as packed if not more, than Walmart in the U.S.)

censorship in china.jpg

Censorship

One thing I really did not enjoyed in China was the internet censorship.  It’s ridiculous, backwards, and ineffective.  China blocks any service that allows one person to communicate with many people (which the government cannot directly control).  And while they allow a number of Chinese run forums, blogs, and twitter-like services to be run inside of the country, the government has direct control to censor and remove specific data or profiles (something that western websites will not allow).  It’s why they block foreign services such as facebook, twitter, blogger, wordpress, tumblr, youtube, meetup, etc. yet allow Chinese versions of these companies to be used.

The wikileak’s U.S. cables release wasn’t even’t mentioned on the news in China.  A search on China Daily just returns information about Julian Assanage.  I think the concept of wikileaks really scares the Chinese  government.  And to make matters worse, they blatently lie publically about their censorship, such as Liu Zhengrong, the Deputy Chief of Internet Affairs quoted as saying: China is no different from Western nations such as the United States and Britain in the methods it uses to regulate the Internet” – really, then why has the viral quote “My father is Li Gang!” mouthed by his intoxicated son after killing a girl with his VW sedan been censored from Chinese forums?

Or tell the Deputy Chief’s statement of: “You can compare China with Western countries. Chinese people have easy rein to express their opinions” to Zhao Lianhai, the father of an infant who died from contaminated milk who tried to raise awareness via online communities and has been recently jailed for “inciting social disorder”.

Another great example of this insane paranoia on speech – Liu Xiaobo, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize recipient.  Liu’s an author and a political activist, he co-wrote Charter 8 for free elections, freedom of expression, and a democracy inside of China.  Where is he now?  In jail.  What does the CCP’s Foreign Ministry think of the Nobel Prize committee? “The erroneous decision not only has met with firm opposition by the entire Chinese nation, but is dismissed by the vast majority of countries upholding justice in the world.”  And so they’ve decided to start their own, “Confusius Peace Prize” it sounds like a joke but it’s not.  They even went so far as to strong arm other countries to boycott the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony this year.  To me, that level of paranoia and belief that you can control worldwide information is borderline insane, it’s not sustainable and it will have a breaking point.

After reading Wild Swans and seeing the smirking portrait of Mao looming over Tianmen Square, my impression of Chinese politics really soured.  It is my belief that in 20 years, his portrait will be taken down from Tianamen Square.  With so many students of the younger generation studying oversees, I can only imagine that when they return to China, they will want to shed the politics of control and censorship and turn a new leaf.  Currently there is apathy, we found that most people we talked to didn’t buy into the CCP or the need for censorship, but the idea of it just led to a shrug of the shoulders.  So my big curiosity – what’s going to lead to that change?


Read Part I of my look back at China.

Vinnie’s look back on China – Part I of II [Culture]

China is an adventure!  For me, China has been a story filled with amazing images, new ideas, fascinating history, interesting people, and a number of frustrations that are part of any exciting adventure.

We’ve spent slightly less than 2 months exploring China, traveling through a dozen cities and a handful of provinces.  China is a big country – although the same size as the US, there is a distinct flavor to each province, from culture, to people, to food and unique traditions – making it feel huge.

When we first arrived, it was a real slap in the face of east vs. west, modern vs. not so modern.  For a country that is jumping by leaps and bounds to the front of the world stage, this came as quite a surprise to me. In hindsight, I don’t know if Shanghai was the best starting point, nor very representative of greater China.  However, from talking to fellow western travelers, it almost seems as if the city you visit first in china is your least liked city – as nothing fits within your expectations.

The ‘Middle Kingdom’ (as it is better known) really places you in the middle of different social behaviors.  You’ll encounter rude people and you’ll encounter the warmest hosts.  You’ll get frustrated at the elderly old man with a cane cutting dozens of people in line while laughing… just to be dumbfounded with humbleness when a young stranger comes up to you speaking english and offers to help you buy your train ticket (as they can see you struggling).

And then you’ll visit the outskirts of small villages, with locals washing their clothes on the sidewalk who also know how to work an iphone and want to see pictures of your trip around China.

China can be a Delorian trip a few hundred years into the past, while other areas can feel as if 300 years have been fast forwarded in less than a decade.  So not only is there an east vs. west culture clash, but there’s also a 18th century rural vs. modern/urban cultural clash.  This really plays out in the cities, with a mix of young urbanites and migrant workers who come in to the cities to build and support the infrastructure.  As China-Mike points out, there is a Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde of Chinese etiquette, the past century in China has gone through a lot: from political clashes, to wars, to the Cultural Revolution, so one minute you’re getting elbowed out of a ticket line, and the next you’re being treated to a full dinner by a gracious Chinese host.

I find it difficult to lump a story of the whole kingdom into one post.  It’s impossible to compare the hip cultural urban lifestyle of Beijing with the beautiful scenic mountains and lush gorges of the southwest.  So I’ll just highlight a few of my favorite experiences.

Beijing

Beijing is awesome, it’s China, it’s international, it’s young, it’s hip, and it kinda reminded me of NYC.  We got a chance to catch some live music shows, feast on Peking duck, tour the iconic Tiananmen Square, and visit one of the Seven Wonders of the World – The Great Wall.  It’s the one city in China that I really felt like I could live there.

Beijing Hua Acid Jazz.jpg

Pictured above: Hua Acid Jazz Live.  Read more of Beijing Highlights.

Hua Shan

Hike 2km straight up, and stay overnight at the top of the mountain.  The hike is intense, the cliffs are strenuous, and the hobbit caves in the side of the mountain make you think you’re in ‘The Prince Bride’ movie.

Hua Shan-1.jpg

Read more on hiking Hua Shan.

Chengdu

A great city with a great mix of culture and smack in the middle of some of the spiciest food on earth in Sichuan province.  The city seemed to encompass a lot of China’s different aspects into one place.  From a nearby ‘old village’, to a modern city with bustling construction, to food markets with livestock running around, to a incredibly large statue of Mao – Chengdu has it all mixed into one.  The free tours at Lazybones/Mix Hostel helped us experience more then we would have on our own.

Chengduu.jpg

Read more on getting Chengiggy with it.

The Chinese Railways

Train rides in China can be 300km maglevs that zip you to your destination in minutes, to overcrowded K series trains – with the air filled with cigarette smoke and the floor covered with sunflower seeds.  Both are unique experiences and both provide amazing views of the country.  By far my preferred method of travel around China, the only draw back is typically you have to buy tickets 1-2 days in advance, in person! (hello, internet?)

China Railways.jpg

View more photos of the country side out our train windows.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

A 3 day hike through a beautiful gorge, green farms on one side, snow capped mountain peaks on the other.  With over 2km of vertically hiking to the roaring river floor, it’s strenuous and gorgeous.  I strongly recommend spending at least one night at Sean’s Guest House for the full experience.

Tiger Leaping Gorge.jpg

Read our posts on hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Litang

Literally at the top of the world, over 4km above sea level, there is no higher city in the world.  The multi-day bus trip is beautiful and nothing like I’ve ever seen before – I was glued to my bus window.  The town will take you back to the wild west with cowboys strutting down the sidewalk and cattle crossing the street.  The winter wasn’t the optimal time to visit, but I’ll never forgot the feeling of zipping around icy one lane cliffs in our bus.

Litang.jpg

Read about our trip on the Sichuan Tibet Highway to Litang.

Other memories I’ll take away:

  • On two occasions, we saw police offers grab somebody by the lower ear lobe and drag them around because they caused some trouble or harassment.  That’ll put you in your place!
  • I now know why no transit employees enforce the no smoking signs posted on trains & buses – there is only one tobacco company for all of china (which is sold under dozens of brands) and it is owned by the government. Think about how much money that is! Chinia is 30% of al the worlds smokers! Phillip Morris can only dream of that much money.
  • 95% of Chinese people have never heard of a queue!

My next post will cover my personal perspective of Chinese Politics.

p.s. I’d also liked to give a big ‘Thank You’ to Bonnie Wang who helped us so much with planning our travels around China and for introducing us to friends and family around the country.

Hello Dali!

We were warned. We were told that we would never want to leave, we heard tales about people lost in time, spending endless days in the sun and drunken nights at the Bad Monkey. But we chose to ignore those warnings and proceeded to Dali, and now we know why people love Yunnan. It is the Capital of Chill in China (which is saying a lot because China is NOT Chill).

Dali is sandwiched between a tall mountain and a huge lake.  The sky is always blue and even in the beginning of winter, there is no need for a jacket. I don’t actually know what we did in Dali, a lot of nothing for sure. We wandered the cobble streets, ducked into delicious dumpling stores and grabbed fresh pizza made by the local Bai people.  We learned new drinking games and drank copious amounts of plum wine. We biked around neighboring villages and  hiked the mountain trail.

Everything in Dali seemed to move a little slower, the food tasted a little better, and the beer – well, there is always plenty of beer to drink in Dali (particularly with our new friends like ours – the Italian, the Englishman, the Irish guy and the Aussie.)

I don’t have a lot to say, other than I loved this city.  We cut the rest of our trip short, just to stay a little longer. Maybe you can see why when you look at the pictures:

Vinnie and the Naxi’s

And from Tiger Leaping Gorge we began our descent south, spending our last week in China doing what we hadn’t done in two months – relaxing. This doesn’t mean that we were out of the mountains or that we had heat (Lijang is 2,400 above sea level), but all of this was forgotten when we met some excellent friends and enjoyed what Yunnan has to offer.

Litang is a gorgeous, ancient town overrun with Chinese tourists. What a shit show. Naxi women, who are known for their strength and matriarchal family structure, dress up in disneyland ‘ethnic minority’ costumes and show off their traditional skills of weaving and waving tourists.  Men on horses and fur hats paraded around town selling horse rides and photo ops.  Seeing how tourism impacts China’s minorities is always depressing, but Lijang is the worst.

Very authentic pony rides

The real example of the Naxi people (Na-she) was the owner of our hostel, Mama Naxi. The woman never took off her apron, never put down her mop – she even washed her hair in the outdoor sink in between chores. And in traditional Naxi style, her husband sat on his ass and played solitaire all day. As we were leaving Mama presented us with necklaces and gave hugs and kisses.  After kissing Vinnie she grabbed his beard, “Ma-arsh!” she exclaimed.

We had no idea what the woman was saying.

“Ma-arsh, Ma-arsh!” she continued to shout while stroking Vinnie’s beard. She pointed to the wall and with giant sweeping arm movements made a square, “Ma-arsh!”

In garbled Chinese-English she explained that years ago there were four important men in China: Leee-neen, Ma-arsh, Sta-leen and Mao. In every village there were huge paintings of these four men and now it appears that Vinnie and his beard closely resemble german philospher and communist revolutionary, Karl Heinrich Marx.

Vinnie and Karl Marx

Lijang is worth the trip if only to stay at Moma’s and enjoy her unique brand of Naxi love.

Moma Naxi guesthouse

Moma Naxi and Karl Marx

The Tiger has Leapt the Gorge

After such an extreme introduction to the gorge, I was happy to find that our accommodations for the evening was well stocked with cold beer.  Though when drinking a lot of beer, you often have to go to the bathroom.  This was the view from the toilet – while it wasn’t exactly outside, I’m fairly certain that a nearby farmer could hear me pee:

View from the squatter

The next day we picked up a few friends and started down Tiger Leaping Gorge.  This is the day when we met one of the most interesting men in the whole world and picnicked on the rock from which the Tiger leapt.

The hike down the gorge was less strenuous and a lot more dangerous thanks in part to creaky old wooden ladders and waterfalls that had wiped out the trail. Thank God we broke into that mountainside temple and said a few prayers for safe travel.

Prayer flags on the trail

To get to the gorge you have to pay off local families who have blocked the passage to the trail.  Every 30 meters there was another sign explaining that the government had abandoned the gorge and that the lovely local families had graciously begun to maintain the trail. By ‘maintain the trail’ what they really mean is nail together wood beams and call it a toll bridge.  The Chinese don’t seem to be overly concerned with small things like safety regulations or general admittance to public parks.

Very well maintained trail at TLG

Fellow tourists, you must pay!

There is no official map of the gorge.  Instead guesthouses give you a map with their location in REALLY LARGE letters in the hopes that you chose stay there.  After hiking 2,000 meters down to the base of the gorge there was no way I could handle the trek back up, and our map only showed one way out. Straight Up. Back the way we came. Nooooooo!

And not only were we presented with the conundrum of how the hell to get back up the gorge, we weren’t even allowed to step on the Tiger Leaping Rock. One of the families in the gorge patrolled the area and after seeing that we weren’t going to pay, they locked us out!

The rock was locked! Tiger leaping gorge

The rock was locked!

Don't look down! Tiger Leaping Gorge

Don't make me climb back up this ladder

There is a happy ending, and it’s at Sean’s Guesthouse and it includes happy tea. After locking us out from the rock, the scrappy village woman hoofed it back up the gorge on a hidden trail running parallel to the water.   Vinnie’s keen eye took note and when it was time to leave, he promised that the local trail would be the fastest way back up. It was getting dark, and cold, and I was pretty sure that the local trail would kill us.  But we needed fast action and I did NOT want to climb back up the sky ladder, so we took Vinnie’s advice and began the climb.

And this is when we learn that not all trails are listed on the map, and the easiest path out of the gorge is the slow but steady climb up and across. (But even on that obscure trail there was a local waiting to charge us 10 quai. Bastards.)

Map Tiger Leaping Gorge

Our helpful map of Tiger Leaping Gorge

Heading out of the gorge.

Sean's guesthouse, tiger leaping gorge

We made it to Sean's!

Sean is a strange, interesting Tibetan gentleman and the reason why Tiger leaping Gorge is an amazing hike.  He set up the first guesthouse, he marked the trail, he brought the tourists.  And he greeted us with this:

My wife dead! Last year she die. She dead in Tibet. I go to Tibet, I carry pis-tal. I need protection. The police arrest me!!! Send me to jail!! Fuck the police.  You in Gorge, you need help, you call Sean. Police do nothing. Sean protect you.

And I believed him. In fact Sean might be the most enlightened Chinese man that I met this entire trip.  He seemed to understand the system that he lives in and knew that there were better ways of doing business.  I would hike the trail all over again just to hang out with him and listen to his rants about the Chinese governement – they provided more in depth coverage that what I read in the New York Times.

At Seans we rested, enjoyed his happy meals and his homemade whiskey. His guesthouse was the first place I stayed that had heat AND hot water AND satelight TV.  Smart, smart man, that Sean.

We were a happy, if a little sore, band of urban hikers.

Clean and well rested after staying at Sean's

Baby's got the (28) Bends

Baby’s got the (28) Bends


Tiger Leaping Gorge

Tiger Leaping Gorge

You know the feeling when you’re 3,500 meters above sea level and you’re stuck on the side of a mountain: your head’s down, mouth open gasping for breath, your heart is pounding, ears are burning red and you can’t manage to suck in enough oxygen to survive?  That, my friends, is the bends. The 28 bends of Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Tiger Leaping Gorge is the preeminent hike in Yunnan, maybe all of China. It’s known for the stunning views of snow-capped grey mountains and narrow walking paths where you can peer all the way down to the rushing water that’s continually carving away at the rock.  It’s also known for old ladies selling ganga on the side of a cliff.  In other words, not to be missed.

Gorgeous views at Tiger Leaping Gorge

Gorgeous views at Tiger Leaping Gorge

There’s not actually a bus from Shangri La to Tiger Leaping Gorge, you just communicate with the bus driver that you want to go to the gorge and he drops you off in the middle of a road. If you’re smart you have the hotel write down the destination in Chinese, but we’re not smart and as the bus drove away we had the sinking suspicion that we were in the wrong place. Then we saw the big sign telling us the park was closed – no entry permitted! Now don’t get discouraged, we were warned about this sign; it’s always posted in the winter.  You’re meant to ignore the official notice and walk on – the gorge is never really closed. Silly Chinese government!

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Welcome to the Gorge

For the first few hours the path meandered around hill-side villages, between houses and fences and into people’s front yards. There were offers for horse rides to the top, and lovely signs welcoming hikers to their neighborhood. We grabbed a bite at a local guesthouse and soaked in our surroundings. Then with our belly’s full we embarked on the second half of the trek – the reportedly steep, taxing, breath-stealing 28 bends.

This bit is steep. Keep going.

Urban Hikers Pre-28 bends

As we hiked the bends, we become progressively cocky about the supposed difficultly of the hike. After Hua Shan we were fairly confident that we could handle any climb China had to offer, particularly a hike with restaurants and roadside marijuana. At 12 bends we were laughing at the stories of tears and meltdowns.  At 15 bends we were passed by a women in high heels who pointed up and said, “Mary-wanna? Ganga?” The guesthouse she was pointing to didn’t appear so far away, we continued on, laughing a bit at the humiliation. About 17 bends into the hike I couldn’t breathe. We were both gasping for breath, lurching up the hill towards the next water stop.

Upon reaching the ganga pitstop we saw a big sign that said, “Get your energy for the 28 bends!”

We hadn’t even begun.

Pit stop on Tiger Leaping Gorge

Pit stop on Tiger Leaping Gorge

Most of what I saw during the climb to the top of the mountain was seen upsidedown with my head below my knees, heaving. I think this part of the hike is called the bends not due to the twisting, turning trail but because you feel as if nitrogen bubbles have formed in your lungs and you’re about to die.

My view of the gorge whilst hiking the bends

And this was just the first day of a three day hike. I haven’t even mentioned the goat herding, the search for trail markers, or trail-obscuring waterfalls.

Goats on the trail

Crossing a very safe bridge

We made it to the HALFWAY HOUSE!

Read Part II of our hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge.