tropicalscientist

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1 day in …SUMATRA | wild orangutans, jungle trek & and Bukit Lawang village

Seeing wild orangutans was a dream of mine for some time already. It’s possible in few places in Borneo and Sumatra but Bukit Lawang is one of the easiest and cheapest to get to.  It takes only a short flight from Singapore to Medan and a few-hrs car ride to find yourself in the middle of Sumatran jungle:

The only thing that we organised beforehand was the flight and 1 night accommodation*. Yup-1 night(!) :).  It was a short&intense weekend trip, requiring us to travel from the early morning to late evening on Saturday so we can spend the whole Sunday in Bukit Lawang. We had to leave on the same day around midnight, travel all night to be back to work in Singapore on Monday morning!

*The car pickup from the airport and the jungle trek was conveniently arranged by our hostel**- you can decide on the spot which trek you want to do and when.

**recommended! On The Rocks is a bit outside the village, surrounded by the jungle and the owners are very nice (ask for the trek discount;).

If you wonder about the budget of such trip we spent as follows:

  • flight Singapore -Medan: 74 SGD,  jungle bungalow: 10SGD, airport pickup: 30SGD (roundtrip), trek:  65SGD ( all prices per person)


I. Welcome to the Jungle!

There are few jungle treks you can do here – all varying in the time you want to allocate for it (from 3hrs to 3weeks). We went for 1day ‘Chicken trek’ ( the standard price per person is 45 euro, including professional guide, national park permit, fresh fruits, lunch). The trek starts at 9.00 am ( or for some people ‘sometime after breakfast when everybody finally get ready’) and last around 5 hrs. I would say the fitness level required is medium – the pace is quite fast and the jungle is not flat (surprise!) so you need to climb up and down through the forest.

Usually I don’t like to be guided around but the jungle here is really thick and there is no clear ‘tourist’ path.

::: Our local guide was stopping from time to time to point on a tree, monkey or bird ::: 

::: Thomas Leaf Monkey, endemic to north Sumatra! We’ve seen lots of them -not only in the jungle but also later in the village  :::

The jungle, Thomas Monkeys and giant ants were fun but what we came for were these guys:

Known for their distinctive red fur, orangutans are the largest arboreal mammal, spending most of their time in trees. Long, powerful arms and grasping hands and feet allow them to move through the branches. These great apes share 96.4% of our genes and are highly intelligent creatures.

The name orangutan means “man of the forest” in the Malay language. In the lowland forests in which they reside, orangutans live solitary existences. They feast on wild fruits like lychees, mangosteens, and figs, and slurp water from holes in trees. They make nests in trees of vegetation to sleep at night and rest during the day (pretty sweet life, right?). Adult male orangutans can weigh up to 90 kg. Fun Fact:  Flanged males have prominent cheek pads called flanges and a throat sac used to make loud verbalizations called long calls. An unflanged male looks like an adult female. In a biological phenomenon unique among primates, an unflanged male can change to a flanged male for reasons that are not yet fully understood.

Bornean and Sumatran orangutans differ a little in appearance and behavior. While both have shaggy reddish fur, Sumatran orangutans have longer facial hair and are reported to have closer social bonds than their Bornean cousins. Bornean orangutans are more likely to descend from the trees to move around on the ground. Sadly, both species have experienced sharp population declines. A century ago there were probably more than 230,000 orangutans in total, but the Bornean orangutan is now estimated at about 104,700 based on updated geographic range (Endangered) and the Sumatran about 7,500 (Critically Endangered) [source and more on orangutans here]

My biggest surprise was when after breakfast I couldn’t wait to march deep deep into the jungle wondering if we would be lucky enough to see at least one orangutan. And then my friend, unruffled, said that he already saw one around the corner… We rushed to the spot and got to see a mom with her baby, just right there, walking by (the baby was more tumbling then walking though- check my insta stories highlights from Sumatra- this was truly one of the most amazing ‘this-is-why-you travel’ moments 😀 ).

The guides knows the orangutans living around Bukit Lawang and where to find them. I love seeing animals in the wild, in their natural habitat without fences and cages. Standing 2 meters from them makes you realize how huge and magnificent those apes are (also how cute- we saw 2 different baby orangutans).  At some point when we found orangutan Mina, we were told to keep bigger distance. Apparently Mina is famous for being aggressive towards people* so the guides bribe her with bananas to behave**.

* Mina has a traumatic past thanks to humans, being forcibly separated from her mother and held in captivity in her youth (more here).

** this is the only exception – the guides do not feed any other animal in the jungle- actually we once saw the guide feeding ON an animal- ok, ok it was a just a giant ant for our shock/amusement but still.

::: Mom and a baby  ::: 

::: Fruit time for humans :::


II. Tube-rafting along the river

The trek finishes when you get to the river:

After the hike for an extra 10 euro you can come back by tube-rafting along the river (optional).  It’s not only superfun, but also you can see&admire the jungle from the totally new perspective. I didn’t take too many pics but check out my video for a few second footage from the ride.

View from the ride:

::: Arriving to the village and the end of the jungle adventure :::

::: Bukit Lawang Village :::


III. Evening walk in Bukit Lawang Village

With nothing else to do there but explore we went for a walk in the village:

::: Bakso – a secret reason why Michao is travelling to Indonesia :::

::: If you were wondering what Bakso is … :::

::: Romantic view from the afternoon;) :::

::: Sun setting over Bukit Lawang :::

::: Bridges! The most prominent and scary objects in the village (watch your feet when you walk on it, since often steps are missing and the river few meters below is shallow&rocky  :::

Still cant believe we did all this in 1 day!


Short video from the trip:

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The Stunning Stone Forest | CHINA

Our team shrank to only Michal, Jeremy and me. The rest took earlier or different flights home. We decided to fly back to Singapore in the evening so we still had 1 full day in Kunming. Resolute Michao came up with the idea that we could visit an  AAAAA-class (! 🙂 ) tourist site nearby-the  Stone Forest! Conveniently, there are buses available from Kunming Airport, taking about 1.5 hours to get there.

Stone Forest: The touristy vs mysterious

The Stone Forest or Shilin is an astonishing set of limestone formations about 500 km2 (!) located in Shilin Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan Province, People’s Republic of China, approximately 90 km from Kunming. The area is huge and although its divided into separate sectors (Greater & Lesser Stone Forests, Naigu Stone Forest etc), the touristy part is quite distinguishable.

Hardly anybody venture further than the few parts near the entrance. Most of the people simply buy additional ticket for a ride on the mini-bus around the circuit road.  We chose the cheaper, adventurous option to just wander through the stone forest aimlessly and get lost in it. When we walk 100 meters off the main paths we had the forest to ourselves!

::: It’s hard to capture it on the picture but those rocks are really -really tall! :::

::: Jeremy&Michao in the left corner for a scale :::

The tall rocks seem to arise from the ground in a manner somewhat reminiscent of stalagmites, or with many looking like petrified trees, thereby creating the illusion of a forest made of stone. These formations, caused by the erosion of limestone, are believed to be over 270 million years old (!). Since 2007, two parts of the site, the Naigu Stone Forest and Suogeyi Village, have been UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

::: Michao- the perfect chameleon for this habitat:::


Love Legend- checked

Seems like every Chinese heritage site has its own love-legend. Stone Forest is not different 😀 . According to legend, the forest is the birthplace of Ashima (阿诗玛), a beautiful girl of the Yi people. After falling in love she was forbidden to marry her chosen suitor and instead turned into a stone in the forest that still bears her name. Each year on the 24th day of the sixth lunar month, many Yi people celebrate the Torch Festival (火把节), which features folk dances and wrestling competitions.

::: Jeremy turned into a stone :O :::

Bye China!

::: Good to know!  A very informative information board by the bus station::: 

After all day of walking around we caught the last bus to Kunming airport, picked up our bags from the luggage storage and checked-in. That was the end of our Tiger Leaping Gorge Trip!

 

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CHINA: Shangri-La la land

We got to Shangri-La in the late afternoon extremely hungry (we set off from Meili Mountain Lookout village around 10am, and all the places we visited were totally secluded). For a special request by Michao, here’s a map of our trip so far:

So the first thing on the agenda just after getting to our hostel was to EAT. But, damn our hostel was really amazing. I stalled the group to take few pics, take a look:

::: When your hostel turn out to be more amazing than in the booking.com pictures :O :::

::: Sleeping in these amazing settings cost us only 20SGD per room! :::

Honestly, I’ve been to Shangri-La chain ***** hotel in Thailand for so much more money but this tiny hostel in actual Shangri-La was so much more amazing 😛

::: The main Temple that we could see from our window ::: 

::: Yak! :::

We spent less than one day in this place. We arrived in the late afternoon and our plane to Kunming was already the next morning. Even so, it was nice to walk the streets of the cold town and try to compare it with its origin…

::: Hipster Cafe- with WiFi and waffles- first sign that Shangri-La might not be the tranquil, remote monastery that I’ve read about in the book after all… :::

::: Charming streets of Shangri-La :::

:::: A view from a restaurant where we finally had something to eat- believe it or not be we chose… Turkish food 😛 :::

::: Shangri-La gets a brand new magical atmosphere by night :::

As you might already noticed- the old town has been transformed into touristic paradise, with souvenir or craft shops and cafe’s/restaurants on every corner. Although undeniably very beautiful, it felt a liiiitle bit artificial. Surprise surprise – the mysterious Shangri-La is actually Zhongdian, Chinese city which changed its name only over a dozen years earlier to … yup- attract the tourists. Where did this legendary name come from and why it is so legendary? Is this town really Shangri-La? Let me tell you in few paragraphs and few pictures climbing up the stairs of this colorfully illuminated temple below* –>

Imagine an earthly paradise, high in the inaccessible mountains where people live peacefully amid spectacular scenery and never grow old… In this utopian setting some wise Buddhist monks safeguard the finest aspects of the world’s culture while renouncing its violence and materialism. This is the Shangri-La that writer James Hilton created in his novel “Lost Horizon,” in 1933. The main character, a  British diplomat, found himself in a mysterious valley in the the high mountains against his will, but soon realized a unique opportunity to finally find peace from the conflicts of the world.

Now try to picture the time of the book’s publication – the world had just gone through the senseless slaughter of World War I and was experiencing economic collapse and mass unemployment following the Wall Street crash of 1929. It was also a time of the emerging dictators and rising militarism of Hitler and Mussolini, with the prospect of an even greater war on the horizon. No wonder audiences took so gladly to an escapist fantasy about a lost world of peace, civilization and beauty.

Meanwhile, in the late 1920s and early 1930s Tibet was still an almost mythical place for most Westerners. Very few people had ever visited the “roof of the world,” and its borders with India and Nepal were only just being explored by the expeditions. Many people still believed that Tibetan lamas had supernatural powers, could levitate and read the minds of others or act as oracles to predict the future.  “Lost Horizon” became an instant bestseller and was turned into a successful movie by the legendary director Frank Capra. The appeal of Shangri-La was so strong that it stood the test of time: there is now a hotel chain of the same name, the movie has been re-made and the book remains in print.

In the last decades there has also been a growing interest in tracking down the “real” Shangri-La. In 2001 the county of Zhongdian (Gyalthang in Tibetan) in Yunnan has gone so far as to officially rename itself as Xianggelila (eng. Shangri-La). They didn’t mind that  the book’s description is vague nor that several areas of Southwest China in Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces claimed they were the inspiration for the Shangri-La…

So, what do we know from the book? Only that Shangri-La is a fertile valley, cut off from the outside world by high mountains,presumably somewhere in or near Tibet, and is a home for mysterious a lamasery. In the book, the valley of Shangri-La is dominated by a mountain peak, Karakal. These names already give some clues as to the inspiration for Shangri-La. Many have already suggested that Karakal may be a place on Karakoram, the mountainous eastern Himalayan area that was just opening up to western explorers in the 1930s.

But the funny thing is that Hilton himself never been to Tibet and for the main source of inspiration for Shangri-la, we should turn to the writings of the Austrian-American explorer, Joseph Rock. At the time when Hilton was writing “Lost Horizon”, this eccentric botanist had just published a series of fantastic accounts of his travels in Southwest China, in the National Geographic magazine. Using a village outside Lijiang as his base, Rock made lengthy expeditions to far-flung corners of Yunnan and Sichuan, spending months at a time collecting plants, taking photographs, map making and recording the lifestyles of the many different ethnic minorities living in these remote highlands. His accounts of travels made him a minor celebrity in the West.

There are many parallels between Rock’s factual descriptions and Hilton’s fictional prose. On a journey, Rock described the sheer overpowering sense of isolation he felt when travelling through some remote communities:

“No outlook in any direction!” he wrote in his National Geographic article of 1929. “Here people live and die without the slightest knowledge of the outside world! How oppressive to be buried alive in these vast canyon systems! Or are they happier for it?”.

“The scenery hereabouts is overwhelming grand. Probably its like cannot be found elsewhere in the world for centuries it may remain a closed land, save to such privileged few as care to crawl like ants through its canyons of tropical heat and up its glaciers and passes in blinding snowstorms, carrying their food with them…” *

*similar to us on the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek (minus the snowstorms;) )

But finding a single location on the map from Rock’s articles is not obvious. Take the sacred mountain of Karakal, for example. In “Lost Horizon,” Hilton describes it in terms similar to those used by Joseph Rock for his first sight of the Konkaling mountain of Jambeyang, in Sichuan Province. Interestingly, in his account of the Konkaling area Joseph Rock also mentions a remote monastery that is cut off from the outside world. However, the reason had less to do with its physical isolation than the local bandits, who despite being pious worshippers at the temple would murder anyone who dared set foot on their territory. Other mountain mentioned in Joseph Rock’s expedition reports is the now famous Mount Kawakarpo (also known as Meili Snow Mountain, that we could see by ourselves). The area around Kawakarpo contains another essential component of the “Lost Horizon” story: French priest. In Shangri-La, the lamasery is presided over by a high lama who turns out to be a  former French cleric, Pere Perrault. This missionary is said to have stumbled across the isolated community and decided to stay because of his fears of a coming catastrophic world war. In his article on Kawakarpo, Joseph Rock describes how he met a French priest in the remote hamlet of Cizhong, below Mount Kawakarpo. The real life Pere David settled in the mountain village after witnessing the horrors of World War I…

::: The biggest prayer wheel :::

But the place that sums up the atmosphere from the book, if not the physical appearance of Shangri-La, is Muli, in Sichuan – a walled town of Buddhist temples housing about 700 lamas. Rock visited the monastery town of Muli several times in the 1920s and 30s, when it was the de facto capital of an isolated theocratic kingdom. Muli County was presided over by a serene hereditary Tibetan regent, who was at that time regarded as both local king and high lama. Rock became good friends with the ruler of Muli, Chote Chaba, and was bemused by the eccentricities of this wily character. In his conversations with Rock, the king admitted knowing little of the outside world. He asked whether he could ride on his horse to Washington DC, thought that binoculars could see through mountains, and that thunder was caused by dragons roaring in the clouds. The Muli king had also preserved some examples of Western culture that had found their way there. He had a room full of unused photographic equipment, and reportedly showed Rock some picture postcards of nursery rhyme scenes, asking if there were really animals in the West that could sit at tables and talk.

Did Hilton get some inspiration from Rock’s description of Muli? Rock found it to be a peaceful place in the midst of the anarchy and banditry that then existed in western China. The king had done deals with neighbouring bandits, allowing them sanctuary and to pass across his territory unmolested in return for refraining from molesting the citizens of Muli. Today, the Muli Monastery is still there, and reportedly its atmosphere of isolation persists, thanks to lack of  major scenic attractions in the form of mountains or lake that could attract tourists.

There are many places in China that bear some resemblance to this lost utopia but the legendary Shangri-La only ever existed in James Hilton’s head. So when it comes to the question if we arrived to the “real” Shangri-La, I must admit that it was far from the book’s descriptions. Nevertheless-  I was really glad to see this town and undeniably it is a lovely destination. I wondered though how did it looked like before all the fancy renovations. Maybe a decade ago it was closer to the quite, peaceful Buddhist town? 

A free tip: to get a Shangri-La flavor from the book, while in this region,  explore remote villages that didn’t have the chance to get modernized…yet.

 

:::: Michao smile! ::::

::: Home-made Yak yogurt and wine :::

::: A goodbye drink in a nice, freezing-cold bar, before we go back for the night to our lovely freezing-cold hostel:::

In the next episode: One last thing before our flight to Singa! A ‘Stone Forest’ near Kunming, I promise less text this time;)


Adapted from: In the Footsteps of Joseph Rock, Micheal Woodhead

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CHINA: Toward Tibet! Meili Snow Mountains

It took us around 6hrs to drive from Tiger Leaping Gorge to Deqin (+/- 1 hour stop for dinner in Shangrila on the way) . And all for this:

::: Sunrise over the Meili Snow Mountain :::

Sunrise  over the Meili Mountain is quite famous and now we know why. To wake up before dawn and watch as the dark sky slowly turns light purple and then glorious orange sun rays illuminate the peaks for few short minutes was simply spectacular!

And all that in a cosy warm room with a cup of instant coffee in hand ( the alternative is to go to down to the Fei Lai Temple Viewing Platform, just below our hotel, but that was way too cold and way to early for us- especially that this was our first heated room from the start of the trip).

Why I was so excited to come here? Meili Snow Mountains is considered to be one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the world. It is this range that got the small Chinese city Gyaitang  its new name and touristic appeal*.

*Gyaitang was renamed on 17 December 2001 after the fictional land of Shangri-La in the 1933 James Hilton novel Lost Horizon. In Lost Horizon,  “Shangri-La” is described as a mysterious valley in the Himalayan region where the main character, Hugh Conway, a  British diplomat, hopes to find peace from the conflicts of the world.

The Meili  (or Kawa Karpo as the Tibetans refer to it) is one of the Tibetan Buddhism’s most holy mountains. Every year, dozens of devout pilgrims come here at the beginning of winter to worship and circumambulate the holy mountain. The highest peak- Kawagebo, rises to 6,740 metres (22,110 ft). Because of restrictions and dangerous conditions, none of the major peaks in the range have ever been summited. In January 1991, six Chinese and eleven Japanese mountaineers lost their lives to an avalanche, one of the worst climbing accidents in China.

 ::: Fei Lai Temple Viewing Platform :::

Our Tibetan driver was very eager to tell us about the accident’s strange circumstances.  Apparently the locals were never happy that people try to conquer their holy mountain, and when the message spread that the weather conditions are perfect and the Sino-Japanese team will attempt the final summit push on the next day, they got very angry. The whole village gathered and prayed all night to the mountain, threatening that if the human will set foot on its holy peak, they will stop worshiping it. In the morning- out of nowhere the clouds covered the peak and the weather changed abruptly.  An avalanche struck, and 17 climbers lost their lives.

James HIlton wrote : “There, soaring into the gap, and magnificent in the full shimmer of moonlight, appeared what he took to be the loveliest mountain on earth. It was an almost perfect cone of snow, simple in outline as if a child had drawn it. It was so radiant, so serenely poised, that he wondered for a moment if it were real at all.” 

The trip to Deqin was not only about the highest mountains I’ve ever seen. It was also about getting as deep into the region as possible in our time limit, peaking into remote Tibetan temples and its culture, exploring how the local people live in this part of the world.

 ::: Tiny and charming village :::

::: Breakfast at the small, cheap local eatery with a stunning view:::

::: The team returns to the hotel to pack and I’m doing a quick photo-round around the village :::

I didn’t mention that we arrived to the village late in the evening and planned to go back to Shangri-La as early as 10am… So yes, we came here mostly for the sunrise experience but unexpectedly got a chance to explore a little bit more . Our nice driver from Tiger Leaping Gorge proposed to get us back to Shangrila after breakfast for the same price that we would pay for the direct bus, adding a bonus of a few stops on the way! Here’s few gems that we got to see :


::: Feilai Temple,  the place for Tibetans to pay homage to the sacred mountain, built in 1614 during Ming Dynasty :::

::: Only from the distance we could realize how massive are those mountains! :::


::: A nice and empty viewing platform on the way with a most beautiful view on the mountains amid the Tibetan prayer flags :::


 ::: A spot marking 4292nd meter above the sea level ( the highest I’ve ever been) – where the freezing cold thin air will make you feel breathless only after a brisk walk to get back to the car… :::

::: Our driver made a detour just for our Indian friends so they can see and touch the snow for the first time in their lives! 🙂 :::


:::: Dongzhulin Temple – large monastery established  in 1679 by the Fifth Dalai Lama. :::

::: The main hall ::: 

::: A higher-rank monk cosy room :::

::: View from the top floor window of the Temple :::

::: Very smelly butter prepared for.. :::

::: …making very smelly butter candles ::::

:::The monastery containe accommodation for 2,000 monks at its peak and currently 700 monks in 200 associated house like this one: :::


 ::: Next stop : Shangri-La! 😀 :::

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CHINA: Gorgeous Tiger Leaping Gorge Trek. DAY 2&3


DAY 2

The morning was cold but sunny. Waking up at the Tea-Horse Guesthause was quite spectacular, because when we arrived here the day before it was completely dark. Sadly, I could not enjoy the beauty of this place for too long. It turned out that when we finally scramble out of the small wooden room, most of the gang was already after breakfast and ready to leave. We managed to take a few photos, drink Chinese nescafe and we were on the road.

A few pics from the amazing Tea-Horse Guesthouse:

::: A frosty morning, a hot mug of coffee in my hand and a book with Tibet in the background on this terrace – heaven! … if only I had time for it 😛 Unfortunately, I got up too late for such whims :::

::: Why so empty? Maybe because it’s December, the region’s winter time? Definitely recommended if you plan a trip to Tiger Leaping Gorge! :::

::: A late and lonely breakfast  :::

::: Michao slowly recovering from the symptoms of altitude sickness from the previous day.  On the table: traditional Naxi bread and Tibetan tea (I went for the traditional banana pancake with chocolate and Nescafe) :::

::: The living room of the Guesthouse owners, resembling the interior of Mongolian Ger! :::

I must admit that our short stay was extremely charming. Not only because after a long day we could count on a hot meal and a big cold beer, but also got a free upgrade to the rooms on the upper floor. Although the rooms were cool and unheated, the hot shower and bed with an electric blanket had never been so pleasant. The Guesthouse radiated cold peace and bliss – I regretted that I did not get up earlier to enjoy it longer (and normally I do not recognize the morning as a humane time of day). On our way out, the lovely host presented each of us with a banana, some candies and …a  Snikers! 🙂

::: Tibet-we’re coming! :::

Meanwhile, the steep slope has started to become more and more epic …

After a few hours, we got to our next stop for rest and lunch, the so-called Half-Way Hostel. And we found yet another spectacular viewing platform:

Strangely enough, everyone was so tired and so lazy after a meal that they fell into a mysterious coma… Therefore, quite unexpectedly I got to fulfill my dream of a moment for myself and my special book in this scenery *! 😀 I read until it got pretty late, when I woke up the group – we still had a few hours’ walk to our next stop.

* for this occasion I chose Lost Horizon – a novel by James Hilton from 1933, known as the origin of the legend of Shangri-La, a fictional, utopian lamastery located high in the mountains of Tibet. Spoiler alert: – Shangri-La, which actually exists on the map of China since recently, was our destination for the next day!

The last stretch of the hike turned out to be the most beautiful – dangerous steep slopes, cheeky goat herds, waterfalls and the setting sun…

::: The stars of this part were goatlings and their mothers with fancy hairstyles :::

When we got to the point from which we would descend directly to the titled gorge (about 1 hour downhill), we had enough thrills for the day, so we let it go and decided to do it on the next day.

::: It is always nice to support local business and try the regional specialties 😉 :::

In the local eateries you will find many interesting specialties- not only the Naxi bread, Tibetan tea and beer, but also everything that can be made out of a Yak (or rather Yak crossed with a regular cow because it is easier to breed) – Yak’s burgers, Yak’s dumplings, Yak yoghurt  etc etc.

::: One of the reasons to travel all the way here-  a wine from the Yunnan region :::


DAY 3

::: Waking up with an unprecedented view vol2. :::

The next day, finally, we were to reach our destination – a place at the bottom of the gorge, where it narrows enough that the tiger (allegedly) jumped over it.

The way down started easy, but after a while it transformed into almost vertical narrow path (photos from difficult moments are traditionally missing, but you can catch a glimpse of it on the video below 😉 )

::: In several places along the route you can meet nice ladies selling everything that a tourist may need during a steep climb – water, snickers, beads, marijuana leaves and … stones? :::

::: Alvaro as a Chinese prince – unfortunately there were no people willing to carry him :::

::: Tadaaa! The Tiger Leaping Gorge..! :::

::: ‘Where is Michao’ – a great equivalent of the colorful Where’s Wally in the dark-gray mountain scenery :::

We made it! After 2 and a half days we arrived at a place where the calm river gets wild. The only thing we have left to do was climb back up and eat the victorious lunch- for the last time in the full squad.

In this epic place we parted and everyone went their own way – part of the group got on the bus to Kunming (Eve and Alvaro caught a plane to Germany, Wen to Vietnam) and the rest (me, Michao, Gigi, Sandeep and Jeremy) a private van in the direction of a legendary Shangri-La …! 😀


And this is also where my Best-Movie-So-Far ends,  who has not seen it yet, click away:

 

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CHINA: Gorgeous Tiger Leaping Gorge Trek. DAY 1.

The Tiger Leaping Gorge is a breathtaking (literally) trek in southwestern China.  Around 15 kilometres (9.3 mi) in length, the gorge is located where the river passes between the 5,596m(18,360 ft) Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and the 5,396m (17,703 ft) Haba Snow Mountain in a series of rapids under steep cliffs. Its poetic name derives from a local legend about the tiger, that allegedly jumped the river at its narrowest point in order to escape from a hunter. I do not know if the bigger surprise is that the narrowest point is 25 meters wide, or that there were (and still are*) wild tigers in this area …

*as many as 10 individuals

The journey started with peculiar series of unfortunate events (tropical diseases,kidnapping etc.), that I’ve tried to describe shortly, but somehow I produced a huge chunk of text instead. So if you are not interested in the pre-trip drama, go directly to the glorious ‘Hiking Day 1’ section (I’ll understand).

I. Pre-Trip Drama

This day was supposed to be intense but … quite uninteresting. The journey should take us about 24 hrs. Starting with a flight from Singapore (and the brand new Terminal 4! 😀) to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, then few hours of downtime and lunch, next flight from Kuala Lumpur (or so-called ‘KL’) to Kunming in China, 3 hours to get from the airport to the railway station, night train from Kunming to Lijang, and finally a public bus from Lijiang to Qiaotou, where the trek starts. Phew!

The first on the list of unfortunate events was that Simon missed his flight… even though he showed up in the airport in time! How is that possible? Simon was the only person who booked v.early morning flight, about 2 hours before the rest of the gang. When Michal nobly drove him to the airport, they both make themselves comfortable at the Terminal 4, not realizing that Simon’s plane could take off from another terminal than ours … (in their defence- it was 6am). Fortunately, we had a long transfer time in KL so Simon got on the next plane and still arrived ahead of time for the next flight.

In the meantime, on our way to KL, the most prudent member of the whole group -Michao left his phone in the plane’s seat pocket , which had its consequences a little later that same day. Laughing at what a misfortune morning we had so far, we found Simon waiting at the gate to flight to China. It should go smoothly from here! Except that Simon did not look very good, claiming that he feels a bit sick. When we got off the plane in Kunming, he looked seriously ill and not just for us. The thermal imaging camera detected his fever and Simon was detained for a checkup …

After quite a long wait, several medical tests and negotiations with the officers, Simon was let go, but his face was deadly serious. Quick tests have detected an infection -possibly Malaria… What now? Should carry on and hope it is not as serious? Or should we assume the worst and fly Simon back..?   The clock was ticking and after stormy discussions we decided to split into three groups: Eve&Alvaro will take Simon to a local hospital and find out if it really is malaria and if not then whether he can continue the trip. Me,Michao&Wen, and Sandeep, Gigi&Jeremy will go to the train station to pick up tickets and wait there for group 1. The problem was only that nobody in my group had roaming, internet data or Chinese applications (google, facebook and whatsapp do not work in China), except of Michal, but he lost it, remember? As we got into the taxi, we realized that there are several railway stations in Kunming, and in all this chaos we didn’t coordinated which one to go. And although in our taxi we had a Chinese-speaking Singaporean- Wen, it was quite difficult to communicate with our driver.

Not only were we not sure if we were going in the right direction, but suddenly our taxi drove off the highway and  … stopped under the flyover. Not minding our slight shock, the taxi driver got out of the car without a word. After a while, another guy got in (also without a word). He  looked very angry and unceremoniously moved off. Wen tried to talk to him in Chinese, but the only thing he snarled was that he knew where we were going …. After a few minutes of disbelief and suspicion that we’ve just been kidnapped … we decided to keep calm. In part because we were in a strange place and we did not know local customs, and partly because there was nothing we could do. . It turns out that all taxis in Kunming have robust metal bars installed to separate the driver form the passengers. Meanwhile, as usually in such moments – it started to get dark …

Over a dozen tense minutes later, we arrived at the train station, which turned out to be exactly the one we were looking for. We paid the correct amount of money. We found our friends right away, waiting for us at the entrance.  Relieved and a bit ashamed, we went on to grab a quick dinner. Only after ordering at cheap local eatery,  we noticed a poster with a sad face, indicating that this place got a C grade from local Food Administration… (on the scale from A to C, where A is safe and C is a health hazard).

Convinced that tomorrow will start with food poisoning, we returned to the station to pick up tickets. It would be quite difficult without our Chinese-speaking friend, because as you can see there were several windows for different purposes.

::: What a day! Traveling from the early morning, not knowing what is going on with our sick friend and with the night on the train ahead :::

When we got to the train, we could finally breathe a little. Until the last moment, we hoped that in a moment our friends from the hospital group would join us. Unfortunately, the train left on time, and Alvaro, Eve and Simon were not there. We convinced a nice Chinese lady to let us use Wechat (Chinese WhatsApp) to contact Eve. It turned out that 2 different hospitals could not help Simon, so he just returned to the airport, where he would catch the first available flight back to Singapore. Eve and Alvaro got on the next train so we would them meet only the next day.

::: Two-story sleeping cars: D! The lower deck (or ours) turned out to be the 2nd class but it was very cozy, clean and comfortable :::
 

II. Hiking – Day 1

When we arrived to Lijiang very early in the morning, it was still dark and freezing cold. We got 4hrs to kill before Eve and Alvaro would join us, so after dressing in all possible layers that we had with us, we sat back in the bistro at the station. It was just a little bit less cold than outside (there were no real door but rather a a curtain of plastic strips hanging from the doorframe). We would find out soon that for some strange reason heating it is quite uncommon in this area and the only way yo warm up is to wait till the morning sun rays.

::: 6 am at Lijiang Train Station :::

::: Only in China  –  beef noodle soup for breakfast :::

:::: Finally! Reunion with Eve and Alvaro after airport drama ::::

::: Due to wait for AlvEve we missed the bus, so we rent a van to get to the small town from which the trail begins :::

::: Even thought the driver was local, he had some difficulties finding the right way. Luckily he was did not mind asking the people around, such as this nice lady: :::

::: The symbolic leaping tiger in front of the ticket office in a small  city of Qiaotou :::

::: Michal can’t wait to start the hike already::: 

Of course, in a large group, nothing goes too smooth, so before we started the trek, a few people remembered that they do not have Chinese money so we returned to the nearby town to find an ATM

::: Residents of a small town in China: :::

After a successful attempt to find an ATM, it was time for lunch, so we stopped in a colorful hostel along the way.

 ::: In the meantime, it got a bit warmer, so we did not miss the opportunity for a cold beer;) :::

::: After a short a night on the train, supercold winter morning and a van ride – ready for adventure! :::

Happy that we could exploit our van to the fullest we drove to the end of a dusty road, where public buses do not venture any more (and I suggest you do the same if you have a chance).  The road was narrow, steep and without road shoulders or any interesting views.  It would take us more than an hour of strenuous climb risking being ran over by the trucks coming up and down.

Using our van to the max, we have reached the end of a dusty road,  (and if you have the opportunity to do the same).

::: The upper trekking route start! (29 hours after the departure from Singapore)😀 :::

::: For the next two days we were moving on our own legs, sleeping in hostels along the way :::

::: My first climbing trip where I did not have a comfy base to store my backpack and I had to carry it all the way 🙂 :::

:::: Landscapes from the very beginning were so epic that we stopped every 5 minutes to tak a pic! ::::

::: Surprise on the route – and one of my favorite moments of the whole
trip – tiny furry donkeys! <3 :::

 :::: Stopping every 5 min to take a picture :::

::: The girl with the  …mountain tattoo 😉 :::

After about 4 hours of hiking, we stopped at the beautiful Naxi Family Guesthouse for a quick rest (and another epic photo and video session of course …) :::

::: Alvaro aka my video director :::

::: Yes, this is a shopping bag (with snacks inside but still). Classic Alvaro who looked like he was going to a shopping mall, not a  hiking trip in China 😀 :::

We spend way more time than we planned waiting for AlvEve, missing the bus, enjoying the lunch and some team members started to be anxious if we can make it to the first hostel before dusk.  Michal even found a map on one of the guesthouse walls showing clearly that we didnt make even 1/3rd of the way. See the yellow arrow that the shadow point at? That’s the Naxi House where we were then. See the other one? That’s the Tea-Horse Guesthouse that we supposed to get to before the dusk. The problem was that not only we did not make it far, but that it was quite late and the most difficult part -the 28 bends, or that snake you see on the map – was still ahead…

Waiting for AlvEve, enjoying the beers and landscapes made us arriving at Naxi Family Guesthause quite late (~3.30PM) and some team members beginning to worry whether we would be able to reach our hostel before dusk. Michal found a map on one of the walls of the Guesthaus, clearly showing that we did not make even one third of the way. For illustration: the first yellow arrow, which Michao’s shadow points to, is the Naxi Guesthause. The second yellow arrow is Tea-Horse Guesthouse, which we should get to before 6:30PM. The problem was that not only did we not get too far, but the most difficult part – the 28 Bends (ie. this steep, winding snake on the map below), were still ahead of us …

With a of little scare we went ahead (WE will not succeed..??! So far everything went great;)!) When we were really tired and we were hoping for at least the majority of the 28 corners behind us, to my horror, we encountered a sign that 28 corners were just beginning …

Climbing a steep, snaky path, I was wondering if the route took its name from the number of corners, or was it an allusion to having to stop every few steps and bend over from exhaustion, trying to catch a breath of thin air..?

:::  When you are somewhere deep in China, on the steep high mountain slope, with your head’s down, mouth open gasping for breath, your heart is pounding and you can’t manage to suck in enough oxygen, thinking why are you doing this to yourself … :::

::: … but then your brain is flooded with endorphines and you feel the kind of happiness that only comes from utter physical exhaustion :::

If you are wondering if you are fit enough for this climb – I have good (?) news. Locals along the route are offering to rent their horses that will take you up the most difficult part of the route for you. Personally, I believe that the deadly 28 Bends can be done on your own you only have a enough time and perseverance (!).

:::The picture does look cool though:::

Looking through the pictures, I realized that I was too focused on taking the next step, that during the 2hrs hike up the killer 28 bends, I did not take ANY. I do not even recall any  views other than my feet. So… let it stay a mystery and a motivation for you to see it by yourself ;)!

:::5.42PM, my effort was rewarded with great satisfaction and an amazing view <3 :::

::: A great test of fear of heights and a bird’s eye view of the Jinsha River, the upper stretch of the longest river in Asia – Yangtze River! :::

Sun was setting slowly, and yet another cheerful photoshoot we started to go ahead – down to our destination for a night. For the first time feeling quite optimistic that we will make it. 

::: With the sun setting it started to be cold again :::

We reached the Tea-Horse Guesthouse triumphantly only 10 minutes after dusk. Only Michao started to suffer from something that seemed to be an altitude sickness *. The canyon at the maximum depth is about 3,790m from the river to the top of the mountain. This makes the Tiger Leaping Gorge one of the deepest and most spectacular river canyons in the world, but fast climbing in a short time without proper acclimatization can be dangerous if not you’re unlucky **.

* we were not sure if this was not the symptoms of regular flu. Besides we were consoled by the fact that the most important thing with such disease is descending from a dangerous height. In the case of this route, the top of 28 Bends is the highest point – then it only goes down almost all the way to the river.

** everybody reacts differently and even the most prominent climbers are not immune to altitude sickness.

In the next episode: the unbelievable view that we woke up to the next day AND the second day of hiking – did we manage to get to the legendary place that the tiger was supposed to leap from…?;)

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PS. If you are wondering what happened to Simon – after returning to Singapore in a large hospital near the airport, a proper examination was finally done and it turned out that luckily it was not malaria but a milder and not life-threatening viral infection, so Simon quickly recovered.

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