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Hawaii Hikes

“I don’t need therapy, I need to go hiking in Hawaii”

Why nobody told me that Hawaii is such a magnificent hiking destination..? I’ve always imagined it as a postcard-perfect beaches, hula-dance and general chill in a Hawaiian flowers Lei Garland , sipping tiki coctails.  Turns out that Hawaii has an incredibly adventurous vibe in the air! You can do hikes, waterfall trails, helicopter rides and more. Here’s photo-story from a few hikes that I had a chance to do there.

I. Makapu‘u Point Lighthouse Trail

:::  Natural hiking area with paved trail & overlook, ocean views, lighthouse & whale-watching opportunity. Pretty easy and incredibly rewarding! ::: 

:::: Stunning views of the coast and the dreamy, deep blue sea stretching to the horizon… ::::

::: How did I get here? Again, thanks to the Couchsurfing! One of the locals posted on the CS Honolulu facebook wall that she’s going to Makapu’u and has 3 free seats in her car <3  :::

::: After hiking all the way up you can get down the cliff to check out the black lava, blowholes and if the ocean is real :::

::: Highlight of the day- floating in the peaceful coastal tide pools while the ocean waves crushing around ::::

::: Entry to the next lookout : Lanai 🙂 ::::

::: If you don’t feel like walking – roadtrips by the Oahu shores are stunning just by themselves :::

II. Koko Crater Trail, Oahu

Better known as “Koko Head Stairs” ( or ‘Leg killer’ ) is your StairMaster workout for the day, with a better-be-good panoramic view to hope for.  Free endurance and strength test,- you would challenge yourself to take every additional step up the mountain as you stride over 1050 of them to reach the top! Koko Head trail is a popular after-work workout for Honolulu people (Honolunians?).

 This abandoned railway is a a  World War II relict -the military created it to reach the lookout pillbox  and haul cargo and supplies up to the top.

::: There is a mark every 100 steps to let you know how many more to conquer;)  The last stretch is pretty steep -to the point that you are climbing rather than walking up! :::

::: Looooove those cliff’s ridges! :::

:::Only ~8000 km to the next land – Philippines:) :::

:::  Climbing above the old military bunker at the top there are some amazing panoramic views ::: 

III. Crouching Lion, Oahu

Got there by public bus from Haleiwa, that took 1.5hrs, so when I saw the area is closed – of course I went in anyway ..

::: The trail is pretty clear but sometimes simply disappears in the thick greenery, leaving you looking for pieces of cloth tied to the trees that marks where you should go :::

::: There are points in the very beginning that are just walls of rocks and roots- luckily somebody left a rope :::

::: This hike turned out to be more epic than I’ve imagined…::::


::: You can climb all the way up there.. and more! the trail just continuous along the ridge :::  


:::: Soaking in the view ::: 

::: It got pretty dangerous on the last stretch ::::

::: Wild hike! Now I see why it is closed. No railings, no clear paths- just you and the nature of a steep, rocky cliff- I absolutely loved it. ::::

Considering that this time I was alone, there was nobody on the trail and there was a storm coming- I was battling my thoughts at what point should I stop and turn around ( you really don’t want go down this steep,rocky route if it get slippery from rain)

 ::: Peak that I climbed-view from below :::

::: Mom I’m fine :::

IV. Okolehao Hiking Trail, Kauai

As you already know- I didn’t do much hiking in Kauai because I was too spoiled with the most awesome view just outside my couchsurfing house. Also- it is way less touristy than Oahu and there is only a basic public transport so it was more difficult to get around. After few days of just enjoying the north shore’s  beaches and towns, I met a fellow Couchsurfer girl – Dahn, and we check out a nearby trail together- Okolehao.

::: Mud mud mudddd- the signature hiking feature of Kauai – the most rainy of all Hawaiian islands ::::

::: Life-hack for Kauai hikers- wear your swimming shoes!:) The trail is wet and so muddy that any other shoes would be ruined anyway and later on you can just wash them in the stream;) :(Yes- I was hiking with a tiny,pink backpack- that’s what happen when you go for 2 weeks in Hawaii with only 7kg hand-luggage) ::

More of stunning Kauai pics in the next post!


Hawaii – journey for one smile, or how I Couchsurfed through my 2 weeks in the Aloha State

::: There are 2 main types of travelers: those who travel to seek comfort and those who travel to come out of their comfort zone. The thrill and adventure of the latter often pays back with the best stories to tell;) ::: 

My trip to Hawaii began as usual with the purchase of cheap tickets wayyy in advance ‘on the-spur-of-the-moment’, because I had a scientific conference in Honolulu around that date. However, I did not expect a major life’s turbulence, that turned my life upside down… Believe it or nor- when the date finally arrived, I did not feel like going to Hawaii at all. I knew that the best way to snap out of it is an ambitious challenge and getting out of my comfort zone. Hence, I have decided that this is a perfect time to give Couchsurfing a second chance*.

Couchsurfing is a hospitality and social networking service. Members can use it to arrange homestays, but also meetups, events or simply ask locals for advice regarding the place of interest. So in theory, you have a chance to stay on someone’s couch for absolutely free but more importantly you can meet a person with a similar, carefree approach to life and a lot of interesting stories to tell . Its also a unique chance to experience how the ‘real’ life looks like in a given place. Your local host will tell you where the best coffee is, how to get to a closed climbing trail or where are the best non-tourist places in the area. But! CS is not a free hotel, it’s an experience. You have to remember that you are a guest and your stay will be highly influenced by the stranger that agreed to host you. Usually hosts offer much more than just a couch -their time and company (which might be both- good and bad for your trip…).

*last time I tried it in Australia and it didn’t end well

Couch no 1: Honolulu, Oahu Island

My first host- Nikodem has been living in Hawaii for several years, developing his travel business. I didn’t know what to expect, so I asked Niko to host me just for 2 nights, and booked a hostel for the rest of my planned stay in Honolulu.

I arrived in the morning, after a 14hr flight, with the phone battery almost dead. Fortunately, it was enough to track my bus location on the map*. Niko gave me his address together with instructions where to find the key (special mailbox on the ground floor, do not ask the porter;), because he was out at the that time already. I don’t know why but I was amazed that everything was going smoothly – I got off at a good bus stop, I found his building block and the mentioned mailbox, the code worked and the keys were there. Pleased with success, I took the elevator to the right floor, and found the right door and there I saw it … a huge lock by the door handle with a code to click in … I tried the code from the mailbox- nothing. I tried to fit the key despite the lock-nothing. In the meantime, the battery in my phone died of course… If my PhD experience has taught me something, it’s to never give up. So I ignored the lock and tried the key in the inconspicuous upper lock – it worked! 😛

Relieved, I opened the door to a cozy studio with a promised couch under the wall. On the couch I found a welcome Lei from flowers (probably leftovers for Niko’s clients but still). The door to the balcony was slightly opened. I came out and looked around to see the boulevard below me leading to the beach, tall palm trees and green Hawaiian hills in the distant. And then it finally dawned on me – I made it. I’m in freakin Honolulu (!). It was wonderful:)))

*public buses in Oahu are quite frequent (every 15-20min), a one-time ticket costs $2.5 and an all-day $5.5

:::Wreath of flowers presented upon arriving -or so called Lei – is probably the most famous symbol of Hawaii and perfectly represent the Aloha spirit <3::: ::: View from Niko’s place :::

::: Short Instastories from Niko’s place :::

   I met my host later in the afternoon. He called me after work asking if I wanted to join him for …yoga. Niko instructed me to sign up for a free trial at the local studio, so totally unexpectedly I could enjoy free yoga for my whole stay in Honolulu! It was the beginning of a beautiful adventure and as it turned out -a great friendship. What else do I owe to Niko and choosing Couchsurfing (CS) instead of a hotel?

CS in Honolulu Pros:

  • Firstly, but not the most importantly, living in the very center of Honolulu, right by the legendary Waikiki beach:

::: Honolulu, Seaside Avenue. In front of me -the building where I stayed, and behind me…a passage to the famous WAIKIKI BEACH!:D :::::

::: Waikiki beach : a magical and surreal place to be. In the background you can see the Diamond Head, iconic Hawaiian volcano crater :::

  • priceless insider tips, e.g. where to buy an American sim card, where is the best coffee and the most delicious acai bowl (local must-eat)

::: Only in Hawaii- fresh mango as a side to your coffee!<3 :::

  • my kind of sightseeing, i.e. 1000cc motorbike ride around Honolulu and its hills. Frankly, it was my Hawaiian dream number 1, and if I were to rent a bike in the shop all I could get would be a lame scooter (the prices of such machines are insane and besides -my license allows me for 250cc bikes only)

  • a professional tour/roadtrip around Honolulu and Pearl Harbour! Niko is a guide in his travel agency so he invited me to see him in action. I was shown around the most important places in town and beyond. You probably noticed that my trips are usually quite spontaneous and I use wikipedia rather than professional guides, so it was an interesting experience.

::: Mr. Guide was playing the greatest Polish hits from 20 years ago, that was supposed to sound tropical.. Example? Check it out- but I’m warning you- you cannot unsee this… click :::

::: Niko in his professional mode :::

::: Pearl Harbor makes a huge impression – totally recommended! At the end of the tour you can eat a typical American hot dog with … sauerkraut :::

::: A memorial just above the sinking site of the USS Arizona battleship with 1,102 Marines on board during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The wreck and bodies were never recovered ::::

  • unofficial tour to the fabulous Polish consulate … to water the flowers, because the consul is on holiday in Poland  (although after watering it turned out that half of them are plastic).  The current Consul of the Republic of Poland in Hawaii-  Bożena Jarnot, is Niko’s friend and original founder of his company.

 ::: View of the Diamond Head from the Consul’s flat / office . Eh, I think I chose a wrong profession :::

  • getting to know a whole bunch of Niko’s friends, as he invited me to the numerous events, including a sandbar boat party or a beach party on the north coast organized by dancing with fire hippies!:D
  • a few really crazy but not entirely legal things I will not write about here but I would love to tell you personally or in ‘never-have-and-ever’ type of games

CS in Honolulu Cons:

It’s hard to think of any. Niko’s flat is a small studio with the bed, couch, home office and kitchen- all in one room, so there was zero privacy.  It did not bother me though, because as it turned out -Niko is a supercool person and we got along really well. So well, that I end up cancelling my hostel and staying for additional 3 nights at his place :).

Next on the agenda was the neighboring island of Kauai. So I partied away the last night in Honolulu with Niko and new friends, returned to the flat only to take my backpack and went to the airport.

::: There are no ferries between islands -but local airlines offer frequent flights for fair prices :::


Couch no 2: Princeville, Kauai Island

Another island – another Couchsurfing adventure. I have to admit that I have seen many places but nothing has ever made such an impression on me like Kauai. The wildness, monumentality of the steep cliffs, volcanic beaches, beauty and abundance of nature without natural predators were … stunning. I felt like in Jurassic Park. It turned out to be an exceptionally non-touristy island, with almost no public transport.

::: Kauai dazzle with its epic feeling of a lost world … ::::

   My next host – Krishna,is an American whose parents were hippies and spent his childhood traveling with them all over the states. As it is difficult to move around Kauai without the car, Krish offered to pick me up from the airport (even though his home was on the other side of the island). On the way home, he made several stops – to see a wild beach, lookout point or to get me a local coffee (I started to feel the lack of sleep from last night).

CS in Kauai pros :

  • Once again, I came to live in the most amazing place on the island.  Na Pali Coast, that Kauai is famous for was just around the corner.

::: My Kauai-couch was in the living room with a terrace :::

  • Krish was an extremely nice host-  in the morning he made delicious coffee from a professional coffee machine, to go with avocados toasts <3 :

::: Breakfast with an ocean view :::

::: CS in Kauai – Krishna’s incredible house :::

  • Krish showed me around, pointing out all the local trees and plants and their uses when walking around

::: Picking avocado straight from a wild tree :::

::: Natural face gel, shampoo and conditioner in one – great for tired salty water and sun hair :::

::: Wild Guava-yum! ::::

  • The best of this CS experience turned out to be something that is not available for a normal,mortal tourist -riding a waverunner on the waves of the Na Pali cost! 😀 Officially, the most dangerous and unbelievable thing I’ve ever did. The waverunner belongs to Krishna’s friend and it is not a typical (nor legal – but shh) way to see the wonderful Na Pali…

The coast can be seen from the ground during hiking (but the trail is currently closed), from the air (by helicopter) or from the ocean (but the waves are high and the rocks are dangerous, so the only option is big tourist boat). Since I ride motorbike on a daily basis and once I tried jet ski in the Baltic Sea, I thought that it cant be that hard;)

::: Na Pali Coast ::: ::: Being so close to those sharp, massif cliffs and feeling the powerful ocean’s waves beneath me still gives me chills … :::

  • another fun thing was Krishna’s tip to use the facilities of the nearby resort. St. Regis is so remote that nobody would suspect that I am not one of the guest!:P

::: Chilling in St.Regis :::

::: St. Regis terrace- perfect spot for sunset viewing :::

CS in Kauai Cons:

Sounds like a fairy tale …? Well, not exactly. Time for plot twist-Krish was not completely mentally healthy. I noticed that there is something wrong while chatting on CS but as a hippotherapy volunteer, I am used to different disabilities and strongly believe that such people should not be treated differently. When I met Krish at the airport, he seemed to be simply a bit slow. It was not until I got into his car when the conversation about alien kidnappings in Kauai started…  Krish’s quiet way of speaking and absent gaze was not helping.

  • Throughout my stay, Krish was flooding me with conspiracy theory stories and weird facts from his life. Some of them turned out to be true (I met his mom later that day) but most were simply..crazy. He claimed that in the past he worked for DARPA (military agency for technology) and knows too many of their secrets so they sent him to Kauai and he cannot leave the island. His favorite conversation topics included secret US technologies and bizarre genetic experiments for military… All that seemed harmless apart form one moment. On the second day, he brought a large heavy stone from the terrace and smiling lightly said that this stone has magical power. He warned me that I should be careful and don’t come near it when the stone has bad mood .. That night I was falling asleep convinced that this will be a murder weapon that the police will be asking in the morning.

::: Krish loved to bounce his neurotech ideas off me :::

  • Krish turned our to be a very engaged host with too much free time on his hands.  After few days he got seriously offended when I went for a hike on my own … Weirdly enough, I could take bizarre stone threats but I cannot stand somebody’s moods. That day I moved out (to couch no3- that belonged to another Couchsurfing girl Dahn that I’ve just met) and finally enjoyed Kauai in peace.

Couch No 4- Heleiwa, North Shore, Wyspa Oahu

For my last weekend in Hawaii I returned to Oahu, but this time to the north coast, which is much quieter than the south. Haleiwa is a charming little hipster town by the beach, famous for its surfing culture (thanks to some of the best waves in Hawaii).

My third host -Ryan, surprised me the day before the arrival sending me a message that the couch is actually taken, but he can offer me… his van.  I had doubts at first, but I’ve just had two Mai Tais in Tiki Bar with Dahn. She encouraged me to go for it because ‘fun situations like this is what travelling is about’.

::: Van in Haleiwa- my ‘home’ for the next 2 nights :::

   I arrived the next day in the evening and  Ryan was so nice that he picked me up from the bus stop in Haleiwa (so I didn’t have to look for his home in the dark), and took for a welcome beer to the local bar. It would be rude to say no, although the only thing I hoped for after my arrival was shower (I was riding a scooter around the hot,dusty Kauai for the whole day before my flight, in search of the Jurassic Park filming locations ). On the plus side- again I got to meet my host’s friends and check out how the locals party in the north.

CS in Haleiwa Pros:

  • sleeping in a van turned out to be a great adventure, the mattress was really comfortable and I could enjoy a bit of private space for the first time in 1.5 weeks!

::: View from Ryan’s beachfront house ::: 

  • because Haleiwa is so small -and we left the car by the bar- in the morning we went for coffee on the cute bicycles (no photos – I cannot function normally before my morning coffee)

  • Ryan took me to all the cool places in Haleiwa, such as the local surfboard factory, where his friend showed me how the boards are made! I had no idea how much science it involves.

::: A cool local place in Haleiwa with the most bizarre soap factory I’ve ever seen ::::

CS in Haleiwa Cons:

  •  Although I lived in a van parked by the house, I still had to use the bathroom in the house, which was quite awkward. It seemed that the other flatmates did not understand the CS concept and I wasn’t really welcome there. Especially that there were more people there than usual, since one of the housemate’s sister was visiting (and occupying my couch).  Ryan admitted later that he didn’t host too many couchsurfers there and didn’t discuss my stay with his flatmates.

Bonus – Laie houseparty and unexpected couch no 5

Niko called me on my last day, saying that I have to (!) come to his friends’s housparty in Laie. Laie is a small beach town~1.5hrs away from Haleiwa. He added that his friend will be going to work in Honolulu in the morning so she can give me a ride (my flight back to Singapore was around 11am). I didn’t have to think twice-  I met his friends before and the idea that I would spend my last night in Hawaii with the people I know and like was great. I packed up things from my van, said good-bye to Ryan and his flatmates,  bought six-pack blond beers and got on the bus to Laie..

::: Couch by the ocean – hands down the most magical place i got to sleep (ever) :::

:: Coral Reef in front of your porch?- sure why not ::::

::: Refreshingly cold morning in Laie <3 :::

I can honestly say- mission accomplished. Hawaii turned out to be a cleansing experience – full of unforgettable adventures that I really needed at that point of my life. Thanks to CS I met the coolest and the strangest people, I did things that I’ve never dreamed about* and reminded myself that there still is kindness in this world.

You can judge for yourself whether adventure, unusual encounters and unique experiences are sufficient counterweight for the risks and discomfort of staying on the stranger’s couch;)

*Since I was in a rather peculiar state of mind, I admit I had a bunch of rather reckless adventures that I have not described here because somehow they did not fit the post. For example? Ultra-dangerous solo climb on a closed steep cliff’s route, problems with the US police, hitchhiking at 4 am in the middle of the jungle or tea party at the drug dealer house. Ahhh Hawaii :)))




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:


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!



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 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


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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